In my second product development job, I quickly learned that engineers are both valuable and problematic. Valuable in their willingness to work hard, problematic in their dogmatic stubbornness and knee-jerk responses. In that role, I decided two things about engineers:
1) When an engineer tells you that something cannot be done, you'll spend the next week trying to figure out whether the limitation is the technology or if the engineer is telling you that they just don't want to do the thing you're asking. Most of the time, it's the second objection and not the first.
2) When an engineer tells you that something can be done, it will most likely be confusing and difficult to use. Think of programming a telephone using DTMF: the PBX is the ultimate engineer-designed product filled with services and features that less than 1% of users even know about and only 0.1% know how to access.
My professional world is very different than that of an engineer. As an analyst, a marketer and as a nonprofit director; products are only as good as the applications customers make of the technology. So if something is confusing, doesn't work well, or has no battery life -- then it's useless.
Taylor also points out that users and engineers have different tolerance levels for poor or inadequate design. Users will walk away pretty quickly, whereas engineers will stick around a long time to try to figure things out.
I agree with Taylor's argument here. Engineers are not the best drivers for usability. But I also don't think that pushing engineers into silos that are driven by the often short-sighted business side of operations works all that well either.
Taylor argues that those building mobile business devices need to be more customer focused:
I don't claim to know what every user wants. But our industry has numerous vocal technophiles. What's missing is the people I meet every day. I'm talking about IT managers who are overwhelmed by confusing technology. And I'm talking about users who give up when things get hard.
Give up. Stop using. Ignore the feature. Just use the phone to make telephone calls. That's what users do.
We need to stop throwing technology (and technical explanations) at customers. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. And we need to stop letting engineering suffice for product development.
I think he is partially right here. Sure, smartphone makers and mobile application developers need to listen to IT managers and end-users. But, I also think that leaving product development solely to user input is insufficient. Great product innovations often come more from people who focus on solving one problem and solving it well than those who endlessly collect customer data all day long. As Henry Ford so famously quipped, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."
In order to build mobile business devices and applications that people will actually use, you need a more organic, cooperative approach that allows engineers, usability experts, and businesspeople to work in tandem to create great products. The emphasis must be on products. Taylor is right to stress that these products must be focused on the end users, but the product itself is what matters most.
This organic, product-centered approach is Google's strategy for app development, and it works. Build the best, easiest-to-use products and you win.
When it comes to mobile device and application development, maybe it's time technologists actually started trying to mimic Google rather than just constantly obsessing about it.
What do you think? Is Taylor right? Or is he trashing engineers for no good reason?