Posts Tagged ‘tradeoffs’
Much is being said lately about the trend to unbundle capabilities for the web and apps. Is this a new trend, a pendulum, or another stage in the evolution of providing software solutions for work and life? Are we going to learn what some would say are lessons from a past generation of software and avoid bloatware? Perhaps we will relive some of the experiences from that era and our phones and tablets will be littered with app shrapnel as our PCs once were?
My own personal experience in product choices is marked by a near constant tension over not just bundle v. unbundle from a product perspective, but also from a business perspective. Whether on development tools, Office, Windows, or internet services I’ve experienced the unbundle <> bundle dynamic. I’ve bundled, unbundled, and had the “internal” debates about what to do when, what went well or not. If you’re interested in an early debate about bundling Office you can see the Harvard case study on the choice of “best of breed v. suite” in Finding the Suite Spot ($).
This HBR article does a good job of bringing forth some of the history and describing the challenges of positioning unbundle/bundle as both a binary choice and a pendulum or Krebs-like cycle of resource conservation. Marc Andreessen does a great job in these two tweetstorms of detailing the bundle/unbundle cycle on the internet and the computer history we both grew up with (http://tweetstorm.io/user/pmarca/481554165454209027 and http://tweetstorm.io/user/pmarca/481739410895941632).
There’s one maxim in business that drives so much of the back and forth or pendulum behavior we tend to see, which is that most strategies have a complementary approach (vertical v. horizontal, direct v. indirect, integrate v. distinct, first v. third-party, product org v. discipline org, quantitative v. qualitative performance evaluation, hack v. plan, etc.) So in business depending on your roots or your history, and most importantly the context you find yourself, you are going down a path of one of more of these attributes.
Over time your competition tends to pick you apart the other way or ways. Equally likely, your ecosystem builds up around you innovating in parts where you are weaker, gaining strength, and showing off new approaches to product or market. Certainly, if you’re a new company entering an established market you will not just copy the approach of the incumbent which is why new products seem to be at the other end of one of these spectrums.
Then as you get in trouble you look around and try to figure out what to do. There’s a good chance the organization will double down on the approach that has always worked—after all as Christensen says, that is the natural energy force in an organization. That happens until a big moment of change (a major competitive success, leadership change, etc.) and then you change approaches. More often than not, your choice is to do the thing you weren’t doing before. If you’re around in the workforce long enough, you start to see things as a series of these evolutionary steps.
This is business, context is everything. There’s never a right answer in absolute, only a right answer given the context.
The moments of change, of breaking the cycle or swinging back the other way, are the moments that unleash significant improvements in the work, the product, or the workplace.
History and Customers
As consumers we adopt new technologies without realizing or thinking about whether they are bundled or unbundled, and our choices and selections for one or other are highly dependent on the context at the time. There are times when bundling is essential to the distribution of technology, just as there are times when unbundling brings with it more choice, flexibility, and opportunity. Obviously the same holds for businesses buying products, only businesses have purchasing power that can make bundled things appear unbundled or vice versa.
It is worth considering a few tech examples:
- Autos began with minimal electronics, followed by optional electronics, then increasingly elaborate integrated electronics and many now think that smartphones will be the best device for in-car electronics/apps (for example the BMW i series).
- LinkedIn began as a network for professionals to list their credentials and connect to others professionally. Recently it has bundled more and more content-based functionality.
- Mobile telephony used to have distinct local, long distance, text and then data plans, which have now been bundled into all-you-can-consume multi-device plans.
- Word processing used to have optional spell-checking and mail merge which was then bundled into single products which were then subsequently bundled into suites and also now bundle cloud services. Similarly, financial spreadsheets, data analysis, and charting were previously distinct efforts that are now bundled. Today we are seeing new tools that have different feature sets and approaches, representing some unbundling and some bundling.
- Operating systems were once highly hardware dependent, then abstracted from hardware but with optional graphical interfaces, followed by a period of bundling of OS+Graphics, followed by a bundling of OS, graphical interface, and hardware in a single package. Today with services we’re seeing different combinations of bundling and unbundling innovations.
- Microprocessors have been on a fairly continuous bundling effort relative to peripherals, graphics, and even storage.
- Modern smartphones are a wonder of bundling, first at the hardware level (SoC packaging) followed by hardware+software, then through all the devices that were previously distinct (GPS, still camera, video camera, pedometer, game controller, USB storage, and more).
There are countless examples depending on what level in the full consumer offering is being considered (i.e. product, price, place, promotion). Considering just these examples, one can easily see the positives and potential pitfalls of any of these.
Yet in looking these examples and others, one can make a few observations about how customers and teams approach bundling choices for products and services:
- People like distinct products when exploring new capabilities and product teams like building single purpose tools early in product lifecycle, out of both focus and necessity/resources.
- People like it when their favorite product adds features that previously required a separate product, especially when their favorite product is growing in usage. Product teams love to add more features to existing products when those features map to obvious needs.
- People have some threshold for when an integrated product turns into an overwhelming product, but that “line in the sand” is impossible to define a priori and depends a great deal on how products are evolving around your product. Mobile phone plans today are great, but many are very unhappy with Cable TV bundles.
- Competition can come from a bundle that you were previously not considering **or** competition can come from unbundling the product you make.
- Product managers often reach a point where they can no longer solve the problem of adding new features while seeing them get used and also getting credit for innovating.
- Macro factors can radically alter your own views of what could/should be bundled. If your business does not have a software component and your competitors add one, attempting to bundle that functionality could be quite challenging (technically, organizationally). If the platform you target (autos, spectrum, screens) undergoes a major change in capability then so too does your view of bundling or unbundling.
These examples and observations make one thing perfectly clear: whether to bundle or unbundle features depends a great deal on context and customer scenarios and so the choices require a great deal of product management thought. The path to bundle or unbundle is not linear, predictable, or reactionary but a genuine opportunity and need for solid product thought.
On the one hand, considering whether to bundle or unbundle innovations might just be “do what we can that is differentiated”. In practice there are some key strategy questions that come up time and time again when talking to product folks.
- Discoverability. The most critical strategic question to bundle or unbundle is whether the new work will be discoverable by intended customers. In a new product, the early waves of innovative features often make sense bundled. Over time, just responding to customers means you’ll be bundling in new capabilities (whether organic or competitive).
- Usability. When faced with a new feature or business approach, the usability of this approach is a key factor in your choice. If you’re unable to develop a user experience that permits successful execution of the desired outcome, then it doesn’t really matter whether your bundled or unbundled.
- Depth. When making the choice to bundle or unbundle you have to think through how much you plan on innovating in the spaces. If you’re setting yourself up for a long-term head to head on depth versus believing you are “checking a box” you have different choices. Incumbents often view the best path to fending off a disruptive unbundled feature as adding a checkbox to compete (to avoid the trauma of a major change in approach). Marketing often has an urgency that drives a need for market response and that can be represented as an unbundled “add-on that no one cares about” or “a checkbox that can be communicated” — that might sound cynical until you’ve been through a sales cycle losing out to a “feature as a product”.
- Business economics. If you charge directly for your product or service (or freemium), then there will be a strong incentive to bundle more and more into your existing offering. Sales will generally prefer to add more features at the current price. Marketing will potentially advocate for a new pricing level to increase revenue. If you choose to unbundle and develop a new product, side-by-side or companion, then you’ll need to consider what your attach rate might be. A bundled solution essentially sees a 100% attach rate to your existing product whereas a whole new product brings with it the need to generate demand and subsequent purchase or usage. An advertising-based service will see increased surface area for an unbundled solution but will also dilute usage. A web-based service allows for cross-linking and easy connection between two different properties, but apps will require separate downloads and minimal cross-app connections.
- Usage economics. It might sound strange separating out business from usage, since especially in a SaaS world they are the same thing. In practice, if you’re revenue is tied to usage directly (page views, transactions, etc.) then your design needs to factor in how you measure and drive usage of the features, bundled or unbundled. If you’re economics are not tied directly to usage you will have more strategic latitude to consider how your offering plays out bundled v. unbundled (assuming your boss lets you keep working on something no one uses).
Product management approach
Should you add that new feature or capability to your existing product or should you create a new destination (app, site)? Should you break out a feature because unbundling is the new normal or will that just break everything? Those are the core questions any PM faces as a product grows.
One tip: do not claim that one approach (bundle v. unbundle) is good for users and the other approach is only good for business. In other words, bundle v. unbundle cannot be distilled down to pro-user or anti-user, or more importantly marketing v. product. The best product people know that context is everything and that positioning a choice as A against B is counter productive—everyone is on the same team and has the same broad goals. As difficult as it is, working through these questions with as much dialog as possible and as much “walk in the other’s shoes” is absolutely critical.
There are many natural forces at play that will drive one way or another.
For example, most organic product development will tend to expand the existing product as it builds on the infrastructure and momentum already present.
Most new acquisitions will tend towards acquiring unbundled solutions, aka competition, though in the enterprise space one can expect significant calls to integrate even disparate technologies.
Part of being a good PM is to step back and go through a thoughtful process about whether to bundle or unbundle new capabilities. The following are some design choices.
- Advertising new features in proportion to expected usage. There’s a general view to advertise a new feature in the UX in an excessively prominent manner. You want people to know you fixed or added a feature. At the unbundle extreme this means a whole new app and a trend to shrapnel. In the bundle extreme this means a big UX to drive you to a new thing. The most critical choice is really making sure that you are designing the access to the feature to be in relative proportion to how much you expect your customer base to use something.
- Plan for “n+1” in all experience choices. As you make the choice to bundle or unbundle, know ahead of time that this will not be the first place you make this choice. If you’re adding a new app today then chances are that will become the way you solve things down the road. If you’re adding new UX access to a feature then plan on more depth in that feature or more peer features. Is the choice you are making scalable for the growth in creativity and innovation you expect?
- Integrate or connect in one direction, not both. If you bundle or unbundle there will be a relentless push to promote the connection between elements of the product or service. Demo flows, top-level UX, even deep linking between apps. At some extreme if you bundle n items, it might not be unrealistic to go down a path where every n is connected to every other n-1 and vice versa. This is incredibly common in line of business apps/modules.
- Bundle and innovate, don’t bundle and deprecate. If you make a choice to bundle a capability into your mainline effort, do not bundle it to make it go away. Bundle it and think of it as just as important as other things you do. This dynamic appears when your competition does something you don’t like so you hope to have a checkbox and make the competitor go away. This never happens.
- Designing for good enough leaves you open to disruption. Closely related to deprecating while bundling is the idea that a “tie is a win”. Once you’re established you often think that you can continue to win against a competitor with an integrated implementation that is “good enough”. That might work in short-term marketing but over time, if the area is important you’ll lose.
- Expect hardware to be relentlessly bundled. If you connect to hardware in any way, then you’ll be faced with a relentless march towards bundling. Hardware naturally bundles because of the economics of manufacturing, the surplus of transistors, and the need to reduce power and surface area. Never bet on hardware or peripherals staying unbundled for long.
- Expanding software depth is easy, but breadth often adds more value. Engineers and product managers love to round out features, add more depth, more customization, and more incremental improvements. This is where the customer feedback loop is really clear. In terms of growing the business and attracting new customers, expansion in breadth is almost always a better approach so long as you “bundle” features that seem natural. Over indexing on depth, particularly early in a product life-cycle leaves you open to a competitor that does you plus other valuable things, no matter how much you think you’re unbundling approach is cleaner and simpler.
- Defined categories do not remain defined for long. In enterprise products the “category” or “magic quadrant” is everything. In practice, these very definitions are always in transition. Be in the lookout for being redefined by an action of bundling or unbundling.
- Assume sales and marketing will prefer new capability to be bundled, or maybe not. Finally to highlight how contextual this is, there is no default as to how outbound efforts will prefer you approach the problem. It is not necessarily the opposite of what you are doing or the same as a competitor. For example, if your sales force economics are such that they are strongly connected to a single product and sales motion, it will be clear that bundling will be preferred no matter what a competitor is up to. At an extreme, even an unbundled feature will be used as a closer or a discount, particularly in the enterprise. Conversely, even if your competition is highly bundled, you’re own outbound efforts might be structured such that unbundling is a competitive and sales win. You just never know. Most importantly, the first reaction isn’t the way to base your approach—spend the time to engage and debate.
To bundle or unbundle is a complex question that goes beyond the simplistic view that minimal design makes for good products. Take the time to engage broadly across the team, organization, and to project forward where you want to be as these are some of the most critical design choices you will make.
–Steven Sinofsky @stevesi
Designing 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!
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.
- A customer need to address feedback and “fix” things that might be simple but are not quite there yet.
- 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)
- 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:
- 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)
Hunter 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.
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.
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)
Innovation and disruption are the hallmarks of the technology world, and hardly a moment passes when we are not thinking, doing, or talking about these topics. While I was speaking with some entrepreneurs recently on the topic, the question kept coming up: “If we’re so aware of disruption, then why do successful products (or companies) keep getting disrupted?”
Good question, and here’s how I think about answering it.
As far back as 1962, Everett Rogers began his groundbreaking work defining the process and diffusion of innovation. Rogers defined the spread of innovation in the stages of knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation and confirmation.
Those powerful concepts, however, do not fully describe disruptive technologies and products, and the impact on the existing technology base or companies that built it. Disruption is a critical element of the evolution of technology — from the positive and negative aspects of disruption a typical pattern emerges, as new technologies come to market and subsequently take hold.
A central question to disruption is whether it is inevitable or preventable. History would tend toward inevitable, but an engineer’s optimism might describe the disruption that a new technology can bring more as a problem to be solved.
Four Stages of Disruption
For incumbents, the stages of innovation for a technology product that ultimately disrupt follow a pattern that is fairly well known. While that doesn’t grant us the predictive powers to know whether an innovation will ultimately disrupt, we can use a model to understand what design choices to prioritize, and when. In other words, the pattern is likely necessary, but not sufficient to fend off disruption. Value exists in identifying the response and emotions surrounding each stage of the innovation pattern, because, as with disruption itself, the actions/reactions of incumbents and innovators play important roles in how parties progress through innovation. In some ways, the response and emotions to undergoing disruption are analogous to the classic stages of grieving.
Rather than the five stages of grief, we can describe four stages that comprise theinnovation pattern for technology products: Disruption of incumbent; rapid and linear evolution; appealing convergence; and complete reimagination. Any product line or technology can be placed in this sequence at a given time.
The pattern of disruption can be thought of as follows, keeping in mind that at any given time for any given category, different products and companies are likely at different stages relative to some local “end point” of innovation.
Stage One: Disruption of Incumbent
A moment of disruption is where the conversation about disruption often begins, even though determining that moment is entirely hindsight. (For example, when did BlackBerry get disrupted by the iPhone, film by digital imaging or bookstores by Amazon?) A new technology, product or service is available, and it seems to some to be a limited, but different, replacement for some existing, widely used and satisfactory solution. Most everyone is familiar with this stage of innovation. In fact, it could be argued that most are so familiar with this aspect that collectively our industry cries “disruption” far more often than is actually the case.
From a product development perspective, choosing whether a technology is disruptive at a potential moment is key. If you are making a new product, then you’re “betting the business” on a new technology — and doing so will be counterintuitive to many around you. If you have already built a business around a successful existing product, then your “bet the business” choice is whether or not to redirect efforts to a new technology. While difficult to prove, most would generally assert that new technologies that are subsequently disruptive are bet on by new companies first. The very nature of disruption is such that existing enterprises see more downside risk in betting the company than they see upside return in a new technology. This is the innovator’s dilemma.
The incumbent’s reactions to potential technology disruptions are practically cliche. New technologies are inferior. New products do not do all the things existing products do, or are inefficient. New services fail to address existing needs as well as what is already in place. Disruption can seem more expensive because the technologies have not yet scaled, or can seem cheaper because they simply do less. Of course, the new products are usually viewed as minimalist or as toys, and often unrelated to the core business. Additionally, business-model disruption has similar analogues relative to margins, channels, partners, revenue approaches and more.
The primary incumbent reaction during this stage is to essentially ignore the product or technology — not every individual in an organization, but the organization as a whole often enters this state of denial. One of the historical realities of disruption is uncovering the “told you so” evidence, which is always there, because no matter what happens, someone always said it would. The larger the organization, the more individuals probably sent mail or had potential early-stage work that could have avoided disruption, at least in their views (see “Disruption and Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda” and the case of BlackBerry). One of the key roles of a company is to make choices, and choosing change to a more risky course versus defense of the current approaches are the very choices that hamstring an organization.
There are dozens of examples of disruptive technologies and products. And the reactions (or inactions) of incumbents are legendary. One example that illustrates this point would be the introduction of the “PC as a server.” This has all of the hallmarks of disruption. The first customers to begin to use PCs as servers — for application workloads such as file sharing, or early client/server development — ran into incredible challenges relative to the mini/mainframe computing model. While new PCs were far more flexible and less expensive, they lacked the reliability, horsepower and tooling to supplant existing models. Those in the mini/mainframe world could remain comfortable observing the lack of those traits, almost dismissing PC servers as not “real servers,” while they continued on their path further distancing themselves from the capabilities of PC servers, refining their products and businesses for a growing base of customers. PCs as servers were simply toys.
At the same time, PC servers began to evolve and demonstrate richer models for application development (rich client front-ends), lower cost and scalable databases, and better economics for new application development. With the rapidly increasing demand for computing solutions to business problems, this wave of PC servers fit the bill. Soon the number of new applications written in this new way began to dwarf development on “real servers,” and the once-important servers became legacy relative to PC-based servers for those making the bet or shift. PC servers would soon begin to transition from disruption to broad adoption, but first the value proposition needed to be completed.
Stage Two: Rapid Linear Evolution
Once an innovative product or technology begins rapid adoption, the focus becomes “filling out” the product. In this stage, the product creators are still disruptors, innovating along the trajectory they set for themselves, with a strong focus on early-adopter customers, themselves disruptors. The disruptors are following their vision. The incumbents continue along their existing and successful trajectory, unknowingly sealing their fate.
This stage is critically important to understand from a product-development perspective. As a disruptive force, new products bring to the table a new way of looking at things — a counterculture, a revolution, an insurgency. The heroic efforts to bring a product or service to market (and the associated business models) leave a lot of room left to improve, often referred to as “low-hanging fruit.” The path from where one is today to the next six, 12, 18 months is well understood. You draw from the cutting-room floor of ideas that got you to where you are. Moving forward might even mean fixing or redoing some of the earlier decisions made with less information, or out of urgency.
Generally, your business approach follows the initial plan, as well, and has analogous elements of insurgency. Innovation proceeds rapidly in this point. Your focus is on the adopters of your product — your fellow disruptors (disrupting within their context). You are adding features critical to completing the scenario you set out to develop.
To the incumbent leaders, you look like you are digging in your heels for a losing battle. In their view, your vector points in the wrong direction, and you’re throwing good money after bad. This only further reinforces the view of disruptors that they are heading in the right direction. The previous generals are fighting the last war, and the disruptors have opened up a new front. And yet, the traction in the disruptor camp becomes undeniable. The incumbent begins to mount a response. That response is somewhere between dismissive and negative, and focuses on comparing the products by using the existing criteria established by the incumbent. The net effect of this effort is to validate the insurgency.
Stage Three: Appealing Convergence
As the market redefinition proceeds, the category of a new product starts to undergo a subtle redefinition. No longer is it enough to do new things well; the market begins to call for the replacement of the incumbent technology with the new technology. In this stage, the entire market begins to “wake up” to the capabilities of the new product.
As the disruptive product rapidly evolves, the initial vision becomes relatively complete (realizing that nothing is ever finished, but the scenarios overall start to fill in). The treadmill of rapidly evolving features begins to feel somewhat incremental, and relatively known to the team. The business starts to feel saturated. Overall, the early adopters are now a maturing group, and a sense of stability develops.
Looking broadly at the landscape, it is clear that the next battleground is to go after the incumbent customers who have not made the move. In other words, once you’ve conquered the greenfield you created, you check your rearview mirror and look to pick up the broad base of customers who did not see your product as market-ready or scenario-complete. To accomplish this, you look differently at your own product and see what is missing relative to the competition you just left in the dust. You begin to realize that all those things your competitor had that you don’t may not be such bad ideas after all. Maybe those folks you disrupted knew something, and had some insights that your market category could benefit from putting to work.
In looking at many disruptive technologies and disruptors, the pattern of looking back to move forward is typical. One can almost think of this as a natural maturing; you promise never to do some of the things your parents did, until one day you find yourself thinking, “Oh my, I’ve become my parents.” The reason that products are destined to converge along these lines is simply practical engineering. Even when technologies are disrupted, the older technologies evolved for a reason, and those reasons are often still valid. The disruptors have the advantage of looking at those problems and solving them in their newly defined context, which can often lead to improved solutions (easier to deploy, cheaper, etc.) At the same time, there is also a risk of second-system syndrome that must be carefully monitored. It is not uncommon for the renegade disruptors, fresh off the success they have been seeing, to come to believe in broader theories of unification or architecture and simply try to get too much done, or to lose the elegance of the newly defined solution.
Stage Four: Complete Reimagination
The last stage of technology disruption is when a category or technology is reimagined from the ground up. While one can consider this just another disruption, it is a unique stage in this taxonomy because of the responses from both the legacy incumbent and the disruptor.
Reimagining a technology or product is a return to first principles. It is about looking at the underlying assumptions and essentially rethinking all of them at once. What does it mean to capture an image,provide transportation, share computation, search the Web, and more? The reimagined technology often has little resemblance to the legacy, and often has the appearance of even making the previous disruptive technology appear to be legacy. The melding of old and new into a completely different solution often creates whole new categories of products and services, built upon a base of technology that appears completely different.
To those who have been through the first disruption, their knowledge or reference frame seems dated. There is also a feeling of being unable to keep up. The words are known, but the specifics seem like rocket science. Where there was comfort in the convergence of ideas, the newly reimagined world seems like a whole new generation, and so much more than a competitor.
In software, one way to think of this is generational. The disruptors studied the incumbents in university, and then went on to use that knowledge to build a better mousetrap. Those in university while the new mousetrap was being built benefited from learning from both a legacy and new perspective, thus seeing again how to disrupt. It is often this fortuitous timing that defines generations in technologies.
Reimagining is important because the breakthroughs so clearly subsume all that came before. What characterizes a reimagination most is that it renders the criteria used to evaluate the previous products irrelevant. Often there are orders of magnitude difference in cost, performance, reliability, service and features. Things are just wildly better. That’s why some have referred to this as the innovator’s curse. There’s no time to bask in the glory of the previous success, as there’s a disruptor following right up on your heels.
A recent example is cloud computing. Cloud computing is a reimagination ofboth the mini/mainframe and PC-server models. By some accounts, it is a hybrid of those two, taking the commodity hardware of the PC world and the thin client/data center view of the mainframe world. One would really have to squint in order to claim it is just that, however, as the fundamental innovation in cloud computing delivers entirely new scale, reliability and flexibility, at a cost that upends both of those models. Literally every assumption of the mainframe and client/server computing was revisited, intentionally or not, in building modern cloud systems.
For the previous incumbent, it is too late. There’s no way to sprinkle some reimagination on your product. The logical path, and the one most frequently taken, is to “mine the installed base,” and work hard to keep those customers happy and minimize the mass defections from your product. The question then becomes one of building an entirely new product that meets these new criteria, but from within the existing enterprise. The number of times this has been successfully accomplished is diminishingly small, but there will always be exceptions to the rule.
For the previous disruptor and new leader, there is a decision point that is almost unexpected. One might consider the drastic — simply learn from what you previously did, and essentially abandon your work and start over using what you learned. Or you could be more incremental, and get straight to the convergence stage with the latest technologies. It feels like the ground is moving beneath you. Can you converge rapidly, perhaps revisiting more assumptions, and show more flexibility to abandon some things while doing new things? Will your product architecture and technologies sustain this type of rethinking? Your customer base is relatively new, and was just feeling pretty good about winning, so the pressure to keep winning will be high. Will you do more than try to recast your work in this new light?
The relentless march of technology change comes faster than you think.
So What Can You Do?
Some sincerely believe that products, and thus companies, disrupt and then are doomed to be disrupted. Like a Starship captain when the shields are down, you simply tell all hands to brace themselves, and then see what’s left after the attack. Business and product development, however, are social sciences. There are no laws of nature, and nothing is certain to happen. There are patterns, which can be helpful signposts, or can blind you to potential actions. This is what makes the technology industry, and the changes technology bring to other industries, so exciting and interesting.
The following table summarizes the stages of disruption and the typical actions and reactions at each stage:
|Disruption of Incumbent||Introduces new product with a distinct point of view, knowing it does not solve all the needs of the entire existing market, but advances the state of the art in technology and/or business.||New product or service is not relevant to existing customers or market, a.k.a. “deny.”|
|Rapid linear evolution||Proceeds to rapidly add features/capabilities, filling out the value proposition after initial traction with select early adopters.||Begins to compare full-featured product to new product and show deficiencies, a.k.a. “validate.”|
|Appealing Convergence||Sees opportunity to acquire broader customer base by appealing to slow movers. Sees limitations of own new product and learns from what was done in the past, reflected in a new way. Potential risk is being leapfrogged by even newer technologies and business models as focus turns to “installed base” of incumbent.||Considers cramming some element of disruptive features to existing product line to sufficiently demonstrate attention to future trends while minimizing interruption of existing customers, a.k.a. “compete.” Potential risk is failing to see the true value or capabilities of disruptive products relative to the limitations of existing products.|
|Complete Reimagining||Approaches a decision point because new entrants to the market can benefit from all your product has demonstrated, without embracing the legacy customers as done previously. Embrace legacy market more, or keep pushing forward?||Arguably too late to respond, and begins to define the new product as part of a new market, and existing product part of a larger, existing market, a.k.a. “retreat.”|
Considering these stages and reactions, there are really two key decision points to be tuned-in to:
When you’re the incumbent, your key decision is to choose carefully what you view as disruptive or not. It is to the benefit of every competitor to claim they are disrupting your products and business. Creating this sort of chaos is something that causes untold consternation in a large organization. Unfortunately, there are no magic answers for the incumbent.
The business team needs to develop a keen understanding of the dynamics of competitive offerings, and know when a new model can offer more to customers and partners in a different way. More importantly, it must avoid an excess attachment to today’s measures of success.
The technology and product team needs to maintain a clinical detachment from the existing body of work to evaluate if something new is better, while also avoiding the more common technology trap of being attracted to the next shiny object.
When you’re the disruptor, your key decision point is really when and if to embrace convergence. Once you make the choices — in terms of business model or product offering — to embrace the point of view of the incumbent, you stand to gain from the bridge to the existing base of customers.
Alternatively, you create the potential to lose big to the next disruptor who takes the best of what you offer and leapfrogs the convergence stage with a truly reimagined product. By bridging to the legacy, you also run the risk of focusing your business and product plans on the customers least likely to keep pushing you forward, or those least likely to be aggressive and growing organizations. You run the risk of looking backward more than forward.
For everyone, timing is everything. We often look at disruption in hindsight, and choose disruptive moments based on product availability (or lack thereof). In practice, products require time to conceive, iterate and execute, and different companies will work on these at different paces. Apple famously talked about the 10-year project that was the iPhone, with many gaps, and while the iPad appears a quick successor, it, too, was part of that odyssey. Sometimes a new product appears to be a response to a new entry, but in reality it was under development for perhaps the same amount of time as another entry.
There are many examples of this path to disruption in technology businesses. While many seem “classic” today, the players at the time more often than not exhibited the actions and reactions described here.
As a social science, business does not lend itself to provable operational rules. As appealing as disruption theory might be, the context and actions of many parties create unique circumstances each and every time. There is no guarantee that new technologies and products will disrupt incumbents, just as there is no certainty that existing companies must be disrupted. Instead, product leaders look to patterns, and model their choices in an effort to create a new path.
Stages of Disruption In Practice
Digital imaging. Mobile imaging reimagined a category that disrupted film (always available, low-quality versus film), while converging on the historic form factors and usage of film cameras. In parallel, there is a wave of reimagination of digital imaging taking place that fundamentally changes imaging using light field technology, setting the stage for a potential leapfrog scenario.
- Retail purchasing. Web retailers disrupted physical retailers with selection, convenience, community, etc., ultimatelyconverging on many elements of traditional retailers (physical retail presence, logistics, house brands).
- Travel booking. Online travel booking is disrupting travel agents, then converging on historic models of aggregation and package deals.
- Portable music. From the Sony Walkman as a disruptor to the iPod and MP3 players, to mobile phones subsuming this functionality, and now to streaming playback, portable music has seen the disruptors get disrupted and incumbents seemingly stopped in their tracks over several generations. The change in scenarios enabled by changing technology infrastructure (increased storage, increased bandwidth, mobile bandwidth and more) have made this a very dynamic space.
- Urban transport. Ride sharing, car sharing, and more disruptive traditional ownership of vehicles or taxi services are in the process of converging models (such as Uber adding UberX.
- Productivity. Tools such as Quip, Box, Haiku Deck, Lucidchart, and more are being pulled by customers beyond early adopters to be compatible with existing tools and usage patterns. In practice, these tools are currently iterating very rapidly along their self-defined disruptive path. Some might suggest that previous disruptors in the space (OpenOffice, Zoho, perhaps even Google Docs) chose to converge with the existing market too soon, as a strategic misstep.
- Movie viewing. Netflix and others, as part of cord-cutting, with disruptive, low-priced, all-you-can-consume on-demand plans and producing their own content. Previous disruptors such as HBO are working to provide streaming and similar services, while constrained by existing business models and relationships.
- Messaging/communications apps. SMS, which many consider disruptive to 2000-era IM, is being challenged by much richer interactions that disrupt the business models of carrier SMS and feature sets afforded by SMS.
- Network infrastructure. Software-defined networking and cloud computing are reimagining the category of networking infrastructure, with incumbent players attempting to benefit from these shifts in the needs of customers. Incumbents at different levels are looking to adopt the model, while some providers see it as fundamentally questioning their assumptions.
LinkedIn engineer Martin Kleppmann wrote a wonderful post detailing the magical and thoughtful engineering behind the new LinkedIn Intro iOS app. I was literally verklepmpt reading the post–thinking about all those nights trying different things until he (and the team) ultimately achieved what he set out to do, what his management hoped he would do, and what folks at LinkedIn felt would be great for LinkedIn customers.
The internet has done what the internet does which is to unleash indignation upon Martin, LinkedIn, and thus the cycle begins. The post was updated with caveats and disclaimers. It is now riding atop of techmeme. Privacy. Security. etc.
Whether those concerns are legitimate or not (after all this is a massive public company based on the trust of a network), the reality is this app points out a longstanding architectural challenge in API design. The rise of modern operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows RT, and more) have inherent advantages over the PC-era operating systems (OS X, Windows, Linux) when it comes to maintaining the integrity as designed of the system overall. Yet we’re not done innovating around this challenge.
I remember my very first exploit. I figured out how to use a disk sector editor on CP/M and modified the operating system to remove the file delete command, ERA. I managed to do this by just nulling out the “ERA” string in what appeared to me to be the command table. I was so proud of myself I (attempted) to show my father my success.
The folks that put the command table there were just solving a problem. It was not an API to CP/M, or was it? The sector editor was really a tool for recovering information from defective floppies, or was it? My goal was to make a floppy with WordStar on it that I could give to my father to use but would be safe from him accidentally deleting a file. My intention was good. I used information and tools available to me in ways that the system architects clearly did not intend. I stood on the top step of a ladder. I used a screwdriver as a pry bar. I used a wrench as a hammer.
The history of the PC architecture is filled with examples of APIs exposed for one purpose put to use for another purpose. In fact, the power of the PC platform is a result of inventors bringing technology to market with one purpose in mind and then seeing it get used for other purposes. Whether hardware or software, unintended uses of extensibility have come to define the flexibility, utility, and durability of the PC architecture. There are so many examples: the first terminate and stay resident programs in MS-DOS, the Z80 softcard for the Apple ][, drawing low voltage power from USB to power a coffee warmer, all the way to that most favorite shell extension in Windows or OS X extension that adds that missing feature from Finder.
These are easily described and high-level uses of extensibility. Your everyday computing experience is literally filled with uses of underlying extensibility that were not foreseen by the original designers. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if computers and software were only allowed to do things that the original designers intended, computing would be particularly boring.
Yet it would also be free of viruses, malware, DLL hell, system rot, and TV commercials promising to make your PC faster.
Take for example, the role of extensibility in email, Outlook even in particular. The original design for Outlook had a wonderful API that enabled one to create an add-in that would automate routine tasks in Outlook. You could for example have a program that would automatically send out a notification email to the appropriate contacts based on some action you would take. You could also receive useful email attachments that could streamline tasks just by opening them (for example, before we all had a PDF reader it was very common to receive an executable that when opened would self-extract a document along with a viewer). These became a huge part of the value of the platform and an important part of the utility of the PC in the workplace at the time.
Then one day in 1999 we all (literally) received email from our friend Melissa. This was a virus that spread by using these same APIs for an obviously terrible usage. What this code did was nothing different than all those add-ins did, but it did it at Internet scale to everyone in an unsuspecting way.
Thus was born the age of “consent” on PCs. When you think about all those messages you see today (“use your location”, “change your default”, “access your address book”) you see the direct descendants of Melissa. A follow on virus professed broad love for all of us, I LOVE YOU. From that came the (perceived) draconian steps of simply disabling much of the extensibility/utility described above.
What else could be done? A ladder is always going to have a top step–some people will step on it. The vast majority will get work done and be fine.
From my perspective, it doesn’t matter how one perceives something on a spectrum from good to “bad”–the challenge is APIs get used for many different things and developers are always going to push the limits of what they do. LinkedIn Intro is not a virus. It is not a tool to invade your privacy. It is simply a clever (ne hack) that uses existing extensibility in new ways. There’s no defense against this. The system was not poorly designed. Even though there was no intent to do what Intro did when those services were designed, there is simply no way to prevent clever uses anymore than you can prevent me from using my screwdriver as a pry bar.
I wanted to offer a modern example that for me sums up the exploitation of APIs and also how challenging this problem is.
On Android an app can add one or more sharing targets. In fact Android APIs were even improved to make it easier in release after release and now it is simply a declarative step of a couple of lines of XML and some code.
As a result, many Play apps add several share targets. I installed a printing app that added 4 different ways to share (Share link, share to Chrome, share email, share over Bluetooth). All of these seemed perfectly legitimate and I’m sure the designers thought they were just making their product easier to use. Obviously, I must want to use the functionality since I went to the Play store, downloaded it and everything. I bet the folks that designed this are quite proud of how many taps they saved for these key scenarios.
After 20 apps, my share list is crazy. Of course sharing with twitter is now a lot of scrolling because the list is alphabetical. Lucky for me the Messages app bubbles up the most recent target to a shortcut in the action bar. But that seems a bit like a kludge.
Then along comes Andmade Share. It is another Play app that lets me customize the share list and remove things. Phew. Except now I am the manager of a sharing list and every time I install an app I have to go and “fix” my share target list.
Ironically, the Andmade app uses almost precisely the same extensibility to manage the sharing list as is used to pollute it. So hypothetically restricting/disabling the ability of apps to add share targets also prevents this utility from working.
The system could also be much more rigorous about what can be added. For example, apps could only add a single share target (Windows 8) or the OS could just not allow apps to add more (essentially iOS). But 99% of uses are legitimate. All are harmless. So even in “modern” times with modern software, the API surface area can be exploited and lead to a degraded user experience even if that experience degrades in a relatively benign way.
Anyone that ever complained about startup programs or shell extensions is just seeing the results of developers using extensibility. Whether it is used or abused is a matter of perspective. Whether is degrades the overall system is dependent on many factors and also on perspective (since every benefit has a potential cost, if you benefit from a feature then you’re ok with the cost).
There will be calls to remove the app from the app store. Sure that can be done. Steps will be taken to close off extensibility mechanisms that got used in ways far off the intended usage patterns. There will be cost and unintended side effects of those actions. Realistically, what was done by LinkedIn (or a myriad of examples) was done with the best of intentions (and a lot of hard work). Realistically, what was done was exploiting the extensibility of the system in a way never considered by the designers (or most users).
This leads to 5 realities of system design:
Everything is an API. Every bit of a system is an API. From the layout of files, to the places settings are stored, to actual published APIs, everything in a system as it is released serves as an interface to people who want to extend, customize, or modify your work. Services don’t escape this because APIs are in a cloud behind REST APIs. For example, reverse engineering packets or scraping HTML is no different — the HTML used by a site can come to be relied on essentially as an API. The Windows registry is just a place to store stuff–the fact that people went in and modified it outside the intended parameters is what caused problems, not the existence of a place to store stuff. Cookies? Just a mechanism.
APIs can’t tell you the full intent. APIs are simply tools. The documentation and examples show you the mainstream or an intended use of an API. But they don’t tell you all the intended uses or even the limits of using an API. As a platform provider, falling back on documentation is fairly impossible considering both the history of software platforms (and most of the success of a platform coming from people using it in a creative ways) and the reality that no one could read all the documentation that would have to explain all the uses of a single API when there are literally tens of thousands of extensibility points (plus all the undocumented ones, see #1).
Once discovered, any clever use of an API will be replicated by many actors for good or not. Once one developer finds a way to get something done by working through the clever mechanism of extensibility, if there’s value to it then others will follow. If one share target is good, then having 5 must be 5 times better. The system through some means will ultimately need to find a way to control the very way extensibility or APIs are used. Whether this is through policy or code is a matter of choice. We haven’t seen the last “Intro” at least until some action is taken for iOS.
Platform providers carry the burden of maintaining APIs over time. Since the vast majority of actors are doing valuable things you maintain an API or extensibility point–that’s what constitutes a platform promise. Some of your APIs are “undocumented” but end up being conventions or just happenstance. When you produce a platform, try as hard as you want to define what is the official platform and what isn’t but your implied promise is ultimately to maintain the integrity of everything overall.
Using extensibility will produce good and bad results, but what is good and bad will depend highly on the context. It might seem easy to judge something broadly on the internet as good or bad. In reality, downloading an app and opt-ing in. What should you really warn about and how? To me this seems remarkably difficult. I am not sure we’re in a better place because every action on my modern device has a potential warning message or a choice from a very long list I need to manage.
We’re not there yet collectively as an industry on balancing the extensibility of platforms and the desire for safety, security, performance, predictability, and more. Modern platforms are a huge step in a better direction.
Let’s be careful collectively about how we move forward when faced with a pattern we’re all familiar with.
28-10-13 Fixed a couple of typos.
When starting a new product there’s always so much more you want to do than can be done. In early days this is where a ton of energy comes from in a new company—the feeling of whitespace and opportunity. Pretty soon though the need for prioritized lists and realities of resource/time constraints become all too real. Naturally the founder(s) (or your manager in a larger organization) and others push for more. And just as naturally, the engineering leader starts to feel the pressure and pushes back. All at once there is a push to do more and a pull to prioritize. What happens when “an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”, when the boss is pushing for more and the engineering leader is trying to prioritize?
I had a chance to talk to a couple of folks facing this challenge within early stage companies where a pattern emerges. The engineering leader is trying hard to build out the platform, improve quality, and focus more on details of design. The product-focused founder (or manager) is pushing to add features, change designs, and do that all sooner. There’s pushback between folks. The engineering leader was starting to worry if pushing back was good. The founder was starting to wonder if too much was being asked for. Some say this is a “natural” tension, but my feeling is tension is almost always counter-productive or at least unnecessary.
There’s no precise way to know the level of push or pushback as it isn’t something you can quantify. But it is critically important to avoid a situation that can result in a clash down the road, a loss of faith in leadership, or a let down by engineering.
As with any challenge that boils down to people, communication is the tool that is readily available to anyone. But not every communication style will work. Engineers and other analytical types fall into some common traps when trying to cope with the immense pressure of feeling accountable to get the right things done and meet shared goals:
- Setting expectations by always repeating “some of this won’t get done”. This doesn’t help because it doesn’t add anything to the dialog as it is essentially a truism of any plan.
- Debating each idea aggressively. This breaks down the collaborative nature of the relationship and can get in the way, even though analytical folks like to make sure important topics are debated.
- Acting in a passive aggressive manner and just tabling some inbound requests. This is almost always a reaction to “overflow” like too much sand poured in a funnel—the challenge is just managing all the inbound requests. This doesn’t usually work because most ideas keep coming back.
What you can do is get ahead of the situation and be honest. A suggested approach is all about defining the characteristics of the role you each have and the potential points of “failure” in the relationship.
As the engineering leader, sit down with the founder (or your manager) and kick off a discussion that goes something like this as said from the perspective of the accountable engineering leader:
- We both want the best product we can build, as fast as we can.
- I share your enthusiasm for the creativity and contributions from you and everyone else.
- My role is to provide an engineering cadence that delivers as much as we can, as soon as we can, with the level of quality and polish we can all be proud of.
- We’ll work from a transparent plan and a process that decides what to get done.
- As part of doing that, I’m going to sometimes feel like I end up saying “no” pretty often.
- And even with that, you’re going to push to change or add more. And almost always we’ll agree that absent constraints those are good pushes. But I’m not working without constraints.
- But what I worry about is that one day when things are not going perfectly (with the builds or sales), you’ll start to worry that I’m an obstacle to getting more done sooner.
- So right then and there, I’d like to come back to this conversation and make sure to walk through where we are and what we’re doing to recalibrate. I don’t want you to feel like I’m being too conservative or that our work to decide what to do in what order isn’t in sync with you.
That’s the basic idea. To get ahead of what is almost certainly to be a conversation down the road and to set up a framework to talk about the challenge that all engineering efforts have—getting enough done, soon enough.
Why is this so critical? Because if you’re not talking to each other, there’s a risk you’re talking about each other.
We all know that in a healthy organization bad news travels fast. Unfortunately, when the pressure is on or there’s a shared feeling of missing expectations often the first thing to go is the very communication that can help. When communication begins to break down there’s a risk trust will suffer.
When trust is reduced and unhealthy cycle potentially starts. The engineering leader starts to feel a bit like an obstacle and might start over-committing or just reduce the voice of pragmatic concerns. The manager or founder might start to feel like the engineering leader is slowing progress and might start to work around him/her to influence the work list.
Regardless of how the efficacy of the relationship begins to weaken, there’s always room for adjustment and learning between the two of you. It just needs to start from a common understanding and a baseline to talk and communicate.
This is such a common challenge, that it is worth an ounce of prevention and an occasional booster conversation.