Home > Articles > Software Development & Management > Management: Lifecycle, Project, Team

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter is from the book

Iteration and the Myth of the Unpredictable Market

In an industry that is so filled with money and opportunities to earn it, it is often just easier to move right along to another venture and chalk up a previous failure to happenstance, rather than to any real reason.

I was a party to one of these failures in the early 1990s. I helped to start a venture-funded company whose stated goal was to make it absurdly simple to network PCs together.2 The product worked well and was easy to use, but a tragic series of self-inflicted marketing blunders caused it to fail dismally. I recently attended a conference where I ran into one of the investors who sat on the doomed company's board of directors. We hadn't talked since the failure of the company, and—like veterans of a battlefield defeat meeting years later—we consoled each other as sadder but wiser men. To my unbridled surprise, however, this otherwise extremely successful and intelligent man claimed that in hindsight he had learned a fundamental lesson: Although the marketing, management, and technical efforts had been flawless, the buying public "just wasn't interested in easy-to-install local area networks." I was flabbergasted that he would make such an obviously ridiculous claim and countered that surely it wasn't lack of desire, but rather our failure to satisfy the desire properly. He restated his position, arguing forcefully that we had demonstrated that easy networking just wasn't something that people wanted.

2 Actually, we said that we wanted to make it "as easy to network Intel/Windows computers as it was to network Macintosh computers." At the time, it was ridiculously simple to network Macs together with AppleTalk. Then, as now, it was quite difficult to network Wintel PCs together.

Later that evening, as I related this story to my wife, I realized that his rationalization of the failure was certainly convenient for all the parties involved in the effort. By blaming the failure on the random fickleness of the market, my colleague had exonerated the investors, the managers, the marketers, and the developers of any blame. And, in fact, each of the members of that start-up has gone on to other successful endeavors in Silicon Valley. The venture capitalist has a robust portfolio of other successful companies.

During development, the company had all the features itemized on the feature list. It stayed within budget. It shipped on schedule. (Well, actually, we kept extending the schedule, but it shipped on a schedule.) All the quantitatively measurable aspects of the product-development effort were within acceptable parameters. The only conclusion this management-savvy investor could make was the existence of an unexpected discontinuity in the marketplace. How could we have failed when all the meters were in the green?

The fact that these measures are objective is reassuring to everyone. Objective and quantitative measure is highly respected by both programmers and businesspeople. The fact that these measures are usually ineffective in producing successful products tends to get lost in the shuffle. If the product succeeds, its progenitors will take the credit, attributing the victory to their savvy understanding of technology and marketing.

On the other hand, if the product fails, nobody will have the slightest motivation to exhume the carcass and analyze the failure. Almost any excuse will do, as long as the players—both management and technical—can move along to the next high-tech opportunity, of which there is an embarrassment of riches. Thus, there is no reason to weep over the occasional failure. The unfortunate side effect of not understanding failure is the silent admission that success is not predictable—that luck and happenstance rule the high-tech world. In turn, this gives rise to what the venture capitalists call the "spray and pray" method of funding: Put a little bit of money into a lot of investments and then hope that one of them gets lucky.


Rapid-development environments such as the World Wide Web—and Visual Basic before it—have also promoted this idea of simply iterating until something works. Because the Web is a new advertising medium, it has attracted a multitude of marketing experts who are particularly receptive to the myth of the unpredictable market and its imperative to iterate. Marketers are familiar with the harsh and arbitrary world of advertising and media. After all, much of advertising really is random guesswork. For example, in advertising, "new" is the single most effective marketing concept, yet when Coca-Cola introduced "New Coke" in the mid-1980s, it failed utterly. Nobody could have predicted this result. People's tastes and styles change randomly, and the effectiveness of marketing can appear to be random.

On the Web, the problem arises when a Web site matures from the online-catalog stage into the online-store stage. It changes from a one-way presentation of data to an interactive software application. The advertising and media people who had such great success with the first-generation site now try their same iteration methods on the interactive site and run into trouble, often without realizing it. Marketing results may be random, but interaction is not. The cognitive friction generated by the software's interactivity is what gives the impression of randomness to those untrained in interaction design.

The remarkably easy-to-change nature of the World Wide Web plays into this because an advertisement or marketing campaign can be aired for a tiny fraction of the cost (and time) of print or TV advertising. The savvy Web marketer can get almost instantaneous feedback on the effectiveness of an ad, so the speed of the iteration increases dramatically, and things are hacked together overnight. In practice, it boils down to "throw it against the wall and see what sticks." Many managers of Web start-ups use this embarrassingly simple doctrine of design by guesswork. They write any old program that can be built in the least time and then put it before their users. They then listen to the complaints and feedback, measure the patterns of the user's navigation clicks, change the weak parts, and then ship it again.

Generally, programmers aren't thrilled about the iterative method because it means extra work for them. Typically, it's managers new to technology who like the iterative process because it relieves them of having to perform rigorous planning, thinking, and product due diligence (in other words, interaction design). Of course, it's the users who pay the dearest price. They have to suffer through one halfhearted attempt after another before they get a program that isn't too painful.

Just because customer feedback improves your understanding of your product or service, you cannot then deduce that it is efficient, cheap, or even effective to toss random features at your customers and see which ones are liked and which are disliked. In a world of dancing bears, this can be a marginally viable strategy, but in any market in which there is the least hint of competition, it is suicidal. Even when you are all alone in a market, it is a very wasteful method.

Many otherwise sensitive and skilled managers are unashamedly proud of this method. One mature, experienced executive (a former marketing man) asked me, in self-effacing rhetoric, "How could anyone presume to know what the users want?" This is a staggering question. Every businessperson presumes. The value that most businesspeople bring to their market is precisely their "presumption" of what the customer wants. Yes, that presumption will miss the mark with some users, but not to presume at all means that every user won't like it. This foolish man believed that his customers didn't mind plowing through his guesses to do his design work for him. Today, in Silicon Valley, there might be lots of enthusiastic Web-surfing apologists who are willing to help this lazy executive figure out his business, but how many struggling survivors did he alienate with that haughty attitude? As he posted sketchy version after sketchy version of his site, reacting only to those people with the stamina to return to it, how many customers did he lose permanently? What did they want? It has been said that the way Stalin cleared a minefield was to march a regiment through it. Effective? Yes. Efficient, humanitarian, viable, desirable? No.

Figure 3.2Figure 3.2


The biggest drawback, of course, is that you immediately scare away all survivors, and your only remaining users will be apologists. This seriously skews the nature and quality of your feedback, condemning you to a clientele of technoid apologists, which is a relatively small segment. This is one reason why so few personal-computer software-product makers have successfully crossed over into mass markets.

I am not saying that you cannot learn from trial and error, but those trials should be informed by something more than random chance and should begin from a well-thought-out solution, not an overnight hack. Otherwise, it's just giving lazy or ignorant businesspeople license to abuse consumers.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.

Overview


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information


To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.

Surveys

Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.

Newsletters

If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information


Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.

Security


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.

Children


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.

Marketing


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information


If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.

Choice/Opt-out


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information


Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents


California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure


Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.

Links


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact


Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice


We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020