Fluffy Red Towels

Ok, so what do fluffy red towels have to do with software development, innovation, or usability? Let me tell you a little Monday morning story….

Last weekend I was swimming in the pool (which is exciting in itself, since a week earlier we were under a heavy snowfall warning!). When I got out of the pool, I grabbed one of the new towels my wife bought recently. I was thinking to myself “wow – these are really nice towels – nice colour, very fluffy, and very, very soft to touch.” I was impressed. After a few minutes of towelling off, I realized something was not quite right. I was not getting any less wet. Perhaps it had started to snow again? In reality, the towel just was not absorbing anything at all. It seemed to be like one of those shirts with the spill-resistant coating – a nice feature in a shirt, but not quite so nice in a towel. The towel, despite being very nice in appearance and superficially pleasant to use, failed to fulfill its single biggest functional requirement – you could not dry anything with it!

It occurred to me that this is a good metaphor for much of what goes on in product design – in software and elsewhere. Many products which do take into account usability and user experience, do so at the expense of functional design (yes, realize that there are even more products out there which implement functionality and ignore the user altogether). This brought home to me an important fact: as important as usability is, it does not mean squat if the product fails to fulfill its functional requirements.


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