Have you forgotten how to get better?

trust snape
Creative Commons License photo credit: mararie

Recently I had a tech conversation with someone I’ve known for at least a decade and have great respect for.

During a dumb conversation we didn’t even start, we disagreed about spaces in file names and software that doesn’t support them.

My friend is like the NORAD of user interface look and feel.

His work is beautiful and well-tested. If there’s a pixel off, he can see it at 100 yards and it’ll make him crazy until fixed. He noted that every language has syntax rules and if you disobey them, you get bit. The programmer side of me is rather well aware of that, but that wasn’t the side doing the talking.

What concerns me is the ever-present support for what once was in an industry that should be supporting what is, much less what will be.

Defense of the dark arts

It’s so easy to be trained to have low expectations.

Once folks are trained to accept less, some will defend it because it’s their normal.

The guy who started the space conversation was scolded by some of his peers for not playing by outdated rules and for making note of the shortcoming.

That’s why the space in the file name is such a good example. Spaces have been appearing in file names on Windows since Windows NT 3.5 arrived in 1994. For most Windows users, the first experience with these file names came with Windows 95. Worst case, the public has had access to software that can use file names with embedded spaces since at least August 24, 1995.

That’s 17 years,  one month and 12 days (and counting). Yet we’re still defending the inability to deal with it.

Why it’s important

When you turn the left faucet on a sink in the U.S., you expect hot water to appear. It’s an expectation set by standard behavior on almost every sink you’ve used.

Once you encounter a faucet that’s installed backwards (hot on the right), you automatically distrust the next one. And how many more?

Users become accustomed to the behavior of the products they use whether they’re using software or a screwdriver. When the failure to support common industry behaviors shows up in your product, it makes some of your customers wonder what other expectation failures should they be looking for.

Just like that, expectations are lowered and with some, the opinion of everything you do.

Are you willing to risk that?

Reinvention gone wrong

At odds with this risk is reinvention.

Hipster effect” aside, Apple products sell well in part because almost anyone can figure out how to use them. They’ve reinvented common products that by “conventional wisdom” couldn’t be improved.

Yet their iTunes software is the exception to that – illustrating the risk I mentioned.

Of all Apple products, iTunes is the least favorite among Windows users. iTunes has a knack for ticking off users in no time because it doesn’t “work like other Windows apps”, particularly where user feedback is concerned. Many Windows users won’t buy Apple products because of their experience with iTunes. Even Apple “fanbois” have trouble apologizing for it.

Unless you reinvent in a way that’s “Wow, so obvious, where has this been all my life?”, your reinvention (or lack of it) reflects on everything you do.

Expectations are powerful but fragile. Those who star at reinvention know they’re at risk, but the risk of standing still is far higher.

Inbox, railcar, udder, backlog

Where does that leave you? Your day is focused on emptying that inbox, railcar, udder or product backlog.

As you grind through day’s tasks, you’re likely focused on producing today’s revenue built on the last century’s expectations. Rightly so, since bills and payroll loom. Yet that daily effort is no more important in the big picture than carving out quality time to plan and produce for tomorrow’s customers and their expectations.

The type of change I’m speaking of goes well beyond the essential task of continuously improving day to day processes and outcomes.

Look hard at your advances in the last two years. Are they substantial or marginal?

Let’s define substantial: What would have to happen to your business to enable your products/services to produce 10 times more high-quality results for your customers?

Have you forgotten how to improve?