Something that I’ve found useful on a couple of recent projects and I recently heard echoed in 37 Signals’ rather brilliant Getting Real book on product development (now being given away as a free PDF – read it!) is the technique of thinking about what your product isn’t rather than what it is.
With 37 Signals, they set out with the vision to create a project management tool that wasn’t Microsoft Project. They describe Project as a project management ‘Dictator’. They wanted their product, Basecamp, to be the anti-Project. They’re product wouldn’t offer charts, graphs, reports and statistics. Instead it was about democractising project management and providing a tool that helps people communicate.
I’m working on two products at the moment. The first is a an iPad app – Atlas by Collins. We’re building it for Collins Geo who make The Times Atlas of the World and the app will feature content from The Times Atlas as well as others.
What Atlas by Collins isn’t
The product is a globe onto which you can plot data. Sounds a bit like Google Earth. But that’s exactly what it’s not. We don’t just want people to use our product to show data. We want them to Tell A Story.
Since we stopped thinking about giving Collins Geo a tool to let them visualise data on a globe and instead started to think about how we enable them to tell a story using a globe it has helped us focus on what is important and what our product roadmap needs to be.
It means that we’re not tempted to bloat the product with features that on initial impression seem obvious. For example, the original feature list includes: you should be able to add favourite places. You should be able to turn different kinds of points – airports, mountains, cities etc. – on and off.
Neither of these help you understand a story you are being told and so we’ve decided not to included them and the product feels simpler and easier to use because of it. It’s up to the story teller to decide what’s important.
What Glide Publisher isn’t
The other project I’m working on is a new publishing platform for tablet and mobile called Glide Publisher. From the start it’s been clear to us what our product isn’t. It’s not Adobe Publishing Suite. Or the many tools that allow book and magazine publishers to use InDesign to create iPad applications.
Adobe Publishing Suite is aimed at designers. Glide Publisher is aimed at story tellers and editorial people. APS allows each page to have a different layout and UI. Glide Publisher provides a consistent UI. APS is about creating pages. Glide Publisher is about telling stories. APS is about fitting into the existing design work flow. Glide Publisher is about fitting into the existing editorial work flow.
Again, this makes it clear what features are important and what doesn’t matter. The best way to make a usable product, one that has a personality and clear focus is to say ‘no’ to as many features as you can. And knowing what you’re not makes that easy.