Recent unrelated discussions, articles, interviews, and experiences have brought to mind the oft-neglected fact that most of what goes on in delivering consumer goods is invisible to the consumer. Or might as well be. Or is meant to be.
For a seamless consumer appearance, organizations try to make their offerings look finished, effortless, and natural. Harping on how difficult it was to create, manufacture, sustain, distribute, market, and sell the item only detracts from the consumer experience. It’s easier to sell with a smile than in a sweat.
This can lead to the mistaken assumption by consumers that the products they routinely use are created effortlessly, or require only the processes the consumer is most familiar with.
This principle was most compellingly captured in Henry Petroski’s 1992 book, “The Pencil,” in which Petroski takes the reader through a detailed account of how pencils are designed, how the materials used in their manufacture are sourced, and how the implements are manufactured. It’s a fascinating read, even if a little too detailed at times. But to realize that clay, graphite, rubber, wood, paint, and adhesives are all important parts of this everyday device gives you pause about assumptions you make as a consumer — and you begin to appreciate the pencil a lot more.
Or a t-shirt. A recent multimedia presentation by NPR’s “Planet Money” show takes you through the incredible interconnected work involved in making a simple t-shirt — whether it’s an undershirt or a logo shirt, you never think about the miles of thread (or yarn) involved, the genetically modified cotton, the designs that differentiate Jockey from UnderArmour from Nike t-shirts, or the vast shipping network taking cotton to manufacturing plants then back around the world.
Orange juice provided another example this year, as Business Week provided a nice overview of what it takes for Tropicana, Simply Orange, and other juices to seem fresh throughout the year. Even a simple glass of juice is an engineering and logistical marvel.
A reality television show I’ve become fond of also teaches similar lessons on a regular basis. In Restaurant: Impossible, owners of struggling restaurants are visited by a team with $10,000 and two days to rehabilitate the restaurant. In many cases, the overwhelmed owners are people with little or no restaurant experience who thought, “How hard could it be?” After all, they’d eaten at restaurants, maybe waited tables for a couple of years, or tended bar. But the complexity and discipline needed to run a restaurant well eludes them, and their struggles become fodder for life lessons on television.
Even the masters of technology have had to rely on bluff and illusions to make it look simple. A recent New Yorker article about the spate of books about Silicon Valley tech gurus relates the story of the first iPhone demo, which was full of hidden technical limitations, glitches, and hardware bugs, all of which were smoothly covered up by Steve Jobs and his cohorts by stashing substitute phones around the stage, scripting the presentation to avoid paths known to generate crashes, and so forth. At the time, the OS, manufacturing process, and cellular agreements were still full of holes, and people were scrambling. Yet, six months later, the iPhone launched as promised, provided a smooth customer experience, and went on to dramatically alter consumer behaviors and expectations.
From a consumer perspective, Jobs put on a good show, the iPhone arrived on time, and the device performed as expected. Yet, the design, programming, materials provisioning, manufacturing contracts and process, packaging, sales and shipping, and support issues were largely unsettled when it was announced, despite years of work being done before that milestone was achieved. The path was perilous, but the consumer was never allowed to get a whiff of the underlying desperation.
The iPhone is what the consumer buys, but it is just the tiniest tip of a vast iceberg that includes chip makers, factories, metallurgists, programmers, electrical engineers, designers, marketers, lawyers, facilities managers, and so forth.
Another example arrived thanks to an interview with the sketch comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele on NPR. Key and Peele are on a media blitz as their often-brilliant Comedy Central show heads into its fourth season. During the “Fresh Air” interview, they talked about how the writers’ strike a few years back completely disrupted television programming, throwing their career paths into chaos. It was a reminder to them and to many producers and directors and studio executives that creative works start far below the water line, with creative writing — even so-called “unscripted” reality shows need writers. The actors may receive the accolades, but writers, producers, cinematographers, makeup artists, lighting crews, sound engineers, and legions of other technical and creative talents make it all happen. The product is merely the tip of a vast unseen iceberg.
This ties into a chapter from the recent book, “Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment” by Anita Elberse. In it, she relates the story of NBC, the US television network, which went through a phase of cost-cutting and smaller show budgets, all with efficiency and profitability in mind. Predictably, the strategy worked for a brief period, but soon led to NBC falling far down in the ratings, losing advertisers, and losing money. The resulting management shakeup allowed the network to reverse course, investing heavily in major talent and new shows like “The Voice” and “The Blacklist.” The network won this November’s ratings sweeps. Sometimes, the hidden virtue behind a product is strategy and execution combined. Both seem simple and straightforward, but are not. And both require people who are capable and committed.
Yet another example arrived last week in a comment on my blog post about the speculation that individual paywalls are going to be coming back out of necessity. The comment was:
Why would any customer care about services they can’t see?
Two examples came quickly from others — we don’t see food inspectors, but we care about food safety; journal readers don’t see the process that generated the filtered article set in front of them, but they appreciate the product this unseen process creates.
Examining the list I’ve been maintaining of what publishers do, which now exceeds 73 items, it seems to me that about a dozen of these items are actually customer-facing. The rest — so, 50-60 activities, or about 80% — are not seen by customers, but are for many publishers crucial to getting the product out, maintaining a functioning organization, planning for the future, responding to a rapidly changing environment, and supporting the more obvious parts of their activities.
Vaclav Smil, in his book “Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing,” may have the answer — aided by some current and misleading assertions about economics and innovation, we have fallen under the illusion that “making things” isn’t necessary for innovation or economic vibrancy, so have become a culture of virtual goods, financial services, venture capital, and service-sector emphasis, as if “serving potato chips were the same as making microchips.” Smil has many examples of how consumer experience has obscured both the difficulty and expense of making consumer goods. Perhaps the most impressive comes when Smil reveals that modern automobiles require 10-100 million lines of computer code to manage all the electronic control units (ECUs) in them. That’s more code than a Boeing 787 or Air Force F-35 requires — by a long shot (combined, the two planes need about 12.2 million lines of code, or about 12% of the code required by a Lexus). The software development costs involved with developing a new model of automobile can exceed $1 billion. You never see that $1 billion directly, only as part of the cost of the final good. And, because of everything else automakers do well, your portion is affordable.
In a period when quantity seems to dominate quality in all forms of communication economics and when virtual goods create a consumer experience that is increasingly divorced from the work involved in making it possible, it’s not surprising that we’ve fallen into the trap of easily minimizing or marginalizing important professional roles as “simple” or “easy to do.” This is a mistake that can occur when the simplicity of a good consumer experience is confused with simplicity in execution or skill. Often, the better the consumer experience, the more difficult and complicated the production activities were behind it.
Particular to the world of scholarly communication, the last few years have seen many people seeking the thrill of “disruption” or “revolution,” and these people sometimes begin by actively marginalizing participants in our ecosystem — librarians, publishers, authors, reviewers, and editors have all been targets at one time or another. Change should occur, and it always will. But if we fail to understand the complexity of the interactions, relationships, jobs, and professionals involved, we will make the kinds of mistakes that lead to oversimplifying complex systems and marginalizing experts.
And if we commit that error, it will represent just the tip of the iceberg.