Everyone likes creamed spinach, right?


A couple of weeks ago during what seemed like a regular presentation I was given an introduction to zero risk product design. It was terrifying and typical of attitudes in large companies.

The process begins by selecting a product which is stuck in a rut, in decline or generally in need of a face lift. Then follow four step procedure 467.B as per the company manual:

1. Ask our users what they think is important within the specific niche that the product occupies.

Yes, listen to users – but existing users will most likely say they are happy and perhaps ask for a few small features. If they hated the product they wouldn’t be an existing user.. The flip side is that in a niche already saturated with product users are not able to see past the existing “solution” for that niche.

2. Build an initial concept and show it to the users. Perform competitive analysis. Ask existing partners or buyers.

Getting feedback on mocks is always interesting, on an interactive mock even better. But, and it’s a big but, the benefit of this step is to confirm that you are solving a problem that the user has – in a way that is understandable by them. By definition, this is only truly useful if you are solving a new problem. You can incrementally improve your existing features all on your own.

Second, if you just copy your competitors you give nobody a reason to switch – and by the time you’ve implemented the feature it’s probably a year or two out of date.

Third, your existing partners are looking for no surprises – a product which slowly evolves and generates incremental revenue each year.

3. Based on feedback, iterate until most people are happy with the concept.

So you try to make everyone happy and build a working prototype which takes on board all the requirements. You run a focus group or a series of small trials. Your existing users ignore the new features, and hate what you’ve done with the layout. What do you do? Compromise? Well, we’ll keep the old layout, and colors, just add more tabs. And we’d better not change the ad placement.

4. Build final version and perform user trial on existing and new customers, fixing any usability issues.

So now it looks pretty much like the old version but users hate the tabs and can’t find their mail. Then what? Well, add some more help links and ship it.

ThaiCurryIt’s wrong and you know it. We try to make a Thai green curry yet end up with the same old creamed spinach.

Ooh, our existing customers didn’t ask for something spicy? The operational team is concerned about the exotic ingredients? Focus group says the new rice option is unappealing? Advertisers unsure about the impact of regional cuisine?

You make a product to improve the lives of those around you. Is that what we are doing? Do we trust ourselves, our engineers, our designers to deliver on this promise, with the understanding that they may fail? If so, then we control our own destiny and have the power to make a real difference. If not, are we investing in the wrong product? Do we have the right team? Are we a year too late?

Asking the difficult questions now will save us the time, money and, frankly, embarrassment of engaging in zero-risk product design. So go on, ask them..


3 responses to this post.

  1. Creamed spinach manifesto?


  2. Well said Alex!


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