Are you building a Leatherman or a Samurai sword?

Photo by Simonella_Virus

One of the classic engineer mistakes is adding features to improve the product. Under the strict eye of the designers at Apple, I had to learn that every increase in complexity decreases usability. Greg Niles, the designer on most of the products I worked on, became my test. I’d imagine "What would Greg say?" as I was working out the technical interface, and usually my first cut would produce "That looks like a space shuttle control panel", or "Um, what does ‘epsilon’ mean?’ The next step would be ruthlessly removing everything but one or two vital UI elements.

This goes against the engineering grain, because you’re setting limits on what the user can do, when you know the underlying code has all sorts of potential knobs they might like to tweak. It’s also extremely hard to know what you can remove, because you have to bring exactly what the user wants into sharp focus. You can’t just throw a bunch of building blocks at them and expect them to put something together that solves their problem. Instead you have to get inside their head, and deal with their frustratingly messy and contradictory requirements.

I was thinking about this today as I read through the incredibly useful Monitor101 post-mortem (via just about everyone), as well as the GameClay retrospective, and remembering Nick’s look at why Disruptor Monkey failed. Every technical founder wants to build a platform, they want to solve lots of problems all at once in a very general way. I like Roger’s term ‘Science Project’ because it’s the urge to build something that all your fellow hackers will stand around and gaze in awe at. You end up with a million features, which makes it very time-consuming to build, and even when it’s done, the number of different gizmos on your Leatherman scare off potential users. You need to have a strong connection to your actual customers, and be hearing about exactly what they need to do. Then you need to design around that, ruthlessly jettisoning anything that distracts from them achieving their goals.

Samurais may not be able to get stones out of horses’ hooves with the sword you come up with, but they should be very effective at chopping people’s heads off.

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