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Posts Tagged ‘tradeoffs

5 Ways to Compete With [Big] Incumbents

Japan, Jiu-Jitsu-KämpferIn The Stack Fallacy: Why Big Companies Keep Failing Anshu Sharma writes about how difficult it is for a [big] company to move up the stack to adjacent businesses/product categories by building on their successful base. If you are competing against one or more incumbents, even if you believe they will ultimately fail because of this fallacy, it is still an incredibly challenging competitive situation. Using some typical weaknesses as your competitive strengths can increase your potential for success when being the next part of the stack a big company takes on.

In a competitive environment, often a “checklist” battle dominates. This is especially true if you are competing with an enterprise incumbent. There are many ways to compete with a company that has more resources, existing customers, and access to broad communications channels. You can be systematic in product choices and communication approaches and increase the overall competitive approach.

You can think of these as the Jiu-Jitsu of the Stack Fallacy — using the reasons competitors can fail as your strengths:

  • Avoid a “tie is a win”
  • Land between offerings or orgs
  • Know about strategy tax
  • Build out depth
  • Create a job-defining solution

This post is mostly from an enterprise competitive perspective, but the consumer and hardware dynamics are very much the same. While some of this might seem a bit cynical, that is only the case if you think about one side of this battle being better than another — in practice this is much more about a culture, context, and operational model than a value judgment.

Avoid a “tie is a win”

The first reaction of an incumbent (after ignoring then insulting the competition) is to build out some response, almost always piggy-backed on an existing product in an effort to score a “tie” with reviews and product experts (in the enterprise this means places like Gartner). The favorite tool is the “partner” or “services” approach, followed by a quick and dirty integration or add-in. Almost never do you see first party engineering work to compete with you, at least not for 12–24 months following “first sighting”.

Their basic idea is to clear the customer objection to missing some feature and then “get back to work”. In enterprise incumbent-speak, “a tie is a win”.

The best way to compete with this behavior is to go head to head with the idea that a checkbox or add-in does away with the need for your service and worse such an implementation approach will almost always be insufficient over time and hamstrung by the need for integration.

Don’t worry about your competitor pointing out the high cost of your solution or the burden of something new being brought into the enterprise. Both of those will become your strengths over time as we will see.

Land between offerings or orgs

The incumbent’s org chart is almost always the strongest ally of a new competitor. The first step is to understand not only where your competitor is building out a response, but the other product groups that are studying your product and getting “worried”. Keep in mind that big companies have a lot of people that can analyze and create worry about potentially competitive products.

You can bet, for example, that if you have any sort of messaging, data storage, data analysis, API, or visualization and compete with the likes of Oracle, Salesforce, Tableau, or other big company that several groups are going to start thinking about how to incorporate your product in their competitive dialog.

You can almost declare success when you hear from your customers that your product has come up in multiple briefings from a single company. Perhaps the biggest loss in a large company is when a Rep loses a deal to a competitor and news of that travels very fast and drives tactical solutions equally fast — tactical because they are often not coordinated across organizations.

When you find yourself in this position, two things work in your favor. First, there’s a good chance you will soon find yourself competing with two “tie is a win” solutions , one from each org— white papers talking about partners who can “fill in the gaps” or add-ins that “do everything you need”, for example. No P&L or organization wants to lose a deal over a competitor.

Second, you will have time to continue to build out depth because the organizations will begin the process of a coordinated response. This just takes a long time.

The best thing that can happen at this point is if you have a product that competes with two larger companies. At that situation you can bet that you are the thing those companies care the least about and what they care the most about is each other. You might find yourself effectively landing between many organizations then and that spot in the middle is your whitespace for product design and development — go for it!

Know about strategy tax

Once an organization grows and becomes successful, one of the key things it needs to do is define a reason for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. The standard way incumbents do this is to have some sort of connection, go-to-market, feature, or common thread that runs through all the offerings. This defines the company strategy and the reason why a given product or service is better when it comes from a particular company (and also the reasoning behind a company being in multiple businesses).

In practice, the internal view of these efforts quickly becomes known as astrategy tax. From a competitive perspective these efforts are like gifts in that they make it clear how to compete. For example, your product might have integrated photos but your competitor needs to point customers to another app to deal with photos. Your product might be supported by channel partners but your competitor will only sell direct (or vice versa). This can go to an API level, particularly if you compete with a platform provider who is strategically wedded to a specific platform API.

A classic example for me was the Sony Memory Stick. If you were making any device that used removable storage then you were clearly going to use CF or SD. But there was Sony, marching forcefully onward with Memory Stick. It was superior. It had encryption. It had higher capacity (in theory). At one point after a trade show I left thinking they are going to add Memory Sticks to televisions and phones, and sure enough they did. What an awesome opening if you needed to compete with a Sony product.

A strategy tax can be like a boat anchor for a competitor. Even when a competitor tries to break out of the format, it will likely be half-hearted. Any time you can use that constraint to your advantage you’ll have a unique opportunity.

Build out depth

The enemy of “tie is a win” is product depth. Nothing frustrates an incumbent more than an increasingly deep feature set. Your job is to find the right place to add depth and to push the incumbent beyond what can be done by bolting capabilities into an existing product via add-ins, partners, or third parties.

Depth is your strength because your competitor is focused a checkbox or a tie, figuring out the internal organization dynamics of a response, or strategizing how to break from the corporate strategy. While you might be out-resourced you are also maniacally focused on delivering on a company-defining scenario or approach.

The best approach to building out depth is to remain focused on the core scenario you brought to market in the first place. For example, if you are doing data visualization then you want to have the richest and most varied visualizations. If you have an API then your API should expose more capabilities and your use of the API should show off more opportunities for developers.

There’s a tendency to believe that you need to build out a solution that is broad and to do that early on. The challenge here is that this takes you into the incumbent’s turf where you need to build not only your product but the existing product as well. So early on, push the depth of your service and become extremely good at that — so good that your competitor simply can’t keep up by using superficial means to compete. This example from Slackcrossed my feed today and shows the depth one can go to when there is a clear focus on doing what you do better than anyone else.

Your goal is to expand the checkbox and to move your one line of the checkbox to several lines. This is how you change the “tie is a win” dynamic — with depth and ultimately defining a whole category, rather than one item.

Create a job-defining solution

When building a new product and company, one of the most significant signs of success is when your product becomes so important it is literally someone’s job. Once you become a job then you are in an incredible feedback loop that makes your product better; you have an opportunity to land and expand to other parts of a big company; and you have an advocate who has bet a career on your product.

New products have a magic opportunity to become job-defining. That’s because they enter a customer to solve a specific problem and if that gets solved then you have an advocate but also a hero within the company. Pretty soon everyone is asking that person how they get their job done so much better or more efficiently and your product spreads.

The amazing thing about this dynamic is that it often goes unnoticed because rarely are you replacing entirely something that is already in use, but simply augmenting the tools already in place. In other words, the incumbent simply goes about their business thinking that your product just complements their existing business.

This obviously sounds like a big leap to accomplish, but it speaks to the product management decisions and how you view both the product and customer. With enterprise products it is almost always a two step process. First you solve the specific user’s problem and then you solve the problems the IT team has in using the product as part of a business process (i.e. authentication, encryption, mobile, management).

This works particularly well because your incumbent’s product has already achieved this milestone, and it is their product that (a) is not working and (b) is almost certainly some other function’s job software. It is another way of landing in the whitespace of the organization. Your competitor’s job is not looking for more to do, especially not someone else’s job, so you have some clear road ahead.

The challenge of existing winners breaking into new or adjacent businesses is real and difficult. Very rarely does this happen. The inherent obstacles, both technically and culturally, new products have specific entry points to compete.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

This post originally appeared on Medium.

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Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 29, 2016 at 9:44 am

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“Hallway Debates”: A 2016 Product Manager Discussion Guide

MeetConstitution3When it comes to innovation and roadmaps there’s nothing special about the start of a new calendar year other than a convenient time to checkpoint the past year and to regroup for the next. Everyone’s feeds are going to be filled with “best of”, “worst of”, and “predictions” for 2016 and those are always fun. What I’ve always found valuable is taking a step back and thinking about the themes that will impact decisions at the product and business level over the next year.

In that spirit, the following is a selection of “hallway debates” that (I think) are sure to occupy the minds of product managers and product leaders over the next year. The hallways can be literal or figurative (i.e. twitter included).

Innovations in 2015

No doubt this year was filled with more than a fair share of “nothing new” or “incremental” views on innovation, but as usual I don’t think that is the case.

The big companies were busy with Watch, iPhone 6S, iPad Pro, Windows 10, Surface Book, HoloLens, Nexus 6P, Pixel C, and more. Amazon delivered an amazing amount of AWS features and capabilities (conveniently listed here). All while this is going on, startups continue to iterate, create new categories, and introduce new technologies (my biased, favorite list is onproducthunt.com every day).

All in all, 2015 was tremendously busy with so many of the products introduced clearly pushing the state of the art.

Musts for 2016

Before getting to the choices that have nuance or subtlety, the following are two top-of-mind factors that get to the heart of building products in 2016. These aren’t debates at all, but creating actionable and measurable plans should be a priority for every team and company.

Diversity and Inclusion

This year, rightfully, brought an overdue and intense focus on the role of diversity and inclusion within leadership, engineering, and businesses in general. The time is right for there to be an exponential change in our approach. We all know this is more than an opportunity, but a necessity. Products are used by an infinite variety of people from all walks of life, backgrounds, and abilities, and it follows that products should be built that way as well.

Looking at this through the lens of rapid change and how working on this early on is so critical, startups need to address this early in a company (and team!) lifecycle or the need to address this dramatically within an existing organization becomes clear. The simple math (and yes this is a simplification) done on this model, highlights just how difficult it can be to catch up if there is just a small and systematic bias along just one dimension (men/women) in an organization.

The discussion needs to happen and from that plans and acting on those plans needs to follow.

Security and Privacy

The run of security breaches in 2015 continued unabated. The damage continues to go up and there seems to be no end in sight to being able to secure legacy infrastructure. There are, however, some good news scenarios.

First, the move to mobile, particularly iOS, and third party SaaS services affords an opportunity to reset the security landscape. Of course these new operating systems are not absolutely secure as we have seen, but the level of security that comes from a new architecture and the investment in up front security places you on much firmer ground. There is no denying this so if you want to be secure, getting more of your use cases to mobile is going to help.

As makers, there are many things that are now part of the first wave of product features that were previously “good to have” features. Start with building on top of existing identity and authentication methods, build all communication channels as encrypted, and encrypt stored data within your own services. Previously these were viewed as enterprise features to be added later or to charge more for, but now these are essential to bootstrapping a service. They are just a start, necessary but not sufficient.

Nearly every discussion about what to purchase or what to build next needs to happen in the context of security and privacy.

Choices for 2016

Product choices are never as binary as we would like — there’s rarely an absolute. In general, there are nuances and more importantly context that drive a particular approach. Therefore, hallway discussions are rarely won (or lost) but are a necessary part of deciding on product strategy.

The best product manager or product leader discussions to have in 2016:

  • Invest in Deep Learning
  • Bet on Mobile OS
  • Ride the Mobile/ARM Ecosystem Wave
  • Compute, Not Just View, on Mobile
  • Go with Public Cloud
  • Choose Platforms Carefully
  • Track Computer Science
  • Avoid the Bridge
  • Create “The Plan” with Quality In Mind

Invest in Deep Learning

This past year has been an incredible year of progress in artificial intelligence or machine learning. Progress has been so significant that the pinnacle of tech leadership has articulated a growing concern of the risks of AI!

Even so, this generation of AI has gone from recognizing cat videos to being able to quickly and easy tag your friends in photo galleries and online services. Nearly every good recommendation engine is now powered by deep neural networks and machine learning.

A couple of great examples of machine learning include visual search at Pinterest and images within Yelp listings. This year even saw Google generate smart email replies for you! These are incredible advances in how problems are solved. The common thread is classifying existing large and labeled data sets within deep neural networks. This contrasts significantly with previous approaches to these same problem areas that would use click streams or other algorithmic approaches.

If you’re still coding recommendations, classifications/labeling, or automated generation of content using algorithms or simple networks, then this is the year to investigate how you would use these maturing approaches. They are all better by leaps and bounds over existing solutions that rely on smaller data sets and algorithmic approaches.

As with every previous AI advance, it is likely that some aspects of these new approaches will be combined with the current state of the art. In particular, the role of existing linguistic solutions will prove incredibly valuable for smaller data sets or difficult to classify solutions for natural language queries or processing in general. Pay close attention to how the research advances though because the role of deep learning for these scenarios is changing quickly.

Bet On Mobile OS

Are tablets turning into laptops? Are laptops turning into tablets? Are tablets losing out to larger screen phones? The permutations of form factors have been dizzying this year. Regretfully, most of this industry dialog is confusing and confused. If you are making client apps, then you could easily get drawn into this confusion and might miss the key decision.

The critical decision point for any new code is to focus on the platform and OS and less on the size and shape of the device. The forward-looking choice is to focus on mobile operating systems: always connected, app stores, touch, security, battery life, and more. These attributes are step function improvements over the x86 platform and given the ongoing investment up and down the stack the gap will only widen. For more on this see a post I wrote “Mobile OS Paradigm”.

Enterprise applications are sure to see a significantly increased level of focus and support on mobile platforms for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the level of security on these platforms is so much improved there isn’t even a debate. Second, enterprise capabilities for managing data landing on these devices continues to improve at a rapid pace and already greatly exceeds all existing approaches. Third, renewed efforts from Apple and Google on enterprise capability enable new scenarios and new approaches.

This topic will continue to generate the debate — “on a phone or tablet, I can’t do everything the way I am used to.” This is a debate that can’t be won and is both a fact and not useful. The reality is that the style and products of work are rapidly changing and so are the tools to support work. Ask yourself a simple question, which is how often do you reach for your phone even when you’re sitting at a desktop or when a laptop is nearby? The more you do that the more that everyone will be making an effort to make sure important stuff happens on that mobile OS.

A large number of workloads will continue, “forever”, to be laptop/desktop centric, starting with software development itself. We’re 30 years into the PC and server revolution and many workloads still happen on mainframes (or with printers or desktop phones). The presence of some scenarios does not invalidate forward-looking decisions. It takes a very long time for an installed base of something to drop to zero.

Ride the Mobile/ARM Ecosystem Wave

The iPhone 6S launched with a new ARM chipset designed by Apple and manufactured by both Samsung and TSMC, along with a wide range of components almost none of which are single sourced. While this is the result of excellent work by Apple it also speaks to the incredible strength of the the ARM/Mobile ecosystem. By any measure, the ability to deliver tens of millions of devices sourcing so many incredibly advanced components from so many vendors is unprecedented.

One of the milestone advances this year was the hardware capabilities of the iPad Pro. The compute performance of this iOS-based tablet exceeds the mainstream laptop. The most striking of the gains came in mobile graphics which are likely to remain a firmly established leadership position. Those clinging to the last generation were quick to point out that there are more powerful devices available or that the software doesn’t allow the same capabilities to shine through. Clearly that is a short-sighted view given the level of investment, number of players, and OS innovation driving the mobile ecosystem.

Such innovation can be mostly transparent to software developers. If you are, however, building hardware or looking to innovate in software using new types of sensors or peripherals then betting on the ARM ecosystem is ano-brainer. The internet-of-things revolution will take place on the ARM ecosystem.

The ecosystem will be on display in full force at the Consumer Electronics Show as it always is each year. We will see dozens of companies making similar products across many industries (the first stage of the Asian supply chain at work). Take note of what is released and you will see the ingredients of the next wave of devices. Integrating multiple devices from a hardware perspective or building innovative cloud services will prove to be great ingredients for new approaches.

Compute, Not Just View, on Mobile

Given the innovation taking place in the ARM/mobile ecosystem, it is fair to ask “what should we do with all this capability?”

The first 10 years of the smartphone apps could be characterized by trying to squeeze the vast capabilities of a cool web service into a tiny screen. With larger screens and innovations in user interface we’re seeing more done in apps. Now with so much more compute and storage on mobile devices we should see innovation in this dimension.

There are many scenarios where the architecture of roundtripping to a server is both slow and costly. The customer experience could be improved with the use of device-side compute or caching on the device.

To illustrate this point consider spell or grammar checking (something which most people don’t implement themselves so it makes a good example). Before connectivity, dictionaries (or rules) were authored by humans and installed locally on devices and rarely updated (how often does language change?) but speedy. The internet showed us that language usage and terms change frequently and spelling in a browser turned to a service with client rendering of results, and high latency along with much better results.

Today the best spelling dictionaries (and suggestions) will be derived from deep learning and training of models on large corpora. Even with great connectivity the latency of a service-only experience is too noticeable. Given the compute on today’s devices, it is not unreasonable to start to see models built on massive data sets packaged up for use locally for specific queries or classifications locally on a device.

This might extend to many examples where learning and models are providing classification or recognition.

Value the Open Source Community as Much as the Code

There is no doubt that the biggest change in software since the internet has been the way open source software now completely dominates the entire industry. By any measure of innovation, open source drives the software that is eating the world.

The not-so-secret ingredient of open source is the community. The community is created from the very start of a project. Early on, the most successful open source projects begin to focus on enrolling the community and creating a shared ownership of both the direction and implementation of the project. You can see this in Github stats around contributors, when people joined and how much they contributed.

Deciding which projects to use in your work should be influenced by the strength of the open source community contributing to a project.

Established companies have benefitted enormously from open source as a foundation, much of that housed within their mass-scale data centers. Recently, many projects which were developed inside companies are being “open sourced” after the fact. This is certainly a positive in many ways, but also offers a different model from what has previously been the most successful.

In contrast to traditional open source projects, these open sourced projects are looking for a community to join in and validate them after the foundation has been built. They are not really looking for a community to shape or influence the project, at least not in ways that will influence what that company sells or offers. Too often it isn’t quite clear how the future of a project will be managed relative to the open sourced code.

It is still early in this new “movement” and worth paying attention. For the time being, joining projects early and/or betting on projects with a genesis as part of an open source community seems to be the best bet. The leaders of any movement tend to people that build, not inherit, projects.

There are companies commercializing existing open source projects. In this case, seeing how those companies continue to contribute to and participate with the community, especially one those founders/individuals created is an easy way to validate a bet on a project. My belief is that the leading companies are created with the leaders that created the project and continue to participate in the evolution. To spark the hallway discussion, check out this post by a16z’s @peter_levine about the uniqueness of RedHat’s success.

Go with Public Cloud

Public cloud or private cloud? To many the answer that sounds best is hybrid cloud — best of both worlds. The lure of the hybrid cloud is incredibly seductive to enterprise customers. The idea that you can get “credit” or “accelerate” the move to the cloud if you just keep some of your existing infrastructure on-prem. The arguments are well-known (data co-location, compliance, etc.) but unfortunately they are never made relative to the two factors that matter most.

First, there is no real “architecture” for a hybrid cloud — the very nature of the cloud is a new way to build and scale applications.

Second, the time and effort to create such an architecture and the complexity introduced all but guarantees building a one-off system that will only grow increasingly harder to maintain, essentially impossible to secure, and then ultimately migrate to a modern cloud.

This is not a semantic debate or a debate of “pure cloud”, but an architecture that is fairly concrete. The cloud is a public cloud and it is far more than easy to create virtual machines in a data center (aka a private cloud). Even if you’re using a public cloud, it is important to consider what your architecture or runtime look like relative to scale — simply moving your VMs to another data center isn’t a cloud either.

From your (potential) customer’s perspective, the arguments for either a private cloud (which isn’t really a cloud) or to simply avoid a public cloud are well-worn and simply not compelling. Security, scale, cost and more all tip in favor of the public cloud without any debate. In almost every regulated environment that touches the internet, the practical view of saying no to the cloud is making less and less sense. It is still going to be important to build that hallway feedback loop from the customer to the product team to make sure you’re well-versed in this dialog and focused on winning the right customers.

If you’re building enterprise software then you’ve already been wrestling with the cost, complexity, and relative difficulty of a customer offering with a consistent, scalable, manageable, and secure on-prem solution. Some will deliver this, but that will not be the norm and enterprise customers should not expect (or want) this from every vendor.

The cloud is not a call to migrate the largest legacy systems, but how to think about new systems and innovating on top of existing systems. That’s the best way to navigate this debate and to build forward-leaning products and services.

If an enterprise is constrained in such a way as to believe it can’t move or create a public cloud then by far the best approach is to avoid investing in a hybrid or “private” approach and stay on the current course and speed until you can invest what is needed.

Choose Platforms Carefully

Everyone building an app or a site wrestles with the platform choice, which has two challenges.
First, everyone with an app wants to make sure it can be used by anyone from most any device.

Second, an app is great but quite a few people (along with enterprises) want to use it from their desktops. In the meantime, doing a great job scaling the product, adding features to win deals, and staying ahead of competition are taking all your time.

The siren song of cross-platform will continue unabated this year. The ability to deliver a winning experience from a single code base targeting increasingly divergent mobile platforms will continue to prove elusive (and the presence of an exception or two does not make it any more possible). As with past transitions and even some current efforts, getting the first bit done can lead one to believe that you’ve found the magic and it can work. This too is part of the pattern of cross-platform. Over time, an increasingly short time due to rapid platform evolution, the real-world catches up with even the best efforts. There’s more on this topic here.

The main mobile platforms are innovating in ways that do not have symmetric or analogous capabilities: the rise of the Swift language, the diverging user interface models (voice, multi-app models), the changing hardware landscape (force touch, tablet sizes and resolutions), and platform services (payments, identity, service integration).

This only leaves one viable, long-term option for any mobile app that is key to the overall value equation, which is to manage platform efforts as dedicated and separate teams. Managing this is always expensive and often complex. The key is how product managers lead the choice and execution of shared features and platform specific features.

As if this isn’t enough, some set of enterprise tools are seeing demand for apps on the desktop that go beyond browser apps. A number of mature enterprise efforts have started to deliver App Store or downloadable traditional desktop apps in addition to the browser. The implementation of these has consistently been to wrap the browser version in a native frame window and use an embedded webview for the app. This affords some base integration such as convenient app switching, window management, and persistent logon. Few offer any in-depth desktop OS integration and most still remain behind the browser in key capabilities (drag and drop for example). This is especially true if the primary use case is running across multiple browsers given the effort to maintain consistency in those implementations.

The real versus perceived value of these webview based solutions is debatable. The resources required and the implied long-term commitment to customers are not. In addition, the implementation choice leaves little room for true desktop integration. Unless you’re willing to commit to building a native experience, it isn’t clear that the investment for these apps represents the best way to win or stay ahead in the marketplace.

Track Computer Science

Some of the most interesting startups are those coming out of university or industry research laboratories with open source projects or those bringing entirely new approaches to what are traditionally “well-understood” computer science fields. It has been a long time since so much of what is new and interesting also happens to be the newest and most interesting topics being researched by new graduate students in university research labs.

Innovation tends to come in waves where whole new ideas take shape and then for a “generation” those ideas are executed on to the n-th degree. A classic example of this is the relational database model, SQL. Born out of IBM’s industrial labs (in what is no doubt a whole other era in corporate labs) and then iterated upon at the database layer by IBM, then Oracle, then many others. It created an industry of tools and products, along with perhaps the largest community of those skilled in the core SQL concepts. Today we have a whole new generation of database technologies all of which have their roots in research labs around the world.

Deep learning has roots in research labs and is now on a very fast pace to broad commercialization. Virtual reality and augmented reality approaches build on a wide array of computer science inputs.

All of this is a way of saying that your hallway discussions and debates this year should include computer science. Track the conferences. Read the summaries. Dig into the papers. Even if you’ve been out of school for a while or never really thought the research world was all that practical or interesting, my view is that we’re in the part of the cycle where there is much to learn by paying attention.

Avoid the Bridge

The hardest product choices remain those to be made by enterprise products. Where as the consumer world it is almost always about moving forward, being new, and building on the current, the enterprise world always has to balance the installed base, legacy, or compatibility. All too often the inertia behind the choices already made actively prevents forward looking choices that are inherently disruptive (disruptive in the dictionary sense as well as in the Silicon Valley sense).

The natural outcome of this is a bet on a transitionary period or a bridge technology — the enterprise world embraces such approaches to no end. Unfortunately, history has consistently shown that bets on the bridge not only fail to bridge to a new world, they ultimately prevent you from fully participating in this changes. Even more challenging, is that during the next technology wave you find your product an additional generation behind and an even bigger challenge. This goes beyond shiny new technologies simply because right now whether you build client code, create services or APIs, install infrastructure, or build and analyze data we are in the midst of an exponential rate of change relative to all of those. When you miss a beat during exponential change you simply can’t catch up — such is the power and challenge of that pace of change.

As a result, it is these “bridge” or hope for the “best of both worlds” topics lead to the most challenging hallways conversations. The hope here is to push in the direction of forward, bringing some comfort to those leaving the well-worn and understood past behind.

Create “The Plan” with Quality In Mind

Product management is constantly trying to get more done, in less time, with fewer resources. No one wants to move slow, get mired down in some big company planning effort, or worse fall behind competitors. That’s a given. It is also nothing new.

For quite some time now we as an industry have been on a bit of a roller coaster when it comes to how to plan what to work will get done. At one extreme the whole idea of having a plan was effectively shunned in favor of minimally viable products (a valuable concept often misapplied to mean, “toss it out there”) or in favor of putting something out and then letting failure determine what comes next. The other extreme essentially created a process out of reacting to data — the plans for what to do were always informed by what was going on with the live site or testing of changes to existing products.

This past year is one marked by failures of quality execution by even the biggest companies. You would have to look hard to find companies that made significant product changes without also receiving some (sometimes significant) critical feedback on the quality (robustness) of execution. Apologies, commitment to “less features, more quality”, and fast revisions/reversions seemed to be the norm this year.

At the same time there appears to be a bit of decommit from the discipline of testing. In my view this is more semantic than reality given that the work of designing, building, and running tests still needs to get done. The jury is still out on this and I’m personally not convinced that software is ready to be free of a QA discipline.

One could view this as a pendulum, but in practice this is the price our industry pays to work at planetary scale. It might be the case that your product is used only by early adopters and tech enthusiasts, but those very people are having their quality bar set by the broader industry benchmarks.

Quality is the new cool. Releasing without the need to re-release is the new normal. Testing is the what’s old is new again.

When you’re having the debates about what to get done and when, this will be a year where deciding that getting something done right, done well, should trump getting something done today or halfway, or getting something done that you know isn’t right (in a big way).

You do not/should not need to revert to a classic “waterfall” (a term applied with disdain to any sort of planful process). However, some level of execution rigor beyond the whiteboard is the kind of innovation product management should bring to the table this year. There’s no reason that products can’t work very well when they are first released, even when you know there is much to be done. There’s no reason you can’t have a product plan and a roadmap at a useful level that is written down, without it being a burdensome or overly-structured “task”.

At the risk of self-reference, two posts on these topics from this past year I’d leave you with: Beauty of Testing and Getting (the Right) Stuff Done.


Wishing everyone a Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for the New Year!

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

December 15, 2015 at 11:22 am

Mobile OS Paradigm

Cycle of nature of work, capabilities of tools, architecture of platform.

Cycle of nature of work, capabilities of tools, architecture of platform.

Are tablets the next big thing, a saturated market (already), dead (!), or just in a lull? The debate continues while the sales of tablets continue to outpace laptops and will soon overtake all PCs (of all form factors and OS). What is really going on is an architectural transformation—the architecture that defined the PC is being eclipsed by the mobile OS architecture.

The controversy of this dynamic rests with the disruptive nature—the things that were easy to do with a PC architecture that are hard or impossible to do with a mobile OS, as well as the things in a mobile OS that make traditional PCs seem much easier. Legacy app compatibility, software required for whole professions, input preferences, peripherals, and more are all part of this. All of these are also rapidly changing as software evolves, scenarios adapt, and with that what is really important changes.

Previous posts have discussed the changing nature of work and the new capabilities of tools. This post details the architecture of the platform. Together these three form an innovation cycle—each feeding into and from each other, driving the overall change in the computing landscape we see today.

The fundamental shift in the OS is really key to all of this. For all the discussed negatives the mobile OS architecture brings to the near term, it is also an essential and inescapable transition. Often during these transitions we focus in the near term on the visible differences and miss the underlying nature of the change.

During the transition from mini to PC, the low price and low performance created a price/performance gap that the minis thought they would exploit. Yet the scale volume, architectural openness, and rapid improvement in multi-vendor tools (and more) contributed to a rapid acceleration that could not compare.

During the transition from character-based to GUI-based PCs many focused on the expense of extra peripherals such as graphics cards and mice, requirement for more memory and MIPs, not to mention the performance implications of the new interface in terms of training and productivity. Yet, Moore’s law, far more robust peripheral support (printers and drivers), and ability to draw on multi-app scenarios (clipboard and more) transformed computing in ways character-based could not.

The same could be said about the transition to internetworking with browsers. The point is that the ancillary benefits of these architectural transitions are often overlooked while the dialog primarily focuses on the immediate and visible changes in the platform and experience. Sometimes the changes are mitigated over time (i.e. adding keyboard shortcuts to GUI or the evolution of the PC to long file names and real multi-tasking and virtual memory). Other times the changes become the new paradigm as new customers and new scenarios dominate (i.e. mouse, color, networking).

The transition to the mobile OS platforms is following this same pattern. For all the debates about touch versus keyboard, screen-size, vertical integration, or full-screen apps, there are fundamental shifts in the underlying implementation of the operating system that are here to stay and have transformed computing.

We are fortunate during this transition because we first experienced this with phones that we all love and use (more than any other device) so the changes are less of a disconnect with existing behavior, but that doesn’t reduce the challenge for some or even the debate.

Mobile OS paradigm

The mobile OS as defined by Android, iOS, Windows RT, Chrome OS, Windows Phone, and others is a very different architecture from the PC as envisioned by Windows 7/8, Mac OS X, Linux desktop. The paradigm includes a number of key innovations that when taken together define the new paradigm.

  1. ARM. ARM architecture for mobile provides a different view of the “processor”: SoC, multi-vendor, simpler, lower power consumption, fanless, rich graphics, connectivity, sensors, and more. All of these are packaged in a much lower cost way. I am decidedly not singling out Intel/AMD about this change, but the product is fundamentally different than even Intel’s SoCs and business approach. ARM is also incompatible with x86 instructions which means, even virtualized, the existing base of software does not run, which turns out to be an asset during this change (the way OS/360 and VMS didn’t run on PCs).
  2. Security. At the heart of mobile is a more secure platform. It is not more secure because there are few pointers in the implementation or fewer APIs, but more secure because apps run with a different notion of what they can/cannot do and there is simply no way to get apps on the device that can violate those rules (other than for developers of course). There’s a full kernel there but you cannot just write your own kernel mode drivers to do whatever you want. Security is a race of course and so more socially engineered, password stealing, packet sniffing, phone home evil apps will no doubt make their way to mobile but you won’t see drive by buffer overrun attacks take over your device, keystroke loggers, or apps that steal other apps’ data.
  3. Quality over time and telemetry. We are all familiar with the way PCs (and to a lesser but non-zero degree Macs) decay over time or get into states where only a reformat or re-imaging will do. Fragility of the PC architecture in this regard is directly correlated with the openness and so very hard to defend against, even among the most diligent enthusiasts (myself included). The mobile OS is designed from the ground up with a level of isolation between the OS and apps and between apps that all but guarantee the device will continue to run and perform the way it did on the first day. When performance does take a turn for the worse, there’s ongoing telemetry that can easily point to the errant/causal app and removing it returns things to that baseline level of excellence.
  4. App store model. The app store model provides for both a full catalog of apps easily searched and a known/reviewed source of apps that adhere to some (vendor-specified) level of standards. While vendors are taking different approaches to the level of consistency and enforcement, it is fair to say this approach offers so many advantages. Even in the event of a failure of the review/approval process, apps can be revoked if they prove to be malicious in intent or fixed if there was an engineering mistake. In addition, the centralized reviews provide a level of app telemetry that has previously not existed. For developers and consumers, the uniform terms and licensing of apps and business models are significant improvements (though they come with changes in how things operate).
  5. All day battery life. All day battery life has been a goal of devices since the first portable/battery PCs. The power draw of x86 chipsets (including controllers and memory), the reliability challenges of standby power cycles, and more have made this incredibly difficult to reliably “add on” to the open PC architecture. Because of the need for device drivers, security software, and more the likelihood that a single install or peripheral will dramatically change the power profile of a traditional device is commonplace. The “closed” nature of a mobile OS along with the process/app model make it possible to have all day battery life regardless of what is thrown at it.
  6. Always connected. A modern mobile OS is designed to be always connected to a variety of networks, most importantly the WWAN. This is a capability from the chipset through the OS. This connectivity is not just an alternative for networking, but built into the assumptions of the networking stack, the process model, the app model, and the user model. It is ironic that the PC architecture which had optional connectivity is still less good at dealing with intermittent connectivity than mobile which has always been less consistent than LAN or wifi. The need to handle the constant change in connectivity drove a different architecture. In addition, the ability to run with essentially no power draw and screen off while “waking up” instantly for inbound traffic is a core capability.
  7. Always up to date apps/OS. Today’s PC OSes all have updaters and connectivity to repositories from their vendors, but from the start the modern mobile OS is designed to be constantly updated at both the app and OS from one central location (even if the two updates are handled differently). We are in a little bit of an intermediate state because on PCs there are some apps (like Chrome and Firefox, and security patches on Windows) that update without prompts by default yet on mobile we still see some notifications for action. I suspect in short order we will see uniform and seamless, but transparent, updates.
  8. Cloud-centric/stateless. For decades people have had all sorts of tricks to try to maintain a stateless PC: the “M” drive, data drives or partitions, roaming profiles, boot from server, VM or VDI, even routine re-imaging, etc. None of these worked reliably and all had the same core problem, which was that whatever could go wrong if you weren’t running them could still go wrong and then you’re one good copy was broken everywhere. The mobile OS is designed from the start to have state and data in the cloud and given the isolation, separation, and kernel architecture you can reliably restore your device often in minutes.
  9. Touch. Touch is the clearly the most visible and most challenging transition. Designing the core of the OS and app model for touch first but with support for keyboards has fundamentally altered the nature of how we expect to interact with devices. No one can dispute that for existing workloads on existing software that mouse and keyboard are superior and will remain so (just as we saw in the transition from mainframe to mini, CUI to GUI, client/server to web, etc.) However, as the base of software and users grows, the reality is that things will change—work will change, apps will change, and thus work products will change, such that touch-first will continue to rise. My vote is that the modern “laptop” for business will continue to be large screen tablets with keyboards (just as the original iPad indicated). The above value propositions matter even more to todays mobile information worker as evidenced by the typical airport waiting area or hotel lobby lounge. I remain certain that innovation will continue to fill in the holes that currently exist in the mobile OS and tablets when it comes to keyboards. Software will continue to evolve and change the nature of precision pointing making it only something you need for PC only scenarios.
  10. Enterprise management. Even in the most tightly managed environment, the business PC demonstrates the challenges of the architecture. Enterprise control on a mobile OS is designed to be a state management system, not a compute based approach. When you use a managed mobile device, enterprise management is about controlling access to the device and some set of capabilities (policies), but not about running arbitrary code and consuming arbitrary system resources. The notion that you might type your PIN or password to your mobile device and initiate a full scan of your storage and install an arbitrary amount of software before you can answer a call is not something we will see on a modern mobile OS. So many of the previous items in the list have been seen as challenges by enterprise IT and somewhat ironically the tools developed to diagnose and mitigate them have only deepened the challenges for the PC. With mobile storage deeply encrypted, VPN access to enterprise resources, and cloud data that never lands on your device there are new ways to think of “device management”.

Each of these are fundamental to the shift to the mobile OS. Many other platform features are also significantly improved such as accessibility, global language support, even the clipboard and printing.

What is important about these is how much of a break from the traditional PC model they are. It isn’t any one of these as much as the sum total that one must look at in terms of the transition.

Once one internalizes all these moving parts, it becomes clear why the emphasis on the newly architected OS and the break from past software and hardware is essential to deliver the benefits. These benefits are now what has come to be expected from a computing device.

While a person new to computing this year might totally understand a large screen device with a keyboard for some tasks, it is not likely that it would make much sense to have to reboot, re-image, or edit the registry to remove malware, or why a device goes from x hours of battery life to 1/2 x hours just because some new app was installed. At some point the base expectations of a device change.

The mobile OS platforms we see today represent a new paradigm. This new paradigm is why you can have a super computer in your pocket or access to millions of apps that together “just work”.

–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

 

Written by Steven Sinofsky

August 12, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Apps: Shrapnel v. Bloatware

imageMuch 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 ($).

The Pendulum

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.

Strategic questions

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

 

Written by Steven Sinofsky

June 28, 2014 at 3:00 pm

Posted in posts

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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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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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The Four Stages of Disruption

iexpectyoutodiemrbondInnovation 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.

disruption

Stage One: Disruption of Incumbent

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 transportationshare computationsearch 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:

Stage Disruptor Incumbent
 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.

— Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi). This story originally appeared on Recode.

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 7, 2014 at 9:00 pm

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