Monday, February 22, 2016

Slower, Weaker, and Less Reliable: the Power of Tradeoffs

The tortoise trades its speed for the protection of its shell.
Image from pixabay under Creative Commons license.
Mediocre product managers find it easy to spec out the next product in their portfolio.  Secret Codename 2 is the same as Secret Codename 1 but faster, cheaper and better in all ways.  This is a great strategy until product launch when all the competitors turn out identical products.  Apparently they had access to the same technological improvements (better batteries, processors, screens, etc.) that you did.  Winner?  Nobody.

The innovative product manager understands that creating truly groundbreaking products is about choosing the right tradeoffs.  It’s true that nothing in life is free.  If you want something that is a step change better in one respect, you must give up something to make that happen.  Making the right tradeoff is the key to innovation.

Most people don’t think about it this way, but this is exactly what the iphone did back in 2007.  There were smartphones back then.   Palm Treos and Blackberries tried to combine a phone that could compete with the popular 12 key Nokias, a mobile internet browser with a touchscreen, and an email machine with a full qwerty keyboard.  The existing products were making the screen a little larger, the earpiece speakers a little clearer, the processor a little faster, and the keyboards a little easier to use.  Everything was just a little bit better which was perfect for the small professional market.

Not true with the iphone.  In order to make the touchscreen bigger and better, Apple decided it was okay to make the phone experience and the typing experience worse; still usable, but worse.  By all quantitative measures, the touchscreen keyboard was slower than a dedicated tactile keyboard, and the phone call quality was worse because the receiver speaker had to be pushed up high above the screen.  But none of that mattered, because the screen was big, and it was gorgeous.  The large touchscreen ushered in the era of the true consumer smartphone for everyone: 90% media and app machine, and 10% phone.

As another example, there’s a story of an HP executive in the nineties who visited the inkjet printer division to shake things up.  He called an all-hands, took out one of their products, and stood on it.  The engineers applauded, proud that they made such quality products.  But instead of heaping on praise, the executive chided them.  “Why would the customer ever need to stand on their printer?” he asked.  This was the start of low cost product design.  Sure, as consumers, we might reminisce upon the days when things were “built to last,” but the truth is that we are all much better off when products are not overdesigned, but designed “just right”.  What is the benefit of a housing that lasts 25 years if the electronics only last 5?  To make an amazing product (one that provides what a customer needs at a price they can afford), the innovation often comes in removing features and derating specs.

So if you want to make an innovative leap, ask yourself, “What can I make worse?”  The ability to make something worse gives you the ability to make something else phenomenally better.  The innovation lies in how you make use of a slower, weaker, less reliable, or less performant product and turn it into an advantage.  So instead of Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger, try thinking Smaller, Slower, and Weaker.