Monday, July 31, 2006

Product Management: When?

Most startups begin with an entrepreneurial product idea by one or more of the founders. The founders then develop the product, hiring a product manager only after the product is ready for release.

If you're one of these founders, you don't want someone coming in and polluting your idea. You probably also have some experience dealing with the market you're targeting. But while industry experience and an idea can be a great start, your product will probably fail if you don't do some product management before and as you develop it.

Don't decide the positioning and marketing strategy for your product after development. The most successful products are those whose development reflects a well-conceived positioning and strategy. Product management is therefore important long before you're ready to release - or even begin marketing - the product.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

T-Shirts

Today I went shopping for t-shirts. Loud or pastel-colored t-shirts seem to be in these days. So "in" that one store was charging $125 for them. I found nearly identical shirts at Dillards for $5 a piece.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

AJAX Texas Hold-em

If you like playing Texas Hold-em and are interested in the fuss about the use of AJAX, try gpokr.

AJAX-based web interfaces achieve quick responses to user input without loading new pages. When you click a button, for example, the existing page instantly updates with new information. They also tend to use innovative widgets that are not part of the standard HTML paradigm.

AJAX is important because it eliminates many of the limitations of web interfaces, which include clunky widgets and slow response times. The drawback is that users may not be familiar with the new ways of accomplishing their goals.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Is Refocusing the Remedy for Dell's Problems?

Laura Ries diagnoses Dell's problems as stemming from its expansion to the consumer market. She attributes expenses and customer satisfaction issues to an increase in volume of customer service calls by home users.

Her remedy? Refocus. This recommendation should come as no surprise to those familiar with Ries's philosophy. In this case, she suggests restoring Dell's focus on the business market.

Refocusing on a market segment is almost never an appealing or intuitive strategy. It seems like a deliberate effort to reduce the number of customers and your market share. But sometimes you have to bite the bullet. It's often better to have a strong brand in small market than a weak brand in a large market.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

How Do You Measure Design?

The phrase "you can't improve what you don't measure" is popular in business. How do you measure the quality of product design? The answer is simple: requirements.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Game Requirements

We know that product requirements should not contain design assumptions or design specifications. Following this principle has interesting consequences when the product is a game. Most games solve one problem: boredom or lack of entertainment. So is there merely a small set of requirements for such games that state in measurable terms how entertaining the game will be? If so, isn't it absurd to be so strict in separating the "what" from the "how"?

A few things:

First, it is true that the functional requirements for a game are likely to be sparse. Developing a game is unique in that it is largely a matter of design and creativity.

Second, a game will actually have many nonfunctional requirements. Things like scalability, availability, and usability all apply.

Third, any sparsity in the requirements specification for a game means the design specifications will be that much heftier. The developers will still know what to build; it's just that the designers arguably have a lot more responsibility in speccing out a game than in speccing out most other products.

Finally, the role of product management in game development is still vital. The product manager needs to identify and profile the right psychographic segment. Doing so enables the designers to design a game that is fun for that segment.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Creativity and Consensus at Google

Back in late June, BusinessWeek Online posted an interview with Marissa Mayer, Google's VP of Search Products and User Experience. It covers Google's focus on simplicity and its experimentation with a lot of different products. But one of the most interesting statements from Mayer was:

If you write a 70-page document that says this is the product you're supposed to build, you actually push the creativity out with process. The engineer who says, you know what, there's a feature here that you forgot that I would really like to add. You don't want to push that creativity out of the product. The consensus-driven approach where the team works together to build a vision around what they're building and still leaves enough room for each member of the team to participate creatively, is really inspiring and yields us some of the best outcomes we've had.
It is important that products and organizations be market driven. To be market-driven, an organization must not only have product managers that do the appropriate research, but also be creative and build consensus for product decisions.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Rice vs. Ries: Categories and Positioning

Jennifer Rice recently questioned Laura Ries's analysis of the positioning of the Weber brand of grills. Ries had written that Weber's foray into gas grills (as opposed to their specialty, charcoal grills) was an example of unwise line extension.

Rice points out:

When you position your brand on what you do (charcoal, hamburgers, computers), it can only lead to extinction. Rather, base your positioning on how you do it (ie. a higher-level benefit), which allows you more flexibility over time. Google's brand position isn't search, it's organizing the world's information. Nike isn't shoes, it's passion. McDonald's isn't hamburgers, it's convenience.
As much as I buy into Ries's suggestion that companies strive to be first in a "category", and that often the category is a product category rather than a benefit category, Rice's point is well taken. Consider positioning your brand in terms of a benefit category rather than a product category. Your brand may be less vulnerable to extinction if you do.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Jakob Nielson on Usability

Jakob Nielson defines five aspects of product usability:
  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?
Some of the attributes are subjective, but they are nonetheless measurable and testable.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Notary Publics

Did you know that some banks have a free notary public service? A few months ago, on a tip from a friend, I went to the Chase Bank branch a block away from my loft. They notarized my document for free.

This week, I went back to the same Chase Bank branch to get another document notarized. The manager stopped to ask me if I was a Chase customer. I told him no, I don't have a Chase bank account. He then told me that the notary services were for Chase customers only and suggested I go to my bank.

Fair enough. My Bank of America branch is just three blocks away, so I went there. They did the notarizing, and I bumped into a friend who is a teller there.

I wonder whether Chase's policy of only performing notary services for customers is wise. I would never have bothered to set foot in their lobby had I not heard about the notary service. Familiarizing myself with their branch made it more likely that I would eventually become a Chase customer. But being turned away has left me with a bad taste in mouth.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Crowdsourcing

Paul Boutin recently wrote an article in BusinessWeek about crowdsourcing, a "business trend in which companies get unpaid or low-paid amateurs to design products, create content, even tackle corporate R&D problems in their spare time." Another word for crowdsourcing is co-creation.

Boutin gives an example:

The first, Threadless, is a Chicago-based T-shirt maker whose
design process consists entirely of an online contest. Each week the company
receives hundreds of submissions from amateur and professional artists.
Threadless posts these to its Web site, where anyone who signs up may give each
shirt a score. The four to six highest-rated designs each week are put into
production, but only after enough customers have pre-ordered the design to
ensure it won't be a money-loser.
In this example, contest winners receive prize money. Boutin points out, however, that customers are often not compensated for their co-creation efforts.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Following Up

I recently reported an issue I was having with Cingular Wireless. I still have their former AT&T service, and I now don't get signal in many parts of central Austin. Surprisingly, customer service officially created a "ticket" for the issue. Even more surprisingly, they followed up the same day with some questions and are, according to policy, following up every seven days.

Cingular's policy doesn't guarantee they'll fix the problem. It doesn't even imply the people actually working on the issue take it seriously. But communication helps.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Value-Price Waterfalls

Mimiran has a brief paper on what they call "value-price waterfalls". It considers not only the costs and benefits of your product, but the comparison to competitors' products.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Long Surveys

I recently completed a survey from a political candidate. The survey contained about a hundred questions. I did not enjoy taking the survey due to its length, but wanted to provide feedback to an acquaintance who published it. My recommendations:
  1. Reduce the number of questions to twelve or fewer.
  2. Clearly state up front the number of questions and the estimated amount of time it will take to complete the survey.
  3. Replace some of the Likert scale sets of questions with questions suitable for conjoint analysis.

As I've mentioned, the ease of services such as SurveyMonkey causes people to believe that anyone can author a good questionnaire. But the real challenges lie in structuring the survey and formulating the right questions.

Monday, July 17, 2006

One-Two-Three Positioning

In The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, Al Ries and Laura Ries briefly mention the "one-two-three" approach to positioning. With the one-two-three positioning approach, you describe your product concept as the third in a series of breakthroughs.
First came the horse and carriage. Then came the automobile. Now, get ready for the .
You'll generally want to include the product's actual benefit to the user in the third clause.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Quote of the Day

Brandon at Speaker City:

In software many customers ask for reports, which is the same thing as asking for proof that something was done. If you find yourself creating lots of reports, then maybe you haven’t made your application transparent enough…
Why do your customers want reports? It may well be that they need reports, but you won't know unless you understand the underlying problem they're trying to solve.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Documents Nobody Reads

Market requirements documents (MRDs) can vary in length from just a few pages to hundreds of pages. Almost everyone in the organization dreads a long MRD. The product manager hates writing it, and everyone else hates reading them. In many cases, long MRDs simply go unread.

Your product manager should compose MRDs that people will read. If that means a more consise MRD, so be it. A product manager can pack a lot of useful information in an MRD that's less than twenty pages. And some of the "boring" information, such as quantitative data (e.g. market survey results), should go in appendices.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Extreme Programming

According to the Agile Manifesto, agile development processes tend to emphasize:
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
Yet different forms of agile emphasize these things to a different degree. "Extreme programming" lies on the side of the spectrum that places a great deal of emphasis on all of them. It does so by prescribing a number of "extreme" practices.

Unfortunately, many people distort what agile development is. They claim, for example, that it calls for "hacking" the product together without eliciting or documenting any product requirements up front. Yet even extreme programming calls for an up-front requirements effort.

To quickly gain an accurate understanding of what extreme programming is all about, I suggest having a look at this site. It succinctly describes the practices and philosophy of extreme programming.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

One-on-One Marketing

If your strategy is to market using bottom-up PR, you may need to bone up on your one-on-one marketing skills. The most straightforward way to recruit a small but enthusiastic user base to co-market your product is to convince individual users to try your product and hopefully evangelize it. Mass marketing campaigns won't do the trick. Even just getting the word out won't by itself do it. You need to "sell" the product and the co-marketing enthusiasm to each person.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Google Desktop as Documentation

I've found that Google Desktop is a convenient way of storing and accessing "rough drafts" of the material I produce for clients. Google Desktop turns your hard drive into a repository of information that's as easily and quickly searchable as the world wide web.

Most of the analysis, reports, strategic recommendations, and requirements work I do for clients initially comes in bits and pieces. These bits and pieces are distributed in small Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and, above all, e-mails.

When it comes time to put together the more formal materials for my clients, I use Google Desktop to locate the bits and pieces that combine to form the larger documents. It's fairly easy to take pre-existing templates and fill in content from the e-mails and other notes interspersed throughout my hard drive.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Attention Bus and Trolley Riders

If you happen to ride the bus or trolley systems in the Austin, Dallas, or Houston area, send me an e-mail. I'll give you a chance to be among the first to try a new technology product that makes mass transit more convenient.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Start Small

When launching a new product, it can be helpful to start small. Release your product (possibly just in a beta) to a small group of customers. Use the limited release to help you refine the product and marketing messages. Leverage the fact that your customer base is small by creatively involving them in marketing the product to a larger group.

The danger is that this small group of customers skews your analysis of the market. To the extent that the group is unrepresentative of the larger market for your product, you may draw conclusions that are not favorable to selling to that larger market. So pay a lot of attention to the demographic and psychographic characteristics of the individuals in the small group and how they fit in with the corresponding characteristics in the larger market.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Swivel Stand

Today I tried to remove the swivel stand from an old CRT computer monitor. Google wasn't of much help. I saw a few references to removing stands from monitors, but I wasn't able to find instructions that would work for the Sony monitor I have. If you have any advice, drop me a line.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Ries Says, "PR First, then Advertising"

In The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, Al Ries and Laura Ries drill into our heads the notion that advertising is not a credible way to build a brand. They suggest:

  1. Make your product remarkable in some way.
  2. Build the brand with PR, leveraging the product's remarkability.
  3. If your budget allows, follow up the PR with advertising.

The idea is to establish credibility before you advertise so that the advertising doesn't fall on deaf or skeptical ears.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ethnography Example

Steve Johnson's latest entry links to a summary of an ethnographic study to understand how ordinary business users use Microsoft Office. Steve then comments:

Marketers and developers are usually anxious to do quantitative research but you don't know what you don't know. Before you can do quantitative, you must do qualitative.
I would add that you should follow up with even more qualitative research as you begin to analyze the results of your quantitative study. Qualitative and quantitative research methods complement each other.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Ooching Towards Usability

You can't design a good user interface for a product up front.

The best user interfaces do typically start with an elegant preconceived concept. But achieving greatness requires going much further than the preconceived concept. Your designers must "ooch" towards usability.

Ooching towards usability means iteratively refining the interface to:

  • Optimally place the various UI elements.
  • Deal with every possible combination of user action.
  • Recognize as many so-called "user errors" as possible and turn them into valid actions.
In many cases, ooching is inelegant. It often requires heaping kludge on top of kludge to make sure your product covers all the special cases. And you'll have little idea what the most important special cases are unless you involve users in testing the product.

For a truly easy-to-use product, expect your designers to spend 80% of their design time after developers have developed an initial functional version of the product.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Business Week Article on Google

Business Week's article (via Steve Johnson) addresses two defining characteristics of Google:
  1. The role of simplicity in their products' success.
  2. The effect of product proliferation on focus.
We find some interesting facts and figures about Google's products:
  • Google Talk is #10 in instant messaging.
  • Gmail trails MSN and Yahoo in e-mail.
  • Google Finance is #40 among finance sites.
  • Orkut has 1% of Myspace's social networking traffic.
  • Google Maps is #2 in online maps.
  • Google News is #2 among aggregated news sites.
  • Google's blog search tool has 17% as much traffic as Technorati.

Meanwhile, product managers and analysts everwhere continue to observe how Google's experiments play out.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Theme Parks

Today I went to Schlitterbahn, a water park in New Braunfels, Texas.

Theme parks have interesting business dynamics due to three factors:

  1. Long lines at rides can make the experience unpleasant and deter some customers.
  2. The herd mentality actually attracts some people to the park when it's crowded.
  3. Without the crowds that cause long lines, the parks wouldn't make enough money to survive.
These factors make for an atypical challenge managing a theme park or ride as a product.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Dodgeball's Privacy Policy

Your company's privacy policy can affect how comfortable your customers are with buying or using your product.

I have told many people about the Dodgeball service (a service you and your friends can use to help each other meet up when you're out). Most of the people I tell about it have a positive initial reaction and express an intention to sign up for it. But when they actually visit the web site and start to sign up, they chicken out. Why?

They get cold feet about the personal information they reveal when they sign up and use the service. They are concerned that Dodgeball may sell this information to third parties, or just that they may not want some of their friends to know their location. Dodgeball is actually a Google service and has a strict privacy policy. In addition, the service allows members a great deal of flexibility in configuring how much information their friends and other members can see. But somehow the Dodgeball web site doesn't allay their fears.

I'm not sure what Dodgeball should do to make prospective members more comfortable. But somehow they need to do a better job of highlighting their strict privacy policies.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Secret to Good Skin

I use Hill Country Fare (H.E.B.'s brand) Ultra Antibacterial Hand & Dish Soap. It's a concentrated liquid dishwashing detergent. But I don't just use it to wash dishes. For more than five years, I've used it to wash my face and body.

I've had a number of people ask me, "What do you use on your face to keep your skin in such good condition?" I answer, "H.E.B. dishwashing detergent". I enjoy the look of shock and disbelief that results.