Business / View

Tech companies need to be serious about product innovation

By Shi Jing in Shanghai (China Daily) Updated: 2016-04-15 08:26

Every few months I am invited by some technology companies to a major venue such as the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai to attend a news conference for the release of a new version of their products, for example, a new smartphone.

Even though most of the minor new features announced are often sneered at by some of the industry experts present, I was always fascinated by the phrase they used from time to time to define the new features: Product iteration.

To know more about the tech world to which I think I might be too much of a green hand, I clicked open an online marketplace and looked at the best-selling books of the month. Once again, I was caught by the buzzword of not only the tech industry but rather the whole business world today: Product iteration.

Even a business opinion leader, who gives TED talks on his personal WeChat platform, said recently that product iteration is of utmost importance for every company, even century-old automobile companies.

The phrase product iteration has been mentioned so many times that you feel out of the loop if you haven't heard of it. Especially in the tech world, it somehow seems to be a serious omission if the person, especially a product manager, doesn't talk about it from time to time.

But what exactly is product iteration? According to a thesis published in IEEE Computer in November 1993, iteration basically refers to the engineering life cycle based on user testing and other evaluation methods in an attempt to perfect user interfaces.

Hence product iteration is a systematic process that requires a scrupulous attitude. However, the repetitive mentioning of the phrase nowadays only gives a sense of restlessness and even frustration.

Designers work hard to constantly come up with slightly different new features for a product, which consumers hardly notice. The newly released iPhone SE, which offers few new features but rather returns to the age of small screens when consumers are crying out for bigger screens, ought to be one of the best examples of awkwardness.

Of course, companies should always keep in mind the importance of innovation. But making so-called product iteration only for the sake of it gives the impression that the company is desperate and lacks confidence. Hope it will come for once to the manager's mind that excessive iteration will make consumers question the quality of products.

If the company is responsible and thoughtful, it should plan everything in advance to indeed make the product helpful to consumers, rather than making itself looking like an avaricious monster luring every penny from the consumers' purse.

One more thing that Wikipedia defines for product iteration is that "the process should be repeated until user issues have been reduced to an acceptable level". What is implied here is the establishment of an effective interaction system between the company and the consumer. But based on what we have seen so far, most product iteration seems to be some new features coming out on a whim. The frequently encountered problems, such as the sudden cutoff of an application, are not probably addressed even though the company claims to have made some adjustments to the application.

But maybe it is not all the fault of the company for being so obsessed with the phrase product iteration. Consumers nowadays, spoiled by extensive consumerism, are so insatiable that all they want are more new functions. For companies that have not rolled out any new product for maybe a year, they will denounce them as lacking the spirit of innovation or teasing the designer for lacking inspiration.

But the fact is, we don't need so many updates of everything. Just go through the apps installed in your phone, and you will easily find more than 10 of them which have hardly been used for a month. We have seen so many popular products that were well-known for only a few weeks and soon vanished, leaving little impression behind. So the sad fact is, we don't need so many new things but rather a simple, lasting and trustworthy product.

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