Understanding your products and your customers: A short essay on the obvious

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Understanding your products and your customers: A short essay on the obvious

Analyst Opinion – Microsoft touches most of us every day, some of us all day with their products – which makes them a perfect model to use when discussing a supplier’s behavior and attitude toward its products and customers. This is not another Microsoft bash rant.

Here’s the case. It is early in the morning and there is no one in the office but my computer, the cats and me. I turn on the computer, it’s four months old and I still like it. It wakes up and has a black screen instead of the blue-green wallpaper it normally has. My reaction: Oh, good morning computer, is this how we’re dressing today?  

Later during the day, something will happen, it will hang, or an update will be forced on me. I will reboot my computer, but, in a way, I’m grateful for these annoying interruptions, because if it weren’t for them, I might not get up at all and refine my pear shaped body and empty my bladder from the excessive amounts of coffee I dump into it.

After the reboot I can hardly wait to see what form my four month computer, with sixteen updates already, will take on this time. Oh look, all the icons are over on the right side instead of their normal position on the left. But we do have a blue-green screen now. How nice.

Now except for the interruption in my amazingly clever train of thought, these breaks and the subsequent surprise of how the computer will look when it wakes up, aren’t life threatening or even all that annoying. But it made me curious.

In speaking to various software engineers about this, they told me – with an air of boredom border-lining on indulgence: “Just some startup program didn’t load or didn’t load correctly. Really, it’s just some start up program.”

To a programmer, who lives with broken code every day and spends his time fixing code, it is life as usual. But what if we used an analogy to another everyday product? Suppose every fifth or sixth time you started your car the windshield wipers came on and wouldn’t turn off. What if you were told that some start program didn’t load and you get the advice to restart the car?

When you are dealing with an enormously complex piece of machinery like a computer, which, as it wakes up, loads 83 processes and services, getting them all of them correctly loaded can be daunting. But how does the average know that there are 83 processes and services, plus applications, running on her/his computer? Well, yes, because I loaded a little utility that comes with Vista (and XP) called Task Manager – that’s why.

Did I mention that my four month old computer has a dual-core processor? Yes it does, two little 64-bit CPUs, and the Task Manager. When it has been woken up, and if it is in a good mood, it will display the load of those two CPUs in little black windows with green squiggly lines like an encephalogram. It’s very techie looking and sometimes I leave it up to impress myself with how techie I am. The cats find it boring. However, sometimes when I call it, only one of the CPU windows is shown. But, just like the other examples, it didn’t hurt me, it did not cause me to lose any productivity other than to think about it. And if I turned the car computer off and then back on, there is no doubt that both little windows would show up. It was just a start up program.

But you know what? As enlightened as I am, and as generous as I am toward the problems Microsoft engineers face, I still think they are less than great, and not so diligent, maybe even lackadaisical. I know this must sting my many friends at Microsoft, and software developers elsewhere, but why dance around it? Microsoft touches us everyday and every day its products make a bad impression. Microsoft failed itself and it failed its customers. And the reason they failed is because they don’t understand their product and their customers. They don’t understand what a poor impression the error in a start up program can make.

I sat in a conference in Germany called CeBIT and listened to a debate about US and German manufacturing and engineering attitudes. The Germans criticized the Americans for building products that were good enough, then they criticized themselves for building products and trying to make them perfect (and thereby adding potentially unnecessary cost and delay.) Nonetheless, if you get a German product, you expect it to be almost perfect and never question its quality. And if you get a US product, software, an automobile, dishwasher, etc., you expect it to be cheap, work pretty well, and fail at some inconvenient time. Imagine that to be an airplane.

Good enough isn’t good enough

Walk in my shoes… be your own worst critic. Fire the QC department for allowing your company to be embarrassed. Oh, but be sure to deliver a profit every quarter and a bigger one than in the last. After all, the president needs another a million dollar bonus, and, if you do well, you might get to keep your job.

I think you can have both: Give your president his or her million dollar bonus and have happy respectful, admiring customers. You can do it by being your customer. Use your product.

Is it satisfying every day, all day long in every way that you paid for? And if not, why not? Some start up program didn’t load? Could it be that you are looking at the problem backwards? Start up a program that makes it mandatory that all start up programs always load as they should all the time. How hard could that be? After all, it’s just a start up program.

Oh, and just in case you thought this was Microsoft rant, it really wasn’t. Microsoft was just an example. Seriously.

Dr. Jon Peddie is the founder of the multimedia market research firm Jon Peddie Research