Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Secret to Selling Surface

Need drives adoption of B2B products. Not want.

While the first chapter of Designing Gesural Interfaces implicitly asks,
"Where might multitouch be wanted?"

As a product strategist, I think a more important question that has to be answered first:

Whose big hairy problem does multitouch solve?

The first step in answering this question for a new product category, like multitouch vision systems is identifying:
1. Features - What unique things the product does
2. Benefits - What these features might be good for.

Here are the F+B's I've seen touted
for multitouch vision systems.

Let’s lay out the unique features that can be designed into a vision-based system, then figure out what sort of benefits they can create.

Multitouch vision systems, like Surface, have four distinct features. They may be more useful in some environments than others:

Blob Orientation
Optical Tagging/Object Outline
Bitmap Analysis
Ease of Cleaning the Tabletop
Intuitive (I don't completely buy this one)

What benefits would you add?

To date, the pitches for Surface that we have heard fit into 3 big buckets:
Order Accuracy
Group Decision Making


Cheap, Readily Available Dumb Objects
One of the core problems with physical computing is that it is so easy for the artifacts that control it to walk off.

Domino tags make vision-based multitouch systems compelling. You can always print more (if you think that big black blobs are ugly, it’s easy enough to print the with an IR absorbent or reflective ink. Ask your printer about varnishes).

Here’s an interesting example from Infostrat:

Durable & Easy to Clean
Independent of what any manufacturer’s rep tells you, no matter how durable a touchscreen is, it’s gonna break and it will always be at an inconvenient time.

While projection systems require maintenance, lamp replacement schedules are highly predictable.

Touchscreen bezels are germ magnets. Vision-based systems, like Surface can be designed with a flat, replaceable top.

Sanitary issues are huge in healthcare and public facilities. The device will either have a million hands a day on it…or be in an environment filled with biohazards.

The best medical electronics are sealed and don’t require ventilation. It is definitely possible to design a vision system with this in mind. I don’t think Surface was designed this way.

Users Don’t Need to Make Direct Contact With the Surface
User can wear white gloves (Think surgical gloves. Dark colors don’t work very well).

It may be possible to cover tabletop with a thin piece of material for use in clean rooms (I haven’t actually tried this and have no idea how it would impact camera calibration/false positives).

Order Accuracy
Multitouch solutions are great for kiosks that require high order accuracy and order confirmation. This is because they combine the accuracy of a barcode reader with the flexibility of a touchscreen… If only Surface could read UPC code.

Group Decision Making (Social Computing)
The ability to work together on one screen or over telepresence.

What benefits would you add?

What sorts of clients have
these big hairy NEEDS?


  1. Before you throw that up on a Powerpoint slide in 72 point jaggy Arial, you might want to correct:

    "Who's big hairy problem does multitouch solve?" to: "Whose big hairy problem does multitouch solve?"

    And as a designer, I'd totally disagree that the first task is to identify the features and benefits. The features you list are basically made-up words from the point of view of actual users. "Blob orientation"? WTF? Although I do like that "easy to clean" is top of mind with your customers. That's some sales-channel-orientation right there.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hi Thomas,

    Surface can identify the size, outline and orientation of touch events.

    This is really useful for applications like identifying if two fingers are a part of the same hand or using a domino-tagged object to control a dial.


    I spent many years working as a designer and have collaborated on products that are in the Museum of Modern Art.

    While I believe Surface is the coolest, sexiest touchscreen device in existence, my livingroom isn't the target market.

    Surface is sold direct and through B2B channels. Its market is governments and Fortune 1000 companies.

    Selling Surface as some sort of brand asset is both a bizarre and unrealistic proposition.

    Even testing this product is a significant capital investment and a major operational commitment.

    Let's imagine a typical enterprise sales scenario:
    Mcdonald's convinces franchisees to test whether 5 Surface units will increase order accuracy and speed checkout at its top 1/10% of locations.

    Here's a quick rundown of costs for this test:

    - The Surface units cost ~$15k each.

    - The installation, lifetime running and maintenance costs are likely double that number.

    Multiply $30k by 5 units by 320 locations. This TEST requires a $48,000,000 investment.

    To give a sense of scale,this is twice Porsche's US ad budget.

    The COO at McDonald's or any other large organization will measure a test of this scale on one criterion: measurable operational advantage.

    No matter how expensive or good you, I or Accenture might be, software and design are a rounding error in this discussion.