The tyranny of incentive structures gone awry: How Google Wave failed

Anonymous user on quora writes:

Part of the deal initially was that Wave would be compensated much like a startup, base salaries were supposed to be low but with heavy performance linked bonuses which would have made the Wave team rich upon Wave's success.

During the course of negotiations and building the Wave product, the "heavily reward for success" part of the equation remained but the "punish upon failure" got gradually watered down into irrelevance, making the entire project a win-win bigger proposition.

Because large parts of the performance bonus were tied to intermediate performance goals, the Wave team was more motivated to hit deadlines than to ship good product. Product began to suffer as the team pushed to fill in a feature checklist on time.

Reflecting on my own time as a program manager at Microsoft early in my career, I have to say the push to ship intermediate milestones and hit dates can have some serious unintended consequences.

The classic software project management quandary rears its ugly head again, over and over, and seemingly everywhere.

Quality, scope, or shipping on time: Choose two.

One thing I disliked about being a PM at Microsoft was how one of the main things we ended up having to do was punt bugs in order to ship on time. We were implicitly and systematically reducing quality and scope in order to ship on time.

If you don't sacrifice quality, then you're sacrificing scope. And doing that mid-stream for a project is often death by a thousand paper cuts, especially for user experience. Product teams end up spending as much time designing to duct tape together incomplete features and broken scenarios as building them in the first place.

And when you don't scale back scope, you sacrifice quality and end up with Google Wave. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

iPhone 4 Antenna issues are a UX issue: What the user doesn't know makes them happy.

Apple this morning is reporting that they've figured out what is really going on with the iPhone 4 antenna. 

We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately (ed: emphasis mine), providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

As Gruber reports, this is the best phone antenna ever created. All the lab tests show its amazing. So what's the cause? The antenna does get attenuated if you hold it a certain way, but in a less dramatic way than 4 bars dropping. Perhaps only 20-30%. Not worse than other phones at all. Turns out it is not an antenna issue, but a user experience issue. 

Mark Twain said if you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything. The pithy saying applies here. I can just imagine the wheels turning as Apple engineers and execs scramble to understand the situation. But it starts with a simple, pretty innocent idea: gosh, the bars look so low. AT&T reception is terrible. Lets just add a couple bars, and nobody will be the wiser. Years later, the issue is exposed in a public and grand fashion as a truly unintended consequence.

While truth will set you free, a little fib will make people happy...

When I was at Microsoft, we had a related UX problem with Microsoft ActiveSync. Customers would consistently complain about how awful ActiveSync was, even calling it ActiveStink. But after a pretty comprehensive review of feedback and failure rates, we figured out that ActiveSync wasn't that bad at all. For instance, we'd often show this error:

The server happened to be down at that very moment, but it would sync again and be fine. We put "Attention Required" and we'd call out that they hadn't synchronized against Exchange. 

What did Blackberry do? Nothing. It wouldn't tell you that the server couldn't be contacted. Users just kept thinking they were up to date. And if they weren't? Oh, it wasn't the Blackberry's fault. It was probably the server or the network or something. Everything is fine. They loved their Blackberries. Brand loyalty through the roof.

Is it important that I'm connected? Or that I FEEL connected?

When it comes to communication technologies, there's a unique UX force at work. There are few things more annoying than a communication device (that costs hundreds of dollars no less!) that makes me feel disconnected. So device makers are forced to think about ways to make people happier by hiding errors or pretending things are fine. There is a very real incentive for them to do so, as I saw first hand with the Blackberry vs ActiveSync status issue. Sometimes it can literally make your brand.

But in the case of Apple, sometimes the things you do to make your users happy can come back to haunt you.

Microsoft Courier: Wow, someone is paying attention in Redmond

I hope this 7 inch tablet has something like a 500dpi display. If we learned anything from Tablet PC, it was that writing at 72 or 96dpi sucks.

I really liked the simple drag-to-right collaboration interface. There are some interesting ideas here. Too bad it's just a concept. The devil for these devices is in the execution details.

Windows ex-honcho Jim Allchin on WIndows Vista in 2006: I would buy a Mac.

I am not sure how the company lost sight of what matters to our customers (both business and home) the most, but in my view we lost our way. I think our teams lost sight of what bug-free means, what resilience means, what full scenarios mean, what security means, what performance means, how important current applications are, and really understanding what the most important problems [our] customers face are. I see lots of random features and some great vision, but that doesn’t translate into great products.

I would buy a Mac today if I was not working at Microsoft. ... Apple did not lose their way.

--Jim Allchin, co-president of Microsoft platforms, in 2006 on a private email thread with BillG

JimAll was the top guy on Windows back when I was at Microsoft. I had never heard this quote until now.

I can't help but wonder what was the true failure of Vista. Was it really lack of leadership? Or was it just pure numbers? Windows had at least a thousand engineers with commit access -- possibly more. OS X must have had still several hundred -- several times fewer.

Keep it lean and you can move faster. Be small, and do big things. That's what I learned the hard way in my time at Microsoft.