Sharing some learning – a few observations from “D11”
This past week the 11th All Things D Conference, D11, was held. It is such a great opportunity to attend and to learn from a great combination of interviews, speakers, demonstrations, questions, and attendees. Attending this conference has been a very valuable learning experience for me over the years and I’ve always made it a point to reflect and share some observations or learnings that stuck with me. This year is no different.
As with all events these days, so much of what happens at the event is tweeted, live blogged, re-blogged, etc. That makes it challenging to offer more by way of learning. If you’re interested in the details of the sessions, by all means watch the videos or see the official coverage on the All Things D, D11 Conference site. All the interviews are done by one or both of Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. There you’ll also find some behind the scenes “KatieCam” videos shot by WSJ writer Katherine Boehret in a more relaxed setting as speakers left the stage and other behind the scenes videos and articles by teh ATD writing team. Definitely check out the amazing photos from Asa Mathat (and team) that really capture the unique qualities of the conference.
For me what separates D from other events, if you had to pick one thing, is the dialog that takes place. While the format is an interview, I see it as more of a dialog. There are no slides, no setup, and after the interview the dialog continues with audience questions and then even more in the hallways during breaks (not to mention the electronic dialog). I feel sometimes in an effort to report the event as news, the back and forth or the dialog itself can get a bit de-prioritized.
The dialog is important because the timing of the conference is the same every year. That means not every speaker has something to announce or launch. In fact some speakers have announcements already scheduled for the future and even with a lot of pushing they still aren’t going to preempt their organization’s efforts. This means that speakers sign up to attend knowing there are definitely questions they will get that must go unanswered. I think that speaks volumes to the appreciation for the dialog and participation that speakers share.
Still, that can be a tiny bit frustrating for folks reading about the accounts—you are hoping for news but don’t get any. There is a slightly different tone “in the room” which I am hoping to convey through these notes. The tone is very much about the nuance and subtlety of the topics being raised. So even if there is not news, the conversation is interesting. It is an important part of innovation and convergence of industries (the original and ongoing theme of the conference was how media, entertainment, and digital technologies are coming together). There are gems in most every session if you watch the video—not necessarily news gems, but articulation of challenges and tradeoffs that everyone is facing as they do their work. Making products is never a stark either/or set of choices and capturing these tradeoffs on stage, in the “hot seat” as it is called, is something I appreciate very much.
There were 25 speakers along with demo sessions. The breadth of topics discussed delivers on the promise of the conference. Through the lens of product development there were a number of “themes” that surfaced for me:
- Mobile “era” – No one doubts the era we are in as an industry and across industries. The tech folks were “mobile first” from apps to advertising, not as a place to port to or also support. The entertainment folks see mobile as a place to enjoy entertainment or as the screen that accompanies entertainment, not as a competitor to television. Even attendees were mostly seen on their mobile devices most of the time. While this might not seem newsworthy, observing the changing perspectives over the years of the conference provides a neat context for this change.
- Disruption – Most tech conferences are about disruption in some form or another. This conference came about during a time when disruption was really happening (and to be fair, the WSJ and ATD are/were both part of disruptive dialogs over the years—and the topic of conversation at the show). The interviews always do a good job of confronting speakers who are viewed as participants in a potential disruption.
- Sensors – The role of sensors as part of the baseline experience for computing is front and center. There was a lot of discussion around form factors, wearables, and scenarios but all of this is rooted in devices that know about surroundings, which means products can be designed knowing the computers will have these capabilities.
- Consumerization – Walt Mossberg has always taken the non-techie, consumer approach to looking at technology which, as he said during the show, was somewhat heretical when he first started his column. These days the notion of consumers driving the experience and setting the bar does not seem so far-fetched. You know that is the case when the CEO of Cisco says “bring your own device trumps security”.
- Embrace of digital – In past years the “content” attendees appeared more on the defense than the offense. While the business challenges remain in some parts of the content space, I think there is far more of a sense of embrace and partnering going on between the tech and content parties. In general it felt to me like much more of a healthy dialog rooted in respect than in past years, which is a positive evolution.
As mentioned, the sessions are all available on the D11 site along with live blogs done by WSJ/ATD reporters. Check those out for sure. I just wanted to offer some additional observations from a small set of sessions that hit close to home from a product development perspective. Inclusion / omission or number of points below are not indications of quality or importance!
Apple / Tim Cook
- Measuring what counts – There was a strong focus on measuring usage as a way of looking at success. This contrasted with the recent debate about market share (units or revenue). The depth usage of iOS devices is significantly more than competing devices. It is super interesting to think about how to inform product development when balancing existing depth usage, new users, and growth – very interesting.
- Relative to Android – The dialog turned to defining “winning” along the lines of usage, customer satisfaction, and even the amount of commerce done on iOS devices.
- Magic – There was a good discussion about how working across the team needs to focus on the intersection of hardware/software/services as being where the “magic happens”. Everyone in the product space knows that wherever seams exist there is an opportunity to innovate or for there to be challenges–seams can be found all over the place, especially as a product gets larger or an ecosystem around the product develops.
- Tradeoffs – As an example of the nuance/subtlety that is hard to capture, Cook tried to walk through some of the tradeoffs that go into making different sized devices for different “segments” (Walt’s description). He talked about color correctness, white balance, battery life, brightness, and more. A favorite expression from Cook was “customers expect Apple to weigh all these factors and decide things” along with the humble notion that deciding means shipping and learning. I personally love when the dialog turns to these types of issues at this “level” in an organization and also externally—real engineering stuff that is worth talking about in an open way.
- Openness and control – In talking about the difference between iOS and Android (using keyboards as an example), Cook was asked about opening up more. He talked about the challenges and tradeoffs involved in “putting the customer at risk” with some times of APIs and openness but committed to more openness at the upcoming WWDC. Again there was a very interesting and subtle discussion about the tradeoffs involved.
Facebook / Sheryl Sandberg
- Mobile is good for Facebook – There were a lot of numbers and support for how much engagement there is from both users and advertisers on mobile.
- Increasing engagement – Sandberg shared some numbers that were counter-intuitive for many (as evidenced by the reaction in the section I was sitting) when she talked about the increase in engagement. Five years ago 50% of people visited every day. Now 58% visit every day and the number of users is much higher.
- Priorities – I loved when she talked about how they have 5000 people to build and operate a service for a billion people. That puts the product development challenge in perspective.
- Mobile first – There is a strong “pivot” in the development team around mobile first. Whereas the browser used to be the primary target and the mobile teams would be playing catch-up, now nothing gets done without it being mobile first.
- Facebook Home – The challenges of doing an offering that is polarizing for sure. She cited that customer reviews are either 1 star or 5 stars. Home is a V1 and expect to deliver on the commitment to frequent changes/updates.
Disney Parks and Resorts / Tom Staggs
- My Magic Plus – This session was about a new way to enjoy a WDW (Walt Disney World) theme park visit—essentially you wear a “magic band” around your wrist (like a Jawbone Up or Fitbit). As someone who grew up in Orlando watching WDW go from the Magic Kingdom surrounded by orange groves to what it is today, I think the revolution that is going on with this innovation is amazing and far-reaching.
- Features – Wearing the band provides an experience with reduced anxiety, less waiting, more fun, and far more personal. And it is just starting. An amazing example I loved was how you could order the food you want and when you get to the restaurant you sit down and what you ordered just shows up. Neat. But what is really neat is that the employees can focus on being “hosts” and not the transactional elements of ordering and getting things right. Super cool. It certainly makes that summer job at Disney a lot more fun!
- Senses and sensors – Of course this is all about location aware, cloud experienced. But the way Staggs described it was “360-5” as a 360 degree experience for all 5 senses—you’re immersed in the experience beyond the rides. In general, this was a demonstration that unfolded super well—as I thought of questions they got answered moments later. So much opportunity on this platform.
Twitter / Dick Costolo
- “Social soundtrack” – Twitter was described as the second screen for television. It is viewed as a complement to broadcast. This was a statement that gets broadened to mean that Twitter is not itself thinking about making content or distributing it.
- Global town square – The way they think of Twitter is to think about both planned/unplanned events and to provide an unfiltered/inside out platform for the people “the event is happening to”. This town square is public, real-time, conversational, and distributed. From a product point of view, the clarity of this framework is incredibly valuable.
- Advertising – Costolo discussed how advertisers are coming to understand that being part of the conversation is important and how the idea of having a conversation as the canvas versus the ad itself as the canvas is important.
- Design – Another subtle part of the dialog was around where the openness of the Twitter platform will be. The idea is that Twitter does want to own the timeline experience for customers but still be open to thousands (100s of thousands) of developers with fairly lightweight rules. Simplicity is a major focus on the design of the timeline experience.
Glow / Max Levchin
- Demonstration – this was a demonstration of a new product that brings data and mobility to the challenges of procreation and fertility.
- App – The app is focused on being a beautiful source of telemetry and information for both the man and woman planning together to conceive a child.
- Data – Turns out that there is tons of data which is hard for people to get hold of and include in their planning and efforts. Glow is a way to bring this data to the solution space for people.
- Funding – The data shows that with the right use of data “infertility” can drop way down and thus the overall cost to the healthcare system is much lower. To support this the way the product will work is essentially to create a pool for people who are still unable to conceive after using the tool, which is a much smaller number than would be using less data-informed tools.
- Innovation – This is truly innovative when it comes to the problem space–hearing Levchin describe a typical way physicians handle this sounds almost like “country medicine” compared to using the data, telemetry, and an app. Combining data, mobility, and more into this app shows how empowering all the technology can be. We’re all able to start experience this notion of being in so much more control of our lives with these technology tools.
Box / Aaron Levie and Cisco / John Chambers
- What fun – This was such a fun pairing as the contrast between the people and companies was so interesting. Yet at the same time, both organizations are developing products for a new world where individuals are far more empowered. While no one is going to go out and buy their own router, the IT pros that do want to have the capability for you to use the router when you bring in your own device. A fun part of D in general is when you can see widely different perspectives in a dialog about a problem space each is approaching.
- IT control – Chambers asserted that the ability for IT to “say no” really changed 4 or 5 years ago and now enterprises need to catch up to consumer technologies and support them. Chambers even said “BYOD trumps security”.
- Disruption – Levie offered a wonderful example of how companies are handling disruption. He said that the three biggest Box customers are companies formed in the 1800’s. This speaks to how much change is going on among IT pros.
Disney Media / Anne Sweeney and Producer / I. Marlene King
- Twitter integration – It was fascinating to hear the content developer view of creating content knowing that Twitter is part of the viewing equation. There’s a clear perspective that Twitter is contributing to the experience and enjoyment of the show.
- OMG moments – I loved hearing about the way they essentially create the show to support “OMG” or “jump off the couch” moments, and how that plays into Twitter.
- Time zones – Turns out that the audience is pretty self-governing when it comes to spoilers and time zones, which was interesting to think about.
Pinterest / Ben Silbermann
- First appearance – Ben doesn’t often appear or do presentations. It is great to see him.
- Framing – Another great example of framing the goals of the product: Pinterest aims to help people “discover things they really love and inspire them to experience them in real life.”
- Early users – From a product development perspective, he spoke about how early users ended up setting the tone of the product when it comes to passion.
- Last web app? – Kara asked if Silbermann thought that Pinterest might be the “last web first app” or not. The answer focused on starting off where people were but now today of course the goal is to be able to use the service wherever you are and of course a ton of that is mobile which overtook the PC along the lines of industry trends.
Tesla, SpaceX, Hyper Tube / Elon Musk
- Along with everyone at D11 and online, this was an incredible treat.
- “Mars is a fixer upper” – as far as planets go, Musk said Mars is our best bet for life on another planet since it can be fixed up relatively easily.
- Every tech takes 3 or 4 generations to get it to mass market. He walked through the original Tesla plan (high price/low volume, mid-price/mid volume, low price/high volume). He framed this as competing with a hundred years and trillion dollar investment in gas combustion. This is a great example of how disruption gets talked about in early stages – all the focus on whether electric cars can displace gas cars using the criteria gas cars developed over all this time. From a product point of view, this perspective is super interesting.
— Steven Sinofsky
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