Learning by Shipping

products, development, management…

Everyone starts with simplicity, no-one ends there and that’s OK

simplicityDesigning a user experience for many millions of people is a unique job that a relatively small number of people practice. The responsibility of such an undertaking is immense, stressful, and one that can be all-consuming. Cold sweats, sick to your stomach, and a constant feeling of messing up are the norm for those that take on these challenges.

But someone has to do it!

This week brought quite a few big design changes that have folks talking including twitter adding mute, gmail testing out a major revamp, and iOS 8 bringing “Surface split-screen to iPad”.

Everyone starts with simplicity, then what?

At introduction almost every successful product champions simplicity as a design and execution goal. Products are declared simple, minimal, and tailored to specific uses. Almost no one argues against these attributes and when marketing goes to position a tech product, invariably these attributes bubble up to the top of the favorable list. That’s because of the inherent and expected complexity of tech products as a starting point.

At introduction almost every successful product champions simplicity as a design and execution goal.

But where to go next? Tech products that are simple can start off well, but three things exist immediately after launch.

  1. A customer need to address feedback and “fix” things that might be simple but are not quite there yet.
  2. A product need to remain competitive with the products that follow your introduction touting the same simplicity but also do a few more things (reading the reviews of your product will always demonstrate examples of wish lists)
  3. A business need to develop new products that can enhance revenue, margins, or maintain price points in the face of commoditization.

Tech products, particularly software products, are unique in that there is an almost natural tendency to organically add or to absorb features from competitive or adjacent products. Unlike physical hardware products that have COGS and BOM challenges, the incremental cost of software is simply limited to R&D (and operational costs for SaaS). That means when faced with the above existential properties, tech products will get new features pretty rapidly.

These new features will do constant battle with the simplicity of the initial release. Some argue that this is just bloat and invariably ruins products. Certainly from a design perspective this is a massive challenge. It takes enormous discipline. On the other hand, there are very few examples of software-based products that remain static. To remain static in features is to open yourself up to commoditization or disruption—a static target is an easy target.

Example: Palm Pilot

The introduction of the Palm Pilot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PalmPilot) is a fascinating historic example of simplicity leading to isolation and expiration of a product. The designers of the product did an amazing job building an amazing product. All day battery life, simplicity, specific and purpose-built as the first truly modern and truly mobile productivity tool used by the masses.

I remember in 1998 the Palm Pilot was standard issue for all new MBA students when I taught. Shortly after that time, I recall a panel discussion with one of the original designers of the product. At the time the pitch was overarching simplicity and ease of use. Everyone agreed. Then there was an audience question that changed the dynamic.

Most leading edge folks at this time were carrying Motorola flip phones along with the calendar/notes/contacts in their Palm Pilot. The problem was every time they wanted to make a call, it was a multi-step process that involved looking up a number on the Palm Pilot and juggling the two devices while typing into the phone. While this was vastly easier than going back to your desktop or attempting to pull an 8lb laptop out of your bag, it was a usability disaster.

The question was simply—when could I have all the Palm Pilot functionality on my phone? Lots of words about how you could sync (with a cable, not the cloud that didn’t yet exist), but a hardcore answer about how adding a fifth function to the Palm, a phone, would overload the functionality and make the product too complex and unusable. So the phone would never converge with things like your contacts and calendar.

Honest, that was the answer.

The problem was I was sitting there with my pre-production blackberry merrily connecting in real-time to my calendar, contacts, and email on my Exchange server. It was incredibly clear that the need of a non-converged device with a static copy of some of the important mobile tasks was no longer useful.

A pattern for how things evolve in practice

This challenge in software product design happens time and time again. It is the very nature of disruption. The new product does some things brilliantly well and simply, but is “missing” features people value from an existing product or an adjacent product.

Designers face the choice of adding new capabilities and potentially challenging the beauty of the initial release or facing competition and disruption from new competitors without that same strongly held belief. Marketing, channel, business and pricing can defend against these for a while but ultimately the ease and costs of just adding features in software will win.

The tension between user interface design and the realities and capabilities of software leads to a fairly predictable pattern for how tech/software products evolve. We can think of this pattern as evolution in five stages:

  • Introduce
  • Optimize
  • Deliberate
  • Succumb
  • Mature or Renew

Introduce. First you introduce a new product. In your view it is a thing of beauty. Whether you spent 3 years or 3 months, you are convinced it has exactly the right features done exactly the right way, though you know there are ton of things on your “to do” list. Even if you are practicing lean methodologies you are pretty sure you got it right in your heart even though there is a lot of learning to follow. Your design embodies simplicity in design and messaging. Once your product starts to get used and you have the luxury of people relying on your work you begin to see the holes and maybe even misfires in your experience design. Optimize. You have a lot of work to do to reconcile your “to do” list with what actual people using your product. It turns out that what you thought the product was missing is pretty different than what everyone else thought the product was missing. You shrug this off and take the feedback seriously because you have real-world people using your product. Quite often the innovations introduced at this stage are formalizations for how people were using your product. Add-ins, customizations, or just conventions that enhanced usage become the sorts of things you formalize in the product. You very quickly iterate and get to a much more robust, reliable, stable, and usable version of what you had originally envisioned. This becomes the foundation of your product.

Deliberate. Evolving your product at this stage is very fun. While you believe you have a product that embodies your vision, with usage you begin to see broader usage and scenarios as part of your product. There might be third parties that do similar things as you but with a slightly different or much improved take on a specific mechanism you have in your product. Because you have become a leader with your product in “the way” things are done, when you decide to introduce an innovation it comes as a deliberate and thoughtful extension of your experience. Rarely do you see pushback from a broad base of customers when something new is introduced at this stage in your product’s evolution. In fact you often are seen as taking the product to a new level and providing a broader context in which your whole category or class of products should evolve. You are basking in the glow of innovating in the user experience of your space—you have come to define the category and now you’re defining the category to include new elements of user-experience.

Succumb. The feedback your product is receiving is growing, both positive and negative. As your product is used more and more, the usage scenarios and skill-levels of your customers change dramatically. Your product is used in ways you could never imagine and customers are asking for your product to do things you would never have imagined they would ask. If your product becomes essential for some scenario, then people will ask for your product to take on attributes and features of other familiar products (if you share photos, then you’re likely to be asked for photo editing for example; if you communicate, then before long you will be asked for rules and filters; if you type then you will be asked for more and more formatting, spelling, and entry features). If during the previous stage you really believed you had achieved a level of almost Bauhaus minimalism about your product, this is the stage when you feel a relentless pressure to add more. You’re hearing from customers, pundits, press and more about the must-haves and must-dos. This is by far the most stressful time in product development—you can’t just step back and not change things, but you constantly feel like changes are all part of a slippery slope. You constantly find yourself struggling between the minimalist view of the product you have been perfecting and the need from different types of customers for seemingly contradictory types of features. It is why at this stage as a designer you feel like you are succumbing to feedback and introducing features that you know some people will value and others will see the other way or maybe just not even notice—you feel like you’re bloating your simple product. These are the hardest decisions to make and are the price of success. If you try to hang on to simplicity, you will see competitors pass you by or you’ll see engagement stagnate.

Mature or Renew. The natural evolution of most every product involves a fairly long period of incorporating features in the previous stage—you add some new things, incrementally change some existing things, and in general are working to find a path through the maze of contradictory feedback and complex market needs. Over time your product will develop a different personality and unique set of assets, but is going to be far from that original version. While you might have hundreds of millions of customers, at some point the experience of your product is such that the market collectively demands an overhaul. The challenge of course is that the collective market is very different than any one individual or an organization (for enterprise products). The latter two, unlike the aggregate view of the market, do not necessarily embrace change. This point in the evolution of your product is where you face disruption—the telltale signs of reduced engagement, alternative tools and experiences, or just a lack of energy in your ecosystem are signs that your product is overdue for improvements, new features and more. Software affords you the chance to reimagine your product and presents you with the opportunity at this time. Of course with hundreds of millions of customers, a very large number in absolute will not want any change at all. That’s why this stage of evolution is a choice—you can incrementally mature your product design or you can choose to renew your product design. These two are really that very rare of “either-or” choices. As a product designer, you will be faced with a big set of decisions when you have to design what comes next for a mature product. Be careful what you wish for you as your design might be so successful that one day you face the prospect of redesigning it in the context of a significant customer base.

Products reaching a mature stage face a fork in the road.

Products reaching a mature stage face a fork in the road—one where you can renew or watch your product slowly shrink in relevance. This might seem dramatic, but the velocity of change in the technology world combined with the ease of switching shows that one day what might seem like “the way things are done” will risk becoming “the way things used to be” much sooner than expected.

Disruption and technology transitions are part of the context of designing products and experiences.

From search home pages, to photo editors, word processors, operating systems, music players, and more these stages are all part of the evolution of a user experience. The beauty of software interface is that unlike the physical world you are given the chance to move things around, change, and improve the product for little to no manufacturing cost, but at each stage you have to work through the cost of change to customers.

No other product in history has had the ability to be used by so many yet be so flexible in how it is used.

Simplicity in design is what we all strive for and often how we begin a product lifecycle. With success, maintaining simplicity over time while also remaining competitive is where design and product management are really challenged.

The “soft” of software makes this challenge even more acute and the pressures to add or change a product even more difficult to resist.

–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

May 13, 2014 at 11:00 am

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Tablets v. the World

Every time the topic of tablets versus laptops (and or smartphones) comes up, we end up in another endless debate about scenarios, consumption, productivity, keyboards, mice, screen size, multitasking, and more. In every case the debate centers around the core uses of “PCs” today—and PC is in quotes because the PC itself is a remarkably flexible device that has morphed over the years into many form factors. People study run-rates and trends and try to predict the demise of one over another and so on.

It isn’t so simple.  But it also isn’t so binary.

For more on this dialog, you can also catch a couple of podcasts from Benedict Evans and I (see a16z Podcast: Engineering a Revolution at Work and a16z Podcast: When Your PC Expires).

Disruption

Every disruptive innovation shares (at least) two characteristics.  First, the newly introduced technology is more often than not inferior in some key dimensions, while superior in some dimensions that in the current context seem to matter more.  Second, despite much consternation, the technology being disrupted is almost certainly going to remain a vital part of the landscape in some form or another for quite some time—either simply because of the long tail of legacy or because it serves a function that is not replicated at all.

What changes, however, is where the emphasis takes place around an ecosystem and with a, usually, broader set of customers. The ecosystem is not a static world and it too plays a vital role in the transition. Where the ecosystem is investing is always a leading indicator of where the transition is heading.

We can look at transitions such as entertainment (theater, radio, film, TV, video, streaming) or transportation (horses, boats, trains, cars, planes) or even storage (removable, hard drives, USB, flash) as examples of where these traits are demonstrated. Computer user-interface moving from characters to GUI to touch shows these traits as well.

The introduction of the iPad, and the modern mobile OS (and smartphones) in general, shows many of these characteristics.  The modern OS in combination with new hardware has many characteristics that separate it from the PC era including sealed case (non-extensible hardware), ultra-low power consumption, rich embedded graphics, touch user interface, app store, exclusively wireless connectivity, and more.  This is the new platform which is where so much innovation in apps is taking place.

Here is where the debate starts—some of those features are either not valued or true limitations when compared to the vastly more capable PC model. There’s no doubt about that. It is just a fact. Not only does the PC have a wider range and more “powerful” hardware options, but it also benefits from 20 years of software that drives a vast array of processes, devices, workflows, and more.  Tablet hardware is still immature relative to “PC standards” and apps do not seem to cover so many of the existing PC scenarios (even if they cover scenarios not even dreamed of or possible on PCs).

Hardware and Software

Two things are still rapidly changing that will account for a much broader transition from the dichotomy of tablet OR laptop today to a world where tablets with modern operating systems begin (or have begun) to replace many scenarios occupied by laptops.

We will soon start to see more innovation in tablets.

First, the hardware in tablets will benefit enormously from Moore’s law. While the pace of changes in smartphones (screen size, cpu, gpu, specs) has been faster than we have seen in tablets, my guess is we will soon start to see more innovation in tablets. In terms of both form factor and specs, tablets have been reasonably static since introduction. There are give or take two screen sizes and fairly modest spec bumps. My guess is that since the same vendors make both smartphones and tablets, the vast amount of energy has been focused on smartphones for now (just as when the PC industry shifted innovation from desktops to laptops and then swung back again to focus on all-in-ones).  I suspect we will start to see more screen sizes for tablets and more innovation in peripherals and capabilities, along with specs that benefit from the rapid progress in Moore’s law.

Second, all the hardware innovation in the world isn’t enough to drive new scenarios or even more dramatic replacement scenarios. The amazing innovation in software on smartphones shows what can take place when developers of the world see potential and tap into the power of a new platform.

Two Examples

I wanted to offer two examples of where the transition to tablets has been surprisingly “behind the scenes” and really out of sight, but very interesting from a technical perspective.

Many of us find ourselves in the AT&T store all too often because we’re adding a line, replacing a phone, getting a new SIM or whatever.  Over the past year or so, AT&T has aggressively rolled out iPads to replace the in-store PCs that were used for customer service. This is a massive software challenge. The in-store PCs had point of sale capability, bar code readers (for SIMs), and a large array of apps that drove the entire customer engagement (some of these apps ran Windows OpenStep believe it or not).

He kept telling me how frustrating it was to deal with the lack of capabilities of the new tools.

If you happened to visit the store during the early stages of the transition, you would have been able to sense the frustration with the account managers.  There were many unfamiliar elements to the new apps on the iPads and worse there seemed to be many things that the desktop tools could do that the iPad apps could not.  For example, I got caught trying to merge two accounts and the rep was forced to call the regional call center to do the work and while on hold he kept telling me how frustrating it was to deal with the lack of capabilities of the new tools.  At the same time, the iPad had cool integration with portable bar code readers, the reps could easily show you what is on the screen to verify information (like picking a new phone number) and so on.

The transition is well underway now and I don’t think folks notice any more.

Today I spent a few hours with my friendly Comcast technician while he diagnosed something faulty with our cable signal.  While he has a fancy signal meter, most of the work he does is actually adjusting things via a remote app on an iPad.  Comcast technicians (as I learned, the ones in vans but not “bucket trucks”) were recently issued iPads. Sure enough during the visit he was on the phone to a central office and was saying “I have an iPad now and so without my PC I’m not able to get that measurement”.

The tech said, “I have an iPad now and so without my PC I’m not able to get that measurement”.

I was having flashbacks to the frustrated AT&T reps. Turns out this technician used to have a PC and ran the same software as the tech at the other end of the phone (and in the bucket trucks). They are moving techs to iPads because they do not have to carry chargers; they are more resilient when dropped; and the integrated Verizon connectivity all make for a far more convenient service tool.  Plus things like entering the MAC address become much easier with bar code readers and the ability to use a much more agile form factor, as one example.

The conversation I had with a tech (always the anthropologist) was fun.  He said they have a whole tracking and feedback process that helps them to prioritize what features the software folks need to add to the apps being used in the field. Turns out, I’m guessing, they built some pretty elaborate desktop software that did just about everything since it was used on the ground and in the data center, but they likely had little understanding of just what was used and how often. The creation of new apps will drive a new level of customer service and technician capabilities, even if there are some hiccups along the way.

Broader Implications

These two examples are hard core line of business tools. We’re seeing the same thing in the line of business tools used by folks at all sorts of companies big and small. The new generation of mobile-first SaaS tools make it far easier to create “documents” for sharing and collaboration, access business information, or participate in business services from CRM to accounting to benefits.  The tools these are supplanting were developed over a decade and have tons of features and optimizations but lack the mobility and internet access that is so highly valued in a modern workplace. The transition will have some hiccups but is happening.

Along with these tools, so many of the tools for creation and production that are PC based on being reimagined and recast for modern work. We can see this revolution in Adobe’s work on photography for professionals with tablets, Paper and Penci from fiftythree, and of course the long list of productivity tools we talk about often on this blog. These tools do less, but they also do more. When combined with tablets and smartphones on modern platforms they enable a new view on the work and scenarios.

The characterization of tablets as “neither here nor there” or “in between tablet and a laptop” misses the reality that the modern nature of tablet platforms—both hardware and software—will drive innovation and subsequent transition for many many scenarios from traditional laptop platforms to tablet platforms.  We’re in the middle period where this is happening—just as when people said cars were too expensive for the masses and would not be mainstream or when the GUI interface lacked the hardware horsepower and “keystroke productivity” to replace character based tools.

New hardware and new software will surface new capabilities and scenarios not previously possible (or imagined).

The traditional laptop will power hundreds of millions of endpoints for a very long time. But as the two examples here show, even in the most hardcore worlds where device integration meets custom software, there is a transformation and transition taking place.  New hardware and new software will surface new capabilities and scenarios not previously possible (or imagined). It won’t be smooth and it won’t please everyone immediately, but it is happening–just as both of those same scenarios transitioned from character to GUI.

It really is about the software. That change is happening all around us.

–Steven (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

May 6, 2014 at 3:30 pm

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Designing for BYO, a product manager view

imageMany companies I work with are creating tools to enhance workplace or personal productivity depends on the “bring your own” or BYO movement to get their product bootstrapped or to just get in the door. Once in the door, the product design challenges of BYO begin.

After those first customers they count on broader, viral, usage within a company to drive revenue growth. While they likely built your product with the notion that “customer equals purchaser” once this changes to “business equals purchaser”, you are going to get a whole different level of feedback.

My guess is most every app and service is both excited and terrified to get to the moment when there is a choice between cozying up to IT and risking alienating your newly minted enthusiasts. It is, by all accounts, a choice. Most I talk to feel like they will navigate this by focusing on customers first and hope to overwhelm the negatives often associated with IT.

Walk that fine line to enable your product to be at some state of détente with IT.

Get over it. Not entirely of course, but there’s some subtly at play. At some point you are going to face a fork in the road; navigate enterprise management or face existential challenges. You can choose to be managed without your cooperation or worse blocked and literally unable to access important assets that your product requires. Alternatively, you might also choose to walk that fine line to enable your product to be at some state of détente with IT.

I know that sounds awful and while I am sure there are some exceptions (in both organizations and products), this is by far the most normal path. It doesn’t have to be a sell-out, but when done well you can bet that you’re going to be in great position to advance the state of the art and contribute positively to enterprise infrastructure.

In fact, as I was typing this post there was this thoughtful article on putting customers first in business apps.

The essence of BYO is that one can easily acquire and begin to use a device, product or service without IT involvement of any kind. You might need to know the server name for email or maybe how to export data from a line of business system, but otherwise the device or app can tap into the necessary resources without first going through IT and/or purchasing. Even better, these tools likely make it very easy to share information with coworkers or collaborators at other organizations. All folks need is a free email account as a gateway to sharing.

Of course all this ease of use has at least two main IT downsides.

First and foremost is security of the network overall. Devices on a network, running code of unknown origin, tapping into servers is a big risk. What can be transmitted by those devices and apps concerns IT. Inbound PDF attachments or simple USB sticks seemed harmless enough at first until they became a massive vectors.

Second, the data and servers being accessed contain information that you need to use but do not own. These are corporate assets and managing and tracking those is a fiduciary responsibility for IT and in some cases such as HIPPA or SEC regulations the penalties for messing up are severe. That simple case of putting something like logmein or internet messaging can potentially become a significant liability.

My own personal experience “helps” me to see this pattern. Working on Microsoft Office in the early days, we were very clearly a “bottom up adoption” product. People were going to stores and buying the product with their own money and creating amazing looking documents they would bring into work (often on PCs bought with personal funds at those same stores). Pretty soon groups of people were using corporate expense accounts to acquire “5 packs” of Office. Then over time, Microsoft grew an enterprise sales force that could offer large deals.

That’s the sales side, but on the product side the management and deployment of the product (deployment being decidedly old school now) became unwieldy. As a result, the late 1990’s saw a movement to reduce so called “TCO” or total cost of ownership. TCO mandated a vast number of controls across the entire platform and from that grew a whole generation of features from the registry, to logon scripts, to the, now, dreaded “corporate desktop”. TCO reached an epic volume as it described owning a $1500 PC as a $20,000 per year expense to companies.

While I was dragged kicking and screaming to deliver features that I felt could be used to make the product worse, the reality was at the time this is also what grew the business.  The tradeoffs, debates, and design choices were all very real.

In a startup, these choices are much more existential than they were for us back then. Given the hurdles to overcome to become a widely used tool, there’s a good chance you might want to be more proactive about how your product fits with BYO.

As a product manager facing this decision point, you have this intense belief that IT wants to make your product worse, harder to use, and to basically ruin your good work. The fact that so few built-for-IT products have the design sense, usability, or approachability of apps and services focused on consumers only reinforces this.

While there are dozens of potential traps and pitfalls that can result in a product falling out of favor, it is a good idea to consider a few important design choices you can make now that will enable your consumer and BYO product to be viewed through a positive light. It is important that these design choices be considered product assets rather than object handlers.

Ultimately, if you design a product to be used in business where you can charge more it should be better, not worse, than a product used in the consumer space. It used to be that the business versions of products charged more so they could do less and be harder to use and acquire. The SaaS and App models invert this. Phil Libin, founder of Evernote, says it best when he says “business class means superior and we challenge ourselves to make our product better when you upgrade to the business version”.

Business class means superior and we challenge ourselves to make our product better when you upgrade to the business version. — Phil Libin, Evernote

The following are five product areas to consider when it comes to making a product business ready:

  • Identity and authentication. The first thing a business needs from a product is that employees should sign into the product using the business-owned credentials (such as Active Directory). This allows IT to send a clear message to the individual that they are operating in a business context. This needs to include authentication mechanisms used at the organization and enforce associated password policy and security. At the same time, you owe it to your own ease of use that stand-alone credentials can be used, especially for collaboration. How you manage the bridge and the commingling of credentials depends on the flow of assets through your product.
  • Network usage. IT organizations guard their network across several dimensions. Platform providers make it possible to use VPN (secured with enterprise credentials) or other access methods for WiFi. Your product should use well-known/documented ports and be clear with IT about what travels over the wire and in what volumes. Techniques like polling, using obscure ports, and more will only hinder your product usage.
  • Changes related to re-orgs. In an organization of any size employees quit, vendors are fired, or staffing on a project just changes. If your product is used across a group of people then IT will want to be there to assist in supporting these changes within your product. How can content remaining on devices be recalled or how can a person lose permissions to content are important design choices you can make in building a product that it BYO friendly.
  • Content “ownership”. If your product creates or consumes content then your product owes it to IT to participate in the content management responsibility of the organization. At one extreme, the clipboard exists on IT apps and in every other app so you can dodge this question by saying it isn’t your exclusive responsibility. On the other hand, by having mechanisms for IT to have some telemetry and actions on content then you invite your product to be desired by IT, not just challenged. More than any other area this is where many potential solutions exist and many possible ways to make the product worse or upgrade to business class.
  • Features. Products are more than editors and tools for sharing, so there are going to be unique features in your product. Some of those unique features will intersect in ways that might run counter to a business policy. Sometimes this could be simple such as an ability to generate email notifications which might be frowned upon. Other times it might be complex as a feature runs directly afoul of regulatory compliance. At some level there are going to be features you give IT permission to enable/disable. No area is more challenging of course and thinking hard about the design tradeoffs when a feature might not be there is important. A feature like password protection might be great for consumers but becomes a huge problem for IT when personnel change. Alternatively, you might have a feature that becomes a “must use” and if that’s the case you want to consider how something you might have thought of as optional becomes permanent. For example, you might optionally support a confirmation email when adding new people to a project and IT might require that email be sent to produce a record of access changes.

There are many other avenues to consider. I think it is possible to make a product better when enabled for business even if you start from the very solid business and design foundation of customer first.

The modern mechanisms for administering IT control are vastly superior to the PC era mechanisms. The idea of running arbitrary code, tweaking every aspect of the UI, or installing add-ins that alter base functionality of a product are long gone. These approaches showed how great products can be made unfamiliar, hard to use, and less robust even with the best intentions Worse, the mechanisms developed to enable these approaches proved to be vectors for security problems, performance challenges, and in general sources of unpredictability and unreliability.

Today’s devices support state-based management, app stores, and security contexts that greatly improve the ability to deliver upgraded business features. To many, these tools are not yet enough. The platform vendors are carefully balancing the approaches they introduce with the known downsides by the old approaches.

There’s a disruption in the way devices, apps, and information are managed, but that does not necessarily mean an elimination.

–Steven Sinofsky

Written by Steven Sinofsky

May 1, 2014 at 3:00 pm

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Shipping is a Feature: Some Guiding Principles for People That Build Things

I love questions about advice because they really force one to think carefully about what to say. My former colleague (and fellow Cornellian), Jackie Bavaro now at Asana, who recently co-authored a thoughtful book on the ins and outs of securing a role in product management, asked the following question on Quora:

Untitled

In the back of my head I always have that product manager view of accountability and so rather than “advise” I much prefer to have a dialog in context and make sure accountability stays with the person asking. It is difficult enough to be a manager and avoid the constant pull of “telling people what to do” and certainly on big topics one really has to be careful. At the same time, spouting cliche’s like “what do you think” or “it depends” can frustrate folks. This in itself is a valuable PM lesson.

I’ve been really lucky (literally) to work with many amazing folks and so many routine interactions yield empowering and powerful insights that one can bring forward. I’ve used blogging over many years to share those and many are also republished in our book on strategy and collaboration.

In thinking about the question and some of the recent design-oriented discussions, here are five takeaways that have always guided me. They didn’t originate with me, except in the sense that I discovered their value while making some mistake.

For these five bits of advice, I chose to focus on what I think is the most challenging aspect of being a PM, which is achieving clarity and maintaining a point of view for a product when all forces work against this very thing. What customers value most in a product is that “it just work” or “does what it is supposed to do,” and yet at every step in a product, the dynamics of design work to make this the most difficult to achieve. For those that have not built products, understanding the context and dynamics of decision making while building something is a bit abstract.

Shipping is a feature. Every PM knows this but it is also the hardest thing to get right. As a PM you throw around things like “the enemy of the good is the perfect” or, well, “shipping is a feature” all the time, yet we all have a hard time getting a product out the door. There’s always more to do to get it right. The way this was taught to me was so old it involved software being shipped in a box on floppies, but the visual has stuck with me. When you ship a product in a box on the back of the box are screen shots and marquee features. What does not come on the box are lists of all the features you thought of doing or different executions you considered. It is that simple. Once you release the product you begin a new adventure building then next iteration. It is almost always the case that what you were thinking before you had customers will change in some ways in the version that comes next. So ship. Learn. Gather data. Iterate. Whether you spend three years or three months developing a product this motion is the same.

You get paid to decide. Some people love making decisions on their own. Other people need socialization and iteration to make a choice. Either way can work (or not) as a product manager, but to be great you really do have to decide. Deciding anything important or meaningful at all means some people will disagree. Some might really disagree a huge amount. The bottom line is a decision has to be made. A decision means to not do something, and to achieve clarity in your design. The classic way this used to come up (and still does) is the inevitable “make it an option”. You can’t decide should a new mouse wheel scroll or zoom? Should there be conversation view or inbox view? Should you AutoCorrect or not? Go ahead and add it to Preferences or Options. But really the only correct path is to decide to have the feature or not. Putting in an option to enable it means it doesn’t exist. Putting in an option to disable means you are forever supporting two (then four, then eight) ways of doing something. Over time (or right away) your product has a muddled point of view, and then worse, people come to expect that everything new can also be turned off, changed, or otherwise ignored. While you can always make mistakes and/or change something later, you have to live with combinatorics or a combinatoric mindset forever. This is the really hard stuff about being a PM but the most critical thing, you bring a point of view to a product—if a product were a person you would want that person to have a clear, focused world-view.

Can’t agree to disagree. Anything that requires more than one person to do (and by definition as a PM you are working with Engineering/Dev so that means what you do) will reach a point where you have to do something and not everyone will agree. On a well-run team there are very rarely that many decisions that span many people all of whom have a voice (if you do, then fix that problem first). When you do reach a point where you just don’t agree, first, contemplate the first lesson and realize you have to ship. Second, see the previous lesson and realize you do have to decide. That leaves you deciding something that some people (or one person) won’t like. What you don’t want to do is end that meeting over coffee with the infamous “we have to ship and I think we should do X, so let’s just move on and agree to disagree”. Endings like that are never good. The “told you so moment” is just out there waiting to appear. The potential for passive-aggressive org dynamics is all too real. Ultimately, this is just a yucky place to be. So if you’re on the “winning” side of such a dialog then you have to bring people along every day for a while. You can’t remind people who was right, or that it is your decision and so on. If you’re on the “losing” side you need to support the team. You can’t remind people when little things go wrong (which they will) that you were right. Once a choice is made, the next step is all about the greater good. Nothing is harder for technologists than this because as technologists we believe there is a “right” answer and folks that don’t agree are simply “wrong”. Context is everything and remember you have to ship–as a team.

Splitting the baby is, well, splitting the baby. Even with all those lessons, time and time again I’ve faced situations where there is a stalemate on the team and the suggestion is made for a middle-of-the-road choice. A feature will appear sometimes. Performance won’t be terrible, but it won’t be great. Customers can do 90% of something, but not everything. Yet it would be possible to decide to have the feature, have great performance, or deliver 100%—it is just that the team dynamic is placing a value on finding a middle road. The biblical narrative of splitting the baby often comes into play here, because in practice if you do arrive at such a comprise what you’ve in effect done is reached a state where in fact you have made no one happy in the room and no one happy down the road. Of course, compromise is a critical part of product design for many reasons. The bigger the team, the more varied customers, the increased divergence of customer needs all lead to a stronger need to find middle paths for complex choices. There is magic when you can do this without just muddling the product. But there is risk that if your design language turns into splitting the baby that the output is exactly what you don’t want to achieve.

10% better can be 100% different. The hardest choices a PM can make are not the new choices for a product—a clean slate is challenging, but that is the truly fun part of design for many. It is not easy, but it is fun. The real challenge comes when deciding what to do next time around (in three weeks, three months or more). The first thing you do is remember all those things you could not get done or had to decide sub-optimally. So you think you’ll go back and “polish” off the work. But remember, now you have customers and they are using the product. They might not see what wasn’t done. They might actually like what you ended up doing. Your temptation to tweak things to “finish” them might come across as better in an incremental sense, but will it be that much better for existing customers? Will it be so much better for new customers that it is worth the risk of touching that code again? The big question for you is whether you can really measure how much better something is—is it more efficient, faster, deeper, etc.? There are many cases, particularly in user-experience flow and design, where incremental improvement simply amounts to speed bumps in using a new release and the downside masks the upside. Sometimes when you improve something 10% what you really do is make it 100% different.

Context is everything in decision making as a PM . The skills and experience of the team matter. The realities of where the business is at a given time or the ability to execute on a proposal are all factors that weigh heavily. Hindsight is 20/20 or better in the world of PM, and we all know there are many standing by to offer perspective, advice, or even criticism of the choices a product makes.

If you don’t make those choices in a timely manner then there won’t be much to talk about. Sometimes the most difficult thing to do is keep moving forward. That’s why some of the most valuable advice I’ve received relate to the very challenges of making tough product calls.

 

–Steven Sinofsky @stevesi

This post originally appeared on a16z.com.

Written by Steven Sinofsky

April 17, 2014 at 8:30 am

You’re doing it wrong

The-main-characterSmartphones and tablets, along with apps connected to new cloud-computing platforms, are revolutionizing the workplace. We’re still early in this workplace transformation, and the tools so familiar to us will be around for quite sometime. The leaders, managers, and organizations that are using new tools sooner will quickly see how tools can drive cultural changes — developing products faster, with less bureaucracy and more focus on what’s important to the business.

If you’re trying to change how work is done, changing the tools and processes can be an eye-opening first step.

Check out a podcast on this topic hosted by Andreessen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans. Available on Soundcloud or on a16z.com.

Many of the companies I work with are creating new productivity tools, and every company starting now is using them as a first principle. Companies run their business on new software-as-a-service tools. The basics of email and calendaring infrastructure are built on the tools of the consumerization of IT. Communication and work products between members of the team and partners are using new tools that were developed from the ground up for sharing, collaboration and mobility.

Some of the exciting new tools for productivity that you can use today include: Quip,EvernoteBox and Box NotesDropboxSlackHackpadAsanaPixxa PerspectiveHaiku Deck, and more below. This list is by no means exhaustive, and new tools are showing up all the time. Some tools take familiar paradigms and pivot them for touch and mobile. Others are hybrids of existing tools that take a new view on how things can be more efficient, streamlined, or attuned to modern scenarios. All are easily used via trials for small groups and teams, even within large companies.

Tools drive cultural change

Tools have a critical yet subtle impact on how work gets done. Tools can come to define the work, as much as just making work more efficient. Early in the use of new tools there’s a combination of a huge spike in benefit, along with a temporary dip in productivity. Even with all the improvements, all tools over time can become a drag on productivity as the tools become the end, rather than the means to an end. This is just a natural evolution of systems and processes in organizations, and productivity tools are no exception. It is something to watch for as a team.

The spike comes from the new ways information is acquired, shared, created, analyzed and more. Back when the PC first entered the workplace, it was astounding to see the rapid improvements in basic things like preparing memos, making “slides,” or the ability to share information via email.

There’s a temporary dip in productivity as new individual and organizational muscles are formed and old tools and processes are replaced across the whole team. Everyone individually — and the team has a whole — feels a bit disrupted during this time. Things rapidly return to a “new normal,” and with well-chosen tools and thoughtfully-designed processes, this is an improvement.

As processes mature or age, it is not uncommon for those very gains to become burdensome. When a new lane opens on a highway, traffic moves faster for awhile, until more people discover the faster route, and then it feels like things are back where they started. Today’s most common tools and processes have reached a point where the productivity increases they once brought feel less like improvements and more like extra work that isn’t needed. All too often, the goals have long been lost, and the use of tools is on autopilot, with the reason behind the work simply “because we always did it that way.”

New tools are appearing that offer new ways to work. These new ways are not just different — this is not about fancier reports, doing the old stuff marginally faster, or bigger spreadsheets. Rather, these new tools are designed to solve problems faced by today’s mobile and continuous organization. These tools take advantage of paradigms native to phones and tablets. Data is stored on a cloud. Collaboration takes place in real time. Coordination of work is baked into the tools. Work can be accessed from a broad range of computing devices of all types. These tools all build on the modern SaaS model, so they are easy to get, work outside your firewall and come with the safety and security of cloud-native companies.

The cultural changes enabled by these tools are significant. While it is possible to think about using these tools “the same old way,” you’re likely to be disappointed. If you think a new tool that is about collaboration on short-lived documents will have feature parity with a tool for crafting printed books, then you’re likely to feel like things are missing. If you’re looking to improve your organizational effectiveness at communication, collaboration and information sharing, then you’re also going to want to change some of the assumptions about how your organization works. The fact that the new tools do some things worse and other things differently points to the disruptive innovation that these products have the potential to bring — the “Innovator’s Dilemma” is well known to describe the idea that disruptive products often feel inferior when compared to entrenched products using existing criteria.

Overcoming traps and pitfalls

Based on seeing these tools in action and noticing how organizations can re-form around new ways of working, the following list compiles some of the most common pitfalls addressed by new tools. In other words, if you find yourself doing these things, it’s time to reconsider the tools and processes on your team, and try something new.

Some of these will seem outlandish when viewed through today’s concept. As a person who worked on productivity tools for much of my career, I think back to the time when it was crazy to use a word processor for a college paper; or when I first got a job, and typing was something done by the “secretarial pool.” Even the use of email in the enterprise was first ridiculed, and many managers had assistants who would print out email and then type dictated replies (no, really!). Things change slowly, then all of a sudden there are new norms.

In our Harvard Business School class, “Digital Innovation,” we crafted a notion of “doing it wrong,” and spent a session looking at disruption in the tools of the workplace. In that spirit, “you’re doing it wrong,” if you:

  1. Spend more time summarizing or formatting a document than worrying about the actual content. Time and time again, people over-invest in the production qualities of a work product, only to realize that all that work was wasted, as most people consume it on a phone or look for the summary. This might not be new, but it is fair to say that the feature sets of existing tools and implementation (both right for when they were created, I believe) would definitely emphasize this type of activity.
  2. Aim to “complete” a document, and think your work is done when a document is done. The modern world of business and product development knows that you’re never done with a product, and that is certainly the case for documents that are steps along the way. Modern tools assume that documents continue to exist but fade in activity — the value is in getting the work out there to the cloud, and knowing that the document itself is rarely the end goal.
  3. Figure out something important with a long email thread, where the context can’t be shared and the backstory is lost. If you’re collaborating via email, you’re almost certainly losing important context, and not all the right folks are involved. A modern collaboration tool like Slack keeps everything relevant in the tool, accessible by everyone on the team from everywhere at any time, but with a full history and search.
  4. Delay doing things until someone can get on your calendar, or you’re stuck waiting on someone else’s calendar. The existence of shared calendaring created a world of matching free/busy time, which is great until two people agree to solve an important problem — two weeks from now. Modern communication tools allow for notifications, fast-paced exchange of ideas and an ability to keep things moving. Culturally, if you let a calendar become a bottleneck, you’re creating an opening for a competitor, or an opportunity for a customer or partner to remain unhappy. Don’t let calendaring become a work-prevention tool.
  5. Believe that important choices can be distilled down into a one-hour meeting. If there’s something important to keep moving on, then scheduling a meeting to “bring everyone together” is almost certainly going to result in more delays (in addition to the time to get the meeting going in the first place). The one-hour meeting for a challenging issue almost never results in a resolution, but always pushes out the solution. If you’re sharing information all along, and the right people know all that needs to be known, then the modern resolution is right there in front of you. Speaking as a person who almost always shunned meetings to avoid being a bottleneck, I think it’s worth considering that the age-old technique of having short and daily sync meetings doesn’t really address this challenge. Meetings themselves, one might argue, are increasingly questionable in a world of continuously connected teams.
  6. Bring dead trees and static numbers to the table, rather than live, onscreen data. Live data analysis was invented 20 years ago, but too many still bring snapshots of old data to meetings which then too often digress into analyzing the validity of numbers or debating the slice/view of the data, further delaying action until there’s an update. Modern tools like Tidemark and Apptio provide real-time and mobile access to information. Meetings should use live data, and more importantly, the team should share access to live data so everyone is making choices with all the available information.
  7. Use the first 30 minutes of a meeting recreating and debating the prior context that got you to a meeting in the first place. All too often, when a meeting is scheduled far in advance, things change so much that by the time everyone is in the room, the first half of the hour (after connecting projectors, going through an enterprise log-on, etc.) is spent with everyone reminding each other and attempting to agree on the context and purpose of the gathering. Why not write out a list of issues in a collaborative document like Quip, and have folks share thoughts and data in real time to first understand the issue?
  8. Track what work needs to happen for a project using analog tools. Far too many projects are still tracked via paper and pen which aren’t shared, or on whiteboards with too little information, or in a spreadsheet mailed around over and over again. Asana is a simple example of an easy-to-use and modern tool that decreases (to zero) email flow, allows for everyone to contribute and align on what needs to be done, and to have a global view of what is left to do.
  9. Need to think which computer or device your work is “on.” Cloud storage from Box,DropboxOneDrive and others makes it easy (and essential) to keep your documents in the cloud. You can edit, share, comment and track your documents from any device at any time. There’s no excuse for having a document stuck on a single computer, and certainly no excuse risking the use of USB storage for important work.
  10. Use different tools to collaborate with partners than you use with fellow employees. Today’s teams are made up of vendors, contractors, partners and customers all working together. Cloud-based tools solve the problem of access and security in modern ways that treat everyone as equals in the collaboration process. There’s a huge opportunity to increase the effectiveness of work across the team by using one set of tools across organizational boundaries.

Many of these might seem far-fetched, and even heretical to some. From laptops to color printing to projectors in conference rooms to wireless networking to the Internet itself, each of those tools were introduced to skeptics who said the tools currently in use were “good enough,” and the new tools were slower, less efficient, more expensive, or just superfluous.

The teams that adopt new tools and adapt their way of working will be the most competitive and productive teams in an organization. Not every tool will work, and some will even fail. The best news is that today’s approach to consumerization makes trial easier and cheaper than at any other time.

If you’re caught in a rut, doing things the old way, the tools are out there to work in new ways and start to change the culture of your team.

–Steven Sinofsky @stevesi

This article originally appeared on <re/code>.

Written by Steven Sinofsky

April 10, 2014 at 6:00 pm

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Hiring for a job you never did or can’t do

imageOne of the most difficult stages in growing your own skillset is when you have to hire someone for a job you can’t actually do yourself. Whether you’re a founder of a new company, or just growing a company or team, at some point the skills needed for a growing organization exceed your own experience.

Admitting that you don’t really have the skills the business requires is the first, and most difficult step. This is especially true as an engineer where there’s a tendency to think we can just figure things out. It is not uncommon to go through a thought process that basically boils down to: coding must be the hardest job, so all the other jobs can be done by someone with coding skills.

Fight the fear, let go of control, and make moves towards a well-rounded organization.

Nice try.

If you’ve ever tried some simple home repairs or paint touchup you know this logic doesn’t work—you only need to spend an hour watching some cable TV DiY show and you can see how the people with skills are always unraveling the messes created by those who thought they could improvise. The software equivalent can sometimes be seen as a developer attempting to design the user interaction flow in a paint program or PowerPoint. Sure it can be done by a developer (and there are talented developers who can of course do it all), but he or she can quickly reach their limits, and so will the user interaction.

Open up your engineer’s mind to embrace the truth that every other discipline or function you will ever collaborate with has a deep set of skills experiences that you lack. Relative to engineering, the “softer” skills often pose the biggest eye-opening surprise to engineers. Until you’ve seen the magic worked by those skilled in marketing, communications, sales, business development or a host of other disciplines you might not appreciate the levels of success you can achieve by turning over the task to trained professionals.

I have seen this first-hand many times. Most recently it occurred while working with the a16z portfolio company Local Motion when it came time to do some of the early announcements around the fleet-management company. The co-founders possess engineering and design backgrounds from elite institutions, and built the product themselves, hardware and software. Both are experienced mountaineers, and so they have this engrained sense of self-sufficiency, which is valuable both for building companies and scaling mountains.

When it came time to work with the industry press to tell the story of their company, in some ways they had to suppress their self-sufficient instincts. The founders were self-aware enough to know they had not done this before and agreed to enlist the help of those who have depth and breadth of experience. The pros showed up and spent time learning the team, the business, and the story (professionals do that!). They came back with a plan, roles, responsibilities, and defined what success would look like. It was amazing to watch how the founders absorbed and learned at each step all those things which they had not personally experienced before.

This sounds easy and pretty obvious. But if you put yourself in their shoes you know that this is not just bringing in a hired gun to get some press, rather this is hiring on a new member of the team and a new founding member of the family. What is vital to keep in mind, is that this kind of work is as important as every line of code and every circuit board. The lesson of letting go and letting professionals do their work is clear: delegating is never easy for most, but is spectacularly difficult if you don’t know what the other person is going to do and when the outcome matters a whole lot. Still, you need to let the specialists into your carefully engineered world.

There are moments of terror. You’re watching people talk about your product using tools and techniques you are unfamiliar with to connect with your potential customers. Even though it is a product, you are apt to feel as though this is a discussion about yourself. You question every step. You doubt the skills of the person you hired. You are certain everything will go wrong.

It is at that point—right when you start to panic and think that unless you do this yourself things will fail—that you need to let go. You need to say “yes” to hiring a person to do the work, and then let them do their best work.

Just keep reminding yourself that you’ve never done the job before, and that you’re role is to hire someone who knows more than you. Even when you’ve wrapped your head around that, there are a few ways you can get tripped up when you are The key to success here is avoiding these mistakes when you are in the hiring process:

  1. Asking candidates to teach you. A good candidate will of course know more than you. Their interview is not a time for them to teach you what they do for a living. The interview is for you to learn the specifics of a given candidate, not the job function. The best bet is to do your homework. If you’re hiring your first sales leader then use your network and talk to some subject matter experts and learn the steps of the role ahead of time.
  2. Expecting a candidate to know or create your strategy. It is fine to expect engineering candidates to know the tools and techniques you use. You wouldn’t expect an engineering candidate to know your unannounced product, of course. It is equally challenging to expect a new marketing person to have a marketing plan for your product. Even if you ask them to brainstorm for hours, keep in mind the inputs into the process—they only know the specifics you have provided them. For example, don’t expect a marketing candidate to magically come up with the right pricing strategy for your product without a chance to really dive in. On the other hand, you can expect a candidate to walk you through in extreme detail their most recent work on a similar topic. You can get to their thought process and how they worked through the details of the problem domain.
  3. Interviewing too many folks. You will always hear stories about the best hire ever after seeing 100 people. Those stories are legendary. On the other hand, you rarely hear the stories that start with “we could not find the perfect QA leader so we waited and waited until we had a quality crisis.” Yet these latter stories happen far too often. Again, you should not compromise, but if after bringing a dozen or more people through a process you are still searching, consider the patterns you’re seeing and why this is happening. A good practice if you’ve not found right hire after going through a lot of folks is to bring in a new point of view. Consider recruiting the help of a search firm, a board member, or a subject matter advisor to get you over the first hire in a new job function. Do you need the help of a search firm? Would you benefit from the help of a board member or subject matter advisor to get you over the first hire in a new job function?

These add up to the quest for the perfect hire. When it comes to engineering you give yourself a lot of leeway because you feel you can direct a less experienced person and because you can gauge more easily what they know and don’t know. When it comes to other roles you become more reluctant to let go of a dream candidate. This almost always nets out costing you time, and in a new effort time is money. That isn’t saying to settle, but it is saying to use the same techniques of approximation you naturally use when hiring people in your comfort zone.

The most difficult part of hiring for a job you don’t know first-hand is the human side. Every growing organization needs diversity because every product and service is used by a diverse group of people. The different job functions often bring with them diversity of personality types that add to the challenges of hiring. The highly analytical developer looking to hire a strong qualitative thinker for marketing, or the highly empathetic sales leader, is often going to face a challenge just making the human connection.

This human connection is a two-way street. Embrace it. Recognize the leap each of you are taking. Realize that the interpersonal skills required to call on customers every day are just different than the interpersonal skills used when hacking. The challenge of making that human connection is one for the person doing the hiring to overcome. Often that’s the biggest opportunity for personal growth when hiring people to do a job you can’t.

 

–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

 

Note: A form of this post originally appeared on FastCo.

Written by Steven Sinofsky

April 3, 2014 at 9:30 am

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Look at me! More thoughts on notifications

36458Hunter Walk shared some thoughts on notifications and the challenges he and (certainly through twitter) many people see. Many of the companies I’ve met with see design challenges in how much and when to offer up notifications. There’s a long history of trying different approaches and modalities to notifications and so it seems worth some additional perspective for those familiar with what we see today on modern mobile platforms.

Notifications are one of those features where everyone has an opinion, and rightfully so. The feature is so visible and for just about everyone seems so close to being helpful but yet always off by just a little. There’s a general UX principle that is worth considering, which is anytime you push some feature on your customer you really want it to be right (correct, useful, helpful) for him/her 100% of the time. If not, chances are your customer will recall the negatives of the feature far more than the positives. This applies to notifications, autocorrect, form completion, and more. If you find yourself putting a lot of design energy into how your customer can undo or dismiss your best guess at what was intended, then you’re probably being too aggressive.

Anytime you push some feature on your customer you really want it to be right for him/her 100% of the time.

In some ways, today’s Notification Centers are the extreme case of “we’re collectively going to be wrong so often that we’re just going to put stuff in one place” or “there’s just so much we app developers have to tell you that the platforms are squeezing it all into one place to avoid cluttering up the platform itself”.

It is as if it isn’t enough we have to manage all of our apps, bookmarks, and preferences, we now have to manage all the ways apps tell us stuff we might want to know. Hunter’s raised the complaint (to a chorus of agreement) that after a two weeks, you have to go in and turn off notifications on a new app. Of course this improves battery life, reduces chatter, and then as some noted causes you to start to ignore the app.

What’s an app developer to do?

What to do?

In the PC era a lot of effort went into honing the design of verbs and interaction. It took a decade to develop the right approaches to menus, toolbars, status bars, panes, and more. That’s because many apps were essentially a large set of verbs this was the big design challenge. The rough equivalent to this design challenge is the role of notifications in mobile. That’s because in a mobile world many apps exist to be essentially a stream of information.

Notifications suffer a clear tension between platform pm and the app pm.

Platform pm wants to contain apps to the app experience, extending the walled-garden such that apps don’t interfere with other apps. By definition a notification is a way for one app to interfere with other apps. Platform pm sees notifications as necessary far less frequently than app pm might. This leads to a set of APIs that offer a clear, albeit limited, view of what a notification is and what it can do. This seems reasonable and we all want the platform folks maintaining a global view of consistency in approach and control.

App pm sees the world through the lens of their app. The assumption is that someone downloading and using an app has made a choice to count on that app for the purpose it was designed, and so whether it is an airline app alerting you to a flight (or a potential discount on a future flight), a bank with a balance alert (or advertising a new bank feature), or a communication tool letting you know of some inbound message (or alerting you that a friend is now on line) the app pm sees any of these as worthwhile reasons to interfere with your flow or context. On all platforms, apps often design their own type of notifications that get used while you are using the app (for in app purchase or feature advertising) because the platform is not rich enough. All this seems legitimate, and certainly at the time of initial designs.

Over time the initial designs from both parties tend to lead to an expansion in the ability to interrupt you. Each subsequent release of a platform almost always adds more capabilities to enhance and customize notifications in an effort to offer more while also trying to keep the noise in the system manageable. Each app adds more and more notifications in an effort to more deeply engage with customers and likely to encourage customers to use more surface area of the app.

Many who use iOS 7 have spent quite a bit of time mired notification customization. Here is an overview of the iOS 7 features, both the notifications and notification center, worth a look if you’re on Android or not sure of the impressive depth that Apple designed for notification. Android is probably not quite at the same level of consistency and control, though as you might expect there are several apps that can help you customize notifications of other apps.

Design Challenge

At the extreme we end up with two core design challenges.

Notification spam. This one is easy. Too many apps just think too much of what is going on is important to you. Like too much of any design the burden falls to app product managers to just be more thoughtful. Like so many elements of any platform, when there is a view that making money depends on getting folks to use more of a product or spend more time in a product, the platform starts to look a bit like “surface area to be exploited”. Like the old Start Menu and desktop in Windows, the more places an app can “infuse” itself and invade your space the better. On Android we see this in the share item menu as another bit of surface area to be gamed or exploited.

Notification action. The most common issue with notification is that your flow is interrupted and then you seem to be pulled into a state of distraction until you deal with the inbound notice. We each have our own human based algorithms for how to cope. We always jump on SMS. We (almost) always ignore a ringing phone. We wish we could find a way for some app or another to stop bugging us so we uninstall it.

On iOS there is very little you can do to a notification other than dismiss it or just jump directly to the app or place in the app that generated the notification. Modal or must-act notifications are generally discouraged. The resulting notification center then turns into a list to read that spans a bunch of apps and for some ends up to be a list of stuff you’ve already seen popup or in context or just a reminder to get to the app.

On Android, the design takes a different approach which is to enable notifications that can take actions. This is where the elegance of notifications is really stretched, but in a way that many find appealing. For example, when you receive a new mail message the gmail notification lets you archive it based on reading the initial content or various SMS clients offer you the ability to reply.

On Windows Phone, one has the additional option of pivoting notifications by person on your home screen so you can glance and see that there is activity by person. This has a natural appeal when there are a small set of folks you care deeply about but as a general purpose mechanism it might not scale particularly well.

The core challenge with offering verbs with notifications is almost “classic” in that one can never off the right set of verbs because eventually the design turns into attempting to implement the a substantial number of features of the app in the notification. Mail is a great challenge: delete, file, reply, flag, etc. all become possible verbs. Each usage pattern in aggregate leads to the whole mail experience. The more users you have the larger the group of customers that don’t like the subset of verbs you picked.

Ultimately taking action based on a notification turns into a bit of a frustration in that the notification centers essentially offer a new way to launch all your apps. What was a nice feature turns into a level of indirection almost all the time.

Opportunity

Therein is the opportunity. In a world where many people are almost constantly glancing at their phones and wanting to know more about what is going on in their digital lives and a world where almost every app represents an endless stream of information along with in-app notifications, it seems that notifications need a different level of semantics.

For example, with just a few friends Facebook always has something new to see so why notify you of the obvious. For many, Twitter is essentially a notification engine. Mail certainly is a constant stream, arguably of decreasing importance. In other words, it isn’t even clear what makes sense to notify you about when the natural behavior is to periodically launch apps to see what’s new within the app context and apps are generating new information all the time.

Similarly, if most everyone knows that when you are talking to another human you both have to turn your phones upside down to avoid being distracted (or sharing private information), then there’s a good chance we’ve collectively missed the mark notifications. The iOS “do not disturb” is an awesome feature but yet it seems to undo all the work in both the notification center and in the apps.

My view is that a feature that requires us to customize it before it becomes useful or less annoying is defaulted the wrong way. Of course this is literally impossible with a product used by more than a few people, since any design at all will have both critics and shortcomings. However, it is possible to default to “out of the way” and then provide a mechanism for people to decide what they might want to be notified about once a usage pattern is established.

For example, I might assert that for an app like mail, sms, Facebook, or Twitter the simple iOS badge is enough. We are all in and out of these apps enough during the day that a specific notification is redundant with the in-app notifications already there.

Each app can almost certainly step back and either know a priori or offer a mechanism that puts people in control of their experience with notifications. It is almost certainly the case that if we’re bouncing in and out of apps all the time but really do want to know if SMS comes from a loved one amongst the 100’s of SMS many get each day, that is likely the way to design a feature.

It is easy to imagine using more context (loved the twitter suggestion to not notify while driving/moving fast). It is easy to imagine more machine learning applied to notifications. But I think we can start from a fresh perspective that the mechanisms provided are just being over-used to begin with when we look at modern usage patterns.

–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

February 15, 2014 at 12:00 pm

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