05013 Software Design: Seeing vs. Thinking

Product Managers find themselves at the center of their company’s debates and decisions on product design. They understand how crucial it is for the software to be well designed, so that it not only does what the market wants it to do, but does it in the way the market wants it to.

Good product design can mean the difference between success and failure. But it’s easy to think in such black-and-white terms. More subtly, good and bad design exists along a continuum, and most Product Managers find themselves working with software that has inevitable design flaws due to rushed release dates and the pitfalls of all-too-unstructured development efforts. Product Managers, by bringing about improvements to a product’s design, have a positive impact that results in a more profitable company.

In the software industry, there are two contradictory directions for product design. The first comes out of the design traditions of more classic products, such as consumer goods. The second stems from the very cerebral, and often very un-artistic, heritage of the computer industry. Software Product Managers feel the pull from both of these directions and must decide whether to choose one, the other, or a mixture of both, and why. Given the impact of design on profits and revenue, this is a key decision.

Read on for a discussion of these two conflicting design directions, and how understanding the benefits and drawbacks of each can help Product Managers guide the team towards the right design choices.


The Eye and the Mind’s Eye

The two competing directions for designing software are either to work on a product that is simple and visual, intuitively understood by its users, or else one that takes a certain amount of logic to understand, requiring users to picture the desired results in their mind’s eye. It’s a choice between a visual and a logical design, each with advantages and disadvantages.

Visual Design

The first direction, visual design, is traditional design that came out of more mature industries. The core idea is that a well designed product should be elegant and simple, so simple and so perfectly suited to the user that the product capabilities are obvious and require no explaining. Users can look at a screen and know everything that they can accomplish with that screen, and the flow of screens makes complete sense to them.

This is a great way to design software, if you can pull it off. The advantages are obvious, and the more your product is oriented to consumers and the mass market, the more important it is to follow this design direction. When software is so easy to understand and use that it just seems to happen naturally, without thinking or planning, you get a loyal and enthusiastic customer base that has nothing but good things to say about your software, increasing your word-of-mouth sales and thereby increasing your profitability due to lower cost of sales.

Logical Design

Logical design, on the other hand, results in a product that is complex and often driven by settings that make it function very differently depending upon choices made and preferences expressed. A cool and useful capability might be just waiting to show up on the home page when you log in, if only you knew it was available by changing a setting.

Conversely, logical design of a product might result in complex screens that are chock full of fields, buttons, and capabilities, but which are intended to be simplified by each user or type of user in order to give them a screen that does just what they want and not a whit more.

This is a great way to design software when your product is for an audience with widely varying and specialized needs, groups which have to all work together in the product. Such use is typical of businesses, but can also apply to consumers, especially a consumer market with distinct segments with overlapping needs. This design direction lets you build a unified software platform to serve multiple customer segments, at a lower cost than if you had to split your product into a product line with specialized flavors, each to be developed and maintained separately.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Like just about every important choice you face in life, each design direction has its strengths and weaknesses. If you want to take advantage of the upside, you’re going to have to plan for the downside and how to mitigate it. If you don’t compensate for the downside, you’ll end up undoing a good portion of the financial benefit you get from the advantages of the direction you have chosen.

When Life Ain’t Simple

Especially in commercial software, the uses to which your customers will put your product aren’t simple, and can never be simplified, at least not when you consider all users as a whole. While a CRM application may have call center reps who need a streamlined way to answer customer questions, the sales reps using the same software need a sophisticated way to understand their customers and pitch new orders to them. And then there are the times when the service rep needs to sell, or the sales rep needs to provide service.

A product which needs to support both sales and service will probably require a single, more complex platform on top of which more simplified flavors can be configured. It requires an extensive and logical thinking through of how certain elements can be shared, how others can be cleanly separated, and how different users can share the same basic data while going about their individual tasks. Trying to simply create an agglomeration of specialized functions that don’t share a common architecture will make it very costly to maintain the product.

But We’re (Almost) All Simple At Heart

Yet even if you’re dealing with a lot of complexity as a whole, each individual user is probably much simpler in their wants and needs. And when they consider purchasing your software they’re going to care most about their own needs, not the needs of others.

The good thing about having different constituencies, in a business at least, is that all the wants and needs converge at the top management or executive level. This makes it easier to sell the benefits to executives, and consequently to get funding for the project.

To Sell It, Help Them See It

If you take the logical direction in your product design, you’re stuck with the fact that in order to sell your product, your prospects are going to have to see how it is simple and streamlined just for what they want to do with it. Asking people to understand the logic behind the product and paint the picture in their mind’s eye will turn off the majority of your prospects.

So in order to sell your product, you will have to build sample configurations that represent the streamlined or dumbed-down screens and capabilities of typical segments of your customer base. Usually you will find that Development will not be capable of or interested in doing this. And most of your sales reps won’t be capable of doing the configuration. This effort will have to come from sales support and implementation consultants. If you’re a startup and don’t have people who specialize in either of these, you’ll need to designate a cross-functional team that can understand the customer needs and the technical tasks required.

These configurations will need to be maintained with each new release, either brought forward automatically (upgrading these configurations makes for great QA testing material) or through painstaking manual re-entry. In either case, you’ll be well served to document the configuration choices, sample users, and screens that result, so that you can verify upgrades or manually recreate your hard work.

Bells-and-Whistles Users

While most of your prospects will warm to visual simplicity when they consider your product, some are power users. Power users want all the bells and whistles, and appreciate the logic of the configuration options. They know they’ll probably be the ones responsible for simplifying things for different types of business users they deal with.

With certain prospects, it’s the power users who carry the most weight in the decision. After all your efforts at simplification, you’ll need to aim part of your message at these users. Your demos will need to include some complexity and configuration options.

Proudly Independent (and All Alone, Too)

A simple product that is geared exactly to one segment of your customers is like a perfect package. But you had better hope that two of your customer segments, each with their own independent product, don’t converge one day. Or don’t discover the benefits of working together using the same software product. Because by creating a separate product, you have lost the ability to share data without creating error-prone data integration routines.

We have seen this kind of convergence in specific businesses, where suddenly component parts, semi-finished goods producers, final goods manufacturers, and retailers all have to work together in one big chain. Or take the case of CRM, which brought the functions of marketing, sales, implementation, and customer service under a single umbrella.

So if your product line is specialized and independent, keep on the lookout for convergence that may be heading your way, because you’ll have a lot of development work to do to meet the new requirements.

A Rosy Garden Path to a Dead End

Going in the visual design direction can be very pleasant. It results in products that customers absolutely love, and relate to immediately, with less costly training and ongoing support needs. But if the market or the industry shifts directions or different segments converge, you have found that you have gone down a pleasant path to a dead end. Makers of software for sales, and makers of software for customer service, found themselves embarking on costly efforts to extend the reach of their one-flavor product, and some simply didn’t make it.

A tax product that whisks you through the whole calculation process in an intuitive, step-by-step manner, only to be incapable at the end of changing direction (changing filing status from married to single, for example) will probably require extensive rework once the ability to make such a switch at any point in the tax preparation process becomes an expectation.

Give Them Something Meaty

Also, while simplicity is elegant and easy, people in certain situations may want something with more content to it, even if that means complexity and configuration. Some situations or uses may never be simple.

Many users love the simplicity of a product in the beginning, but as they develop expertise, they want more sophistication out of the product. A product that is too simplified may prove to be a dead end for them, and you end up with higher turnover in your customer base, which is always costly.

The Siren Song of Complexity

Technical personnel are often in favor of complexity for its own sake. Your Development staff will not be immune to the lure of difficulty. Be sure that when you are designing a product for complex use, that you aren’t overcomplicating things. The more complex the product, the more painstaking and fastidious it is to troubleshoot and enhance it. Too much complexity can hamper your ability to roll out new features as fast as you need in order to keep pace with the competition.

So Which Direction Do You Want to Go?

So now you’ve heard about both directions for product design. You have probably experienced the need for both at different times, often in the same product. You have probably worked hard to move from one type of design to the other, only to discover that the new direction had its own drawbacks. So which direction must you take in order to best serve your market and maximize your product’s profitability? Once you know the answer to that, you can proceed with confidence, knowing both the pleasures and the perils of the outcome.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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