Unintended Consequences

PriusWhen developing requirements for a new product or service, it is common to create personas that define the user and buyer of your products. A “Joe” persona might define a 30-year old IT contractor who floats between multiple job locations and communicates heavily using SMS texting and needs mobile web access. The Apple iPhone might meet those needs. “Heather” could be a 40-year old teacher with 2 kids, who worries about gas prices and wants to make an impact on the environment. Toyota’s Prius would be a good fit for her.

A problem with personas is that you use them to define your product within the worldview of a limited set of buyers or users – the kinds of people you want to be buying or using your product. Unfortunately, your product affects more than just its intended users.

Some of the main selling points for hybrid vehicles is that they use less gas, create less pollution, and are quieter. Now these same manufacturers are currently under fire by the U.S. National Federation for the Blind for being too quiet. Blind people depend on the noise created by passing cars to determine if the road is safe to cross.

“I’m used to being able to get sound cues from my environment and negotiate accordingly. I hadn’t imagined there was anything I really wouldn’t be able to hear,” said Deborah Kent Stein, chairwoman of the U.S. National Federation of the Blind’s Committee on Automotive and Pedestrian Safety. “We did a test, and I discovered, to my great dismay, that I couldn’t hear it.”

The tests – admittedly unscientific – involved people standing in parking lots or on sidewalks who were asked to signal when they heard several different hybrid models drive by.

“People were making comments like, ‘When are they going to start the test?’ And it would turn out that the vehicle had already done two or three laps around the parking lot,” Stein said.

Toyota is investigating the issue.

What if I told you I had a product that, when you used it, people would think you are schizophrenic, and get extremely frustrated when trying to have a conversation with you? That doesn’t sound very nice, but people use this product every day – wireless bluetooth headsets for cell phones. How many times have you been 3 sentences deep into a conversation with someone only to realize that they’re not talking to you? Or seen someone staring blindly into space seemingly talking to themselves before you realized that they were wearing a headset?
As a Product Manager, how can you anticipate those users who you affect with your product even if you aren’t selling to them? Some of it is common sense – you know what your product puts into the environment, such as RF, cigarette smoke, infrared light, or pollution. In many cases, there are regulations that do this thinking for you, such as CE, UL, and RoHS. For software, usability experts can help you consider the aspects of how to make your program more usable by deaf, blind, or other disabled users. One often overlooked segment are colorblind men – some estimate greater than 20% of men are colorblind – a potentially huge unintended consequence if you depend on color. One usability resource I have found especially useful is Jakob Nielson’s Use It site.

You can’t anticipate every possible unintended consequence. The real test is how you and your company react to the problem. This gets into larger issues than Product Management, but discuss this with your Executive team, especially for a large, public product or service. If you have “pre-agreed” that you will pull Development resources off of the Next Big Thing to resolve an unintended consequence, it will save critical days of negotiation that could be better used on an issue.

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  • Reply Susan Lim October 11, 2007 at 11:08 am

    Hi Paul, thank you for your posts. I like a lot of the product management insight you gave.
    I am setting product mgmt as my future career path. Though I am still far from it, I am getting myself prepared.

    I have learnt a lot from your blog. Do continue posting!

  • Reply Bruce McCarthy October 12, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    I have certainly had that odd experience where you see someone talking and you wonder if they are talking to you until you spot the headset. I think that’s what those blinking blue lights are intended for, to warn you someone is on the phone. The don;t work when the person’s head is turned, though.

    Another thing to watch for is products that get used in ways you didn’t intend or anticipate. I once had the responsibility of shutting down an online product whose core customers no longer needed it. (We’d developed a successor product that served their needs much better.)

    What we didn’t know was that there was a small group using it in very different ways whose requirements were not met by the new solution. We ended up keeping the product around for an additional 6 months just for that group while we worked on the features they needed for the new product.

    The good news was this was a market we wanted to break into anyway so the sunset announcement, while it was at first met with anger, turned into some great conversations and an opportunity to gather requirements for the new market.

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