Thursday, June 26, 2008

Product-Centric or Community-Centric Design?

The link o' the day this time comes from Search Insider, via a very interesting article on companies that put the product first:

Thank God for Product-Centric Leaders

The full article is well worth a read, but in a nutshell, the author talks about companies -- Apple, Disney, Google -- that based their success on being obsessive about the product they developed. Steve Jobs didn't lead Apple in the development of the iPhone because market research indicated that there was an investment opportunity. He did it because his cell phone sucked and he wanted to design the phone that he wanted to use.

What makes this point interesting is it signals a way in which you can satisfy the customer without listening to him (or her). Basically, you just find your inner customer and design something that you want -- badly.
"The other thing about product-centric leaders is that they don’t have to do extensive customer research. They may, and many do, but they already have a gut instinct for what their customers want, because they are their own customer."
This insight relates very directly to something I've experienced again and again when developing websites: we always talk about building this or that for the customer, but we don't really know what the customer wants. We could bring in focus groups, but that's expensive and time-consuming and hard to justify to management, so it hardly ever happens (or if it does happen, it's too late in the cycle to make much of a difference). So we throw things at the wall and hope that something sticks, and as often as not we end up with a mess of half-baked ideas without any really powerful organizing theme.

What's forgotten in all of this is something that the article cited above really stresses: there's always a customer inside you. You know what you want in a website. So why not design it to scratch the itch that you personally feel? It's a simple question, but one that in my experience almost never gets asked. I have asked the question. I've been in design meetings and put the question to the people around me: "What do you look for in a website? What would make you visit ours?" And I tend to get blank looks. It's not a question people are used to asking, and not one they're ready to answer.

I think we should all take a play from the Steve Jobs playbook. Design sites that satisfy ourselves first and foremost. When you start planning, sit down and record the three to five things that it will take to turn you into a member of your own community. Build to that personal vision. If there's something on your web feature list that doesn't speak to you individually, ask yourself whether you might be better off without it.

I have a simple rule: sites that are designed in order to meet your company's needs tend to suck, and they fail. I used to say that sites that focus on the customer avoid that problem. But now I'm willing to allow that maybe sites that are designed to appeal solely to members of the core team have the potential to be best of all. They will be sites built around a focused vision, with no extra pieces. That's a pretty good recipe for success.