When products are designed to fall apart…?

DisassembleCar

A couple of days back, the home button of my iPhone stopped responding… this is the second iPhone I have owned that has ended up in this state in the last 3 years… and it got me to think…

As I started to reflect on it, I started to become more and more convinced that this is by design – a clear strategy to deliberately restrict the lifespan of a product… clearly to drive the replacement cycle.

But what intrigued me the most is that this is not a new radical approach conceived by Apple, but has been successfully deployed by product manufacturers and producers for decades.

I came across an interesting story from the 1920’s where it is said that Henry Ford started to buy back scrapped Ford cars and asked his engineering team to disassemble them. Almost everyone believed that the goal was to find the parts that had failed and identify ways of making them better. On the contrary, Henry Ford asked the team to identify the parts that were still working and explore ways of re-designing these parts to cut down their life and have them fail at the same time as the others – a smart business intent to cut down the cost of design and manufacturing and avoid over-designing!

Its an out-of-the-box way of looking at things… and seems to make perfect strategy. Introducing the product lifespan as product parameter adds flexibility to the product development cycle by opening up options for exploring other constraints – not just time, cost or quality, but also technology selection, material properties, user experience, performance, processes, regulations etc.

I got so fascinated with the idea that I continued to look further and found a term planned obsolescence, that has indeed been used in the context of product design and economics… it talks of the approach that attempts to design a product with an artificially limited useful life such that it becomes obsolete or no longer functional after a certain period of time, where the driver is primarily to reduce the repeat purchase time interval i.e. shorten the replacement cycle. It appears that the light bulb was an early target for planned obsolescence when the companies standardised the life of a light bulb to 1000 hours and even went to the extent of fining producers if the light bulbs lasted longer! The strategy has found support from governments in the past and it has been used to stimulate consumption and fuel economy… but over the years it has resulted in divided camps, and in recent times there have been movements against this strategy with some countries now requiring manufacturers to declare the intended product lifespans.

As I thought about it further, it dawned on me that I was practically guilty of following the same strategy… and hence had lost the moral right to be judgemental … I realised that it can easily be argued that we (software providers) are no different and have enforced users to upgrade to new products by stopping support for older technologies, using incompatible interfaces, restricting hardware or OS support and building vendor lock-in… the intellectual production has fallen prey to the same pattern (as industrial and consumer production) of generating constant (renewed) demand for their products… creating a society that lives under the illusion of perpetually new.

In this state of mixed emotions, my view got biased by my own experience and actions… while many people argue that this belief that products are designed to fall apart is a fallacy, I have (albeit reluctantly) to disagree.

My experience of product design and development has taught me that every product design cycle involves a complex interplay between many business, technology and operational factors – from time-to-market, price points and product positioning to technology readiness, user experience, performance or resources, processes etc… and it is a reality that I have designed products with a clear view of a restricted life-span – simply using them as first generation products for early adoption and then replacing them (over time) with new product releases… which is an example in itself of designing products to fall apart (after a time)… or maybe it begins to sound more reasonable when we rephrase it and say that products are designed to work successfully for the defined lifespan and specified business goals…

Of-course, the answer is not what I wanted to hear as it means that I have to start looking for a new phone – even when I did not have the need for any new functionality… but then maybe I do not know what I am missing and may be pleasantly surprised by the ‘new’ product…

Arti is the co-founder of humanLearning (www.humanlearning.com) – a fast growing UK-based technology startup – setup with an earnest desire to make the life of busy professionals simpler and more effective. hL is disrupting business workflows thru WinSight – a mobile-video based platform – that is changing the way businesses drive innovation and quality in sales and service. Arti can be reached at arti@humanlearning.com.

[This article was first published on @LinkedIn on April 16, 2016]

 

When I paid the price for forgetting that the first 5 minutes of user journey is more important than all the cool features…

user journey

I love technology and of-course I thrive on building cool features – nothing compares to the excitement of implementing highly complex algorithms or finding new ways of using the technology to solve a problem.

But many hard experiences have taught me that technology (alone) does not sell and I have over-the-years learnt to first focus on user experience and always keep the technology hidden.

So, when I started to write down the product specifications for my new startup idea, I did everything right – there was not a single word on technology and I captured the product definition through 5 stages of user journey.

[5 Minutes] captured the 1st Experience: AWARENESS

[5 Hours] focused on the 1st Use: ORIENTATION

[5 Days] looked at making it work for the user and lead to Participation: PERSONALISATION

[5 Weeks] looked at making it work for the larger group and added elements of Induction: INFLUENCE

[Ongoing] introduced capabilities to sustain the momentum: CULTURE

It was the right way to do it. We ran the user journeys with many clients and fed the inputs and preferences back. After 4 months of market validation we decided we were ready to start development.

And that’s when the problem inadvertently occurred (of-course, I never realised it at that time). As we drew out the release plan we ran through the normal cycle of chopping features and prioritised to define the feature-set for the first beta version. I believe that is when my latent love for technology overtook my experience and I selected the base feature set to include functions that demonstrated the algorithms (justifying it all by saying that these complex contextualization algorithms were our differentiator and critical for illustrating the value to the user). Nothing comes for free – to balance time and resources we decided to take a shortcut for our initial sign-up and login process. At that stage it seemed the perfect thing to do – after all its something a user does only once or at best a few times – and even if its a few extra steps or a little painful – it will still work!

Of-course it worked. But only for those true early-adopters who had the motivation to take that extra initiative and accept a few painful interactions. As our user base grew, a lot many users attempted to sign-up but never managed to get onboard. Its amazing how often it happened – and believe me that the interaction wasn’t anything demanding – it simply required them to copy an access code (sent separately) and input it as part of the sign-up. In those days, we lost a few users and for many others our client engagement teams had to invest time and run after them (and often hand-hold) to complete the process. If only we had stuck to our original definition of keeping the 1st 5 minutes interaction simple and seamless, we would not just have got a lot more people on-boarded, but also ensured that their first touch point was fail-safe.

In hindsight, it seems a blunder – how could we have ignored the fact that users had to onboard first before they could experience the cool contextual and personalisation features? There was no technical complexity to the desired sign-up process and I do not even know if we really saved that many development hours and resources. It’s more like we were avoiding working on a task that had virtually no challenges for us to fix…

What hurts me even more is that its something that I, as a Product Manager, always knew and even apportioned the right value to it at the time of conceptualisation. And yet, somewhere I still lost control on the road from concept to delivery.

This article was first published on Medium on October 27, 2015 and LinkedIn on November 21, 2015.

Leading Innovation – Making Ideas Happen

 

Success of Innovation is generally associated with Ideas. There is little doubt that ideas are core to innovation,  but we have also seen time-and-again that many good ideas and innovations lose their way – in fact only a small fraction eventually end up living to the original promise.

Innovation is the talk-of-the-industry. It is probably the most overused term in business today – and yet, everyone has there own interpretation of what innovation means and how it can be introduced. The focus is mostly on Idea Generation – some emphasize on systemizing innovation processes while others look to inculcate innovation thru specialized focus groups. Innovation is rarely measurable and disappointingly it seems to have become an end in itself – it is no longer about transforming businesses, changing lives or creating a new world. Innovation seems to be losing its meaning.

In reality, innovation is not just about ideas – an idea is just the beginning of the innovation process and the real work starts after that. This is not to say that defining the idea is not important – it is at the core of the innovation process and the relevance of innovation is tied to its response to real problems and addressing the pain points. However the potential of the idea needs to be deterministic and fully measurable – the path and the journey itself in most cases of true innovation would always be unknown. The difference between success and failure usually lies in how this unknown and unchartered journey is undertaken – how the idea is translated into a goal and (more importantly) the commitment that is made to take it forward.  

And this is where leadership comes in and leaves its mark. For innovation to drive achievement, it cannot be simply built around creativity, but has to be realized through careful planning, painstaking execution, constant vigilance, periodic adjustments and diligent pursuit. All examples of successful innovation have been driven by strong leaders who have been instrumental in changing the impact of various actions down the path of success. There is no better example than Steve Jobs – the ideas in themselves were not his own nor were these new inventions – it was the journey that made all the difference!

There is no doubt that the basic qualities of a good leader – i.e. clarity of goal, adaptability to change, swift & decisive action, calculated risk taking and the courage to override obstacles – are still important. But these form only the minimum requirements to drive innovation, and are not necessarily sufficient to ensure successful impact. Leading innovation requires additional capabilities that help traverse the lifecycle of change.

(1) Passion to make a difference – the inspiration to leave a lasting impact.  

(2) Perseverance & Courage to pursue, to keep going despite all odds & contradictions, to always look for alternatives.

(3) Conviction to challenge conventional wisdom, manage inertia and resistance to change.

(4) Focus to drive towards the goal – ignoring newer attractions and distractions, staying on course, constantly improving usability, simplifying the experience and using technology as a means and not as the goal.

(5) Pursuit of Perfection – willingness to admit mistakes, change course even late in the game and striving always for the best possible.

We just need to look around to see how many innovations have been lost on the way – some have been stopped, others modified beyond recognition, while the majority have simply been replaced by newer initiatives. In most of these instances, it has rarely been the idea at fault, seldom a scarcity of resources – and mostly always a lack of conviction or a faltering commitment.

There is no doubt that success in innovation is far more influenced by leadership than any other element – even more than creative ideas, smart resources or unconventional out-of-the-box thinking!

This article was written on February 09, 2012.