There’s a common misconception — a folksy wisdom, a p-prim, if you will — that in our many years of product design led many entrepreneurs astray: Build it and they will come! Oh, if only it was so… While this is a wonderfully optimistic world-view, it just doesn’t work out that way in real world. So rather than just say it isn’t so, I will give a few examples where I was personally involved either in the design of the product or the workings of the company. Please keep in mind that all of these examples were EXTREMELY well-funded, had a lot of design resources, and ALL believed that they were changing the world for the better.
We all remember NEXT, right? If not, let me jug your memory…
After leaving (or being forced out of Apple), Steve Jobs started NEXT — a computer hardware company to rival Apple.
Even with Jobs’ charisma, talent, deep financial resources, access to the best minds in the business… he couldn’t make this work. Some say that NEXT is now part of Mac DNA, but it still stands that as a company is was a failure… Steve built it, and no one ever came…
I don’t know how many of you have even heard of PlayNet, but in it’s day it had a market evaluation close to a billion dollars (and that without having a shipping product!). They had spectacular offices at One Embarcadero, with views of the Bay Bridge. Hundreds of people worked there: engineers (hardware and software), designers, artists, writers, copywriters, and many many lawyers… And yet today, there’s hardly a mention of this company even on Wikipedia!
The logo you see and the product shot were not easily available on the net (until today!).
The company and product were the inventions of Nolan Bushnell — the same genius that brought us Chuck-e-Cheese and Pong.
The main idea was to bring the then unavailable Internet access to people in bars — pay a few coins and get access to your stock accounts, weather information, and most importantly gamble on your favorite sports teams (some Southern States requested models with supersized cash boxes for all that money that people would bet on their home teams). Aside from bars, these devices were meant to populate airports and other public venues.
PlayNet had it all — money, media exposure, people, a famous person at the helm — and yet no one came…
If you have children of a certain age and if you are from the Bay Area perhaps you might have heard of Theatrix Interactive — an amazingly innovative children educational software development company from the East Bay. Their titles were unique and by far margin superior to other educational titles available at the time. They were beloved by kids, parents, and teachers.
And yet it too is gone, almost without a trace.
I had a privileged view on these companies — I know some of the inside stories — but these are all examples of strong companies that built interesting products that only few ultimately used.
It’s not enough to build a great product. It is not enough to have a strong financial support. It is not enough to have visionary at the helm. In my tenure as product designer, I saw many companies and products fail. Some were very painful experiences… Some deserved to go…
I hope that as NIH is thinking about building products to encourage citizen science movement, it keeps in mind that “gamification” is just a word, not a solution. All we hope to do is build great, compelling products that people want to use. But even that is sometimes just not enough.