Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Leadership and the User Experience: Is there a relationship?

With the changes at Apple – Steve Jobs stepping down for awhile, it has me thinking about the relationship between leadership and the user experience.

I have had the privilege of working for a number of great high tech companies in the last twenty years. I have been part of teams at Adobe, Cisco, Sun, Second Life, Borland, Alcatel-Lucent and more. At most of these companies, there was a specific focus on the user experience.

My Favorite “Apple” Story
I didn’t get to work at Apple in the heyday (just a little too young) but I have worked for a number of incredible people who were there in the early days and they tell some good stories. One always stands out in my mind: apparently early on Jobs was working on the Macintosh and wanted to see what end users thought of the design. He put 10 people in a room and they all said the on/off switch was in the wrong place. His lesson to his team: “people behave similarly. It doesn’t take a huge study to find that out.”

I have no idea if the story is true but is passes down as a folk tale with a good lesson. Jobs’ single-minded focus on the user experience set the pace for the company and his allowed them to deliver incredible products over the years including the rebirth of Apple with the iPod and iPhone.

Last One to Leave Lotus, Turn Out the Lights
When I joined Borland in the late 80s, we were a bunch of whippersnappers focused on knocking Lotus off the block. What was our competitive advantage? Our singular focus was user experience (and a killer direct marketing strategy). We all knew the only way to beat Lotus was to make our spreadsheet easier to use – intuitive – and it worked (and you could find bumper stickers sporting the headline above all over our building!).

We got so good at it that we then went after Ashton-Tate in the relational database space. Our leader, Philippe Kahn set out his clear vision and we all marched determined to free our end users from the constraints of the software giants and a miserable user experience.

Are PowerPoint Users Graphics Professionals?
At Adobe, the leadership there had a similar impact on the user experience but with different results. I arrived when Warnock and team were still highly focused on the graphics professional. It was his passion and the product reflected it. The user experience was based on creating digital replicas of the tools graphics experts used to use non-digitally. And Photoshop and Illustrator sold well as a result.

But things got tough when “management” decided we needed to reach new markets. We needed to “simply” our products to entice Microsoft users. Not a bad strategy to build market share but the in the transition, no one bothered to adapt the user experience to these new users.

Instead, the team decided to simplify existing products – think Photoshop Elements – but use the same graphic professional lingo and toolset. I have no idea how many units of Photoshop Elements the company sells, but I can tell you if they had adapted the product with features and language that match what business users are used to, they would sell more. In fact I wonder if it didn’t backfire and erode some of their Photoshop high-end market as graphics professionals figured out they could get 50% of the features at one-tenth the price.

Leadership Can Improve the User Experience
So what’s my point? I believe leadership is essential for creating a great user experience. With a clear commitment from the top – if not the vision, at least the drive – the rest of us know what to do. We understand who we are creating products for and how to set priorities and make decisions. The best feature in the world doesn’t matter if the user can’t find it.

Do you have a story from your experience? We would love to hear about it.