Archive for the ‘product management’ Category

Desperately needed: a killer front-end to integrate all online comms channels

Monday, July 13th, 2009

I got into a neat discussion with one of the users I interviewed for the Listrak customer research project a few months ago. Her company does a lot of email marketing, but in addition they have a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account. As a result, their communication channels have multiplied, and now they have to manage customer communications over several corporate (and customer) identities.

What’s true with companies is also true with us plain old people. I have messages coming from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter,, Friendfeed, Plaxo, Skype, Meetup, Ning (4 groups) and, oh yes, email (4 accounts). If I want to respond, I by and large need to use whichever app the message came in on. This means a dozen separate communications channels… and no way to integrate my dialogues with one friend over all these channels.

So, a user’s plea. Who can create a unified client that can integrate these channels into one stream, where the same person’s email, Facebook messages, Tweets, etc., are collected together, where I can respond and the app can translate the message into whichever protocol is needed? [Some candidates I can think of: EmailcenterPro, CoTweet, TweetDeck - each of these companies is solving a part of this problem.]

(Just imagine how valuable that would be to a company trying to converse with its customers, such as the Listrak user I talked to?)

Apple implements user suggestion for latest iPod Shuffle (maybe)

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

In June 2007 I blogged about my iPod Shuffle and what was, in my opinion, its only flaw–the inability to find out information about the songs on its playlist (”The iPod Shuffle Killer Ap”). In that post, I suggested an enhancement–here’s a quote from that post:

Update the Shuffle’s software so that, if a certain button combination is pressed (perhaps skip and pause simultaneously), the mp3 tag–the information containing song title, artist, album, etc.–is read aloud. Then return to the song.

So imagine my surprise to read, 21 months later, about Apple’s new Shuffle:

Like all previous Shuffles, there’s no display, but Apple has added VoiceOver, its new synthesized-speech feature, that tells you what song is playing, who is singing it or what playlists you have [when you press a button].

There it is. I’m touched with pride, perhaps a little annoyed that I didn’t get credit, and, yes, cognizant that someone else (even someone at Apple) may have come up with the idea independently.

Innovation made easy… or else

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

Many of my posts originate when two interesting ideas collide–two things I’ve read, possibly from very different points of view or with different objectives in mind, somehow fit together, or together illuminate something to me that’s clearer than either piece on its own.

Today there are three such things. Let’s call them stories of innovation made easy. First is the paper “The Ergonomics of Innovation,” by Bob Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao in September’s McKinsey Quarterly, which despite its awkward title is very clearly written and argued. Its central point, illustrated by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s campaign to save 100,000 unnecessary hospital deaths, is that the best innovations are often the simplest and most basic. In other words, a partial solution that is easy to communicate and to implement may bring far more value than a more complete solution that is more complex and difficult to bring into production. Here’s a synopsis of Sutton’s and Rao’s argument:

A basic idea from ergonomics is that physical and cognitive “affordances” can help people to think about, know, and use something more easily and to make fewer errors. The IHI campaign didn’t use the language of ergonomics but nonetheless applied its logic in hundreds of ways by designing and spreading affordances that made it easier for the staffs of the participating hospitals to change.

I’ve meant to write about this article for several weeks. But two more things I’ve read this week buttressed Sutton’s and Rao’s arguments. First is a report from Mark Schneck at Anecdote on a talk from this year’s ActKM Conference in Australia. This simple change didn’t save 100,000 lives but may have saved 100,000 hours wasted reading emails:

Jane mentioned that one of the actions from their knowledge strategy has had a big impact. This simple action was for all staff to write a clear description in the subject line of their emails. Adopting this practice has helped staff deal with information overload by being able to quickly identify emails that they need to deal with, and which ones can be simply deleted.

Finally, today Andrew McAfee blogged about an innovation at American Airlines that simply isn’t sticking:

According to American, “Customers with PriorityAccess privileges will be invited to board first or board at any time through their exclusive PriorityAAccess lane, which allows them to bypass lines after general boarding has begun.” The new configuration seems to be pretty uniform; I’ve seen it at every airport I’ve flown out of over the past month, which is more than a couple.

The new configuration also seems to be uniformly ignored. My fellow travelers and I have continued to line up and board just as we always do, except now we use two narrow lanes instead of one broad one. I haven’t yet seen us fliers make any effort to sort ourselves into the ‘right’ lane, and I certainly haven’t seen anyone voluntarily take themselves out of the lane reserved for the elites and rejoin the general boarding hoi polloi.

More importantly, I also haven’t seen American’s gate agents make any effort to sort us properly. I’ve heard them make announcements about the two lanes, but that’s as far as it’s gone….

It struck me at some point over the past month that I was witnessing an excellent example of why so many business improvement efforts fail: it’s not that they’re not good ideas, it’s that they’re not easy enough to enforce. American’s PriorityAAccess boarding procedure is a straightforward case of what used to be called ‘business process reengineering,’ and it’s also a microcosm of why reengineering so often failed. It’s one thing for a small group of smart people to study an existing process and figure out a way to execute it better. It’s quite another to then deploy that new-and-improved process broadly — across many business units, geographies, and/or interdependent groups.

In other words, the PriorityAAcess procedure didn’t provide enough affordances to allow harried gate agents to easily deploy it. So they didn’t.

This is an important lesson for me. My automatic mindset seeks out the elegant, complete solution. I don’t gravitate toward the simple, dumb solution. Even though, as I’m learning, that one may be the best of all.

(Bonus: this also reminded me of the previously blogged about innovation at a Singapore hospital, where a cheap webcam helped significantly reduce wait times in the emergency room.)

Related post:
Stop studying the problem, and just try something!

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AG Lafley on P&G’s innovation culture: "The consumer is boss"

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

In the newest issue of Booz & Co’s “Strategy + Business,” A.G. Lafley describes the innovation culture at his company, Procter & Gamble.

Hearing insights from Lafley and P&G about innovation is becoming a cliche, but this quote struck me as apt:

So we expanded our mission to in­clude the idea that “the consumer is boss.” In other words, the people who buy and use P&G products are valued not just for their money, but as a rich source of in­formation and direction. If we can develop better ways of learning from them — by listening to them, observing them in their daily lives, and even living with them — then our mission is more likely to succeed.

This what I’m thinking about much of the time now. How to help companies listen to, and learn from, “the bosses.”

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Gathering customer product insight using Twitter

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Gathering and sorting through customer feedback is an overlooked part of the product manager’s toolbox. Currently-used methods are inadequate to the task: surveys are limiting and misleading (one man’s 4 is another man’s 3, and so forth). Focus groups are biased and prone to takeover by assertive voices.

Fine-grained, freeform feedback, such as is gathered in customer service calls (or, as I’m doing with one client, in open-ended interviews), provides a wide range of opinions from a diverse group, relatively untainted by outside influences, measurement bias and company hypotheses.

The new social applications offer a new and promising way to gather feedback cheaply and in real time. Twitter is one such application being put to use.

Dell and Comcast, for instance, troll Twitter looking for references to their products and services. If people are struggling, their Twitter users will reach out and try to solve the problem, or point them in the right direction to get help. It’s as if a call to tech support was being worked on in public. It’s highly responsive, and the users who get this kind of attention appreciate it, usually announcing their satisfaction in a Tweet.

Other times, Dell in particular responds quickly to critiques of their products (see an earlier post and a Dell comment). It’s done well–not pushing back on the commenters, but certainly getting the company message out in that forum. In other words, comments on Dell products are always responded to.

Both the above examples have obvious PR benefits and bring the Comcast and Dell folks who engage in these conversations closer to the real customer experience. All good.

What I’m talking about, in addition to that, is collecting dozens or hundreds of tweets on a particular product and looking at them all together. What do they say about the product? Are these issues that seem to crop up continually? Are people using the product in unexpected ways? Is something about the product really, really annoying people?

Note that gathering the data is easy. Sorting it out is the hard part, but using narrative analysis techniques can separate the wheat from the chaff and give you real, useable insights.

(Here’s an example of the Twitter conversation around the new Ford Flex. I hope Ford’s product marketers are listening! Here’s another conversation on the Flip video camera)

There are other ways to gather freeform customer feedback. Customer reviews on Amazon, for example. Blog posts. Companies should use all of them. Particularly as these technologies become more embedded, and more people start talking in these forums, the stories customers tell will be more and more vital to innovation and the product creation process.

(If you’d like a comprehensive look at how businesses can use social technologies to engage with the outside, read Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff)

Related posts:
Dell’s web2.0 efforts pay off
Is Google listening to the stories around Knol?
On “Groundswell”

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The power of "anecdotal evidence"

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

We have a bike rack on our 12-year-old Isuzu Trooper that fits into the trailer hitch. I mentioned to my wife the other day that perhaps next year we should add a hitch to our 6-year-old Acura MDX, so we can use the bike rack on the MDX after the Trooper gives out.

She laughed. “What if the Acura dies first?” she said.

My wife holds the perception very firmly that the Isuzu is a highly-reliable, trouble-free car, and that the Acura is a fragile thing, constantly in need of expensive maintenance.

Statistics say otherwise. JD Power gives Acura four stars for reliability (out of five), and Izusu only two stars–tied for the worst rating.

But looking beyond statistics, at the stories, the Trooper has a bunch of ardent fans. Some people have had terrible problems and hate the car, yet many others, a larger number, love it. (See this group of epinions posts for an example.)

And the MDX’s reliability has some detractors as well (see reviews from, with many complaints about transmission problems (writer crosses fingers).

What’s most amazing is the firmness with which the reviewers–positive and negative–hold their opinions. It demonstrates the “tyranny of the mean,” in which a lot is lost by averaging ratings together. A car is an emotion-laden product–expensive, used daily, inconvenience-causing when broken. Opinions then vary dramatically based on personal experience. The stories are arguably more important than the statistics when evaluating this type of product. And product managers, as well, should be especially attuned to the stories customers are telling about their products.

The lesson here is that “anecdotal evidence” should not so easily be dismissed, and that statistics can be useful but, just as when buying a car, you should look under the hood for yourself.

It might help you figure out why your wife thinks the old Izusu kicks the newer Acura’s butt.

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Is Google listening to the stories around Knol?

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

I talk a lot in this blog about how listening to stories can help companies take the pulse of users. When a new product is released, people try it out, and provide all sorts of information that’s critical to the future evolution of the product. They don’t provide this information in statistics, but in stories. If you can make sense of the stories, it can give you insight that you can use to make adjustments in functionality, customer service, technical support, pricing, and strategy (as discussed in the section on emergent strategy in “The Innovator’s Guide to Growth”).

Here’s an example of what I mean. On July 23rd, Google released Knol, a product that collects and organizes “authoritative article[s] about a specific topic,” according to the company.

Here are some blog stories that emerged after the launch:

knol: content w/out context, collaboration, capital, or coruscation
…We’re quite a few months into the Knol experiment. What I find particularly fascinating is that most of the knols that they promote on their front page are health-related, primarily by people who claim to have health-related expertise (doctors, nurses, professors) who appear to be copying/pasting from other places. Why health? What’s motivating these people to contribute? (And why are they too lazy to fix the formatting when they copy/paste from elsewhere?)

Frankly, from my POV, Knol looks like an abysmal failure. There’s no life to the content. Already articles are being forgotten and left to rot, along with a lot of other web content. There’s no common format or standards and there’s a lot more crap than gems. The incentives are all wrong and what content is emerging is limited. The expert-centric elitism is intimidating to knowledgeable folks without letters after their names and there is little reason for those of us with letters to contribute. While I don’t believe in the wisdom of a crowd of idiots, I do believe that collective creations tend to result in much better content than that which is created by an individual hermit. (Case in point: my *$#! dissertation vs. any article I’ve co-authored.)

What makes me most annoyed about Knol though is that it feels a bit icky. Wikipedia is a non-profit focused on creating a public good. Google is a for-profit entity with a lot of power in controlling where on the web people go. Knol content is produced by volunteers who contribute content for free so that Google can make money directly from ads and indirectly from search traffic. In return for ?… (full post here)

Knol for Google: It Is Not Evil, It Is Business
Google is a smart company – smart enough for many people to be surprised after they witness this or that move or an acquisition, surprised enough to say “Why has not anyone thought of that move earlier?” And now it seems that Google has finally realized that it sends way too much traffic from its search results pages to websites that do not contribute to Google’s business. What would be the correct move for a business when faced by such a discovery? Find a way to make money by sending traffic to your own properties.

And this is exactly what Google needs Knol for: Google must be tired of being the major source of traffic for Wikipedia and many other independent publishers and now it looks for new ways to further monetize its own business. And for that it simply needed to have a platform of its own to be able to bring tons of content to internet users easily – and displace competitors from the search results. In this particular case Google serves as a full-cycle company: it provides the platform (Knol itself), the revenue (AdSense) and, finally, the distribution (search).

Sure, we hear lots of complaints about Knol already. It is quite obvious that from the day 1 of Knol launch we should have expected voices pointing at spam on Knol created in order to get revenue by building a page on a popular term. It was so obvious that it is almost ridiculous to complain about it now. The explanation here is that no matter what service people use they invariably are motivated by something. And often the motivation offered by the service determines exactly what type of users it will attract eventually… (full post here)

Knol – from Google blog
There is a debate about whether Knol is an attempt at competing with Wikipedia. In academic use, its unclear where exacly it fits – for example, much of what you would think of writing a “knol” about seems better placed in a standard journal article review or scholarly dictionary. Does this offer a replacement for those? Scholarpedia is another potential candidate for competing with standard academic review formats. At the moment, there is not much incentive for individual academics to produce these types of documents but is it, more generally, a more logical way of reviewing fields that are very fast-moving?… (full post here)

A Unit of What?
A knol, Knol says, is a “unit of knowledge”. I don’t think so. But I do think Knol is already becoming a den of spam.

My cursory research, at that link, suggests that the answer is yes. “Anemia“? No results. “Hair“? 12, including several (supposedly) by the top guy at the Beauty Network. “Cancer“? 38, so far, inncluding three in the first page of results for the biggest spam giveaway, Mesothelioma. Search for anything. Watch the results.

If this is about a fight with Wikipedia, I’d say it’s no contest. But it’s not. It’s about the corrupting influence of pure scammy ambition. Even if Google doesn’t have that, it plays host to plenty. And Knol (born on 23 July) was barely out of the womb before it got infected with it. (full post here)

The Invidious Knol
My third post on the subject and potentially the most worrying. This blog suggests that Google are tipping the search balance so that knols come above the Wikipedia on search. Its also got a good quote from Nick Carr I’m guessing that serving as the front door for a vast ad-less info-moshpit outfitted with open source search tools is not exactly the future that Google has in mind for itself. Enter Knol.

Now the evidence here is anecdotal, but it will be interesting to see if others carry out more scientific and controlled tests. If it is true then Google’s famous Do Good, already tarnished for its willing to compromise its principles in China would be finally shot. It would be an interesting new form of monopoly and a major issue of trust. Any other evidence out there? (full post here)

Twitter is also a neat place for Knol micro-stories. Here are some:

I would suggest Google Knol. It is a combination of Squidoo and Wikipedia. Plus, it is SEO-ready.

admiring my knol, and blogging about Intranet Week and my new gig at J&J

the geekosphere hating knol out of gate only makes me that much more bullish on it longer term…

I love that the wikipedia article for Knol ranks above Knol itself. I wonder how long that will last?

google knol has boobies. Goodbye wikipedia!

Ready to pronounce knol a failure already? I think we’ll see over time. Life is not *all* wisdom of crowds.

it’s pretty cool that Google can afford to have full on projects that are pointless – and it doesn’t really hurt – Knol, I’m looking at you

If I am Google, I am collecting every story I can find like this, and reading them all (including, and perhaps especially, the ones that are critical). There will be some randomness and noise, but with enough volume there will also be themes that emerge. Some that came out of my reading were:

- there’s a feeling that Google will favor Knols in its search rankings, and that’s a risk not only to the success of Knol, but also to AdSense, one of Google’s cash cows.

- the commercial model for Knol, and the perception of can encourage spammers and risk degrading the content available via Knols, tarnishing all of them.

- the perception that Google is taking on Wikipedia (or “commercializing” it) is clashing with Google’s “do no evil” mantra.

The Google team may find different patterns. Or they may not care to do anything about them. But they should at minimum understand them. Hopefully they’re doing so. The changes that come in Knol over the next few months should provide some insight.

(To see the links for thirty-five stories found on the web about Knol, both blogs and tweets, click here.)

Related post:
Review of “The Innovator’s Guide to Growth”
What in hell do stories have to do with innovation?

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What in hell do stories have to do with innovation?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Regular readers may be tiring of the constant barrage of story-related posts, or at minimum be trying to figure out how they relate to the title of this blog. Here are some words that I hope tie it together.

More and more products are launched and evolve in an iterative fashion. Version 1 does this, version 2 does that, and version 3 finally hits the mark and becomes the standard (exhibit A: Windows). Those iteration windows are becoming tighter, so good information as a basis of planning product changes is invaluable. Google in particular has turned this approach into an art form.

There are more and more ways to get feedback directly from users. Forums, call centers, social networks, Twitter, etc., etc., allow users to communicate their likes and dislikes about a product.

Now, to storytelling. Most business applications of storytelling focus on communicating outward–developing a story that helps communicate the essence or benefits of your product or company. Steve Denning, in his recent book “The Secret Language of Leadership” calls these indirect stories–stories that inspire stories in the mind of the reader or listener. Indirect stories are necessarily incomplete–they are not meant to immerse the listener in an experience (like, say, Harry Potter does). They are meant to create empathy and consensus.

What I’m talking about (as are Shawn Callahan & Mark Schenck of Anecdote, Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge and others) is inverting that model.

In addition to crafting stories and sending them out toward customers, staff, etc., what if we listen to the indirect stories coming from them? They are also necessarily incomplete–mere anecdotes–but if you gather a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand, common themes and threads will become evident. To invert Denning’s language, there’s the possibility of inspiring stories in the mind of the company.

These stories might say things like:

  • People find our product really hard to use.
  • Feature X of our product is proving more valuable than we expected.
  • A group of people are using our product in an interesting way that we didn’t anticipate.

As a product manager, the above stories are very important to me. They help orient me toward things I should do to improve product packaging, add or delete features, alter its marketing message or improve its customer service or technical support. Also, the user stories are pre-hypothesis, meaning that they are free of bias that can come via hypothesis-based approaches such as surveys. They are not adulterated by groupthink, as can happen with focus groups. They are the voice of the customer.

None of the individual anecdotes may send clear messages about where innovation is working and where it isn’t. But the accrual of them can do so.

Companies don’t use this resource to improve innovation. They should.

And that’s what I’m talking about.

(For a powerful example of the accrual of “indirect” stories to create a compelling, nuanced, overall story, please refer to this earlier post on Haruki Murakami’s “Underground.”)

Related Post:
Stories that people tell about products are invaluable

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Stories that people tell about products are invaluable

Friday, June 13th, 2008

I was listening to a Dave Snowden talk today, and this bit jumped out:

We’re capturing 150,000 stories a week from people as they consume a product. Because the stories that people tell as they have an experience are far more significant than customer satisfaction surveys.

Also this:

What people love… is numbers backed up by stories–numbers on their own, stories on their own have deficiencies. But numbers backed up by stories is quite powerful.

This idea–capturing & sorting stories from users to see how products are doing and how they can be improved–is something I’ve been messing with a bit, and it’s good to hear that this isn’t brand-new.

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Old technologies hang on for decades

Monday, March 24th, 2008

What do radio, mainframe computers and photocopiers have in common?

They were all predicted to die a quick death at the hands of a successor technology, and all are still here today.

The New York Times profiles the venerable IBM mainframe, still a multi-billion-dollar business (not that any CIO would admit publicly to buying one), which has hung on through the minicomputer revolution (remember DEC?), the PC revolution and the client-server revolution.

According to the Times article, “survivor technologies” retain certain compelling benefits that the successors do not offer. Hence, for certain niches, they continue to provide value. For radio, it is the idea of “audio wallpaper,” entertainment that’s less distracting than video–i.e., good while driving or working. For the mainframe, it was the ability to retain billions of dollars of software investment while taking advantage of hardware’s increased price-performance. Photocopiers offer easy-to-handle and share hardcopy documents that the paperless office can’t provide. (I worked for a year without a copier and was that ever a pain.)

So consider this: the next time you read that a certain technology will be obsolete within five years, you may want to buy some stock in the dinosaur.

(Photo: an IBM mainframe that is likely no longer in service.)

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