Critical Review in Product Development

Through a comedy of errors in 2008, SW PR offered to let me interview Paul Chastell,  at that time the director of SolidWorks software development. I wanted to talk to someone who could talk candidly, using English that users could understand. I didn’t want canned answers out of the SolidWorks playbook. But it was all I was getting, so I sent him my questions. Now Paul is not a bad guy, but he was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time, as far as the interview went. I actually feel badly about the way I handled this situation with Paul, which is something I’ve never owned up to in writing. For what it’s worth, 4 years late, I’m sorry for what happened.

The resulting article is still on my blog, called Inadvertent Straight Talk.  This is the kind of thing that should have gotten lost in one of the two blog meltdowns I’ve had since it was written. It’s not worth reading it, but I include the link mainly for reference.

I was trying to write about the role of a Devil’s Advocate in product development for the critical review of ideas. I believe that in order to distill the best idea from any initial idea, you have to have real debate, point and counterpoint. You have to see an issue from multiple points of view. In physical exercise, you don’t improve without some resistance, and I believe the same about developing ideas. Business doesn’t seem to recognize this. So much of business leadership is pathologically focused on the “non-negative”  that ideas get through the system which have not been properly vetted based entirely on enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is a great thing, but it’s not the only thing.

To me, this was the problem with the changes in SolidWorks 2008. The changes were based on a lot of good or even great ideas that had not been thought through. The ideas solved the problem as stated – “interface needs consolidation”. It’s just that no one thought to consider what problems the new solutions might cause. In the end, it took two full releases to fix 2008. This is why I always cringe when SolidWorks implements a customer idea – too often there is a huge caveat that makes it unusable.

Folks at SolidWorks and certain fanboys didn’t understand why I was so opposed to some of the changes. “We did all this customer research” was the common response to any doubts. One huge sign of trouble is when a person or a group doesn’t allow any doubt. It usually means the idea is untested.  It’s that same unassailable belief in fantasy that most people find so annoying in door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen.

Anyway, the customer research. SolidWorks can find support among customers for just about anything. What I’ve learned from the SolidWorks Top 10 exercise every year is that users themselves are the source for a whole lot of really bad ideas. There were several ideas in the Top 10 voting this year that had negative tallies. SolidWorks seems to keep track of people “interested” in a particular idea, and then they contact them during the project  for some sort of validation. Two things here. “Interested” to SolidWorks means they support the idea, not that they have experience, an opinion, a real need, or whatever. So the deck is stacked against critical review from the beginning. Second, “validation” is exactly what they are looking for. They are not looking for “negation”. If SolidWorks is talking to users, it is my experience that it is already too late. The idea is already framed, and they are just looking for support. So you often get a one-eyed view of any given issue.

Then there’s this word – grinfuck – which you can read about from Suster, Feld, urban dictionary, and here and there. It means that someone is just telling you what you want to hear, without being honest. Some people call it “being polite”, although I never thought that lying through your teeth was polite. It happens all the time in business, and in personal life. It might even be more common than telling the truth.

There are ways of asking questions in which you form the answer in the hearer’s mind. So it’s possible that SolidWorks is habitually asking to be grinfucked. A lot of people will also just be very polite out of habit, even if that means handing you a major load of bullshit. Other people just like the attention, so if you buy them lunch, or give them special access, they will tell you anything you want to hear, so long as it prolongs the relationship. Just to say that there are a lot of ways to collect bad information using the methods SolidWorks uses, without the expectation of critical review.

You could consider what Paul Chastell did to me as this sort of corporate sanctioned jive. I asked questions, and he replied with playbook pleasantries that didn’t have any real meaning – stuff that is designed for “the press”, not for end user blogs.  But on the other end, software users also grinfuck product definition people by just basking in that glow of being behind the scenes, saying “Yeah! That’ll be GREAT!!” with great enthusiasm. So it happens all the time on both sides.

Over the years, the development of the SolidWorks software has become more and more driven by internal corporate politics (which is corporate jive for “egos”), and the customers just provide justification. Four years ago, when I wrote that misguided blog post on “Inadvertent Straight Talk”, I was really appealing to SolidWorks to filter their ideas through more critical thinking. The ideas that come out the other side will be much stronger, with a broader appeal and usefulness. This concept applies to all stripes of product development. If you can some how coax users to be less “polite”, and more honest, you’ll develop a better product. Read the Mark Suster article for more on that.

Why does this come up now?  SolidWorks World is a place and time to meet SolidWorks employees. They will be looking for validation. If you start talking to someone, tell them what you really think. If you’re in a situation where you have to sacrifice politeness or honesty, always be honest. If there’s something you value, say so. If something doesn’t look like a good idea, let them know. Don’t just smile and say “Yeah! That’ll be GREAT!!” if you don’t really mean it.

8 Replies to “Critical Review in Product Development”

  1. I can speak from a NX development standpoint and the how Siemens utilizes their Special Interest Group (SIGs) inside of PLM World. As a past-Chair for NX Design and Assembly (two terms) and a member of the Technical Committee for over 8 years I was very pleased with the collaboration between Siemens and its user community.

    When it comes to PLM World, one critical component to point out is the clear delineation and separation of PLM World (Siemens User Groups) and Siemens PLM. These are two separate corporate entities. PLM World is NOT a component of Siemens but an actual organization with its own Board of Directors and such. This is a true user group not just a division or extension of the OEM marketing or sales divisions.

    The Customer Involvement Process (CIP) involves active engagement by the SIG chairs, technical committees, users and Siemens PLM Product Managers. I remember spending many a night scouring thru lists of Enhancement Requests for the CIP balloting. This whole process is very thorough and truly starts with a well written Enhancement Request (ER). (More information on the CIP process )
    When a project selected- we did a lot more than just the top voted request from the CIP ballots- for development the SIG leaders and the technical committees met regularly with the Product Managers to provide test case materials, cover the actual problem were are attempting to solve, review workflow processes, UI examples, etc. This was an active group with many meetings during the year.

    As a group of users, we also received “reality checks” from the product managers. Things cannot be developed or changed overnight- especially when you have 30+ years of legacy data that still needs to function with the new features or enhancements. Trust me this is no small task.

    It is all this interaction that allows the users and development to bounce ideas and the realities of the enhancements back and forth. I originally thought to use a tennis match metaphor here but really it doesn’t really apply because we were collaborators not opponents; maybe doubles tennis team with the problems as the opponents. That fits better. I feel that this is a very important process for both Siemens PLM and the users’ community.

  2. Unintended consequences… That’s one of the key items overlooked in developing anything.

    I have a client who is a brilliant inventor. One of the things we do in developing an idea into a manufactured product is talk with potential users. This tends to focus the product into what the user really wants/needs, and scrapes away our ideas as to what those items are. Many fantasy features have been killed at this stage when the user simply offers a “meh” sort of response to a sketch, prototype, or session of wild miming gestures to describe the concept. And ideally, this sort of user interview is iterative. We get some feedback, do some development, and then come back and get follow-up feedback on what we did.

    The whole idea is to find the best—what is the true best—in developing the products we invent/design/manufacture/market. Ego cannot be a factor. This means we must discern which of the people interviewed are more likely to stroke ego vs. those willing to discuss the issues candidly and honestly (which takes creative imagination and focused thought). Many development teams do this. Few have the drive to find real truth, whatever the path, and to develop accordingly. But those that do have a portfolio of superior ideas/designs/products to show off.

  3. Having read the original post, I think it makes a valid point and I can’t see anything deserving an apology. I can only assume something else happened behind the scenes.

    As for this post, it’s right on the money. I could substitute “Autodesk” for “SW” and post almost all of it on my own blog.

  4. I don’t think you will every hear a person that works for a “corporation” ever say anything bad about their product. This doesn’t make it right, but it does allow you to keep your job. I think in some way the Internet has a lot to do with this. Everyone is cautious how they respond because they know this information is always being monitored. I work on my car and it’s odd because a lot of DIY people are brutally honest about this make/model. The difference is most of the frustration is personal and takes place in a “shop” or “garage” type atmosphere. There’s no management around when the cussing and tool throwing takes place.

  5. How true these words are Matt. I am trying to get user feedback going to help kickstart what is considered to be put in the SE ecosphere. I don’t think most executives in general cad cam land and or users understand how critically important it is to be honest about what true needs and problems are over window dressing for PR and “cool”. I want cam integrated with SE. I would like a direct interface for my Faroarm too but one I need, the other is cool. But if I fall into the say only 30% of users that need cam over 70% of users that need something else the 70% need to be covered first. If both sides are not honest about what is going on you end up with buggy programs and stuff that no one really needs but is still included. In the meantime long term problems were not fixed due to misalocated resources, mainly finite manhours and cash going into stuff not required to make good geometry or reliability or a better work flow for customers.

    We are lucky here with SE in that management does understand this. My big fear is users and will the feedback be accurate to allow for the best planning.

    You forgot another category though. It is the one where users gripe in various ways but then had never told anyone precisely what they needed and never give meaningfull responses. How the heck can a company plan around that, use a crystal ball?

  6. I remember sitting down with Joe Dunne at the 3 Amigos meeting. Remember Joe? We discussed CosmosWorks (now called Simulation). It was his baby and there was no way CosmosWorks was going to be separate from SW or anything else. He wasn’t GFing me, but he wasn’t accepting critical input either.

    We discussed a lot of CAD issues too. The chief engineer promised to look into a number of them. Then McEleny walked in and asked where the money was coming from to fund that work. Apportionment of funds is a factor you need to include along with egos although one could say, “The squeaky ego gets the grease.”

    The number one GF job has been performance. Year after year rebuild time takes it’s 4% per release hit and year after year SW tells us performance is getting better.

    The only way around this is to analyze the software yourself.

  7. Great point of view Matt, I agree.

    I’m reminded of an ‘exclusive’ chance to speak with SolidWorks upper management about SolidWorks V6 at SolidWorks World last year, 2011. I respect the people I met with, but I got exactly the same type of information described in your post. In other words, no real information at all. One person actually made a negative personal remark about the shirt I was wearing that day, a long sleeve dress shirt (??).

    Partly because of that meeting, I soon decided to no longer continue with my SolidWorks blog.

    Devon Sowell

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