28 April 2013

The joke is on us (consumers)

Take a look at this video. It is about a Google Japan project to develop a better interface for typing Japanese.

Owning to its complex writing system (several thousand Chinese characters mingled with two sets of 51 phonetic alphabets), keyboarding Japanese became feasible only in 1970s. Even today with advancements in software and AI, typing Japanese remains highly cumbersome, compared to Romance languages such as English, Spanish, French, etc.

So when Google Japan announced its intention to design a better way to type, the project sounded like a worthy effort.

Google Japan video, April 2013 (http://youtu.be/HzUDAaYMNsA)  Click "CC" for English caption.

Have you noticed the intriguing initial concept based on drum-playing? Granted, Google has always been known for quirky ideation, but many Japanese viewers thought this was an absurd, if interesting, departure from the traditional keyboard.

Alas, the complexity of the Japanese language necessitated infinite drums to be added (to accommodate thousands of characters), resulting in an inoperably massive drum assembly. Did you see that?

To solve this problem, the Google engineers did what many project teams typically do: They gathered in a meeting room to brainstorm.

Does it sound pretty normal to you, so far?

After many days of brainstorming, one day while waiting for a commuter train, an engineer had an epiphany: A split-flap input display system (the old-fashioned mechanism that flips panels to display departure/arrival information for trains, airplanes, etc.).

Did you see that?

Then comes the really eccentric part: Since people today prefer everything mobile, the Google team decides to build this new Japanese input system in the form of funky eye wear (Google glasses for the 19th century)!  Now you can type Japanese wherever you are simply by blinking your eyes.

See that?  What else did you notice?

The real scoop is, while users of Gmail in the US were greeted with the total ‘blue’ screen prank on April Fools’ Day, Google Japan made an elaborate effort to produce this video prank instead. What is interesting is that many people failed to discern the joke.

We showed this video to our colleagues in Japan, many whom are professors of Information Technology and Business. Here is what they said, which also resembles the comments of many Japanese Youtube viewers:

“It is an interesting concept, but I found it difficult to understand.”
“It looks hard to use for me, but young people like this?”
“The initial drum concept looked interesting; it is too bad that the final product departed from it.”
“Who is the wholesaler of this product? Can I get in touch?”

People did not get the joke, perhaps, because even today real life product development often resembles what the Google team portrayed in the video. That is, a team of experts gathers in a meeting room, discusses product ideas out of thin air, brainstorms design issues with each other, and eventually (hopefully) someone has a lucky break for a final product idea that might reflect solutions to the engineering problems at hand, but pay little regard to customer gemba and their real needs.

Without knowledge of customer-centric approaches like QFD and practical experience of how to implement the DFCV (design for customer value) such as gemba tools and maximum value table in Blitz QFD®, the product development in this April Fools’ video came across to many as a rather reasonable, realistic way that many businesses still conduct product development. I hope yours is different.

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