Spending vs. Wasting Time

I frequently have arguments with people about wasting time “re-doing” things they spent time on already. They’ll say things like, “I know this isn’t the best solution, but if we change it now, we will have wasted the time we spent making it.”

Here’s the thing. You’ve only wasted that time if you never learn from it and fix it.

If you spent your time making something that isn’t very good, and has little or no value, then you have wasted it. If, however, you spend some more time making a better, high-value, thing, based on what you learned, then it was only a small investment in the resulting high-value product.

Crazy Visionaries and Faster Horses…

I am particularly fond of the misattributed (or completely fabricated) Henry Ford quote,

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

It’s spirit is something I identify pretty strongly with…that the market is incapable of thinking beyond the horizon. Buyers and users have a really hard time conceiving of anything that isn’t pretty similar to something they’re already familiar with. Steve Jobs also said something similar (and mostly true),

“…people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

This creates conflict for me internally, because at my heart, I am a human centered designer. I solve problems for people, and I want them to use and enjoy and find value in the things I create for them. Their input (the user) is critically important to the creation of valuable design. So, how do I reconcile this belief that people/the market are incapable of conceiving of radically high-value solutions to their own problems?

Easy. I don’t.

There’s a world of difference between solving a problem in a way that users can’t have seen coming, and spending your time, money and resources solving a problem that doesn’t exist, or solving it in a way that won’t be accepted. There’s also a world of difference between studying a user and their needs, and simply asking them what they want. It is in that difference that these ideas become not just strange bedfellows, but amplify each others effect.

Effective study of a user’s needs and behavior gives you the background to design exactly what they want, even if they don’t know it yet. Studying the user doesn’t need to raise the probability that you’ll create something mundane. But, not studying the user does raise the probability that you’ll create something that doesn’t solve their problem.

What Henry Ford (allegedly) understood about his users is actually born out in that quote. “Faster Horses,” tells him what problem he’s solving. The value he as an innovator brings to the market is that he solved the root problem in a novel way.

Ignoring your user does not make you a Crazy Visionary, it just makes you crazy. Your value as an innovator does not come from the ability to invent completely previously un-thought-of things from whole cloth, it comes from the ability to solve real problems for real people in meaningful ways.

Who wants crazy visionaries anyway? I would much prefer cannily sane ones. 😉

Opportunity Costs

This, to the best of my recollection, was an actual objection I recently faced when discussing the future of a product with its manager.

“We can’t afford to radically improve [our product]. If we do, the customers we have now might decided that, since they’ll have to transition to the new version, they might as well transition to a competitor’s product.”

At the time I just stared at this person, absolutely dumbfounded. This notion is so foreign to me that, uncharacteristically, I did not argue the point.

After some consideration, I have formulated a response, which I give you now as food for thought.

You should assume that your customers are constantly evaluating alternatives to your product. If you don’t have a new offering, if you’re not setting pace, if you’re not constantly improving, if you’re not always getting a little bit better at solving their problems, you can be damn sure that their short list of solutions to replace your product won’t include your product. Not giving them a radically improved product to transition to is giving them no choice but to transition to a competitor.