Here are some thoughts about the difference between the pursuit of excellence and the search for perfection in discovering artefacts, both as developers of new offers and as customers.
I wrote recently about Geoffrey Wilde, Rolls-Royce engineer responsible for far-reaching innovations in the design of aero-engines, who influenced my personal career development. I remember, after he had proposed the brilliant concept of the three-shaft engine, he showed me something like 13 other 3-shaft layouts that the configuration that became the RB211 in the Lockheed Tristar was chosen from. The calculations showed that many of the concepts were, on paper, much superior to the one chosen. But, when the technological uncertaintities were factored in the likelihood of getting the engine to work in a reasonable timescale and cost far exceeded the potential benefits. In fact it is only now, 40 years later, that some of the principles are being seriously suggested for the Taranis programme extension into greener technologies, known as EFE- environmentally friendly engine.
So why the asymptotic bridge? Well all those years ago in the Stress Office was a poster of a suspension bridge that swept across a bay and almost touched down on the other bank; it was an analogy to the calculation methodologies, we were using that enabled us to calculate stress distributions, were accurate enough mathematical models to approach the correct values of stress at given points within the structure being analysed, but not on the surface. By massively increasing calculation time we could get closer to the surface but never to it! So we always had to extrapolate. We therefore checked our assumptions using physical photoelastic models that we also model mathematically, but as the plastic material exhibited different physical properties to metal we introduced other assumptions. The pursuit of the right answer (=perfection) could become a never ending game of chasing one's tail as we might introduce unknown pertubations from the "truth" that ensured we would get the wrong answer (according to Middleton's Law); the timescale becomes protracted and people get fed up of waiting and make their own arrangements.. such as buying elsewhere! Not a very satisfactory conclusion, in fact it can be extremely de-motivating for the team of developers.
Looking at it from the customer's point of view Barry Schwartz has also talked of the frustration of the pursuit of the perfect choice, enabled by the incredible range of "stuff" we have to choose from. For instance there are an average of 17,000 goods on offer in the average British supermarket.
Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too much choice undermines happiness. Here is video of his TEDtalk.
A key slide is the plot of subjective state versus number of choices
picture uploaded by Jesper Rønn-Jensen. Used with thanks under CC.
Schwartz talks of two basic types of potential consumer:
The Maximisers: People whose aim in life is to get the best. How do you know if you got the best? You actually need to look at every possibility by making an exhaustive search. There is virtually no area where maximizing makes sense. And if they keep looking after they have chosen they can really make themselves feel uncertain!
The Satisficers: Who believe that selecting a “good enough” option (instead of maximizing) helps cut through the problem of choice. o they do a good sweep through what is on offer, go through the options and when they get to one that from their point of view "does the job" they stop searching.
The key for innovators and developers is to focus on what their target consumer is trying to get done and then make sure they provide the simplest feature set that provides the requisite affordance(s).
Reading the article "Apple's iPhone comes with a ring of overconfidence" in today's Sunday Times, especially the rivals section shows that none of them deliver perfectly on everything they could do but the iPhone seems to deliver "the simple life. It ends with the author, Tony Dunmore writing
"Nine months after first playing with the iPhone, I’m still entirely smitten. I’m willing to forgive its failings and I’m not alone – Apple claims the iPhone customer satisfaction rating is higher than with any previous product.
But there is a serious threat, and it doesn’t come from Nokia, Samsung or Sony Ericsson – it’s from Apple itself. By launching the iPod Touch MP3 player with wi-fi, which although not a mobile does feature the same magical user interface and web browsing functions as the iPhone and does not require you to switch to a hefty phone contract, Apple may have unwittingly cannibalised its own market."
which may not necessarily be true because it might be that some of us want a swiss army knife whilst others of us want a set of simple tools so the market may segment and Apple pick up a fair share in both. So when we develop new products we need to really understand our potential users and provide what they are looking for in the simplest package for each bundle of "jobs to be done"
So its this
or simply this
(For more on the challenges of designing the Millau Bridge read page 6 onward of this.