I recently created a Top 100 Best Software Engineering Books, Ever. I created that list…
A year ago, when I bought my new car, I noticed that the knob on the gear stick was loose. I was able to rotate it 360 degrees. I assumed that it was not supposed to be delivered that way, but I didn't care. In fact, while driving my car for a year, I got used to this bug and it turned out that I actually liked it. The knob rotated with the movement of my hand while shifting gears, and I kind of thought that was cool. And I liked fumbling with it while waiting for traffic lights to turn green. (Which, in my country, amounts to a lot of fumbling.)
Well, last week I turned in my car for its first scheduled maintenance. And after I got it back, while driving home happily in my serviced car, I suddenly noticed something was wrong… I was feeling resistance to my fumbling. I was unable to rotate the knob on the gear stick. It appeared that the service guy had fastened it! A jolt of anger shot through my system.
Oh my god, they killed the bug. (You bastards!)
That same day my blogging friend Max Pool posted a video in which he claimed that companies should communicate benefits to customers, not features. Max said a company should not communicate that a styrofoam cup weighs 60% less than a paper cup (a feature) but that the cup is better for drinking (or some other benefit).
I don't agree.
The Only One to Decide What the Benefits Are, Is Me
I really don't care that some company thinks that the styrofoam cup I'm holding is good for drinking. I can decide for myself what its benefits are, thank-you-very-much. I might use the cup to hold the pencils on my desk, or my little bonsai tree, or I could cut it into rings to decorate my X-mas tree. And yes, I might be interested in its weight to see if the cup is able to hold down the insect that is trying to eat my donut.
Learn the Benefits from Your Customers
There was an article in New Scientist recently on the strange things that people do with their mobile phones. Some people use their cellphones as proof of identity (as an alternative to an identity card) or as a money transfer system. Making phone calls is just one of the many interesting things you can do with a cellphone, and Nokia is actively trying to learn from the innovative activities that their customers come up with. Nokia doesn't tell their customers what the supposed benefits are. Nokia tries to learn them!
When you create a product, it is often necessary to anticipate what your customers want. You have to imagine needs and benefits, and design your product accordingly. But once your product is out in the open, being used by your customer, you must stop acting on imagined needs and benefits. You must accept whatever it is the customer is doing with your product. Don't tell your customer how many suitcases the trunk in a car can hold. Just tell the customer what its dimensions and volume are. Whether your customers want to translate that to "number of suitcases", "number of sheep" or "number of dead bodies", is up to them.
The "problems" you fix might be "benefits" for your customer. And the "benefits" you communicate might be seen by the customer as irrelevant marketing chatter. People decide for themselves how to use your product, and you are better off trying to learn from them. You should never assume to know.
Problems or Benefits
I really liked the little problem in my car. The rotating knob on the gear stick was a benefit to me. I possibly had the only car in the world with that feature. But not anymore. Because somebody assumed to understand what my problems and benefits are. And that's a problem, not a benefit.
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