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Designs and Developments

Here is a brief look at a few recently published books that are important for managers and engineers in an array of technology companies, including yours...

Beyond User-Friendly: Think User Focused

Donald A. Norman has been involved in the computer industry as an executive (at Hewlett-Packard and Apple), academician (professor of cognitive science at the University of California-San Diego), and now as a consultant (The Nielsen Norman Group). He's the author of several books, with the most recent being The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances are the Solution (The MIT Press; $25.00).

Norman's field of focus in this book is on design. And he doesn't think very highly of the way that PCs are being designed.

Now, he just doesn't walk through the aisles of a CompUSA in print and trash the equipment. Rather, he provides a look at how marketed technology is developed and succeeds or fails, in one instance by way of examining the development of the phonograph. Remarkably, this is a case where Thomas Edison failed. "Note the moral of this story," Norman writes, "for it will apply over and over again in the high-technology marketplace. Know your customer. Being first, being best, and even being right do not matter; what matters is what the customers think."

He points out that sometimes, what are thought to be good things can take a long time to be perceived as such: "The right product can fail if introduced at the wrong time. The telephone took decades to be understood and accepted. The radio was first dismissed as a toy. The fax machine was invented more than a hundred years before it became an essential tool of industry. So, too, with the automobile."

Given the unquestionable success of the PC, how can there be a problem? Norman argues that for most people, any given PC is much too much: it is the consequence of people who might be considered technology geeks who want to provide all kinds of technological capabilities because they can and of slick marketing people who take the specifications of those capabilities and package them as though they are important, if not essential. "Seldom are the customer's real needs addressed, such as productivity, ease of use, getting the job done," Norman insists. And he recommends that companies implement a design philosophy "that targets the human user, not the technology. Companies need a human-centered development."

Although it isn't until page 185 that he starts laying out how human-centered development is performed (with much of the preceding dealing with the benefits of simple, functional "information appliances" instead of PCs), it is well worth the wait for anyone who is involved in any kind of product development program. Not only does Norman discuss how teams should be organized, he also grapples with issues including project ownership and rewards. There is clearly practice behind Norman's theory, which makes a book nominally about the computer industry useful for people who deal with things including brakes and seating systems and the like.

If Technology Is a Lever, Are You Using It To Lift Your Future?

I've got to admit that when TechnoLeverage: Using the Power of Technology to Outperform the Competition by F. Michael Hruby (AMACOM Books; $27.95) arrived in the office, I stuck it at the bottom of a pile of other things, figuring that this would be a trendy "How the Internet will help you grow your business and making big money" book. The Internet does appear in TechnoLeverage. It's in a section where Hruby describes how you should scan the environment to obtain information. He doesn't give the `Net any more play than such things as looking at magazines (I certainly recommend that) and attending conferences.

TechnoLeverage

Nor is this a book about cell phones, Palm IIIs, and other tools.

Hruby is fairly mercenary: "This book is about how to make money with technology." No, not cell phones, Palm IIIs, and other so-called "productivity tools." The technology he is referring to is that which your company is producing or using. He is proposing a strategy alternative to one that is based solely on marketing (product, price, package, place, and promotion) or one based on operational improvements (e.g., TQM or lean manufacturing). Hruby doesn't argue against solid marketing or improving operations, but he suggests that "the primary effect of TechnoLeverage is to use high-margin new business (even though it usually starts out small) to significantly boost the returns of a lower-return, older, existing business."

A great example he provides is that of Husky Injection Molding (Bolton, Ontario). It started out—and nearly ended—producing snowmobiles. Since that wasn't proving to be too successful, the two owners figured that given the equipment they had in their factory, they could be a subcontractor for making molds. Then they started to improve the molds. Then they started producing hot runners for molds. Then they started making molding machines. Then they started making part-handling equipment. Then they got into the factory layout business. Each step leveraged off of the proceeding.

It isn't enough to do what you're doing right now well. It's vital to determine how that will be useful—and ideally valuable—tomorrow. Hruby helps provide some tools for assessment.

The Future Ain't What It Used to Be—& the Past Is Already In Museums

"History" seems like a subject that relates to things that are, well, placed in a museum. As curator, National Air and Space Museum, Department of Space History, Paul E. Ceruzzi knows about museums. He also knows that nowadays, historical items and events aren't necessarily dusty: after all, although space has been around since the Big Bang, we haven't been putting things up there for all that long, or dealing with space as though it could require a Department of Space History.

A history of modern computing

Ceruzzi has written a history of something that many of us have on our desktops: A History of Modern Computing(The MIT Press; $35.00).

What's the point of bringing this book to your attention? For one thing, it is both technically interesting and diverting. More over, it is useful to achieve a better understanding of where a tool that we work with comes from. (And there are even little gems that you may be able to use to win bar bets, as in "The term `mainframe' probably comes from the fact the circuits of a mainframe computer were mounted on large metal frames, housed in the cabinets.")

But the most important point is simply this: It is essential to become aware of the speed with which changes occur in the electronics industry, especially now that the modern vehicle is becoming something of a suite of microprocessors on wheels. Today's most advanced technology will look like some of the objects shown in Ceruzzi's book before you know it.

How to Get Things Done—Pronto

I'll be brief. Is there anybody who has enough time to get everything that needs to be done completed during any given workday? Is there anybody who knows how to effectively perform all required tasks, such as delegating and decision making? (Maybe if we all did a better job of deciding how to delegate, we could get things done...)

If you are a person who is completely capable in both of these categories, then Shortcuts for Smart Managers: Checklists, Worksheets, and Action Plans for Managers with No Time to Waste by Lisa Davis (AMACOM Books; $24.95) is not for you. If you are like the rest of us, this book is a handy tool. As Davis puts it, "This book is written for real people who happen to be managers. And when real people get worried and confused"—consequences of not having enough time and not knowing how to do things—"they need encouragement and practical advice, and they need it fast."

The topics covered range from appraisals to troubleshooting. And in addition to brief discussions of each of the subjects, Davis provides those things listed in the subtitle.

Enough said.

The Importance of Innovation Is Greater Than You Might Think

"As the twenty-first century begins, this new product war looms as the most important and critical war the companies of the world have ever fought. The message to senior people: `Innovate or die!'"

If that clarion doesn't get your attention, then perhaps you ought to go to the nearest doctor's office to get your blood pressure checked to determine whether you are still with us.

Product Leadership

The quote is taken from Robert G. Cooper's latest book, Product Leadership: Creating and Launching Superior New Products (Perseus Books; $27.50). Cooper, a professor of marketing at McMaster University, created a trademarked product development process, Stage-Gate, which he promulgates in this book.

Fundamentally, Stage-Gate is based on "Gates," meetings during which evaluations are made and go/kill decisions are reached, and "Gatekeepers," identified managers who are responsible for making sure that the product development process proceeds as it should—which includes the possibility of not proceeding at all.

Cooper bases his analysis of the importance of new product development on studies of over 2,000 product launches, so it is clear that he is well versed in what works. And his position is clear, as well: "Fast-paced, successful product development is perhaps the most important challenge faced by today's companies." His equivocation—throwing in that "perhaps"—is belied by the rest of the book, as in, "A high-quality, superb new product process is the strongest common denominator among high-performance businesses..." If that's what the high performers have, then which company—especially if extinction is a possibility—can afford to be without learning how to do it right?