A friend and serial entrepreneur once gave me a piece of advice:
Better to be a plumber than a journalist.
By and large, you’ll build a stronger business doing something for a customer they unpleasant or boring than if the task was inherently exciting or compelling. The trick, then, is to find something you like doing that’s in demand but doesn’t appeal to most people.
I was reminded of this adage when I recently visited the offices of Intuit, makers of TurboTax and QuickBooks. Few of us here in the U.S. want to fill out paperwork for the IRS, and most small business owners don’t set up shop to deal with the books at the end of the month. I’m more than happy to hand that over to Intuit in the same way I’d call a plumber to unclog a drain or replace a toilet; I don’t want to deal with any part of it.
From Drudgery to Delight
Intuit, not afraid to set the bar high, wants customers to have a delightful experience when dealing with their finances. They call this philosophy Design For Delight (D4D for short), and it’s all over their campus.
This isn’t just a slogan, either; you can see how this attitude has made it into their shipping products. TurboTax avoids most data entry by instead having you taking a picture of your W-2 with your smartphone, for example. If I can get my taxes done without even sitting down at a desk, and get back to what I’d rather be doing, well, that’s awesome.
There is a flip side, though: to enable the delightful experience I have as a customer, someone needs to deal with my taxes at some point. And by the same token, someone needs to put their boots on and fix the plumbing. So how does that happen? How can we improve that?
I believe this is where another mindset is needed. We need to give sharp knives to badasses.
This phrase blends elements of Kathy Sierra’s BADASS: Making Users Awesome and one of Pixar’s senior programmers describing his work as building “sharp knives and crazy tech for storytellers.” The idea is that the users are both experts in their domain and responsible adults who don’t want tools with childproof locks on them.
If this knife isn’t sharp, it is fundamentally useless. With software, the system can’t be so locked down that it prevents a human being with good judgment from taking the correct action. (If it is, they’ll go outside the tool. There’s always a way.) If users can adjust their own workflows, even better. Some trade-off is inevitable when you “let air in” and enable employees to solve their own problems.
This attitude of enablement sits atop a pattern I see time and time again. The discussions I’ve had with users of enterprise software show that employees tend to be extremely capable people who want reliable tools, not gimmicky gadgets or a magical robot that thinks for them.
Delight still has its place, mostly in areas where I’m not looking to become a badass. Kathy’s book uses the phrase “compelling context” to denote a domain in which a user wants to excel. In my example, plumbing and tax preparation are not compelling contexts, so I’ll happily pay for a delightful solution to the problem—and then I’ll get back to my compelling contexts like photography or playing the guitar. In those areas, I’m buying sharp knives.
If you’ve worked in customer support, you may be skeptical. I get it. But, please…go talk to some users in their environment and watch them work. Odds are, they’re as good at their jobs as you are at yours. See how they’re absorbing everything around them and still delivering results while flipping back and forth between six different apps. And bring your lead developer with you (like I did), so you all walk away with a healthier, less paternalistic, and ultimately more compassionate perspective.