At LDI, a group of product managers participated in a session called Consoles: The Product Development Process. Along with a number of my esteemed colleagues, I attempted to pull back the curtain a little to give you an inside look at how we do our jobs.

First off, we tried to answer: “Why develop a console to begin with? Is it worth the investment?” CFOs will say that console sales alone are not profitable because the R&D expense is usually huge, and the sales and customer support expenses are not far behind. If you look at typical installations, the number of dimmers and fixtures normally outnumber consoles by about 1,000 to one. If that venue has moving lights, the gross margins on fixtures greatly swamps console profits by a landslide. Why bother?

Sex — that's what I've always attributed it to. Not the sort of sex audio engineers get after a concert due to the fact that they stood behind a very large, sophisticated, and important bit of equipment. Sales sex is what I'm talking about. Even the best dimmer sales guy can only hold someone's interest for about 15 minutes. Don't get me wrong; there is plenty of interesting stuff about today's new dimmers, but at the end of the day, they just make the lights go up and down. Now, if that same salesperson walks into an office with a console (especially a large, sophisticated one), he can hold the client's interest for hours, if not days. Consoles are the “spec-lock” item in system packages because they are such a personal choice. Anyone can hide a dimmer rack in an equipment room and forget about it (as long as it keeps working), but the console is used intensively for eight to 12 hours a day. That bit of kit is something you're going to consider very industriously before making any of your decisions.

That is also why we, as manufacturers, take console development very seriously — sometimes, too seriously. As I said, it's a personal thing, and personal opinions generally don't mix well with business' bottom lines. In my past experience as both a part owner and lead product manager of a successful lighting software company, it was my own money I was spending, and the justification of expenditures was easier than it is now for me in the larger corporate world where I am no longer both judge and juror. Everybody on that LDI panel works for someone else. Some of us are hired by large publicly owned companies, some by ambitious venture capitalist firms, and others by large industry leaders who have their own strict business models to adhere to. In all cases, it is not our own money we are spending, and there is always more than one opinion or factor that determines the end product. Balancing wants and needs within the company are difficult enough, not even considering figuring out what the buying public wants.

Another issue is to what extent product managers draw on end-users' suggestions and ideas. Hotshot programmers love to lay claim to certain features that eventually find their way into a product line; it gives them ownership. From a marketing perspective, I encourage it because we gain walking testimonials, albeit the truth is never made known as to whether or not the idea was already in place or if 1,000 other users had already suggested something similar. Pooling and sorting the hopes and dreams of the market is a tricky balancing act, especially when trying to sustain familiar operational practices while breaking new ground.

The introduction of new philosophical concepts is one of the hottest debates among marketing people, product managers, and engineers. Sales people want to sell to existing customers, as those relationships are well established, and there is a common trust between the two parties. It is more palatable for someone to buy a revamped product with which he or she is already familiar, rather than embracing new theories, efficiencies, and operational procedures. If someone has your old product, then the number one priority for the sales people is giving the users what they already know (even though you have to put it in a new “box” to sell it).

Engineers and visionaries want to push the limits and create something exciting and new, ruffling a few feathers along the way. They are marketing toward the early adaptors, and from a sales perspective, this is a risky segment of the market, as it is relatively limited and demands extra effort to penetrate. The motivation for visionaries is that you may actually build the Holy Grail and become the market leader. Since our market is quite small, being the leader has massive potential.

Current market leaders often find themselves a victim of their own success. Their customer base is very large, and their current gear eventually becomes long in the tooth. The decision has to be made whether to rebox the old or rebuild from scratch. The fear is, if you rebuild, searching for the Holy Grail, you may loose old customers that are unwilling to change. These people can either turn to third-party knock-off products or search out other options, which may or may not include your new product.

Sooner or later, we all have to agree that some things done the old way really have to go the way of the Dodo. But is it worth building something so radically new that you completely alienate the current marketplace, or do you just change it enough to bring people along? I often think of staple guns. The rock-solid standard is the chrome-looking one that you squeeze toward the back while trying to keep the front end on the wood. The new ones are made of injected-molded plastics and you push forward, easily keeping the gun in contact with the wood. Yes, it's different, maybe even easier, but at the end of the day, it still gets the job done. Which would you prefer?

Watch out — you might get what you're after.
Cool babies — strange but not a stranger.

These words, by the Talking Heads, echo in my ears. I find it amusing that David Byrne's song “Burning Down the House” is in reference to an old Dukhoborian political/religious act of abandoning old possessions and throwing one's self naked to the grace of the community. It sums up what an incredible act of faith console development really is.

Robert Bell heads Shock Lighting Limited and is the author of Let There Be Light-Entertainment Lighting Software Pioneers in Conversation. He currently acts as product manager for Horizon Control Inc., the software developers of Entertainment Technology's line of Marquee lighting control consoles and Strand Lighting's Palette series of lighting control consoles.