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Posted by on Jan 24, 2011

Steve Jobs Gets It

Like probably almost everyone else reading this blog, I have spent much of my adult life horsing around with software.

By this, I mean trying to navigate user interfaces, trying to understand the architecture of forms, trying to understand responses in the FAQ or Help forums that ironically assume proficiency in the programs or at least a master’s degree in software engineering, encountering bugs, eliminating viruses, losing saved work, spending half an hour trying to figure out how to do something that seems like it should take half a minute, and a variety of other tasks that added zero to productivity.

And like probably almost everyone else, I have just gotten used to it. It seems like just part of the terrain that software should be counter-intuitive, frustrating, buggy, quirky, glitchy and time-sinking.

No one intentionally sets out to design bad software. But people do design it in a context – that context being what’s in their head that they understand about the program and code, and how they see the entire software system.

Notice one word missing here: “customer.”

The shift involved in moving from thinking about one’s own distinctions, knowledge, perspectives and assumptions to those of the customer is nothing short of profound. It means letting go of whatever you think is “the right way,” and all the knowledge and beliefs you bring to the work, and instead entering a state where you get into the head of the customer. It doesn’t mean that’s the only legitimate point of view, or that the customer is always right. It does mean understanding the customer, though.

It is a great example of the platinum rule: Don’t treat others as you want to be treated. Treat them as they want to be treated.

This is why relationships matter. If you are not in a place where you want to make this shift, you’re done before you start. The door is closed to solutions that delight customers, that meet them where they are, and help them perform the work they have to do.

The shining example of a company that has embodied users as the point of the software is Apple. Every Apple user I have talked to makes the point that there is a significant difference between a Windows-based computer, with its attendant software and hardware, and an Apple computer. As a user myself, I appreciate the experience every time I use my iMac or iPhone. Steve Jobs’ fanatical insistence on elegant, customer-friendly design is the key.

I often think of software as the automotive industry 100 years ago. The prevailing mental model was probably that the goal of the car was to get people from point A to B. And it was. Except that along the way, people started to think about things like rider comfort (shock absorbers, better tires, suspension, frame construction), safety (frame construction, bumpers and seat belts) and fuel economy (more efficient engines). It has culminated now in cup holders, DVD players and music systems. The user experience is very different now.

Yet most of the discussion in the software field seems to remain around features, power and technology. The machine, not the person, is the focus.

This is why the user experience today is not really a technology problem. Apple has already proven a company can create a great user experience.

No, it’s really a problem with relationships. For any successful relationship, the parties have to understand each other, and unfortunately, I think most technology companies understand technology a lot better than customers.

A breathtaking example of this came when one company I worked for rolled out new technology for a Wall Street firms, who can be accused of being many things, but stupid not being one of them. After a steady stream of complaints from bond traders and analysts regarding the complexity and difficulty of use of our product, the marketing manager who had presided over the development of the software proclaimed in a meeting, “Well, the customers are stupid.”

This is a crisis in relationships. Such thinking cannot lead to products and services that are Apple-like in their beauty.

I was reminded of this over the weekend when my wife reported that her mother had been experiencing computer problems. She had called the help desk, where a technician asked her to unplug and replug a USB cable. When she couldn’t do it fast enough and the technician became impatient, she let him know that she’s 80 years old, the USB port is just above the floor, and in the back of the computer. It meant she had to crawl around on her hands and knees. While I’m sure the technician understood the USB configuration (actually, maybe not – it didn’t solve the problem), he didn’t understand enough about the user to ask, “Is the USB port easily accessible?”

It all starts with a question: Do you care? Do you want to try to understand the world through the customer’s eyes? If not, just go back to work. But don’t ever expect to be great like Apple.

If you do care, the door swings open to tremendous learning. One fish-in-a-barrel phenomenon – you could retire on this bet – is around what happens when a senior leader goes out an interacts with real customers. Every time, it results in some kind of significant learning.

It’s an interesting time right now with Steve Jobs on a medical leave of absence. The speculation is around how the company will do without his vision. It’s a startling and sobering point that he may be that indispensible. Is there no one else who is capable of putting customers first and foremost as Jobs has done?

A central question, and a great place to start, whether it’s your software, customer service, or any touch point with customers, is in asking the question: Are your processes and practices customer friendly, or are they organization friendly?

Apple “gets it.” Do you?

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