My daughter, Rachel, is probably the only 12 year-old in the country who knows who Carol Burnett is.
This is because I believe in properly educating our children, and that means exposing them to the joys of the Muppet Show. In fact, we own The Complete Muppets, a five-season DVD set that my husband bought for me at ComiCon and that our entire family watches together.
The truth is, the Muppets have always felt like living, breathing characters to me. It’s easy to forget that they are just pieces of cloth sitting on top of a puppeteer’s arm.
But when I saw one of the guests totally lose it during a romantic number with Miss Piggy, I realized how bizarre it must be to softly caress a stuffed pig while a man stands beneath it sighing and cooing “her” love in a high-pitched piggy voice.
Of course, it takes a ton of work and skill to give the Muppets the feel of real life characters. Jim Henson describes how it took his crew an entire day to film a single, two-minute musical Viking number.
And that’s why The Muppet Show is so hard to replicate. It requires so much more than just the puppets themselves. You need dozens of professionals who are skilled in set design, music, acting, writing and much, much more.
The viewing audience, of course, only sees the end result – singing, dancing Muppets. But there’s much more going on off screen – before, during and after the performance.
It’s the same with software and the quest to provide a great customer experience: It requires much more than just a pretty interface.
Consider this example: For the past decade, WorkDay Systems has been disrupting the boring old world of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Human Resources software. In a world overflowing with unwieldy, hard to use and maintain enterprise systems, WorkDay has been a breath of fresh air.
Do they provide a beautiful interface? Absolutely. But that’s just the “Muppet” part.
As a sales manager for WorkDay recently explained to me, “Our competitors try to copy our user interface, but that’s just the surface stuff. What’s harder to copy is our underlying infrastructure. What they don’t realize is that a pretty UI built on top of an old and inflexible system will still give your customers a clunky experience.”
WorkDay is eating away at its competitors’ market share by providing a better user experience AND making it easier on the backend for system administrators to manage.
And that’s just one example. Time after time, tech companies look at a successful competitor and assume they can replicate that success by simply copying the other company’s look and feel. What they don’t seem to realize is that greatness begins beneath the surface and behind the scenes.
So try this.
Begin by considering the workflows that need to be accomplished: Scanning receipts for expense reports; filling in weekly time sheets; tracking overtime; etc. Think about how people want to do this, not how the system forces them to. Then consider the overall life cycle of your product: what do people need to do to install, maintain, and upgrade it?
Only then does it make sense to focus on the interface. Because no matter how hard you try, you can’t put lipstick on a pig.
Photo credit: Volodymyr Tverdokhlib