Guy Kawasaki recently posted the Top Ten Lies Told by Engineers.(as an engineer, I’m a little insulted by the photo he chose to display…well, not really). As I’ve said before, what Guy has to say is always insightful and worth the time to consider, his perspective coming from an incredible background of experience. Also, as before, I feel compelled to add to the list:
1. “We can introduce this product change after the alpha test—there’s no risk.” Most engineers want to make their product as perfect as possible before shipping, so they try to squeeze in every improvement they can, even if its after the point when changes can no longer be tested for bugs. They’re good engineers so there certainly couldn’t be anything wrong with their change to the product, so why waste time testing it? Right?
The temptation to ship without testing is high when the release date is critical and you want to make one last change, possibly even to fix a known problem. This is always risky. A few weeks ago, BART kept releasing “fixed” software that didn’t follow their normal release protocol and resulted several shut-downs, including a 90 minute shut down of the whole BART system at the height of rush hour. There’s a simple rule for releasing untested product changes: Don’t Do It.
2. “The design is easy for customers to use—it’s intuitive.” These opinions from engineers who developed the product are as objective (and likely to be as accurate) as a parent’s opinions on the beauty and intelligence of their child. Don’t trust them. In fact, don’t even allow their opinion on usability to have any weight at all in the development process. Of course the product interface is intuitive to the developer—they developed it!
Experts who know and understand usability theory should be consulted, or there should be a group who works closely with potential customers test the usability of a variety of prototypes. IDEO is so successful because they understand this concept so completely.
Engineers also have no idea how badly their product will be misused by customers who don’t intuit the arcane steps that must be taken to achieve certain functions. “Why would a customer ever do that?” I’ve heard said when a developer was asked what would happen if some missteps are taken in the product’s use. “Because it is there,” is the simplest answer.
3. “There’s nothing patentable in this technology—it’s obvious to everyone.” Engineers typically fail to realize how much of what they’ve developed can receive patent protection. They usually think that they’ve developed what any other smart engineer would develop, and where’s the novelty in that? Of course it’s obvious to the inventor—they invented it!
This attitude towards the patentability of their own technology usually goes hand-in-hand with their reaction to patents from their competitors: “I can’t believe they can get away with patenting that—it’s so obvious.” Perhaps, but now you’re in the difficult position of trying to prove the obviousness of your competitor’s claims in court or licensing that patent if you want to productize what’s claimed. I’m not suggesting that anything can be patented (although some would argue that current USPTO actions suggest this), but obviousness is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and those in the center of development are usually the least likely to identify something as novel.
4. “Marketing is not necessary to: (i) specify the product, (ii) assess design decisions, (iii) sell the product.” This risks failure at every level, from product design to success with sales. Technology rarely sells itself, and technology can rarely succeed without market behavior and the needs of the consumer considered throughout the product development process. Perhaps a company’s R&D does, in fact, intimately understand their customer and what their needs are, but more likely they do not have the best knowledge of customer purchasing behavior and product use. Without a doubt, a team of engineers is capable of making every product decision logically in isolation the rest of the company, but they risk designing a product that no one wants and no one can use. Why would any company take those risks?