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Product Management. Hands On Consulting.

  • Writer's pictureYoel Frischoff

Black Boxes: Communicating Product Value

Updated: Mar 21

The Machine That Goes PING

In the canonical (and hilarious!) Monty Python's Meaning Of Life scene, the Mother, the Husband, and eventually - the Newborn, are all comically marginalized by the marvels of a mysterious machine going PING at random.

The subsequent scene shows an administrator's blubbering about "reclassification of the machine's cost to current accounts - rather than to capital expenditure", followed by obedient claps of the glazed eyed medical staff.

Why did I bring this up? Laughs aside, in this scene we experience the alienation caused by a cryptic piece of technology entering our lives inexplicably.

As product managers and technology marketers, we do not want this to happen. Our products being shrugged, seen as alienating (or even worse) is not what we'd like to see. We want our products to be loved or at least appreciated. For this, we need to externalize the value a product brings to all stakeholders, laymen and specialists alike.


The Problem with black boxes 1

The Black box model. What's missing?
The Black box model. What's missing?

The reason this scene came to mind was a conversation I had with a fellow product manager, specializing in hardware for intensive care units. The product in question is attached to patients with partial consciousness and (very) limited motor abilities. While monitoring their level of awareness it provides them auditory stimulation in form of curated music, and serves as a one way communication channel, allowing family members and medical staff try and reach out to such patients.

The problem, however, is that to the bystander, ICU personnel included, the device does not provide any feedback. To them it is a mostly black box - silently doing(or not) its thing. One cannot know whether was it installed properly, have it slipped from place, or if the power is on. Indeed, even if one tore it from the comatose patient (not a likely scenario), they would not know.

To me, this is an implementation gap - and a product opportunity. Stakeholders in this situation should be able to know the product

  • Works

  • Is attached properly

  • Is calibrated

This is the only way they could experience, to the minimal extent at least, some value, feel they are not just following a meaningless ritual, and by extension, worth paying for, installing, and servicing.


The Problem with black boxes 2

Consumer grade UPS by Gamtronic, circa 1998
Consumer grade UPS by Gamtronic, circa 1998

I recently conversed with someone over Twitter (X) about UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply), and it reminded me of the first electronic device I designed (together with Vered Shlomo, my partner at Studio r2d2).

What's in a UPS, you ask? Well, 99.99% of the time, once you installed it, there is nothing much you need - or can - do with it. It just stands there, quietly gathering dust. Once in a while, though, it kicks in when the mains' current fails or surges.

When UPSs do not kick-in, for whatever reason, information is lost, files corrupted, and a whole day would go to bust, if not worse.

The trouble is you cannot be sure whether the thing is functional, all of its sensors alert, its battery charging, and indeed it would kick-in once the power fails.

The reason is that you barely have an indication of its inner working...


Status LEDs

modem indicators
modem indicators

This is what the humble status LEDs stand for. They fulfill a simple, yet crucial, task: Provide a visual proxy to the sanity of the system.

They allow the user, by a quick glance, learn about several key functionalities, critical to the system over all functionality.

Here are several simple examples:

  • Is the machine On? I answers the question: Is power being supplied past the AC-DC converter - a critical and failure prone component

  • Is the battery charging? This multi state indicator ensures the battery is charging properly, indicating the battery and the charging circuit, again, both being a critical failure prone sub system.

  • Is there an active internet connection? This led actually conveys the success q failure of a periodic ping message a modem performs

  • RX/TX: Does the system Receive data? Can it Transmit data back?

  • Wifi: Is the Wifi network on?

  • Phone / Fax: Is the PSTN bypass allowing for audio calls on the same infrastructures

  • Mobile signal: (Some modems rely on cellular data as an option)

A key characteristic for these indicators is they do not require much skill by the person in the field. A call with support team would perform these initial tests to establish if an easy fix would work (disconnect and reconnect the equipment from the mains, press the reset button, etc), or should the situation be escalated to more qualified technician.


Minimal control: Resets and tests

Sony PlayStation glorious Reset button. Source: Unsplash
Sony PlayStation glorious Reset button. Source: Unsplash

Sometimes something gotta give. A software glitch or a hardware failure requires the system to be shut down and restart with its initial parameters pulled from firmware. Meet the humble reset - here on the Sony PlayStation in one of its most glorious fashions. Usually it is a mere pinhole you push a paperclip in, but the principle is the same.

We know soft reset and hard resets, each with different level of flushing the units memory, all the way down to factory reset.

Humble as the reset button looks, it serves a noble cause: Keep technicians away, and avoid costly maintenance, shipping back and forth, or - in extreme, God forbid - travel. A button well spent!...

A GFCI Self test button
A GFCI Self test button

Another simple button is the hardware self-test button that initiates a series of self tests that run in sequence. In the example above, a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter actually requires the user to periodically test it, checking system integrity.


Peace of mind

So, this is what we users seek when we look for status indicators and successful tests from our own black boxes.

Although these devices may be visually inert, opaque about their inner workings, we do want to be sure our money was not spent in vain, and we want to make sure these inert objects will indeed come to life when needed.

To what extent we want to externalize these indicators and test buttons remains a design choice depending on day to day operations, but also on other consideration, from brand image and aesthetic design, to access and installation.

In some cases, such as in the ICU, the blinking LED has a deeper meaning - keeping users, and mainly the medical staff - happy. They need too know they did their job, the equipment is properly installed, it is running, doing what's it's supposed to do, and if everything goes right, it will never have to be tested in emergency.


This post is a deviation from from the Product Management for the physical world, which will be continued...


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