Category Archives: Stuff

April fooled every day

owl_katerha

If you followed twitter the last week or so, how long did it take for you to figure out that:

If you still haven’t figured out, keep on reading. If you ask what is twitter, check first here and then here.

Embarrasingly, it sometimes takes much longer than it should to tell a hoax or a parody. Our pre-conceived notions and chosen perspectives impact so much.

But no one will ever know. If you managed to control yourself from sharing or re-tweeting….

Photo credits: flickr user katerha. Licensed under Creative Commons

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How much would you spend on a check-in?

fq_checkinEver thought how much would you be willing spend to be able to digitally check in to a place? Apparently for me, the going rate is provenly at least 10 EUR, when it is an airport.

Here’s the story. Vanity or not, I collect airports in Foursquare (I am on Level 9 now). The other week I was on a family holiday in the U.S., and we had a connecting flight through an airport that was not yet in my collection. We had a tight connection, and as we rushed from one end of the airport to the other, I tried feverishly to get Wifi working. And nothing worked – no Boingo, no free Wifi, nothing.

Time was running short, so I was faced with the horrendous decision of either (1) missing an airport check-in, or (2) turning the cellular data on with the Finland-US roaming rate of 12 EUR (that’s 15 USD) per one megabyte.

“We all live only once” I muttered to myself, and decided to go for it.  So I turned every possible app off, turned cellular data on, clicked Foursquare hoping I wouldn’t need to scroll the list (of course I had to, but only a little), checked in and closed the connection. The whole sequence lasted maybe 3-5 seconds and I managed to splurge only about 800 kb.

Of course, paying 10 EUR per 5 seconds of connection is legalized robbery in the era of current graphical applications, device processing speeds and network speed. But what can you do when there’s no European Union commissioner on your side.

But, come to think of it, is 10 euros actually a lot for a memory? During the same trip, I paid 20 USD for the family picture in Cirque de Soleil, Las Vegas, after the show clown picked me out of the audience for a pop corn fight.

So the way I rationalized my data splurge to myself was that I didn’t buy just a check-in but a digital souvenir.

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The wrap-up of Product Guy Series: Vol. 1

rollercoaster_600px shutterstockAbout two months ago I started writing Product Guy series, reflecting what I have learned over the years about making products and/or software.

I may or may not return to this topic (hence the Vol 1 in the title), but now it is time to summarize.

I didn’t have much of a master plan on the topic of the posts. I just wrote whatever was topical on my mind, either through my own reflection or through the commentary I received via multiple channels, public and private.

Now that I look back, the posts, however, do give an idea of the broad spectrum of issues Product Guy needs to deal with.

Product Guy needs to know the teachings of the wise Greek men, find his inner hipster and hone the skills of the method acting to the the Jesse Eisenberg level of markzuckerberg-ness.

And that’s just the planning part of the job. Then the actual work starts.  Being able to focus on the right things, requires having an air traffic controller -grade real-time scoreboard and a clear understanding how to move mountains. And all this must be done iteratively, which requires the wisdom to separate the signal from the noise, diligent review practices, continuous, honest assessment of own and competitor products, and unavoidably some – or a lot – of fire-fighting.

So a lot of stuff. I used a lot of Hollywood metaphors, not only because I love movies, but because I thought the analogies would capture how captivating the journey can be.

Sometimes the project is a drama. Sometimes it’s a tragedy that may border becoming a comedy. But if you put your heart into it, there’s one guarantee you can make to your team members: “It will not be boring.”

I hope you enjoyed reading.

p.s. Now Real Box Score blog will go on extended Easter break. Hence, next posts – at least any longer than 140 characters – are not to be expected before mid-April or so.

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Innovating the boring stuff

We often applaud the new “Internet-originated” companies for doing stuff no one has ever done before. You know, giving us the new new thing, or the next shiny (or colorful) object or Web site.

But interestingly, lately I’ve found that it is as often the stuff that has always existed – the boring stuff such as customer support and dialogue – which these companies do better than others too.

The comparison between the tools and the support I get for the management of this Web site (and the related company I set up) from the “new” Internet-centric companies and the “incumbents” (such as telcos-turned-to-ISP:s, banks etc) isn’t really even a comparison.

Further, generally, thanks to facebook and so many other services, I automatically expect, for example, real-time email notifications, threaded messaging with proper HTML support. And definitively all kind of “engineering code” cleaned out of the messages I get.  It is amazing how often I am not getting anything even close from the incumbents – but something that would fit right into Windows 95 launch.

And don’t get me started on my experiences of starting to use e-invoicing in Finland, a classic example of a noble goal that is hard to execute well on top of the existing legacy systems.

And on a more positive note, I am still smiling of my experience of buying tickets to a Greek League basketball game via Viva Greece (a web company founded in 2000, so not that newcomer) which included e-commerce, payments and a multi-lingual chat (first in Greek characters, translated by Google Translate) with a dude called Dimitris (no, not this one)

Greek chat

So again, the magic is in the software.

Then why don’t the incumbents use the same software? Because the software is useless unless there’s a service design behind that really thinks the whole flow through – including all the things that can go wrong – from the consumer point of view. And that, despite being a buzzword for so many years, is still often very much missing.

Of course, those who build from the scratch will have an edge compared to those having to live with the constraints of their legacy systems, organizations and “acceptable cost base within the business model”. And they will not have the trust, the brand, the relationship, the history, the massive sponsorship deal and the local understanding and the blaah-blaah.

But the incumbents should remember that each day we use the Interwebs we become a little bit more spoiled.

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Product Guy – eat a lot of dogfood

DogfoodProduct Guy needs to be in deep love with the product and be its fiercest cheerleader, and yet, at the same time, rationally objective and ready to cancel the project any time, if it isn’t good enough.

It’s a yet another paradox to be managed.

It is human to become too attached. The world is full of ugly people but yet we think all babies are beautiful. Of course, not equally so, because our own baby is definitively the most beautiful, the most athletic, the most skilled and, the most definitively, the most creative.

In the other extreme, no engineer or designer will follow a Product Guy who threatens to kill the project and take all the toys away, if things don’t go his/her way. Nor will they be inspired to do their best work.

The solution for staying balanced – and sane – is eating a lot of dogfood and being disciplined telling how it really tastes.

With dogfood, I mean using not only one’s own product, but also a lot of competitor products. Obvious, duh? Who would disagree? But here comes the hard part. You need to do it at times when your time is the scarcest and the products may not be that “out-of-box”-ready. Your own product may be at the prototype stage, meaning it takes a lot of effort to get anything working. And it never is enough to use the competitor product for five minutes – you need to go deep and perhaps even install their lousy PC software, which certainly conflicts somehow with your work PC settings.

But this Product Guy must do. Only this way, and with the right attitude, his/her brain is calibrated to assess how competitive the product in the making really is. The trick for time management is to prepare in advance. Set up your testing environments, processes and support already before you need them, not when every hour is precious.

The next trick is to keep some of your findings to yourself. Or at least be very deliberate with how, when and with whom they are shared. A seasoned Product Guy always has in the backpocket a set of mitigation actions, Plan B:s and a bar of kryptonite. But talking about them at the wrong time and with the wrong people – such as the dev team in a fragile mindset after finding some fundamental bug or the senior executive with the confidence of a deer in the headlights – can cause a self-fulfilling prophecy of things going really wrong.

Last, there’s a reason why using the stuff consumers also use is called “eating dogfood”, instead of, say, eating truffles, steak or ratatouille . Sometimes you need a lot of discipline to empty the cup. And come to think of it, really loving dogs helps too.

***

Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Next Product Guy episode will wrap up the writings so far.

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We are the World

A very different Mobile World Congress (MWC) week has ended for me. Because I wasn’t there. Having attended a trade show or two in my 17 years at Nokia and mobile industry, I can’t say I really miss the insanity (which includes the preparation) that makes February definitively the shortest month of the year. Nor do I think I missed any news. In fact, I probably was able to follow the actual news better at home via Webcasts, tweets and blogs than on the ground. But, of course, the beat just doesn’t feel fully the same. And I miss that. A little bit. But only a little bit.

The Mobile World Congress, like many other trade shows, keeps on going and getting bigger. But I wonder for how long, or does it need to change. Looking at the news, it seems to be not that optimal launch pad for new stuff (as I predicted in my September post) and looks more like a non-time-sensitive PR and meeting festival. Those being operations always under scrutiny for return on investment

The state of the industry might also not help. Richard Windsor of Radio Free Mobile put it accurately in his “MWC Day 1 – Writer’s Block” post:

I very much doubt that I am alone in sitting here at the end of day 1 staring a blank screen and wondering what to fill the page with. There were a few announcements but pretty much all of them were about evolving what is already there rather than any big change. Therein lies the essence of where the mobile phone industry finds itself in 2013.

Ari Jaaksi  (previously of Nokia MeeGo, then HP and now at McAfee) had a little rougher take in his tweet.

 

Ari Jaaksi tweet

That is a little harsh, though funny (especially if you know Ari’s sense of humor), but there’s also some unmistakable truth in the words. Now this isn’t new. The normally introverted Finns celebrated wildly Hockey World Championship both in 1995 and 2011, even though most of the world’s best players were all tied in the NHL playoffs. The champion of which, by the way, calls themselves the World Champion. As does the winner of the NBA, National Basketball Association. And, the music history will never forget that Michael Jackson had the audacity to record We Are the World, without the contemporary Finnish artists of the era being in the choir.

But let’s move on before somebody calls United Nations for rescue.

Because, by far the more interesting observation around MWC – which probably would have escaped me on the fake-FIRA floor – is that simultaneuosly there was a lot of media attention around iWatch and Google Glass, both being concepts that severely challenge the “job to be done” of smartphones.

The storyline on both being, now quoting Sergey Brin

The cellphone is a nervous habit. I whip this out and look as if I have something important to do. [Add Product Placement here] takes that away.”

Co-incidence? I think not.

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Product Guy – hear your friends

basset shutterstock 600pxSome people hear but don’t really listen. That’s bad and can feel disrespectful. But for great product making, even bigger risk is a Product Guy that listens but doesn’t really hear.

Intelligent people blessed with great memorization skills, high career motivation and access to modern training courses can be trained to become extremely good ‘literal listeners’. Like the Stepford wives, they maintain eye contact, address you by your first name, bake in your words to their sentences, hold back from being negative or combative, suggest constructive actions, and make a great summary at the end. In short, they really make you feel like they ‘get’ you.

Except that absolutely nothing in their thinking, values, behaviors or actions really changes because of what you say.

That ‘sales push mode’ can be really dangerous. Because sometimes the only important takeaway from the customer feedback is that the consumer pretty much hates everything in the product, even if she never said those exact words, and even if only one (by the way, highly fixable) feature was transcripted as an epic fail.

All feedback matters, but some matters more. The Product Guy should especially hear out people with a vested interest with them. Those friends (Note: I am using the zuckerbergian definition of the word) can be voluntary pilot users, soulmate colleagues from other teams, or sales guys whose own success is dependent on the competitiveness of the product. Apart from the signs of Stockholm Syndrome in distressed times (“I am held hostage to loving this product, because it is my only way out of this mess”), it is these people who can be counted on to take the extra time to go beyond the quick & easy, anecdotal, literal comments, and tell how they truly feel.

And then, as counterintuitive as it sounds, sometimes three words (“I hear you”) and doing something differently is a better answer than a detailed, well-rehearsed point-by-point rebuttal.

***

Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – eat a lot of dogfood

 

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Product Guy – isolate the problem

fire shutterstock_76873309 600pxOne pilot consumer wrote into the free comments “old-fashioned colors”, and now the sales guys want to change everything in the industrial design. Some integration engineer, in the late afternoon hurry to go pick up his kids in time, accidentally configured the prototype build wrong. Now, instead of asking when the new build will be ready, people email Jerry Maguire type of pamphlets about how to re-engineer the whole development process. Also, the office cafeteria can become more cozy if the whole company is re-orged and all clueless Vice Presidents (read: many) are deported, at least according to the task force memo. And so on and so forth.

Does this kind of escalation sound familiar? Probably yes, if you work in any company that is no longer small.

The root cause for all that hoopla is that, by definition, product making is full of paradoxes.  People want the product to be elegant and sophisticated but yet affordable. Full of features and yet ready early. Edgy but still familiar. Yet great products don’t feel like compromises, because there’s a clear idea what user problems the product is supposed to solve and how. Developing, protecting and delivering that  “configuration”, ”definition” or “brokering between extremely important but conflicting goals” is what Product Guys do for living.

The uncontrollable escalation, or expansion, happens because the power balance between the opposite-pulling forces is never really stable. Ultimately, what looks like a peace is really just a truce that becomes the peace agreement only when the product is out. So throughout the whole development, there’s a lot of passionate energy bubbling under (that’s a good thing), which can burst into the wide open (that’s a bad thing), if a small change somewhere (no matter how unavoidable) is interpreted as the license to re-open any other issue too.

So with this type of self-inflicted crisis looming, the first order of business for Product Guy is to isolate the problem. If the problem was the color, let’s solve that problem. And not let discussion expand how the newly proposed shiny orange would work so much better, if the design and the materials were also changed, and the price made more youth-budget-level-friendly.

Now, narrowing the discussion to solving the actual problem requires logical, deductive thinking to establish the link between the fix and the problem. It requires detailed, precise questions and communication, and in certain cases certain level of “cut-the-crap” abruptness to. In very few cases, the problem may reveal that the whole plan was flawed to start with, but even then the panic pack of band-aid is not the solution, but a total restart is needed. Most often, however, there’s a simple solution that becomes apparent only when the problem is thoroughly understood.

Being the ‘voice of reason’ when everyone is jumping off the walls isn’t fun. Those times may make the Product Guy appear like an anti-consumer, rearview-mirror looking, non-responsive bureaucrat – all labels potentially detrimental to career prospects. But still the escalation must be stopped. The way to think is that great product makers – engineers, designers and so on – need stability to be able to do their best work. They may not thank Product Guy when she/he is taking all the hits to protect them from the panic and the vicious circle of changes. But after the successful project they surely will. And that matters more than anything else.

***

Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – hear your friends

 

 

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Nike and a new catchphrase

Fast Company magazine put recently out its 2013 list of Most Innovative Companies. I take all these type of lists with some healthy skepticism, assuming – until proven otherwise – that there’s about as much shady background lobbying going on than in the Olympic Committee.

(Ed. note: Speaking of which, I doubt that even any Corporate PR department anywhere would dare to top the audacity of the IOC proposal to eliminate wrestling from the Olympics. Cauliflower ears or not, any sports fan with respect to the sports history and the meaning behind the phrases like “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, “Just Do It” or “Impossible is Nothing” simply couldn’t believe their ears this morning)

False positive or not, I read these type of lists with great interest, both for entertainment value and getting ideas how to be populistic, if needed.

I didn’t find it surprising that none of the usual mobile or computing companies made Top 10. Not Google (#11), Not Apple (#13) nor Samsung (#17). Nor did, as Fast Company commented themselves, Facebook and Twitter. ‘Mobile’ and ‘Social’ seem no longer be catchphrases used in the context of innovation.

Amazon made #2. Interestingly, less so because of their digital efforts, but for speeding up the same-day delivery.

#1? Another physical world company. Nike.

For anyone close to sports, the pick itself was not that surprising. What was surprising, however, was how come Fast Company missed the opportunity to coin a catchphrase describing how apparel and footwear companies are using digital features to transform product categories.

Phrases like ‘brick-and-mortar’, ‘cloud’ and ‘big data’ took everyone by the storm. We need something similar.

Being a non-native English speaker, I feel unsure of proposing anything, so I just screenshot the six most used materials of Nike (source: Nike Web site), in case that would be of help.

Nike Top 6 materials

The first instinct was to go for rubber-and-cotton company, but at least the Finnish translation is prone to some unwanted extensions of the meaning (or do I just have odd friends?). Cotton-and-polyester company would kind of work, and definitively cover Adidas too, as they “own” the 1970’s style warmup jackets, but it doesn’t properly cover footwear. Leather sounds a little old fashioned, and impractical, as the material for housing any digital gear.

This was more complicated than I thought. But I trust there’s an answer somewhere.

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Product guy – review the unknown

shutterstock_117743374 - review - 600px

Running review meetings is a core Product Guy skill. Even if the trend of product-making is towards more iterative and short-cycle processes (Ed. note: I don’t use the word ‘agile’ on purpose, in order to avoid religious topics), after a certain operative scale, a holistic review process – which can be called milestone, gate, phase or whatever – is the only practical way to get a comprehensive snapshot of the progress.

Now, the corporate culture for product (or program, as some call it) reviews may vary greatly. Some are formal, some are informal. Some are dog & pony shows aimed at impressing the big chiefs, and some are checklist marathons between experts.

Yes, sometimes important decisions are done in the reviews, but not as often as people think. In real life, the engineering flow, not process chart, dictates the timing of many decisions. That, in turn, means that at the time of review, the “decision” ends up being just pretty much “take it or leave it”. (Ed. note: that too is important because ‘the power to pull the plug’ or ‘the power to change the goalposts’ gives an incentive for the engineering organization to listen to the Product Guy)

So if that’s how the world works, what’s the point of pulling those review preparation all-nighters?

First, there certainly is value in the journey. Through the journey of creating a common snapshot, more people get a better understanding how different pieces link to each other. And at best, the positive cross-team feedback increases energy and team bonding.

Second, an experienced Product Guy can add a lot of value to the review process by asking the right questions. There are times when Product Guy may need to provide the answer too, but most often the purpose is to broaden the thinking of the product team.

But what kind of questions are the ‘right questions’?

Now, some questions need to be “teed up”. They need to be like in the first few rounds in the Who Wants to be Millionaire, usually cleared with ease and growing confidence. Professionals who are properly prepared very rarely have embarrassing moments – like this and this Millionaire contestant – especially with the options of Phone-a-Friend or Ask-the-Audience readily available.

Now, it is a human temptation for the Product Guy to stay in the “nice guy” zone. But more is needed. As important as it is know the plans, it is to know what is not known. Because it is often the surprises coming from outside the plans that create the most problems. Maybe the consumer feedback sample wasn’t as representative of the whole target market as assumed. It could be that the competitors have something disruptive up their sleeves. Or the pricing assumptions on the component costs couldn’t foresee some natural disaster.

Finding out all those risks, and having a sense of the potential mitigation actions, calls for some tough questions, no matter how awesome the progress and plans are.

Now, it is hard to to tip toe that line of consciousness, like Kiefer Sutherland in Flatliners, without the line of questioning feeling arrogant and know-it-all.

There are different kind of techniques. Surely for some boneheaded project manager the Mickey Goldmill type of motivational speech could work:

Mickey: You can’t win, Rocky. This guy will kill you to death inside three rounds
Rocky: You’re crazy
Mickey: What else is new
Rocky: This guy is just another fighter
Mickey: No, he ain’t. This guy is a wrecking machine

In today’s work environment, however, I do suggest gentler methods. It is a lifelong mission to learn the skill of “soft, constructive tension”, and each Product Guy has to find their own way through using feedback and self-reflection.

At the end, however, the review objective of the Product Guy should be the same as Mickey’s – give credit for the progress so far, but more importantly, increase preparation for the next difficult things to come.

*****

Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – isolate the problem

 

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