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The challenge of defining what people want

I think John Gruber has issued a somewhat oversimplified argument when he says:

…people want more different native apps than ever before.  via daring fireball

I think any designer needs to be careful to not conflate the mechanism used to achieve a desired result with the result itself. Gruber’s assertion here is that users want native applications. I believe that what he is really saying is that users want responsive applications, that work while disconnected from centralized services, and that show up on their home screen. Those are not web apps as they are available to us today, but as in anything in the software world that is a flexible assumption.

My point here is a relatively minor one, but one that can be a common roadblock for creative problem solvers. If we don’t question the assumptions of the underlying mechanisms we will unnecessarily limit the potential solutions available to us. Sometimes the most obvious and straight-forward solution to a problem is found by questioning the underlying assumptions. Technology problems are sometimes solved by changing the personnel around them, or personnel problems can be solved by augmenting the situation with technology. Emotional problems can be solved with exercise, and your exercise limits can be overcome by understanding that your current limitations are psychologically imposed.

If we assume that the solution to responsive disconnected applications can be nothing other than compiled Objective C delivered through a curated app store we cut ourselves off from a wealth of potential solutions to the problem. Only in redefining and clarifying our users unarticulated needs are we able to break through creative barriers and deliver truly ground-breaking technological innovation. Granted I love native applications and “want more different native apps than ever before”. I think John’s statement is true for today, but that it’s an assumption that should constantly be challenged and revisited. We can’t simply condense the current failure of web apps to deliver on users needs to be a condemnation of the entire pursuit.

Solve problems the way they want to be solved

via flickr user origamijoel

Most folks have a preferred problem solving method. Some know this, and stick to those well worn forumulas. Some don’t, or forget, or let the fear of missing out trick them into going after opportunities they shouldn’t. One of the keys to successful problem solving is to understand your natural approach and when that approach does or doesn’t fit the problem you are considering addressing.

Let’s look at Apple Maps as an example. With almost unlimited resources and skilled/motivated workers why couldn’t Apple seem to make Maps just work? I believe the primary reason is that their culture doesn’t value the type of work it takes to create a killer solution to that problem. Apple is very good at giving designers time and space to come up with brilliantly innovative solutions to problems. Elegant solutions are coveted. Wherever possible a solution is simplified rather than made more complex.

Unfortunately Mapping is not a simple problem, nor is it one that can be reduced. (see the traveling salesman problem) Instead of one single elegant solution to a large problem, mapping requires many small imperfect solutions. Google is willing to embark on a massive, inelegant solution to a complicated problem. (Remember their company was founded on the premise of “downloading the internet” so you could easily search it)

Finding point A on a map and getting directions from point A to point B doesn’t need to be perfect or elegant, it just needs to work. Apple as an organization has never been satisfied with making something just work (ironic given some of their historical marketing efforts). Unfortunately the solution to make maps “just work” is to add a parenthetical “even if it’s inelegant like driving around taking pictures of every street in the world” to the solution.

The reason that Apple isn’t able to create a successful mapping product is because their culture won’t let them do the kind of work necessary to create a successful product.