Ben Galbraith, vice president of global products for Walmart, is surprised at how many people still believe that the best way to come up with new software is to “get a bunch of nerds and put them in a room until they produce a product.” In reality, he said at the recent BizTech@Wharton conference, successful software development requires active involvement by business leaders. 

Galbraith, whose previous positions include director of developer relations at Palm and director of developer tools at Mozilla, held up the example of Mike Markkula, Apple’s first backer and its second CEO. “Because Mike understood the technology-development process, he was able to provide the leadership Apple needed to figure out how to be successful. He’s the one who really set the tone for how to develop great technology products and bring them to market,” said Galbraith.

One valuable piece of guidance that leaders can provide is to steer developers away from trying for “moon shots” — creating software unlike any seen before — which Galbraith said may not be the best business path. While he noted that striving for pure innovation is “great … when you have billions of dollars in cash that you can throw at it,” the results are unpredictable and can take years. This is untenable for a company that needs to bring a product to market and deliver some kind of return, he added.

Amazing Innovations That Aren’t Quite So Amazing

What is the alternative? Incrementalism. Galbraith noted that some of the most standout products in recent memory were, in fact, only slight modifications of other, less successful products. The iPod, for example was not the first MP3 player on the market — and in fact had many competitors. But, he said, it “wound up dominating the market completely.” Google Maps came out at a time when MapQuest had already become a household name, yet within a few months it had unseated MapQuest in the marketplace. Today, Google Maps is responsible for 70% of location-based queries, he noted. The workplace online chat program Slack, Galbraith added, emerged out of nowhere about eight months ago to displace reigning programs like Campfire and HipChat. “Anyone know what [Slack’s] valuation is?” he asked the audience. “A billion-dollar valuation in about eight months. The other companies are not even close. 

“These successful products really didn’t do anything novel.”

“What’s fascinating to me … is that these successful products really didn’t do anything novel,” Galbraith continued. “I don’t think I could point to a single feature in any of [them] that was really compelling relative to their competition.” He commented that even the iPhone — which many people think of as an amazing innovation — has an interface that looks a lot like the failed Palm Treo, discontinued about five years ago. 

Nailing the Details

According to Galbraith, what actually sets these products apart is attention to detail. Part of that is interaction design, or usability. Galbraith quoted Jakob Nielsen, a renowned web usability consultant, as saying that it takes only a tenth of a second for people to notice delays in reactions from a software product. “And after a second, you start to lose your focus because you have to wait, and after 10 seconds, you’re pissed,” said Galbraith. “When you realize that, you start to realize how high the bar is to create software experiences that people really love.” 

Good design also means providing an appealing visual experience, he noted. Referring to the MapQuest vs. Google Maps example, Galbraith said that MapQuest’s maps were “actually pretty ugly. There’s a ton of detail going on, not a lot of great contrast; it’s just really busy … not a pleasant experience.” But Google Maps, he said, enhanced the visual appearance with better user typography, the skillful use of contrast and simplified map elements, which “made it so you actually enjoyed consuming that content relative to its competition.” 

Galbraith quoted Jakob Nielsen, a renowned web usability consultant, as saying that it takes only a tenth of a second for people to notice delays in reactions from a software product.

Galbraith said that according to another usability guru, Don Norman, people feel better when interfacing with attractive things, which lowers our stress and enables us to ignore minor obstacles that might impede accomplishing a task.

When you get these two elements of design (interaction design and visual design) right, said Galbraith, “the passion you elicit from users is almost unbelievable.” He quoted a recent Twitter stream from Slack users, who, completely unsolicited, expressed their ardent love for the product. Their comments were unprompted by marketing efforts, Galbraith noted, since to his knowledge Slack does little or no marketing. He noted that one tweet read: “Slack is just straight up life-changing.” Said Galbraith, “Nailing the details produces a sense of joy in people and a sense of loyalty that just can’t be bought.” 

Getting Serious About Software

Galbraith talked about his experience guiding software development at Walmart, one of the world’s biggest companies, but not a company for which software design and consumer usability has been a focus. He was asked what the biggest challenge was for Walmart in the area of e-commerce. “Getting out of our own way,” he replied.

“Nailing the details produces a sense of joy in people and a sense of loyalty that just can’t be bought.”

He explained that scaling product-development efforts is extremely difficult in the company’s large, complex environment. The problem is not a shortage of ideas, he added: “Often people will come to us with an [e-commerce] idea and [say], ‘Here’s the idea, thank you very much, I’ll come by to pick up my royalty check; I have just changed your business.’” But the real rub is execution: juggling multiple stakeholders and product lines. “We do half a trillion dollars a year … some lines of business tend to be bigger than the entire industry segment they compete in,” Galbraith pointed out. “The challenge is organizing ourselves in a way so that we can be fast and effective.”

Galbraith noted that it was only four or five years ago that Walmart decided to take e-commerce seriously. “We weren’t doing so well,” said Galbraith of some of the initial efforts. He described a “mediocre mobile website that forced you to go to the desktop website to buy things.” The app took about a full minute to launch. But Galbraith said that applying some of the interaction design and visual design concepts he spoke of brought about six global products that led to revenue increasing by 450%. “We went from some of the worst products to four-star reviews.”