Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sometimes Common Sense Doesn't Make Sense

Sometimes sensible sounding positions make little sense. Here are two radically different examples. The first is helping birds by keeping your cats inside. The second is using intensive user testing to improve products.

First let's look at bird populations and cats. Many species of birds, particularly songbirds are in trouble Disappearing Common Birds Send Environmental Wake-up Call. It is also true that cats are tremendous predators. By some estimates cats kill hundreds of millions of birds in the US each year. The conjunction of these facts leads to a call that owners should keep their cats indoors Give Birds a Break, Lock up the Cat.

There may be good reasons to keep your cat indoors (though I haven't found one that convinces me), but bird killing is not one of them. It is a sop that makes people feel better without addressing the real problems.

Almost every article that seriously looks at bird loss talks about loss of habitat as the main threat. This includes the Washington Post, the Audobon Society and even Australian scientists.

My city is about seven miles on a side. Inside this area of about fifty square miles, there are essentially no native species. Fifty square miles of prairie grassland was bulldozed and replaced with asphalt, houses, stores, Kentucky Bluegrass and non-native trees. It is a nice enough town, but it does not provide much habitat for native birds.

The range of a cat is on the order of thirty or forty hectares. That is roughly a third of a mile on a side. If my city is a square seven miles on a side, cats extend each side by a maximum of about one third of a mile. The amount of severely disturbed land goes from forty nine square miles to about fifty three square miles. This is less than a ten percent increase. Complaining about bird loss due to urban cats is like killing a deer with your car and worrying about its broken antler.

Suppose that cats were a main cause of bird disappearance. Keeping your cat indoors will still not solve the problem. About one third of all cats are feral. Cats breed prodigiously and feral cats exist because there is an ecological niche for them. Even if all owned cats were kept indoors, the birds would keep dying.

I use cats and birds as an example, but we suffer from an epidemic of glossy arguments that may not stand up to any real scrutiny. A second, less supported, example has to do with product development.

It seems sensible that if you are developing products to meet some consumer need, it would be a good idea to know what those consumers want and how they will react to you product. There are a number of established techniques for this. For example, focus groups. Software organizations, often talk about user centered design.

I have developed products using these techniques. I can honestly say that every in-depth interaction I have had with customers has changed my view of the product I was developing. Sometimes I have found out that my view of the problems and their solutions is quite different from my customer's. Sometimes I have found that users had much less tolerance of complexity than I imagined.

That said, I don't think this kind of external facing, user centered process develops better products.

To support this you need only compare Microsoft and Apple. Both these companies have the time and money to investigate, measure, and improve their product development. Microsoft has a user centered development process. Apple has a completely different, inward focused product development system.

On the whole Microsoft products are, at best, acceptable. Commonly they are a complete mess. Just look at the appalling Microsoft Project. It has done more to ruin project management than any other single tool. Everyone uses Microsoft Word, but I can't think of anyone who actually likes the program. It is larded with obscure, mostly useless, features. Nothing is easy and the resulting documents are extraordinarily difficult to re-purpose.

On the whole, Microsoft follows the market. They re-implement what others have done and often do it worse. This pattern started with the operating system extends through their software products, and includes their hardware.

Apple, in contrast, is known as an innovative company that leads the market. Their customers don't just like the products, they love them. MP3 players with much the same functionality as the iPod existed before the iPod, but the Apple developers came up with a whole ecosystem for music. When the iPhone came out, it erased and replaced peoples ideas of how to interact with a that device in their pocket that sends and receives phone calls.

The problem may be that focusing on the views of potential users directs your attention to those views. Those views are often very restricted because most folks don't really think about what they are doing and what is possible. When you talk to a lot of potential customers, the tendency is to aim for the lowest common denominator. The end result seems to be products that serve a purpose, that most people can use, but that no one really cares about.

Like keeping cats inside to protect birds, asking customers to help develop products seems to make a lot of sense, but may not be sensible.

No comments: