Silver Bullets and Plastic Molds

“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

This quote by Walt Disney I think speaks volumes about creating positive experiences.  It’s not essentially a system, marketing, or locale that creates the experience, it is all about people first.

Let’s take the attraction at the Magic Kingdom, Space Mountain as an example.  People were needed to design and build Space Mountain.  People were needed to maintain Space Mountain once it was built.  People were needed to re-design Space Mountain the three times it has been improved.  People were needed to ride Space Mountain, otherwise it would fade out like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  The attraction and experience does not exist unless there are people.

Mr. Disney set out to create the best theme park experience.  To do this, Mr. Disney had to think about the people/theme park paradigm.  Each touch point between the vistor and the theme park is a chance to build upon what he felt was the best theme park experience.  Creating a positive experience has defined that business.  Thinking about relationships between people representing an entity and the patrons is where positive experiences are made and problems are resolved.  In other words, people build and maintain the positive experiences, not some out-of- the-box silver bullet.

Out-of-the-Box Silver Bullet?

Enough rambling about that place in Orlando, I’m here to point out an elephant in the room.  I’m talking about how out-of-the-box software solutions are not silver bullet solutions to your problems.  Let’s first define an out-of-the-box software solution.

“Out of the box” is used as a synonym for “off the shelf,” meaning a ready-made software, hardware, or combination package that meets a need that would otherwise require a special development effort.

This sounds great and, for a lot of problems, an out-of-the-box solution will work.  However, problems become apparent when you purchase a solution without fully understanding the underlying causes to the problem that are trying to be solved.

Defining problems can be one of the easiest and hardest things to do.  A lot of times you think you understand the problem and come to find out that you were completely wrong.  A problem can be defined very broadly like “graduation rates are too low.”  Well it’s great that you found a problem from three miles in the sky, but the root causes are where the problem needs to be addressed.  Where are the touch points? Of those touch points, where are the failures or speed bumps in the process? Why are the failures or speed bumps there? Furthermore, can this problem really be solved with a piece of software and, if so, what type of man power are you going to need to operate that software.

In a lot of ways defining the problem is harder than coming up with the solution.  For a lot of rudimentary problems an out-of-the-box solution will work. Things like word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations are great examples of types of out-of-the-box solutions.  There is very little reason why a company would write their own word processor to use internally–the problem has been well addressed by many other companies.  But when you have a complex and unique problem, it is vital that the solution is tailored exactly to that problem.  This is where an out-of-the-box solution falls short and starts adding to problems instead of solving them.

Getting It Right

Generally when a business needs to solve a problem, it’s because they are losing money or not taking advantage of the market, thus losing money in that aspect.  So the idea is “If we solve complex problem X then we will make X more dollars or grow by X percent.”  The problem gets defined and now the business is at a crossroads: build a solution in-house or trust that someone has the solution in an out-of-the-box product.  For examples sake, let’s say the out-of-the-box solution is selected.  Now you have the solution in place and come to find out there is a new problem that the solution does not handle very well, thus creating a new problem.  At this point you are now going to have to use internal resources to fix the problem or just ignore the problem and conform to the software that you purchased. Congratulations! You found an opportunity to solve a problem, spend thousands of dollars for a solution which then created a new one, thus resulting in a poor return on investment.

Now let’s say this company builds the solution in-house.  The company does extensive research, creates prototypes, and iterates over the problem prior to building the solution. During prototyping they discover the reality that an out-of-the-box solution would not do.  Good for them.  By going through a process where researching, prototyping, and addressing problems prior to production, the company saves money and has addressed the problem better than a third party because a solution was built by people close to the unique situation.  Further, the solution can adapt as the organization adapts, it doesn’t have to follow the roadmap of a third party.

Generally speaking, prototyping allows you to refine your solution and uncovers potential new problems.  According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a software change after a solution is in production costs 100 times more than it did if the problem was caught prior to production.  Addressing new problems in prototyping is vastly cheaper than finding them in production.  In this situation, building a solution in-house is a better return on investment because an informed design process is used.

To Be Human

Creating software solutions can help create positive experiences and benefit a company, but it is a very minor part of the pie when you are dealing with many different variables and touch points like a college experience.  Just because a software system is designed really well, it doesn’t mean the college experience follows suit.  To fix complex problems like enrollment and graduation you have to understand the relationship between a student and the university (aka your product), not a workflow in software.  In a lot of ways, the entity has to be “hitting on all cylinders” to create a positive experience. Disney has shown that it can be done, but people that understand what the companies’ experience expectations are required.

I’m a big believer that brand follows experience, meaning that one’s experience defines a brand at an individual level.  If one has a bad experience with a company, that plays negatively to that person’s perception of that brand.  As a business, getting the experience right is the lifeblood to success.  You can look at a company like Apple and see how re-defining an experience can revitalized and redefined a company.  It’s the understanding of harmonious connection between human motivations and intentions and technology and software.

Let’s stop fussing over tools that say will make our jobs the equivalent to fishing with dynamite and step back and really find the root causes to our problems.  At that point, we can better understand how to solve these problems and create solutions that help cultivate an unforgettable experience that is positive.  Remember, you can’t buy the Magic Kingdom in a box at the toy store, you can only buy plastic molded tokens of what it represents.