NOTE: This article entitled – Why did Shoes of Prey fail? Because it listened to its customers – along with @MattAnderson‘s talk at ProductCamp Silicon Valley (also happening today) entitled How To Not Make Your Product The Homer Simpson Car reminded me of this post I wrote many years ago.
This post was originally published in January of 2009 and then updated in October 2010 (on another site). The company, Aptera, shut down in 2011. This article gives a chronology of what happened. I think it was more than a funding issues as described in the article.
I have/had nothing against Aptera, but their example goes to show that while a single revolutionary feature — i.e. a claim of 300 miles per gallon fuel consumption — can get you headlines, it takes a LOT more than that to get a great product out the door.
I’ve written before about frames of reference. That’s the term I use (borrowed from physics) for how we can perceive situations around us differently from others due to differences in context.
The most common example is an ambulance siren. To the driver of the ambulance, the sound is consistent as they drive: Wa-wa Wa-wa Wa-wa etc. But to someone on the street as the ambulance drives by, there is a clear change in pitch from higher to lower as the ambulance gets further away. Who is right? They both are in their respective frames of reference.
When building products, our frame of reference when defining priorities is based on:
- previous experience
- our objectives
- our understanding (or lack thereof) of the target audience who will ultimately use the product.
These of course, vary from person to person. If we lack any real understanding of the target audience, we default to our own needs and assume (or hope) they apply to others.
In an episode of the cartoon series The Simpsons, Homer Simpson’s long lost half-brother Herbert is the owner of a successful car company. He asks Homer to design the company’s next car; a car for the average family, just like the Simpsons. Homer asks for a number of features on the car:
- A giant sized drink holder for those “super-slurpers at the Kwik-E-Mart”
- Tail fins, bubble domes and shag carpeting because “they never go out of style!”
- Multiple horns that all play ‘La Cucaracha’ because “you can never find a horn when you’re mad”
- A separate soundproof bubble “for the kids with optional restraints and muzzles”
- With an engine “powerful like a gorilla, yet soft and yielding like a Nerf ball”
Think this kind of thing only happens in cartoons? While I haven’t seen anything as truly hideous as Homer’s car in real life, I recently came across an example of a car that was built by engineers, and apparently for engineers. It’s called the Aptera, and it is an actual electric and hybrid vehicle that is meant for production, with a list price of about $30,000.
The shape of the Aptera is designed to minimize wind resistance. In fact, if you visit their website (no longer in existence), you’ll get a brief lesson in aerodynamics and drag. Do I need to know that as a car buyer?
Note the doors are gull-wing in design, but the door windows are fixed. You can’t open them. So much for using any drive through service such as a bank machine or fast food restaurant or toll booth! NOTE: This issue has since been addressed and new versions do in fact have roll down windows.
And looking at it from the side, imagine the huge blind spots the driver will have both on the passenger as well as driver side. Note that none of the photos above show external rear-view mirrors on the car, but apparently they have added those to the vehicle.
There is also a rear view camera system that is meant to minimize the blind spots, but that seems like a workaround IMHO. They’ve optimized for aerodynamics and now need to add “features” to address usability problems they’ve created.
Also, it’s unclear what trunk space, if any this vehicle has or how you’d access it. Where you put groceries or other shopping items that you pick up while driving around town in this car?
Now, this vehicle isn’t all bad. It is claimed that the hybrid model will get 300 miles per gallon of gas. Amazing achievement if it’s true, though with crude oil currently trading at about $60-$70 per barrel, extreme fuel efficiency isn’t at the top of everyone’s list right now.
Second it has a number of interior features including:
- 2 cup holders (the car seats two people)
- smart phone connectivity
- driver and passenger airbags
- side impact beams
- solar assisted climate control
So, it’s not as hideous as the Homer — no horns playing ‘La Cucaracha’ — but it’s an example of what can happen when products are designed with the wrong frame of reference. 300 MPG is great, but you know what, I’d take 200 or even 150 MPG and have a lot more “normal” features that I’d come to expect in a car.
The Honda Insight (below on the left) suffered from some of the same issues. i.e 2 seats, “non-standard” design. The Toyota Prius (on the right) looked much more “normal”, had 4 seats etc. and found great success. Both had great mileage. In fact, the Insight had much better mileage than the Prius, but mass market buyers are not willing to forego convenience and “standard features” for long term value.
Aptera, if you are listening, your intentions are great, but there are a lot of changes you’re imposing on your users. The path to success is helping address our problems without requiring us to completely change our frame of reference.
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Saeed Khan is a founder of Transformation Labs and has worked for over 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He speaks regularly at industry events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Us page.