June 10, 2011
Are You Designing the Next Power Glove?
“Throw away your joysticks, kids. Punching…has evolved from two-dimensional wrist-wringing to 3-D arm-swinging.” Thus began the 1989 article of “Design News” praising that year’s must-have Christmas accessory: the Power Glove. At that time it seemed as if the new age of direct manipulation was upon us, and that video game controllers would soon be an artifact of the past.
The article goes on to explain how the Power Glove, designed by Mattel for use with Nintendo’s game system, was a magnificent feat of design and engineering: on a tight budget and a crushing schedule, the design and engineering teams turned $10,000-per-unit NASA technology into a $75 commercial product in time for the Christmas holiday season. Along the way, the engineering team invented new techniques for detecting orientation in 3-D space and invented a new use for capacitive fluids. The design team built one of the most attractive and iconic consumer electronics ever seen. In 1989, the product looked like a huge success.
Looking back, the Power Glove was anything but a success — at least not when measured by sales or consumer responses. The glove sold just 100,000 units and brought in $88 million total — hardly ushering in a new era for video games. The glove performed so poorly that its Japanese producer was forced to declare bankruptcy in light of lagging sales, and the Power Glove was recently rated by IGN as one of the worst video game controllers of all time. Today the Power Glove is mostly remembered as that thing that Lucas Barton wore in “The Wizard,” a memorable 100-minute long Nintendo commercial masquerading as a feature film. It was, by consumer standards, a complete and total failure.
So what went wrong? Reading the 1989 “Design News” article you’d think the Power Glove was destined to succeed and that nothing could possibly stop it. If we only consider design and technology that might still be true; what those teams were able to accomplish was nothing short of amazing given their limitations. But unfortunately sales aren’t generated solely by design or technology achievements: design and technology alone are poor metrics for product success.
Yet far too often these are the only metrics anyone building interactive software considers, and the Power Glove story is repeated time and time again. Businesses with pressing schedules and short budgets cut customer insight first and focus all of their dollars on technology and design. They build some really elegant products, but it’s a crap-shoot whether anyone will ever want to use them. Sometimes these companies get lucky and their blindly-rushed-to-market product turns out to be a success. More often than not they’re left in the same position as Nintendo and Mattel — holding a very fancy product no one wants to buy. All the design and technology prowess in the world won’t overcome this kind of shortsightedness.
What the Power Glove lacked was research and customer insight. During the rapid technology and design crunch there was no time to stop and ask, “How is this device for playing games? Do gamers really want direct manipulation, or might they prefer to play with a controller?” Without customer insight, the production teams rushed blindly into building the wrong thing. They built it very well and have a lot of be proud of, but in the end it was simply a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.
Solving problems is something we focus on heavily at EffectiveUI. In our six years in software, we’ve helped solve more interesting design and technology problems than I can count. Unfortunately, not every one of these solutions was backed by the customer insight required to build truly successful products and services for our clients. It’s for this reason that we started our Customer Insight and Experience Planning group last year, and why we now strongly encourage every client we accept to set aside budget for these activities.
In my time as a technologist I’ve become so well acquainted with this issue that I can no longer sit on the sidelines. In July I’m moving from our development team to our customer insight group, where I will focus 100 percent of my attention on ensuring that our clients always spend their time and money solving the right problems — problems that will solve real user needs, and problems whose solutions will earn our clients more customers, increased market share and ultimately a better ROI.
In 2006, Nintendo built on the lessons they learned from the Power Glove when introducing the Nintendo Wii. The Wii was their second attempt at direct manipulation, but this time it featured an entire video game system built around it. Wii Sports made direct manipulation of the video game fun and interesting. Even more importantly, the Wii controller can be turned on its side and used as a standard controller, meaning gamers can always choose whichever mode is most comfortable, and video game companies aren’t locked into supporting direct-manipulation games.
Today, the Wii is the second best selling console of all time, partially due to the hard lessons Nintendo learned from failures like the Power Glove. In essence, the Power Glove represents a very expensive exercise in research and customer insight for Nintendo. The company managed to turn the tough lessons it learned from the Power Glove into an eventual success, but imagine if it had first spent even a short time researching new ways of gaming or how gamers felt about direct manipulation. Nintendo might have brought direct manipulation to gaming in 1990, successfully this time, and staved off years of playing third fiddle to Microsoft’s XBox and the Sony Playstation.
Don’t let your great idea turn into another Power Glove — remember that no matter how great it might seem on paper, nothing speaks like a real user. It’s an investment that will pay dividends in the absence of waste. Learn from Nintendo’s mistake and spend some time with your customers testing out your ideas ahead of time – find out if your big idea is solving a non-existent problem or is truly something worth investing in. Of course it’s impossible to plan with absolute certainty, but even a little up-front research goes a very long way.