So what?

January 3, 2006, 9:29 am

I’ve been in several situations recently when people have been extolling the virtues of their Great New Idea but I’ve been unable to share their enthusiasm. Probe a little deeper beyond their excitement (with a healthy dose of cynicism) and things often get vague and the idea isn’t as bright as it first appeared.

There are three questions that every Great New Idea must surely answer.

1. “So what?”
If you can’t tell me in thirty seconds or so why I should share your excitement, we are on dodgy ground. Successful propositions will have a succinct, easily understood and compelling response to the “so what” question. If a customer comes to your website and they there is no clear proposition for them to stick around that old adage “your competitor is just a click away” is likely to become a reality. If you’re a developer and you’ve got some great new technical wizardry that you want the whole project to get excited about, there must be a clear answer to the inevitable “so what” question from the not so technically minded business sponsors.

2. “Who needs it?”
The next question is “who needs it?” You may think it’s a great idea, your friends and family are equally convinced, but how about the broader market? There may be a niche in the market, but is there a market for that niche?

3. “what’s in it for me?”
The final question that a Great New Idea must answer is “what’s in it for me?” Why would someone else get excited in the idea? Why should someone go with your Great New Idea rather than a competitor? Why should the business buy into the idea of sacrificing functionality for technical stories that speed up the build?

Sadly there are far too many initiatives out there that fail to address these three questions. If someone can’t see the point of your Great New Idea, can’t see what it will do for them and can’t see why they need it, why are they going to use it? Customising software is a good example of this – stakeholders often get excited about the ability of customers to customise the web portal to their needs, but go beyond the technical / business community it’s not something people do. How many people have the same desktop settings that came with their computer? How many people have changed their browser homepage from that their ISP set as default?

Christmas, Reindeer and Apple

December 27, 2005, 8:32 pm

So it was with a tinge of guilt that I perpetuated the myth of Father Christmas on Saturday night. I lied to my two year old daughter. Not a small untruth but a big whopper. I told her that a large man was going to come down our chimney and give here presents. But the lie was not just in my words, it was in the whole experience. She left mince pies and beer out for Santa – no sherry in the house) and apples for the reindeer. And the following morning the beer was drunk, the pies scoffed, crumbs on the floor and the apples had large bites taken from them. And she took it hook line and sinker. “Wow! Thank-you Santa” India shouted up the chimney.

It was the apples that completed the experience “didn’t you hear the reindeer on the roof last night mummy?” And later in the day another Apple experience. Lindsey got an iPod Nano. Like India’s Christmas experience being more than just the presents left by Santa, the iPod experience is more than just the physical device (small and sexy as it is). It begins with the box – not just a box but a package that speak the Apple brand. Formed like a cardboard CD container, the iPod sits in a recess on one side with the cables and CD in a carton the other side. The cables are kept tidy not by ties but by a purpose designed plastic plug cover / gripper. The headphone covers are in individual sachets. All very designed. All very cool.

I assumed the iPod would require charging before it would work. No, it is ready charged – ready to go. And then the iPod interface being so simple and intuitive to use meant that the experience from no-iPod to iPod-pro was seamless, as though we’ve always used iPods. Compare this to the iRiver I’ve got, with an interface I still haven’t got to grips with. I’m now sold on the Apple brand. Yes, the product is good, but it is the little things around it that make the difference.

And so it should be with software. Not just an application but a total, compelling experience from installation to daily use.

Christmas shopping experience

December 18, 2005, 11:45 am

Finishing off my christmas shopping -all done over the web- Buying toys for our two year old, India and I went to Early Learning Centre. The whole experience was excellent, these guys have got a first class web site from the design and implementation of the shop through to the shopping cart there is little you can fault about it and much to learn. I was impressed!

User journeys

December 14, 2005, 11:55 am

One of the issues with dealing with functionality, especially when working on B2C web sites is that it does not always fit comfortably into the broader customer proposition. Functionality is only useful in the context of what a customer wants to do at a site and how they do it. Chances are customers won’t hit that functionality straight away, it will be but one component within their overall journey. For example a shopping cart is the final stage of the buying process. The customer has to firstly find a desired product to put in the cart. The cart’s value is only truly realised when the end to end process is considered – what use is great functionality if the path to reach it is broken? So by thinking about customer journeys, (scenarios by which different customer types will come to the web site and the paths they will take to accomplish their goals) we can ensure that functionality we write cards for has demonstrable value and contributes to a usable and compelling experience. And this helps better prioritisation.

During prioritisation exercises we shuffle the cards according to their business value. Rather than trying to find business value on individual cards, taking this end to end approach will helps us to better estimate the business value of what we are building. And it might make for surprising decisions.

This is something that I tried at a recent financial services client. When we began scoping the work for the forthcoming releases we had a list of important sounding requirements that were to be migrated to their new platform. But how do you prioritise “set income flag” against “capture Debit card details”. Answer was you don’t. Each is part of a customer journey – “existing customer wants to view her accounts” and “new customer want to buy an ISA”. And like a stuck record I interrupted every conversation with “yeah but…. Customer journey” and soon our roadmap for the future was built around journeys. It was the journeys themselves that were prioritised rather than a random bunch of requirements. And what a sexy, customer-centric roadmap it was. Sadly it was later torpedoed by functional requirements that we had no control over and the journeys lost their strong flavour.

Polite Computing

December 12, 2005, 10:53 pm

I’m lucky enough to have a new Dell D610. It was lightning fast to boot up when I first got it, but now it is like a tortoise. I sit tapping my fingers waiting for Windows to power-up. Why? One reason is that I’m waiting for impolite software to load up in my task bar. “If software that took over your computer for its own purposes were a person it would be called selfish” writes Brian Whitworth in a paper for the journal Behaviour and Information Technology. The most impolite, selfish software on my machine is currently Real media player. It weasled its way on to my machine when I visited a multi-media site ( I think, no, nothing smutty). And then started squatting, filling my clean machine with garbage. Weatherbug? Eh? Real does this because it can, not because I have asked it to. When we design software we should bear this in mind. An application should offer utility (does what it says on the tin), be usable, and be polite.

Spoil your ballot

April 19, 2005, 1:17 pm

Those that “can’t be bothered to vote” or think “they’re all the same” and won’t be trotting down to the community hall to pop their ballot in the paper miss the point. We shout and dance about being a “democratic” country and flog this ideal to anyone who will listen (and a few who don’t want to listen as well). In this country people have died for the vote; no more… the only thing that many seem to vote for now is big brother or pop idol. This strikes me as a bit rude. Apathy and laziness are no excuses for not exercising your democratic right. Even if they are all the same there is something you can do to register your protest. That is spoil your ballot paper. Be creative, make the returning officer smile with a well crafted cartoon covering the boxes. It is the least you can do if you “think they are all the same”. In a moment of civic duty I investigated setting up a web site dedicated to spoiling the paper, but alas all the domain names had been taken. So here is someone elses call to action…

Do Americans not sleep?

April 19, 2005, 10:43 am

Just had a call from a colleague in the States about my pending trip to do some user experience work on the west coast. it’s 10.30am. I go to and take a look a PST. It’s 2.30 in the morning! Doens’t he sleep? This isn’t the first time this is happened, often I will be on work calls, or have IM conversations with people in the US at a sensible time of the morning for me, but a stupid time for them! Is work really that important?

Prototyping: creating a shared visual artefact

April 18, 2005, 2:38 pm

I’m thinking about buying a Lear jet. I’ve got a million or so in the bank and I want to buy a plane and I’m told that Lear Jets are pretty good. I’m going to want it customised to my requirements. I’m told they can do that. What am I going to do? Hand over my requirements with a large pile of cash and hope I get what I want?

I’m told there is a more agile way where I can watch my jet built bit my bit and work iteratively with Lear to develop it as we go along. That’s better, but hell, if I’m going to spend my millions I at least want to sit in a Lear jet seat before I part with my cash. I want to sit in a cockpit and see what it could be like. I want to know that the Lear jet is going to be what I want. What I Really Want.

Let’s take a tangent. Let’s forget about Lear jets, (could never dream of affording one working at ThoughtWorks anyway). Close your eyes and think of a car. Picture yourself sitting in the car. Hear the music playing, build up the experience of the car in your mind. Got it? Great. I can guarantee it is different to mine. Everyone’s picture is going to be different. We are all thinking of a car but our models are totally different. Let’s try and capture the model so we can share it. We write a story, it’s a blue car, it’s a large car, it’s a country road, blah, blah, blah… our mental models of the car are beginning to converge, but we are still not quite there. My car is still different to yours. We could spend more time describing the car, defining it in detail but we don’t do that. We don’t have time for that.

How about if I do this…

Suddenly we all have a common frame of reference. We no longer have to think, we no longer have to digest and make meaning out of words, we have a visual expression; the picture speaks a thousand words. And that is what the prototype does. It allows everyone to see a vision of what we are designing, to comment on it, to add to it or to change it quickly and at minimal cost or pain. There is less ambiguity and everyone has a common frame of reference.

Prototyping is a fundamental first stage in physical product design. Cars, buildings, a toothbrush, all will have been subject to physical model mock ups to test and validate the physical design. Polystyrene, clay, Lego, cheap and simple materials for creating visual representations of the final product. That visual representation can be used to share with all stakeholders to gain buy-in to the approach, with the obvious caveat that it not the final product, rather a step towards it.

The prototype need not be complex. In the first instances it can be rough pen and ink scribbles. The simpler the prototype the better. The essence is that we have a tangible visual model to nod our heads against and say “yeah” that is what we think we want. So next time before you go head long into the project, how about taking some time to think about what those stories will look like. And maybe get a GUI guy in to help.

Weekend customer experience

March 21, 2005, 5:35 pm

India was christened over the weekend. With no cooker to cook food we turned to Marks and Spencers to handle the catering. I arrived at the Banstead store to be told that they did not have the salads I had asked for. The store manager was full of apologies – and was eager to right her companies wrong. She substituted the salad (free of charge) and was exceedingly pleasant in the way she went about things. I was impressed. And left feeling positive about M and S.

Sunday morning and I was in ASDA (ugchhh) buying fresh french bread for the afternoon. I’d also bought a large serving bowl. The young geeky guy on the checkout tried to make light conversation.
“A-ha, you like lots of Weetabix.”

And he kept on, trying to make a pun about the size of the bowl and breakfast cereals. He tried to engage me in humour but failed. He didn’t know his audience. I left ASDA, holding it even lower in my esteem.

April 1, 2005, 12:39 pm
Is this bad news for development
A long time ago, when I was working in the development business I applied for a scholarship with the World Bank. They rejected me (ho hum). If I was working there I’m sure I would have grave concerns for the new president, Paul Wolfowitz .

He is a signatory to the Project for the New American Century, a call for America “to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global responsibilities today and modernize our armed forces for the the future. Has the leopard really have changed his spots? We shall have to see. how long before the “war on terror” creeps into world Bank project criteria? A gloomy thought.

The joys of being a home owner

March 15, 2005

So we are now three weeks into our new house.

The things you discover.

Funny smell in the kitchen. Smells like the drains. Take up the covers and Lindsey fills and empties the sink. No water comes through. Must be a blockage. Flush the toilet, water runs down the soil stack that the kitchen outlet shares, and flows down the drains. Hmmmm. Water isn’t quite making it from the sink to the drain. Repeated emptying of the sink and a small puddle appears on the floor. Hmmmm. Remove the footplate on the cupboards and see that the space under the cupboards is a couple of inches under water. Hmmmm. Pipework is hidden behind the cupboards so have to knock them to pieces. A spur from the waste pipe has been left uncapped. Waste water is just gushing out and onto the floor. I remove the lino and the hardboard covering is sodden. I remove all the lino in the kitchen and the whole floor is sodden. Up comes the hardboard and a number of floor boards. Luckily the wood is not rotten. We are living in a kitchen with boards up, drying out. Ho hum. Did I mention that the vendors took the oven, despite it being on the inventory. We are cooking using the van’s calour gas stove. Nice. We can only presume the previous owners didn’t use the sink, just using the dishwasher – the waste water problem only occurred when a large volume of water flushed down the pipe. Great. Getting architects in – looking to build an extension to incresase the size of the kirtchen. So until then we are living in a horrible kitchen. Funny smell in kitchen is now disappearing.

To be replaced by…

Funny noise in the loft.

The pitter patter of tiny feet. Assuming it is squirrels. Pest control came around on Monday and put poison down. Lindsey just rung saying it sounds like there is an army up there. Spoke to pest control Arrr, that is a good sign. They go mental when they eat the poison. Should be dead in 24 hours. Dead and rotting? I thought they’d use new dessicating poison. Apparently not. We’ve got a loft conversion. Will be hard to remove the bodies. Hmmmm.

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