November 25, 2005

Attenuate Goliath’s User Interface Strength

Posted in David vs. Goliath, management at 8:41 pm by scottmaxwell

This post is part of the overall posting “How Can David Beat Goliath?- Strategy #7: Attenuate Goliath’s Strength“:

Regardless what technology platform you decide to implement (I addressed the large company’s technology platform strength previously), the user interface is an independent issue. I contend that the user interface (UI) is the single most important piece of technology in nearly all software or Internet companies and probably also has the greatest opportunity for improvement! The more frequently the user uses the UI, the more important the UI is to the overall platform (and, in general, the more valuable the platform is to the user). Over time, user comfort with the UI creates some level of vendor lock-in, as the user interface becomes a natural part of the user’s day.

In situations where the large company already “owns” the user interface, what can the emerging growth company do to minimize the large company’s strength?

Attenuating the large company’s user interface strength…

The emerging growth company has a few options for addressing this situation:

  1. Embrace and extend the UI already in place. For example, Microsoft Office and Firefox on the Apple PowerBook are probably my most important user interfaces for just about everything that I do. Someone building software for me would do well to integrate their user interface into Office and/or Firefox, since I am comfortable with both. Just so that I am clear, just having a browser application is not what I mean by embracing and extending…you have many opportunities to make the user interface much better through deeper integration with the user platform. This approach does not necessarily minimize the large company’s user interface advantage, but it does at least allow you to align yourself with this advantage.
  2. Target customer segments not using the large company user interface or who do not want to continue using the user interface. I have discussed this concept already in earlier posts, so I won’t repeat the thoughts here.
  3. Create a look and feel similar to the large company user interface. As users become comfortable with a particular user interface, the approach becomes more and more “intuitive” to them. If you can align your user interface with an approach that they are already comfortable with, then you stand to make your product feel more intuitive. For example, if someone was building a user interface for me, they would be well served to make the user interface resemble the Microsoft Office look and feel (without violating any legal restrictions!).
  4. Make it easy and fun!! – Create a radically better experience for your target customer segment. As an experienced user of many software interfaces, I believe there are huge opportunities to improve the user interface experience in many ways for all of your users. If you focus on their needs, you could gain a significant advantage over the large company. For example,
    • The UI can benefit by being connected to one or more services in the cloud and/or being automatically connected to other users (data/voice/video and synchronous/asychronous are all potentially part of this idea), regardless of whether it is a browser application or a rich client application. There is an endless set of possible application, data, and networking services that would benefit the user, so I won’t start trying to list them here.
    • Every user interface can benefit from allowing the user great feature/function regardless of whether they have a network connection (Research In Motion, makers of the Blackberry, has done an outstanding job of this!!). This includes features that utilize the network when connected but can also be used when not connected. Also, when connected they should synchronize automatically.
    • Every UI can benefit by being available on different interface devices that might be used to interact with the software. For example, desktop computers, PDA, smart phones, telephone keyboards, and voice commands via the telephone. This seems somewhat “out there” at this point, but will probably be more commonplace in a few years for many user interfaces. (Note: UIs should really be available as rich clients and browser applications, but the development environments have do not make this easy at this point. I expect that at some point in the future, the two concepts converge, so perhaps this will be a diminishing issue as time goes on.)
    • The UI can benefit if the developers really develop from the user point of view. This includes how many clicks necessary for a user to perform a certain task, how much time the user is waiting for the application to finish a task, and how easy it is for the user to understand what keys to press to perform a task.
    • All UIs can benefit by delivering information to the user that is better organized, has visualization options, and can be viewed in many different angles and at more summarized or detailed levels.

In my view there are great opportunities for emerging growth companies to develop great user interface approaches, as the large companies have solid approaches, but every single user interface has huge gaps from perfection. If the emerging growth company focuses on these issues, there is no doubt that they can create an edge over the large company!


1 Comment »

  1. […] User comfort with the user interface “look and feel” […]

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