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Killing Quality, Squelching Success

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Software engineering pioneer Larry Constantine warns designers and developers about the risks of being too good at what they do and cautions managers to mind the organizational factors that can help kill the best products.
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Quality. Innovation. Creativity. Excellence. These are the watchwords of high-tech industry, and we who work in these areas are accustomed to hearing such terms tossed around like salad in a serving bowl. It is the word-salad of modern management-speak that is shouted in conference-room cheering sessions and touted in advertising campaigns. We are exhorted to design and develop world-class products with industry-leading features. We are told to work smarter, not just faster. Quality is job one. Progress is our most important product. Continuous improvement is our mantra. Oh, the slogans we have suffered. And we would like to believe them. We would like to believe that we and our companies are committed to turning soft slogans into hard reality with products and services that leave the competition in the dust and leave us with stock portfolios on which we can retire.

And yet, those of us who are willing to look closely, to scrutinize the actual end product with eyes a-squint and to go beyond merely trying out and playing around with newly released products, we skeptics are often dismayed. The products and the promises are too many times terribly mismatched. The so-called innovation turns out to be little more than mere tweaks or minor twists on overworked themes. Creativity is a crust covering rusty technology. Too often it quickly becomes painfully obvious that key capability has been inadvertently—or purposefully—left out. Somehow, the same dumb design mistakes end up being repeated with each release and with each promising new competitive product, only to be patched with service packs that promulgate their own problems and need, in turn, to be patched. Big fleas have little fleas, and patches have patches to their patches.

The brass ring of product and service quality, the pot of payoff at the end of the development rainbow, is a truly innovative, world-class product that actually costs less and was delivered quickly. You would think that every company in the world would break out the champagne and offer big bonuses for designers and developers who could score on this trifecta of cheap, fast, and good. You would think that the superlative software or system or service would be the subject of profuse public praise and be marketed with all due diligence. You would be wrong.

Sad Songs

Let me share with you a real story about the sad realities of success. As a consultant always bound by non-disclosure agreements, I have to be careful about speaking out of school, but this is a tale worth telling—and worth thinking about. I have changed the names and disguised the details to protect both the innocent innovators and their blameworthy bosses alike, and I hope that I have not, in the process, made the scenario too vague or the picture too fuzzy.

A colleague of mine was recently dispatched on a mission impossible. He is a sort of product paladin, a hired gun who years ago made the mistake of becoming really good at what he does, which is being able to conjure up near miracles in design against almost insurmountable odds, insanely tight deadlines, and hopelessly inadequate budgets. So, he has only himself to blame for his reputation and for the predicament that people have begun to see him as some sort of a Miracle Max who can rescue any design project, no matter how misguided or mismanaged, no matter how overdue, or no matter how badly conceived. Let’s call him Max for convenience.

Max is a creative software and hardware designer with a track record of excellence and innovation in designing world-class, industry-leading products of high quality. (Note how cleverly I worked in the vocabulary words for today.) His mission of mercy in this particular case took him abroad to where he was sequestered in great secrecy at an undisclosed location along with his talented teammates. They were charged with designing an all-new user interface for an expensive consumer product. It is not important to the story to know precisely what kind of a consumer product they were working on, but let’s just say it is larger and more complicated than a toaster oven, smaller and simpler than a corporate jet, and familiar to most of you. (No peaking at the cheat sheet, please.) Oh, yes, did I mention that his client was one division of a vast multinational company and that the product was on the lower end of a line of interrelated products sold under multiple brand names?

Max was given only days to solve a challenging design problem that should have been allocated months or even years. The design constraints were daunting, including having to support highly involved interaction and navigation through many features by way of only a tiny monochrome display and a paltry few buttons.

The smart consultant would have said, “Look, this is impossible. You must be crazy. Call me back when you come to your senses and are ready give me more time and fewer constraints.” Max, however, is stubborn. He insisted on solving the problem. He and his team succeeded with the on-time delivery of a genuinely innovative design that kept within constraints, met all objectives, and exceeded all expectations. It was easy to use, straightforward to understand, efficient to operate, and it even looked classy despite the tight technical constraints. How sad that he succeeded—in spades.

So how is this story sad? What can be wrong with a job well done? The problem is that the design was too good. The corporate geniuses back in the company’s headquarters concluded that it was so good that it would make the more expensive systems in the product line look bad. Rather than improve the more poorly designed interfaces of the high end of the line, they decided that the only right decision was to make the low-end interface worse. Okay, makes sense. Huh?

This tale of stifled success and squandered skill would seem to be exceptional or apocryphal were it not so familiar. I actually know of a number of instances of deliberately killing quality in order not to make other work look bad. This is the opposite of innovation, and the fact that in my modest career I have seen this same drama acted out on multiple stages suggests that it is far more widespread than modern management would like to admit. Instead of being the best that we can be, we are choosing, under perverse decision logic, to deliver deliberately dumbed-down products.

Trust me, this is real. It has even happened to me. More than a decade ago, I was part of a team that used what was then an innovative design process to devise a breakthrough in software tools. The award-winning software product that we developed set new standards for ease of use and efficient operation. It also became the immediate target of concerted efforts to kill it, lest it make other related products look bad.

Some years ago, there was a concerted movement in the software and web industries to shoot for “good enough” solutions. Perhaps what I am talking about is a variation on that theme. It’s calculated off-target product development, aiming low to avoid raising customer expectations, particularly casting more expensive products in a less than flattering light. It’s a bit like the student who deliberately misses some questions on a quiz for fear that he will be expected to repeat the performance on the next test.

Sourcing Success

Here is my hypothesis about the social phenomena of aiming low and abandoning good results. In many cases, the innovators are working in the backwater skunk works on small, under-resourced teams. The higher-end systems that might end up looking bad are better resourced and carry more prestige—which does not mean that they are staffed with better teams or that the incentives for pulling rabbits out of hats are present. It is as much about the people on these more prestigious product lines not wanting to look bad as about product or marketing strategy.

On more than one project, I have been part of small, agile teams that have been able to solve problems in mere weeks or months that the client heavies had been unable to work out with years of effort. Every consultant is familiar with the kind of client who has squandered $3 million getting nowhere but is prepared to spend only $30,000 for you to lead them out of the swamp.

The “too-good-to-try” approach is not the only common technique for killing quality in high-tech products. Another popular murder method centers on politics, personal preferences, and vested interests. My own specialty of interaction design is plagued by another problem that intrudes into the game “Everybody Thinks They Are a Designer.” It is a widely held delusion that absolutely anyone—without training, experience, or qualification—can design a good user interface. Programmers do not typically face this complication, because most managers worth their salary know dang well that programming is tricky and happily leave the programming to the qualified people who work for them. At the very least, most development managers recognize that they can’t do it all themselves.

On another mission impossible project that I worked on, the client firm invested substantial resources in developing an innovative, engaging design using an expert interaction design team, a talented graphic designer, and a substantial implementation team. Using advanced agile design techniques, the combined teams came up with a demonstrably industry-leading design that made competitive products look pale and clumsy by comparison. But the manager in charge didn’t like their solution, so he threw out hundreds of thousands of dollars of work and redid it all himself. The result was a disaster. Having missed an opportunity to lead the industry, the company walked away from the game. The design and development teams were left only with the personal satisfaction of having created a breakthrough, world-class innovation (those words again), even though the world would never see it. The one bright spot was that the manager moved on to other pastures.

Final Thoughts

We should not use these cautionary tales as excuses for satisficing. But, if we do our best, and our best is really good, we need to survey our surroundings and be prepared to fight the dragons that would dumb down our ingenious designs—or squelch them altogether.

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