In order to turn a product-based company around, we need to first explore why we need products to begin with? Do we need technology at all? Perhaps we should just abandon it all and go back to the quiet cottage on the countryside.
The short answer is that products are tools, much like a hammer or screwdriver. Whether we use tools to build a house, or a computer to type this article, they make it easier for us to complete tasks. But products also have the potential to help us do more.
People got tired of lifting something up with their own might, so they invented pulleys and counterweights. Circular wheels worked better than the square ones; and plows allowed farmers to do more in less time. But for all the benefits that products provide, they also run the risk of desensitizing us to our own talents and abilities. Someone who is an expert doesn’t need tools. For example a teacher in a classroom, if he or she is an expert, doesn’t need to rely on lesson plans. This expert teacher knows how and what to teach already. This is the same with every occupation. If someone is seeking tools, maybe they are like the teacher that prefer relying on ready-made materials?
The point is that tools and products have a place. But if the user is relying on them, this could very well be a sign that they are not an expert yet. For example: a not-so-great musician makes use of all sort of digital tricks during the editing stage. If someone finds themselves always looking for tools, they should probably look for another occupation in which they can excel.
A World Before Tools
What was it like in a world before tools? On the surface, it would seem excruciatingly difficult to complete any manual task. But it could very well be that people were more natural experts in their field. The medical profession is a good example of this. Today western medicine relies heavily on scans, x-rays, blood tests, etc… to determine how to treat the patient. The fact that doctors have these tools at their disposal leads to them becoming reliant on them. What then happens if you have a very good doctor, with years of experience, that intuitively knows that this condition is a sign of this ailment? His colleagues will likely still tell him to corroborate his expert “sense” with purely empirical findings. As one can imagine, this expert doctor will gradually learn to let the machines and tests become the deciding voice. One risk of the proliferation of technology then is the dulling of the senses. The reliance on the machines to think and do the work for us.
This essay is not to encourage the abandonment of tools, but instead to reposition them as they were intended. They are tools but not crutches. Objects that can make tasks easier to accomplish, but not a replacement for intuition.
The problem with a world without products is that people may become despondent over ever becoming experts. As we discussed regarding teachers, or doctors, sometimes tools are what is needed for the moment. Products in this content can then be seen as occupational therapy for the mind. Do something so that you don’t grow weary and bored.
While the road to becoming an expert begins with study and experience, for the meantime, products have their place. This is like the stories about all the innovative ways people are using iPads. From doctors being able to have easy access to patient information and x-rays, to teachers using it as a teaching tool in the classroom, these stories seem very compelling. But in light of our discussion, they are only a means to an end. The best approach is to emulate the product team themselves, deliberating diligently for hours to discover new ideas and insights. While the product is the outcome, the focus is always on the concepts they represent. Like the doctor that used to rely on intuition, or the teacher that used to bring excitement to the classroom without technology, if Apple has stalled, it’s because they have become reliant on the products they themselves have developed.
Selling the Stories
While the stories we hear in the Apple advertisements are exciting, the goal of the products should be to bring that excitement down into the real world. While the marketing presents sentiments that are universally accepted, the outcome depends on each end-user.
Everyone agrees that if technology could advance the medical or education professions, then it is serving a vital purpose. The distinction though is in its application. Obviously the intention is that Apple’s products be good for everyone. But there are also specific details that relate to each individual user. To combat the media, which is to show the veracity of new products, Apple should focus more on promoting these personal stories. Accounts of how people were directly benefited from using their products. The more stories that are collected, the greater the momentum for each new product offering. But the real success stories are from those that used iPads for a time, then learned how to implement the “iPad experience” in their own lives.
This discussion reverts back and forth between making use of products, and the motivation to put down or discard them. The motivation behind the title of this essay, is that while the product reminds us of universal concepts, the main point is to apply these concepts* within one’s own path of discovery. To a certain extent, the product needs to be seen as bitter (i.e. something hateful), although it can also sweeten your lives as well (i.e. beloved).