Sunday, November 25, 2007

The evil of lowered expectations

**This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.**

"Do not be evil" is Google's motto. I am not quite qualified to analyze Google's culture in depth with respect to this credo because I have only worked here for 6 months and did not have wide exposure to a lot of aspects of corporate life. All this is yet to come.

There is one evil, however, that I observed aplenty both in my previous workplace as well as in everyday life, which I do not see much around here - it is the artificially lowered expectations for the customers.

My last job at MSFT was running the dev team for Windows Home Server. I was the very first dev and then the dev manager, so I was lucky to participate in the product life cycle starting with it being a mere concept and to the point where it was ready to ship. And that meant customer research, designing (and redesigning, and redesigning) the features, and cutting, cutting, cutting.

One of the things that I liked least in my job was when a feature was cut because "the users wouldn't understand it". Sometimes it just meant a dumbed-down UI with less information given to the user, but quite a few useful features did not make it into a product because they were deemed too hard for the customers to grasp.

Truth be told, it's extremely hard to say whether it is true or not for vast majority of the features. First, it is a tautology that for every feature there exists a non-empty customer set consisting of people who will find the feature very hard to understand. Second, defining a customer (and his or her capabilities) is a deeply subjective process.

For example, in the case of Windows Home Server approximately 12 months into the process we realized that we do not know if our customers understand a concept of a share. (Just imagine designing a FILE SERVER for people who do not know what a FILE SHARE is!)

Also, the argument against advanced features can be plausible on the surface because it can be very easily commingled with the argument against the feature bloat - how many MS Word features did you ever use?

Why should a software project shoot for a power user at all? There are several reasons.

First, the people who build the product are usually power users of the product themselves. Having the team LOVE the product is one of the easiest way to maximize its productivity, and the difference between productive and unproductive teams in software engineering is huge - often better than an order of magnitude (at least binary :-)).

Second, which is super important for start ups, the early adopters - the early users who pay the premium for early version, both in money spent and bugs found, who move the product from obscurity and into the mainstream, are almost always the power users. Without them, the product is doomed to failure.

Finally, the product team's knowledge of customer is usually flawed. Think how much easier it would be for the Windows Home Server team to just assume that the customers do know what file sharing is? We could have skipped the unproductive time spent on inventing newer ("easier") primitives, all of which had failed anyway. Because when the product shipped in the end - after much blood has been spilled - it shipped to the people who do understand file sharing. Moreover judging from all the feedback I have read, it was adopted primarily by people who know not just how to share files, but how to program :-).

So by underestimating customer, you do it at your own peril - you alienate key constituents, expend unnecessary effort, and most likely come out wrong anyway.

Avoiding the dumbing down of a product is easier (and I claim that result is vastly more successful) when the product team is designing the product for themselves, and when there is an effective firewall between the people who want to sell as many copies as possible (and so have an incentive to dumb the product down to make it accessible to the broadest audience) and the people who are charged with the actual work.

If you have a temptation to scoff now and say "yes, then everything will be designed for geeks and normal people will never be able to use anything", or "OK, but how do we make money?" I've got a few examples for you.

Think about Gmail. Look up the key accelerators for navigating your mail - they come directly from vi. Clearly, this product was designed for geeks, and by geeks.

Compare and the original MSN search pages. Google start page was extremely small and clean. It was designed by people who cared mostly about functionality. MSN search page looked like a tabloid. It took a long time to load (forget about using it on a mobile device or on a 56K modem connection), and was trying to sell you printer ink and teach you how to please your boyfriend. It was designed by marketing people for a soccer mom.

The problem - soccer moms (at least at the time) did not shop on the internet. The ones that do use the internet, use it primarily from a narrow band connections. Microsoft doesn't know any more about soccer moms than Google does. They were building a search site for a fictitious dumbed down audience, with the primary goal of extracting as much revenue as possible, and a secondary (distant) goal of producing (some) service. Google engineers were building a service they could use, which could also make money.

Consider Halo vs. Gears of War. Gears of War protagonist is basically a thug - lots of muscles, lots of tattoos, foul language, etc. Gears of War was designed with a certain vision of a hardcore gamer in mind - basically, a dumb thug. The reality is, while some dumb thugs are probably playing computer games, for the most part they are just living these lives out in the ghettos of LA. The actual hardcore game audience sympathizes with the classy Master Chief of Halo - which was proven by sales numbers time and again. In that, it is probably close to the engineering team who created the game.

If you are tempted to think that Microsoft has become too big and too dumb so it treats the customers as an image of itself (or, if you are a crazy Linux fanatic, that it is evil and is simply working on making more dumb people who can only use Windows), the examples are plenty outside Microsoft. In fact, they are the norm in American society.

Why do space ships in the movies make sound as they move past you? Sound does not propagate in vacuum, so in reality the spaceships are perfectly silent. It is not required for artistic expression, because a huge imperial battleship moving past you in complete silence is much more formidable (and believable) than when it is making funny noises. I can however easily visualize a marketing exec previewing the movie and saying - hey, why is it silent? Customers won't get it. Can we add a whooshing sound?

I am betting that it was for the same reason (and process) that the American edition of Harry Potter has been adapted for the US reader - most of the changes are small (such as replacing "food trolley" with the "food cart"), but the most egregious is the renaming of the first book from the Philosopher's Stone to Sorcerer's Stone - the philosopher's stone (lapis philosophorum) is a term that dates back to alchemical exploits of the Middle Ages (at least). Sorcerer's Stone is something designed by Scholastic's (!) marketing department, who thought "that American readers would not associate the word "philosopher" with a magical theme (as a Philosopher's Stone is alchemy-related)".

Did you know that J. K. Rowling publishes under J. K. rather than Joanne (she has no middle name) because publishers (Bloomsbury, UK, in case you're tempted to blame US for everything) felt that readers would not be interested by a book written by a woman?

- Let the team build the product for themselves.
- Do not think that your customer is dumber than you are
- People care about functionality at least as much as they care about appearance
- Erect a firewall between people who finance the project (and not care about anything but short-term return) and the people who build it

**This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.**

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