Thursday, July 19, 2012

Spare change.

The final straw came during bookkeeping chores this week. I was taking care of some billing through the web-based accounting service to which I’m a paid subscriber. It’s not a chore I enjoy, but there is no business without cashflow, so I endure it. On this day, instead of my familiar dashboard, up popped a cheery little window in front of my data, breathlessly hailing the arrival of a new user interface. Yay! A new thing to learn! A fresh scoop of awesomesauce to distract me from the job at hand and introduce procedural risk to a critical task. And the best part was, I didn’t really have much of a choice. These guys have the billing and payment records for my consulting business. Short of jumping off a bridge, I have to do pretty much what they tell me to. They can still call me a customer, but instead of one who relies contentedly on their brand to make my business work, I am a reluctant, coerced one. For the moment, at least, they’re like the phone company to me.

As I said, though, this was only the last straw. It was not the only one, nor the most egregious. I have these feelings every time I have to go looking for my lists on Twitter, a feature that used to be right up front where I could check it routinely. Or Timeline, a UI train wreck that served to do nothing other than remind me that Facebook is in it for Facebook. Or the average of 20 iPad apps a week that demand updating, with the same sort of disingenuous cheer and vague promises as my accounting service (never mind trying to find one on my device, after some bored Chief Awesomeness Officer decided it needed redesigning). Or my online bank, who forces me to watch animated advertising tricks on their home page before they let me log in. I could go on. If you’re a non-nerd living the digital lifestyle, you’re already nodding.

We live in what is trying to be The Great Epoch of the Product. In some quarters, marketing isn’t widely regarding as a high level skill anymore, and branding is dismissed by digital carpetbaggers as yesterday’s game. What matters, say the vanguard, are awesome products. If you build one, they will come. Money spent on dev adds value, where marketing is just an expense, they intone between sips of Red Bull. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had to stand in such a hurricane of twaddle in my life. There simply could not be a worse time to make the product king.

There was an Epoch of the Product, mind you. It took place largely in the first half of the 20th century, when the financial barriers to R&D and manufacturing were so high and patent laws so effective that a company really could win on the strength of what it made. This, I hope it’s obvious, is no longer the case. Even for laundry detergent and televisions, differentiation is incredibly difficult to accomplish and harder to discern. And when it comes to digital things, well, to be digital is to dance on the edge of commodification almost by definition. Add in the fact that the development tools are so accessible – this is a point of pride in digital culture – and it seems like a narcissistic delusion to imagine that any product can be so good as to protect its hegemony on functional merit alone.

That’s what marketing is for. And the most important thing about marketing is that it demands you put the consumer at the center of your process. You will not deserve to get rich by showing off your killer coding skills. But you might if you give a fig about the human at the other end of that code, the one who is trying to solve a problem. You might if you’re empathetic about the place you have in their lives, and what “better” might mean to them. You might if you remember that a sustainable business revolves around a happy sort of dependency, the kind built on trust rather than on gotchas. Nor does the aspiring digital entrepreneur have to look back a half century for inspiration. The two darlings of this age, Google and Apple, are brilliantly slow, sensitive and careful about what they change. Google’s landing page is famously sacrosanct. Apple rarely, rarely compels you to change anything fundamental about your computing life, unless out of sheer lust for a new thing. They understand both the theatre of confidence, and the fact that change has a cost and therefore must have an ROI. Better is not always better, especially if every improvement is a destabilizing moment in the customer relationship.

Anyway, I could rant about this all day, but I should probably sign off. Bouncing up and down on my dock is a little red Adobe logo, which is kind of distracting. Apparently, they think now would be a good time for an update to my PDF reader. Yeah, I’ll get right on that. I bet it’s awesome.