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Driving from the Backseat

An article[1] about the spectacular failure of high-tech startup company General Magic is revealing. The author innocently touches on the root cause of the product's lack of success when she says that Marc Porat, the president, “launched his engineering team to design the device of their dreams.” There is no irony in her statement. It seems perfectly natural for the engineering team to do the designing, yet that is precisely the cause of the problem. Later in the article, she quotes one of the engineers as saying, “We never knew what we were building. We didn't write specifications until 8 to 12 weeks before we finished.” Again, neither the engineer nor the author notes the irony. The article seems to suggest that things would have worked out better for General Magic if only the engineers had drafted those specifications a month earlier.

[1] Michelle Quinn, “Vanishing Act, San Jose Mercury News West Magazine, March 15, 1998.

No matter how early in the development process specifications are drafted, they cannot substitute for interaction design. And no matter how hard they try, programmers cannot consistently arrive at a successful design. Not only are their methods, training, and aptitude wrong for the job, but they are caught in a strong conflict of interest between serving the user's needs and making their programming job easier. Yet, in company after company, software engineers are allowed to control the development process, often from start to finish. Sometimes their control is overt, but more typically it is indirect.


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