In doing research this week for a presentation, I came across a man named Frederic Tudor. He lived in the early 1800’s and would become known in Boston as the “ice king”. Back at that time, no method existed for providing cooling needed to keep food from spoiling and Frederic Tudor is credited with having started the ice industry.
The ice industry consisted of crews of people that would cut large blocks of ice from from lakes. The blocks would then be shipped via horse drawn wagons, rail and barges to be used for keeping food good during transit. Frederic Tudor wasn’t the only “ice dealer” but certainly the largest and the pioneer of an industry that would, at it’s peak employ nearly 100,000 people.
Most competitors in the industry were focused on how to make electric ice saws and ship ice faster. What none of them saw coming was the invention of refrigeration systems and the ability to make ice from machines. In less than 2 decades this industry would be no more.
History is full of examples of companies that failed to innovate and see where new, better solutions to the problems they were solving would come from. Polaroid missed out on digital cameras. Blockbuster missed out on streaming content. IBM missed out on personal computing.
What’s talked about much less though, are the companies that get beat by competitors offering nearly the same product, but done so with greater user experience. There are some great examples of “build a better mouse trap” stories where simply improving functionality, design and simplicity to create a user experience so much better that they changed the landscape of their industry. America Online lost to a host of broadband focused companies. Yahoo would lose to Google. MySpace lost to Facebook. Nokia and Blackberry (and others) lost to Apple and the iPhone. The power of User Experience is so strong that it’s the equivalent to a paradigm shifting innovation in terms of it’s disruptive capability in the marketplace.
So what makes a great User Experience? Interactive Design defines it as “[experience] that meets a user’s needs in the specific context where he or she uses the product”. It’s a pretty vague definition and I don’t say that to pick on the author of that explanation but rather to point out how difficult it is to define. Defining great UX is like trying to nail Jello to a wall. It’s tough to do but yet we all know it when we “see” it. Next week I’ll share some more points about what make for a great User Experience. But the message here is to never underestimate the impact that great UX can have as innovative force in and of itself.