Ask why not what

June 25, 2020

Building Things That Don’t Matter

Silicon Valley/startup culture prides itself on being customer-centric. Your company’s core values certainly include some form of “customer first”. Inside your office’s meditation lives a product manager chanting the “cusomter first” mantra. I’m not gonna knock that mantra, your product must be informed by your customer. If it is not you will build something your customer doesn’t want. But having a customer first culture is not enough. In fact, it can easily be misdirected, leading to valuable resources wasted. I’ve built many things that don’t matter. It’s frustrating. Engineers hate doing it because they have bought into the value of building things. If you want to retain talent and have a successful product stop building things that don’t matter.

For the Customer

Let me use a story from my past as an example of why the customer-centric approach is not enough on its own. At somewhere near the beginning of my career, I was working as a hardware engineer for a late-ish stage (series C/D) startup in San Francisco. The details are not important, but our team was looking to source some new hardware, a task which involved visits to manufacturers in order to audit their quality of production. So we hop on a plane, travel across the world and meet up with the various salespeople we have been interfacing with over email, touring each facility in a day.

The incident in question happened when touring a contractor with a promising product. The tour is generally going off without a hitch; their facilities aren’t the best we’ve ever seen, but are decent and we have already decided we like their product. Then we get to the room where they do touch screen assembly. A brief aside on touchscreen assembly: there are typically four layers in modern touch screens that have to be pressed together; a very delicate procedure, for sure. Tiny particles getting sandwiched between the layers during manufacturing will bring the yield of a line down, raising costs. Or worse, if defective products aren’t caught coming off the line you ship shitty product. Because of this touchscreens are assembled in cleanrooms. (I forget the exact ISO standard recommended but it’s not anything like what you need for manufacturing silicon or anything). Before we go in our tour guide/salesperson gets us to put on little booties over our shoes. So far so good, wouldn’t want dirt from my shoes getting in the cleanroom! I’m thinking. Then we walk up to the antechamber that precedes the cleanroom and we each step in one at a time. When it’s my turn, the doors on either side of me seal, and heavy-duty air blowers start going off, buffetting me from all directions. I can feel the ions, particles, and contaminates from everyday life wash off of me, along with my anxieties of not being able to find a manufacturer that cares about what their customer wants. The blowers stop, the doors unseal and I walk into the cleanroom. We walk around the room for a bit, check the jigs they have installed for assembly and quality testing. Things are looking good. Then our tour guide/salesperson declares it’s time for us on to move on to the next section of the tour. She leads us to the back of the cleanroom and unceremoniously opens up an emergency exit door which leads outdoors to a metal walkway a few stories up. It’s midday and unadulterated sunlight pours in from the courtyard illuminating our aghast faces, burning away all the comfort that had been showered down upon me in the antechamber. My boss and I look at each other. I am speechless, but my boss somehow finds some words. “So, what was with that blow-drying in the airlock about if you just enter and leave through this door?” Our salesperson stares at him blankly, wondering why he would be asking such an obvious question. “Oh. that’s for the customer of course.”

Why not What

Now this didn’t happen in Silicon Valley. but I would argue that the behavior came from a culture that is even more customer-centric than Silicon Valley’s. The point, I hope, is obvious. You can’t just ask what the customer wants and call it a day. You need to understand why they want what they asked for. The importance is two fold. Firstly, it is the only way you can implement “what the customer asked for” in such a way that it actually solves their needs. As evidenced by my story, building what your customer wants without knowing why will yield an embarrassing result. Secondly, it is the only viable path to innovation. Innovative products are driven by an understanding of the motivations and behaviors of the customer, not by product managers or designers or CEOs or engineers or whoever asking their customers what features they want. Let’s stop being satisfied with knowing what your customer wants from your product (and even worse, only understanding whether or not your customer is able to use your product), so we can stop building things that don’t matter.