Perfection is in the eye of the beholder

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In software development, we know there is no such thing as the perfect product, but users’ expectations fall nothing short of perfection in today’s digital age.

When it comes to performance and usability, users can be ruthless about this concept of perfection, and it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain high levels of quality in order to keep users’ happy. This is especially true when you consider the exponential evolution of 21st century technology.

One question that often occupies me, though, is where did this illusion of perfection come from? Why are people under the illusion that products – in our particular case, software – can be ‘perfect’ and how can we decouple the idea that quality = perfection?

The perfect’ product

Within the last decade, many companies have captured the attention of customers’ with slick marketing campaigns that set high expectations and portray flawless products. However, we know this perfection isn’t possible in technology – especially when it comes to first generation stuff. Marketing your product is only one part of thinking strategically. There’s the other side – the dark side, the side that many mistakenly think is easy – and that’s the strategic evolution of your product over time.

Cupertino, 2001

Way back in time, January 2001 to be precise, Steve Jobs took to the stage at Apple’s campus in Cupertino to unveil the first generation iPod, which made digital music mainstream by offering customers ‘1,000 songs in your pocket.’

I am sure many remember that the iPod didn’t have the most impressive technical specs when it was launched, and that other MP3 players had a stronger offering at the time. What it did have was good looks and ease of use – and that’s what users valued. 6 years later, we saw something revolutionary. The launch of ‘…an iPod. A phone. An internet communicator.’ That’s the iPhone in a nutshell. The iPhone transformed the way people interacted, worked and listened to music. It was the game changer. It was better, faster and smarter than anything Apple or any other tech company had built. Apple had created a beautiful way of communicating: something they did once again in September this year, with the launch of Apple Watch.

But before we get carried away, remember that the first generation iPhone – revolutionary as it may have been – was by no means perfect. Just like the iPod, it had many shortcomings. The apps had a high crash rate; battery life was low, and since 3G didn’t even exist back then this resulted in slow network connections. Annoyingly, it was even incompatible with non-Apple headphones – you actually needed an adaptor to be able to use your own headphones with it! And indeed, the internet is currently already awash with the ‘imperfections’ of the iPhone 6, iOS8 and that beautiful looking Apple Watch.

The key lesson

First generation technology is never, ever perfect – whatever the adverts and the polished marketing visuals might tell us. Even the second, third and fourth generation will still have flaws. With that said, however, Apple’s products back then and now are still deemed ‘perfect’ to many consumers and fans. So what is it that powers the creation of these imperfect ‘perfect’ products?

For my money, part of the answer lies in the commitment to an evolving, holistic product strategy. Apple, knowing that technically they were slightly weaker than their competitors, took a risk when they launched the iPod but it was their holistic product strategy that won it for them. What do I mean? I mean the focus and collective strategic direction was first and foremost about user experience, and this was the key driver of quality. This in itself only grew as they iterated and got better and better – in both style and technology.

Quality vs Perfection

When we talk about quality, we often have a misconception that perfection is the same thing. But the two have very distinct characteristics. Perfection forces a notion of completeness or an absolute, which is subjective when viewed through our own ideals. Quality, however, is a level of excellence, which we strive to achieve. Some might even say it’s a pursuit for perfection.

Companies like Apple, Google and Facebook know perfection doesn’t exist, but what they successfully achieve day after day, is an emerging standard and reputation for iterative improvement. This creates a reputation for quality, not perfection, borne from continuously re-engineering and improving the effectiveness of their processes and in turn their products.

Embrace Greatness

In today’s programmable world, it’s an exciting and challenging time for us as we progress and find new ways to create a digital experience across a plethora of devices and platforms. However, with the complexities of software today, how can we handle this hunger for perfection? Here’s my theory – we need to disentangle the notion of perfection from quality, and edge away from the illusion that our products can be perfect. Instead, we must embrace the journey and the evolution of our products. After all, to be successful or category-defining, products need to be relevant to our users in what are very uncertain times.  The only way to achieve this is to continually adapt and in time, good will lead to greatness and greatness might well become revolutionary.

This blog post was featured on Unicom's site - http://blog.unicom.co.uk/perfection-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder/