Here's something I wrote for the Rubicon newsletter. It's relevant here.
One of the advantages of working as a consultant is that you get to look at the big picture across corporations. You can see trends and common themes that might not be obvious to somebody working in a single company.
A theme that’s become very clear lately is the tech industry’s difficulty telling the difference between “how” and “what” when designing products.
Most of our companies tend to focus on building what I call “how” products. That means products that focus on enabling technologies to let people do a wide range of tasks. For example, building a web browser and a WiFi connection into a product that doesn’t currently have them is a classic “how” move, because it enables the user to potentially do a lot of different interesting things.
As technophiles, we’re all very good at figuring out how to make use of a “how” feature. For example, we’ll say, “Gee, with a browser and WiFi in that product, I can install Skype and use it as a free mobile phone.” Then we’ll go out and find the Skype client, install it, maybe tune the configuration a bit, and sit back in amazement at how cool our industry is.
The problem with the “how” approach is that normal people don’t think this way. They are much more focused on “what,” as in “What does the product do for me?” Because they don’t understand technology at a deep level, they can’t see the possibilities created by a great enabling technology. And even if they could see the possibilities, they don’t have the skills necessary to adapt it to their needs. Even an (allegedly) simple act like pairing a wireless device to an unfamiliar WiFi router can be enough to give a typical user hives.
In competitive situations, “how” products usually lose to “whats”...
To read the full article, click here. (There's no charge or registration required, but I wrote this one on company time so it's only fair that I link back to their site.)