When 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.