Michael Margolis: “user research, quick and dirty” (2)

I wrote earlier about Michael Margolis’ Startup Lab workshop, in which he teaches attendees about “User research, quick and dirty”.  Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures covers user research topics such as user interview types and getting to the right learnings. He also offer a number of practical tips with respect to recruiting users and how to best conduct user interviews:

Recruiting users

Margolis mentions that recruiting 5 people to get feedback from is often sufficient, especially when you’re doing usability testing. He does stress that it’s worth the effort recruiting these people selectively and carefully, as this will help generate better results and avoid wasting time. Creating a simple participant screener document or survey is a good way to recruit the ‘right’ users (see an example in Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Ethnio.io screen survey example – Taken from: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/live-intercept-remote-test/

Margolis lists a number of very helpful questions to feed into your screener document, in order to engage with the right users (and exclude those that aren’t right):

Users to include

  • Who do you want to want to talk to?
  • What exact criteria will identify the people you want to talk to?
  • What screening questions will you ask? (questions shouldn’t reveal “right” answers)

Users to exclude

  • Who do you want to want to exclude?
  • What exact criteria will identify the people you want to excliude?
  • What screening questions will you ask? (questions shouldn’t reveal “right” answers)

Conducting a user interview

Fig. 2 – Arc of a typical user interview, by Michael Margolis – Taken from: https://library.gv.com/the-gv-research-sprint-finalize-schedule-and-complete-interview-guide-day-3-b8cddb8f931d

The representation of the user interview in the form of an arc, I probably found the most helpful aspect that Margolis (see Fig. 2 above). This arc really helps in structuring an interview, identifying the appropriate sequence of activities during the interview.

Main learning point: User research doesn’t have to be complicated, super time consuming or overly expensive. A huge thanks to Michael Margolis for sharing such a wealth of very useful and practical user research insights!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.usertesting.com/blog/2015/01/29/screener-questions/
  2. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/live-intercept-remote-test/
  3. https://library.gv.com/the-gv-research-sprint-finalize-schedule-and-complete-interview-guide-day-3-b8cddb8f931d

Michael Margolis: “user research, quick and dirty” (1)

Why do I keep coming across businesses that struggle to engage with their (prospective) customers, to learn about their needs and behaviours? Too often for my liking, I hear comments like:

“Marc, we’re a startup, we don’t have the time and budget to do customer research!” 

“I’m not allowed to talk to customers.” 

“In my old place, we used to have a dedicated user research team and they’d just give me their research report on a platter, after them having spoken to users.”

It therefore felt quite timely when a colleague pointed me in the direction of Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures.  Back in 2013, Margolis delivered a great Startup Lab workshop in which he covered the ins and outs of “User research, quick and dirty”. The recording of the 90 minute workshop is available on YouTube and you can find Margolis’ slides here (see also Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Michael Margolis’ Startup Lab workshop: “User Research, Quick ‘n’ Dirty” – Published on 26 February 2013 on https://youtu.be/WpzmOH0hrEM

I watched Margolis’ workshop in full and these are my main takeaways:

Seeing through users’ eyes

Margolis started off his session by talking about the importance of continuously learning about users, seeing things through their eyes. In a subsequent Medium post, Margolis writes that in his experience, startups will typically use UX research to achieve one of these objectives:

  1. Improve a process or worklflow
  2. Better understand customer shopping habits
  3. Evaluate concepts
  4. Test usability
  5. Refine a value proposition

Two types of user interviews

It’s great to hear Margolis making a distinction between two types of interviews:

  • Usability: A usability interview is all about learning whether users can actually use your product and achieve their goals with it. Can users do it? Can they understand it? Can they discover features?
  • Discovery: Discovery type user interviews tend to be more contextual, and delve more into the actual user. Who? Where? When? Why? How? All key questions to explore as part of discovery, as well as the user’s existing behaviours, goals, needs and problems.

Margolis then talks about combining the two interview types and highlight two sample questions to illustrate this combination:

“How do you do things now?”

“How do you think about these things?”

The distinction between “usability” and “discovery” isn’t just an artificial one. I love Margolis’ focus on objectives, acknowledging that objectives are likely to vary depending on the type of product, its position within the product lifecycle and the learnings that you’re looking to achieve. I’ve found – at my own peril – that it’s easy to jump straight into defining user tasks or an interview script, without thinking about your research objective and what Margolis calls “North Star questions” (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 2 – Michael Margolis’ 5 studies startups needs most- Taken from:  https://library.gv.com/field-guide-to-ux-research-for-startups-8569114c27fb – Published on 5 May 2018 

Margolis provides some very useful pointers about discovery and usability questions, which you can use to create a research plan and an interview guide:

Sample discovery questions – as suggested by Michael Margolis:

  • What are users’ behaviours, attitudes and expectations towards the product?
  • Who are the key user groups? What are their needs and behaviours?
  • What are the pros/cons of different designs? Why?
  • What are the pros/cons of competitor products?
  • How are people using existing/competitor products? What features are mots important and why?
  • What barriers hinder users from adopting <product>?

Sample usability questions – as suggested by Michael Margolis:

  • Can users discover feature X?
  • Are users able to successfully complete primary tasks? Why (not)?
  • Do users understand feature X? Why (not)?

In a similar vein, I believe it’s important to distinguish between problem and solution interviews. There’s a risk of your customer insights becoming muddled when you mix problem and solution interviews, especially if you alternate problem questions with solution questions.

In a problem interview, you want to find out 3 things:

  • Problem – What problem are you solving? For example, what are the common frustrations felt by your customers and why? How do their problems rank? Ask your customers to create a top 3 of their problems (see the problem interview script in Fig. 1 below).
  • Existing alternatives – What existing alternatives are out there and how does your customer perceive your competition and their differentiators? How do your customers solve their problems today?
  • Customer segments – Who has these problems and why? Is this a viable customer segment?

Fig. 3 –  Outline of a problem interview script – Taken from: Ash Maurya – “Running Lean”

In a solution interview, you want to find out 3 things:

  • Early adopters – Who has this problem and why? How do we identify and engage with early adopters? (see Fig. 3 below)
  • Solution – How will you solve their problems? What features do you need to build as part of your solution, why?
  • Pricing/Revenue – What is the pricing model for your product or service? Will customers pay for it, why?

Fig. 4 – Outline of a solution interview script – Taken from: Ash Maurya – “Running Lean”

Main learning point: In his Startup Lab workshop, Michal Margolis, drops a lot of very valuable tips on how to best keep customer research quick and simple, whilst still learning the things about your customer and/or product that you’re keen to learn. So much so that Michael Margolis’ tips warrant another blog post, which I’ll share soon!

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://library.gv.com/field-guide-to-ux-research-for-startups-8569114c27fb
  2. https://library.gv.com/user-research-quick-and-dirty-1fcfa54c91c4
  3. https://www.slideshare.net/LauraKlein1/shut-the-hell-up-other-tips-for-learning-from-users
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpzmOH0hrEM
  5. https://library.gv.com/tagged/design
  6. https://medium.com/@maa1/book-review-just-enough-research-2d714d447eda
  7. https://medium.com/@maa1/my-product-management-toolkit-23-customer-empathy-a1e66ff15012

Why Square and Klarna are looking to become banks?

Just a short post this time, as I just wanted to share my excitement about the likes of Square and Klarna becoming banks (eventually). As an outsider looking in, I can see the rationale for companies like Square and Klarna, payments platforms, for becoming full blowing banking entities:

  1. Logical extension of the payments ecosystem – Given that Square and Klarna already process payment transactions for thousands of merchants and their customers, it means that they’ve got a strong foot in the door with small businesses. It therefore makes total sense to offer new products and services to both merchants and their customers.
  2. Data, data, data – I can imagine that with the amount of transactional data being processed, Square and Klarna no doubt have built up great customer and merchant data profiles, and are now looking to further monetise on this customer understanding. Offering lending products jumps out at me as a key reason for Square and Klarna wanting to become banks. This pattern fits well on the trend involving challenger banks like Monzo and Chime starting out with limited features, but gradually expanding into fully fledged bank accounts.
  3. Regulatory relationships – As Square and Klarna start offering more bank-like products and services, they’ll need to put robust regulatory compliance frameworks in place. Establishing regulatory relationships by becoming a bank helps with establishing these frameworks.
  4. Hook at point of sale – Being able to engage with both consumers and merchants at the point of sale feels like a pretty strong hook to me! Loved how backend payment platform Adyen recently got valued at $8.3 billion, and it shows you that the financial sector is way off from calming down.

Main learning point: Whilst there are concerns about small businesses being impacted negatively by the likes of Square becoming banks, I’m excited by the ongoing disruption of the financial sector. Recent applications for banking licenses by Square and Klarna are a sign that the Fintech startups and challengers are scaling. As long scaling doesn’t happen at the detriment of the customer – both consumers and merchants – this can only be a good thing!

 

 

 

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/18/square-stumbles-into-the-banking-business.html
  2. https://www.americanbanker.com/news/the-story-behind-squares-bank-charter-application
  3. https://techcrunch.com/2017/06/19/klarna-gets-a-full-banking-license-gears-up-to-go-beyond-financing-payments/
  4. https://www.pymnts.com/news/banking/2017/square-makes-its-big-move-on-banking/
  5. https://bankingblog.accenture.com/might-fintechs-become-banks
  6. https://techcrunch.com/2017/03/23/revolut-launches-a-premium-subscription-and-starts-raising-a-new-round/
  7. https://techcrunch.com/2018/05/31/no-fees-mobile-banking-service-chime-raises-70m-series-c-valuing-its-business-at-500m/
  8. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-05/it-took-a-1-billion-ipo-for-everyone-to-see-why-adyen-matters

Book review: “Radical Focus”

Christina Wodtke’s latest book, “Radical Focus”, is probably the most valuable ‘business’ book which I’ve read thus far this year. The full title of the book reads “Radical Focus – Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results” and Wodtke provides a great story – literally – as well as useful tips about the importance of goal setting. The book starts with a fable about a Silicon Valley startup, and offers a good narrative about how (not) to use of objectives and key results (‘OKRs’). This fable, which felt very close to the reality of being in startups – sets the scene for the practical tips that Wodtke offers with respect to using OKRs effectively, irrespective of whether you work in a startup or at Amazon.

 

 

What are some of the most common reasons why key things don’t happen? Wodtke offers a number of insights here:

  1. No prioritisation or stack ranking of goals – Everything is deemed important and critical things don’t get done as a result.
  2. No obsessive and comprehensive communication of the goal – Wodtke suggests that for key goals to be achieved, it’s important to reiterate the goal daily and having regular commitment meetings, where the team talks about the key goal and commit to specific activities directly related to the goal.
  3. There’s no plan to get things done – Often, companies will have lofty goals but no plan or process to actually achieve these goals. Wodtke introduces a number of useful ceremonies which teams can use to keep goals relevant and top of mind: commitment meetings, check ins and celebrations.
  4. No or insufficient time carved for what really matters – Love how Wodtke refers to the “Eisenhower Box” which helps identify and prioritise those things that must be done (see Fig. 1 below).
  5. A tendency to give up instead of iterating – Business often give up at the first attempt, canning a goal if it isn’t achieved (fully) first time around. Instead, Wodtke urges, try to avoid a lack of followthrough by iterating constantly.

Fig. 1 – The Eisenhower – Taken from: https://jamesclear.com/eisenhower-box/eisenhower-box-2

As the book title clearly suggests, Wodtke advocates the use of OKRs to achieve focus and making sure that key goals are being realised:

  • Objectives are bold and qualitative – Set a bold, inspirational and qualitative Objective each quarter. Wodtke provides examples of both good and poor Objectives (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Key Results are tangible and quantitative – Each Objective will have three quantitative Results that let you know when you’ve hit your Objective (see Fig. 3 below). Wodtke stresses that Key Results are “hard goals, the kind where you only have a 50/50 shot of achieving.” These ‘stretch goals’ are hard to achieve but not impossible, and you indicate for each Key Result how confident you are of achieving it.
  • OKRs and health metrics – In the book, Wodtke makes a helpful distinction between OKRs and health metrics. OKRs are “the thing you want to push, the one thing you want to make better.” I’d add an emphasis on the word “one” here as I find working with a single business Objective to be most effective. In my experience, having multiple business Objectives starts muddying the water in terms of focus and prioritisation. Instead, start with setting one Objective for the company. Secondly, set OKRs for each team that ty back to the company goal. Health metrics are the key things to continue to watch, these metrics are more concerned with ‘hygiene’.
  • Set OKRs together, pick Key Results as a team – Identifying and agreeing on Objectives and Key Results is a collaborative process. Clearly articulating and sharing the business Objective is a critical first step. The different teams can then set those Key Results which they believe will contribute to the business Objective.
  • Progress monitoring – I particularly liked the 4×4 matrix that Wodtke suggests as a way of monitoring progress with respect to achieving your business and associated team OKRs (see Fig. 4 below). This matrix is a very simple but effective way of committing to (weekly) priorities and capturing progress.
  • Setting a rhythm of execution – Wodtke introduces a number of weekly ceremonies which you can use to keep OKRs relevant and to ensure that you keep to them (see Fig. 5 below). The risk with goal setting is that it remains a one off exercise and I believe that having weekly ‘commitment’ and ‘win’ sessions will help massively keeping OKRs front of mind.

Main learning point: In “Radical Focus”, Christina Wodtke does a great job of explaining the role and value of OKRs. Not only does she provide valuable tips on how to best define OKRs, Wodtke also offers useful methods of keeping track of progress against OKRs. If you feel that you and your business are doing too much of everything, or not achieving anything, then Radical Focus is a must read!

Fig. 2 – Examples of good and poor Objectives – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, p. 110

Here are some good Objectives:

  • Own the direct-to-business coffee retail market in the South Bay.
  • Launch and awesome MVP.
  • Transform Palo Alto’s coupon using habits.
  • Close a round that lets us kill it next quarter.

and some poor Objectives:

  • Sales numbers up 30%.
  • Double users.
  • Raise a Series B of 5M.

Fig. 3 – Key Results – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, pp. 111 – 112

Key Results can be based on anything you can measure, including:

  • Growth
  • Engagement
  • Revenue
  • Performance
  • Quality

For example, if your Objective is to “Launch an Awesome MVP” you could have the following Key Results:

  • 40% of users come back 2X in one week
  • Recommendation score of 8
  • 15% conversion

Fig. 4 – Example of Christina Wodtke’s 4×4 OKR matrix – Taken from: https://medium.com/@cwodtke/one-objective-to-rule-them-all-1058e973bfc5

Fig. 5 – Setting a rhythm of execution – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, pp. 120 – 123

Monday Commitments

Each Monday, the team should meet to check in on progress against OKRs, and commit to the tasks that will help the company meet its Objective.

  • Intention for the week – What are the 3-4 most important things you must get done this week toward the Objective? Discuss if these priorities will get you closer to the OKRs.
  • Forecast for the month – What should your team know is coming up that they can help with or prepare for?
  • Status toward OKRs – If you set a confidence of five out of ten, has that moved up or down? Have a discussion about why.
  • Health metrics – Pick two things you want to protect as you strive toward greatness. What can you not afford to eff-up? Key relationships with customers? Code stability? Team well-being? Now mark when things start to go sideways, and discuss it.

Fig. 6 – OKR Fundamentals – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, pp. 109 – 112

Your Objective is a single sentence that is:

Qualitative and Inspirational

The objective is designed to get people jumping out of bed in the morning with excitement. And while CEOs and VCs may jump out of bed in the morning with joy over a 3% gain in conversion, most mere mortals get excited by a sense of meaning and progress. Use the language of your team.

Time Bound

For example, doable in a month, a quarter. You want it to be a clear sprint toward a goal. If it takes a year, your Objective maybe a strategy or even a mission.

Actionable by the Team Independently

This is less of a problem for startups, but bigger companies often struggle because of interdependence. Your Objective has to be truly yours, and you can’t have the excuse of “Marketing didn’t market it.”

An Objective is like a mission statement, only for a shorter period of time. A great objective inspires the team, is hard (but not impossible) to do in a set time frame, and can be done by the person or people who have set it, independently.

Fig. 7 – Quick tips on OKRS use – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, p. 153

  • Set only one OKR for the company, unless you have multiple business lines. It’s about focus.
  • Give yourself three months for an OKR. How bold is it if you can do it in a week?
  • Keep the metrics out of the Objective. The Objective is inspirational.
  • In the weekly check in, open with company OKR, then do groups. Don’t do every individual; that’s better in private 1:1s.
  • OKRs cascade; set company OKRs, then group’s/role’s, and then individual’s.
  • OKRs are not the only thing you do; they are the one thing you must do. Trust people to keep the ship running, and don’t jam every task into OKRs.
  • The Monday OKR check in is a conversation. Be sure to discuss change in confidence, health metrics and priorities.
  • Encourage employees to suggest company OKRs. OKRs are great bottom up, not just top down.
  • Make OKRs available publicly. Google has them on their intranet.
  • Friday celebrations is an antidote to Monday’s grim business. Keep it upbeat!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://eleganthack.com/the-art-of-the-okr/
  2. https://medium.com/@cwodtke/one-objective-to-rule-them-all-1058e973bfc5
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aW5gdRRn_U
  4. http://fortune.com/2018/05/21/john-doerr-measure-what-matters-okr/

What’s so special about SenseTime!?

Question: What do the following products have in common?

Product 1 — Smart glasses worn by Chinese police officers

https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/08/chinese-police-are-getting-smart-glasses/

These smart glasses connect to a feed which taps into China’s state database to detect out potential criminals using facial recognition. Officers can identify suspects in a crowd by snapping their photo and matching it to their internal database.

Product 2 — Wrong360, a peer-to-peer lending app

               https://technode.com/2013/06/24/rong360-online-financial-product-search-platform/

Wrong360 is a Chinese peer-to-peer lending app which aims to make obtaining a loan as simple as possible. When users of the Wrong360 app enter the amount of loan, period, and purpose, the platform will automatically do the match and output a list of banks or credit agencies corresponding to the users’ requests. On the list, users can find the institution names, products, interests rate, gross interests, monthly payment, and the available periods, etc. Applying for a loan can done fully online, and the app uses facial recognition as part of the loan application process.

Product 3 — Security camera

Security cameras in public places to help police officers and shopkeepers by improved ways of face matching. Traditionally, face matching is based on trait description of someone’s facial features and the special distance between these features. Now, by extracting the geometric descriptions of the parts of the eyes, nose, mouth, chin, etc. and the structural relationship between them, search matching is performed with the feature templates stored in the database. When the similarity exceeds the set threshold, the matching results are shared.

                                                         http://www.sohu.com/a/163629793_99963310

 

Product 4 — Oppo mobile phone

                                      https://www.notey.com/blogs/device-SLASH-accessories?page=4

 

Oppo specalise mobile photography and uses artificial technology to enable features such as portrait photo-taking, bi-camera photo-taking, and face grouping.

Question: What do the following products have in common?

Answer: They’re all powered by SenseTime artificial technology.

Whether it’s “SenseTotem” — which is being used for surveillance purposes — or “SensePhoto” — which uses facial recognition technology for messaging apps and mobile cameras — it all comes from the same company: SenseTime.

The company has made a lot of progress in a relatively short space of time with respect to artificial intelligence based (facial) recognition. The Chinese government has been investing heavily in creating an ecosystem for AI startups, with Megvii as another well known exponent of China’s AI drive.

A project with the code name “Viper” is the latest in the range of products that SenseTime is involved. I’m intrigued and slightly scared by this project which is said to focus on processing thousands of live camera feeds (from CCTV, to traffic cameras to ATM cameras), processing and tagging people and objects. SenseTime is rumoured to want to sell the Viper surveillance service internationally, but I can imagine that local regulations and data protection rules might prevent this kind of ‘big brother is watching you’ approach to be rolled out anytime soon.

Main learning point: It seems that SenseTime is very advanced with respect to facial recognition, using artificial intelligence to combine thousands of (live) data sources. You could argue that SenseTime isn’t the only company building this kind of technology, but their rapid growth and technological as well as financial firepower makes them a force to be reckoned with. That, in my mind, makes SenseTime very special indeed.

Related links for further learning:

  1. The billion-dollar, Alibaba-backed AI company that’s quietly watching everyone in China
    Most Chinese consumers have likely never heard of SenseTime. But depending on where they live, it might be looking at…qz.com
  2. This Chinese Facial Recognition Surveillance Company Is Now the World’s Most Valuable AI Startup
    SenseTime raised $600 million from Alibaba and others at a valuation of over $3 billion, becoming the world’s most…fortune.com
  3. China Now Has the Most Valuable AI Startup in the World
    has raised $600 million from and other investors at a valuation of more than $3 billion, becoming the world’s most…www.bloomberg.com
  4. China’s SenseTime, the world’s highest valued AI startup, raises $600M
    The future of artificial intelligence (AI), the technology that is seen as potentially impacting almost every industry…techcrunch.com
  5. Chinese police are using smart glasses to identify potential suspects
    China already operates the world’s largest surveillance state with some 170 million CCTV cameras at work, but its line…techcrunch.com
  6. Facial Recognition in China with SenseTime – Nanalyze
    If you’ve spent any meaningful amount of time in a managerial role, you probably understand the importance of having a…www.nanalyze.com
  7. Rong360: Online Financial Product Search Platform · TechNode
    Launched in 2011, Rong360 operates an online financial product search platform providing loan recommendations for small…technode.com
  8. OPPO and SenseTime Jointly Build an AR Developer Platform
    OPPO and SenseTime Jointly Build an AR Developer Platform (Yicai Global) March 19 — Chinese handset maker Guangdong…www.yicaiglobal.com
  9. About Us – OPPO Global
    OPPO is a global electronics and technology service provider that delivers the latest and most exquisite mobile…www.oppo.com
  10. Megvii, Chinese facial recognition startup with access to government database, raises $460 million
    Megvii Inc., a facial recognition development startup also known as Face++, raised about $460 million from the…www.fastcompany.com

Book review: “Inspired: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love”

About four years ago I read and reviewed Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan, who I regard almost as the ‘founder’ of modern tech product management – along with Steve Jobs of course 🙂 Cagan has now released a second edition of “Inspired” in which he captures two aspects he’s uncovered since writing the first edition.

The first aspect is a critical need to focus on the specific job of the product manager, aiming to clarify which elements constitute the role of a product manager in a tech company. The second aspect is the importance of creating the right product culture for success, and understanding the range of product discovery and delivery techniques available to solve customer and business problems.

Whilst the book contains a wealth of valuable content about product management and how to create great products; in this review I’ll primarily focus on Cagan’s recommendations with respect to product discovery and delivery. Before I do that, it’s important to first look at Cagan’s take on the “root causes of failed product efforts” (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – “Root Causes of Failed Product Efforts” by Marty Cagan  – Taken from: https://www.mihneadb.net/notes-on-craft-conf-2015/

Cagan sees a very sequential, “Waterfall” type approach as the underlying reason why many products fail. This approaches comes down to companies using a ‘feature heavy’ and preplanned roadmaps, as well as and using regular planning sessions to negotiate and prioritise the roadmap. Cagan shares some home truths to explain why this approach is now obsolete (Fig. 2).

 

Fig. 2 – 10 problems that companies using a Waterfall type approach suffer – Adapted from: Marty Cagan, Inspired: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love, pp. 17-21

  1. Stakeholder-driven products: It’s a top down approach which leads to stakeholder-driven products and teams that don’t feel empowered
  2. Business cases are mostly fictitious: I couldn’t agree more with Cagan when he argues that the two main business case inputs – how much money we’ll make and how much it will cost – are complete unknowns. We can’t know how much money we’ll make because that depends entirely on how good the solution turns out to be. In contrast, a lot of products end up making no money whatsoever! One of the most critical lessons in product, Cagan explains, is “knowing what we can’t know.”
  3. Product roadmaps –  There are two problems with traditional, feature led product roadmaps. Firstly, the reality is that half of our product ideas are simply not going to work. I always cringe when I see product roadmaps that contain detailed features prioritised prioritised for an entire year … In my experience, until you start discovering, implementing and launching product ideas, you’re not going to know whether your product is actually going to work. Secondly, even when ideas do prove to have potential they’re likely to need several iterations to reach the point where they deliver tangible business value. Cagan introduces the term “time to money” to refer this evolutionary process.
  4. It’s not about gathering requirements for engineers to implement – I recently came across an organisation where they employed an entire team of project managers and business analysts whose main job it was to gather stakeholder requirements, and document them for designers and engineers to implement. Cagan rightly makes the point that “this is 180 degrees away from the reality of modern tech product management.”
  5. UX designers are getting involved way too late – Don’t involve designers only once the requirements have been gathered, it’s simply too late as the designer won’t be able to add much value add this stage.
  6. Engineers are getting involved way too late – If you’re just using your engineers to code, you’re only getting about half their value. I love the ‘little secret’ that Cagan shares with us: “engineers are typically the best single source of innovation.” He’s totally right!
  7. Agile for delivery only – Cagan talks about “Agile for delivery”, whereby product development teams work in an Agile fashion, but the rest of the organisation isn’t.
  8. Project-centric processes – The company usually funds projects, pushes projects through the organisation, and finally launches projects. Unfortunately, projects are output and product is all about outcome. I’d add that most projects are one-off pieces of works whereas products have a continuous lifecycle, until the product is being discontinued.
  9. Customer validation happens way too late – Cagan points out the biggest shortcoming of the old waterfall process, which is that all the risk is concentrated right at the end and that customer validation happens way too late. Instead, customer validation or discovery should be continuous and needs to happen early and often.

 

Cagan offers three overarching principles which help overcome the aforementioned root causes of failed product efforts:

  1. Risks are tackled upfront, instead of at the end
  2. Products are defined and designed collaboratively, rather than sequentially
  3. Finally, it’s all about solving problems, not implementing features

“Continuous Discovery and Delivery” is a great way to translate these three principles into a process and mindset for people to adhere too (Fig. 3). You can see how Cagan has taken the eight steps involved in the traditional waterfall approach (Fig. 1) and condensed them into to three, continuous stages: Objectives – Discovery – Delivery (Fig. 3).

 

Fig. 3 – Continuous Discovery and Delivery – Taken from: Marty Cagan, Process vs Model, https://svpg.com/process-vs-model/, 7 August 2017

 

Ultimately, this process enables you to to get answers to four critical questions:

  1. Will the user buy this (or choose to use this)?
  2. Can the user figure out how to use this?
  3. Can our engineer build this?
  4. Can our stakeholders support this?

Apart from these four critical questions, I like the emphasis Cagan puts on business context over a traditional product roadmap. In the book, Cagan covers two main components that provide this business context:

  1. The product vision and strategy
  2. The business objectives

The “risk” aspect feels like a crucial one to me, and thinking about ways to identify and mitigate risks early and often. For example, I’ve found the pre-mortem technique to be a great  way to unearth key risks right at the outset. Cagan describes some common risks to consider:

  • Financial risk – Can we afford this solution?
  • Business development risk – Does this solution work for our partners?
  • Marketing risk – Is this solution consistent with our brand?
  • Sales risk – Is this solution something our sales staff is equipped to sell?
  • Legal risk – Is this something we can do from a legal or compliance perspective?
  • Ethical risk – Is this solution something we should do?

Cagan then goes on to describe three of his favourite discovery framing techniques:

1. Opportunity Assessment

The idea is to answer four key questions about the discovery work you’re about to undertake:

  1. Objective – What business objective is this work intended to address?
  2. Key results – How will you know if you’ve succeeded?
  3. Customer problem – What problem will this solve for our customers?
  4. Target market – What type of customer are we focused on?

2. Customer Letter

Cagan refers to Amazon and their working backward process, where you start the product effort with a fictitious press release.

3. Startup Canvas

The “Startup Canvas” is particularly useful when you work at an early stage startup and are staring from scratch, both with the business and your product or service. There are lots of these canvases around for you to have a closer look at; I’d suggest having a look at the Business Model Canvas (by Alex Osterwalder) and the Lean Canvas (by Ash Maurya; Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 – Ash Maurya’s “Lean Canvas” – Taken from Ash Maurya, “Running Lean”: 

Cagan explains how you can use a canvas for any product change, no matter the size, but you would likely quickly find a risk of duplication once you’ve got an existing business and product. I agree that the law of diminishing returns kicks in once you’ve already established your business and products, since you’ll have already figured out things like your cost structure or distribution strategy.

Finally, Cagan explains about “testing value” as a key thing to consider when planning your customer discovery. The main thing here, Cagan stresses, is to learn whether customers perceive your product to be substantially better than the competition. So many companies and product teams think all they need to do is match the features of the competitive alternatives. This idea of “feature parity” being enough to woo customers has proven to be a false one. The reality is that for customers to switch from an existing product, they need to  perceive the new product as a much better alternative.

For example, sometimes it’s not clear whether customer want what it is that we’re going to build and it can be very risky to simply think “we’ll build it and customers will come.” In the book, Cagan talks about how you can quickly and cheaply test whether there’s demand for instance through launching just a landing page. On the landing page, we describe the new offering exactly as we would if we were really launching the service. The difference is that if the user clicks the call to action, rather than getting the expected outcome, the users sees a message that explains that you’re thinking of launching the new service and that you’d love to get initial input from the user. It all falls under the mantra “Do Things that Don’t Scale”, first introduced by Y Combinator Founder Paul Graham. A good example is this one from Buffer:

Fig. 5 – Buffer example of a ‘smoke and mirrors’ landing page – Taken from: Christopher Bank, 15 ways to test your minimum viable product, https://thenextweb.com/dd/2014/11/12/15-ways-test-minimum-viable-product/, 12 November 2014

Main learning point: Marty Cagan has written a great followup to his first edition of “Inspired”. In this edition, he offers valuable tips and examples in relation to important themes as product discovery and delivery. Whether you’re new to product management or have got some good product management experience under your belt, “Inspired: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love” is a great and valuable read.

App review: StatusToday

Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) has rapidly become yet another buzzword in the tech space and I’m therefore always on the lookout for AI based applications which add actual customer value. StatusToday could that kind of app:

My quick summary of StatusToday before using it – I think Status Today provides software to help manage teams of employees, I suspect this product is geared towards HR people.

How does StatusToday explain itself in the first minute – “Understand your employees” is the strapline that catches my eye. Whilst not being entirely clear on the tangible benefits Status Today delivers on, I do get that it offers employee data. I presume that customers will have access to a data portal and can generate reports.

What does StatusToday do (1)? – StatusToday analyses human behaviour and generates a digital fingerprint for individual employees. The company originally started out with a sole focus on using AI for cyber security, applying designated algorithms to analyse internal online comms, detecting behavioural patterns in comms activity and quickly spotting any abnormal activity or negligence. For example, ‘abnormal file exploration’ and ‘access from unusual locations’ are two behaviours that StatusToday will be tracking for its clients.

What does StatusToday do (2)? -StatusToday has since started offering more generic employee insights services. By plugging into a various online tools companies may use, Google and Microsoft for example, StatusToday will start collecting employee activity data. This will help companies in getting better visibility of employee behaviour as well as making the processes around data access and usage more efficient.

It makes me wonder to what extent there’s a “big brother is watching you element” to StatusToday’s products and services. For example, will the data accessible through StatusToday’s “Live Dashboard” (eventually) make it easier for companies to punish employees if they’re spending too much time on Facebook!?

Main learning point: I can see how StatusToday takes the (manual) pain out of monitoring suspicious online activity and helps companies to preempt data breaches and other ‘anomalies’.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/20/statustoday/
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhIkx8ZvA-Q
  3. https://techcrunch.com/2015/09/09/ef4/
  4. https://blog.statustoday.com/1nature-is-not-your-friend-but-ai-is-d94aaa13fd2e
  5. https://blog.statustoday.com/1your-small-business-could-be-in-big-trouble-7a34574ab42c