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Build Crappy Products

Engineering is all about design. Creating elegant solutions. Finding the best compromise between price, performance, power, reliability, time-to-market, and so on. It’s a high-wire act that requires balance, technical skill, and more than a little creativity.

Sales, on the other hand, is all about… well, selling. And marketing? The less said about marketing the better, right?

So why does the world reward bad products and ignore good ones? Why do so many idiot customers seem oblivious to the benefits of yourdesign while shelling out good money for that other company’s inferior product?

Why don’t the best products win?

The very question betrays a misunderstanding of the word “best.” The best products always win – always – but when it seems otherwise it’s only because we don’t understand the important criteria. To borrow a famous line, the answer lies not in our stars but in ourselves.

As engineers, we generally have a pretty lousy idea of what’s best for our customers. Our analytical skills get in the way; we define “best” along strictly tangible and quantitative lines, often ignoring the more intangible factors that most customers, in fact, prefer. We’re too smart for our own good, and it blinds us to the reality of making a successful product.

The solution is to build crappy products.

Can You Hear Me Now?

The world is filled with technically inferior products that nevertheless sell very well. In fact, you might say that technical superiority is inversely proportional to market success. The worse the product, the better it sells, and vice versa.

Let’s start with MP3 players like the iPod, Zune, Sansa, and others like them. Instead of comparing these products to each other – which would miss the point entirely – let’s instead compare them to the music alternatives. All MP3 players have lousy playback quality. That’s inherent in the MP3 encoding format (as well as AAC, Ogg, and any other digitized format). All these products inevitably reduce the quality of the music, even compared with already compromised formats like CDs.

You’d think that newer technology would improve music quality, not degrade it. Yet nobody seems to care. At the same time that the first MP3 players were trickling into the market, Sony and other companies were following the more logical path of developing players with better music quality. Nobody bought those. Given the choice between better-quality sound and the convenience of MP3-format files, the shambling, ignorant masses chose the latter.

There are thousands of examples of this same effect. The best-selling PCs today aren’t the fastest or most-advanced ones, they’re the crappy $300 netbooks with cramped keyboards, limited features, and the small LCD screens that we avoided just a few years ago. The best-selling car in America? The Ford F-150 pickup truck – a truck, for heaven’s sake! Skype, the service that enables lurching and spasmodic conversations over the Internet, added 38 million users in just three months, not because it’s good but because it’s free. The Flip camcorder is the hottest-selling video camera ever made, not because it takes good-quality video but because it doesn’t. Flip’s designers deliberately (and quite proudly) designed it to take low-grade pictures that were barely good enough for YouTube (another low-quality service). Early TiVo boxes degraded video quality by a noticeable amount (it has since improved), but TiVo nonetheless gained a loyal following and several imitators. 

We can’t even chalk up all of this bad quality to low price. After all, consumers have always been able to trade price for quality in everything from handbags to howitzers, but price doesn’t seem to be a factor here. Look at the overwhelming dominance of Microsoft’s Windows over “better” and cheaper operating systems like MacOS, Linux, and a hundred others. Or the popularity of Intel’s miserable, byzantine, and archaic – not to mention expensive – x86 processor chips in spite of a spate of “better” alternatives. MP3 players, most especially the iPod, are little more than a hard drive with a “Play” button, yet they sell for a steep premium. Why are people paying good money for bad products?

Product Is a Big Word

Part of the answer is that convenience trumps quality. “Quality” in the sense of engineering elegance is not quantifiable (or even noticeable) in most products. Convenience is. Most customers aren’t equipped to judge the nuances of one product over another, nor do they care. Replacing an old Walkman with a high-quality SA-CD player doesn’t appreciably change the user’s experience. Replacing it with a Zune or an iPod does. Upgrading a camcorder to a high-def version changes the quality of the picture, not the quality of the experience. Buying a Flip or a video-capable cell phone does. Convenience trumps quality, every time.

Another part of the answer is simple human nature. All customers tend to value different criteria, and those criteria aren’t always what the product designer expected. If you’re a foobar designer then you’re probably more knowledgeable about foobars than just about anyone. You’re certainly more knowledgeable than your customers. So you’ll naturally tend to see things in a foobar-centric way, which is partly how you got the job. But your customer doesn’t see things that way. She’s considering all sorts of criteria that are out of your hands (such as environmental concerns, financing options, color, quarterly cash flow, vendor reputation, seasonal revenue, and so on). These concerns may not even be product-related, but they still influence her buying decision.

Car dealers learned a long time ago that easy financing was a big motivator. Make it easy for a buyer to make the monthly payments and the cars will fly off the lot. (Unfortunately for them, this strategy worked too well.) The financing has nothing at all to do with the design or manufacture of the car, but everything to do with selling products. There’s nothing a Chevrolet designer could have done to affect the financing situation, but it made all the difference in the world to his and 10,000 of his colleagues’ jobs.

Think Different

So what’s the solution? What can you do as a product designer to help your products succeed while others fail?

First, watch out for new technology. Second, don’t trust your instincts regarding quality or “improvements.” Third, believe what the sales and marketing people are telling you.

New chips and new software improve all the time, as we well know. That’s a double-edged sword for product designers because these components improve faster than customers’ tastes do. Habitually upgrading your product with the latest hardware or software will quickly produce a version that overshoots your customer’s needs or desires (Microsoft Office, anyone?). On the other hand, you can’t stop time and ignore these innovations, because your competitors surely won’t. The trick is not to upgrade your products but to leapfrog them. Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen spells this out in The Innovator’s Dilemma, with many examples of how cheap, inferior products sneaked up behind established brands and ate their lunch. Mainframes were upset by minicomputers; minicomputers were overtaken by microcomputers; microcomputers are giving way to smartphones, and so on. Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

Our instincts as engineers tend to skew toward the quantifiable over the experiential. Customers buy products based on gut feeling and then justify the decision retroactively using numbers, not the other way around. You have to grab their imagination first, and only then back it up with specifications, features, or statistics. Don’t confuse the sizzle with the steak. There’s a reason most Ferraris are red.

And finally, learn to trust your organization’s sales and marketing staff. If they’re any good at all, they’ll be your best representation of what the customer wants, versus what you think they want. Accept that customers simply are not motivated the same way as designers. You’re not creating a product for yourself, but for someone else.

You need to build more crappy products.

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