Blog : Product Marketing

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.

Fueling the Organic Growth Cycle for Web Products

Growing a vast customer base for an online product is a complex process that encompasses marketing, product development, and luck. However, it is possible to stack the odds in your favor and to make the best of your marketing dollars by creating a product experience that fosters the organic growth cycle.

The Organic Growth Cycle

For all products, new customers are generated through a combination of paid and word-of-mouth marketing. In some cases, the majority of a product’s new customers come from organic, word-of-mouth marketing. While traditional marketing such as online advertising requires a constant input of resources, word-of-mouth marketing can essentially become a self-sustaining system, requiring little or no support—a sort of marketing Turing machine. Such a well-tuned organic growth cycle can help to grow a large customer base for any web product.

Traditional and organic marketing generating new prospective customers.
Traditional and organic marketing generating new prospective customers.

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Preview of Nokia’s New Symbian 4 OS

Nokia has started circulating specifications and previews of its new Symbian^4 OS interface and interaction design (via Symbian.org). Some notable improvements include:

  • New interface layout and interaction structure (see diagrams below)
  • Consistent look and feel across all applications
  • Contextual menus providing quicker access to common actions
  • Customizable home screen

New Interaction Models in Symbian^4

Below are some diagrams from the Symbian^4 User Interface Concept Proposal (PDF).

Symbian^4 UI Model Diagram
Symbian^4 UI Model Diagram (via Symbian.org)

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Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design – Part 3 of 3

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I explored synergies that exist between product development and user experience design as well as how the two fields fail to leverage those synergies in the product development process. In this part, I explain what product development and user experience teams can do to collaborate effectively.

What Can Product Developers and User Experience Designers Do Better

The instances where product developers and user experience designers collaborate poorly can be easily ameliorated. Overall, this means incorporating a more dynamic and integrated product development process where both teams work together on key phases and in shorter and more frequent cycles rather than long, inflexible phases. The particular steps that need to be taken to accomplish a more integrated process are outlined below.

  • Both teams should utilize an iterative and dynamic product design process instead of rigid, linear approach.
  • Both user experience designers and product developers should be involved in identifying opportunities, competitive analysis, market and user research, feature design, design refinement, implementation.
  • Product developers should not seek to define how each feature should work, but should rather define the broader project goals and product requirements.
  • User experience designers should stick to constraints defined by product developers, should consider the viability of their design in the context of implementation and marketability, and should consult with product developers on viability of features.
  • Both the user experience and product development teams should garner more frequent feedback from each other.
  • Treat the specifications documents and user experience design collateral as living documents.
Iterative and Dynamic Process

The most important optimizations to the product design process is incorporating shorter and more frequent product development cycles as well as involving each team in key phases. Although one team may take the lead in a particular phase, both teams should be involved in tasks that can benefit from both sets of expertise.

An Iterative and Dynamic Product Development Process (This abstraction does not implementation.)
An Iterative and Dynamic Product Development Process (This abstraction does not include implementation.)

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Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design – Part 2 of 3

In part 1 of this series, I explored synergies between product development and user experience design. In this part, I write about how product development and user experience design teams fail to collaborate effectively.

How Product Development and User Experience Design Fail to Work Well Together

As described above, there are many intersections in the product development and user experience design methodologies, and where those methodologies meet, they approach the same problems and similar tasks from different perspectives and with unique competencies. This means that solutions derived collectively should be more robust and accurate. However, the two groups fail to effectively work together during key stages of the product design cycle, and many inefficiencies are introduced into the process. The following are phases where synergies should but fail to occur.

Finding Technology-Based and Market-Based Opportunities

One of the areas where great strides can be made is in identifying opportunities for new products and product improvements. Both product developers and user experience designers are adept at spotting opportunities, but they do so differently and often do not find the same ones. Sadly, combining both sets of identified opportunities is often overlooked, and new products lack the full set of potential improvements.

Product developers are particularly attuned to the industry and the general market place. They study market and industry research and have an outstanding grasp of the broad trends and opportunities present in the market. Product developers also stay abreast of prevailing technological trends, and their knowledge extends to the macro level to product testing, implementation management, and market research. Most importantly, product developers have the skills necessary to analyze market opportunities to determine which hold the greatest business potential. In addition, their expertise extends beyond the big picture to the granular level; product developers are knowledgeable with specific user types and needs as well as with the technologies particular to their product portfolio.

User experience designers are not only well aware of the general market place, but they also have an exceptionally strong understanding of opportunities at the micro level. A great part of their job is identifying customers, interviewing them, and listening to their needs and desires. User experience designers tend to have a healthy obsession with optimizing individual products or classes of products. They voraciously consume related knowledge in the form of user testing, research, and industry best practices. Beyond delving into comprehending users and their needs, user experience designers tend to strictly follow the latest technological trends and innovation, seeking opportunities to fruitfully incorporate the latest technology in their product designs. Further still, because competitive analysis is an integral part of their process, user experience designers have a very broad knowledge of competing products, the technologies they use, as well as opportunities for surpassing them.

Combining the two methodologies should lead to a holistic approach that leverages both the macro-level understanding of product developers and the micro-level knowledge of user experience designers. But even though there is great potential from the two fields collaborating to identify opportunities, they rarely do. The knowledge sharing between the two groups and cooperative brainstorming are often lacking.

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Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design – Part 1 of 3

Product development and user experience design are two fields that should, but rarely, collaborate effectively to design and define products that consumers will find delightful to use. There exist many natural synergies between the two disciplines, and each field’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses. Despite this, product development and user experience teams often work in siloed circumstances with insufficient communication and collaboration and sometimes with quibbling. The current modus operandi leads to loss of productivity, longer time to market, higher costs, and products that fall short of their full potential.

User experience design is a relatively new field that has gained mainstream recognition in the past decade, and consequently, there has not been a lot of time to establish best practices for product development and user experience design to work most effectively together. The good thing is that it does not take a huge paradigm shift but rather an evolution of the current model to attain a more integrated approach to product strategy and design.

How the Process Works Right Now

Currently, the product design and development process typically starts with a product developer or a team of product developers being tasked by the executive management to conceive and oversee the production and distribution of a new product or suite of products. The product management team will conduct market research and competitive analysis, engage in fuzzy front-end brainstorming, conceive features, and will compose a long document specifying the product.

The specification document will then usually be passed on to the user experience design team, which will further define the product by designing how features will work and elements will be structured. The user experience designers will recommend new features, improve others, and redact a few.  Their designs will be articulated in specialized formats that are great for capturing elements of the design, but are not easy to understand for executives.

Subsequently, mock-ups or working prototypes of the product design will be created and tested by the user experience design team or a related team such as usability researchers. Once data and feedback have been gathered, the product developers and user experience designers will work to refine the product design. Usually, the designs produced by the user experience designers will be incorporated into the initial specification document.

At this point, or in conjunction with the user experience design, the product developers will formulate a strategy for making and selling the product. Finally, they will then manage the implementation, marketing, and distribution of the finished product or suite of products.

The current product strategy design is quite rigid and linear with long phases.
The standard product strategy and design process is quite linear with long phases. (This simplification does not include testing.)

This process is usually quite linear, and the constituent parts tend to be quite discrete from on another. Knowing that they only have one go at it, both the product development and user experience design teams fight for influence. Consequently, there tend to be many missed opportunities, inefficiencies and bruised egos along the way.

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Paint Me a Picture: Empowering the Consumer

When people consider buying anything, whether it be clothes, a gadget, or home, they often spend a lot of time comparison shopping and trying to gather information to inform their choice. In fact, a major effort is generally exerted to try to experience the item:

  • When shopping for shoes, we will put on one shoe and walk back and forth; then the other shoe, check ourselves out in the mirror and hold on to the item while scanning for other options.
  • For hotels and trips, we read reviews, look at pictures, and find out what our friends know about a destination or establishment. We look out for those horror stories and shop around for a balance of quality and price.
  • When shopping for a home, we take tours, learn about the previous owners, walk/drive through the neighborhood, look for restaurants and amenities nearby that match our interests and try to picture how we would arrange the rooms and furniture.

What this all leads to is a frame of reference. People try to create and imprint a picture in their minds of the item, not just on its own, but within their lives. It is easy for businesses to lose sight of this fundamental aspect of the decision-making process and leave it to the customer to do all this leg-work with little assistance. But this is a mistake.

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The Evolution and Future of Web 2.0

John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly recently published a fascinating white paper on the evolution of the Web (PDF). The report, titled Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On gives an excellent analysis of the last five years of Web 2.0, current trends, and where the Web is heading in the future. Battelle and O’Riley write that “Web 2.0 is all about harnessing collective intelligence,” and in the future, it will be the semantic web, sentient web, social web, and mobile web combined.  The web will increasingly happen in real time and will harness network effects to learn from the vastly expanding body of aggregate data that comes not only from users but also from sensors (like GPS). The applications based on these paradigms will provide new, elegant solutions to real-life problems. The authors write:

The “subsystems” of the emerging internet operating system are increasingly data subsystems: location, identity (of people, products, and places), and the skeins of meaning that tie them together… A key competency of the Web 2.0 era is discovering implied metadata, and then building a database to capture that metadata and/or foster an ecosystem around it.

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A Survey of Lufthansa’s Touch Screen Entertainment Application

I flew on Lufthansa during a recent trip to Europe. Not only was it one of the nicest flying experiences that I have ever had, but it also turned out to be an opportunity to experience a very well-done interactive experience. Despite some shortcomings, Lufthansa’s touch screen entertainment application was a prime case study in good user experience design. I have seen and used other in-flight applications on other airlines, but they were always clunky, often confusing, and not very enjoyable to use. Lufthansa’s application (pictured below), on the other hand, was elegant, simple, intuitive, and did everything that a typical passenger would likely need without mucking up the experience with useless features.

Home (Welcome) Screen

I witnessed something that was a true testament to the entertainment application’s outstanding design. Even before I had a chance to play with it, I looked over across the aisle where an elderly woman in about her seventies ventured to use the touch screen application. She poked the touch screen with resolute force and very intently examined the screen. From having done a number of usability studies, I guessed that she was a rather novice computer user, and I got excited to witness her use the application. From past usability studies with inexperienced participants, I anticipated that she would quickly get lost, confused, frustrated, and would abandon her task. To my astonishment, she prodigiously navigated through the application, browsed TV programs and movies to watch and ultimately played a movie on the touch screen in front of her. Needless to say, I was completely astounded by how easy to use and intuitive the application was even to a computer novice.

After studying my unaware participant, I quickly took out my camera and examined Lufthansa’s in-flight touch screen entertainment program. Below are my observations. I draw on some particular screens to illustrate certain points, and all of the ones that I photographed can be seen in the gallery at the end of the post.

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