You’ll have to stay patient with me on this post, since the point I will eventually get to really is the confluence of a number of different threads that have been going through my head the past few weeks.

Let’s start with my time in business school from 2007 to 2009. Charles Dickens couldn’t have penned a better dichotomy between the beginning and end of my time in school. In short: 2007 = the economy couldn’t be better, 2009 = the economy couldn’t be worse.

As my dream of a career in finance seemed further and further from reality while my time in school was coming to a close, I took a chance on a product development class for my last semester. It was the first time that the concept of ‘user experience’ was introduced to me, and judging from Google Trends, interest in user experience was at a real low point.

graph of searches for the term 'user experience' over time

The class was really an exercise in patience by our professor; it involved us students continually frustrating the professor with our complete lack of creativity. For our final project, we were randomly assigned to teams to find a real user problem and an elegant solution. My team followed a pretty standard process:

  1. Brainstorm problems we observed
  2. Do user research to validate the problem and identify pain points
  3. Design solutions to the pain points
  4. Test out the solutions against potential customers
  5. Optimize the product based on feedback
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5

Our team consisted of 5 of the most passive, easy-going individuals - which was not conducive to the sort of analytical and critical thinking necessary to build a great product. After waffling for weeks over an appropriate problem, one of the teammates revealed that his wife was about to give birth and that a recent concern had been finding a mobile baby unit that would hang over their crib that would be both fun and educational.

A little aside here: A point of emphasis from our professor was Henry Ford’s famous quote (which he may not have actually said), “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. People seem to take out of this quote what they want to hear, and it made little impression on me at the time, but I understand it to mean the following: “Linear solutions to complex problems don’t result in novel solutions for customer problems. They result in old solutions with more bells and whistles. What is oftentimes required is starting from scratch in building user-friendly solutions that solve for customer needs, even if they are unstated.”

Mobile baby units were already fun and engaging, so it was the educational part that hung us up. I’ll cut to the chase: our final deliverable was a monstrosity that combined every feature of every current mobile baby unit into one ugly mass. Think the chandelier from ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ with all of the theatrics of it swinging through the crowd (in fact our prototype fell from the ceiling into a crib we were using for testing). We fell into the trap of a linear solution to a complex problem, if it even was a problem to begin with! We took a solution already in place, added more functionality, and got a failing grade on our final project.

This whole experience helped me relate to a product that was recently brought to my attention. Even though user experience is at its apex in interest according to Google Trends, people continue to create linear solutions to complex problems. Case in point: The Expanscape, the all-in-one security operations workstation; a product that purports to solve every problem a security operations analyst may need.

a photo of a laptop with too many screens hanging off of it, like comically ridiculous ...How about designed for no one?

The specs advertise 7 screens, but is only 60% of its 10 kg goal. What does getting a percentage of a weight goal even mean? Does it mean that it weighs 16.67 kgs, since 60% of that weight makes 10 kgs?

Honestly the weight itself isn’t even that egregious, since it’s in line with most gaming machines nowadays. The problem being solved for is quite straightforward: “Design and build a proper mobile Security Operations Center.” It is indeed mobile, with its ability to “fold down compactly to facilitate travel”. But is it proper? I think not.

This all-in-one, mobile bundle is trying to solve every problem linearly, by adding more features to an existing laptop. Judging by the sheer number of screens, I wonder if any real user testing was done. I can’t imagine any single human not feeling anxiety just looking at this machine. The problem being solved was not to increase efficiency and shrink a team to just one person, it was to design and build a proper security operations center! Who can focus on this many screens and information at once?

I don’t want to be harsh on the Expanscape; history is filled with examples of linear and poorly-executed tech solutions. Who can forget the Nokia N-Gage, which was a mash-up of every phone feature at the time? Or Google Glass, which was trying to allow users to engage with the world without even needing to look at a phone, trying to force the wrong solution to their stated problem? Or the Apple Newton, which while arguably was ahead of its time, focused too heavily on functionality over user experience?

I’m left thinking of the famous quote by Ian Malcolm. They are good words for us all to live by:

Ian Malcom's quote: You were so preoccupied with wether or not you could you didn't stop to think if you should

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