Subject to Change

adaptivepath-subject-to-changeI picked up a copy of Subject To Change: Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World by my Adaptive Path friends Peter Merholz, Todd Wilkens, Brandon Schauer, and David Verba. The book presents a toolset for a “flexible design process” to embrace user behaviours and motivations and an ever changing, unpredictable environment.

Instead of approaching new product development from the inside out, companies have to begin by looking at the process from the outside in, beginning with the customer experience. It’s a new way of thinking-and working-that can transform companies struggling to adapt to today’s environment into innovative, agile, and commercially successful organizations.

The process reminded me of the outstanding work on Charmr – A Design Concept for Diabetes Management Devices. Charmr is Adaptive Path’s response to an Open Letter to Steve Jobs from Amy Tenderich asking for some of that Jonathan Ive magic to redesign insulin pumps. The Charmr Project was a 9 week long project completed by an Adaptive Path team including: Dan Saffer, Rachel Hinman, Alexa Andrzejewski, Rae Brune, Sebastian Heyke and Jamin Hegemin.

The process and timeline:

The most interesting part is that before the concepting and design work, is the creation of the six primary design principles:

    1. Wear it during sex. Make the product elegant, discreet, and comfortable.
    2. Make better use of data. Have the product use the data that is generated (blood glucose levels, amount of insulin dosed, trends) in smarter ways.
    3. Easy to learn and teach/No numbers. A broad cross-section of diabetics will use this product, so it cannot be overly complicated, nor difficult to teach. And while numbers are important, we didn’t want to solely rely on those for indicating status and trending.
    4. Less stuff. Diabetics have to carry around a lot of stuff. We wanted to be sure that whatever we created wasn’t just one more thing to carry around.
    5. Keep diabetics in control. The people we spoke to weren’t interested in automatic pumps for the most part. They wanted to retain control of their insulin dosing.
    6. Keep diabetics motivated. Diabetes is a difficult disease to have. Diabetics, in the words of someone we talked to, “never get a day off,” so keeping motivated is a challenge. We wanted our product to help diabetics set goals and be so easy to use it helped keep them on track.

The principles themselves aren’t interesting beyond diabetics. But that they were derived from the observations and interviews with patients and experts. How often to we discount the basic user research and analysis?


In moving beyond the features and functionality, and looking at behaviour and experiences companies are able to build compelling solutions like Nike+. Amazing, runners listen to music when they are out pounding the pavement. Understanding the experience has let Nike partner with Apple to build a great experience.

Nike Plus “combines the physical world with the digital world. We put a sensor in the shoe that speaks to the iPod, and you can hear how far you went, how long you went and how many calories you’ve burned, pretty simple thoughts. And then, when you dock it, you have a world of information at your fingertips. You get to see all that you’ve done, all your runs stored in a very simple, intuitive web experience where you can set goals for yourself.  – Trevor Edwards, VP Global Brand & Category Management, Nike

Nike+ is also really interesting because it is software above the level of a single device. Using the iPod, Nike shoes, iTunes, and the web to create a community to share playlists, running trails, and maps, Nike has successfully created an enduring, engaging brand experience.

Both Charmr and Nike+ are great examples of building products based on understanding and analyzing behaviour. Check out Subject To Change: Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World for a toolkit for using “customer experiences to inform and shape the product development process”.

Successful applications require users

Baseline magazine has a great article reinforcing why we build applications, they are for people! The article is about Symantec’s Project Oasis, the code name for their massive ERP overhaul as part of the merger of Symantec and Veritas. The project reinforces that successful applications have users who not only are able to complete their tasks error free, but that emotional and personal impact of the software is incredibly important to it’s eventual success.

Technically, Project Oasis, an upgrade to Oracle 11d, was flawless. The code, interface and system—aside from some conflicting records that made accounting difficult to interpret—went exactly as Symantec had conceived when it launched the project in May 2005.

But users didn’t understand the system. The voluminous information it provided them and the myriad steps required to place orders created confusion and poor usability.

As individuals choosing applications we are free from the burden of corporate history and inertia, we are able to select the operating systems, applications and web services that best meet our needs. If you prefer running Mac OS X or Linux, just run it. If Microsoft Office doesn’t match your budget, try Google Docs or Apple iWork. Amazon SimpleDB not providing the indexing and performance tuning you need, maybe Microsoft SQL Server Data Services (SSDS) is more your cup of tea. As alpha geeks, we get to push the envelope of what is possible. We get to explore new frontiers. Often we get to do this with freedom of a revenue model, without deployed customers, without a legacy.

But what about those with paying customers, how do you push boundaries and define new models for them without negatively impacting your bottom line? How do you prepare customers to move forward?

“Despite its best efforts, the management team could not adequately prepare its more than 60,000 resellers, partners and distributors—and scores more customers—for the procedural changes required by the new system.”

Project Oasis was executed flawlessly. It was a technically flawless upgrade to Oracle 11d. But it wasn’t enough. Symantec’s CEO “blamed part of the company’s sluggish financial performance in the third quarter of fiscal year 2007 on the ERP plague”. It turns out that people determine the eventual success of a system. Understanding the user experience of an ERP solution, and the lack of alternatives for interacting with the system users have 2 choices:

  1. Learn the new system which may involve customer support, training, etc., or ;
  2. Find a new provider.

It’s even worse with internal facing applications, employees are forced to use poor applications for payroll, benefits, performance management and nearly every part of their interaction with a company’s systems. The idea that employees should understand the General Ledger codes for submitting expenses is absurd. It’s either the role of the financial department to correctly identify how expense should be entered or it’s their responsibility to ensure that the system and processes are easily learned and used by non-financial staff, probably sales people and assistants.

Symantec had realized that when leaving a financial system upgrade to only the financial and IT staffs you’ve created an unusable solution. A solution that only the people who built it wanted to use.

the system was performing as designed—to a fault. The problem was that Symantec had inadvertently created the perfect storm: It had failed to consider the user experience with the new system, it hadn’t correctly identified the true users of the system and it had layered other projects on top of the ERP implementation, thereby complicating the launch and generating more confusion.

Software like business is messy. We want to think that things are digital. Binary. Black and white. We want people to be efficient, error free, rational actors. They aren’t. Understanding people, their experiences and their desires is the cornerstone of building successful software applications.

Technology may be the engine that drives business, but business is still conducted by people. Understanding the needs, desires and experience of the customer—whether that person is an internal user, a reseller partner or a consumer—is critical to any company’s success and growth.

Successful software is used by people.

Learning how to build customer-centered systems is a mix of theory and practice. But primarily, it is about your organizational culture. Who holds the decision making power? Marketing? Development? IT? Who speaks for the users?