Apple, Digital Media, Startups

The Lost Magnificent Ambersons Footage: An Allegory

“It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”    — Steve Jobs, when asked if consumer research was done for the iPad (NYTimes)

The tale of The Magnificent Ambersons is well known among hard core movie fans. It was the first movie directed by Orson Welles after his ground-breaking Citizen Kane, and Welles and others thought it was an even better picture than Kane. But Welles went off to Brazil to make another movie just as Magnificent Ambersons was going into final edits, and left the film in the hands of the studio (RKO) and his associates. Who proceeded to test a version of the film in front of a group of teenagers in Pomona, California who had come to see a wartime musical, The Fleet’s In.

Predictably, the kids savaged the film, and in Welles’ absence RKO and some of Welles’ colleagues proceeded to butcher the picture, cutting it down from a run time of 132 minutes to 88 minutes.  No copies of the original version of The Magnificent Ambersons are known to have survived. (Imagine for a second 44 minutes being hacked from Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, or Schindler’s List). This whole saga is recounted in more depth, and wonderfully, here.

The tragedy of the Magnificent Ambersons illustrates perfectly what happens when you’re making something that is designed to engage one’s emotions and you leave the really important decisions to a focus group, or A/B testing, or some similar data-driven process.  For when you’re trying to make something that produces joy, or that is “fun,” or that is playful, some art and some craft and a point a view is required. Things that are built to engage one’s emotions — movies, music, art, even devices like the iPad — can’t be systematically produced, or manufactured, or tested.

I’ve felt this strongly as we’ve made Showyou (a new app we launch in about 12 hours) the past few months. We wanted to make something that was, first and foremost, fun to use. That made you smile with delight. That was beautiful to look at.  We had (and continue to have) a point of view about how we ought to do that. We tested it with about 50 people over the past month, got wonderful feedback from them, and iterated intensively to make the app more usable as a result.

But some feedback — while rational, defensible, perfectly justifiable — we ignored. Intentionally. Because acting on it would have involved taking out or substantially altering the very elements that, in our view, make Showyou fun to use.

It may be that tomorrow we’ll be proven wrong. And indeed, there’s definitely the risk of leaving too much in — or failing to recognize when you’ve just got a bad idea to start with (Ishtar?!).

But as I’ve gotten older, and worked on more products, I’ve come very much to the view that you have to have a point of view. And be willing to stick to it. You might be wrong. Or you might make something great. With Showyou, we are excited about what we’ve built, and eager to make it better still.

For in our world, unlike the movies, you’re never done and you always keep working towards perfection.


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