In recent weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time considering the thought process that has engendered some of the worst managerial decisions of the past year or so. Observing RIM’s spiralling failures, for instance, it’s difficult to discern precisely what has been driving such spectacularly flawed products, announcements, and marketing choices. Even on a much lower end of the scale, amidst the countless gimmicky iPhone accessories on display at Macworld, the bright booths and out-of-place “booth babes” all seem to ask the simple question: “why?”
I’ve written about self-control in the past, but I tend not to think that bottle-opening iPhone cases or BlackBerry Playbooks stem from any semblance (or lack thereof) of control. In my view, the problems lie with the ego of the decision maker. The ego of the individual gives rise to the fallacy of assured success. For the ego-centric executive, for instance, any given concept can be willfully and problematically be perceived as some sort of revolutionary product. But such a perception is wholly and irrevocably disconnected from reality and, moreover, from the end-user.
Yesterday, Co.Design published a piece written by Paddy Harrington arguing for the importance of adopting a school of thought akin to that of a news editor when designing products. Harrington explains:
News logic is a simple filter applied throughout a design project that asks, Is this newsworthy? It is not design just to get noticed. It’s an inherent logic in the new technology culture. Blogs want to get the most views, and what gets views is great content. So working backward, if you design as though a design blog may cover your work, you’re embedding an expectation of quality in the work from the outset of the project, before you even start prototyping. The work benefits, because instead of working in the relative isolation of client/designer, you build in a level of accountability. If what you’re doing is not newsworthy, then why are you bothering to do it? The client benefits because if the designer does her job well, the work will get picked up by a blog and result in more publicity for the client.
The notion of “news logic,” from my perspective, is the perfect embodiment of the egotistical failures of so many companies in the technology market. Driven by a disconnected vision of marketable success, executives – large and small – fool themselves into envisioning their products and ideas as paradigm-shifting, market-upsetting entities, rather than reasonably pondering the viability and long-term prospects of their concepts.
Consider the “Qwikster” debacle. Reed Hastings, in response to widespread discontent with Netflix’s altered pricing structure, weighed his options and chose to pursue an ill-conceived vision of a crowd-pleasing business model. Under the impression that Qwikster would right prior wrongs, Hastings developed a plan that, in his eyes, would make for triumphant headlines, thereby halting an ongoing user exodus. As we all know, Qwikster did indeed make headlines, but certainly not in the manner foreseen by Hastings.
And yet, this is precisely what Harrington calls for:
We imagine how a New York Times headline might read about our project as if it’s already finished and out in the world. By choosing the Times, we choose a discerning media outlet with a highly public face. And by imagining the future in such a tangible way it makes the work more immediate and real. It makes it better.
Relying upon such a perception undercuts the importance of a balanced consideration of an idea. Rather than considering potential flaws, the reliance upon the ego-laced potential for success fosters an environment of self-congratulatory blindness. Although there’s room for weighing an idea within “news logic,” it evidently takes a back seat to the primary focus on the apparent good of an idea.
Look no further than RIM’s new CEO, Thorsten Heins. In his first call as CEO, Heins made the cavalier announcement that RIM’s direction requires little change, thereby implying that the failing company is in great shape. Looking at the many contextual decisions surrounding Heins’ statement, his appointment as CEO, and the ensuing rescission of his initial statement, the entire equation reeks of so-called “news logic.”
The Jawbone UP was released to positive headlines, but once the reviews started rolling in and units began to fail, Jawbone was confronted with the true problems inherent within the development of a product for the headlines. Rather than focusing upon the quality of the product, Jawbone shoddily implemented a concept and pushed it to market. The initial push drew positive headlines, but the true nature of the product betrayed the manner in which it was made, tested, and conceived.
For some, “news logic” may elicit success, but for others, it merely fosters a dangerous tendency toward stifled, ego-centric decision-making. Decision-makers are far better served by focusing upon building a product worthy of the adulation of its users, rather than attaining complimentary press. Envisioning the pleasure of the end user – let’s call it “user logic” – forces the idea to undergo development until it is something good. If the idea is good, it will make its way onto the coveted blogs that Harrington speaks of. Focusing upon the potential for praise and attention alone makes way for the rise of negative headlines and critical responses.
Consider RIM’s trumpeting of the Playbook as the “best tablet in the world” months prior to its release. Now consider Apple’s quiet development of the iPad. Despite widespread contention over the viability of the tablet form factor, Apple developed the iPad with the best interests of the user in mind, and found market-shifting success. RIM, on the other hand, blindly rushed a product through development and thrust it upon the market under the misguided and highly publicized notion that it would reach critical success, and dethrone the iPad. We all know how that turned out.
Preying upon the ego of executives and their respective misconceptions of user demand is precisely what has landed so many companies, including RIM, in dangerous waters, and it’s high time to shed this self-congratulatory ridiculousness. Focus on the user, not the headline. The headline and the praise you so desperately desire will come to you, rather than you to it. The idea should not bend to the will of the press, but grow and evolve based upon the inherent goodness of the initial thought. Pursuing anything else leaves the door open for critical failure and the all-too-common monikers of “unresponsive” and “poorly managed” companies.