App review: ipagoo

“Accounts designed for the 21st century” is the main strapline of ipagoo, a Fintech startup that offers multi-country and cross-currency accounts. I was intrigued by this concept and decided to download ipagoo’s new iOS app and write a quick review:

My quick summary of ipagoo (before using it) – I expect ipagoo to offer services similar to the World Account that World First, the company I work for, launched a few months ago. The World Account makes it easy for customers to open accounts in specific local currencies, making it easy to receive and pay out in difference currencies.

How does the app explain itself in the first minute? – When I open ipagoo’s iOS app, the first screen is a login one. I’m somewhat thrown by this as I don’t have an ipagoo account and the calls to action aren’t as clear as they could have been.

After finding and tapping on “new to ipagoo?” I land on a screen which explains the different services that ipagoo offers:

  • Accounts – Open and manage multiple accounts in different countries from your smartphone.
  • Payments – Keep payments under control and manage counter parties from the app.
  • Money Transfer – Move money between accounts instantly.
  • Currency Exchange – Switch funds between currencies in real time.

Despite looking a bit clunky, the app does a good job in letting its users know at the start of the onboarding process about the documents required for a successful registration. There’s a clear explanation as to how take a geotagged selfie, and that users need to make sure their phones are enabled for geolocation (complete with short videos for both Android and iOS users). The two-factor authentication process ipagoo applies feels relatively straightforward and seamless; I validate my email address on my desktop, after which a “complete my credentials” screen appears on my mobile app.

However, I’m slightly daunted by the 6-step registration process and the proofs of my ID that I need to upload. The look and feel of the form isn’t compelling, and fields like “previous name(s)” make me wonder why these are necessary in the first place. I do upload my passport, but give up on the registration process when asked for a recent proof of address, a picture of myself with my ID and detailed info about my financial status. I realise that I simply don’t know enough about ipagoo and the benefits of using its services, so I decide to explore things further before deciding whether or not sign up.

 

Perceived benefits of ipagoo – I understand that ipagoo uses traditional banking services to provide its users with a single portal to all their bank accounts, standing orders, debit cards, etc. The ease of accessing multiple accounts and data through a single app should make life a lot easier for customers. Currently, people like me – with accounts and debit cards in different countries – are currently constrained in account access, and having to have multiple logins.

Points of differentiation (existing and future) – Whilst I believe the frictionless aspect of ipagoo will soon become a ‘hygiene factor’ (given that the likes of Curve and Varo Money offer a similarly seamless experience) in future, I expect ipagoo become more of a ‘financial hub’ for customers, using APIs and the opportunities that PSD2 offer. I wouldn’t be surprised if ipagoo do more to address cross-border payments, as well as traditional standing orders, bank transfers, etc. I was therefore pleased to see that some of these aspects are represented on ipagoo’s roadmap. What I didn’t see on ipagoo’s roadmap was predictive analytics and recommendations, being able to understand customer profiles and recommend other financial products accordingly.

Main learning point: I really like ipagoo’s proposition and see plenty opportunities for ipagoo to make the (financial) life of their customers easier. However, I do believe there’s a need to improve the onboarding and user experience of the app, before integrating new services. As it stands, there’s scope to simplify the app experience, making ipagoo a truly ‘sticky’ proposition for its customers.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.ipagoo.com/services
  2. https://moven.com/solutions/
  3. https://about.holvi.com/
  4. http://www.bankingtech.com/277222/new-entrant-ipagoo-targets-businesses-with-pan-european-current-account/
  5. https://marcabraham.com/2017/05/22/how-psd2-is-set-to-change-banking-up-as-we-know-it/
  6. https://ibsintelligence.com/ipagoo-brings-borderless-banking-app-uk/
  7. http://www.thebanker.com/Techvision/Ipagoo-joins-the-EU-dots-to-beat-the-regulators

Book review: “Radical Candor”

In my experience, as you further your career, you’re likely to lead other people in some capacity or another. Whether you’re managing people or simply interacting with them, giving and receiving feedback can often be tricky.  I believe that being able to both share and receive feedback is a true skill that only few people have truly mastered. I for one, feel that I still have a lot to learn about how to best give constructive feedback, especially since I’d rather not use the age old “sh*t sandwich” since I don’t believe in dressing up negative feedback, and most people tend to see through the sh*t sandwich anyway.

Fig. 1 – The “Sh*t Sandwich” by Lighthouse – Taken from: https://getlighthouse.com/blog/give-feedback-team-sh-t-sandwich/

This prompted me to read “Radical Candor”, a book published earlier this year by Kim Scott. The main premise of “Radical Candor” is that you don’t need to cuss or shout or act rude to be a great boss. In contrast, the book encourages leaders to create relationships based on trust with the people that you work with.

These are the main things that I learned from reading “Radical Candor”:

  1. What do bosses do? – I really like Kim Scott’s definition of a boss’ responsibility: “bosses guide a team to achieve results.” Bosses are ultimately responsible for achieving results. Rather than doing all the work themselves, bosses rely on other people to achieve results, and will guide them accordingly. Scott goes on to unpick the aforementioned definition further, which I found very valuable (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Trusting relationships are the key – For me, Scott’s point about the importance of building and maintaining “trusting relationships” is probably the crux of the book. Once a relationship of trust has been established, it becomes so much easier to practise “radical candor” on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there’s no set formula for developing trust. Scott, however, has identified two dimensions that help people move in the right direction: “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly”.
  3. Care Personally – I was really pleased to read about Scott slashing the idea of people having two radically different personas – with people’s work persona being radically different to their private persona. Scott makes the point that you need to be your whole self to have a good personal relationship. She also talks about genuinely caring for the people who work for you as a critical prerequisite for a strong relationship. Unfortunately, I too often come across managers who regard the people that work for them as “resources” and treat them accordingly. Getting people to think more deeply about the “Care Personally” part of the trust relationship equation should help in stopping employees being referred to and treated as “resources.”
  4. Challenge Directly – “Challenge Directly” involves telling people that their work isn’t good enough. I personally have often found this the hardest part to do, as I’ve found there to be a fine line between challenging directly and (passive) aggression. Scott argues that challenging people “is often the best way to show them that you care when you’re the boss.” As counterintuitive as it may sound; challenging people directly can be a great way to establish a relationship. Challenging people, in a clear but constructive way, is often appreciated – despite it feeling hard initially (for both the poser and the receiver of the challenge). It shows (1) you care enough to point out both the things that are going well and the things that aren’t and (2) that you’re willing to admit when you’re wrong and that you’re committed to fixing mistakes that you or others have made. At the end of the day, it’s all about fixing a problem in my opinion.
  5. “Operationalising” good guidance – The book introduces a helpful matrix, which has four quadrants to consider in light of how to best care personally and challenge directly: “Ruinous Empathy”; “Manipulative Insincerity”; “Obnoxious Aggression” and – the desired one – “Radical Candor” (see Fig. 4 below). Scott stresses that each quadrant refers to guidance, not to personality traits. These quadrants are not used to label people, but to learn about the types of guidance we are or should be providing to the people we interact with. Having reflected on each of these quadrants, I found them to be very useful and ‘true’ (see Fig. 5 below).
  6. How to criticise without discouraging? – Scott mentions a number of useful tips on how to criticise people without discouraging the person. Also, it’s important to ask for criticism before giving it. As hard as it can sometimes feel, it’s important to actively and continuously ask for feedback, as a way of building a two-way relationship (see point 4. above). Scott provides some pointers to make it easier to ask for guidance, particularly from people that report into you (see Fig. 6 below). Secondly, be humble and helpful, offer guidance in person and immediately, criticise in private, and don’t personalise. Thirdly, make it clear that the problem isn’t due to some inflexible personality flaw, and share stories when you’ve been criticised for something similar.

Main learning point: Being radically candid doesn’t mean that you can just be rude and upset people. Instead, “Radical Candor” does a great job of offering readers with lost of valuable tips about how to care personally and challenge directly.

Fig. 2 – Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous comment about sometimes having to piss people off – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/389983648959114509/ 

 

Fig. 3 – Unpicking the responsibilities that come with being a boss – Adapted from: Kim Scott. Radical Candor. pp 6 -7

  1. Guidance: Guidance is often called “feedback”. People dread feedback – both the praise, which can feel patronising, and especially the criticism. However, in order to solve problems or make the most of opportunities, people do need to solicit guidance from others, and encourage it between them.
  2. Team-building: Building a cohesive team means figuring out the right people for the right roles: hiring, firing, promoting. Once you’ve got your team in place, the focus should be on engaging with your team (without micro-managing) and keep people motivated.
  3. Results: Ultimately, it’s all about achieving results. As a boss it’s your responsibility to guide your team towards achieving key results.

Fig. 4 – Radical Candor’s “Care Personally Change Directly” matrix – Taken from: https://www.radicalcandor.com/about-radical-candor/

Fig. 5 – Examples of the four quadrants of Radical Candor’s “Care Personally Change Directly” matrix – Adapted from: Kim Scott, Radical Candor, pp. 22-42

Radical Candor:

“I admire that about that you” is a great example of radical candid praise. It’s relatively easy to say “thank you” or “you’re awesome”, but it can be much harder to really think about the praise you want to give, personalise and contextualise it. For example, “I think the mentoring that you do is really impressive, I admire the way in which you take your own learnings and share them with people who are the stage that you were at a few year ago.”

Coming up with criticism when you’re being successful is probably a great time to apply radical candid criticism. I recently spoke to a senior executive whose company had just gone through a difficult patch, probably for the first time in its existence. “We’ve had it easy for so long” he explained to me. This comment made me wonder whether he and his colleagues would have benefited from a healthy dose of radically candid criticism whilst they were still winning. For example, “we just achieved over $10 million in revenue, and it has been a record year, but I think it’s important that we look at how to reduce our operational margins in the coming year so that this growth can become more sustainable.”

Obnoxious Agression:

A word of warning: “Radical Candor” isn’t about offering bosses a blank cheque to be rude or aggressive and act like a jerk. This is a lesson that I’ve been trying to take to heart, as I’ve experienced that there’s often a very thin line between being assertive and aggressive. Whilst I believe in directness over sugarcoating things , I’ve learned that 100% directness doesn’t work for everyone and can easily be perceived as aggressiveness. Scott’s point about the debilitating nature of Obnoxious Aggression therefore really resonated with me.

Manipulative Insincerity:

Manipulatively insincere guidance happens when you don’t care enough about a person to challenge directly. People give praise and criticism that’s manipulatively insincere when they are too focused on being liked or think they can gain some sort of political advantage by being fake – or when they’re just to tired to care or argue anymore. When you challenge directly, as Scott explains, you truly care about the people that you challenge; “let go of vanity and care personally.” The flip side happens when you don’t care and end up simply wasting your and everybody else’s time by trying to fake it.

Ruinous Empathy:

Scott claims that most people want to avoid creating tension or discomfort at work. Purely based on personal experience, I think Scott’s right; over the years, I’ve seen quite a few managers who actively try to make everyone happy. Whilst this is a laudable intention, I believe it hardly ever works like that. My personal mantra is that healthy tension doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it can actually help people grow and make teams more effective. You can’t be friends with all your colleagues nor can you make people happy all the time. Scott’s points about Ruinous Empathy made me think about how to best solicit feedback from team members, and ask for criticism. Scott urges all bosses to “start by asking for criticism, not by giving it!”

Fig. 6 – Soliciting impromptu guidance – Adapted from: Kim Scott, Radical Candor, pp. 130-136

  • Have a go-to question: In order to make it easier and less awkward to ask your direct reports for performance feedback or guidance, Scott suggest using a go-to question. She learned this technique from Fred Kofman, who used to be her coach at Google and is the author of “Conscious Business”. “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would it make it easier to work with me?” This is just a sample to go-to question, the key goal here is to get the conversation going and to remove any feelings of awkwardness.
  • Embrace the discomfort: In case your go-to question fails to have the desired effect, and the other person answers that everything is fine or struggles to come up with something, remain quiet. It can be tempting to say “We’ll that’s great then” (or something along those lines) but that’s not going to help anyone in my opinion. Leaving some silence or suggesting to rearrange can help in getting your direct reports over their – understandable – hurdle.
  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond: If you’re anything like me, i.e. not super comfortable with asking people for feedback, your initial response might well be to act defensively and respond to the criticism. Scott urges us not to do that; don’t start criticising the criticism! Instead, she suggests saying something like “So what I hear you saying is …”
  • Reward criticism to get more of it: If you did get feedback, the next important thing is to follow up and show that you really welcomed the feedback. If you agree with what was said, you should make a change as soon as possible. If the necessary change will take time, do something visible to show you’re trying.
  • Gauge the guidance you get: I love Scott’s suggestion to try and keep a tally of the number of times people reporting to you have criticised you. Equally, measure how often they praise you. Scott mentions, that you should be weary it it’s all praise and no criticism! It means that you’ll have to work harder to get people to criticise you.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.radicalcandor.com/about-radical-candor/
  2. http://codingwithempathy.com/2016/08/23/examples-of-radical-candor/
  3. https://www.radicalcandor.com/blog/radical-candor-not-brutal-honesty/

App review: Receipt Bank

It isn’t often that one of the apps that I use on a regular basis attracts a large round of funding but it happened recently with Receipt Bank, a London based started which “makes your bookkeeping, faster, easier and more efficient.” Last month, Receipt Bank received a Series B investment worth $50 million from New York based Insight Venture Partners.

Receipt Bank, which started in 2010, targets accountants, bookkeepers and small businesses. It offers them an online platform through which users can submit their invoices, receipts, and bills by taking a picture and uploading it through Receipt Bank’s mobile app (see Fig. 1), desktop app (see Fig. 2), or an email submission. Receipt Bank’s system then automatically extracts relevant data, sorts and categorises it. Apart from viewing your processed expenses online, Receipt Bank also publishes everything to the user’s accounting software of choice, FreshBooks or Xero for example.

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Receipt Bank iOS app

 

 

Fig. 2 – The entry in Receipt Bank for one of my receipts

Given that I’ve been using Receipt Bank for a while now; instead of just reviewing existing functionality, I’ve also had a think about how I’d use a $50m war chest to further build out the Receipt Bank product:

  1. Faster! Faster! Faster! – When I started using Receipt Bank last year, I emailed the customer support team enquiring about the wait between submitting a picture of a receipt and it being “ready for export”. I got a friendly reply explaining that “we ask for a maximum of 24 hours to process items, but we are usually much faster than that.” The customer support adviser also explained that “the turnaround time also depends on the number of items waiting to be processed by the software and also their quality.” I’m sure Receipt Bank uses some form of machine-learning, algorithms to automatically interpret and categorise the key data fields from the picture of a receipt. As the field of Artificial Intelligence continues to evolve, I expect Receipt Bank to be able to – eventually – process receipts and invoices within seconds, with no need for the user to add or edit any info processed. Because I envisage machine learning to be the core driver of Receipt Bank’s proposition, I suggest spending at least half of its latest investment on AI technology and engineers specialised in machine learning.
  2. Not just tracking my bills and invoices – Yes, everybody is jumping on the chatbot wagon (and some of the results are frankly laughable). However, I do believe that if Receipt Bank can learn a sufficient amount about its customers and their spending and accounting behaviours, it will be able to provide them with tailored advice and predictions. For example, if I pay my supplier in China a fixed amount per month to keep my stock up, I’d like to ask Receipt Bank’s future “Expense Assistant” how my supplier payments will be affected if there’s massive volatility in the exchange rate between the British Pound and the Chinese Yuan. Similarly, when I look at most of today’s finance departments, the people in these teams seem to spend on matching the right payments received to the relevant invoice(s) sent out. I realise that the machine learning around multiple invoices wrapped into a single payment is easier said than done, but I don’t think it will be impossible and the $25m investment into AI (see point 1. above) should help massively.
  3. What if the days of paper bills are numbered!? – Now that I’ve effectively spent $25m on AI technology, I’ve got $25m left. The first thing I’d do with this remaining money is to prepare for scenarios where invoices or receipts are no longer issued on paper but provided orally. At the moment, capability like Alexa Expense Tracker is mostly used for personal expenses, but I do envisage a future where people use Alexa or Siri to add and track their expenses. Given that voice technology is still very much in its infancy, I suggest restricting Receipt Bank’s investment into this area to a no more than $1m.
  4. Integrate more (and please don’t forget about Asia) – If I were Receipt Bank I’d probably use about $10m of the remaining fund to enter new geographies and integrate with additional systems. For example, I like how Sage’s Pegg hooks into any expenses you record on your mobile, whether it’s via Slack, Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, etc. I don’t know whether Receipt Bank is looking to enter the Asian market, but I feel there’s great opportunity to integrate with messenger apps like WeChat and Hike, without spending more than $2m on development and marketing. Also, integrating with payment processors, like Finsync did recently with Worldpay, is an integration avenue worth considering! 
  5. But don’t forget about the current product! – I feel Receipt bank would be remiss if it were to forget about improving its current platform, both in terms of functionality and user experience. For example, I can’t judge how well Receipt Bank does in retaining its customers, but I feel there are a number of ways in which it can make the existing product ‘work harder’ (see Fig. 3 below). In my experience, some of my proposed improvements and features shouldn’t break the bank. By spending about $1m on continuous improvements over a number of years, Receipt Bank should have at least $20m left in the bank, as a buffer for difficult times and any new opportunities that might arise during the product lifecycle.

Fig. 3 – Suggestions to make Receipt Bank’s existing product work harder:

  1. Some touches of gamification – I’d argue that the longevity of the relationship between Receipt Bank and an individual user is determined by how often the users uploads bills onto the platform. I assume that most users will most probably not view managing their expenses as fun, I think it would be good to look at ways to make the experience more fun. For example, I could get a gold star from my accountant once I’ve successfully synced my month’s expenses into my accounting system. I feel that there’s plenty of room to reinforce the current gamification elements that Receipt Bank uses. For example, the message that Receipt Bank managed to save 27 minutes of my time doesn’t really do it for me (see Fig. 4 below). Instead, the focus could be on the productivity gain that I’ve made for billable work (if I’m a freelancer for example).
  2. Better progress and status updates – Even if it does continue to take up to 24 hours. to categorise and process my expenses, it would be great if Receipt Bank could make its “in progress” status more intuitive and informative.
  3. Clearer and stronger calls to action – For example, I can see that I’m not making the best use of my Receipt Bank subscription (see Fig. 5 below). However, there are no suggestions on specific actions I can take to get more value from my Receipt Bank plan.

Fig. 4 – Screenshot my Receipt Bank usage

Fig. 5 – Screenshot of my Receipt Bank “Usage summary”

Main learning point: Having thought about Receipt Bank’s current product offering, and my understanding of their target market, I suggest investing a good chunk of the recent investment into optimising the machine learning algorithms in such a way that both processing speed and accuracy are significantly increased. By doing this, the customer profile and behavioural data generated, will create additional opportunities to further retain customers and offer adjacent products and services.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://uk.businessinsider.com/receipt-bank-raises-50-million-from-insight-venture-partners-2017-7
  2. https://venturebeat.com/2017/07/20/receipt-bank-raises-50-million-insight-venture-partners/
  3. https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/receipt-bank-business-expense-scanner-tracker/id418327708?mt=8
  4. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.receiptbank.android&hl=en_GB 
  5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2017/07/07/machine-learning-artificial-intelligence-and-the-future-of-accounting/#49bb42ac2dd1
  6. https://hellopegg.io/
  7. http://uk.pcmag.com/cloud-services/87846/feature/23-must-have-alexa-skills-for-your-small-business
  8. https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/tech/accounting-software/case-study-receipt-banks-rapid-growth
  9. https://www.finextra.com/pressarticle/70263/finsync-connects-with-worldpay-us
  10. http://www.bankingtech.com/520502/symitars-episys-core-system-integrated-with-amazon-echo-baxter-cu-an-early-taker/

Book review: “Just Enough Research”

Back in 2013, Erika Hall, co-founder of Mule Design, wrote “Just Enough Research”. In this book, Hall explains why good customer research is so important. She outlines what makes research effective and provides practical tips on how to best conduct research. Reading “Just Enough Research” reminded me of reading “Rocket surgery made easy” by Steve Krug and “Undercover UX” by Cennydd Bowles, since all three books do a good job at both explaining and demystifying what it takes to do customer research.

These are the main things that I learned from reading “Just Enough Research”:

  1. What is research? – Right off the bat, Hall makes the point that in order to innovate, it’s important for you to know about the current state of things and why they’re like that. Research is systematic inquiry; you want to know more about a particular topic, so you go through a process to increase your knowledge. The specific type of process depends on who you are and what you need to know. This is illustrated through a nice definition of design research by Jane Fulton Suri, partner at design consultancy IDEO (see Fig. 1).
  2. Research is not asking people what they like! – I’m fully aware of how obvious this statement probably sounds. However, customer researcher is NOT about asking about what people do or don’t like. You might sometimes hear people ask users whether they like a particular product or feature; that isn’t what customer research is about. Instead, the focus is on exploring problem areas or new ideas, or simply testing how usable your product is.
  3. Generative or exploratory research – This is the research you do to identify the problem to solve and explore ideas. As Hall explains “this is the research you do before you even know what you’re doing.” Once you’ve gathered information, you then analyse your learnings and identify the most commonly voiced (or observed) unmet customer needs. This will in turn result in a problem statement or hypothesis to concentrate on.
  4. Descriptive and explanatory research – Descriptive research is about understanding the context of the problem that you’re looking to solve and how to best solve it. By this stage, you’ll have moved from “What’s a good problem to solve” to “What’s the best way to solve the problem I’ve identified?”
  5. Evaluative research – Usability testing is the most common form of evaluative research. With this research you test that your solution is working as expected and is solving the problem you’ve identified.
  6. Casual research – This type of research is about establishing a cause-and-effect relationship, understanding the ‘why’ behind an observation or pattern. Casual research often involves looking at analytics and carrying out A/B tests.
  7. Heuristic analysis – In the early stages of product design and development, evaluative research can be done in the form of usability testing (see point 5. above) or heuristic analysis. You can test an existing site or application before redesigning. “Heuristic” means “based on experience”. A heuristic is not a hard measure; it’s more of a qualitative guideline of best usability practice. Jakob Nielsen, arguably the founding father of usability, came up with the idea of heuristic analysis in 1990 and introduced ten heuristic principles (see Fig. 2).
  8. Usability testing – Testing the usability of a product with people is the second form of evaluative testing. Nielsen, the aforementioned usability guru, outlined five components that define usability (see Fig. 3). Hall stresses the importance of “cheap tests first, expensive tests later”; start simple – paper prototypes or sketches – and gradually up the ante.

Main learning point: “Just Enough Research” is a great, easy to read book which underlines the importance of customer research. The book does a great job in demonstrating that research doesn’t have to very expensive or onerous; it provides plenty of simple and practical to conduct ‘just enough research’.

 

Fig. 1 – Definition of “design research” by Jane Fulton Suri – Taken from: https://www.ideo.com/news/informing-our-intuition-design-research-for-radical-innovation

“Design research both inspires imagination and informs intuition through a variety of methods with related intents: to expose patterns underlying the rich reality of people’s behaviours and experiences, to explore reactions to probes and prototypes, and to shed light on the unknown through iterative hypothesis and experiment.”

Fig. 2 – Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics for User Interface Design (taken from: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/)

  1. Visibility of system status – The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
  2. Match between system and the real world – The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.
  3. User control and freedom – Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
  4. Consistency and standards – Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
  5. Error prevention – Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
  6. Recognition rather than recall – Minimise the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use – Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design – Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
  9. Help users recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors – Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
  10. Help and documentation – Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

Fig. 3 – Jakob Nielsen’s 5 components of usability – Taken from: Erika Hall. Just Enough Research, pp. 105-106

  • Learnability – How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they come across the design?
  • Efficiency – Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability – When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors – How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction – How pleasant is it to use the design?

 

My product management toolkit (23): customer empathy

A few weeks ago I attended the annual Mind the Product conference in San Francisco, where David Wascha delivered a great talk about some of his key lessons learned in his 20 years of product management experience. He impressed on the audience that as product managers we should “protect our customer”; as product managers we need to shield our teams, but ultimately we need to protect our customers and their needs.

Dave’s point really resonated with me and prompted me to think more about how product managers can best protect customers and their needs. I believe this begins with the need to fully understand your customers;  “customer empathy” is something that comes to mind here:

  1. What’s customer empathy (1)? – In the dictionary, empathy is typically defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” In contrast, sympathy is about feeling bad for someone else because of something that has happened to him or her. When I think about empathising with customers, I think about truly understanding their needs or problems. To me, the ultimate example of customer empathy can be found in Change By Design, a great book by IDEO‘s Tim Brown. In this book, Brown describes an IDEO employee who wanted to improve the experience of ER patients. The employee subsequently became an emergency room patient himself in order to experience first hand what it was like to be in an ER.
  2. What’s customer empathy (2)? – I love how UX designer Irene Au describes design as “empathy made tangible”. Irene distinguishes between between analytical thinking and empathic thinking. Irene refers to a piece  by Anthony Jack of Case Western University in this regard. Anthony found that when people think analytically, they tend to not use those areas of the brain that allow us to understand other people’s experience. It’s great to use data to inform the design and build of your product, and any decisions you make in the process. The risk with both quantitative data (e.g. analytics and surveys) and qualitative data (e.g. user interviews and observations) is that you end up still being quite removed from what the customer actually feels or thinks. We want to make sure that we really understand customer pain points and the impact of these pain points on the customers’ day-to-day lives.
  3. What’s customer empathy (3)? – I recently came across a video by the Cleveland Clinic – a non-profit academic medical centre that specialises in clinical and hospital care – which embodies customer empathy in a very inspiring and effective way (see Fig. 1 below). The underlying premise of the video is all about looking through another person’s eyes, truly trying to understand what someone else is thinking or feeling.

Fig. 1 – Cleveland Clinic Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care – Wvj_q-o8&feature=youtu.be

I see customer empathy as a skill that can be learned. In previous pieces, I’ve looked at some of the tools and techniques you can use to develop customer empathy. This is a quick recap of three simple ways to get started:

Listen. Listen. Listen  I often find myself dying to say something, getting my two cents in. I’ve learned that this desire is the first thing that needs to go if you want to develop customer empathy. Earlier this year, I learned about the four components of active listening, from reading “The Art of Active Listening” . Empathy is one of the four components of active listening:

Empathy is about your ability to understand the speaker’s situation on an emotional level, based on your own view. Basing your understanding on your own view instead of on a sense of what should be felt, creates empathy instead of sympathy. Empathy can also be defined as your desire to feel the speaker’s emotions, regardless of your own experience.

Empathy Map – I’ve found empathy mapping to be a great way of capturing your insights into another person’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions, pain, gains and behaviours (see Fig. 2 below). In my experience, empathy maps tend to be most effective when they’ve been created collectively and validated with actual customers.

Fig. 2 – Example empathy map, by Harry Brignull – Taken from: “How To Run an Empathy Mapping & User Journey Workshop” https://medium.com/@harrybr/how-to-run-an-empathy-user-journey-mapping-workshop-813f3737067

Problem Statements – To me, product management is all about – to quote Ash Maurya – “falling in love with the problem, not your solution.” Problem statements are an easy but very effective way to both capture and communicate your understanding of customer problems to solve. Here’s a quick snippet from an earlier ‘toolkit post’, dedicated to writing effective problem statements:

Standard formula:

Stakeholder (describe person using empathetic language) NEEDS A WAY TO Need (needs are verbs) BECAUSE Insight (describe what you’ve learned about the stakeholder and his need)

Some simple examples:

Richard,who loves to eat biscuits wants to find a way to eat at 5 biscuits a day without gaining weight as he’s currently struggling to keep his weight under control.

Sandra from The Frying Pan Co. who likes using our data platform wants to be able to see the sales figures of her business for the previous three years, so that she can do accurate stock planning for the coming year.

As you can see from the simple sample problem statements above, the idea is that you put yourself in the shoes of your (target) users and ask yourself “so what …!?” What’s the impact that we’re looking to make on a user’s life? Why?

Main learning point: Don’t despair if you feel that you haven’t got a sense of customer empathy yet. There are numerous ways to start developing customer empathy, and listening to customers is probably the best place to start!

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.ideo.com/post/change-by-design
  2. https://designthinking.ideo.com/
  3. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811912010646
  4. http://www.insightsquared.com/2015/02/empathy-the-must-have-skill-for-all-customer-service-reps/
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDDWvj_q-o8&feature=youtu.be
  6. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20131002191226-10842349-the-secret-to-redesigning-health-care-think-big-and-small?trk=mp-reader-card
  7. https://medium.com/@harrybr/how-to-run-an-empathy-user-journey-mapping-workshop-813f3737067
  8. https://blog.leanstack.com/love-the-problem-not-your-solution-65cfbfb1916b
  9. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/stage-2-in-the-design-thinking-process-define-the-problem-and-interpret-the-results
  10. https://robots.thoughtbot.com/writing-effective-problem-statements
  11. https://www.slideshare.net/felipevlima/empathy-map-and-problem-statement-for-design-thinking-action-lab

 

Book review: “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy”

I came across a senior executive a few months ago, let’s call him “Bob”, who talked me through his startup’s strategy. In short, Bob showed me three ‘strategic pillars’ for the business. Each pillar contained a load of specific products and initiatives. When I asked Bob about the strategic challenges that his business was looking to tackle, I got a blank stare in return. My explaining the need for having clear business and product strategies unfortunately didn’t seem to resonate much with Bob …

This experience prompted me to read “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” which was first published by Richard Rumelt in 2011. Two main questions drove me to pick up a copy of “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy”:

  • Is this going to be yet another strategy book, with lots of buzz words but little tangible content!?
  • How can I clearly articulate what constitutes a good strategy and what makes a bad one?

Ultimately, I want to improve the way in which I take people like Bob on a ‘strategic journey’, helping them to convert their goals into proper strategies. “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” definitely delivered on this objective. Firstly, it paints a good picture of the problem space surrounding strategy. The first part of the book is all about common misconceptions about strategy and explaining ‘why’ there’s so much bad strategy around. Secondly, the book then outlines what is needed to create good strategies, explaining what goes into the “kernel” of good strategy.

Bad strategy

“Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” starts off listing some of the hallmarks of bad strategy:

  • Fluff – Fluff is a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments. For example, I believe that terms like “seamless” or multi-channel have become so overused that they have lost a lot of meaning.
  • Failure to face the challenge – Bad strategy fails to recognise or define the challenge that a company is facing. Bob’s strategy was a good example in this regard. His strategy provided a number of solutions without the underlying strategic problems or challenges they were intended to resolve.
  • Mistaking goals for strategy – Many bad strategies are just statements of desires rather than plans for overcoming obstacles. For example, phrases such as “entering new markets” or “becoming the leading [fill in any sector of your choice here]” leave me wondering “why?”. These high level goals fail to highlighting specific strategic obstacles or opportunities a business is facing.
  • Bad strategic objectives – A strategic objective is set by a leader as a means to an end. As  Rumelt explains, “strategic objectives are “bad” when they fail to address critical issues or when they are impracticable.” For example, if the strategic objective is “to become a world leading furniture maker”, I’d argue that this is a vision statement and not a strategy. A related strategy would describe some of the key challenges to overcome in order to achieve the vision. Rumelt goes one step further by arguing that Google’s “vision mission strategy” template often misses the mark, as he feels it doesn’t cover true analysis of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

In short, in “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” Rumelt makes the point that most strategies fail to acknowledge the key obstacles or problems companies need to overcome. I see an analogy with  the need to engage in a constant obstacle race, and businesses competing to overcome certain hurdles first.

Fig. 1 – Strategy as an ongoing obstacle race – Taken from: https://www.pledgesports.org/2017/02/down-dirty-the-rise-of-the-obstacle-course-racing-industry/

So why is “bad” strategy such a common theme across so many businesses!?

The primary reason, as Rumelt highlights, is that bad strategy trumps analysis, logic and choice, with people hoping that they can avoid these often gnarly fundamentals and any issues in overcoming them. Rumelt stresses that “good strategy is very hard work”. I agree with this sentiment completely, as I’ve seen first hand that it can feel easier – in the short term at least – to ignore what’s happening or what could happen. Similarly, making strategic choices and deciding on tradeoffs is often very tricky and painful.

Good strategy

Rumelt describes the structure that underlies a good strategy as a “kernel” (see Fig. 2 below). The kernel of a strategy contains three elements:

  • A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.
  • A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. This is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.
  • A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy.

In essence, the kernel forms the bare bones skeleton of a strategy. Aspects such as visions, hierarchies of goals and objectives or timeframes are typically left out of the kernel. These aspects are treated as support layers instead.

The diagnosis

Coming to a diagnosis is about, putting it simply, understanding what’s going on. For example, as soon as Bob and I started exploring the situation that his business was in, we came to the conclusion that it was operating in a market close to reaching saturation point. As Rumelt points out, “an explicit diagnosis permits one to evaluate the rest of the strategy.” In addition, by turning the diagnosis into critical part of the strategy, the rest of the strategy can be revisited as and when circumstances change.

The guiding policy

The guiding policy outlines an overall approach for overcoming the obstacles highlighted by the diagnosis. The guiding policy doesn’t commit to a specific set of actions. Instead, it rules out a number of actions and suggests an overarching method to deal with the situation as described in the diagnosis. For example, one’s guiding policy could be to focus on improving the lifetime value of existing customers as opposed to acquiring more new customers that conduct one-off transactions.

Coherent action 

Rumelt points out a common mistake people often tend to make by calling the guiding policy a “strategy” and subsequently stop there. Strategy is all about taking action to overcome obstacles or seize opportunities. This doesn’t mean that you need to outline every single proposed action in its finest detail, but at least provide sufficient clarity to help make certain concepts more realistic and tangible.

Fig. 2 – Maz Iqbal, Kernel of Strategy – Taken from: https://thecustomerblog.co.uk/2012/10/08/what-is-the-kernel-of-strategy-part-iv-coherent-action/

I felt that thinking about the kernel of strategy makes it easier to then figure out some of the strategy’s support layers:

  • Taking a strong position and creating options – Rumelt disagrees with strategic thinkers that feel that in uncertain and dynamic environments, companies do well to plan ahead as much as possible. In contrast, Rumelt argues, the more dynamic and uncertain the situation the more proximate a strategic objective should be. He cites President Kennedy announcing the US’ ambition to land a person on the moon by the end of the 1960s as a good example of a proximate goal. Despite not knowing exactly how or when the US could land a person on the moon, the US had done enough research and testing for President Kennedy to feel confident about taking a strong position (i.e. committing to the first moon landing) and to exploring various options to get there.
  • Hierarchies of objectives – In organisations of any size, high-level proximate objectives create goals for lower-level units, which, in turn, create their own proximate objectives, and so on and so forth. I really like Rumelt’s related point about proximate objectives cascading and adjusting over time, as it does justice to the uncertain and dynamic nature of most of today’s market environments.

Main learning point: “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” is a great book for anyone slightly at loss where to begin when it comes to creating or evaluating a strategy. In the “kernel of strategy”, the book offers a very useful structure to underpin every (good) strategy.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.stephenbungay.com/Strategy.ink
  2. http://panmore.com/google-vision-statement-mission-statement
  3. http://goodbadstrategy.com/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZrTl16hZdk
  5. https://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/whats-the-problem/

App review: Toutiao

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of www.toutiao.com/ homepage 

When I first heard about Toutiaou I thought it might be just another news app, this coming one from China. I learned, however, very quickly that Toutiaou is much more than just a news app; at the time of writing, Toutiao has more than 700 million users in total, with ore than 78 million users reading over 1.3 billion articles on a daily basis.

Toutiao, known officially as Jinri Toutiao, which means “Today’s Headlines”, has a large part of its rapid rise to its ability to provide its users with a highly personalised news feed. Toutiao is a mobile platform that use machine learning algorithms to recommend content to its users, based on previous content accessed by users and their interaction with the content (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 – Screenshot of Toutiao iOS app

I identified a number of elements that contribute to Toutiao’s success:

  1. AI and machine learning – Toutiao’s flagship value proposition to its users, having its own dedicated AI Lab in order to constantly further the development of the AI technology that underpins its platform. Toutiao’s algorithms learn from the types of content its users interact with and the way(s) in which they interact with this content. Given that Toutiao users spend on average 76 minutes per day on the app, there’s a wealth of data for Toutiao’s algorithms to learn form and to base personalisations on.
  2. Variety of content types to choose from – Toutiao enables its users to upload short videos, and Toutiao’s algorithms of will recommend selected videos to appropriate users (see Fig. 3). Last year, Ivideos on Toutiao were played 1.5 billion times per day, making Toutiao China’s largest short video platform. Users can also upload pictures, similar to Instagram or Facebook, users can share their pictures, with other users being abel to like or comment on this content (see Fig. 4).
  3. Third party integrations – Toutiao has got strategic partnerships in place with the likes of WeChat, a highly popular messaging app (see Fig. 5), and jd.com, a local online marketplace. It’s easy to see how Toutiao is following an approach whereby they’re inserting their news feed into a user’s broader ecosystem.

Main learning point: I was amazed by the scale at which Toutiao operate and the levels at which its users interact with the app. We often talk about the likes of Netflix and Spotify when it comes to personalised recommendations, but with the amount of data that Toutiao gathers, I can they can create a highly tailored content experience for their users.

Fig. 3 – Screenshot of video section on Toutiao iOS app 

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of user generated content feed on Toutiao iOS app

IMG_4954

Fig. 5 – Screenshot of Toutiao and WeChat integration on Toutiao iOS app

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.toutiao.com/
  2. https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/toutiao#/entity
  3. http://technode.com/2017/06/05/podcast-analyse-asia-187-toutiao-with-matthew-brennan/
  4. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603351/the-insanely-popular-chinese-news-app-that-youve-never-heard-of/
  5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ywang/2017/05/26/jinri-toutiao-how-chinas-11-billion-news-aggregator-is-no-fake/#24d401d64d8a
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toutiao
  7. http://lab.toutiao.com/
  8. https://www.liftigniter.com/toutiao-making-headlines-machine-learning/
  9. https://techcrunch.com/2017/02/01/chinese-news-reading-app-toutiao-acquires-flipagram/
  10. https://lotusruan.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/cant-beat-giant-companies-on-wechatweibo-try-toutiao/
  11. https://www.chinainternetwatch.com/tag/toutiao/