In a fantastic piece for Vanity Fair titled “Microsoft’s Lost Decade“, Kurt Eichenwald examines how Microsoft, once the largest information technology company in the world found itself in an loop of stagnation, forced to sell endless incremental updates of the same set of products to the same customers, rather than innovating and reaching new market. Though Microsoft is still a healthy, profitable business, he offers an example of how far they have “fallen”:
One Apple product, something that didn’t exist five years ago, has higher sales than everything Microsoft has to offer. More than Windows, Office, Xbox, Bing, Windows Phone, and every other product that Microsoft has created since 1975. In the quarter ended March 31, 2012, iPhone had sales of $22.7 billion; Microsoft Corporation, $17.4 billion.
How did we arrive at the point that Microsoft, a company that bailed out Apple just fifteen years ago, could reach a point where a single product outperforms their vast array of products? A world in which Google, a company founded well after Microsoft had dominated the industry is poised to overtake it in market capitalization, and leads Microsoft in all areas in which they compete?
There are many factors at play, but this example for the piece stands out for us as a key point we discuss with clients.
“Most senior people were out of touch with the ways the home users were starting to use computers, especially the younger generation,” one software developer said.
An example—in 1997, AOL introduced its instant-messenger program, called AIM, a precursor to the texting functions on cell phones. Two years later, Microsoft followed with a similar program, called MSN Messenger.
In 2003, a young developer noticed that friends in college signed up for AIM exclusively and left it running most of the time. The reason? They wanted to use the program’s status message, which allowed them to type a short note telling their online buddies what they were doing, even when they weren’t at the computer. Messages like “gone shopping” and “studying for my exams” became commonplace.
“That was the beginning of the trend toward Facebook, people having somewhere to put their thoughts, a continuous stream of consciousness,” said the developer, who worked in the MSN Messenger unit. “The main purpose of AIM wasn’t to chat, but to give you the chance to log in at any time and check out what your friends were doing.”
The developer concluded that no young person would switch from AIM to MSN Messenger, which did not have the short-message feature. He spoke about the problem to his boss, a middle-aged man. The supervisor dismissed the developer’s concerns as silly. Why would young people care about putting up a few words? Anyone who wanted to tell friends what they were doing could write it on their profile page, he said. Meaning users would have to open the profile pages, one friend at a time, and search for a status message, if it was there at all.
“He didn’t get it,” the developer said. “And because he didn’t know or didn’t believe how young people were using messenger programs, we didn’t do anything.”
That last line is key. As a website owner or designer, it is key to understand that you are not the user of the product. Failure to understand the actual user of the product, service or marketing materials can turn any venture into an exercise in futility. While you are building a website that appeases all of the various groups in your organization, appeals to your personal taste in colors or “looks flashy”, you competition will be building products or services that actually appeal to your customers.
We start any new project by building out user personas. Personas are simply put, fictional characters we create to represent the different user types within our clients target demographic. We look for attitudes, behavior sets and user motivations of visitors to the site. Only when we have thought through the reasons why a user is on the site, what they are trying to accomplish, and how they think do we approach actually laying out and designing the site.
What we see from the Microsoft example is that the company determined that how they use their products, how they feel about the brand and what they feel are valid use cases and problems drove their entire approach to product design. By not recognizing that users thought differently then they did, they opened the door to competion willing to look at things from the users point of view.
If you are interested in learning more about how persona based design can take your website or web application to the next level of engagement, feel free to contact us for a free website consultation.