1. More details to come soon, but right now I’m working on a product that helps people run productive meetings.

    As we’ve explored this product and problem space, a common reaction can be ‘Why not just use Google Docs for this?’ 

    (There are some great posts about how businesses like Salesforce were just better, verticalized spreadsheets…but I don’t have the links handy.)

    This got me thinking whether it’s more important to solve a problem or create novel technology when trying to build a successful company? When people say “Can’t X do Y?” they’re not wrong. X can do Y. But it often doesn’t solve the Y (for a variety of reasons - one of which is a subpar user experience). Beautiful, focused interfaces are on the rise again as lots of technology has already been developed to support these focused interfaces / solutions.

    • You can track tasks in a Google Doc - it’s realtime, cloud-based, and works well on mobile. But there’s still benefits from going deep the way that Basecamp, Trello, and Asana allow you to do.
    • You could always take notes in Word, but Evernote went deep into note-taking (not complex word processing), and we’d all prefer a quick Evernote than to open a Word doc for our notes. Facebook (and its predecessors) gave people ‘personal web pages’ but Linkedin nailed the professional use case.
    • Technically you could have made your Facebook public and professional to make it serve the purpose Linkedin did — or some of the purposes. Or put your resume online as a PDF. Aside from the obvious drawbacks (e.g. Facebook wasn’t intended for professional networking and PDFs are hard to edit vs. forms through the Linkedin application) —- none of these oppositions proved correct in attempting to defend the status quo.

    That being said, many things are spectra. So, do you need a separate Uber competitor that only does SUVs and goes deep into that use case…probably not. Do you need a Google Docs for whiteboarding - maybe, maybe not. Do you need a separate note-taking app for X and Y and Z…maybe? Maybe there will be an Evernote focused solely on the images or video use cases. 

    Usually hindsight is the only thing that can really tell us whether applying commoditized technology to a niche use case was worth doing. If you told me that bookmark managers and Digg didn’t go deep enough on visuals, or social, or shopping, I may have scoffed 5 years ago. But lo and behold, Pinterest. (And of course, over time these companies become much larger than just commoditized technology applied to a worthy, narrow use case, just as Pinterest is much more than Digg for when you want to be visual and social).

    My sense is with a lot of the hard technology problems required to service the current state of technology adoption (vast smartphone penetration, consumer addiction to the Internet), we’re seeing a renaissance of sorts with people focusing on behavior-first, rather than technology-first, products. And so long as it solves a problem, no one cares if you invented a new stack or solved some scaling problem no one else touched before. Solve the problem.

    That being said, you may be able to uniquely solve certain problems by innovating on the technology rather than the application of technology. Twitter couldn’t fully tap into realtime, public news if it didn’t scale well - imagine the Fail Whale when you were trying to report news during the Arab Spring. Womp womp. And their ability to scale gave them an advantage of other realtime public microblogging services. But the 140 characters, the feed, the following model — these were not technological feats — and they preceded the eventual scaling challenges. The original product was not a huge technology feat.

    Novel, sophisticated technology can be a critical competitive advantage. And we should, as a society, continue to support people and organizations build technology that everyone comes to rely on. I’m not saying otherwise. But my sense right now is that we’re seeing many technology startups simply leverage existing technology for niche use cases where the user experience can be beautifully tailored, and this is something consumers flock to…because people care more about solving their problems than using technology. I’m interested to see how this evolves. We’ll need to continue innovating on core technology, and people are, in order to keep moving things forward. But it also appears like there’s a renaissance happening with people building tailored applications that focus more on behavior and core problems than technology.

    Thoughts?

  2. Sometimes I get home from work at 9 or 10pm. I enjoy what I do right now, so that’s fine because it means our team was at the office in the throes of some product debate or I needed to crank something out to help move the company along. I enjoy those moments, and I like that I believe my work has impact.

    However, when I get home, I sometimes convince myself I “deserve” to watch TV, or “deserve” to sit on the couch and have some ice cream. During this time, I don’t usually blog or read — which are two activities I find fulfilling and enjoyable — but for whatever reason, I don’t end up doing those things after long days of work even though I enjoy both of these things more than the former activities, not to mention blogging and reading are both better for me than TV or ice cream.

    I noticed a mindset that’s a vestige from working for other people: the desire to have “me” time when I’m not at my day job. Now, I’m all for work-life balance (although I define it differently than others). That being said, if there are things one enjoys more, then why do the things one enjoys less? 

    In my twisted psyche, blogging and reading still do feel like work. And from some cultural influences, and working for someone else for some time, doing purely pleasure activities like TV and ice cream — perhaps with the pleasure magnified by the lack of work required compared to blogging and reading — felt like things I deserved to enjoy at the end of the day and stood in stark enough contrast to what I did during the day. But really these are just commonly accepted ways of relaxing we’ve learned. Why don’t we question these uses of time?

    This is all going to sound weird to someone else. It’s normal to want to conk out after a long day. Sure. But I think there’s cultural norms we absorb and apply without deeper thought, or deep enough scrutiny. And we all have impulses, and indulging them (in moderation) seems to be reasonable enough. But why do something that isn’t the best thing for either your happiness or your productivity just because it helps one feel like they’re conforming more to a social norm? Therein lies the heart of the tension. It’s something that’s taken me a while to identify albeit somewhat simple ultimately. Imagine if one could rewire themselves to lead the life they want, rather than the one that norms propel them into. This is what I’m striving for and it applies to a number of other habits (e.g. healthy eating). Anyway, it’s not a baked thought, but a musing…

  3. I’m watching the NBA Playoffs. Observed something notable.

    Someone on offense was preparing to shoot. He did a headfake first. The defended jumped right past him trying to defend the shot.

    The offensive player quickly stepped up, past the near-befallen shooter, and drained an undefended shot.

    I wondered, how can one recreate a headfake in business? Or alternatively, how to avoid tossing oneself right past a shooter when merely trying to defend?

    I’m not proposing anything malicious. And to be clear, some times in basketball, the defender is trained to not jump right past the shooter, and instead often is advised: “Don’t leave your feet” (I think I’m remembering that right…), or basically don’t jump and lose your position.

    Sure, one could mislead people or competitors. That’s sort of a headfake. But also, on the flipside, how does on avoid being misled?

    Anyway, just some food for thought. No answers here.

  4. [Side Note: I am trying to tell more stories, rather than dole out advice. Stories have a specific meaning and context. These stories are not easily generalizable if one wants to maintain the integrity of the story or make an accurate generalization. Yet in the past, I felt some undue pressure to make a story bigger than what it was and treat it as an overblown epiphany. So instead of extrapolating this one experience, I’ll just tell you the story now…and let you do with it what you will.]

    [Side Note 2: Two side notes and no post yet. Terrible. Well, it feels good to be back on the blog again. Been too long.]

    I was just filling out a form. I made a typo (as if I often do). I hit CMD+A (Select All) and retyped my email address. I did not find the one spot where my email was mistyped, move my cursor there, click, and add a single character to correct the typo. Instead, I preferred to retype the entire thing.

    In theory, the greater cost is retyping the entire email address. In theory, it’s much easier to add one character vs. several.

    However, of course, this ignores the cognitive cost, and one type of physical cost — while only accounting for the most obvious physical cost - typing characters. The cognitive cost is of course figuring out what the error is and what exactly needs to change — this is meaningfully different than the binary decision of whether something is right or wrong. It’s more nuanced, and thus requires more work. Additionally, there is the subtle physical cost of moving the cursor - either via mouse or keyboard - to the exact position of this error vs. CMD+A and then DELETE.

    This type of nuance reminds me of Apple’s decision to position application menus at the top of one’s computer screen — not the top of the application window (which could be halfway down the page). In doing so, Apple eliminated the precision required to get the mouse exactly on top of the menu item you wanted — you need to be horizontally correct, but otherwise you can just swing your mouse up there and it’ll stop where you need it to (at the top). With a menu that’s positioned with the application window, you can’t swing up vertically because you’ll go too far — and thus you have to get 2 things precisely write: horizontal and vertical position — instead of one thing precise (horizontal) and another thing kinda sort in the neighborhood (vertical).

    Anyway, I found my behavior notable here. It’s quite mundane really, but carries nuance that is emblematic of microbehaviors that matter to product design. And I’ll really resist the urge to try to generalize and tell you how this kinda sort (but not really) related to reengagement emails, signup flows, viral loops, etc.

  5. 1% disclaimer: These ideas are generally all things that make life marginally more comfortable and convenient but fail to solve deep fundamental problems of society. But I figured to share anyway.

    • Refrigerator Shelf Lazy Susan - It’s incredible to me that people still shuffle stuff around in their fridges. If a fridge shelf could rotate - be it round or square - without giving up current available surface area - it’d make using the fridge easier.
    • Combined Washer/Dryer - It’s silly that we transfer clothes from one adjacent machine to another. Clearly, it’d be hard to build a machine that did both jobs well in one structure/system. But it’s kind of odd if you think about it that you need to transfer items.
    • Shirt Folder - I am not good at folding shirts. If I could take a pile of flat t-shirts, put it into this contraption, and fold one side over another, and then open up the contraption to a pile of neatly stacked t-shirts, that’d be nice.

    What do you think?

  6. Fields/disciplines/professions aren’t deterministically artistic, or technical, or political. People make them that way. For context: a friend described to me a restaurant owner and how one who knows what they are doing will take time to craft the full experience: getting there, waiting for your table, the first waiter greeting, how your food is placed in front of you, the food (of course), and much more. He/she is an artist, who happens to be channeling efforts into their restaurant (the medium). This reminded me of when Kanye started talking about leather jogging pants, and how he wanted to be able to change fashion, architecture, etc. He sees himself as an artist first and foremost; music just so happens to be the medium through which he has most notably expressed himself. Yet he’s right to say that society pigeon holes him as a ‘rapper’, so they balk when he tries to assert himself in other domains. The same occurred, IMO, when Russell Brand started talking politics, democracy, and revolution (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YR4CseY9pk). It’s pretty liberating to think that people aren’t their jobs, but rather some mix of artist, scientist, or sheep practitioner…and in reality can apply this fundamental skill set, or world view, to a range of domains. Society will balk at this frequently because it doesn’t fit the humans-in-boxes model, but this shouldn’t limit the ways in which one endeavors to apply himself or herself.

  7. Everyone is talking about Bitcoin. Many attempt to dismiss it as a ponzi scheme or something crazy people are into. While ‘crazies’ isn’t a fair term necessarily, I’d like to make an argument for why it’s worth at least considering what “crazies” claim. 

    Some people getting into Bitcoin are pure speculators, some are followers listening to trusted parties, and some really get it. Some believe. It wasn’t until this morning (11/30/13) that I finally got it. Or so I think.

    I would glance at blog posts, listen to snippets of talks, and look up explanatory sites that looked like this:image


    It didn’t hit me. Over and over again. I heard about and invested in Bitcoin more than 6 months ago, but the importance of cryptocurrency didn’t dawn on me until this morning. I just heard smart people like Naval Ravikant, Chamath Palihapitiya, and Balaji Srinivasan talking about how big it was going to be. People threw around terms like the “Internet of Money” to help people understand the gravity of bitcoin and cryptocurrency at large. But it didn’t cut through my lack of understanding. Call it arrogance, call it ignorance - but I figured myself smart enough to see the value of cryptocurrency right away if it really were as big as the Internet, and although I didn’t see the value, I fortunately made a small bet on smart people — but I still didn’t really get it.

    One fundamental flaw with that line of reasoning (“If cryptocurrency is going to be big, I’ll know it with full conviction and early.”) is that I actually didn’t see the power of the Internet, or Facebook, or mobile technology until mostly everyone else did. I like to think I did. I see the power of all of those things today, so it led me to an inflated sense of trust in my ability to detect a tectonic shift in technology. Because I understand the gravity of these things today, I have rewritten history to think I “got it” early. Just because I am involved and profiting from the Internet today, doesn’t mean I somehow am invulnerable to missing important technology trends in the future. Whether it’s not being a major user of Snapchat, or this delayed understanding of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. Classic mistake of using the past to predict the future. Nassim Taleb would be disappointed.

    Somewhere in my subconscious, I think I also had some element at risk-aversion at work: I’d rather be #20 and right with slightly smaller gains, than #5 and totally wrong and perceived to be crazy. In hindsight, what happened with Bitcoin when it shot to $1000, then $1200 didn’t leave any room for #20s.

    I don’t like that bit of risk aversion, but we all have elements of it at work. The trick is to recognize, parse, and decide whether to change it or not.

    Today I went for a run and a brief swim. I let my mind wander. That doesn’t happen very often in this world anymore.image

    And then all of the simple, but not-painfully-marketed-in-layman’s-terms-over-and-over yet, benefits of bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) dawned on me…

    • Merchants lose roughly 2.5%-5% of transaction value when customers use credit cards. Or merchants pass that cost onto customers. But not accepting credit cards will cost the merchant a lot of lost revenue given how much consumers rely on credit cards. So the system goes on, but only credit card companies win, and continue to exist.

    • You could argue consumers win, too, if consumers benefit from the convenience of credit cards but don’t bear the cost. But what if the convenience to the consumer was surpassed by another financial vehicle and merchants didn’t have to pay credit card companies that 2.5%-5%? Then consumers and merchants - the only parties that truly matter if we think from first principles of marketplaces - both win. Credit card companies shrink in value and importance - but if you consider the marketplace from first principles, there is no inherent reason for the middle man. (To be fair, the notion of ‘extending credit’ is in fact a good reason, but plenty of people use credit cards without needing ‘the credit’. Plenty of people do use ‘the credit’, too, and wind up in credit card debt.)


    It was a major convenience when people could buy things online by whipping out their credit cards and having it delivered to their doorstep the next day - not having to drive to the store to pick up that microwave, or t-shirt, or toilet paper. But welcome to the future when this credit card form is no longer “convenient”. Indeed, here’s a common (ugly) payment form.


    image

    It’s not that hard to imagine that payment form being considered “inconvenient” is it? We all do our privileged 1% complaining about it these days. Not to mention the more subtle cognitive inconvenience that we pay for the item AND manage a credit card bill as an aggregator of all of those purchases. Why do we fundamentally need that distinction? Bartering never had that. Cash doesn’t have that. Sure, there are ledgers for personal records, but you don’t “pay twice”: first for the item, then later managing your bill. (Financially, you’re not paying twice. Cognitively, you are.)


    Now, forget pulling out your credit card and entering 16 digits. Forget trying to remember which address the card is associated with. Forget having to deal with ugly error messages when it turns out you forgot to change Visa to Mastercard in the dropdown menu. Forgot that this provider, it turns out, doesn’t accept American Express.

    What if you just copy and pasted an address to send money to…and hit Send?

    image

    This is part of the story of “frictionless” commerce that digital currency proponents are trying to tell. And I could easily see my bitcoin wallets being integrated with various commerce channels and technologies. So my browser and my smartphone have my bitcoin wallets connected to them. The recipient bitcoin address is already behind the scenes on Amazon, or the Shopify store, or Macys.com. And you just hit ‘Buy’ next to the item and the frontend experience of the “1 Click to Buy” that Amazon has pioneered is now available throughout the entire Internet without them doing any special integration or you having to add your credit card to a proprietary, isolated system - but more importantly, if this wasn’t enough, the backend of the entire credit card system has been replaced with an instant, more secure, decentralized (P2P) transaction.

    At this point, the merchant gets paid immediately. No 1-3 day processing time. No 2.5%-5% shaved off the transaction. No fraud or chargebacks.

    Maybe you, the consumer, even got a better price because the 2.5%-5% fees are now not partially or fully passed onto you. This already happens today when gas stations offer lower prices for customers willing to pay cash instead of credit.

    This could happen potentially be done today through Internet commerce if you were willing to link your bank account / debit card to every single merchant you deal with and transactions could be done as ACH transactions. But this doesn’t happen. And even this may still be subject to some fees, and still be subject to processing time. Indeed, the banks are still financial institutions that serve as intermediaries in the transaction. As long as that is the case, i.e. three parties do the work of two parties, there will be some form of friction - be it time or fees (or more likely, both).

    One could argue that the banks provide a degree of security that P2P will lack. I’m not an expert on fraud and financial services more generally. Indeed, there have been cases of hacking cryptocurrencies (and users’ wallets). However, banks, too, have been fighting financial fraud for all of time, and plenty of individuals have had credit cards stolen / identities stolen. This - digital currencies - is a new medium, and I, too, am unsure at this point if P2P will in fact be more secure than a bank-intermediated transaction, but logically speaking, the more actors involved in a deal, the more potential there is for something to go wrong.

    Also, as mentioned above, the idea of extending credit is also a value that these intermediaries do currently provide that I’m unaware of how digital currencies / that ecosystem will replicate. Could there be P2P credit? Isn’t that sort of what financial institutions facilitate today? Does the credit system entirely devolve? Maybe, maybe not.

    All of this to say nothing of the devaluing of currency. Imagine how in many parts of the world, one may put their savings in an account earning them 0.1%-1% annually, while one watches their currency lose more than that in value - whether it’s 2% or 20%. If your storage of value was the same as the currency itself…and that currency achieves stability due to a fixed supply, then you won’t face a constant loss of value. Bitcoin hasn’t achieved stability yet in its value though.

    To be honest, I’m not sure if digital currencies can achieve this promise of stability, but if it’s true, it’s another positive attribute of digital currencies.


    image

    Anyway, this is the most clarity I have had of the value of cryptocurrencies. It just makes sense.

    None of this is financial advice. For all I know, Bitcoin could go to $0.00 and not get adopted by the masses.

    But the lesson for me here, bigger than Bitcoin or anything else, was that I didn’t spend — no, I didn’t make — the time to understand Bitcoin earlier than now. But when I had 20 free minutes of gap time to let my mind wonder about it, I made realizations that could have proved useful (and profitable) had I made them much sooner. In life, we’re all so busy. Pushing paper, clearing emails…the routine. I believe we’re so consumed by the mundane day-to-day that we end up doing a million things less important than understand tectonic shifts in the world when sometimes all it takes is a run and a dip in a pool to clear your head and see the big picture.

  8. People underestimate the importance of prioritization. Why? I don’t know.

    I have some guesses why people don’t confront what needs to get done and assigning priorities.

    //This is part of Startup Edition. Read about how other people prioritize.

    Prioritizing means…

    • admitting that some things are less important than others (and building consensus around that)
    • realizing that some items simply will not get done
    • confronting the intellectual laziness underlying the idea that everything should be done and worked on

    These are not pleasant things. Thinking “I’ll just work hard and do everything” is simpler, doesn’t require making trade-offs, and makes one feel Herculean. That seems superior than accepting limitations. We generally think prioritizing means focusing on the important things, without consciously acknowledging that such focus requires us to NOT, and maybe never, do the less important things.

    Aside from what’s pleasant or not, I believe the simple effort and limited cognitive input of prioritizing is too much for many people much of the time. It’s easier to push it off or to not do it sincerely.

    Some things I believe get overweighted in prioritization when building a technology product (vs. personal productivity)…

    • Customers asked for it. The volume (#) and volume (!) of loud customers.
    • Same as above, but replace Customers with Sales/Marketing Teams.
    • How cheap it is to build in terms of engineering time and infrastructural costs (this often leads to product bloat)
    • "Strategy" without enough rational support
    • Because we can.

    …And here are brief thoughts on how I prioritize in various domains of my life.

    • Professional Identity Building (networking, brand building, blogging, etc.)

    When I’m considering writing a blog post, or speaking somewhere, or accepting some sort of new commitment that will raise my profile in the tech community - first and foremost, I ask myself if I’ll enjoy it. If so, then it’s usually a no-brainer. Most of my blog posts, believe it or not, I write because there’s something in my head I just want to write about. It brings me clarity. And figuring out how to express it is fun and challenging.

    Separate from that, there are questions like: Is this different from my past experiences such that it’ll increase my “experience surface area”? Is this, if risky, something with a lot of upside? Do I like the people involved?

    Honestly one of the most important things I have done for my prioritization is deciding NOT to do a bunch of things: not responding to some emails, choosing not to write if it’s purely self-promotional, going to every last meetup, etc. Writing shorter emails (terse but always polite and helpful if I can control it). Scheduling meetings for 1/2 the time I would otherwise do them for. Finding shortcuts if it’s a shortcut type of thing. This has been quite liberating.

    • Yammer Product Development

    Vision - Does this feature fit with our vision? Does it drive us closer to our vision much faster than something else would? Do we need the lay the groundwork for other work?

    Existing Data - Do we have data that suggests we should explore building say, a file directory, or make a change to the group creation flow? 

    User Input - Have users said or indicated that this is an important problem to solve? Irrespective of the solutions a customer may have proposed, do we have a product solution that we feel solves the fundamental problem?

    Resources - Do we have available engineers, designers, etc. to be able to build the feature in question right now?

    …and much more. But those are some questions and areas we explore.

    • HeatData Product Development

    Much of it is similar to what I do at Yammer honestly. But it’s a much, much earlier stage product (mobile analytics) and company with HeatData. So there’s a bit more of a bent on monetization and even though it’s a SaaS app with no obvious network effects right now, virality. 

    But again, as a young company, there’s a lot of weight given to features that drive in new customers and help upgrade existing customers / reduce churn. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen not to build certain expensive features if the engineering cost is too high or I know the customer can live without it but just asks because it’s so cheap to ask and I’m soliciting feedback frequently enough to make that so.

    Anyways, how do you prioritize? 

    //This is part of Startup Edition. Read about how other people prioritize.

  9. Notice how “Sign In” is adjacent to the Online ID field. But the Account Location dropdown is below and separate. Yet it is required!

    This flow makes the user enter their online ID and hit Sign In, but ignore the Account Location field because it does not appear to be required given its positioning.

    And then people get this error…womp womp.

    The ordering, labeling, and existence of your fields and buttons should make sense. No wonder they need a help/options link in the very same box.

  10. For some time now, it’s bothered me when people talk about friction. It often feels so “1 percenty” if you will. Just wait for your damn browser tab to load. Some examples of when I’ve thought about this friction:

    • Waiting for Microsoft Word to load (vs. the much snappier Google Docs or a lightweight native text editor)
    • Having to find a Songza or Pandora tab and pause the music (vs. being able to use the hardware’s pause button w/ Spotify desktop)
    • Waiting for a Gmail message to finish sending, so I can send another message or execute a different inbox task

    But there’s a reason why it gets under our skin. There’s a reason why those seemingly trivial seconds or minutes matter.

    Friction prevents us from living our best lives. From spontaneously capturing a shot of a beautiful sunset. Or writing down a brilliant thought.

    Imagine seeing President Obama pass you in a car across the street. If only you could snap a photo…oh wait, by the time you entered your passcode he’s gone.

    Well, lucky you, Apple cared about reducing friction when it matters here.

    Imagine having the most brilliant idea, but no fast enough way to record it. Lucky you, Evernote makes it pretty damn easy to start a quick note - from surfacing the option, to making the cursor active in the text area.

    Imagine you’re out with old college friends having the time of your lives. The night is winding down, but people who were on the fence about going home decide to stay out if you all can get cabs to the next bar fast enough. It begins to rain outside. Cabs fly by, all taken, since it’s peak time. The crowd breaks up, only to reunite again years later at the 20th Reunion…Lucky for you, Uber to the rescue (if you’re willing and able to pay). 

    Tonight I found myself wondering whether it would be worth someone building a Chrome extension to make it easier to convert plaintext to event invitation. I also read about Cover, a new service to make it even easier (or, “more frictionless”?) to access your favorite apps on Android.

    It’s been easy for me to dismiss friction-reducing applications and features in the past. But I for one don’t want to make that mistake moving forward.

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Jason Shah

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