Book Review: “Shape Up” by Ryan Singer

Basecamp is a project management and communication platform, widely known for its innovative software development practices and novel ways of working. Ryan Singer, Basecamp’s Head of Strategy, recently captured Basecamp’s approach in Shape Up, which is freely available online and as a PDF. The product development process at Basecamp consists of three distinct stages: shaping, betting and building.

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/4.1-appendix-02

Basecamp typically work in six-week cycles, building and releasing new features within that timeframe. The work is shaped first before it’s given to a team to work on. A small senior group works in parallel to the cycle teams. They define the key elements of a solution before considering a project ready to bet on. Interestingly, shaping is less about traditional estimation of development work, and much more about appetite. Instead of asking how much time it will take to do some work, people at Basecamp will consider how much time they want to spend on a specific piece of work; how much is this idea worth?

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/4.1-appendix-02

 

Shaping

When shaping a solution, the aim is to strike the right balance between ‘too vague’ and ‘too detailed’. Wireframes are deemed too concrete, whilst words are often too abstract. The reason why this balance is important is that the scope of a project needs to be flexible enough for the team to come up with appropriate design solutions whilst not running the risk of growing out of control due to a lack of boundaries.

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/1.1-chapter-02

These are the main steps to shaping:

  1. Set boundaries – First figure out how much time the raw idea is worth and how to define the problem. This provides the basic boundaries to shape into.
  2. Rough out the elements – Then comes the creative work of sketching a solution. At Basecamp, they do this at a higher level of abstraction compared to wireframes in order to move fast and explore a wide enough range of possibilities. The output of this step is an idea that solves the problem within the appetite but without all the fine details worked out.
  3. Address risks and rabbit holes – Once there is the feeling that a solution has been found, the goal is to find holes or unanswered questions that could trip up a team. The solution gets amended accordingly, tricky things removed from it, or specified details at tricky spots to ensure that a team doesn’t waste time or gets stuck.
  4. Write the pitch –  When the solution is shaped enough to bet on, things are packaged up formally in a pitch. The pitch summarises the problem, constraints, solution, rabbit holes, and limitations. The pitch then goes to Basecamp’s betting table for consideration.

Ryan Singer writes about how Basecamp uses the technique of breadboarding, a concept borrowed from electrical engineering. When breadboarding, three things are drawn:

  1. Places – These are things you can navigate to, like screens, dialogs, or menus that pop up.
  2. Affordances – These are things the user can act on, like buttons and fields. Interface copy is considered to be an affordance too, as reading it is an act that gives the user information for subsequent actions.
  3. Connection lines – These show how the affordances take the user from place to place.

I like how words are used instead of pictures, focusing on the solution’s components and the connections between them and allowing you to figure out an idea. Importantly, this technique allows you to judge if the sequence of actions serves the use case you’re trying to solve.

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/1.3-chapter-04

 

If the idea being considered is a visual one. In this case, breadboarding would be insufficient because the visual representation is the fundamental problem. At Basecamp, wireframes wouldn’t be created in this circumstance, but fat marker sketches would be created instead. A fat marker sketch is a sketch made with such broad strokes that adding detail is difficult or impossible.

 

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/1.3-chapter-04

 

Bets, Not Backlogs

Singer explains how at Basecamp backlogs are viewed as time wasters; the time spent constantly reviewing, grooming and organising ‘tickets’, working on a list of items that might or might not get done. By contrast, Singer talks about holding a betting table before each six-week cycle. At the betting table, stakeholders evaluate pitches from the last six weeks, or any pitches that somebody purposefully revived and lobbied for again.

 

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/2.2-chapter-08

 

The betting table at Basecamp consists of the CEO, the CTO, a senior developer and product strategist (Ryan Singer himself). The main reason why Basecamp use bets instead of plans, is the difference in expectations set when talking about bets:

  • Bets have a payout – Solutions are deliberately shaped into six-week projects so that there’s meaningful finished at the end. The pitch defines a specific payout that makes the bet worth making.
  • Bets are commitments – If a bet is made for six weeks, then the relevant people will get six weeks to work exclusively on that thing for six weeks, without distractions.
  • Bets have a cap on the downside – When a bet is made to work on something specific for six weeks, the most that you can lose is six weeks and thus avoiding a situation where you’re spending multiples of the original six-week commitment on a solution.

Build your way uphill

                     Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/3.4-chapter-12#build-your-way-uphill

 

This section of “Shape Up” starts with a great and very true point about the unpredictability of development work: “This goes back to the notion of imagined versus discovered tasks. In our naive notion of a list that’s planned up-front, somebody populates it with items that are gradually checked off. In real life, issues are discovered by getting involved in the problem. That means to-do lists actually grow as the team makes progress.” Also, numeric estimates of pieces of work often don’t take into account the level of uncertainty involved in different tasks. Basecamp have recognised this and instead use the metaphor of the hill, which concentrates on what’s unknown and what’s solved:

 

                      Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/3.4-chapter-12#build-your-way-uphill

 

The idea behind this hill is that anyone in the company can see at a glance where things are at. If a task been ‘uphill’ for while, why is that? What unknown is holding it up? Or perhaps the item on ten hill consists of a number of smaller items. The hill helps to see what is stuck and what has been done, or getting close to being completed.

Conclusion: I found “Shape Up” a very helpful and insightful book. Not only does it provide a great insight into Basecamp’s approach to developing products, it also made me reflect on my own ways of working – and the teams that I’m part of. Highly recommend reading “Shape Up” if you’re interested in learning about alternative ways of developing software products or collaborating during the product development lifecycle.

 

Product review: Getaround

Getaround.com is a peer-to-peer car rental platform, headquartered in the US, which only recently came to my attention when it raised a $200m Series D funding round. I’m keen to better understand how Getaround is looking to change the ways in which we rent cars and how it differentiates itself from well established car rental companies such as Hertz and Avis:

My quick summary of Getaround before using it? – I expect a consumer driven car rental platform that gives people more flexibility with respect to renting a car when and where they want it.

 

 

How does Getaround explain itself in the first minute? – “Rent cars by the hour or day” it reads when I check Getaround’s UK site on my desktop, followed by “For moving into your new home.” Staying on the homepage for a few minutes, the secondary strap-line changes, highlighting the various use cases for Getaround, varying from “For surprising grandma on her birthday” to “For meeting a client, in time and in style”. I can’t see an obvious option for me to list my car for hire, which is surprising given that this is a peer-to-peer car rental platform.

Getting started with Getaround – I start my search by entering a location, a check-in date / time and a check-out date / time, and click “Search”:

 

 

 

What happens next? – The search generates 31 pages of vehicles for me to choose from. These results haven’t been filtered yet and the site offers a number of filters to apply in order to narrow down the search results.

 

 

Getaround’s filters feel pretty standard, but I’m curious what’s involved in self-service cars. Where do I pick those up? Or do they get dropped off at my exact location? What do I gain by selecting “Reserved parking”?

 

 

When I disable the “Self-service cars” filter, I can select the “instant booking” option which means that vehicles can be booked without waiting for confirmation from the owner.

 

 

I like how I can filter by “vehicle age”, presumably as a way of ensuring that I don’t hire an ancient car that might be more prone to engine failure or other issues. However, I’m not immediately clear what is meant by “acceptance rate”. Clicking on the tooltip clarifies this.

 

 

 

When I select a car, I land on a pretty intuitive but detailed product detail page. This page includes pictures of both the exterior and the interior of the car, information about where the car can be picked up and free mileage included. At this stage it still isn’t entirely clear to me how Getaround’s self service works, but I presume that I can go to the car at the location indicated and unlock the car with my phone (assuming this is a feature I can access via Getaround’s app once I’ve signed up and booked the car).

 

 

 

A quick check of the description of the Getaround app on the app store confirms my assumption around automatic unlocking the car via the app.

The page also includes customer reviews which I find particularly helpful here, given that I’ll be driving someone else’s car and would naturally be unsure about the condition of the car, responsiveness of the owner, etc.

 

 

More information about insurance and roadside cover is only a few clicks away, but I can’t help still feeling somewhat apprehensive about the ‘small print’.

 

 

 

It’s only when I click on the “book” call to action at the top of the page that I have to sign up for the service.

 

 

Did Getaround deliver on my initial expectations – Yes. The site felt intuitive whilst containing a good amount of detail. However, I wasn’t clear about the process involved in listing my car for hiring, and I felt that key parts of the experience – both online and offline – could be explained better.

 

 

 

Product Review: North

Ever since I reviewed Warby Parker last year I’ve been intrigued by companies that aim to disrupt the experience of buying glasses. So when I heard about a company called North, my ears perked up and I decided to explore their product further:

My quick summary of North before using it – I expect a value proposition similar to Warby Parker, with North offering a simple way to discover and buy new glasses, perhaps a novel take on the “try before you buy” concept.

How does North explain itself in the first minute? – “Focals. Smart glasses that put fashion first” is the strap-line above the fold on the homepage of https://www.bynorth.com/. The combination of the word “smart” in this strap-line and the picture of a Google Glass like pair of glasses tells me that this site sells glasses that display information in a hands-free fashion.

 

 

When I scroll down the page, there is a further explanation of what “focals” are:

 

 

Getting started (1): Clicking on “Shop Focals” takes me to a product detail page, which includes a price point – starting at $599 – as well as styles and colours to choose from.

 

 

 

Getting started (2): “Premium holographic lenses” is the only bit of information on this page that I’m not sure about. It’s at this stage that I realise that I can’t buy the glasses online, but that I need to book a “custom sizing” appointment first.

 

 

Getting started (3): I decide to take a step back and learn more about Focals are. Clicking on “Focals” on the top navigation of the homepage takes me to a very useful “Explore Focals” page. I’ve never had a pair of Google glasses, but I don’ think they could be customised to the same extent that Focals can be tailored to the wearer’s needs.

 

 

Main learning point: I’m not yet convinced whether smart glasses will catch on. Perhaps the likes of North will make a difference, because their “focals” will look and feel like regular glasses. The customisation aspect of North’s product definitely resonates, and might just be the difference between North failing or being a runaway success.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.bynorth.com/focals
  2. https://www.modernretail.co/startups/systemic-issue-the-customer-acquisition-challenges-dtc-brands-face-goes-beyond-cost/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eO-Y36_t08
  4. https://www.digitaltrends.com/wearables/north-focals-news/

Product review: Range

Braden Kowitz is a great product designer, having established his craft at Google and Google Ventures. He’s worked on products such as Gmail and with successful startups such as ClassPass. So when I heard about Range, the startup that Kowitz is a co-founder of, I was keen to learn more about the product.

My quick summary of Range before using it? I expect Range to be a tool that helps companies engage more effectively with their employees.

How does Range explain itself in the first minute? “Teamwork simplified” is the strap-line above the fold on Range’s homepage, explaining how “Range helps you stay in sync and feel like a team, so you can do your best work together.”

 

It looks like Range addresses three main areas of employee communications and engagement:

  1. Check-ins – Enabling teams to run virtual stand-ups on a daily basis.
  2. Objectives – Setting and monitoring of OKRs.
  3. Meetings – Helping people to run more effective meetings.

 

 

Scrolling down, the homepage explains how Range is all about team work, helping its users to feel like a true team – even if the team is distributed across multiple locations.

 

 

Getting started: After I’ve clicked on the “Try free” call to action on the homepage, I’m directed to the first step of an on-boarding flow. It’s good how Range assures me that I can sign up for an initial 30 day period, without a credit card being required. I need to sign up via a Google account and I can request a demo in case I don’t have a Google account. It would be good to understand why I can only sign up via my Google account.

 

 

I use my personal Gmail account, since we don’t use Google for work email, and I receive below error message which explains how “Range is meant for work”. I’ll request a personal walkthrough instead …

 

 

When I click on the “Request a demo” call to action, I’m directed to a standard sign-up page, which worries me that I’ll be receiving a lot of emails before and after my demo. It’s therefore reassuring that Range mentions “Don’t worry, we hate spam too.” Not sure though whether Range will be able to fulfil my demo request since we use Microsoft Outlook at work.

 

Did Range deliver on my expectations? Not yet. I hadn’t realised that Range only works if you’re a G Suite Google user. Ask me again after my personal Range walkthrough 🙂

 

 

Product review: ZocDoc

I’d never heard of ZocDoc before until I heard someone recently mention it on a podcast. The person in question mentioned something about an app that lets you find your local doctor. Intrigued to learn more, I decided to do a product review:

My quick summary of ZocDoc before using it – I expect a mobile app which lets me find local doctors and book appoints through a single interface.

How does ZocDoc explain itself in the first minute? Unlike other apps, I’m not entirely clear about what ZocDoc is all about. Perhaps I’m slightly distracted by the overlay message which asks me whether I want to accept notifications to “Get important reminders and wellness updates”:

 

How does ZocDoc work? Once I’ve dismissed the notification alert, I can view ZocDoc’s homepage in full. It enables me to search by illness, filter by location and availability:

 

Once I click on “Find” I get a load of results local to me, and available today:

This interface feels intuitive, although I personally could have done without the sponsored result at the top of the screen. This is where ZocDoc’s sorting functionality comes in handy, although I doubt whether I can completely filter out the sponsored results 🙂

Instead, results can be sorted based on “relevance” – although when I do this I start getting results with dentists who aren’t available today (which was one of the original filters) – “distance” and “wait time rating”.

 

Did ZocDoc deliver on my expectations? Yes. The app feels intuitive and does make it easier to book a medical appointment. I nevertheless feel that the app can work harder in terms of enabling customers to sort results, e.g. by price (with and without insurance) and availability. I believe this additional sorting ability will make the results feel even more relevant to the user.

My product management toolkit (37): product / market fit survey

Since venture capitalist Marc Andreessen introduced the concept of “product / market fit” back in 2007 there have been many different interpretations of what this concept actually means. From people using sales projections to companies applying customer satisfaction to determine product / market fit, I’ve seen companies utilising different yardsticks. I therefore thought it would be good to go back to Marc Andreessen’s original definition and look at a great approach by Sean Ellis – who specialises in growth strategies – to identify product / market fit.

First, let’s look at Marc Andreessen’s original definition of product / market fit:

“Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.”

Andreessen has taken this definition from Andy Rachleff – another successful startup founder and venture capitalist – who describes getting to product / market fit as “the only thing that matters” when you’re a startup. Product / market fit thus means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.

The million dollar question then becomes how one knows that product / market fit has been achieved. Andreessen explains how you can feel when product / market for isn’t happening:

“The customers aren’t quite getting value out of the product, word of mouth isn’t spreading, usage isn’t growing that fast, press reviews are kind of “blah”, the sales cycle takes too long, and lots of deals never close.”

Andreessen argues that you can feel when product / market fit is happening if:

“The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it – or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers. Money from customers is piling up in your company checking account. You’re hiring sales and customer support staff as fast as you can. Reporters are calling because they’ve heard about your hot new thing and they want to talk to you about it.” 

Another way of establish whether you’ve achieved product / market fit comes from Sean Ellis and his product / market fit survey. Ellis’ survey consists of one simple question:

“How would you feel if you could no longer use this product?”

People can respond to this survey in one of the following ways:

  • Very disappointed
  • Somewhat disappointed
  • Not disappointed (it really isn’t that useful)
  • N/A – I no longer use this product

Ellis’ rule of thumb is that if you’re above 40% of the people saying they’d be very disappointed, you’ve found product / market fit, and if you’re less than that, you haven’t.

Through the survey, you can learn about a person’s underlying reasoning behind their response by including a free text field which says something like “Please help us understand why you’ve selected this answer.”

In addition, you could conduct user interviews to learn more about the products which people consider as an alternative to your product or to understand the perceived benefits of your product. For example, those survey respondents who responded that they’d be “somewhat disappointed” it might be that you haven’t delivered on the product’s intended value proposition. Similarly, it would be good to find out from those people who indicated “not disappointed” why they wouldn’t care if your product ceases to exist.

Main learning point: Understanding whether (and why) your product has achieved product / market fit is critical for any startup. Learning why a product has or hasn’t achieved product / market fit through a survey or an interview will fuel further product development and decision making.

Related links for further learning: 

  1. https://www.slideshare.net/hiten1/measuring-understanding-productmarket-fit-qualitatively
  2. https://blog.crisp.se/2016/01/25/henrikkniberg/making-sense-of-mvp
  3. https://open.buffer.com/measure-productmarket-fit-product-feature/
  4. http://www.startup-marketing.com/getting-to-product-market-fit/
  5. https://growthhackers.com/
  6. https://www.pisano.co/en/blog/sean-ellis-test-figure-out-product-market-fit/
  7. https://pmarchive.com/guide_to_startups_part4.html
  8. https://foundr.com/product-market-fit-andy-rachleff-wealthfront/

Book review: The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo

“The Making of a Manager” is the first book by Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook. In “The Making of a Manager”, Julie shares her experiences and learnings with regard to her transition from being a personal contributor to becoming a manager. “This is a book about how someone with no formal training learned to become a confident manager” is the starting point for Julie’s book.

When she started her first role as a manager at Facebook, Julie had very little experience under her belt and she describes what she thought a manager’s job was:

  • have meetings with reports to help them solve their problems,
  • share feedback about what is or isn’t going well, and
  • figure out who should be promoted and who should be fired.

Without wanting to spoil the rest of “The Making of a Manager”, this is how Julie sees a manager’s job today:

  • build a team that works well together,
  • support members in reaching their career goals, and
  • create processes to get work done smoothly and efficiently.

Julie summarises that “Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.” She puts a great focus on outcomes and refers to her former manager Chris Cox, ex VP of Product at Facebook, who explained that half of what he as a manager looks at were his team’s results and the other half was based on the strength and satisfaction of his team.

I liked Julie’s inclusion of Richard J. Hackman’s research into what helps create successful teams (see Fig. 1 below). She uses a similar approach to managers creating the right conditions for their teams:

  • Purpose – The purpose is the outcome your team is trying to accomplish, otherwise known as the why. The first big part of your job as a manager, Julie writes, is to ensure that your team knows what success looks like and cares about achieving it.
  • People – This is all about the who. Are the members of your team set up to succeed? Do they have the right skills? Are they motivated to do great work? To manage people well, Julie explains, you must develop trusting relationships with them, understand their strengths and weaknesses (as well as your own – see below), make good decisions about who should do what (including hiring and firing when necessary), and coach individuals to do their best.
  • Process – This describes how your team works together. Julie clarifies that process in her mind isn’t about stacks of paperwork and frameworks for everything, but enabling teams to make decisions and work together effectively: “In a team setting, it’s impossible for a group of people to coordinate what needs to get done without spending time on it. The larger the team, the more time is needed.”

Staying on the topic of defining management, Julie provides a useful distinction between leadership and management. Manager is a specific role, with clear principles outlining what a manager does and how his success is measured. Leadership, on the other hand, is the particular skill of being able to guide and influence other people. Julie makes the point that a leader doesn’t have to be a manager; “Anyone can exhibit leadership, regardless of their role.”

In “The Making of a Manager”, Julie covers a lot of different facets of becoming and being a manager. From recounts her first couple of months as a manager to breaking down her views on strong management, Julie offers a ton of insights and tips for those of us who are managers or would like to take on this role. Let’s pick some aspects that resonated with me most:

  • Trust is the most important ingredient – It may sound obvious, but the importance of investing time and effort into creating / maintaining trusting relationships can get easily overlooked. Julie mentions that the hallmark of a trusting relationship is that people feel they can share their mistakes, challenges, and fears with you.
  • Giving and receiving critical feedback – Similar to Kim Scott and Amy Edmondson, Julie talks about how managers and their direct reports need to be able to give each other critical feedback regularly without it being taken personally. If your report does work that you don’t think is great, are you comfortable saying that directly? Similarly, would your report tell you if you if he thinks you’ve made a mistake?
  • Be honest and transparent about your report’s performance – As a manager, your perspective on how your report is doing carries far more weight than his perspective on how you’re doing. After all, you’re the one who determines what he works on and whether he should get a promotion or be fired.
  • Admit your own mistakes and growth areas – Julie shares how she tries to admit when she doesn’t have the answers or when she’s working through her own personal challenges, and shares a number of useful phrases that she’ll typically use when doing so (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Managing yourself – Here, Julie talks about the so-called imposter syndrome, i.e. where you doubt your accomplishments and worry being exposed as a “fraud”.  She raises the question why imposter syndrome hits managers particularly hard and gives two main reasons. Firstly, because managers are often looked to for answers. Secondly, managers are constantly put in the position where they’re put in the position if doing things they haven’t done before. She also talks about managers identifying their own strengths and weaknesses, and “being brutally honest with yourself”.
  • Amazing meetings – I liked Julie’s points about meetings, the bane of most managers’ lives. She distinguishes between decision-making meetings and informational meetings and explains how being clear about the meeting objective (and structuring the meeting accordingly) can lead to much more effective and enjoyable meetings (see Fig. 3 below).

Fig. 1 – Richard J. Hackman, Hackman’s 5 Factor Model:

Being a Real Team – One with clear boundaries and stable membership.

Compelling Direction – Provide the team with clear goals, which are both challenging and consequential.

Enabling Structure – Where possible, offering the team variety in the tasks they undertake improves the team’s success. Within the team’s structure it’s also key to ensure that team members have strong social skills.

Supportive Context – A supportive context is essential for companies and organisations, as they are made up of small groups which when combined form a larger group.

Expert Coaching – This is about coaching and mentoring the team to help achieve the outcomes they need to achieve and support team members developing their individual skills.

 

Fig. 2 – Julie Zhou, The Making of a Manager: Sample things to say when you don’t have the answer or are working through personal challenges:

  • “I don’t know the answer. What do you think?”
  • “I want to come clean and apologise for what I did/said the other day …”
  • “One of my personal growth areas this half is …”
  • “I’m afraid I don’t know enough to help you with that problem. Here’s someone you should talk to instead …”

 

Fig. 3 – Julie Zhou, The Making of a Manager: Decision-Making Meetings and Informational Meetings:

A great decision-making meeting does the following:

  • Gets a decision made (obviously)
  • Includes the people most directly affected by the decision as well as a clearly designated decision-maker.
  • Presents all credible options objectively and with relevant background information, and includes the team’s recommendation if there’s one.
  • Gives equal airtime to dissenting opinions and makes people feel that they were heard.

A great informational meeting does the following:

  • Enables the group to feel like they learned something valuable.
  • Conveys key messages clearly and memorably.
  • Keeps the audience’s attention (through dynamic speakers, rich storytelling, skilled pacing, interactivity).
  • Evokes and intended emotion – whether inspiration, trust, pride, courage, empathy, etc.

Main learning point: “The Making of a Manager” provides an honest, no bullsh*t account of what it means to be manager and how to best transition into a managerial role. Definitely worth a read if you’re manager or looking to become one.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.juliezhuo.com/
  2. https://medium.com/the-year-of-the-looking-glass
  3. https://hbr.org/2009/05/why-teams-dont-work
  4. https://marcabraham.com/2018/03/12/book-review-the-no-asshole-rule/
  5. http://www.free-management-ebooks.com/faqld/development-03.htm
  6. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/30/sallie-krawcheck-says-a-lack-of-diversity-leads-to-bad-decision-making.html
  7. https://marcabraham.com/2019/01/27/my-product-management-toolkit-35-effective-one-on-one-meetings/
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQUxL4Jm1Lo
  9. https://hbr.org/product/becoming-a-manager-how-new-managers-master-the-challenges-of-leadership/1822-PBK-ENG
  10. https://www.tmbc.com/
  11. https://strengthsprofile.com/