Shift Media 2014

shift-media-2014

Quick notes from yesterday’s Bold Italic Shift Digital Media Conference which was held at The Chapel in the Mission district of San Francisco yesterday.

The venue and format were perfect. $85 for a half day session of talks in an intimate nightclub off of Valencia Street. Tickets were sold out and the attendees came from across the digital media spectrum, from publishers to advertisers, which made for great side conversations. The Bold Italic, is a San Francisco “hyperlocal” site funded by Gannett, that has acted as an experimental lab of sorts for it’s parent company and this was one of their bigger events, designed to position them as a digital media innovator.

The Chapel

Matt Galligan from cir.ca was first up.

I’ve seen him speak before (my write-up about cir.ca) but he always has new observations to share about the media business.

Brand loyalty to media companies is gone. A show of hands revealed that most people do not remember where they heard about the news they read that day underlining the point that, in a world where distribution costs next to nothing, attention is what is most costly. The undercurrent in this talk and others that followed was that the social networks of the day are the new gate keepers to what gets read.

Fox News at one end of the political spectrum and MSNBC on the other are no different from Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm in that they pander to their audiences’ selected interests and are responsible, to a certain extent, for the polarization we see in society today. Matt sees a need for an editorial viewpoint to tell the most important stories of the day which may come outside your chosen interests.

It’s a great time to be a media startup (“news is sexy again”) but there’s  a danger in either being too driven by either an editorial or distribution-focused strategy. A successful company needs to have a “true North” point of view  in order to succeed. In his view, Vice News is successful because it has a very clear point of view so its viewers can put the stories in context. Buzzfeed, in Matt’s view, is a bit lost because it is too optimized for social distribution and no one is sure of it’s point of view.

When asked about what he would do if he was put in charge of The New York Times, Matt said he was surprised to see a recent job posting for a “Print Editor” which, to him, signaled a recognition of the difference in the print medium from others. He went on to say that rather than originating stories for print that the Times should flip the hierarchy around writing for Mobile, followed by Web, and finally for Print at the end of the chain.

Matt’s parting words was that we should all glance at the Wikipedia entry for Yellow Journalism to give perspective to the current rash of deceptive, linkbait headlines and where this trend could ultimately be taking us.

Jessica Saia of The Bold Italic was next with a talk about how to make good viral content with “visual satire.”

She gave us a peak into the brilliance of TBI’s creative genius and shared several of their more successful riffs on popular journalistic genres.

Corner Stourmet pokes fun at gourmet food photography (Jessica’s roommate is a photographer) by using ingredients from her local corner store which resulted in sharable works of art such as the Frito Scoop Amuse Bouche.

Amuse Bouche

Another is their Actual Food Porn piece which was engineered to jump on to the #foodporn hashtag train. Do/Don’t/Oh God Please Don’t pushes the norms of the standard fashion magazine column while the Kid Food Reviews bring the brutal honesty of 4-year olds to the restaurant critic genre (TBI’s review of The French Laundry is their most successful post ever).

Kid Food Reviews

Each of The Bold Italic’s satire pieces takes a cliche and twists it into a caricature of itself designed to lead to that, “OMG, have you seen this?” moment driving its readers to share and introduce them to new audiences.

Greg Isenberg of 5by gave a talk about making successful viral videos.

He shared a stat that 1 out 3 millennials do not watch television. Not broadcast, not cable, just YouTube and other online video. With unlimited space, imagination is your only barrier.

A couple of pointers,

  1. Assume your audience has the attention span of an “espresso-fueled fruit fly” which means your cuts need to be quick. What’s important is velocity, not length.
  2. You need “lighter fluid” to get things going. Sharing stats on the Double Rainbow video Greg pointed out that even though the video was posted in January 2010, it wasn’t until Jimmy Kimmel put his spotlight on it on in July that it really took off.
Lexi Nisita, Social Media Director at Refinery 29 spoke about the dangers of “lab-created” viral

Truly viral content shares certain elements which signal authenticity. It’s usually “low budget, grass roots, and gritty.”

Lexi pointed to Random Acts of Pasta as an example of a viral video which positioned Olive Garden so well that many thought it was a clever way for the company to get media coverage during the Thanksgiving holiday (according to the company, it was not).

Before Refinery 29 decides to work with a brand on a social media campaign, they use a rubric to gauge its effectiveness.

Identity – does it make the person sharing the content look good or feel smart. Does it enhance their identity?

Life Improving – does it act as a gift? If shared, will it impart knowledge? The example here being a blow dryer company sharing top tips in a blog post as something one person can forward to another.

Heart-Pounding Emotion – does it provoke either “righteous anger,” tears of laughter, or nostalgia. All are powerful drivers of sharing behavior.

Bobbie Johnson, Senior Editor at Medium held an Ask Me Anything session where he took questions from the audience.

Medium is both a platform and a publisher. Not a surprise is Medium is the combination of both Blogger (tools) and Twitter (distribution). Both companies that Medium’s founder, Ev Williams, founded.

While Buzzfeed and others like it are enjoying incredible valuations, they are built on the promise of continued success from their native advertising programs. In Bobbie’s words, “the leaves will be pulled away” from this business as there is only so much sponsored content that you can put into the mix before it collapses from its own weight.

News on mobile devices is still primarily, “lumps of text” and needs to evolve to take advantage of the platform. It is still very early days and a challenge that Medium is very interested in solving.

Medium wants to be a platform where brands engage alongside content producers as equals. They want to be youtube.com for writing. A place you go to view collections of content from all ends of the publisher-advertiser spectrum. To this point, when asked if Medium would share revenues with content creators on the site, Bobbie replied that if they did not, “they’d be doing it wrong.”

When asked (by yours truly) if Medium would allow for domain-mapping that would allow brands and publishers to run Medium sites within their own domain, he said that it was a top priority for the company but that they wanted to take their time to do it in a way that would not take away from the network and community effects that they currently enjoy on Medium. I look forward to learning more.

The next session was a panel discussion on native advertising.

It was unfortunate that only the business side of publishing was represented, none of the panelists (except the moderator, Jennifer Maerz, editor at The Bold Italic) serve in an editorial role.

Everyone was surprised to hear results from a Quartz survey shared by Ryan that found 80% of C-level executives are interested and read branded content. CEOs want to hear what their competition, customers and partners have to say (and how they say it), not only what the media has to say about them. This was a unique insight that made me think deeper about the value of sponsored content.

When asked who creates branded content the answers were across the board. Some publications, such as The Bold Italic, have editorial do double-duty and write pieces that get the “sponsored” label (Bobbie Johnson mentioned he used to do this at the Guardian. They were called Advertising Supplements). Other publications have a group that reports into advertising that works with brands to create content. On the other side, some of the larger brands create their own content and work with publishers to distribute it. Finally, MediaCo sits in between. Their parent is a PR firm but their team has a journalistic background and works with brands to create and distribute content that will be compelling and effective.

I was surprised how much sponsored content runs on Quartz. It’s an important part of their business and allows for them to cut back on the number of banner ads they have to run to support their business. During the session, Ryan mentioned that Quartz has a rule to show no more than one sponsored post on the waterfall for every three “news” posts which seems a lot.

Matt Kaye brought up the insight that as more viewership moves to mobile, the more important it is to have sponsored posts that are relevant and interesting to read.

After the break there was a short dialog between Sherine Kazim and JP Stallard about personalization.

The two were debating cookies and other tracking mechanisms as it relates to advertising which they view as creepy, (“I strongly dislike being a product.” said JP) Unfortunately the debate was stuck talking about advertising and did not bring in the benefits of personalization as it relates to publishing. Some of the most interesting work in media is around implicit personalization based on reading behavior and how it can enhance your reading experience.

The next session brought together several user research experts to talk about Reader Behavior: Motivations, Trends & Insights

Larkin Brown User Research at Pinterest
Stephanie Carter Experience Research at Facebook
Bethany Pickard User Experience at Google
Ximena Vengoechea Full Cycle Research at LinkedIn

The final panel  of the day started off unexpectedly with the moderator reading from a passage and spending a long time introducing each panelist and asking several favorite/least favorite questions that brought out some strange answers but did a lot to warm up the room and get bring out the personalities of the panelists.

Several people noticed that it was an entire panel of women which is something several people said to me throughout the day. It was certainly a nice change to see so many women on stage and in the audience and I commend The Bold Italic for bringing together a healthy mix. It made for a better conference.

While many topics were covered, my notes were on the various tips and tricks the researchers used when in the field.

Stephanie spoke about her time at The New York Times when they used Food (farmer’s market grazer or fast food?) or Social Status (arm candy or committed?) as metaphors useful for grouping personas. These methods abstracted the descriptions a level so that they did not fall into a particular demographic group which is limiting when, particularly when looking at reading habits. Different age groups would sometimes share behaviors.

Bethany had an interesting point that when navigating online content there is no sense of how much you are missing. With a physical object such as a book or a newspaper you have visual cues that tell you if you’ve skipped a section but in the online world of the endless scroll, there is no “end.”

At one point there was as discussion of “trusted sources” and someone mentioned that its useful to think of such a source as a pathway to more quality content. I share this viewpoint in that links on a site should be treated as a curated collection and cannot always be trusted to third party widgets driven by an algorithm.

Someone in the audience asked how to collect user research without a dedicated user research team. Each panel member had their own tricks which included:

Bring in two people and observe the first person describe their experience to their partner. These secondary observations can uncover non-obvious aspects of your product that are suppressed in one-on-one interactions.

Camp out at a coffee shop, make friends with the barrista. Tell them that you will offer to buy coffee for anyone who will spend time with you on user research.

Repeat the last word someone says to you with a question mark as a way to continue the dialog. When someone states that, “I then copy/paste and send an email,” you then repeat, “Email?” to uncover motivations.

The final talk of the day was a discussion between Mat Honan and Clara Jeffery about Mat’s upcoming piece for Wired on the Future of Media.

Joel Johnson from Gawker was originally supposed to appear but recent news kept him from keeping his date so Clara stepped in to take his place.

Mat had news of his own to share and announced that he was taking over as Buzzfeed’s Silicon Valley bureau chief and that they would be building up their editorial team here.

Both Mat and Clara had interesting things to say about the readership on their perspective sites.

Wired’s readers are still primarily desktop. There was an audible gasp in the audience. While most tech news web sites have crossed over and have more mobile readers, the grand-daddy tech site of them all still had more desktop readers than mobile. Not only that, if I heard correctly, he also said that many of them still come in via the front page! Old habits die hard I guess.

Riffing a little on why he found Buzzfeed attractive, Mat said it was because they had figured out social better than any other publisher and were thus well-positioned for the future. This lead Clara to say,

A question back from Mat pondered a future where stories live as sharable units on their own, within social media feeds, independent of their site. Some good food for thought in that nugget there.

While Mat views traditional, attention-stealing advertising as “threatening” his views of native advertising are more nuanced. I believe he sees the convergence of editorial and revenue as a trend to get ahead of and he views Buzzfeed as ahead of the game here. I look forward to reading his Wired piece in January. He assured the audience that he only started seriously talking about moving from Wired to Buzzfeed after the story was filed.

Clara shared that Mother Jones burst back onto the scene with it’s blockbuster scoop of Mitt Romney’s 47% video clip. Thankfully they had just completed an overhaul of their infrastructure so their site stayed up despite the deluge of new traffic but the interesting thing is that following that spike many of the new readers stuck around and they are still enjoying more than double the traffic when compared to before the Mitt Romney story. She did not get around to revealing how those new readers were converted to return visitors.

If you’ve read this far I applaud your stamina! These notes are my way of thinking out loud and crystallizing my learnings in a way that I can refer to them in the future. Feel free to share your own thoughts  in the comments below.

ProductSF 2014

Photo by Ritu Raj
Photo by Ritu Raj

Last week I attended the 2014 edition of Building Better Products, an invitation only conference hosted by Ty Ahmad-Taylor of Samsung Electronics and Josh Elman of Greylock Partners. As with last year’s conference, it was an agenda packed with interesting speakers that came to share their perspective on the role of a Product Manager at a tech company, sharing lessons learned and what it takes to succeed. The format was updated to include a mix of pechakucha-style lightning talks interspersed with longer presentations and panel discussions.

Because of a morning SFO drop-off run, I missed the “palette-cleanser” talk that kicked things off for the day (a history of Treasure Island) and Julie Zhuo‘s talk on how to work with designers. I’m sorry to have missed Julie’s talk but you can read her many excellent talks about the design process on her Medium page.

I took notes on some of the presentations and here were my favorites.

Mina Radhakrishnan shared her experiences as one of the first Product Managers at Uber during their first international expansion and the growing pains the company went through to develop a process which now lets them spin up multiple locations each week. We learned of design challenges as the nomenclature for hired cars vary from city to city. An SUV in London is a “big car” while a private car is a “black car” but tabs for “Big” and “Black” don’t really work so other solutions were needed.

A template that might work in one country falls apart in another so you need to, “design for flexibility” and use templates that can be adopted to fit local needs. Because of the need for speed and scale, these templates need to be designed in a way that local operations teams can unleash their “operational creativity” without having to check in with headquarters.

What struck me most was the intense drive and ambition of Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, enabled the team to roll over technical and legal challenges that would have sidetracked most companies. In the drive to launch Uber in Paris in time for Le Web, they slammed a product together that had to be re-built from the ground up post-launch. It is rare to find a start-up that would knowingly build something they know they are going to tear apart and build again and support for that way of working has to come from the top.

ubercade

While talking about Uber’s various publicity stunts (ubercade, uber ice cream, uberkittens) Mina reminded us that Uber is not strictly a transportation company and that their mission, “to get you where you want to go” should be interpreted broadly.

Vince Maniago from Mint gave an abbreviated version of the talk embedded below to explain specific actions he took to improve sign-ups. As a financial service, his challenge was to get people to connect their banking accounts with the mint.com aggregation service. By putting his name on follow-up emails to anyone who didn’t complete this action, he was able to significantly improve completion rates and get people over the trust factor.

Some other tips Vince shared included use of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service for user-testing and Mental Notes cards (note: sold out) as inspiration for the types of message variations you can test.

David Hahn, who was at LinkedIn during the early days, spoke about the freemium business model upon which that service is built and the evolution of their landing pages. The page has gone through many iterations but each time they have tried to add something new, they have found that the obsessive simplification of the erroneous was the best contribution to their conversion rates. “The best optimizations are getting rid of things.”

Wook Chung works with brand advertisers for Samsung and shared humorous anecdotes about working with Madison Avenue and the importance of continually checking in with your customer whose needs are like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Advertising trends are continually in motion so freezing requirements and then going off to build them will, by definition, obsolete anything you launch. Better to involve your customer at each stage and get them invested in your solution and inform your development.

A series of short talks followed. Ken Norton (Google Ventures) on using Don Lowry’s True Colors rubric to build teams and modulate communication. Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, gave a rousing comparison of UX/Product archetypes as Game of Thrones characters and reminded all of us to, “respect the craft” when giving feedback.

During the panel discussion on Product Development in the Enterprise Sol Lipman, who was CPO at TomFoolery, shared lessons learned as a start-up trying to change enterprise software (“we made consumer-grade products for the enterprise”). One of their early lessons (and we’ve heard this before) is that you need to focus on utilization because, “just because someone is going to pay you doesn’t mean their people are going to use your product.”

One other tidbit was Sol’s singular vision that the all products for the enterprise should be built “sideways” to allow collaboration across traditional networks. Do not build your product around a company domain and allow for self-defined networks which will be how workgroups form in the future (think Dropbox). Email, which is usually dominated by company domains, is not a useful unique identifier as it locks each customer into their silo. On the other hand, a cell phone number, which everyone has and usually carries from job to job, allows for infinite connections which will persist and retain their viral effectiveness.

tomfoolery hats

Ellen Chisa from Kickstarter shared the eight-month journey to a new start page. Reminding us all that Kickstarter is primarily a platform for artists so the founders were concerned less with a metrics-driven design process and more with the embodiment of a vision. If forgot the name of the poet she quoted but, to paraphrase, if Kickstarter was going to set out to build a ship, they would not instruct them the details of woodworking, they would, “teach men to yearn for the sea.”

In the end, there were 11 major designs for the front page with hundreds of iterations in between until they found a design they felt worked. But all was not lost, many of the ideas hashed out made their way into other areas of the product. Perhaps less efficient, the Kickstarter way was more holistic.

Shiva Rajaraman, from YouTube, gave a great talk, “Product Management: From Meh to Awesome” that was not about use cases or tips and tricks but about approach. A Product Manager is the one that has the spotlight. No product is the result of a single person’s output and the PM should take pains to shine attention to all those that work on the product. And with a community-driven product such as YouTube it is especially important to point out what’s awesome about your community.

Check out the Likes/Dislikes on the Futurama Neutral Response clip below. Finding out that there is a community of people that obsessively maintain this delicate balance, “made his week.”

futurama neutralness

Thinking of YouTube as a platform transformed the way they have approached music companies and brands. Music fingerprinting and content ID was originally developed to go after copyright violations but when flipped around from a negative to a positive, it helps musicians understand how and where their music is being played. Harem Shake got such tremendous exposure through the fan videos that when it debuted on the charts, it was #1.

Shiva tells the story of Molly Kate Kestner who recorded her self-composed song on a broken iPhone that, within weeks becomes a top single on the iTunes charts.  An open platform  allows these stories to write themselves and a good Product Manager will look for them and hold them up for others to celebrate.

Thank you Josh & Ty for organizing a great day of talks, picking a great venue, and, as always, keeping everyone on schedule.

Further Reading:

The Art of Product Management

View from Product SF

Many start up Product Managers are lone wolf types. They work alone, part of a team, but the only one in that team doing what they do. Shuttling between engineering, design, sales, marketing, management and other constituents, they are the glue that ties the team together, the universal joint making sure all the momentum in one group transmits cleanly to the next so all the pieces move in unison and things get done.

Because they work alone, Product Managers have developed their own set of tools that work for them and their company. Tips and tricks on how to organize teams and set priorities are passed around like folklore on blogs and Quora posts but it’s rare to find an event that gets a room full of PMs sharing what works in real-time.

Perhaps it’s a sign of a maturing industry legitimizing a role but over the past several weeks, I have had the good fortune to attend three (!) events specifically for the modern Product Managers.

Each of these events were great in their own right but it was this past Friday’s How to Build Great Products hosted by Ty Ahmad-Taylor of Samsung and Josh Elman of Greylock Partners really knocked it out of the park.

 

What I Learned

Many PMs fell into their role before they realized that they were doing it. Especially at small start ups on a hyper growth trajectory, the PM is the first to jump in to rally and organize and bring teams together and ends up creating their job.

PMs need to have a singular focus on what needs to get done to make their product successful. This means sometimes going against corporate objectives. Hunter Walk, when he was a PM at YouTube, put priority on supporting Facebook login over Google’s own competitive Open Social login initiative. You need to look at the market as a consumer and make the choice based on what’s right for the customer, even if it sometimes goes against larger corporate initiatives.

PMs need to be entrepreneurs. Faced with a limited amount of resources, you need do whatever it takes to get things done. This often means you need to think creatively. Hunter also mentioned “learning to draft ascending ecosystems” – take an objective look at the market and if there is a way for you to bundle or integrate your product into another product on the rise. By focusing on getting the YouTube icon added to the default iPhone deck, all other conversations with carriers turned from YouTube chasing them to the carriers calling YouTube. Picking the ascending leader early was a bet that paid off.

Trust Your Strategy. Allen Blue, the co-founder of LinkedIn, described the first year of nominal growth (2,100 users after one week, 80,000 after 7 months). They reserved a bottle of whiskey for when they hit 1 million users but ended up drinking at 500,000.

PMs are problem solvers, give them meaty problems to chew on. Like Allen, many PMs come from varied backgrounds. Allen came from the theatre. Because of their non-traditional training (Hunter Walk too, was one of the few PMs at Google without a CS degree), a PMs can be the source of a unique perspective and often solution. One useful technique to use when drilling down to the essence of a problem is by using the 5 Hows which is a derivative of the 5 Whys, designed to lead you to a solution, not causality.

Srikanth Rajagopalan on building the Chrome Browser

“Speed is a feature.” This is often ignored when prioritizing tasks. Do not forget that simplicity, and it’s cousin, speed, are silent feature requests that should always be potentials for any roadmap discussion.

Build for the average user but do not ignore your super fans by hiding power user features. Chrome has a number of geeky features (Keyboard shortcuts that one could only appreciate if you, “grew up with vi”) but they are tucked away and do not get in the way of the basic user’s core experience. Deciding how to add an advanced feature is difficult. Putting it into Settings and letting the user choose is lazy. Did you know  Chrome has a detailed Site Info box?

Chrome Site Info

There was a panel discussion about user growth where I unfortunately had to step out for a bit but I did catch Elliot Shmukler talk about the power of shared metrics. During his days at LinkedIn, he pulled together the most important metrics into an information radiator so that everyone gets a realtime view of these metrics with just a glance. But one must not forget to focus on the right metrics. Too often a dashboard is swamped with metrics where it’s too easy to drown in data. Pick 3-5 metrics and use those to test intuition. Be careful which metrics you chose because those will be the ones you optimize for.

A funny anecdote Elliot shared was coming in one morning to find, “Belgium on fire.” User acquisition spiked overnight because an engineer, after looking at these shared metrics, fiddled with some of the contact importing settings for users in that country to see if it would move the needle. It did. That is the power of shared metrics.

Dan Olsen gave an entertaining talk about his time at Friendster during their meltdown and subsequent loss to MySpace. See slide 21 which shows how he came up with the concept of the viral loop (no one was doing this kind of stuff then) and how different points in that loop have different amplification values.

Despite succeeding in rolling out several new features that helped in user growth, we all know the story about poor database optimization that ultimately ruined the experience on Friendster so that the more users joined, the slower the site became. Dan’s learnings were that, for social networks, a large user base is a feature. People used MySpace because that was where the majority of their friends were which lead to, um, a majority of their friends being on MySpace.

 

Fred Sigman, an Art Historian & Photographer, gave an thoughtful talk about the influence of nearby atomic bomb testing on the neon signs of early Las Vegas. As a post-lunch talk, professor Sigman’s talk was perfect as the, “palette cleanser” talk before we got to the. . .

Ignite talks. These are lightning round, Pechakucha-style presentations where the slides self-advance. Highlights for me were Ken Norton’s How (not) to work with Engineers and Ian McAllister’s talk about the User-Driven Development which I’ve written about before.

Ian Mcallister

Joe Zadeh from AirBnB spoke about the hiring process at his company. Forgive the fuzzy resolution but it’s the nut of his talk which explained that all PMs that are interviewed are invited in to present on a topic given to candidates in advance. This allows them to evaluate all the candidate along a baseline for a number of things simultaneously,

  • Can they communicate effectively?
  • What’s their design skill like? Do they understand spacing, fonts, color, use of graphics?
  • Are they nervous presenting? How do they respond to questions, pressure?
  • Did they have a fresh approach? Are they an original thinker?

If the interview is for a Product Manager, they may make it about a specific problem they are trying to solve. When they were looking into adding a payments processor in South America, they asked prospects to speak that topic. By the end of the interviews, they had not only a good sense of who knew what, they also got six different approaches to integrating payments processors.

Joe Zadeh

James Buckhouse from Twitter gave an great talk about storytelling. @buckhouse came from Dreamworks and tells stories for twitter and shared his formula for how to tell a good story. It’s all about the journey to a transformation. He writes about writing on Medium at Design Story.

James Buckhouse on Story Telling

The final talk of the day was with Tom Conrad at Pandora. No slides, just a simple discussion between Josh Elman and Tom about the early days of Pandora and it’s inspiration (“I loved to recommend music to people. Building a service was a lot easier than inviting people to my dorm room.”) but also included a varient of the “let’s go shopping” style of roadmap prioritization.

  1. Every 90 days, wipe your roadmap clean.
  2. Ask everyone in the company what things the company would be crazy not to do. This includes projects that used to be on the roadmap but are now off it.
  3. Summarize each idea on one slide. Work with engineering to come up with a thumbnail estimate for how many days it’ll take for each project. If a project will take one weeks’ development by two developers, that’s a $10 project.
  4. Print out each slide and stick them up on a wall.
  5. Sit with Engineering and decide how many developer man-days you have for the next 90 days. If it’s 60 working days and you have 2 developers, and you need to reserve 10 days for maintenance, that means you have 110 developer man-days. This would equal $120.
  6. Invite a cross-representative group of people to a product prioritization meeting. At Pandora, this included someone from HR. Give each person a different colored post-it note with equal amounts that they can allocate towards projects. If there are 5 people in the room, then that’s $24 each.
  7. It will be a long meeting but, by the end, you’ll clearly see which projects are “fully funded” and those will be the ones that you take on for the next 90 days.

Everyone leaving that room will have a clear view of what engineering is going to be working on better than any Roadmap document could tell them. There will be no need to brief people on what each project is because they will have heard the description of each project in that meeting.

I hope you found this post useful. I’m gathering these tips and tricks into a collection. If there are some that you feel should be included, let me know.

User-Driven Development

It’s one thing to put yourself in the shoes of your potential customers and think about how to solve their pain points but it’s entirely something else to pretend that this product already exists and think about how you would market it.

This is the approach at Amazon and I think it’s quite effective. It’s something they refer to as, Working Backwards. This is the process of definition which helps clarify needed features (and their priority) before coding has even begun. I’m a big believer in hacking together working prototypes and tend to jump right in. This approach is more nuanced and helps shake off any geek-halo in the code-first approach. From Werner Vogal’s (Amazon’s CTO) post:

  1. Start by writing the Press Release [1] Nail it. The press release describes in a simple way what the product does and why it exists – what are the features and benefits. It needs to be very clear and to the point. Writing a press release up front clarifies how the world will see the product – not just how we think about it internally.
  2. Write a Frequently Asked Questions document. Here’s where we add meat to the skeleton provided by the press release. It includes questions that came up when we wrote the press release. You would include questions that other folks asked when you shared the press release and you include questions that define what the product is good for. You put yourself in the shoes of someone using the product and consider all the questions you would have.
  3. Define the customer experience. Describe in precise detail the customer experience for the different things a customer might do with the product. For products with a user interface, we would build mock ups of each screen that the customer uses. For web services, we write use cases, including code snippets, which describe ways you can imagine people using the product. The goal here is to tell stories of how a customer is solving their problems using the product.
  4. Write the User Manual. The user manual is what a customer will use to really find out about what the product is and how they will use it. The user manual typically has three sections, concepts, how-to, and reference, which between them tell the customer everything they need to know to use the product. For products with more than one kind of user, we write more than one user manual.

[1] Ian McAllister, who also works at Amazon, posts on Quora about “working backwards” (it’s via this Quora post that I found Werner’s post, thank you!). He writes in more detail about how to structure the mock-press release.

  • Heading – Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading – Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
  • Summary – Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
  • Problem – Describe the problem your product solves.
  • Solution – Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
  • Quote from You – A quote from a spokesperson in your company.
  • How to Get Started – Describe how easy it is to get started.
  • Customer Quote – Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.
  • Closing and Call to Action – Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.

and most importantly:

Oh, and I also like to write press-releases in what I call “Oprah-speak” for mainstream consumer products. Imagine you’re sitting on Oprah’s couch and have just explained the product to her, then you listen as she explains it to her audience. That’s “Oprah-speak”, not “Geek-speak”.

Yahoo Hack Day – a crash course in Product Management

yahoohackday2.jpgNice write up over on TechCrunch on a hack that I worked on with a team of seven other Yahoo’s spread out across the US.

Every couple of months groups of Yahoo’s band together to work on simple prototypes to work out a new concept or feature. Most are simple extensions of existing Yahoo products that extend them in new and original ways, some just use API’s in a way to poke fun and get a laugh, and others are full-blown software or hardware wizadry that blow your mind with their creativity and flash.

The rules were simple. Teams have from noon on Thursday through to noon on Friday to take their project from a concept to a working prototype that can be demoed in front of a panel of judges in 90 seconds or less.

Recruiting for the team took place in the weeks leading up to hack day and as we got closer we had a rough idea of what we wanted to do and emails were traded on how to break up the tasks at hand. We found out that having two members from NYC helped us out b/c the time difference meant that the West Coast team could hand off to them in the early morning and catch some sleep while they carried the torch and picked up where we left off.

I learned many things at Hack Day and am really happy Yahoo gave me the chance to participate. I would argue that I learned almost as much about Product Management in those 24 hours than I did in two years when I was product manager at Factiva.com. 24 hours and a 90 second demo do wonders to focus your attention to the absolute core. What company would give their employees two half days of to scratch an itch and then give you a chance to get in front of folks like the CFO, co-founder, and Head of Product Strategy to let you state your case? What a cool company.

There were lots of highlights, unfortunately I can’t write about most of the hacks themselves but there were some great flashes of personality too. Chad bought a sound level meter to measure the cheers & hoots which were many and supportive. We were all running on fumes so all was forgiven. My favorite demo was the poor man’s karaoke machine (lyrics on the screen set to associated flickr images) which croaked on the flickr image part and just ended up being 90 seconds of Jeffery Bennett singing while he waited for his demo to work. Jeff’s voice is not half bad either!