Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.


2006 Hall of Fame and Shame voting

Okay, I am declaring the nominations closed for the 2006 User>Driven Hall of Fame and Shame. And I'm going to declare the winner for the Hall of Shame, based on popular outrage, to be the Comcast HD set top box with DVR.

Hall of Shame winner: Comcast HD set top box with DVR

Reader Lars summed up the user experience well when he said the "Comcast succubus has drained the life force out of my media experience." Users cited frequent crashes, unresponsive remotes, poor navigation and searching, and the lack of basic features found on competing DVRs that have been on the market for many years. Worse, people would switch, but this is the only 2-tuner HD DVR on the market.

Hall of Shame runner up: CVS.com 

I will personally choose CVS.com as runner up for the Hall of Shame as well, based on reader Barry's multiple attempts to place and verify an order on the site. Barry cited a single-session shopping cart teamed with a 10-minute session expiration, repeated time-outs, and hand-generated email confirmations "when they get around to it."

Hall of Fame voting 

As to the Hall of Fame, we have 17 nominations with none receiving more than the vote of its nominator. So, I'd like to throw open voting for the Hall of Fame as of right now. As before, the criteria are some product or service that you've used in 2006 and that you think is both highly useful and highly usable, that's "so elegant in its design and operation it must be the result of a good feedback loop between the product designers and its intended users."

Here are the nominees. There's more software and online services than any other category, but it's quite a diverse bunch overall. Remember, it's an honor to be nominated!

  1. Shutterfly greeting card service
  2. iRobot Roomba vacuum
  3. Blogger blogging service
  4. Slingbox media streamer
  5. Netflix DVD service
  6. Lee Valley Tools Website
  7. Flickr photo sharing site
  8. Backpack online to do list manager
  9. Beauty's Pizza
  10. ING Direct online savings account
  11. iTunes TV Season Pass
  12. Yelp online restaurant reviews
  13. Yojimbo organization software
  14. Steel head hammer
  15. Nintendo DS Lite handheld game player
  16. Sugar operating system
  17. Ubuntu Linux

Reply to this blog entry below by clicking on comments, entering your pick for the Hall of Fame and, if you like, typing a few words about why you picked what you did. Oh, and try not to vote for what you nominated unless you really feel strongly it is the best of the bunch.

My vote

Upon reflection, I'm going to vote for Netflix. I started using it a couple of years ago and stopped when I found I wasn't watching the esoteric list of movies I put on my list because I thought I should. I started again this year when my parents (yes, the older, less technologically savvy generation) told me they were renting whole seasons of TV series they'd missed like The West Wing and The Sopranos. Turns out Netflix is great for that. Now my wife and I watch an episode of something good from Netflix nearly every night. (This week it's Battlestar Galactica, Season 2.)

What's your vote? Use the Comments link below...


MIT formula predicts business success

Or at least shows how some companies fail. So says Ralph Grabowski, an MIT-trained engineer and marketing consultant.

In an article in today's Boston Globe, Grabowski describes well known failures (Polaroid, Wang Labs, Digital, Xerox) and successes (Dell, Intuit) and posits that the difference between them is the ratio of dollars spent on market research vs. engineering. He says successes tend to spend more on the former than the latter and failures the other way around.

Dell and Intuit, for instance, have ratios of 1.5, while the others hovered around 0.1 or even less during their heydays.

Now, you could argue that Polaroid and their ilk were successes for a long time before succumbing. Grabowski says, though, that they failed because they were blindsided by changes in the market they didn't see coming. 

Grawbowski's definition of market research is broad. The Globe article summarizes it as "market research, competitive intelligence, business-model building, and payback analysis." In my experience, these are all the things a product manager should be doing in a software company to direct the activities of the development team.




iPhone: going beyond what users want now

Apple's new iPhone is a perfect example of going beyond what you can get out of customer research by simply asking people what they want. Most phone users would not say they wanted a finger touch screen that lets them use multiple fingers and that covers the whole face of the phone and replaces the keyboard. Most users would not say they also want their phone to be their video iPod. Most phone users would not not say they wanted widgets to tell them the weather and such. AT the same time, most iPod users would not say they wanted their iPod to have phone capabilities.

Given this, you could not arrive at the product design for the iPhone (something everyone seems to be jonesing for now that it's been announced) by simply asking existing phone or iPod users what additional features they would want in their current device. The result of that question would just be iPods and a phones with more features.

The problem with simply asking customers what they want is that most people have very little imagination. They think incrementally. I want a phone but with a bigger screen and easier to use buttons, a customer might say. Even the technology press who get paid to speculate about what Apple might come out with next didn't anticipate how much a of a leap ahead the iPhone would be.

So am I arguing against the notion of User>Driven product development? Me? Not at all. You can drive product development through user input in many ways. Asking users what they want is not usually one of them, though.

I imagine that Apple did what I would do if I had set myself the task of revolutionizing the phone. I would interview a lot of phone users about their current phones - what they actually use it for day to day, why they bought it, what frustrates them about it, what problems it solves for them. I would also ask them what other things they carry around with them and then ask the same questions about those things. And I suspect I would have uncovered unmet needs that could have led to something like the iPhone.

For instance, if they had interviewed me, they would have found that I carry a Web-enabled phone but that I don't use it for the Web because the software the input process completely suck. They would also have found that I carry an iPod for music and a PSP for video and games. I also carry a laptop but my biggest frustration with it is that it isn't connected to the net when I am away from the office or home. And they would have found that I carry this all in various pockets and a backpack and that I wish I didn't have to carry all of that. Ah ha! Perhaps a single device that combined these things and was always connected would be the right approach.

This is a simple example, but I bet something like this process went on at Apple. I'm equally sure that was only the beginning of the process. How did they design that beautiful multi-touch screen, for instance? I imagine they hooked up with real smart phone and PDA users and watched them closely as they used their devices, asking them to explain as they did things what they were trying to accomplish, why, and how they were going about it. By watching closely how people attempt to do things (and often fail), you can learn a lot about how to design something better. It's a lot like paper prototyping but it uses (someone else's) existing product as the prototype.

If they'd watched me use my Sony Clie PDA a few years back, they'd have seen me struggle with the stylus and squint at the tiny thumbnails of PowerPoints in email attachments and they would have set about designing better ways to input text and to make the best use of limited screen real estate. As a result they might have started thinking along the lines of multi-touch and the pinching and tapping that expands and shrinks images and web pages on the screen.

There's this idea that Apple's products are so great because Steve Jobs is such a genius or because he's such a jerk that he insists on things being really perfect before they're launched. Those things may be true, but I think the real reason Apple's products are so often perceived as both revolutionary and very well-designed is that they are User>Driven.


iPhone on Apple's website:



PC Magazine's iPhone market analysis:



PC Magazine hands on with the iPhone:




Is ViewSonic User>Driven?

ViewSonic is showing their new PJ258D ViewDock Projector at CES this week. It's mostly an ordinary example of the crop of increasingly affordable and portable LCD projectors. What's need about it is that it has an iPod dock built into it that allows you to easily project the TV shows and movies you download from iTunes, and even recharges the iPod at the same time.

I don't know whether ViewSonic involved customers and prospects in the project or just had a brainwave, but I predict we will see more integration between projectors and other products over time. In fact, I'm going to predict that - like digital cameras - projectors will eventually be built into other devices. Once they are small and cheap enough, I can see them being built into laptops, PDAs, iPods, game players, etc. as a way to get a large display from a small device.

This seems like the sort first-of-its-kind product that would be hard to come up with via customer research, at least by simply asking people what they want. Most customers don't have that sort of cross-product imagination. Perhaps ViewSonic asked lots of people about all the gadgets they used and what problems they had with them and discovered people like video iPods but the screens are too small and went from there. Perhaps ViewSonic engineers just thought it would be neat. Either way, I feel this product points the way for more products to come.

Picture and description:




Why I don't use compact fluorescent lightbulbs

Seth Godin - marketing guru and regular blogger - asked bloggers to "create a post with their own riff on why CF bulbs are cheaper, better politically, harder to market or just plain cute."

In his post he speculates about why these energy efficient, (now) inexpensive, and long-lasting light bulbs haven't replaced traditional incandescent bulbs in many people's homes. He speculated: "They need to stop looking so weird, being so expensive and being so hard to open."

Actually, I don't have any of those issues with them. I'm a geek, so I'll overcome bad packaging and weird looks for something I find useful. I have used them in various places in my home, including my living room and the outside lights on either side of my door. My problems are with the product itself. It doesn't do some basic things I want a light bulb to do so it's not useful to me.

First, I find the light cast by fluorescents harsh and unappealing. I use natural spectrum bulbs made by GE that cast a whiter, more pleasing light that feels more like sunlight. I just find it much more palatable than traditional yellow incandescents or harsh white fluorescents. I tried color-corrected fluorescents as well but I found them too bluish and flickery.

Second, they warm up very slowly in cold weather, which means they aren't good for outdoor or utility spaces (which is where I was tempted to use them once I figured out I didn't like the light for every day use).

So I'd like to save the money, sure, but the product fails on much more basic product usefulness grounds for me.


Seth's blog:



Natural spectrum bulbs: