Sunday, September 18, 2005

Change one dimension in the extreme

This is a thought that goes around and around my head, I see it again and again, Amazon is a great example, so is Google, but its not only in the web world, it applies to TV (CNN), Zara/Inditex in retailing and elsewhere - the potato peeler was the last example I spotted.

(Although I should admit, I gave up peeling potatoes some years ago: it takes a lot of effort, you are removing a layer with a lot of flavour and vitamins and your going to boil the things anyway so there can hardly be any germs there - but I digress!)

Sometime when you change something - even just in one dimension - you turn it into something else. Take Amazon for example: was it something new in shopping?

(I’m taking Amazon because its an example everyone knows and they do their job pretty well, similar points could be made about most online retailers.)

Or, was Amazon simply the catalogue-shopping model transferred to the Internet?

Remember those big old catalogues? My Mum used to borrow them from my aunts, Littlewoods and GUS - I’m sure other countries have their own equivalents. Really, Amazon didn’t go anything these companies weren’t doing already but by putting it online it enhanced one aspect of the system - items stocked:
  • the range of stock increased massively - first in books then in other things
  • stock was changed more frequently, a new item can be added to the system and available for people to see in a day or two; the catalogue printing and distribution system meant stock items had to be decided months in advance

Everything else Amazon did was secondary to this change - things like wish lists came later - while things like the associate programme where just electronic versions of the old system - I recommend books as an Amazon associate the same way my aunt would lend my Mum the catalogue. And in doing all this Amazon made the whole system so much easier.

At some point Amazon ceased to be an online version of Littlewoods and become something of its own.

The same is true of CNN - news was always on TV, now its on constantly, after a while it becomes something itself, part of the fabric of life.

And the potato peeler? - Well its just a knife that has been specialised.

This happens inside companies too. I once worked on software to model the electricity supply in England. At first the model took about 24 hours to run, the Analysts thought carefully about each run and each one was an event. We speeded the application up, by the time I left it was down to 3-4 hours. The analysts changed the way they worked, they could try out more “what if scenarios”, if a run didn’t look good then junk it and move on, and you saved time in preparing for the run too because you could afford to do another one if you made a mistake.

The trick with all of this is to push hard on one dimension, when you change that one dimension everything else changes. The difficult bit is knowing where to push.