This event brought together 100+ leaders from government and technology. We had 6 sessions focused on problem areas like “Identifying Experts” and “Asking the Right Question”. These 6 sessions of ~20 people eventually each broke into smaller teams to actually envision and build solutions to the problems that government folks were raising. By 4pm on day one of two, most teams were prototyping, and by the next morning, many teams had hacked together either a series of mockups or functioning products. Some of them were:
CareShare - choose what kind of medical specialist you need and CareShare will tell you what’s near and how well each hospital performs. It will also let you review individual doctors.
City Mission provides tools for people to ask questions about the city and collect data together.
ReallyVote lets you easily communicate thoughts with elected representatives by giving people quick access to the right congressional Twitter accounts.
Govrn allows local, state and federal governments to directly engage and question their constituents in real time.
Here are three surprising ideas I learned from my time during The Gov Lab Experiment:
Pairing up influential government leaders with competent technologists gets products built, and actually used. One without the other is often an incomplete equation for problems that need government participation for resolution.
It seemed like government folks leaned towards forming committees instead of building prototypes, and technologists wanted to hack away immediately, often missing nuances of the core issues.
But just as technical and business co-founders complement each other in technology startups, the complementary value of government leaders and technologists is undeniable. Pairing government folks, who have countless vivid use cases to share and powerful (virtually monopolistic) distribution channels, with technologists who can ship code overnight that a government committee might otherwise discuss for three years, is a potent combination and a leap forward in how we solve civic issues. It is one of the most meaningful examples of interdisciplinary partnership. We began to see this force at work as jargon-driven sessions faded away into the breakout sessions and people finally got to translating conversation into code.
If we can increase the communication between people setting policies and people building products, and make it easier for developers to access government distribution channels to promote good, perhaps private, technology solutions, the better off we will be in my view.
Technology and data need to be used to refine solutions that academics / government leaders are aiming to craft with inquiry devoid of actual user behavior.
One session I joined spent hours of just a two day conference attempting to refine an admittedly complex problem.
Participants debated what was most important for the session’s protagonist: Finding subject matter experts? Knowing which is the right expert for your specific problem? Reconciling what the various experts say? Identifying operators who can execute on whatever decision the experts propose? Building consensus around whichever decision your government makes?
Indeed, these are important questions to answer. But at data-driven technology startups, we answer questions differently: not through inquiry, but through experimentation. It’s not by asking the user what they want or what they think their problem is. It’s through data that we become enlightened. We realize that our understanding of problems, and the solutions we imagine, are rarely correct straight out of the gate. That’s why building three-year cycles or longer would spell death in a competitive market. We build a “minimum viable product” and monitor data about how people use the service to determine whether it was a good solution and what to build next. Users don’t know what they need. But the data about how people use a product will tell you whether you’re solving a problem, and in the right way or not.
Perhaps in government you only get a couple shots to get it right, and the risks are often higher, so this experimentation-oriented methodology may seem poorly suited. But people said the same in the software industry, and that mentality collapsed. I believe an experiment-over-inquiry methodology will be the future across industries and governance.
One could spend all day talking back and forth about what *might* be the core problem and what the user *thinks* the solution should look like. We cannot allow anyone — the government leaders who aren’t technologists, or technologists who are not government folks — to overrule data in shaping the product’s development.
For example, before 311 emerged, one could debate whether anyone would use it. Which government programs it should plug into. Whether making complaints was more important functionality than filing for licenses. Sure, you could convene a committee to prioritize, or you could survey all the citizens for a few months. But you could also just hack an MVP (“minimum viable product”), measure what people use, and build new features based on the behaviors that people actually demonstrate.
This is the Ivy Tower problem, now met with a Silicon Valley attitude.
Getting more people, especially developers, simply to be aware, and invested in, improving governance is a still-untapped source of innovation.
Since walking away from The Gov Lab Experiment last week, I have talked to dozens of people about the role of tech in improving governance and more. I have started hacking on a new civic tech project for fun. I have a hard time hearing about some new legislation or civic problem without thinking about products that may be the answer. I was barely interested in civic tech before.
To be clear, not every problem is a technology problem. Not everything can, or should, be productized.
But from my experience, developers and startups can disrupt most any industry they set their eyes on. Napster, and now Pandora/Spotify are doing it to music. Paypal, and now Square/Stripe, are doing it to payments. The web, and specifically Facebook/Twitter, are doing it to the media industry along with an array of other industries all at once. Yet developers appear to have been relatively quiet in government.
It’s not because government is hard to disrupt: every industry is hard to disrupt.
It’s not because it’s not lucrative: government contracts and getting a whole city or country to use an application would be more lucrative than a lot of other markets.
It’s not because hacking government isn’t appealing: developers love making impact.
So, simply getting and keeping developers engaged in civic tech is limitlessly powerful.
That’s why events like The Gov Lab Experiment and others like it are so important. Just promoting the governance idea to people who are actively building solutions that would otherwise be in other industries and spaces will keep it top of mind. So when these technologists interact with governance bodies and civic systems on a daily basis, building solutions will feel more in reach and are more likely to materialize as opposed to another social networking app. Moreover, supporting people from the two disciplines to coordinate better and learn from each other’s methodologies can only accelerate the rate of change in civic tech.
(If you would like to get involved with The Gov Lab or hack with me on some gov 2.0 projects, let me know).
During my education and social experiences (i.e. my life thus far), I have developed a behavior I would like to unlearn: signaling completion for the sake of validation.
This morning, a friend shared a post with me. He knew I would upvote it on Hacker News. There was literally no need for me to signal that I had in fact upvoted it. But, I am used to telling people that I have done something even when they will know that I did anyway when the result reaches them or because we had an understanding beforehand.
Another example is when I introduce people. Both people will get the introduction email. Yet, I still often go back to the email thread that requested the intro, and let the original person know. Sure, sometimes there’s other stuff in that email, or it’s a nudge for the junior person to follow up with the senior person. Or it’s just a courtesy. But often it’s not. I just want them to say thanks, again, or somehow acknowledge what’s been done. Or a pat on the back saying, “Good job ol’ boy”.
It’s a silly habit. It generally is a waste of time, but people who did well in school or who enjoyed the rewards of school, seek validation out in many forms…
Promotions with no change in role or compensation - just title.
Media coverage that doesn’t do anything meaningful for the business.
And so on.
Eliminating this behavior (pointless calls for validation) saves time and will wean one off of external validation, which is often a red herring that distracts from meaningful progress.
(I am not sure if I agree with, or have baked, everything I’m even saying here, but maybe it will be a launching point for a productive conversation, or not. Let me know if you disagree.).
Blogging Takes Persistence. My first 13 posts got 4 or less upvotes, never making the front page. It’s a year later. Today’s post on Foursquare has gotten 50 upvotes and more than 3,000 page views so far today.
Let me begin by saying, I am not trying to be a troll or hater. Promise. I want this to be a constructive conversation. With so many people building consumer apps, and often delaying “the revenue conversation”, understanding the connection between building (and sustaining, if not growing) a product hook and growing revenue needs to be fleshed out.
I want to be excited for them. But from a purely critical standpoint, I have a hard time seeing them pull this off. They are building a business that is orthogonal to what I believe is the core user behavior. That’s dangerous.
Emphasis on Friends and Check-Ins: Ditched for Promoting Local Businesses…a fatal attempt at making an app into a business
This is actually a huge product pivot. People came to Foursquare before for different reasons than *discovering* new businesses. Checkins. Meet people. But now…the focus is on pushing me to go to a local pastry shop to save 50%, max $5 — on something I didn’t want before? By contrast, Yelp has always been focused on the best — if it’s 5 stars and you say you want something close, you’ll see the best possible matches even if those results are preceded by a promoted restaurant (same way Google does it).
But now Foursquare is an ads business. When I say “ads”, I mean local promotions and beyond. They are already doing this (see the above screenshot). So, there’s not really a debate IMO about whether they are an ads business today. Maybe they can have multiple revenue streams in the way that Linkedin has done, but arguing about whether Foursquare is an advertising company, at least right now, is a red herring that distracts from the core argument here.
Generating and Harvesting Purchasing Intent Will Not Work without a Core Product Hook
Google Ads work because they just harvest intent. “You want (you search for) something? OK here are some businesses that can sell you that.” That’s relatively easy and gives the users what they wanted in the first place. Typing a search is an easy hook and has been increasingly adopted over time. Now that behavior is ubiquitous. It has evolved (search from browser address bars, speak-to-search, etc.) but remained easy, engaging, and ubiquitous.
Another easy product hook is posting an update on Facebook or Twitter: lightweight and it has opportunities to create engagement loops when people Like, reply to, retweet, share, or do anything else with your content.
The key problem here is the Foursquare is attempting to generate AND harvest demand without a product hook (checkins have been taken away by competitors building better, focused experiences). No one wanted a pastry. I sure didn’t. Pastries are irrelevant to me right now and most times. But this is the new product emphasis built on top of a product hook (check-ins) with evaporating utility in the Foursquare ecosystem. Check-ins are moving to Facebook, Path, etc., so now Foursquare is left with local promotions but no core utility for the user.
Facebook can get away with generating and harvesting intent for a few reasons that don’t work for Foursquare.
1. (Un)targeted demand generation:Facebook can target who it generates intent for. Showing pastries to me is irrelevant. But showing me ads for analytics services, ridesharing apps, and more…is not. Advertisers can be very targeted on Facebook. Foursquare - with just basic information about me - can’t do the same frighteningly good job of targeting who they target in order to generate demand. Untargeted demand generation is resource intensive and converts poorly. In a world of hyper-targeting, Foursquare’s geodata and basic demographics are close to “untargeted”.
2. Scale: Even if Facebook ads convert poorly, the sheer number of users and amount of engagement they register with the product (pageviews on Facebook vs. loads of the Foursquare app are different orders of magnitude) gives Facebook more opportunities to generate and harvest intent such that it can compensate for the low CTR that people complain about.
3. Fulfillment Friction: Foursquare is an example of an online solution powering offline commerce. That’s bold, so I respect it. But even if I am walking around my neighborhood, if I go to the pastry place Foursquare recommends, I have to a) walk there, even if it’s close b) convince whomever I am with to go with me. On the other hand, Facebook just needs me to either load a page (frictionless, since I am doing that anyway to enjoy their core product) or make one click — depending on if an advertiser is running a CPM or CPC campaign. Foursquare fulfillment of promotions is very difficult to drive conversions for. I am sure there is a big drop off between the offers viewed and those redeemed.
Therefore, there is a clear misalignment between the value that Foursquare aims to deliver and what their users want. It’s like intentionally foregoing product market fit in an attempt to squeeze some revenue out of a minority of users. I don’t blame them because they were already seeing corroding product-market fit with a check-in product in a world in which check-ins alone don’t suffice due to changing consumer behavior. That’s not to mention increasing competition through Facebook, Path, and Highlight-type of apps — each with a different spin on check-ins that took away chunks of Foursquare users better served by those individual apps.
I hope Foursquare proves me wrong. They are pirates, in the game, trying to make something big happen. I respect that, and don’t want to “be a hater”. I used to be a user of their app. I have no doubt they can have a large exit even if they don’t pull this move off. But I don’t see them building a large independent business when their core product hook is both corroding and orthogonal to how they generate revenue — and that should be a lesson to others building large consumer apps that aim to be large consumer or B2C2B businesses one day.
Elements like rounded buttons and menus with expandable content have made it into web apps everywhere. New design elements and interactions tend to spread fast. But over time, no one really questions why they are the way they are. Similarly, people don’t appreciate the value they deliver and remember how the interaction was before. This hinders our ability to rethink interfaces and advance user experiences at a faster pace.
While I’m not a fan of most of PayPal’s design, I’ll give them an easy layup on good UX here by appreciating their use of a dropdown menu.
Use Case: Person would like to withdraw money from PayPal.
UX Problem: There are at least 3 sources for that withdrawal to be deposited into: 1. Bank Account 2. Check 3. PayPal Debit Card. This affects the user flow. But loading a brand new page just to select which of these choices a person wants increases friction: new page load, changes view, takes time, disorients a user, etc.
(Side note: It also requires designing, building, and maintaining a whole new page. This is bad for the user experience and expensive for the design/engineering teams.)
UX Solution: Allow a user to semi-actively indicate the need to withdraw money without clicking and changing the view. Hover is lighter than a click. Then show the options in place and the user can choose one with a click. Avoid the page change. Have this occur without the options disappearing when the user mouses away from the original target into the drop-down options since they are likely to mouse down into the options.
These dropdowns are everywhere today and well covered (Smashing Magazine post), but it’s nice to appreciate the fundamental problem they solve. It also helps us brainstorm newer solutions. For example, maybe one day you won’t even click on the dropdown options but rather hover over those, too. This would reduce the cost of the physical action needed to express intent (hovers are lighter than clicks). Of course, the chances of mis-hovers goes up with a solution like this, but it’s a single example as a thought exercise.
Svbtle uses this interaction well (hovers for action), and since the element is not a drop-down, there’s no risk of mis-hovers.
Or maybe in the future you can enter the amount to withdraw / submit the request from the dropdown and *never* change views. Maybe the whole website becomes just a webpage.
Anyway…next time you use a drop-down menu, hopefully you remember how much time and hassle it saves. And maybe you can invent the next UX interaction that will make everyone’s lives better.
Recently I was reading an article in The Economist on my phone. Articles are increasingly consumed within in-app web browsers. It’s important for media outlets to brand themselves well in this new medium.
As I scrolled, as readers tend to do through articles, I couldn’t help but notice the bright red, sticky logo of The Economist.
Later, when I wanted to mention this article, you can be sure that I knew where I had read it: The Economist.
Sticky headers. Noticeable logos. It matters. Especially in a world of undifferentiated forms of media consumptions (link shorteners often obscure your brand, articles are read as one-offs through social media vs. in your magazine next to all of your other articles, etc.)
Contrast how The Economist does this to how, of all sources, a technology blog: Pandodaily.
Had Twitter’s web browser not displayed the URL at the top of the page, you wouldn’t even be able to *figure out* that Pandodaily was the source, let alone have an easy brand association form naturally.
Content providers that don’t implement various branding tactics for the new mobile world - like sticky headers - are missing out on important opportunities to associate themselves with otherwise memorable moments.
Panting, with salt-filled sweat barely escaping my eyes, I sat down to write this post. This post is about how failure motivates me and why it’s necessary to let yourself be kicked often in order to stay fired up.
I just returned from my first game of full court basketball in as long as I can remember. I scored 0 points. Fear not, I had my shots — 4 layups and 2 jumpers. 4 pretty open layups, mind you. I missed them all. All.
Originally, I declined the offer to play in the game preferring the comfort of making my own free throws and layups on my half of the court. I feared embarrassment in front of peers. But I played, and failed. Quite well, really.
While I returned from the court annoyed with myself on one hand for missing all of my shorts, I was also fired up and motivated. Why, I wondered.
Failure for me, like for many others, is more of a motivator than a deterrent. Many people, especially entrepreneurs, use rejection, obstacles, etc. as reasons to push through. Indeed, I have felt this much longer than I have known what a “startup” is.
My reasons for starting my first company had a lot more to do with proving people wrong than it did anything about a real cause or the proclaimed glory of running a business. My family had moved from New Jersey to Florida, I had very few if any friends in my new school, and if I couldn’t be popular, I wanted to be successful. The business eventually took off, and oddly enough, that made me more popular at school.
Yet, as people achieve forms of success, there are less people telling you you’re wrong. So, if you’re someone who uses rejection as motivation and that motivation begets success, it becomes easier to become complacent as you do better and better in life. I suspect this is why people who do what they do for more core reasons, such as a strong belief in righting an injustice they feel personally, can carry on fervently without many other stimuli and surpass others “in it for the wrong reasons.”
But if you are like me, and failure and/or people scoffing lights a fire for you, it’s imperative to remember to frequently rekindle sources of motivation. This is relevant to the conversation about pushing yourself outside of one’s comfort zone. But to me, this particular piece is more nuanced than that cliché advice. And like other ‘advice’, it means nothing if it is just read but not practiced.
Being kicked in the gut motivates me. With things going well, I forgot what it was like to be kicked. If you are like me, don’t forget to get kicked often if you want to reach more than the tip of the iceberg.
In other industries, saying you’re a Harvard MBA who was the president of the Tech & Media Club and a Baker Scholar means a lot. You may have never *built* anything, yet you can make a strong, positive impression on whomever is hiring you.
Tech is a little different. To a large degree, people care more about *what you can actually do*. This may be because in tech you more often have to do the unknown. In other jobs in other industries, you may just have to execute a known process - which is a very different skill set. Going from 0 to 1 in an intensive process - one that is starkly different than going from 1 to n, as Peter Thiel articulated.
Yet, judging what a person or firm is capable of remains challenging. So people fall back on signaling as they often do.
Credentialing in the startup world is now about which companies you have been involved with, and at what stage. For investors, it’s listing their portfolio companies logos. For employees, it’s a Linkedin profile filled with one acquisition after another, maybe with an IPO thrown in there.
Smart people wondering whether to work with you will still be able to figure out your actual involvement. Yes, there is still value in being associated with successful companies. All else equal, you appear better than someone else.
Dixon talked about the trap largely in the context of going to a startup vs. established companies. Maybe he meant Dropbox, but to me established meant Google. And I think there’s a trap to joining a Dropbox as well.
As tech continues to pick up steam and there are seemingly more “hits”, it seems to have become easier to be associated with the homeruns but never build one yourself. Today you could go join Dropbox, or Square, or Box, or Uber, or even Stripe. Companies of varying revenue, headcount, guarantees of success. But in my eyes, none of these companies will fail. They’re all brand names in the tech startup world with real revenue.
But, honestly, join today and there’s very little chance you will be the reason these companies succeeded. Yet you and your Linkedin profile will benefit from the brand name and eventually the halo effect.
When I joined Yammer, it was clear that the company was a homerun. They just raised a massive round from top tier investors. They were a household name in the startup world. I didn’t cause the success that resulted in Microsoft buying Yammer a few months after I joined. Far from it. Yet people still associate me with Yammer’s success just because I was part of the company before the acquisition.
Anyway, the point here is that there is a credentialing trap even within startups, not just between startups and Google. This is even more true as big companies lose their luster to hot startups. Indeed, the trap just shifts then to where there is the most prestige. Maybe it already has shifted toward hot startups, at least in some circles. Your parents may still want you to work at Microsoft and provide external validation if you work there. But your friends may admire you more for being the 100th hire at the next pre IPO company. And if you are after external validation, your friends can be a source of that, too. Perhaps an even stronger source.
But should you join Square as employee #500 or the no-name startup that you really believe in but know will probably fail as employee #10?
I don’t know. But as I think about what comes after Yammer, it’s very tempting to take another role at another sure-to-succeed company. Yammer + [Successful Company]. Would be 2 great companies to be associated with and resemble a “track record”. Do something earlier stage and it will probably fail, and perhaps that’s perceived “as a step down”. Yet as I think about what comes next, being keenly aware of the credentials trap has been very helpful to keep things in perspective.