re-stoked: Explains Everything, Excuses Nothing (2/20/15)



Prototyping in Public/for Publicity

"Don't make wireframes," we heard someone say this week. "Make prototypes."

Okay, but...

Prototyping in Public

We love prototypes around here. We love them so much that many people on our holiday lists have gone without gifts because a lot of companies have supplanted formal product launches with something we'll call prototyping in public.

One company's shipment was delayed by two months due to strikes in shipyards in Long Beach, California (just look at this congestion).

Another company announced a new product in the spring that we pre-ordered (and are still SO EXCITED about), only to be told in late summer that the product was without a manufacturer. As of this writing, that product is still unavailable. (Though the CEO has reached out to us to talk about what's up. We'll update when we know!)

There's another device that was supposed to ship in time for Christmas, and then just after, and then now-ish. Still hasn't arrived. It's not the only wearable device that is still on pre-order when it was supposed to be available by now. 

Prototyping as Publicity

And then there was this piece in the New York Times about the real story behind the collapse of Google Glass. 

We appreciate the desire of Nick Bilton to dramatize the fall of what seemed like such a Big Deal coming from Google. They had ostentatious soft-launches, ambitious plans, and of course, Glassholes. So it seems like its demise should be as dramatic as its announcement. But the truth is, that Google Glass "died" the way a lot of products "die" - not with a bang, but a whimper.

Still, the narrative is more exciting when described thusly :

"Mr. Brin knew Google Glass wasn’t a finished product and that it needed work, but he wanted that to take place in public, not in a top-secret lab. Mr. Brin argued that X should release Glass to consumers and use their feedback to iterate and improve the design.

"To reinforce that Glass was a work in progress, Google decided not to sell the first version in retail stores, but instead limit it to Glass Explorers, a select group of geeks and journalists who paid $1,500 for the privilege of being an early adopter.

"The strategy backfired. The exclusivity added to the intense interest, with media outlets clamoring for their own piece of the story. As public excitement detonated, Google not only fanned the flames, but doused them with jet fuel."

In other words, Google did what they often do with new products: an invitation only, exclusive beta of a working prototype. But this time, they chose media influencers to be invited, charged a premium, and entered a high-stakes category with which they had little experience - hardware. To  nobody's surprise, it became a massive media story, and a very public 'failure'. As evidenced by these choice quotes:

"But sky divers and models can only do so much, and the shine started to wear off. Tech reviewers who finally got their hands on Glass described it as “the worst product of all time,” aptly noting that it had abysmal battery life, and that it was “a product plagued by bugs.” Privacy concerns were raised, with people afraid of being recorded during private moments, like at the urinal, as I experienced at another Google conference where I was surrounded by Glass wearers. It was also banned from bars, movie theaters, Las Vegas casinos and other places that did not want customers surreptitiously recording.

"Glass went from being coveted to becoming a punch line."

So Google shut down the beta testing experiment with Glass. Did away with Glass Explorers/Glassholes. Brought in new management on the Glass team. That team will redesign the product from scratch, but sadly, the Times noted, "There will be no public experimentation."


There is an old line from Mark Twain that goes something like this: "a cat who sits on a hot stove lid will not do it again, and that is well, but she won't sit on a cold stove lid, either." This might be called 'overlearning'. Or maybe just "learning the wrong lesson".

The problem with the way Google Glass was handled was not (only) that it was a public experiment, it's that it was a publicity experiment. Other products have similarly launched to great fanfare and failed because the product owners simply didn't know enough of the right information about where their markets were going to be.  This piece at Forbes outlines a few of these examples nicely.  

The Segway, for instance, was tested (to the degree it was tested with customers at all) with one kind of customer - police departments, gas company meter readers, the Postal Service, paramedics - but then released as a general purpose product. The Segway probably should have focused on its best prospects and then learned from real customer feedback and observation what would come next. Because let's face it, $4k is a big price to pay to solve for, let's say, walking when your customers are able-bodied. But the Segway was also a result of Dean Kamen taking a bit of a flyer - the real tragedy is the death of its inspiration, the iBot wheelchair. Of course, that was a story about a product with a real problem to be solved, and real users, but sadly, not enough economic buyers.

But we digress.

Let's go back to those products that didn't ship in time for Christmas. Pre-orders and Kickstarter campaigns are one way of both gauging interest and funding new products. Supplier problems, shipping concerns, etc. are facts of modern manufacturing.  The trouble is, it's hard to scale hardware anyway, and it must be many, many times harder when you're crowdfunding.

We're in favor of prototyping. We believe in the maxim that 'everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face' - and we think that it's important for your plan to include 'let's get punched in the face as quickly as possible'. But when you make prototyping a publicity stunt or your business model, you run real risks of prematurely killing the product either because it isn't ready for a glitzy prime time "launch", or because you'll erode the trust your early customers have in you by failing to deliver.

Maybe the real flaw in the public prototyping approach is that, while product owners have figured out how to fast-track prototypes into the market place (well, mostly), they tend to forget the 'learn' part of the make-test-learn cycle.