The computer industry has matured quite a bit over the past few decades, and these days customers are demanding an ever-higher degree of sophistication, personalization, and polish. Customers are much more savvy and have had a taste of what truly outstanding solutions look like. Customers today are not willing to settle for mediocrity.

First, there was Usable

However, it wasn’t always this way. At the beginning of the personal computing era, it was enough for new products simply to be useful—to solve a problem in a way that had never been done before. This was the era of the Commodore 64, the IBM Personal Computer, MS-DOS, VisiCalc, and the like. I have fond memories of manually typing in programs, line by line, from the back of Games magazine—and the all-important checksum in the right-hand column to prevent those insidious typos. Who were the predominant customers then? Like me, they were mostly computer geeks themselves, or geek wannabes—technology-savvy early adopters willing to put up with a sometimes steep learning curve and motivated to get the most out of this new technology, whether for work or play.

Consider this example: a traditional scale in a doctor’s office is a useful and highly accurate tool, but you have to know how to work it—where to move the weights, how to read the result. In this case, the utility provided is well worth the training burden because the same person uses the scale over and over every day. But most average people aren’t quite sure exactly how to work it—they could figure it out, but it isn’t completely obvious.

Then, there was Useful

Then, in the mid-1990s, the computing market had a significant transformation. Windows 95 and Office 95 were released with new graphical user interfaces, Apple was gaining ground with the Power Mac, and the Internet was quickly becoming mainstream. Around this time it became important for products to be not just useful but usable, and most software companies began investing in usability testing to optimize their products for ease of use, efficiency, and especially discoverability for first time usage situations. Technology had become simple and accessible enough to open up two major new customer bases: home users, who started buying personal computers for the living room, and the newly minted “knowledge workers,” who started using productivity software—WYSIWYG word processors such as Microsoft Word and spreadsheets such as Lotus 123.

Going back to the scale example, what would a more usable scale look like? Chances are you have one in your bathroom right now. This scale is dead simple to operate—just step on the scale and look down to read the number. No instruction booklet is needed.

Now, there is Desirable

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the market change yet again. With the advent of mobile devices, tablet computers, connected gaming consoles, and ultraportable (and ultra-affordable) laptops, the customer base has broadened to include the far right end of the adoption curve, pulling in the vast majority of late adopters. As of 2011, fully 91 percent of American adults owned a computer, cell phone, MP3 player, game console, or tablet, and the majority of those that didn’t own any of these devices are over the age of 66.3  While average customers are less savvy about the inner workings of their computer than before, they are absolutely addicted to modern technology. With groundbreaking products now firmly established in people’s minds, such as Apple’s iPhone, Microsoft’s Kinect, Facebook, Salesforce.com, and Ruby on Rails, customers in all demographics have gotten a good taste of what truly outstanding solutions look like, and they don’t want to go back. These days, customers not only expect drop-dead

simplicity, they also expect deep personalization—for solutions to magically anticipate their needs, and for their technology to follow them wherever they go. In short, they expect a smooth, seamless, end-to-end experience.

Also relevant is the trend toward the consumerization of IT. IT departments are now bending once sacred deployment and security rules because employees say they can’t live without certain consumer products at the workplace, including iPhones, iPads, or Galaxy tablets. The pull of desirable computing solutions that is already highly visible with consumers is now reaching work-oriented markets as well. Providing compelling end-to-end experiences is rapidly overtaking every corner of the market: consumer, developer, enterprise, and small business.

Truly outstanding solutions have some things in common. Great products go far beyond simplistic first-time usability. They stitch together functionality into end-to-end experiences that deeply resonate with customers. Tasks that used to require multiple applications and manual steps can now be performed in a simple, coordinated one-stop shop: sharing photos with friends on Facebook, fully integrated team-based development environments, collaborating on documents in the cloud with seamless access anywhere. The overall quality of offerings is better, with consistent reliability, availability, and polish. These great products feel as though they have a soul—a real purpose, mission, and personality—not just an impersonal collection of computational tools. When you have all these ingredients, the best of the best have an emergent quality—they evoke an emotional response from their users, just as I showed in the car story.

To stand out in today’s market, products need to be genuinely desirable, but note that desirability isn’t necessarily about flashy graphics or polished surfaces. We’re talking about deep desirability, a quality that makes a product so good, so perfect, so “just right for me” that it evokes an emotional connection. Sometimes that positive emotion will be a sense of satisfaction with getting a tough job done more easily than expected. Sometimes it will be relief at not looking stupid in front of an important colleague. Other times the feeling may be joy at being able to see a granddaughter’s smiling face, and occasionally it may be a sense of wonder at an experience that truly seems magical. The important point is that customers have some kind of meaningful, positive, emotional response about the software, not just a fleeting “That was cool” that is forgotten as quickly as it came. Great aesthetics can certainly help, but the core of the solution is its deep, human, emotional desirability.

So getting back to our scale example, what would a deeply desirable scale look like? This is a bit tougher to answer. You see, the question you really need to ask is, “Why do you want a scale in the first place?” Is it because you actually want to know the number: how much do you weigh? Or is it because you are hoping that the number will change? Why do you want the number to change? Are you going on vacation soon and want to look good in a bathing suit? Have you just signed up for your first triathlon and the number is part of a fitness calibration? Just making the scale more visually beautiful won’t address any of those uses. Here’s another motivation, or scenario, for your use of a scale: perhaps what you really want is a scale that lies, that tells you it’s okay to eat that bacon cheeseburger? Or maybe what you really desire is something like this—the Nintendo Wii Balance Board, companion to the Nintendo WII Fit.

Somewhat surprisingly, this was one of the best-selling console game peripherals for its time. Nintendo was the first to capitalize on the fact that an awful lot of people are unhappy with their weight. Since then, the same insight has inspired the Fitbit, the Nike FuelBand, and many Microsoft Kinect titles. These companies built products that resonated with a deep-seated human vulnerability, giving customers new hope that they could finally get control of their bodies. Sure, the Nintendo Balance Board is a scale (it’s actually two scales, one for each foot), and it will tell you your weight and even graph it over time. But more importantly, when combined with the Wii Fit software, it’s part of an engaging exercise program that gets you up off the couch to start changing that number. The clean white color and high-quality industrial design of the Balance Board isn’t why it sold so well. Rather, the end-to-end experience of the Wii Fit plus the Balance Board struck a chord—an emotional chord deep inside—about insecurity versus confidence, apathy versus motivation, weight versus beauty. It gave people hope that finally achieving the body shape they were longing for could be fun and easy. Again, deep desirability goes way beyond surface aesthetics.

Putting it all together, you get a pyramid that rests on useful at the base, has usable as the middle tier, and desirable at the pinnacle. This model was devised by Dr. Elizabeth Sanders in 1992 and there have been many variations and takeoffs since. But the original terms and ideas are just as valid now as they were then.

First, it’s essential to start by solving a real customer problem. Solving a problem that no one cares about is the first, most painful mistake to make, and no amount of great usability or flashy paint jobs will save you from that. By the way, this is the single biggest mistake that most tech companies make, and one of the easiest to detect early if you are iterating rapidly with your customers – but I’ll save that for another blog post.

Next, your solution needs to be usable. It needs to be easy to use, smooth, and seamless. No hassles, no hoops to jump through, ideally no need for documentation or help. It just does exactly what the customer expects at every step along the way.

Finally, your solution needs to be desirable. The customer needs to love it. What that love looks like may be different for different kinds of solutions and different types of customers, but to really hit it out of the park, you need to evoke that strong, positive emotional connection.

What does this mean for you? Competition is fierce, and the bar is high. To be successful in today’s market you have to figure out how to achieve deep desirability within your customers. Customers now expect products to solve their problems completely and to do it in a delightful way, and this is becoming increasingly true across the industry, not just in consumer products. The goal is a product or service that customers would go out of their way to recommend to a friend.

The old technique of prioritizing a bunch of features and building as many as your schedule allows (in priority order, of course) just doesn’t cut it anymore. Usability testing is still a great technique in the toolbox, mind you, but it’s nowhere near sufficient on its own to compete in today’s market. You need some new tools in your tool belt, and perhaps even more importantly, an adjustment in your philosophy of what software development is all about.

Scenario-Focused Engineering can help you get started.