Lines, Spirals, and Product Development

A talk this week on product development included this diagram about the "product requirements death spiral". As befits NASA, it casts iteration in development as a black hole which can only be escaped by finalizing a design and achieving escape velocity. A different part of the same talk covered "Death, Taxes, and Change Requests." When working in heavy iron industries like aerospace or automotive, I can understand a certain weariness about design changes.

The telling comparison is to look at the agile software iterative development spiral. It assumes and even celebrates changes, viewing development as an experimental process. Lessons learned from one prototype are applied to the next version. Changes aren't the exception, they are part of the process.

Once upon a time, I got frustrated when a broad-consensus group design decision was reversed later in development. It seemed inefficient to backtrack. Eventually, I learned that paper prototyping and whiteboard sketching can only take you so far. Stakeholders will always change their minds. In fact, they should. We learn so much by seeing an implementation in the flesh that the product can become markedly better if we listen to those lessons.

Lately I have been wondering how to port this more nimble and experimental software model back into the physical world. I enjoy working on software precisely because of this level of freedom. But there is a lot of appeal to building something out of atoms instead of bits. I wonder if someday 3D printing and rapid manufacturing will enable true iterative development on heavy iron.

Disrupting Photons

Technology-watchers have been predicting that cell phone cameras will replace single-function cameras since the first featurephones were released. The serious photographers who write on the subject have now embraced the digital SLR over chemical film, but still laugh at the idea that the tiny optics of a phonecam could ever subsume a dedicated device. Today, I saw evidence that the laughing is over and that phone manufacturers have moved on to the next phase in the tech transfer attitude chain. ("first they mock you, then they fight you, then you win")

There is a billboard just outside Logan airport which says "If it has a ringtone, it's not a camera." This is obviously a defensive move from a threatened incumbent. I am writing this from MIT's Killian Court where hundreds of tourists pour forth from buses each day to photograph each other in front of the great dome. An informal survey shows that about half are using cellphone cameras. Personally, I take more pictures with my blurry iPhone 3GS camera than with my fancy Canon s90 or my rugged Pentax w80. The iPhone 4's camera is even better and will probably represent even more of my picture-taking when I purchase its successor. The idea of a cell camera replacing a single-purpose device is already here for the majority of consumers and is just around the corner for everybody but the most serious artiste.

My tech strategy classes last semester covered many such turning points. We have seen the signs and they are all here. I am imagining the New England lake-ice industry with a billboard in 1920 saying "If it came from a machine, it isn't ice." Sailboat makers could claim "If it has propellers, it isn't a ship." Gas lighting manufacturers might try, "If there is no flame, there is no illumination." This campaign comes off just as desperate, and just as doomed.