Monday, August 22, 2011

Wrong is Better Than Vague

I've got this idea for the next killer app. It's this game, you see, that'll leverage the unique properties of tablets. Do you want to work on implementing it with me?

What's the game?  Oh, something fun.
So this will be for the iPad? That and other tablets.
Who's going to play it?  Everyone.

I am going to create a 3D minesweeper for the iPad and I'll sell it for $473.26 per copy. Minesweeper is already popular on the Windows, and there is this huge market of iPad owners who have already shown they are willing to pay a lot for gadgets. And with the 3D angle we can get rich off of this. Do you want to work on it with me?

The Difference
The problem with vague is that most ideas sound either good or bad depending on the listener's optimism. Vague is how a small project turns into a years long boondoggle, or how the next billion dollar idea gets missed.

In my experience most new ideas from management types (and a disturbing number of research scientists) are of the vague variety. They have these great pie in the sky ideas, but if you try to actually evaluate them for engineering or business practicality, you can't. Without details there is no way to determine if the idea is good or completely infeasible.

Take the vague example above. Would you work on it? Is it going to be successful? Who knows. What about the wrong example? Of course you wouldn't work on it, as is. But because it is concrete, it could be improved.

Nobody pays $400 for apps!   Oh, then I guess we can charge $4.95. 
The iPad doesn't support 3D.   Hmm.. then maybe we should target those cell phones that do. 
Minesweeper really doesn't lend itself to 3D.    Well, what about this other [fill in specific details here] game? 
How much work will this be?   Oh, given those details it'll take about 3 months. 
So how many do have to sell to make it worthwhile?    Oh, my time is cheap, probably just 10 copies. 
Then you'll probably be successful, but I don't think I'll help you.
As you can see, with concreteness, even wrong concreteness, decisions can be made in an informed way.

Even more important than concrete plans, are concrete implementations. There's a reason people create research prototypes, whether it is for a physical product or software. You can learn so much more from what goes wrong than you can from just the high level ideas.

So the next time you have an idea, make it concrete. A wrong implementation is worth much more than just the vague idea itself.


osmium said...

A very good post, because seeing you put it that way makes the point very clearly. I vow to be more specific.

J. M. Haddox-Schatz said...

Someone has been listening to Frederick Brooks, I see... One of my work projects over the summer has been creating the beginnings of an automated testing tool for our company's data fusion software, which is going to be integral to a large contract we have coming up. My two co-workers in charge of the data fusion software are my clients/users, but they don't exactly know what they want/need. Because I've already implemented this type of tool for another of our company's application, I've been rapidly prototyping some pieces and trying to get their feedback/input on something concrete rather than having fuzzy requirements/design meetings with them. Sometimes the client/user needs to see what they don't want before they can articulate what they actually do want.

Michael Haddox-Schatz said...

This is why I could never be an academic...I never remember my sources. Yes, I got the idea of "wrong is better than vague" from Fred Brooks, but I couldn't remember that when I wrote this. I just remembered it as a good idea that I had gotten from somewhere and had to share. I'm not trying to steal credit, just trying to share good ideas.