Two shoe salesmen visit a remote island to discover its market potential, but it turns out the people walk around in bare feet. Disappointed, the first salesman phones back the news.
"They don't wear shoes," he says, and takes the next flight home.
His competitor is also straight on the phone to head-office. “Send all sizes makes and styles,” he says, with glee, “They don't wear shoes."
Thus a market, previously unexploited, is opened. A people, unaware they needed shoes, slowly become dependent upon slithers of leather between them and the road, and not a single user was consulted in the process.
The story highlights a difficulty for product development. The user is not always king, and consultation is not always the wisest decision. It takes an innovator to see product development from a “What is possible,” perspective and the innovator is unlikely to volunteer for the user consulting panel.
But who decides which features to add to a software product and why? Asking the user is all the rage – as much to gain their acceptance as to tease out new features – but in contrast to the early days of software development, when the user was not consulted, sessions now mix users with technicians in a melting pot of ideas and creativity – or that's the idea that I’ve been proclaiming for the last twenty years.
Users have multiple interests and development teams can be pressured into satisfying whims. They can also run off in high-jinks implementing features they dreamt of in the shower. It is easy to make software dual-purpose, and all too tempting for product owners to target multiple interest groups with one product – of course the user wants it. Word processing packages can be used as database query engines, mail-shot managers, web-browsers, translators, dictionaries and are even passably good at word processing.
And there is another reason software products are bloated with features most of us never use; the box appeal. The user is not consulted — or at least not an average user — but the company wishes to show that its new software has been updated with features you cannot be without, so part with your money, or download the next, greatest ad-supported version. It is not the user that asks for disappearing menu items or animations when the mouse passes over a button; this is the work of the marketing department desperate to show the Apps do not wear out like shoe leather, and we have become slaves to an upgrade culture that demands we download the same product over and over.
If it was otherwise, and products gradually slowed and stopped working, the vendors wouldn't add features to seduce us, instead, they would rely on the natural re-purchase cycle and produce products fit for one primary purpose. The products would not try to be all things to all people and would, in all probability, be fitter for purpose.
But we are a world of consumers. We do not recycle; we throw away; we do not repair; we replace For shoes it means we buy again before it’s absolutely necessary, but for software we replace for no reason whatsoever. Deep within, we suspect the tools we use are not as good as the latest releases, we watch as friends and colleagues apply the changes, and though we scoff, the vendor's claims scratch our pride and we convince ourselves of the benefits of the newest software.
But as Bertrand Russell said, "The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd."