When companies design clever new products it’s easy to focus on creating cool new features without thinking about how a customer will actually use them. This often leads to products that were designed to do amazing things but aren’t used to any level of their capacity.
This frustrates consumers because they bought this product with all these great features but can’t figure out to use it. And it frustrates designers because the features right in front of them. The problem is that most customers aren’t interested in figuring out how every feature on every product works. This doesn’t make customers stupid, it just makes them busy. It’s hard to believe for some product designers but the vast majority of our customers don’t care about their products nearly as much as the product designer does. The customer wants them to serve their purpose and then move on with their life.
Microsoft’s Bing search engine takes this idea to heart – at least in its advertising and market positioning. Microsoft has been in a fierce battle to regain market share in the search arena for some time. Since the days when MSN pitted itself against AOL as the leading search destination, Microsoft has been having a tough time. Their search engine was rebranded “Live” which didn’t work out very well and has now been transformed into “Bing.” Instead of trying to duke it out search engine to search engine, Bing has declared itself to be a “Decision Engine.”
You’ve probably already seen Bing’s advertisements marketing it as a Decision Engine. Bing has a number of different videos to explain itself. I found the product tour video particularly interesting. My only problem with the video is that many of the features promoted are ways of getting at information not making better decisions. Also, many of the features are those that Google and Bing have in common. These are great features that try to predict what the customer “really” wants based on their search query. For instance, when you search for “Mets” you get the current score of the game. If you type in an address, it shows you a map of the area. A further poke at the “innovative” nature of Bing is the organized results on the left column of the page. While I like this feature a lot, it’s an awful lot like the defunct Northern Light Search Engine from a decade ago.
But a “Decision Engine” should go beyond providing information to actually helping to make a decision – like “What is the best digital camera to buy?” Bing attacks this problem by aggregating a lot of data from around the web and presenting it together. Therefore you can compare cameras on ratings, features and any number of attributes. It’s a tantalizing problem because for product designers, researchers, and developers who can continue to gather more information and create even prettier ways to display it. They feel that the more information they give you the better decisions you can make. The problem is that most people don’t know how to use this information. Even if they understand it, do they know how to make the trade off between the different information e.g., size of a camera and image quality? And Bing doesn’t help you determine the most significant characteristics for you. For example, if you’re a hard core photographer you probably have thousands of dollars worth of lenses and really only care about camera bodies that support those lenses.
In order for any of these factors to make sense, customers need a framework to understand how they fit together. One way of doing this is to create a buyers guide with advice from top authorities on the topic. Even photography snobs like to listen to other photography snobs on the best cameras to buy. For a great example of this, just look at Philip Greenspun’s equipment guide on Photo.net.
But all of the product designers and PhDs at Microsoft research have a problem with that – it’s far too simple. Just have experts tell us what the best things are? That doesn’t use any of the massive computing power behind the super powerful internet cloud. It doesn’t – but it solves the problem.
A slightly more technological way of getting to the same place is trying to understand the customer – asking them who they are and what they want to use the camera for and then providing them suggestions. To me, that’s a decision engine. If someone wants a good camera that takes good and simple pictures they want a very different camera than an enthusiast that wants all the latest features. Then the Bing shopping engine would make a lot of sense. After asking you who you are, it can provide a customized list of products based on the features that matter most to you. Also, you would understand why these features would make sense for you.
I think my favorite “Decision Engine” on the web is “Uncle Mark” – an annual almanac of sorts written by Mark Hurst the founder of Good Experience. Mark Hurst is a guru of the “simpler is better” school of thought and is a strong proponent of the user experience. In the sixth edition of the Guide and Almanac published in November 2008 he recommends his favorite products across a number of dimensions. And what does he choose for a camera? He created a Phone, Camera, etc. category and declared the iPhone the winner. Why? Because a camera that you have with you all the time is the best camera of all.