At the RailsConf 2008 kickoff keynote, Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software asks: what makes one product massively more successful than another? Why Brad Pitt but not Ian Somerhalder; Herman Miller’s Aeron Chair and not the dozen cheap knockoffs; why the Apple iPod and not Microsoft’s Zune? Joel suggests – at least when it comes to product and software design – that “blue chip” products make people happy , obsess over aesthetics , and observe the culture code.
Make People Happy
In a series of slides that had the crowd howling, Joel walks us through the typical morning of a Windows user trying to upload some digital photos from his new camera to the web. Hilarity ensues: the great majority of Rails developers work on Macs but know well Microsoft alert and warning messages. It starts at the startup cycle, with auto-update screens that run past the 100% mark a half dozen times. (“In order to serve you better, you must now reboot your computer. Now, please.") By the time the camera is hooked up, the morning’s fun has become not merely a drag (“Please insert your original Windows CD-ROM. Now, please.") but a real unhappiness. (“DO NOT remove devices from Windows without TELLING US FIRST! EVER!") It’s rooted in the lack of agency our morning user has – there’s no control over the process, steps, and cycles on this Windows ride.
Solutions? Put the user in control. Joel contrasts the checkout process at Amazon – where, at any moment, the user can modify addresses, check shipping rates, change the cart contents as she sees fit – with the usual step 1 through 4 checkout process that one must walk through without options or variations in the stages. Solution two? Provide timely feedback. Joel contrasts the instant feedback of an Ajaxed shopping cart that tells the user “got it!” from a slow-moving, squishy-buttoned remote control that lacks ambient physical click or key press feedback. Cheap remotes typically have a lagging visual interface that then cause users to over-compensate when channel selecting. Anyone who’s moved from the original Tivo to the new HD Tivo has probably experienced this: a real transition and physical retraining is required to adjust to the Tivo’s lag and lack of sprightliness.
Obsess over Aesthetics
As a side note, I haven’t seen as many iPhones in Chicago’s flagship Apple store than I have this weekend. To this crowd of seriously technically advanced developers, Joel points out what we all know – the phone’s very slow EDGE data connections, hard to use keyboard, poor interconnectivity and lack of changeable batteries. And yet, it seems it couldn’t be more ubiquitous at this conference. “You get the feeling that, if you swallowed one, it would just go down.” Joel claims fashion in part, here, in that the iPhone’s design specifically and regularly chooses style and looks over functionality. To add to the pile on: the iPhone’s non-standard jack prevents me from using a standard cable to play from it in my car. Reasoning? Apparently the jack had to be recessed past standard headphone jack lengths to retain the clean top line. In the same vein, Joel notes the lack of a changeable battery is probably because to change the battery, we’d need a battery compartment, and such a compartment would imply a visual line along the back of the phone, a latch, and so forth. All that, for what gain? Honestly, the only thing I’ve seen phone batteries do is part wildly from the phone, cover, and other sundry in a fantastic oh-god-I-broke-my-phone display anytime they get dropped.
Observe the Culture Code.
RailsConf 2008 – the last place I would have expected a deep dive into French Jungian archetypes and the psychology of action. The Culture Code, by Clotaire Rapaille, attempts an analysis of pre-conscious motivations and influences that is distinctly oh-so-French. Cloatire, apparently, was hired by the auto industry to aid in the marketing and design of the then-fledgling SUV. He tied specific physical attributes to desired emotional responses: being “up high” provides confidence, dominance; being surrounded in soft, plush and heated leather takes us back to the security of the womb; and “lots of hot-drink holders” (oh, this is so French now) pre-consciously remind us of the happiness and security we had, as babies, nursing.
Whatever you make of all that specifically, Coltaire’s understanding of emotional desires and needs are still clearly on target. Reflecting on descriptions of the the Rails development community and its unique motivations, we see the roots of culture code (and emotive) terminology: beauty, happiness, motivation, passion, enthusiasm.
Well, my flight has come to an end; I think I’ll write up my reflections in a separate post.
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