In the year 2000 I was not behind the wheel of a flying car, I didn’t talk to my mom by wristwatch video phone, and my life had not been made infinitely easier with the aid of a robot butler. Instead, I was riding my bike and using diesel-powered transit to get around and was working in a software development office as an analyst and spec writer. The future had arrived, but with less technological panache than my youth had led me to expect.
My world did change that year, though, when a coworker pointed me to an article he stumbled across called Why Great Technologies Don’t Make Great Designs. Products, Scott Berkun argues, are more than the technology inside them. Rather, it’s the value of the experience that the product delivers that gets us excited. This small idea changed my way of looking at product development by putting the experience first and the technology into its proper role as the thing that helps make experience happen.
I was reminded of that pivotal essay twice in the past week, once when reading responses to the preview of Leopard, the next version of the Mac OS, and again when talking with a friend about his past life working in server product development at Microsoft.
Time Machine vs. Shadow Volume Copy
First, about the reactions to Leopard, specifically Time Machine, one of the new features coming to Macs this spring. Time Machine remembers previous versions of any kind of file in your computer, and allows you to go back to that version at any time. So, if you deleted a file that you needed, or you had changed a file in a way that you wanted to go back to, you could.
Soon after the demonstrations ended, Windows enthusiasts, most notably Paul Thurrott, jumped up to proclaim that Windows Server had offered the same technology under the name of Shadow Volume Copy for at least a year, and attacked Apple for being smug about a technology they did not invent.
The critics miss the point by a light year. The innovation here is not automated data backup, which is really the technology we’re talking about here. The innovation is making that technology accessible to people who are not technically inclined. My mom (yes, it’s a mom-test) can understand Time Machine because it provides an experience that capitalizes on familiar metaphors for moving through time, namely backwards and forwards.
The interface bestows a science-fiction inspired feeling and in its simplicity changes disaster into simple remedy. The Volume Shadow Copy interface, or what I could find of it online, provides an intimidating and option-ridden mess that will only make sense to you if you have already used it. So when disaster strikes, you don’t get to act and save the day, you get to go to school:
The technology behind both products is almost the same, and is really quite interesting if you’re interested in that sort of thing. But the quality of experience is a world apart for the average, even the savy person at the keyboard.
Another Mac User Who Bashes Microsoft – Big Surprise
But I’m not done! The Volume Shadow Copy experience does appeal to some people, and according to my ex-Microsoft buddy, that appeal is the secret to why Microsoft maintains its hold on the business market and why Mac will never take it away.
The reason, he says, and I agree, is that Microsoft does deliver the kind of experience that its key customers need: system admins need to be needed. That is, the complexity and obscurity of Microsoft product design allows administrators to become valued repositories of arcane knowledge. They are wizards in their domains, and to put it bluntly, simplicity and reliability would diminish the need for their magic.
I won’t get into whether this is a good or bad way to do things, because that’s not the point I want to make. What I do want to stress is that the value of an experience is determined by how well you meet the emotional and practical needs of the people who use your product. Far from being incompetent, Microsoft has mastered the identification of the customer who matters most to their survival, and has dedicated itself to serving that customer with great success.
Both Apple and Microsoft, in these examples, bring real value to the people using their products because the value is measured not in technical coolness but in human terms. What is value to you is not to the next person, and as soon as we focus on the technology before the people using it, we cease to deliver real value.
Chris Howard reached a similar conclusion with a different approach in his wondering over whether Leopard will actually help Vista by making it look bad.