by Adaptive Path (aka Peter Merholz, Brandon Schauer, David Verba and Todd Wilkens)
I thought my own book took the prize for the longest title, but this one trumps it by an extra yard or two. The title evokes a sense of rapid development in “Internet time”, with requirements changing at a fundamental and product-warping level right up to the release date. A book of that sort would read more like an agile manifesto; a celebration of chaos. However, I’m happy to report that this isn’t that book.
Instead, Subject to Change provides level-headed advice on how to develop new products and services in a world that’s subject to change without notice. The key to the book’s approach is to put user experience at the heart of it all. True, there is a chapter on agile development, but it isn’t quite the gibbering chaos-monger that I’d feared.
The four authors are, variously, co-founders and design experts at Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based consulting firm. My initial worry (in addition to the one above) was that the book would read like one big corporate brochure for their services, or worse a written-by-committee snorefest. Luckily, neither turned out to be the case.
The book begins with a prime example of how a product, in this case
the original Kodak camera from 1888, can come out of nowhere and
redefine its market. What differentiated this product was that its
inventor, George Eastman, didn’t take a typical engineering approach to
its design: had he done so, he would have ended up with an evolutionary
development: something just as complicated as what was already out
there... a bit more compact, perhaps, but with just as many switches
and fiddly bits. Instead, Eastman thought about the user experience he
wanted to deliver, captured in his advertising slogan: “You press the
button, we do the rest.”
The result was a simple to use camera that forever changed photography and also consumer products as a whole.
Fast forward a hundred years, and the book gives another example: by thinking about the user experience, TiVo changed the market, effectively killing off the hideously complicated VCR. The lesson is pretty clear: effective product design isn’t about creating a feature list, or even just trying to differentiate your product (then you end up with a novelty rather than something truly revolutionary); it’s about the users, your customers. The “secret sauce”, as the authors put it, is “to focus on experiences by delving into the complexities of people’s lives, and then to create elegant systems to support them.”
If that was the entirety of the book’s message, you might feel slightly short-changed. Luckily, the authors recognise that there’s a little bit more to it than lashings of secret sauce. They spend a good few chapters building on this lesson. In fact they create a virtual methodology of great advice on how to design products with the customers in mind. They go from building empathy, to a plea to stop designing “products” and instead to think about what people want to accomplish, how this activity fits into their lives, how you can deliver on those desires, and so on. They also discuss how to embed the correct design mindset in your organisation.
Near the end of the book is a chapter on fitting all of this into an agile approach. This chapter begins on shaky ground with an overview of the questionable Agile Manifesto followed by a fallacious skewering of the waterfall method.
However, the chapter then gets back on track with some good examples from industry showing how agile development can work hand-in-hand with a customer experience centred approach.
The final chapter concludes that succeeding in an uncertain world requires continuous improvement: and that means an agile, user-oriented method. It’s also important to see uncertainty as an indication of vast possibilities. The authors then go into a little bit of a sales pitch for Adaptive Path, which is understandable as it’s their book, but if you stop about 2 paragraphs before the end, you’ll come out unscathed.
Overall the book is short and well written. It draws from quality titles such as The Cluetrain Manifesto, Don Norman's Emotional Design, and The Myths of Innovation. Almost every page, it seems, has an example of a well-known product or company that has either been wildly successful, or should have been as it ticked all the right boxes on paper, yet somehow still failed in the marketplace. The authors’ explorations into why these products failed are illuminating, as in fact is the rest of the book.