Part I – What does a product change?

GPS InnovationI’m a compass and map guy. I walk in the woods. I don’t get lost. I’ve managed that without a compass and map. Water goes down to the road. Follow the water.

In a city, I always buy those big thick map books with the street indexes. I have it at my side as I’m driving. Badly though, I consult it while I’m still moving. My last girlfriend didn’t like that, so she bought me a GPS. So my map book days were over, or so you’d think.

My GPS is configured to put me on the interstate, and here in Southern California that is nuts. The interstates are crowded, and most of the time the streets are not. Besides when I’m not in a hurry, I take slow routes at slow speeds just to enjoy the place and see it almost as intimately as if I were walking. I say almost, because when I walk the same streets, I’m surprised to find things I didn’t see when I drove by. Walking, driving streets, driving interstates give us scale-dependent experiences.

I have a good spatio-temporal memory. I know what changed since the last time I was in a particular place. I can drive some trips knowing that I need to make a right turn just beyond a particular tree. I understand the lay of the land. A map does that.

A GPS device takes that away. Instead of the street, the stores, the people, the other vehicles, your attention is on the device. Yes, it is designed to fade into the woodwork, and on a long trip it does fade away. But, I find myself turning off the speaker and the incessant “make a u-turn.” Hell, those u-turns are illegal here. You are so tuned to what is right in front of you, instead of the lay of the land. A GPS doesn’t teach you the local geography.

I argue with my GPS device. Yes, it knows the fastest route, but those faster routes are counter intuitive. Those faster routes put you in places you would rather not be. My GPS device routes me off the freeway and then back on the freeway. This even to the extent of running me through a small town. I end up being lost, pulling over and looking on a map, but not my map book, which is now left at home. I’ve had it route me around a block over and over again. OK, have I arrived yet? Apparently not.

I use my GPS to go where I’ve gone before until the lay of the land sticks. On my weekly trip out to UCLA, I turn it on, because I want to know how soon I’ll be turning right among the skyscrapers. Actually, I’ve got that down now. It lays on the floor on passenger side of the front seats. It slides around and can get so far away that I have to undo my seat belt or use a tool to extend my reach. Worse, if I punch stuff in while moving, I might leave my lane. Bad. It’s designed to not allow control entries while moving, but that was design, rather than the actual deliverable. Yes, you can use it while moving. I’ve been lucky so far. My guardian angles are working overtime. I don’t use it much anymore, but I’m living in a small world right now. I hardly drive anywhere. I do have my once a week escape Glendale trip to somewhere, anywhere else.

So while my GPS gets me there. I don’t believe it.

It is also out of date. The POIs might be wrong. But, so is Google Maps when you look for a business. They might have existed once upon a time, but apparently, there is no way to remove a page from Google’s database. Google never forgets, and the real world forgets.

I recently took detours, side trips, and roadtrips to find German restaurants in various parts of California. It turns out that the list is ancient. All those restaurants have gone out of business. Where did the Germans go?

Even finding the LA main post office turned into a fruitless drive. I’m convinced that there is no such post office.

I find that my spatio-temporal behaviors have been changed by my GPS. I know how to get there, but I no longer know where I am. I do not know the place. I imagine that others don’t even capture where they’ve been, so they can get back without their device.

Spellcheckers teach us by their false positives. They punish us by forcing us to look up words that we know we’ve spelled correctly. Yes, it is a punishment, because the word is not in their list of “approved/implemented” words, or those lists don’t incorporate word stemming. We have to copy the word and paste it into Google, previously Word, and then copy the correct word from those tools before pasting it back into our text. It’s negative reinforcement learning.

In a word, they are stupid, and they punish us until we become stupid, or lose our confidence in our ability to spell.

GPS erases our confidence in our sense of place. In other words, we are lost. The old saw, “You are only lost if you think you are” is as accurate as ever. So what if a computer knows where you are, its not comfortable to not know where you are. Knowing cannot be allocated to a machine.

Products teach. They teach us towards confident ability, or confident inability. They con us into reaching beyond our limits. They teach us that we are wrong, or wrong more often than we really are. They teach us that we are incompetent. This stuff happens with good UIs and good models underlying those UIs.

Product managers are taught to listen to the voice of the customer, to find the problems, to attend to the doing. But, where in that is the cognitive, the sociological, the cultural components of being human, and of human tool use? Where in demographically-overlaid market segments, and mathematical abstractions are the confidence or lack of it, or erasure of it? How much damage does our tools and processes do to the world.

Even the simplest of tools is a tool of cognition. Cognition is fluid, dynamic, ever changing, ever learning.

The big guess what is that it isn’t a training problem. It isn’t a documentation issue. It isn’t even a UI issue. It is model to the core, and more importantly the tools we bring to bare when creating these cognitive tools. It’s because we are not taught that tools we use to do, are tools we use to think. Since when did we do things that didn’t take some thought. Hell, that’s somebody else’s job. We think, therefore our tools are tools of thought.

We need to focus on the human. In doing so, we will eventually learn to create tools that fit into the world without diminishing the human and their ever malleable cognition, self, culture, and society.

Forget integration applications, common vocabularies, average functionality, stakeholder tradeoffs, politically mediated requirements, demographics, abstractions, even technologies. These things create distance. That distance is cost, cost in terms of time and money, but beyond that costs that diminish the human, their thinking, their self, their culture, and their society. Bad practices, needless bad practice, got us here. We have better tools. We can do things in ways to eliminate these problems. But, like all yet to be discovered solutions, they wait for the unasked question, questions like the one asked here, “What does a product change?’

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David LockeDavid Locke, a product strategy consultant, and former Product Strategist for NHDS, Inc., is the author of the Product Strategist blog, and the Strategy as Tires tweets (partially archived at

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  1. Kaleigh Coriz on December 1, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with your opinion.

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