Less Powerpoint, More Prototypes

no powerpointI’m a big believer in hacking together a working prototype to demonstrate product ideas. Powerpoint mocks basically put a shiny gloss on a paper sketch and because it’s not real, generate endless debate where no one is really speaking on authority because the product doesn’t exist.

Once you have a prototype the debate becomes substantive.  Prototypes trump PowerPoint every time. Building a quick prototype is a way of sketching an idea – the emphasis should be on quick on dirty – get the pieces working with real data to see how things move, that’s it. Expect reactions and expect that you’ll need to tear it apart and redo things, that’s ok – expect that people might hate it and you’ll throw it away. Because of that, don’t invest too much time or ego into your prototype either, it will change, guaranteed. In this sense, churn is good.

This is why I really enjoyed Paul Buchheit’s post Communicating with Code where he writes about how both GMail and AdSense came together.

Of course none of the code from my prototype ever made it near the real product (thankfully), but that code did something that fancy arguments couldn’t do (at least not my fancy arguments), it showed that the idea and product had real potential.

The point of this story, I think, is that you should consider spending less time talking, and more time prototyping, especially if you’re not very good at talking or powerpoint. Your code can be a very persuasive argument.

GMail & AdSense were born from working prototypes, not PowerPoint.  Whenever possible, try and avoid PowerPoint for product design, unless it’s for art.

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AdSense, Self-Optimized

google behavioral targeting options

It’s obvious when you think about it. Instead of spending your energy throwing up hundreds of ads that dance around the edges in the hopes that one will magically trigger a random click of interest, why not ask your readers, “What do you want to see?”

Google announced a new program which changes the way they pick which Adsense ads appear on the websites you visit. Instead of looking at the content on the page and simple IP-based geo-targeting, the new program looks at your browser history and targets advertising based on your browsing interests. It’s known in the industry as behavioral targeting but Google has re-labeled it “Interest-based advertising.”

The system works using tracking cookies which is anonymous and tied to your browser so if you switch browsers or jump to another PC, your browsing history will not follow you (although technically it’s possible if they tied the cookies to your Google Account). Likewise, your browsing history is going to get muddled on shared PCs such as one you might find in a family room.

The most interesting thing about this new program is that they are allowing you to edit your profile using a new Ad Preferences Manager. As you can see in the screenshot above, you can pick and chose from 20 major categories and 600 sub-categories that are interesting to you and begin to shape the type of ads that are served to you. There is an option to opt out completely in which case you’ll get the regular content matched advertisements we’ve been seeing all along but having the ability to customize what you see is a bold step forward in transparency.

Arguments against such a system when I had brought it up in the past were that if you let everyone pick and chose your ads you run the risk of not serving a well-balanced mix of advertising, running dry in popular categories and having a glut of units from less popular categories. By putting direct user feedback into the equation, you could no longer tune your ad servers to optimize for maximum profit.

My counter to that argument is that by putting your readers in charge of what they see, you stand a much better chance of not only having people look at your ads (to see what type of ads get served) but also getting a much better sense of what interests your readers.

So here’s my crazy idea. Why not go a step further? Why not let people to search for ads directly? Every magazine has an Advertiser’s Index in the back, why isn’t there a web-based equivalent? It’s been done.

For more detail and commentary, Barry Schwartz has an extensive write-up on this development over on Search Engine Land.