Designing products is not like making movies, although today it seems to be moving in that direction. My friend Don, who spent 30 years in Hollywood as a film editor, sometimes felt like he was abandoned at the end of each major project and left to his own to find his next gig. Fortunately for him, he has amazing talent, and it became easier each time a project finished to find his next position. Over the years, he eventually worked for every major Hollywood studio. His last job was on the popular, long running series, called “Murder, She Wrote“. When you work on a long-running series, you don’t have to worry so much about what will happen to you after the season is over. There is always the next season to look forward to.
Designing successful products, if it has anything in common with Hollywood, should be thought of more like a long-running and popular series as opposed to a blockbuster movie. Each successive generation needs to build on the last generation like a foundation and, if you continue to do things right, everyone will know about your product. You don’t simply design a product, promote it like it’s going to be a blockbuster, and then abandon it if it fails to meet expectations, yet it is common to treat new product introductions like this in high tech industry.
There have been instances where popular TV series, both Seinfeld and The Office come to mind, struggled to find their audiences before they took off. People often forget the first tentative steps a successful series may take prior to what appears to be its apparent ‘overnight success’. Had the people who created these series cut and run at the first sign of struggle, we may never had heard of them.
Each generation of product has an opportunity to build on the strengths of its predecessor, eliminate its weaknesses, and hopefully establish a loyal following. You wouldn’t tell the people who worked on each season of a TV series that you won’t be needing them again and they’re now free to leave and then scramble to hire a new cast for the next season. Similarly, a product development company must give the cast of characters who work on a project some incentive to stick around to work on successive generations. You want to avoid starting from scratch with each product generation and having to relearn everything over. If the only thing in store for the team at the end of the design cycle is a pink slip, they may decide to beat you to the punch and jump ship midway through the project.
The reason I’m writing this is because I’ve noticed a trend in the industry where companies try to create blockbuster products and if they don’t catch on immediately, they lay off the participants and move on to the next big thing. But successful product design doesn’t work that way. If you create and then quickly abandon products, you also abandon the products’ customers, and they will think twice before investing their time, energy, and trust in you again. Not only that, the knowledge accumulated in the design process is extremely valuable and it’s not written down neatly in some manual you can refer to next time. It’s in the heads of the people who poured their hearts and souls into creating the product.
If you want to be successful in creating products, you need to start with the expectation that your product will be around for a few generations before it hits its stride. It’s not a good idea to hastily throw something together and get it out to customers to ‘see if it sticks’, because if you do, your lack of commitment will shine right through, and the only thing that ‘sticks’ will be a damaged reputation and the foul taste you’ve left in the mouths of customers who were naive enough to trust you.