The Tao of Usefulness

Don Norman's Unusable Teapot

Telcos around the world – and you know who you are – have a habit of being really not very useful.  Matter of fact, they get into a habit of deliberately constructing cumbersome, poorly priced, stupid products that some people use only because they have to, because there’s no alternative.  Innovation in telecom is almost entirely redundant – over and above core connectivity and network engineering, there is almost nothing that the industry has come up with in the last fifty years that anyone could call innovative.  Text messaging happened by accident.  Mobile telephony should have taken off ten years before it did, except that the telecommunications industry was the one doing it.

And so as the telecommunications industry thinks about a fundamental re-design, it needs to consider those principles of design that perhaps don’t seem relevant.  Design – in telco speak – is exclusively about function.  Products need to do stuff.  Products are technical – in price, in capacity, in function.  What telcos forget to imagine is how products interact with people, their context, and how products are.  Don Norman talks about the Visceral, the Behavioural and the Reflective aspects of a person’s interaction with a product.  Do we even come close to imagining this kind of interaction in the world of telecommunications?  Maybe we can’t.  At least the telcos can’t.  Apple can, and did.  So where do we go from here?

Telcos need to re-design themselves in a way that is genuinely useful to their customers, or else they will simply continue on their path to irrelevance.  Perhaps they become like the newspaper business, or the pony express, or the canals business.  The Pony Express didn’t transform itself into anything, it simply went away.  The Canals business has seen a resurgence in recent years in tourism and leisure related businesses, but none of the original canal companies exist any more.  Perhaps that is its fate.  But there is still time.

Telcos retain customer relationships; they retain relevance (though it is fading); and they retain disproportionate and forced government and regulatory support.  These three assets are the most powerful assets the telco industry owns.  Now, based on these three things, how do you re-design an entire industry?

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