Well, would you hire a furniture maker as CEO of an OSS vendor?
At face value, it would seem to be an odd selection right? There doesn’t seem to be much commonality between furniture and OSS does there? It seems as likely as hiring a furniture maker to be CEO of a car maker?
Oh wait. That did happen.
Ford Motor Company made just such a decision last year when appointing Jim Hackett, a furniture industry veteran, as its CEO. Whether the appointment proves successful or not, it’s interesting that Ford made the decision. But why? To focus on user experience and design as it’s next big differentiator. Clever line of thinking Bill Ford!!
I’ve prepared a slightly light-hearted table for comparison purposes between cars and OSS. Both are worth comparing as they’re both complex feats of human engineering:
|1||Primary objective||Transport passengers between destinations||Operationalise and monetise a comms network|
|2||Claimed “Business” justification||Personal freedom||Reducing the cost of operations|
|3||Operation of common functionality without conscious thought (developed through years of operator practice)||Steering
|Hmmm??? Depends on which sales person or operator you speak with|
|4||Error detection and current-state monitoring||Warning lights and instrument cluster/s||Alarm lists, performance graphs|
|5||Key differentiator for customers (1970’s)||Engine size||Database / CPU size|
|6||Key differentiator for customers (2000’s)||Gadgets / functions / cup-holders||Functionality|
|7||Key differentiator for customers (2020+)||User Experience
Connected car (car as an “experience platform”)
Connected OSS (ie OSS as an experience platform)???
I’d like to focus on three key areas next:
- Item 3
- Item 4 and
- The transition between items 6 and 7
Item 3 – operating on auto-pilot
If we reference against item 1, the primary objective, experienced operators of cars can navigate from point A to point B with little conscious thought. Key activities such as steering, changing gears and Indicating can be done almost as a background task by our brains whilst doing other mental processing (talking, thinking, listening to podcasts, etc).
Experienced operators of OSS can do primary objectives quickly, but probably not on auto-pilot. There are too many “levers” to pull, too many decisions to make, too many options to choose from, for operators to background-process key OSS activities. The question is, could we re-architect to achieve key objectives more as background processing tasks?
Item 4 – error detection and monitoring
In a car, error detection is also a background task, where operators are rarely notified, only for critical alerts (eg engine light, fuel tank empty, etc). In an OSS, error detection is not a background task. We need full-time staff monitoring all the alarms and alerts popping up on our consoles! Sometimes they scroll off the page too fast for us to even contemplate.
In a car, monitoring is kept to the bare essentials (speedo, tacho, fuel guage, etc). In an OSS, we tend to be great at information overload – we have a billion graphs and are never sure which ones, or which thresholds, actually allow us to operate our “vehicle” effectively. So we show them all.
Transitioning from current to future-state differentiators
In cars, we’ve finally reached peak-cup-holders. Manufacturers know they can no longer differentiate from competitors just by having more cup-holders (at least, I think this claim is true). They’ve also realised that even entry-level cars have an astounding list of features that are only supplementary to the primary objective (see item 1). They now know it’s not the amount of functionality, but how seamlessly and intuitively the users interact with the vehicle on end-to-end tasks. The car is now seen as an extension of the user’s phone rather than vice versa, unlike the recent past.
In OSS, I’ve yet to see a single cup holder (apart from the old gag about CD trays). Vendors mark that down – cup holders could be a good differentiator. But seriously, I’m not sure if we realise the OSS arms race of features is no longer the differentiator. Intuitive end-to-end user experience can be a huge differentiator amongst the sea of complex designs, user interfaces and processes available currently. But nobody seems to be talking about this. Go to any OSS event and we only hear from engineers talking about features. Where are the UX experts talking about innovative new ways for users to interact with machines to achieve primary objectives (see item 1)?
But a functionality arms race isn’t a completely dead differentiator. In cars, there is a horizon of next-level features that can be true differentiators like self-driving or hover-cars. Likewise in OSS, incremental functionality increases aren’t differentiators. However, any vendor that can not just discuss, but can produce next-level capabilities like zero touch assurance (ZTA) and automated O2A (Order to Activate) will definitely hold a competitive advantage.
Hat tip to Jerry Useem, whose article on Atlantic provided the idea seed for this OSS post.