One of the things Apple are definitely good at is giving us products we didn’t know we needed (e.g. the iPad). Steve Jobs, who died a year ago this week, famously said “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology — not the other way around” (see this video at around 1:55 as well as this interview with Steve Jobs in Wired).
The subtle difference from the “normal” requirements gathering process here is that, rather than asking what the customer wants, you are looking at the customer experience you want to create and then trying to figure out how available technology can realise that experience. In retrospect, we can all see why a device like the iPad is so useful (movies and books on the go, a cloud enabled device that lets you move data between it and other devices, mobile web on a screen you can actually read etc, etc). Chances are however that it would have been very difficult to elicit a set of requirements from someone that would have ended up with such a device.
Jobs goes on to say “you can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try and sell it”. In many ways this is a restatement of the well known “golden hammer” anti-pattern (to a man with a hammer, everything appears as a nail) from software development, the misapplication of a favored technology, tool or concept in solving a problem.
Whilst all this is true and would seem to make sense, at least as far as Apple is concerned, there is still another subtlety at play when building truly successful products that people didn’t know they wanted. As an illustration of this consider another, slightly more infamous Apple product, the Newton Message Pad.
In many ways the Newton was an early version of the iPad or iPhone (see above for the two side by side), some 25 years ahead of its time. One of its goals was to “reinvent personal computing”. There were many reasons why the Newton did not succeed (including it’s large, clunky size and poor handwriting recognition system) however one of them must surely have been that the device was just too far ahead of the technology available at the time in terms of processing power, memory, battery life and display technology. Sometimes ideas can be really great but the technology is just not there to support them.So, whilst Jobs is right in saying you cannot start with the technology then decide how to sell it equally you cannot start with an idea if the technology is not there to support it, as was the case with the Newton. So what does this mean for architects?
A good understanding of technology, how it works and how it can be used to solve business problems is, of course, a key skill of any architect however, equally important is an understanding of what is not possible with current technology. It is sometimes too easy to be seduced by technology and to overstate what it is capable of. Looking out for this, especially when there may be pressure on to close a sale, is something we must all do and be forceful in calling it out when we think something is not possible.