Marketing Stategy and Innovation Blog

Biggest Mistake that Product Managers Make

Biggest Mistake that Product Managers Make

Entrepreneurs can be considered the ultimate product managers, taking an idea from just a concept, and building out a product without the help of existing brand recognition and boundless resources. In many ways, product mangers within companies can learn a lot about how to develop a successful product by examining what successful entrepreneurs have done in building their own products/businesses. In practice, there are several things that overlap, such as, iterating the design, prioritizing features, measuring performance, etc.; however, a key missing element for product managers in established organizations versus entrepreneurial product mangers is actually talking to the customer.


Whenever an investor is looking at an entrepreneurial venture, they often evaluate the potential success by understanding how the founders have gone out and validated their idea with potential customers. They want to know that the idea has pivoted based on real information from real people. Of course too they want traction, but numbers can also be deceiving and they often invest in the team over the idea. In the end, seeking out what your customer needs, experiences, feels goes beyond all the market research one can conduct and can add qualitative validation that put the numbers in perspective.

A Second-Hand Account

If we look at how organizations evaluate the success metrics of a product owner, we’ll see a wide-range including number of products released, level of engagement across products, market penetration and post-launch sales. Whether these are the right metrics and how to measure them is a separate issue, but to meet these goals product managers employ all sorts of research and tools.


When it comes to hearing from the consumer, the sad truth is that it is often that they are consuming second-hand information. For example, customer service tells them that so-and-so is the issue, or a third-party vendor has conducted some research and say X is really what people will pay for. How many product managers have you known to actually call or step out of the building and talk to the customer? Why is this not the standard?


In the startup realm, you just won’t make it very far not stepping out of the building. Almost every entrepreneurial guide (or success story) tells you — you must talk to people, evolve your idea, get other people’s perspectives. When you consider that significant product development is often a year plus investment, it’s incredible to think that a small portion of that time is not taken to really speak to (and listen to) the very people to whom we plan to sell.

What About Traditional Research?

Traditional research certainly helps to provide information about consumer perspectives and it is not to say that these should not be done. However, let’s consider the power of the first-hand account. I’ve met several marketers who have watched focus groups and said things like ‘wow, I didn’t know that kind of perspective existed’ or ‘I had no idea that this was a problem’ or the list goes on. In the same way that user experience professionals insist on doing testing as the product evolves — you don’t know what you don’t know! Without speaking to people and constantly seeking their thoughts, how do we know we’re on the right path.


Also, let’s consider how often traditional research is done. It’s never cheap and waiting for traditional research to occur at various spread out times in the development cycle is really missing the opportunity to get some first-hand accounts. Doing so allows you to continually adjust your product roadmap and keep you in touch with your customer in ways that could even build more loyalty.


But It’s Unreasonable to Keep Talking to People!

Well, is it? Consider the entrepreneur who surrounds himself with early adopters and creates panels of early testers who feel involved in building the product. How can it be that such enthusiasts can be built from zero, but established brands can’t do the same. Making these panels accessible to real product managers who make the decision could be extremely worthwhile! The insights are there waiting to be harnessed as customers like to be involved (and those that don’t will opt out). More and more companies are building these bases, but often under-utilizing them with impersonalized surveys that show no results to the participants. This is setting up a takers-only relationship when a conversation and follow up on ideas could be much more mutually-beneficial.


So, what are you waiting for.. get out there and start talking to your customer. You may be amazed by what you find out and how happy they may be to speak with you!

Customer Journey Mapping

Customer Journey Mapping

Customer journey mapping is not just a technique for big-budget projects or companies, but a critical step in understanding your customers’ needs, desires and pain points. They allow you to stay focused on the consumer, and to identify the ways that you can better serve them.

So what are customer journey maps anyway?

A customer journey map is an illustration of a customer’s experience engaging with a company and its product or service. The map can tell the full story covering the entire customer lifecycle from initial contact to activation, engagement, and beyond or focus on only a part of the story that lays out interactions or touchpoints critical to part of the customer’s experience. What makes these maps unique to traditional funnels is that it focuses on the customer and the questions and motivations behind his/her behavior. This helps to humanize the problems and thus put the consumer at the forefront of a company’s mind and strategies.

These are fairly easy to construct (depending on the level of sophistication you use), and require you to do something you should be doing anyway: observing your customers and talking to them!

There are several forms of journey maps to be aware of, based on the scope of the visualization:

  • User Experience Journey Maps: to chart the digital experience
  • Sales Journey Maps: to chart the path through the sales funnel (awareness to purchase)
  • Customer Journey Maps: to holistically examine the full experience

We will focus on the last of these as it is the most expansive, most used, and often the most impactful in identifying big impact areas, and understanding your consumer’s full experience (which is what they will remember).

Another set of customer journey maps depends on the stage of the product. They can be either:

  • Retrospective Maps: in the case of existing products and with actual users where we map existing behavior OR
  • Prospective Maps: in the case of new products where we map how expect a consumer will behave

Here we will be focusing on retrospective maps.

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Growth Hack Your Site in 3 Steps

Growth Hack Your Site in 3 Steps

Do you want to hack your site’s growth, but don’t know where to start? Well, this article is for you! Growth hacking can be very complex, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t matter if your site is an app, a marketing site, or an ecommerce site. In this article, I will show you how to improve your registrations or any other conversion metric in three steps with leading tools in the growth hacking tool belt: Google Analytics, CrazyEgg, and Optimizely. Let’s get started!

Step 1: Tracking your goals with Google Analytics

The first thing that you need to do is identify your main goal and figure out how you are going to measure it. Let’s say that your goal is to improve the conversion rate of user registrations. Most sites will have both a registration page and a “thank you” or confirmation page after they have submitted their registration. The simplest way to track this is to use Google Analytics to track how many times users land on the registration confirmation page. To do this, you first have to set up a goal in Google Analytics. (Follow the instructions for setting up a destination goal in Google Analytics

Setting up goals in Google Analytics
Setting up goals in Google Analytics

Now that you have set up your goal, Google Analytics will start tracking what percentage of all visitors end up on the registration conversion page. Let’s say that you have 1,000 users that came to your site. Out of that 1,000 users 20 clicked on the “Register” button and landed on the registration page. Of those 20 that landed on the registration page, 10 actually completed the registration and landed on the registration confirmation page when they submitted their information. That means that the conversion rate on the registration goal was 1% (10 out of 1,000).

You could also set up a second goal to track how many people get to the registration page in the first place. If you were tracking the second goal, the conversion rate of all the people that came to your site and got to the registration confirmation page would be 2% (20 out of 1,000). If you wanted to increase the overall conversion rate for registrations, you could both increase the number of people that get to the registration page (goal 2) and make the actual registration form easier (goal 1). It is often best to break a long process into small parts and optimize them one-by-one.

Let’s say that we first want to optimize how many people get to the registration page. In other words, we will optimize the conversion rate of people navigating to the registration page. We can take a look at the conversion rate for goal 2, which is how many people, out of all those that visit our site, get to the registration form. (You may not have statistics right away, so you have to let the analytics to run for a period of time.) Imagine that you let your analytics run for a week on goal 2 and you find that the conversion rate is 2% as in the example above. That’s your base rate–the number you want to beat.

The next step after you get your baseline is to get a better idea of how folks actually use your site, so you can come up with some intelligent experiments to try. One of the best ways to do this is to use a click tracking tool like CrazyEgg.

Getting intuition with CrazyEgg

Even after over a decade of designing interactive products and conducting user testing, I am still continually surprised by how little I can anticipate. Users are incredibly complex and have needs, tastes, and whims that are very difficult to anticipate. Not only that, people tell you one thing and do another (not an earth-shattering revelation). That’s why nothing beats actually seeing what people will do on your site when completely left to their devices. Click tracking software like CrazyEgg is brilliant for this. You can see exactly where your users are clicking or, more importantly, not clicking.

CrazyEgg Heat Map
Courtesy of CrazyEgg

Let’s say that you studied your analytics and you found that the main way that users get to your registration page is from the home page. Therefore, you will want to know how your users are interacting with the home page. In particular you will want to see how many people are clicking on the registration buttons and links. That means that you’ll have to set up a “snapshot” in CrazyEgg for your home page. If the majority of your traffic comes from desktop, you’ll want to capture the snapshot as users with a desktop would see it. If most of your traffic is from mobile, you’ll want to start with the mobile view first. Usually, you can start to see patterns after only a 100 or 200 user clicks. (Follow these instructions on setting up a snapshot in CrazyEgg

After running the CrazyEgg snapshot for a couple of days, you might find that most people are clicking on the big banner image in the center of your home page, but not on the registration button at the top of the page. With this information in mind, you can think of ways that you can get more people to click on the registration button. You posit that you could make the registration button more prominent by making it orange and a little bigger. You also think that you might get more people to click on the button and go to the registration page if that button is moved from the very top to the center of the page, perhaps over the big banner image that everyone seems to be clicking.

Running experiments with Optimizely

You come up with a few other ideas about how to get more of your visitors to click the registration button and are excited to try your ideas, but how will you know which of these experiments is actually going to increase the proportion of visitors that navigate to the registration page? You could track the weekly change in registration traffic or even the conversion rate for your goal, but you know that the amount and composition of traffic varies wildly from week to week. Given that, how can you be sure you’re not making deleterious changes to your home page? One of the simplest ways to test your hypotheses is A/B testing, wherein you try two versions of one page that are exactly the same except for one thing. One of the leading platforms that allows you to do A/B testing is Optimizely (

The benefit of using Optimizely is that it has a very user-friendly interface and does not require your to actually make different versions of a page yourself. Instead, Optimizely makes changes to your page’s HTML on the fly, allowing someone with even limited HTML knowledge to test variations to a page. There are other great A/B testing tools out there, and you could even do A/B testing with Google Analytics, but they are not as user-friendly and powerful as Optimizely. (Follow these instructions on setting up an experiment in Optimizely


Optimizely Screenshot of Experiment Results
Optimizely Screenshot of Experiment Results

Once you get Optimizely set up on your site, you can create and run experiments. You can add and hide elements such as buttons and images, change colors, text size, copy, and so on. Let’s say you want to see if making the button visually stand out more is going to lead to a greater proportion of visitors clicking on the registration button on the home page. To test this, you would create an experiment for the homepage where you would create a version with a big orange button. After running the test for some time, Optimizely can tell you whether the current small, blue button or the new big orange button leads to a higher conversion rate. It turns out that you were right, and the bigger brighter button is much better at getting people to click on it. You now move onto your next experiment. Perhaps you’ll try moving the registration button to the center of the page now.

Growth hacking is easy as 1-2-3

Congratulations, you are now a growth hacker! But this is just the tip of the iceberg of what you can do. Even thinking of just the registration process, you could optimize other pages leading to the registration page. You could try a number of ways to optimize the registration page itself. You could try different messaging and marketing. Not only that, user registrations are just one part of overall user growth. You can also experiment with ways to optimize your product, marketing, and operations to improve user retention and engagement. The possibilities are truly endless, and there are a plethora of tools that help you evaluate your experiments and track metrics.

Do you have any good examples of growth hacking that you’ve done?


What Goes Up, Must Come Down: Keeping Sane on the Startup Rollercoaster

What Goes Up, Must Come Down: Keeping Sane on the Startup Rollercoaster

One of the most important things that I’ve learned in the three years that I’ve been working on our startup, AtmaGo, is that it really is a rollercoaster ride. I’ve heard this many times before from experienced entrepreneurs, but nothing can really prepare you for the reality. At the beginning, your startup’s trajectory will be chaotic. The key thing is understanding the ebbs and flows of your startup and making wise decisions in an ever-changing landscape rather than making bad, emotional decisions.


Euphoric Space Shot

I’ll start with the less deleterious mistake that most new entrepreneurs make. You just launched your app, and you’ve had pretty anemic adoption for a few months. You have a few dozen users, and you’re starting to think that this entrepreneurship thing was a huge mistake. “Why didn’t I stay at Google?” you ask yourself. Suddenly, you get a few hundred user registrations in a couple of days. All of the sudden you feel like Mark Zuckerberg! You are the new startup hero. You’re gonna be bigger than Facebook! You have some seed money in the bank, and you’re convinced that you’re going to close a huge series A by demonstrating this great traction. You, your co-founders and your two engineers throw yourself a congratulatory party. Hit up the club, drop a couple K. You’ve made it.

The next day you’re posting a job requisite for a “rockstart engineer for a super hot startup.” Then you get back to actually doing your job and look at your metrics. Shit!! Your user registrations are back to a trickle. You scramble to figure out what happened. Your magical growth just evaporated. You feel like the biggest idiot on this side of the Mississippi. Did I really just blow nearly $2K at a club last night? What happened? Why did we get this huge spike in registrations? And, more importantly, where did it go? Upon some basic investigation, you find that you app was mentioned in a pretty popular tech blog, but now that the post is buried, you are too.

This is an exaggeration (I’ve never come close to blowing $2K at a club), but this story will resonate with a lot of new entrepreneurs. You get some great news such as your metrics spiking, a mention in a super-popular blog, a promise of funding, and you make decisions based on this new high. The problem is that with an early-stage startup, this high will almost always evaporate pretty quickly. Rather than going on a spending or hiring spree right during this whirlwind of euphoria, give it a bit of time. Wait for things to settle back down. If they don’t, amazing! You’re one of the lucky few. But things will probably stabilize back down at a new equilibrium, which will likely be higher than the old one, but not by as much as you hoped.

Startup Tip: When amazing things happen, celebrate them, but then quickly chill out! Remind yourself that it’s a long and chaotic journey, and there will be many more ups as well as downs.


Pits of Despair

So two months ago you had that amazing spike in user registrations (or your favorite metric), and since then basically crickets. You are feeling a combination of panic and depression. You’re back to questioning if this startup thing was the biggest mistake that you’ve made in your life. You’re stressing about all the people you’re disappointing. You’re thinking about dropping this entire product direction and making a huge pivot to a market space that you’re not that familiar with. Or worse, you’re planning your exit strategy.

You start second-guessing yourself. We can’t possibly have product-market fit, but what was that spike in registrations two months ago? Maybe we really do have product-market fit? If we pivot, we’ll be starting at square one. We might be worse than we are now. Maybe we have no idea what we’re doing and should fold up shot? Going back to Google might not be such a bad idea. But I have this urge to build something on my own, with my co-founders. Maybe my team is the problem? Maybe I’m the problem, and I should quit?

You should quit. Quit freaking out. What goes up, must come down. The reason why I think this is the more dangerous state is that those decisions seem to have bigger ramifications than a spending spree. Unless your startup is one of those exceedingly rare unicorns, you will have those troughs of despair. Don’t make huge decisions when you are in those dark places because you will almost certainly make a bad decision based on a temporary state.

If you do need to make critical decisions, try your best to imaging what the average state is likely to be. Perhaps before the spike you were getting a dozen new registrations a day, then you got a few hundred in a couple days, now you’re back to a dozen. If you keep working on your product, outreach, and marketing, you’ll likely grow it it a few dozen per day. Assume that’s your average trend for the next few months, and make a decision on that information rather than on your negative emotions. On the other hand, if another couple months go by, and you haven’t made much progress, it really might be time to make a bold move.

Startup Tip: Weather the storm before making bold moves. If the storm does not abate, you should consider a bigger change.


My Rollercoaster

For my part, I’ve been on this rollercoaster for almost three years with AtmaGo. I initially over-reacted when things were really good or really bad. But after a few blast-offs and after passing through some valleys of darkness, I know now that neither state is permanent and try to plan for the average case. It’s a very long journey, and you have to try to husband your resources as well as mental and emotional energy. Hope this post helps you keep things in perspective and make better decisions!

What are some euphoric  experiences or moments of despair that you’ve endured and what did you learn from them?


Yes, Big Corporations Can Innovate Too

I used to think, like many, that large corporations cannot innovate. I thought that they are too large, too boring, and too riddled with politics and institutional inefficiency to move quickly and to innovate. Having consulted for a slew of large clients over the past decade, I realized that while these generalizations are often true, there are ways that large firms CAN, in fact, innovate. In this article, I present common problems that stifle innovation within a large company as well as how to overcome those obstacles.

What Is Innovation

This seems like an rhetorical questions, but it is not meant to be. Many people working at large organizations honestly forget what innovation is. Innovation is finding a problem that people have and providing a solution, which is superior to all available alternatives, to that problem. Sometimes, companies build products to address problems that are not pressing or are not in-line with the company’s core. Other times, companies provide inferior solutions and are shocked to find that customers shun them. Doing innovation right involves both finding a pressing problem and addressing it with an outstanding solution.

Common Problems Stifling Innovation

Over the past decade I have led product strategy, user experience design, and research for a variety of clients from brand nascent startups to huge financial institutions with hundreds of thousands of employees and billions in revenue. I started to notice some patterns after a while.

Executives of large corporations often say they want innovation but don’t really mean it. Without their honest buy-in, innovation will not succeed. Executives that are not truly committed to innovation can torpedo projects in many ways such as pulling funding or under-resourcing initiatives. Other times executives do not embrace the risk that is inherent in innovation. A team might find the right problem and provide a novel solution only to be sidelined by a tentative decision maker, who claims it is too new/risky/experimental. Entrepreneurs make their money on seismic shifts, while corporate executives are used to steady, incremental improvements–not innovation. Entrepreneurs will win when it comes to delivering innovation. Therefore, without true commitment to risk, a large corporation cannot innovate, only improve a little bit at a time.

A related problem is “innovation” driven by corporate politics and not by users. For example, a large bank might develop an application that allows their customers choose between a few hundred financial instruments because an executive has set a goal to create and sell a couple dozen new banking products. What’s great for that executive’s career is misery for the customer. Listening to the customer might reveal the fewer, clearer choices is really what most people need.

Another common mistake that I have seen is companies relying too much on marketing research. It almost seems that larger companies assume that given enough MBAs doing enough marketing analysis, they will find the perfect market, the perfect pain point, and the perfect solution. If that were the case, there would be no need for entrepreneurs in the world and startups like Google would not be able to compete with incumbents like Microsoft. In fact, it is impossible for find a perfect product-market fit from behind the desk. There is a reason why the lean startup approach has generated so many great products. Any innovator, no matter if a large company or a scrappy startup, must talk to their customers, try solutions, and refine their products until they find that magic recipe for an outstanding solution. Don’t get me wrong, you need market research and MBAs to chart a general direction. However, the little magical details, that make one product like Facebook trump another similar product like MySpace, are hashed out in the field not in Excel. This is at odds with the risk aversion inherent to larger firms, which precludes them from iterating in public view among other things.

There also exists a mentality among large corporations that if people are not buying a product, it is because the company has not spent enough on marketing. By extension, the way to sell more is to spend more on advertising. That is a fine strategy for eroding the bottom line. Why would you commit to a product that requires large marketing expenditure for a modest revenue? Fortunately, startups do not have this problem because they rarely have cushy marketing budgets. Startups focus instead on creating an outstanding product for a pressing need. Startups sometimes do such an outstanding job that they don’t have to spend a penny on advertising because their customers do all the advertising for them. The goal for any innovator should be to create such a compelling product that customers can’t stop raving about it. Even if you fall short of this goal, at least you won’t be jamming products down people’s throats and wasting your valuable resources.

Finally, I have witnessed a number of companies planning to use the same ‘ol team, working in the same ‘ol ways, in the same ‘ol corporate structure to develop ground-breaking innovations. Need I say more? However, I think we can agree that risk-loving, entrepreneurial types are less likely to work in a large corporation. Instead, established organizations tend to attract and retain workers that are a little bit more risk averse and less likely to challenge the status quo. Those are not the kinds of qualities that best serve an innovator. Moreover, I think we can agree that big institutions also tend to have a lot of protocol and complex business systems. For example, many of the big institutional clients require vastly complex documentation that needs to make its way through an equally complex approval and revision process. On the other hand, startups lack any of that. People that work in startups accept ambiguity and, instead, rely on their faculties to fill in the blanks and keep things move along swiftly. Therefore, it seems obvious that in order for innovation to have the highest likelihood of success in a large corporation you have to seed it with a team that is intrepid, resourceful, and free of institutional baggage. Sometimes that means bringing in a team from outside of the organization (which also has its headaches). Other times, it means separating a team from the mainstream corporate culture, seeding it with the right people, and providing backing and incentives that will compel them to take risks.

What’s Next?

As I hope you can tell from the above, most of the common hurdles to innovation in a corporate environment can be overcome. In fact, the only challenge that I think is difficult to address is buy-in from the executives. The reality is that innovators are amassing at your gate. You can only hold them off for so long before one will slip by and slay Goliath. Not only that, assuming you are not a monopolist, your competitors are likely eyeing innovation projects at this very moment. Therefore, the only way to stay ahead and stay alive is to innovate yourself.

Flawless Product Design with a Large Team

A user experience that is designed by a group should be as seamless and coherent as though it was designed by an individual. When experiences are created by a team of designers inconsistencies are often introduced, making the end product awkward and, in some cases, introducing usability errors. In my own experience, I have found that there are three ingredients to ensuring effective design by a team.

Designate a Design Lead

It is tempting to think that a flat organizational structure in the design team will breed creativity and collaboration, and it may, in deed, do so. However, I have never been on a design team that will police itself perfectly when everyone is left to their devices. The reality is that there are time pressures, demanding clients, and imperfect information, which ultimately inhibit the team’s ability to self-police its designs. It is rare for one designer to shift through everyone else’s designs and make sure that design patterns align and inconsistencies are fixed. Instead, designers often do their best with the time and information that they have. For this reason, it is important to designate a design lead, whose main function is to review everyone’s output and ensure consistency and accuracy.

It is expected that the design lead will dedicate the majority of her time to overseeing work. She will both keep an eye on process to make sure that the team members are not deviating too wildly from each other as well as on the deliverables. In looking at the design artifacts, the lead is tasked with ensuring that designers are following established design patterns. Not only that, the lead must make sure that all the pieces will fit perfectly together and that the design is extensible. It is difficult for each team member to have both a detailed view of their part as well as a global one. Finally, the lead must manage deviations from standards or gaps in the overall user experience. When the lead does her job effectively, she acts as a conductor, making sure that the entire orchestra is in tune.

Vet and Document Patters

Because each designer is focused on their part of the project, it is difficult to keep track of all the design patterns that are employed in the design as a whole. At the same time, adhering to patterns is necessary in ensuring consistency and thus reducing confusion and improving learnability. Not only that, as new designers are brought onto the team, having a central repository of patterns greatly diminishes on-boarding time. Patterns should be identified by the entire team to give everyone an opportunity vet and challenge them. When new patterns are identified, they should be cataloged. When designs deviate from patterns, the team should ensure that they are warranted and possibly if patterns should be updated. Documenting such patterns varied by group and is driven by available technology, skill sets, and organizational constraints. There is not ideal, and it is important to rember that any patterns document is better than none.

Frequent Team Reviews

In order to achieve harmonious user experience, the entire team must collaborate and have a voice in the design. The key is to have consistent, frequent meetings where all members present their work and garner feedback from their colleagues. These review meetings are important for a variety of reasons. First, no one will be able to provide you with feedback than your team members, who are working on the same product and are intimately familiar with it on a number of dimensions. Second, each designer is super familiar with their part and the patterns that they use. Thus, they will quickly be able to identify when a design is not adhering to standards or is inconsistent in other ways. Finally, each designer will be able to immediately see how another members’ will work or not work with their own. This also allows them to plan for extensibility. Although the design lead is responsible for reviewing everyone’s work, a design review that involves the entire team is second to none.

I stress “frequent” and “consistent” because that I have found that if such reviews are scheduled ad hoc they often do not get scheduled at all. It my mind, I find it better to have weekly, even bi-weekly review meetings.

A Finely-Tuned Machine

When a team is not working in unison on a user experience design, the end product becomes confusing, inconsistent, and awkward. That is why it is critical for the team to work together. At the heart of every successful collaboration is communication and transparency. In my experience, I have found that the above practices go the furthest toward reaching that ideal.

Avoiding Agile Disaster

Agile development can be a wonderful thing. Unlike a waterfall approach that can be mired with checkpoints, bottlenecks, and other friction, Agile can free organizations to move quickly. However, with that freedom come deleterious consequences. Chief among them is the loss of  product identity, which leads to an unrecognizable agglomeration of disjointed featuresA blob of garbled parts.

A Blob of Garbled Parts

One of the first questions I ask usability study participants is, “What do you think this thing does?” All too often, the answer is simply “I have no idea.” In other cases participants grasp at random guesses. In the case of Agile development, the cause usually lies with a loss of strategic vision.

Agile works in small, fast sprints that focus on features. In this high-paced product development framework, a myopic mindset often takes hold causing the team to lose sight of the big picture. Rather than asking how each new feature will support the overall product strategy and how each feature will work together to form a whole, teams are just focused on the feature-du-jour. The result is a mishmash of disconnected features–an amorphous blob, not a product. When you ask people what they think it is, you are really giving them a Rorschach test.

This is a problem for an obvious reason. No one wants an undecipherable blob of garbled stuff.

How to Spot the Blob

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to identify if your product is an amalgamation of disjointed features.

  • Open yourself to critically examining where you are.
  • Find some people that have never seen or heard of your product, show it to them briefly and ask them what they think it is and what it does.
  • Allow your subjects to interacted with your product for a few minutes and ask them again.
  • If more than half the people you interviewed cannot tell what your product is or does, you have a blob of disconnected features.

How to Fix Your Blob

This is the difficult part. Often, you have devoted so much time, effort and money into getting to where you are, that it is next to impossible to let go and clean up. Here is what to do:

  • Understand that if you do not consolidate your mess of features into a coherent product, it will only get worse and you will lose more time and money.
  • Without looking at what you have, state your product vision. (E.g. a community for people to share documents.)
  • Itemize all of your product’s features and ask whether they support your product vision. (Do you really need a video editing feature in your document sharing website?)
  • Cut all those features that do not support your product vision.
  • Look at the remaining features and ask how they fit together to form a unified product. (E.g. How does sharing by email relate to new user registration?)
  • If you identify features that do not work well with others, figure out a way to better integrate them.
  • Test the final product to make sure that you actually do have a product that people can understand and want.

How to Avoid the Blob

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure in this case. It is substantially easier and cheaper to avoid losing the products identity than trying to recover it. Below are the steps to make sure that you build a product with a strong identity.

  • State your product vision if you haven’t already done so. (See above.)
  • With every new feature in the pipeline ask how it will (a.) support the product vision, and (b.) fit within the existing whole.
  • Develop a strategy for each feature to support the overall product strategy and to work seamlessly with the other features.
  • Ensure that the design and implementation of each features meets the above two criteria.

The Infinite Pivot and the Death Spiral

We all know them: start-ups that are caught in a cycle of infinite pivots. (I’m sure you’ve already seen the lampoon Vooza.) Sometimes it’s very obvious that a company is pivoting endlessly; other times it is much more subtle. Agile development is very prone to this chronic condition since it is so easy to change tack. What are the tailtell signs that your organization is stuck in an infinite pivot?

  • Your customers don’t know what your product is or what it does.
  • Every new customer support email prompts a new feature or revision.
  • You are often undoing previous work.

If any of the above sounds familiar, your organization might be stuck in an infinite pivot. Of course, pivoting is a vital step in any new company, but doing it too often will erode your product’s identity and leave you with a blob of disconnected parts as well as a fleeting customer base. When things get bad enough, your product can go into a death spiral.

The Infinite Pivot is really just a special case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, although it arises for slightly different reasons. The main culprit in this case is also a lack of product vision but also an over-sensitivity to customer and stakeholder opinion. What I mean by the latter is that the product heads make new product decisions every time they get a new piece of feedback from a customer or stakeholder. Take, for example, a shopping web site. A few customers write in wanting bigger product images, so the product team updates the web site with bigger images in one sprint. Then an investor insists on making the images smaller to fit more products on the screen, so the images are shrunk in the subsequent sprint. Sound familiar?

A strong product vision would curtail this scenario. Conflicting feature requests would be evaluated against the overall product vision. Do bigger or smaller product images support the product strategy? This is dictated by what kind of online store you are building, which is driven by business strategy.

How to Avoid the Infinite Pivot

As in the case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, the emphasis is on clearly stating a product vision and building a product around it. However, it is also important to develop an effective system for incorporating feedback.

  • Customer insights and stakeholder opinions should be viewed as a whole not piece by piece. For example, how many customers complain about the product images? Do more people want smaller images or bigger ones?
  • Each feature request should be scrutinized to see if it fits with the overall product vision as well as with existing parts.
  • If the feature request makes the first cut, one must guage its feasibility and its priority vis-a-vis other features in the pipeline.

Following these steps should help to ensure that you do not change tack too frequently and maintain a strong product identity.

Stay True to Your Product Vision

In my experience, the most common danger associated with developing products in an Agile framework is focusing on building individual features rather than a product. By clearly defining a product vision and ensuring that all development supports that vision, you can focus on building something that your customers will understand and, more importantly, want.

People Prefer Choice over Better User Experience

Recent research suggests that if consumers perceive that their freedom of choice is limited, they will often switch to a new product from one with which they are already familiar,  (“Why Dominant Companies Are Vulnerable“,  MIT Sloan Management Review,Winter 2012). The researchers, Kyle B. Murray and Gerald Häubl, explain that this phenomenon might be one important reason why market leaders such as Microsoft lose dominant market share over time. For example, consumers might opt to switch to the Firefox web browser and endure the cost of learning a new software simply to exercise their freedom of choice. Not only that, Murray and Häubl found that consumers might make the switch to the competitor even though the competing product is not as good.

The experiment consisted of websites with different interfaces that allowed users to search for new stories. Some participants were allowed to choose the website to use while others were not. Specifically Murray and Häubl found:

51% of consumers who had no choice in selecting the interface they learned to use switched to a competing website as soon as it was available. By contrast, among consumers who were free to choose the website they would learn to use, only 23% switched to the competitor, despite the fact that other users rated the competitor’s website superior on several dimensions (including ease of use, fun, efficiency and effectiveness)… [We] found that the market leader’s advantage in being able to install a set of nontransferable user skills in its customer base is offset by psychological reactance, a force that motivates people to act against perceived constraints on their freedom of choice.

Murray and Häubl go on to explain:

As people learn to use a particular electronic interface associated with information search or online shopping, for example, they often become locked in and develop extremely high levels of loyalty even when otherwise equivalent competitors are available; the cost of switching outweighs the benefit of using another product. However, our research indicates that the depth of loyalty weakens when consumers feel that their freedom to choose is restricted. Specifically, as people feel that their choice is constrained and that one interface dominates the market, they react against the constraint by turning away from the market leader’s offering, thereby subjecting themselves to the associated costs of switching.

What does this mean for product strategy? Strong-arming customers to stick with a particular product might actually alienate them rather than foster their loyalty.

The Future of Interaction

In his article A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction, Bret Victor counters the status quo and a recent video from Microsoft projecting the future of interaction. Victor argues that, while the future does encapsulate using our hands, the future is tactile and not touching glass or ‘Pictures Under Glass.’

Images of the Future of Interaction

He summarizes his argument as:

In this rant, I’m not going to talk about human needs. Everyone talks about that; it’s the single most popular conversation topic in history.

And I’m not going to talk about about technology. That’s the easy part, in a sense, because we control it. Technology can be invented; human nature is something we’re stuck with.

I’m going to talk about that neglected third factor, human capabilities. What people can do. Because if a tool isn’t designed to be used by a person, it can’t be a very good tool, right?

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UX Design and Business

A few months ago, I received an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. As a UX designer, it seemed a strange choice to many I spoke to about the decision, but I’ve been a long-believer in the convergence of design and business. Furthermore, the need for collaboration between all the roles in the product development cycle has been a recurring theme both on this blog and in the wider community. Collaboration is greatly improved with mutual understanding, and thus the MBA serves as a great linkage between an engineering and design background to the business disciplines, including product strategy, marketing, and business management.

Signs of Convergence

Evidence of the mingling of design and business abounds. The convergence can be either very concrete, such as merged managerial-design roles, or less so through collaboration.

Don Norman, the father of user experience design stated in 2008 that UX professionals need to “learn to speak the language of business,” including using numbers to sell  ideas. In his 1998 keynote address to the Human Factors society, he mentioned that “four equal legs [of product development] are required for good product design, all sitting on the foundation of the business case.” In a Nielsen Norman Group report, Norman gets into either further detail by describing the organizational design that supports these principles of effective product development and collaboration. It has been a common drawback of each of the elements of product development to struggle for power and overlook the essential contributions of each “leg.” A recent article from this year at UXMatters nicely addresses the issues of power vs collaboration for the UX leader.

Obviously one of the big companies that has highlighted the integral importance of design in business is that of Apple. In 2005, in the wake of the iPod’s success, Bill Breen of Fast Company wrote about the Business of Design and the “design-based economy,” which has clearly gained even more momentum over the past decade. Design and business complement each other in so many ways that the field of  ‘Business Design’ is spreading in schools and companies alike, most notable of the latter is human-centered innovation consulting firm, IDEO.

What the MBA provides

Beyond a broader perspective to apply the user-centered approach, I have gained a better understanding of cost-benefit analysis, marketing process, techniques, and goals, competitive strategy, organizational dynamics, team building and incentives, and executive managerial issues. These fundamentals allow me to think beyond delighting users now, and thinking about long-term success for the company and the user alike. Compromises in the development cycle are necessary and it’s making the right compromises that can make or break a company or product. Furthermore effective collaboration across disciplines requires understanding each side with an appreciation for what each brings. Irreconcilable differences that can often happen between marketing, engineering and designers can end up surfacing in a product’s experience.

The more strategically we can think as designers, the more effective our recommendations can be within the businesses in which we work, and as a result the better the final experience can be.

Please share your comments and other articles on this issue as I’m constantly trying to track the convergence/intermingling of these disciplines.