I had a great conversation with Phi-Hong the other day about how despite our having seen the insights and risk management that user research can achieve, some companies seem to do just fine without it, thank you very much. Apple’s product design, the early Google, much of Amazon.com.
While teaching others the product development process, I know there’s a point at which one synthesizes audience desires, trends, content, function, esthetics, price point, revenue model etc. etc. etc. together not in some grand spreadsheet but in our subjective little minds. It’s a hard thing to teach, and not terribly surprising that companies could produce great products by hiring individuals who are very good at this synthesis.
I witnessed this recently watching a CMO reviewing new product concepts. He wasn’t too interested in concepts that were mostly new UI ideas; I think it’s hard to look at a couple screens and see a whole new product, much less a whole new business. Who of us who saw Google in 1999 saw the potential? I know I was skeptical, figuring any algorithm that relied on popularity would devolve into presenting a tabloid. Their modest response seemed to acknowledge that even they knew they were running a big experiment…
I don't think we will turn into a tabloid. But, time will tell.
Reading through Google’s official history paints a picture of UI+algorithm innovation being tough to identify, based on the highly subjective perspective of whoever they presented it to…
Among those they called on was friend and Yahoo! founder David Filo. Filo agreed that their technology was solid, but encouraged Larry and Sergey to grow the service themselves by starting a search engine company. “When it’s fully developed and scalable,” he told them, “let’s talk again.”
Andy Bechtolsheim, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, was used to taking the long view. One look at their demo and he knew Google had potential — a lot of potential. But though his interest had been piqued, he was pressed for time. As Sergey tells it, “We met him very early one morning on the porch of a Stanford faculty member’s home in Palo Alto. We gave him a quick demo. He had to run off somewhere, so he said, ‘Instead of us discussing all the details, why don’t I just write you a check?’ It was made out to Google Inc. and was for $100,000.”
The lesson? Designers need to shop their idea around to different people before giving up. Investors — whether it’s CMOs or venture capitalists — need to occassionally throw money at an idea to try it out in the real world to ultimately know if it’s successful or not.