Separating "How" from "What:" An open letter to the tech industry

One of the advantages of working as a consultant is that you get to look at the big picture across corporations. You can see trends and common themes that might not be obvious to somebody working in a single company.
One of the themes that’s become very clear lately is our industry’s difficulty telling the difference between “how” and “what” when designing products.
Most of our companies tend to focus on building what I call “how” products. That means products that focus on enabling technologies to let people do a wide range of tasks. For example, building a web browser and a WiFi connection into a product that doesn’t currently have them is a classic “how” move, because it enables the user to potentially do a lot of different interesting things.
As technophiles, we’re all very good at figuring out how to make use of a “how” feature. For example, we’ll say, “Gee, with a browser and WiFi in that product, I can install Skype and use it as a free mobile phone.” Then we’ll go out and find the Skype client, install it, maybe tune the configuration a bit, and sit back in amazement at how cool our industry is.
The problem with the “how” approach is that normal people don’t think this way. They are much more focused on “what,” as in “What does the product do for me?” Because they don’t understand technology at a deep level, they can’t see the possibilities created by a great enabling technology. And even if they could see the possibilities, they don’t have the skills necessary to adapt it to their needs. Even a simple act like pairing a wireless device to an unfamiliar WiFi router can be enough to give a typical user hives.
In competitive situations, “how” products usually lose to “whats.”
Two great examples of “what” design are the Apple iPod and the Nintendo GameBoy. In a world dominated by multi-purpose gadgets, they both succeeded by doing one thing very well, and making it brain-dead simple. The RIM Blackberry applied the same principle to communicators, and Apple’s upcoming iPhone will be an interesting test of whether that philosophy works well in entertainment phones. (We’re a little disturbed by the iPhone’s emphasis on multiple features [music plus video plus browsing plus telephony], but we’ll wait to see how the finished product works.)
It’s very easy for a company to fall into “how” thinking when dealing with a competitive change in the marketplace. You focus on responding to aspects of the competition’s product, rather than stepping back and asking what problem you’re solving for the user. The packaged software industry’s reaction to Web 2.0 is a classic example — we see companies like Microsoft and Adobe saying, “Other companies are hosting their applications online, so we need to do it too.” But just putting Photoshop online doesn’t do anything special for users unless it’s tied to some sort of photo service (like Shutterfly) or is exposed as a service that other websites can integrate into their services.
That’s not to say the Web 2.0 folks aren’t immune to “how” thinking. Many web services assume that cool technology automatically equates to a ready market. We’ve seen that in a lot of social networking services which assume that if people could share more intimate details of their personal lives, the world would naturally be a better place. (And no, this is not yet another jab at twitter — there are dozens of sites and services that make the same creepy assumption that most people view loss of privacy as a good thing.)
If you want to avoid the “how” trap, here are a few simple questions to ask yourself when evaluating a product plan:

  1. Who, specifically, is the customer for this product? (Note: “young people” does not count as a target market, neither does “professionals.” Be specific about their lives and needs.)
  2. What compelling problem does your product solve for them? (We’re talking about a problem that actually causes pain, not a mild annoyance.)
  3. Do they know they have the problem, and do they care? (The tech industry is wonderful at retrofitting imaginary problems to features that engineers wanted to build anyway.)
  4. Seriously, do customers really care? Enough to spend money on a solution?
  5. Does your product, without modification or further purchase, solve that problem?

If you can successfully answer those questions, your product may still fail, but at least you’ll have a fighting chance. But if you can’t answer them, don’t plan on selling beyond the technophile crowd.

5 Responses:

  1. AnthonyC. April 18, 2007 at 3:24 pm  |  

    As a technoclutz, I couldn’t agree more with the above article. There are many gadgets out there that are little too complicated than the average person can use. That said, I do use a Palm PDA to help me as a physician. However, there are many things that can be done with it that I simply cannot figure out. I find Palm devices are a little more intuitive than Window Mobile devices. In fact, my partner got a Dell PDA for Christmas and doesn’t use it because it is “too complicated. I rather just look it up in a book.” And she is not a dumb woman. Quite the contrary, she is a very bright woman who has very little experience with technology. Please help these folks figure out that simple and easy can be better.

  2. information. April 18, 2007 at 3:58 pm  |  

    This article makes a clear distinction between two completely different types of users and markets. I’m not sure about the “how” and “what” terminology, but the overall point is important, enlightening, and very well made. Thanks!

  3. Emil J Lesner. April 18, 2007 at 6:16 pm  |  

    I am wondering if the technology savvy people are about 20% of the targeted market for the PDA devices. It seems to me that the adage of 20% of the people do 80% of the work may apply. If that is the case, no wonder gadgets can fail at an alarming rate.

  4. The African Nerd. April 19, 2007 at 1:04 pm  |  

    Couldn’t agree more. However, I don’t see a problem with releasing a product with at ton of “how” features just as long as that product has a key “What” feature and you focus your energy on Marketing that Key “What” feature.

  5. proper. April 27, 2007 at 10:11 pm  |  

    Still wonder, cause if you can answer that five questions to your plan, others will do the same. And you will find there is already a good product already existed. Or maybe better than your plan.


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