I was reading a post about the danger of cutting innovation efforts and R&D costs in this radically crappy economy - kinda like the farmers’ saying about not eating the seed corn. Seems a no-brainer to me that while forward-looking efforts might be optimized, long-term strategy and activities should not be compromised or curtailed.

You tech companies want a hint? Bag the next generation 140-button electronic gadget remote control that manages every electronic device in the house, washes your dishes, and vacuums the rug. Instead, gimmee a 15-button remote control in a fashionable color that doesn’t require me to turn on the lights to find the button to pause my DVD.

You want a rant? Here ya go.

<start rant>

So, watching a great movie the other night (Changeling - awesome) and I want to Break for Station Identification. If ya know what I mean. So with my gazillion-button remote I struggle to find the Pause button, realize I can’t see it, turn on the light, finally find Pause, then HIT Pause. Whew. But on RETURN to said movie, realize I’ve lost perhaps 45 seconds and want to rewind.

So, you know how this goes. Try to rewind, go too far. Accidentally somehow rewind like entire subplots or something. Then Run Home to the Scenes menu, having no freaking idea what Scene you were in the middle of. Randomly select Scene, kinda watch, zoom in on correct scene. Then start watching, wondering if you have the nerve to try and FF to where you were in the first place.

Technology has gotten way more advanced than my feeble VCR-trained brain. Gee, I hate to reminisce, but remember when we had FF and REV? And it was easier?

WTF were these companies thinking when they decided to require we own 5 remotes with a total of 234 buttons???

[Tech companies can] have a misguided view of quality. What happens over time is they begin to confuse what the engineers view as quality and what the market views as quality. What you can end up with if this goes too far is the 53rd button on the remote control, which the engineers love and the customers doesn’t. [ref]

[Ed note: emphasis is mine. And my remote has 54 buttons. Grrr.]

But perhaps “optimized” isn’t the right word … recognizing what the customer WANTS rather than what the company wants to PRODUCE is an excellent way to hunker down without falling behind in times like these.

You don’t go to [customers] and say, What can I give you?” They may not understand. But you can say “What can I help you with?”

But engineers are the creators and facilitators of grand new technologies and the products you will soon realize you magically need based on them!

Let’s face it - engineers love to make new gadgets, tempt consumers with neat unexpected technology-push products (holy shit look at the iPhone), and wring that last little bit of code space to shoehorn in yet another feature that perhaps 1% of the population will ever use (tag message star filter ascending) …

Ahhh, yeah.

Engineers are stereotypically brilliant. (Because clearly, we are.) Engineers generally sit in cubes. Toil in labs. Engineers are often purposefully separated from customers because we are too honest and, of course, not able to understand how to communicate with the customer without somehow embarrassing the company, let alone understand the customer’s intimate and hopefully revenue-generating needs.

Do they think we’ll drool?

I’m not maligning engineers - I’ve done the same thing many times in my own excited need to discover and implement something new (the shoehorning-in the code thing, not the drooling thing). Besides, I suspect it has something to do with those neat conferences and trips to Vegas and the Bahamas designed to reward executives and woo new clients.

To which inviting engineers was nowhere ever remotely considered in the minds of any management team of any product development company ever.

Please, prove me wrong. And then also set yourself up for volumes of resumes from engineers everywhere desperately seeking to be treated as actual human beings deserving something more than a certificate of appreciation in a handsome black plastic frame for upholding design guidelines in the face of external scheduling pressure, thereby creating end products that are capable of saving the lives of millions.**

You will likely be very pleasantly (and financially) surprised.

Side vent tangent from main vent: I worked at a company where the engineers were forbidden from taking leftover sweatshirts from one of these “conferences.” Leftover boxes sat in a storage room, so we found it necessary (after escalating resentment) to help ourselves to company-self-congratulatory-clothing celebrating increased profit margins on products that we (said maligned engineers) had designed and tested in the first place.

But I’m not bitter. Heh heh.

I’m just evermore a strong (rabid) believer in exposing engineers to this simple-to-understand yet apparently hard-to-implement concept of Understanding the Customer’s Needs.

Yeah yeah yeah. It’s all that “The customer is always right” stuff.

Bullshit. WRONG!

Now this time I’m not maligning customers. But see, customers have problems (ah, you know, the official kind…). We cannot expect them to provide the solution to these problems. We cannot even expect them to adequately describe the problems they face. Or sometimes even to recognize that a problem exists in the first place!

It is our job as technical experts, strategists, and LISTENERS to understand these needs and to provide USEFUL solutions. (This is hard.)

Sometimes customers may insist what they envision is the possible solution, and they may be unable to recognize the difference between what they need and how to get it. (Gently) convincing a customer they might have settled on a less-than-optimal solution for their serious need can be a challenge. It behooves us to dig below the surface to separate the two in our minds as well.

They have needs - we provide solutions. Let’s try to keep our roles straight.

(I swear, the rest of my rant is coming.)

Customers don’t understand what they need. But we do. (Oh yeah?)

Customers don’t intend to fail us in their attempt to communicate their needs. And we don’t intend to fail them with products that don’t meet their true needs (communicated or not).

Simply, failed products are often ones where our solutions do not meet customer needs. Duh. Seems obvious!

But why does this happen?

  • Understanding and gathering customer needs is hard, often because customers have difficulty vocalizing their needs, or even acknowledging their unmet needs. (We must recognize this.)
  • Customers sometimes provide a solution to their need, and we interpret the solution as what they need. As a result, we’ll never really understand what problem they want us to solve. (Because we’ll allow ourselves to be mislead. And because we’re lazy.)
  • We, plain ol’ people everywhere, tend to talk rather than listen. (This is hard.)
  • Marketing, sales, etc., may interpret needs (and then envision solutions) based on their familiarity with past product development experiences. (This is dangerous, because it’s the path of least resistance/effort.)
  • Engineers may interpret needs based on brandy-new neat technologies they are itching to try. (Because new technology is cooooool.)
  • After we establish customer needs and develop requirements based on these needs, we often don’t go back to the customer to MAKE SURE WE GOT IT RIGHT! (This is an AMAZINGLY successful concept that ALWAYS causes “oh yeah, I forgot to add” and “no, that’s not gonna work because of …” conversations.)
  • Remember the game Telephone? The telephone conversation starts with the customer and travels through several functional groups until it reaches the R&D folks. Even well-defined and understood customer needs may arrive in R&D somewhat altered. (Please do not assume that a documentation trail from functional needs through specs is not similarly corrupted affected.)
  • Engineers start implementing solutions (e.g., writing software) before completing lower level requirements and specs. And usually skip the concept and design analysis phases. (This is very hard to resist.)

Whew - I had about 3 bullet items I wanted to list, and then it just took a life of its own … I am sure you can immediately think of several more. Could be a whole ‘nother post.

Clearly, there are more factors working AGAINST our successes than working for them. In these economic times, it’s even more vital to make sure we aren’t spending time and money on ideas that don’t have the highest possible probability of success.

Bottom line of my rant

  1. Engineers need to learn that interacting with customers doesn’t have to be a wasted day when otherwise Real Work could be Completed Instead.
  2. Marketing/sales/etc., need to accept that engineers have a valid place in gathering of customer needs and should be allowed out of the lab more often.
  3. We all need to ask questions, probe for use cases, listen, and stop making assumptions!

Post Script

By now you’ve surmised I hate remote controls. I think they are the work of the devil. My husband has to listen to this attestation at least once a week. There is no consistency in button layout, no commonality in button names for the same feature from different manufacturers, and button names are so cryptic in order to fit into the teeny-tiny squares of real-estate made microscopic by that need for the 53rd button. (Did I mention that mine has 54 buttons?)

And here’s a great counter argument - to change my older TV (ok, tube-based) from TV-to-Video mode, I think I actually have to use two different remotes. The sequence baffles me. I gave up trying to remember, as it has no logic I can decipher.

ORRRRR (rabidly ignoring said remotes), I can get up off my butt and push ONE BUTTON on the TV and I’m golden. I can successfully change the mode before my husband has located the right remote(s) to accomplish this task in the “official” way.

Heh heh.

Clear Statement of a Real Customer Need

While I am not yet blind, I want the remote with the Big Buttons. You know why? Because someone actually had to think about which buttons are NOT THAT IMPORTANT, leaving only the buttons that 99% of the population really uses anyway.

BUT I DON’T WANT THIS REMOTE!

Marketing Blurb: "Great for people with limited dexterity, senior citizens, people with poor eyesight."

And this time I am not maligning those with limited dexterity, senior citizens or people with poor eyesight. I am maligning COMPANIES!

YOU ARE BLAMING THE CUSTOMER for rejecting YOUR neat 1000-button remote!

We, here at [insert company name here] made this remote for you because there is SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOU, making it extremely difficult for you to use our awesomely excellent and totally cool technically savvy remote.

While I want this remote control (ah, sort of), I refuse to purchase it. In my own vanity, I don’t want my remote, sitting in plain view in my family room, to subtly imply I am quickly drooling my way into a nursing home.

So heed, all manufacturer’s of remote controls - please make a big button remote with a nice contour and color. Really, the market for such a product is beyond your current (extremely shallow) market segment assumptions.

I’ll take mine in orange.

</end rant>


The risk/reward calculation for engineers looks something like this:

RISK: Public humiliation and the death of thousands of innocent people.

REWARD: A certificate of appreciation in a handsome plastic frame.

[Ref: What are Engineers Really Like?]