Today we’d like to welcome to the blog Jonathan Hills, a product developer and strategist who will be blogging about ways that traditional companies, particularly media brands, can reinvent themselves in the digital age.
For army rangers, casual campers, and budding serial killers, the Swiss Army knife is an attractive tool. Knowing that you have a single product at your disposal that can do a variety of tasks averagely well is quite comforting. It represents a highly portable way to get by in an emergency — which clearly has value. But given the option, it’s unlikely that a three-inch nail file would be your number-one tool of choice if you needed to skin an otter — or whatever people do when they’re surviving in the wild.
One of the biggest mistakes traditional media companies make when working on their digital product strategy is to fall into a Swiss Army knife mindset. It usually goes something like this:
Employee A: We’re going to relaunch our website this year. It’s going to be incredible.
Employee B: Great. What are you planning to build?
Employee A: We’re going to have quizzes, polls, video, slide shows, social media, games, email newsletters, more social media, user-generated content, related content, tips, quotes, fun facts, Tweets, Foursquare check-ins, personality quizzes, and 87 companion apps. It’s going to be amazing.
Employee B: I’m going to vomit on your shoes.
All too often, when people think about a new digital product or get ready to relaunch a website, they aim to include every single digital feature and/or concept they’ve read or heard about in the last six months. This is akin to building a digital Swiss Army knife — something that’s mediocre at doing a bunch of things but that can’t do anything really well.
This is a particular problem within traditional media companies. Their instinct is often to keep adding more features to a product; any talk of removing or eliminating a feature is dismissed with fearful eyes. I call this the Digital Hedge. A brand that doesn’t have enough confidence to pursue one or two things instead defensively casts out 100 digital fishing lines in the hope that one of them might bite.
The most successful digital companies are those that have a clear, highly focused, dare I say it boring product focus. Think Google, Twitter, Craigslist, eBay — all hugely successful companies that began by doing one thing VERY well.
Compared to its comparatively bloated competitors, Google burst onto the scene with a highly effective search engine and an interface that seemed embarrassingly simple. Google was able to do one thing very well and go on to dominate the search market.
Imagine describing to your friends the following digital product idea:
“I want to let people fill out a text box that describes what they’re doing in 140 characters. They’ll then hit ‘submit’ and their friends will be able to read what they’ve posted!”
It doesn’t sound too thrilling from the description. But this is the idea that has allowed Twitter to grow into the digital giant that it is today. It’s breathtakingly simple, but probably wouldn’t sound very impressive in a corporate marketing PowerPoint presentation. But that’s a topic for a separate post!
Perhaps the biggest offenders when it comes to the Swiss Army knife mentality are large media companies. Look at the average website of any large media brand and you’ll be inundated with an overwhelming barrage of modules, widgets, features and graphics. It’s almost as if the creative brief read something like this:
“The goal of the site is to cover every single pixel on the screen with something. We need to give users at least 175 different ways or links to leave the page they made a point of heading to.”
Yahoo has come to represent the ultimate digital Swiss Army knife. Once known for search, it’s now known for…..well….not knowing what it actually is. By trying to be all things to all people, it’s rapidly becoming nothing to no one.
Digital product development is never easy. There are few constraints and endless possibilities. But ultimately, focus and simplicity wins the day. The next time you embark on a major digital initiative, stop and ask yourself this — do I really need the fishing hook, mini-corkscrew, and retractable toothpick?
[Editor’s Note: Jonathan’s Twitter feed has restored our faith in Tweetdom. Follow him @sergiogeorgini … you can thank us later.]