Home Joel Spolsky’s Blue Chip Products

Joel Spolsky’s Blue Chip Products

Today I had the pleasure
of attending a web conference in my own hometown, Wellington. The conference is the
fantastically named Webstock, a
two-day show finishing tomorrow. The Webstock organizers managed to secure some great
talent from the other side of the world – including Joel Spolsky, Doug Bowman, Dori
Smith, Kelly Goto and others. I’m particularly looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions,
featuring separate presentations by Ben Goodger (who works for Google and is lead
engineer on Firefox) and Tony Chor (Group Program Manager of Microsoft’s Internet
Explorer team). Talk about two sides of the coin – Microsoft v Google, open source v
proprietary, browser innovation v browser market leader.

Today’s most enjoyable
presentation for me was Joel Spolsky’s on the topic of Blue Chip Products. Before I get
into that, let me set the scene with a few quick comments about Webstock itself. The
setting of Wellington Town Hall is gorgeous and the black/dark red design theme is
distinctively kiwi – reminiscent of the Fly My Pretties
CD/DVD (an essential collection of New Zealand pop/alt music and multimedia, if you’re
interested!). Other highlights from today included an intro video message delivered by
Tim Berners-Lee (looking very Max Headroom-ish I must say), free coffees thanks to the
good folk at Provoke (visitors, ask for a “flat white”), some nice Microsoft shwag, the
Freedom Is exhibit, and a
song performed by ‘Bob’ – a web-themed version of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A
Changin’ (yes, Web 2.0 was in the lyrics!).

Blue Chip Products

But onto the business of this post, Spolsky’s presentation was entitled Blue Chip
Products. He is a funny man and his talk came across as very witty, especially the spoof
on upgrading Microsoft Windows. Essentially the topic of his talk was that great products
go well beyond usability – there’s an ineffable X-factor quality to them. The main
example he used was the Apple iPod, which is a great product – whereas the “Creative
blahbla” (a competitor) is merely a good product, despite being more usable and having
better features. The iPod is blue chip, whereas the Creative products are “off

Spolsky’s presentation was actually an extension of a draft article on his website
entitled What Makes It
Great? (First Draft)
. As in that article, he used the Brad Pitt example. In the
presentation he compared Pitt’s blue chip qualities to an equally handsome – but far less
famous – actor named Ian Somerhalder. The iPod vs Creative contrast personified.

So why is Blue Chip Design relevant to Read/WriteWeb? Well in my current focus on Web
2.0 market segments and products, one of the things I’m looking for is why certain
products become best-in-breed
. Spolsky noted in his article:

“How do you get to be #1? That’s the mystery here. And since certain markets
(graphical operating systems, online auctions, and apparently MP3 players) seem to be
winner-take-all markets, being #2 or #3 may not be good enough.

Herman Miller Aeron ChairSo this is what I’m talking about when I say “Great Design.”
It’s that ineffable quality that certain incredibly successful products have that makes
people fall in love with them despite their flaws. It’s extremely hard to pull off.”

In his Webstock presentation, Spolsky produced “The Formula” for great products:

  • Make people happy — i.e. put people/users in control of a product
  • Think about emotions — very funny example of cupholders in SVWs (too hard to
    explain, but wait for the webcast/podcast!)
  • Obsess over aesthetics — Joel used the example of the iPod’s “style over comfort”;
    for example you can’t change the battery in an iPod, so it fails miserably in usability
    there. Joel called this the “French idea of fashion” and wondered if Steve Jobs is
    actually French.

In summary, Spolsky thinks “the world is monumentally superficial”, which is reflected
as much in Web products as in Hollywood celebrities. He said that if products are
usable/useful and reveal true functionality, then they are “honest”. However in web
design and products we’re not yet at that point.

Photos: 1) Simon
2) kiwikeith

NB: Big thanks to Idealog Magazine, for my press pass into Webstock. I’ll be doing a write-up for them too.

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