OSS – Are they anonymous, poorly made objects?

We’re surrounded by anonymous, poorly made objects. It’s tempting to think its because the people who use them don’t care – just like the people who make them. But what [Apple has] shown is that people do care. It’s not just about aesthetics. They care about things that are thoughtfully conceived and well made.”
Jony Ive (referenced here).

As you undoubtedly know, Jony Ive is the industrial design genius behind many of Apple’s ground-breaking products like the iPod, iPad, etc. You could say he knows a bit about designing products.

I’d love to see what he would make of our OSS. I suspect that he’d claim they (and I’m using the term “they” very generically here) are poorly made objects. But I’d also love the be a fly on the wall to watch how he’d go about re-designing them.

It’s doing an extreme disservice to say that all OSS are poorly designed. From a functionality perspective, they are works of art and incredible technical achievements. They are this MP3 player:

Brilliantly engineered to provide the user with a million features.

But when compared with Apple’s iPods????

The iPods actually have less functionality than the MP3 player above. But that’s part of what makes them incredibly intuitive and efficient to use.

Looking at the quote above from Ive, there’s one word that stands out – CARE. As product developers, owners, suppliers, integrators, do we care sufficiently about our products? This question could be a little incendiary to OSS product people, but there are different levels of care that I’ve seen taken in the build of OSS products:

  • Care to ensure the product can meet the requirements specified? Tick, yes absolutely in almost every case. Often requiring technical brilliance to meet the requirement/s
  • Care to ensure the code is optimised? In almost all cases, yes, tick. Developers tend to have a passionate attention for detail. Their code must not just work, but work with the most efficient algorithm possible. Check out this story about a dilemma of OSS optimisation
  • Care to ensure the user experience is optimised? Well, to be blunt, no. Many of our OSS are not intuitive enough. Even if they were intuitive once, they’ve had so much additional functionality bolted on, having a Frankenstein effect. Our products are designed and tested by people who are intimately familiar with our products’ workings. How often have you heard of products being tested by an external person, a layperson, or even a child to see how understandable they are? How often are product teams allowed the time to prototype many different UI design variants before releasing a new functionality? In most cases, it’s the first and only design that passed functional testing that’s shipped to customers. By contrast, do you think Apple allowed their first prototype of the iPod to be released to customers?
  • Care to ensure that bulk processing is optimised? In most cases, this is often also a fail. OSS exist to streamline operations, to support high volume transactions (eg fulfillment and assurance use-cases). But how many times have you seen user interfaces and test cases that are designed for a single transaction, not to benchmark the efficiency of transactions at massive scale?
  • Care to ensure the product can pass testing? Tick, yes, we submit our OSS to a barrage of tests, not to mention the creation of modern test automation suites
  • Care to ensure the product is subjected to context-sensitive testing? Not always. Check out this amusing story of a failure of testing.
  • Care to ensure that installation, integration and commissioning is simple and repeatable? This is an interesting one. Some OSS vendors know they’re providing tools to a self-service market and do a great job of ensuring their customers can become operational quickly. Others require an expert build / release team to be on site for weeks to commission a solution. Contrast this again with the iPad. It’s quick and easy to get the base solution (including Operating System and core apps) operational. It’s then equally easy to download additional functionality via the App Store. Admittedly, the iPad doesn’t need to integrate with legacy “apps” and interfaces in the same way that telco software needs too!! Eeeek!
  • Care about the customer? This can also be sporadic. Some product people / companies pay fastidious attention to the customers, the way they use the products / processes / data and the objectives they need to meet using the OSS. Others are happy to sit in their ivory towers, meet functional testing and throw the solution over the fence for the customers to deal with.

What other areas have I missed? In what other ways do we (or not) take the level of care and focus that Apple does? Leave us a comment below.

2 thoughts on “OSS – Are they anonymous, poorly made objects?

  1. Time for a bit of root cause analysis.
    What did Apple NOT CARE about? I daresay the desperate scramble to have the biggest, bestest feature set to sit in the promotional material.
    If a technology vendor pushes out enough apparent capability, no matter how minimally built or shallow in real functionality or difficult to use, and tells you that is super-good then it must be. The temptation is huge – and many give in to it.
    Sadly, history pours fuel on the fire – yes, the holy grail – market share. Apple has a strong band of followers, some almost fanatical, but numbers…?
    The story repeats in other parts of the technology/software industry and I think it isn’t going away.

  2. Hi Steve,
    Exactly right.
    My next blog, scheduled for release, dives a bit deeper into that using a long-tail diagram to help tell the story.
    Your implied question still vexes me though – Do current functionality-based selection / procurement practices in OSS perpetuate the need to tick hundreds of boxes (ie the right side of the long tail), even though many of those functions don’t have a material impact?

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