Thursday, February 28, 2008

Should reviews weigh into your product design?

In software we pay close attention to product reviews. Let's face it, reviews influence sales, but to a degree. I think good design - good in the eyes of your target customer - matters more. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I have laptop envy for the new Macbook Air. I've always owned a Windows machine, but all the cool kids here in California have Macs, and they're growing on me. Especially when the guy sitting next to me on the plane and I opened our laptops at the same time. Me on WinXP and him with his Macbook. He was crunching sales figures instantly, while I waited another 7 minutes for Windows to boot and Outlook to start. But I digress. What held me back from buying a Mac was that they are so big (I spend a lot of time on the road), and the battery life (I know people who carry 3 or 4 batteries just to keep their Macbook alive for a four hour flight). The Airbook is light, the perfect size for travelling, has a great screen, is strong, and is just so sexy!

But the Air is getting lukewarm reviews from the experts, who say the reliance on WiFi was a bad idea. Where's the DVD-multi-CD-rewritable-superdisk-burner? What if I want to watch a movie in flight? Apple is betting on a wireless world, and their target customer is going to be more apt to download a movie from iTunes than watch it on a DVD, or pick the download option to install Photoshop rather than trek over to Best Buy, and I agree. The DVD drive, and even the Ethernet port, will be an anachronism sooner than we think. Apple had a vision for building the slimmest laptop in the world, not a pretty-darn-close-enough slim laptop with an Ethernet port.

I found this great quote in Tom Kelley's book, the Art of Innovation - "We learned that the public and even supposed experts are often not he best judge of which features need to disappear. Refining products is not a popularity contest. You have to take risks and you will alienate some people. For example, a number of reviewers criticized Steve Jobs for not including floppy drives in iMacs and iBooks. But they missed the point. The iMac was designed to catch the Internet wave, and a floppy drive would have demanded extra space, fattened the price point, and focused on soon to be obsolete technology. Jobs wisely decided that the machine couldn't look like something from the Jetsons yet be weighed down with eighties technology."

That was about the iBooks, which were released several years ago. How quickly we forget, but obviously Apple remembered the lesson well.

Here's another example. Last week I had the chance to rent a Prius for $1 more a day than a Kia. I've never driven a Prius and had to try it - I'll try anything once. You have to understand I'm a die-hard car guy, and the Prius is not exactly a car-guy-car. It's loathed in the hot-rod circles and dissed by the "serious" car magazines. Now, I do respect the planet, and I try to do my best to be conscious of the environment, but I have a serious car addiction. I have a mid-70s Pontiac with a 400 and a 4bbl carb, and no cats. You can actually see the gas gauge moving when you drive it. Every time I drive it, I'm sure I make a dent in the ozone layer and further the war. But I digress...

What did I think of the Prius? I loved it! It's a whole other kind of car geek fun. After I figured out how to start it (here's a crash course, so you don't have to look it up like I did: step on the brake, stick the key-fob into the toaster-looking slot in the dash, and press the On button. If the dash says "Ready", you're ready to go), I was having all kinds of fun trying to maximize my mpg - watching the little screen showing me when I was using the electric motor, and what my mileage was. I remember the auto journalists, like the guys at Car & Driver (admittedly one of my favorite magazines), were pretty down on the Prius as being full of gadgets. They much preferred the more mainstream-looking Honda Civic. Well guess what? In 2007, Toyota sold about 181,000 Priuses. Honda sold 32,000 Civic hybrids.

What did Toyota know that the reviewers didn't? 1) People wanted to feel like they were driving an electric car with a small gasoline motor, not the other way around - the On button and all the gadgetry makes you feel like the Prius is really an electric car, and the gas motor is just along for the ride. And more importantly, 2) People who drive Priuses want the world to know it. Dammit, you're saving the planet, and guys like me chewing up 10mpg should feel ashamed for not driving one also. It should look and feel like a Hybrid, not like a Camry with a little Hybrid badge.
So take what the reviewers tell you and put it in the mix, but don't rely on it as the gospel, and as a substitute for observing users, prototyping often, taking chances, and failing quickly.

1 comment:

Gaspar Andujar said...

As a Mac user and a Prius owner, I welcome you to the light side of the force...

I was a Windows user forever, and after using MacOS I am never going back. As well as with the Prius... Mine has over 80k miles already and I am pretty sure that my next car will be another Prius.

I agree with what you say... you definitely feel smarter using both the Mac and the Prius. I don't have the use (nor the budget) right now for a Macbook Air, but as long as my 3yr old iBook doesn't die, I am pretty happy. The only downside I've experienced is the small HD. My iBook's HD is smaller than my iPod's!!

But anyway, good review for both gems... I invite you to try the iPhone... you're gonna go nuts!