Eigenvectors, Framing and the Power of Product Principles

Shishir Mehrotra who ran product at YouTube during their “scale-up” period and today is CEO of Coda, developed a thought process they called Eigen Questions to help make decisions faster. The thought pattern is based off of the algebraic concept of Eigen Vectors. Eigen Vectors define the dimension amongst N dimensions that captures the most “points” in a space or the “most discriminating vector in a multi-dimensional space”. So Eigen Questions then refer to the 1-2 questions you could ask that reveal the most information such that the answer to subsequent questions is obvious. This became a critical skill in the way they approached framing.

Framing is way to break down a problem into possible options with pros and cons that, when done effectively, makes it easier for a team to decide what to do and move on to executing. It helps avoid the “paralysis from analysis” syndrome and is a critical component to doing the right things more quickly.

At YouTube they had a problem that was at a standstill. At the time YouTube wasn’t just a video platform for creators and consumers – it was the number 2 search engine on the internet (with their parent company Google being number 1). The debate they had involved what to do when people searched for something on YouTube for which the results were poor or non-existent. Under the current framing of the problem, the decision to be made was should YouTube link to outside content or not? If they “linked out”, the users seemed to be served but it was very hard to work on content licensing and increasing usage if you were regularly taking users outside of their product.

To answer the question, they re-framed the problem borrowing a concept that was driving Amazon’s growth. Amazon was beating Google Shopping by a wide margin. Google Shopping search would return all of the Amazon results plus anything else it rounded up on the internet. So it was much more comprehensive. But each experience shopping experience a user might click on was different an unfamiliar and user feedback regularly told them that consistency was more important than comprehensiveness.

By framing the problem as consistency over comprehensiveness the decision became obvious – consistency was a better path forward.

Marty Cagan (former CPO of eBay) currently leads the Silicon Valley Product Group and talks often about product principles and how they shape strategy and direction. The decision YouTube made would go to become a product principle. It led to YouTube taking back development of the YouTube app for the iPhone which meant initially less distribution (comprehensiveness) but no more issues of the service developed by Apple being different than the product YouTube was creating (consistency).

By understanding how to apply product principles to frame the problems properly, potential is maximized at building the right thing.

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