Monday, April 9, 2012

Does your Product have Safety Guards?

One important aspect of Product Design is ensuring that your product includes what I call "safety guards".  Safety Guards prevent any product from being used in a way that causes damage to the operator - and exist commonly in shop machinery.  Safety Guards prevent the operator from either deliberately or accidentally doing something that can cause them damage, without reducing or limiting functionality.

Software products are no different - expect that instead of causing physical damage to the operator we need to guard against doing damage to the technology environment - such as data center, network, end device, and so on.

Many products forget this part of design and testing, and we end up with solutions that accidentally or through deliberate misuse create havoc with our customers or business.  Customers may try to use your solution in a way that it was not designed, and then demand support and product modifications to fit their unsupported use case. 

While startups and early stage products may seek every viable use case in a search for a viable product and market, mature products need to guard against being pulled into fringe markets where there is not sufficient available market to sustain the product, or being pulled in a planned direction too  early. Don't arbitrarily install safety guards either - look for active situations you want/need to avoid, rather that grossly limit the product - you don't want to restrict customers from finding genuine use cases that had never been considered.

The easiest way to resolve this potential problem is to consider ways that the product could be misused, and design the interface to gracefully prevent these situations. Monitor sales and support calls and look for patterns where you are being pulled into directions that don't make sense. Design the safety guards just like those of machinery - don't limit the functionality, be simple, and just guard against things where the operator may cause damage to themselves.

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