Product fail

Building a Product is about making something so useful, simple and elegant that eventually you stop thinking about it.

I therefore usually consider 3 main fails in products, when each of these conditions are violated.

Fail 1. Utility fail

Things which are not useful. Either because they are just not providing a benefit, or because a benefit is complex to attain. Look at the two following products:

  • Microsoft HoloLens
  • Google Glasses

While those are good technologies, they currently solve no big problems for any big category of users of the companies. They were announced without a purpose. They are just an enabler technology. If developers don't jump onboard, and Microsoft and Google can't come up with a specific killer application themselves, these devices won't fly [1].

On the opposite side, there's stuff which does provide enough utility at launch despite obvious trade offs: Tesla cars, the Amazon Kindle, GoPro cameras. A good product doesn't have to be expensive or rule the world. But it needs to provide enough function to solve at least one problem.

Fail 2. Simplicity fail

Many things are hard to operate, blocking the products or services growth that could be afforded by their utility.

Take for example banks. Banks are very useful. They provide you storage of money, credit for your projects and applications for your investments. But their websites and online services are traditionally hard to operate, complex, and assume you know bank jargon, like the difference between Debit and Credit. And I'm not talking about the cards. Some have extremely hard to find features and don't allow you to access some services online - like subscribing to a new card or searching for transactions by the name of the merchant. Worse, they have intricate and bad UIs and very convoluted security features, some of which are going in the opposite direction of the whole tech world.

I've used plenty of online banking. The worse I've used are, as of Feb 2015:

  • HSBC in the UK. They require a token gizmo which should be replace by better secrets, SMS confirmation, or integration into the smartphone security. The UI also sucks a lot.
  • Deutsche Bank in Germany. With its TAN matrix authentication out of the 19th century, mobileTAN which you have to pay for, and incredibly dysfunctional UI and features, the service is hard to compliment.
  • Caltech and Harvard Credit Unions in the US. Stuck in the 90s, they nonetheless don't make your life as painful as the top 2.

The best:

  • Bank of America in the US, with nice smartphone integration and overall organization of info.
  • ActivoBank in Portugal, by far the simplest yet capable service. They have a smart expense manager and all, and they have a truly nice mobile offering. (Disclosure: I participated as a consultant in the project which resulted in AB).
  • Simple. Though I have no account in Simple, I've seen it in action and it makes me hopeful about the future of online banking.

Fail 3. Pleasantness fail

A much finer mistake is the pleasant fail, for those ideas that provide enough value and are even simple to operate, but that lack a view of the user as a sensible being who likes coherence and harmony. While subtle, this fail is in my view what distinguishes a good performer from a leader product.

There is no clearer way to demonstrate this than by going to a bathroom. Go there. Now open the water and wash your hands. Close it. Now you're done, answer the question: did you touch the washbasin or the faucet at any time during the hand washing? Probably. Why? Because of a bad product. What I've observed is that most of the bathrooms have the wrong size of the water faucet, and so the water falls too closely to the sink edge, making you occasionally rub your hands against it. Now, you may say that it's not a big deal, or that I'm just another victim of obsessive compulsive behaviour. Probably. But there is no denying that it's not a perfect experience, and that reaching it would not be extremely hard. All they had to do was choose an adequately sized faucet. And the pain may not be big in your house, but if you consider all the airports and shopping malls which have these awkward washbasins which make you rub your hands against the porcelain, then clearly some architect or designer or contractor didn't think hard enough and is to blame for that feeling.

These flaws create the feeling that something is not as good as it could be. The feeling of an inferior product.

  1. An Microsoft ex-executive sums it up perfectly: "Molyneux commented, "The bizarre thing is a huge amount of effort and time and money goes into researching the tech, like the Kinect tech and scanning the bodies, and there's always this one line that hardware manufacturers - whether it be Microsoft or anyone else - say and that's 'we can't wait to see what happens when it gets into the hands of developers.' Now if Apple had said that when they introduced the iPhone, I don't think we'd ever end up with the iPhone! What really should happen is that they put a similar amount of money into researching just awesome real world applications that you'll really use and that work robustly and smoothly and delightfully."