Painkillers Not Vitamins

person holding silver blister pack

I’m always on the lookout for alternative ways to think about innovation and building things. For one, thinking about things differently is a good practice to ensure you’re continuously evolving and improving. Secondly, I think it’s good to challenge notions and conventions.

That said though, a core theme of innovation and product management that comes up repeatedly is that of solving pain. Something that causes friction in the lives of people is a great opportunity for innovation.

Tony Fadell, one of the creators of the iPod and iPhone was on Lex Fridman’s podcast this week talking about this very thing.

In their conversation, Tony talks about two things he’s passionate about – music and engineering. When he was young, he would listen to music in his room on a clock radio. His parents would get on to him for staying up too late playing music. So he hacked the clock radio and wired a pair of headphones to it so they couldn’t hear the music – problem solved!

Later he would go on to talk about the annoyance of carrying CD’s around and how he had the chance to work at Apple with Steve Jobs and others. It was there he came up with the design and engineering plan to create the first iPod. As he’s telling the story, a couple of things stood out to me.

One, he describes how great problems “chase you”. There always there but maybe hard to see. I’ve written before about user’s not always knowing what they want and so they don’t necessarily ask you to build or make something. Tony describes this as “habitualizing pain”. Everyone has just excepted it but that doesn’t mean there’s still not opportunity there. A recent example is autonomous vehicles. Most people, most of the time, don’t particularly enjoy driving cars, especially in heavy traffic. But we all accept it and this is better than riding a bike. Self-driving cars though will solve this excepted problem [eventually].

The other great point he made was that great innovation is like a pain killer. Some products or innovations are like vitamins – they may help a little or maybe not and it’s kind of hard to tell. But “pain killer” innovations have an immediate and obvious use! [side note, but ironically this advice holds in the world of innovation but isn’t true in reality – get vitamins!].

One last thing he mentioned that was a good reinforcement. He described how he designed and put together the first iPod but that was only half of the equation. They needed a way to get music on the device and they had to collab with another team that create iTunes. Teamwork of great, dedicated people is almost always part of a success story!

Rinse and Repeat, Again and Again

“The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time” – W.B. Yates

Edward Thorp was a mathematics genius and an early pioneer of using statistics and probability to successfully invest and direct funds he managed. His track record is one of the best all time. He used these models to become an early investor in the options market and found arbitrage opportunities in a variety of investment vehicles.

But the interesting thing about investing models and these techniques – they have to evolve. One of the most famous models, Black-Scholes [Fischer Black just recently won a noble prize for this one] forced Thorp to continue to tweak and refine is formulas. Depending on who’s side of the story you buy, Black-Scholes forced him to make his models better (apparently there is some drama as to the timing of when these models were published versus discovered – not the stuff you’ll see on reality TV anytime soon). The point here is simply this – over time everything changes and so must your product and your solution.

In his Ted Talk, Guy Kawaski explains the need to build quickly, don’t wait for perfection and then iterate. Some product managers suggest by version 3 of your product you’ll feel embarrassed looking back at version 1. And that’s ok. Time is going to render change and the opportunity to iterate and evolve. Sometimes that means just making a better version of your product. Sometimes it means realizing something even more novel, that your original problem has changed. Avon’s Skin So Soft was meant to be a better skin lotion but when they realized it was an even more effective insect repellent, they went with it. Either way, evolution and iterations must occur to stay relevant. If good product exists to solve problems and problems change over time then it’s only natural that product must change too.

So there you have it, poetry, math tea, and product thoughts all in one bite! Happy Friday!

The Future – My Challenge

photography of people graduating

It’s that time of the year – grad season – where the relief of finishing something leads to ceremonies and celebrations. I’ve been watching (or rewatching) some graduation commencement speeches. I’ve always thought that the advice in them is generally applicable through life, not just the first few years after somewhat graduates. In fact, most of the stories and wisdoms shared happened over years or decades even. Here are my top 3 and some of the best advice in them [with apologies to T Swift].

Number 3 – Steve Jobs, Stanford – Steve Jobs, arguably one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time, tells some amazing stories about things that shaped who he became. He dropped out of college because of the financial toll it was taking on his parents. That gave him the chance to take random classes with no focus on a major nor prescribed curriculum. He talked about taking a calligraphy class and how that later served him when designing fonts for the Mac. He also talked about failure – about how getting fired from Apple made him better. Lastly, a great point he made was essentially about not listening to the knaves, the naysayers, and the haters – it’s your life.

Number 2 – Admiral McCraven, University of Texas – This was a great speech from a former Navy seal. There was a certain amount of self-deprecating humor to it [“I remember graduation and the ceremony but don’t remember who made the commencement speech so I’ll make this short”]. It was also really pragmatic and he gave 10 pieces of advice he learned from being a seal. The top 5 in short were: 1. Start the day out making your bed, if you get the little things right and do something positive you set the tone for the day. 2. Find someone to help you paddle [your raft]. You need a team, a squad, a tribe. 3. Gauge people by the size of their heart, not their flippers. Heart is the intangible that often matters most and yet has no deterministic way to be measured. 4. Keep pushing forward. Bad days are inevitable, push through, dust yourself off and look forward to tomorrow. 5. Do the extra work. Drive and tenacity are a byproduct of heart and they’ll serve you well.

Number 1 – Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth – Conan starts out with some hilarious takes on college life, the ivy league rivalries and even jokes that the Dean has accomplished so much he must be overcompensating for something? Not surprising that he’s funny – that’s his forte. But what made his speech great was how real he got about failing, about finally landing the job of his dreams (the Tonight Show) only to have the carpet yanked out from under him when Jay Leno came back. Perhaps more than anything, perseverance is a trait needed to succeed and he gives a really vulnerable talk into how he turned his lemons into lemonade.

P.S. – Shout out to my daughter McKenzie for finishing at USF this May! Congrats Dolly, grab the holeshot and never look back!

Pictures are so Iconic

person holding photo of single tree at daytime

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the VIMM method of evaluating the intuitiveness of a product’s design. If you understand the types of issues users face when working with a product, from there you can form a plan to reduce the mental stress and create a great user experience. Interestingly one simple technique that addresses potentially all 4 of the VIMM areas is the use of pictures, or in the case of digital products – icons.

In 1971, Allan Paivio published what he called the “dual-coding” theory. In his research, he argued that humans process information into memory via 2 separate “channels” or pathways in the brain. Those 2 separate pathways are distinguished between imagery and verbal information.

The interesting thing here is that we can look at a picture, particularly if it has a caption or label, and store it in memory on both channels. This greatly improves a person’s ability to later recall that image and it’s meaning.

The implication here for product design is that by using icons effectively, we can reduce visual, intellectual, and memory load placed on a user. Product designers think about making user interfaces where the most salient information or tasks are easily identified. In so doing, we simplify the difficulty in understanding how to interact with an application and can even reduce the number of steps it takes to do something. I would argue the same thing is true of emojis. A single image to convey a variety of emotions that might otherwise be awkward or time consuming to convey.

Paivio’s work led to what’s now known as the “Picture Superiority Effect“. It’s not fully understood or at least agreed upon (when is it ever in academic psychology?) why this is but there is plenty of demonstrated evidence that it does work. And early studies on metaverse applications suggest a material improvement, as much as 33%, in retention of learning material which could mean that the combination of 3d, video, and pictures all lessen cognitive load.

In 1927, some ad exec Fred Barnard made the statement “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Little did we know how ahead of his time ol’ Fred was.

Let’s Get Real

yellow arrow led signage

One of the challenges any organization with more than 1 person faces is alignment. In this sense alignment refers to clarity in what the objective is and how it will be carried out. One of the reasons this clarity gets lost has to do with a strange phenomenon where a small misalignment in leadership creates much larger gaps throughout the organization. This translates into politics and other counterproductive traits – the opposite of a functional, empowered team. Another reason this happens though has to do with poor communication or what Patrick Lencioni simply referred to as “leadership blather”.

Here’s an example from his book “The Advantage“:

“Mission Statement: ________ incorporated provides its customers with quality _______ products and the expertise required for making informed buying decisions. We provide our products and services with a dedication to the highest degree of integrity and quality of customer satisfaction developing long-term relationships with employees that develop pride creating a stable company spirit.

As bad as it is, it’s hard to deny that this statement seems fairly ordinary.” It’s not that different than many mission statements I’ve seen but the funny thing is, this is from the fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin featured in the sitcom The Office.

Part of the problem stems from leaders that aren’t willing to have real conversations or speak sincerely. I would argue that while that ability may not be natural in everyone it can be developed and is a trait the best leaders understand as critical to their team’s success. It’s easier to throw around jargon and MBA sounding phrases but to create real alignment, the communication has to be real, vulnerable even.

Lencioni goes on to describe 6 questions you should be able to answer:

  1. Why do we exist? [Start With Why]
  2. How do we behave? [An Organization is often defined by the worst behavior it’s leadership allows]
  3. What do we do? [Make a mantra, not a mission statement – Our product team mantra: “Innovative Insurance Transactions”]
  4. How will we succeed? [OKRs & KPIs]
  5. What is most important, right now? [Prioritization, what will you say no to?]
  6. Who must do what? [It’s a basket ball team, not a golf team]

Not easy to do but in the process of gaining clarity on these questions, there’s vulnerable messy dialogue that takes places. If done well, that closes gaps and creates a healthy organization equipped to perform at a high level!

How Heavy is Your Cognitive Load?

multiethnic students doing homework together in library

Design Psychology has many facets to it but understanding them helps us think about “user experience” from a human centered perspective. This is helpful as it maximizes our chances at making a great UI/UX and human centered interactive design. One of the concepts that informs this approach is that of cognitive load.

Cognitive load refers to the working memory resources a person has while working to complete a task. The VIMM model, which I heard about from an interview with Thomas Watkins explains 4 things to keep in mind when thinking about cognitive load.

  1. Visual Load – This refers to the things you see when looking at something like a screen. Things to avoid so you don’t increase visual load are clutter (too much on a screen), long ungrouped content, and too many calls to action.
  2. Intellectual Load – The amount of thinking a user has to do when interacting with your application is also important. Hear the idea is to avoid inconsistencies in behavior of objects, missing navigation, bad copy and content that lacks context.
  3. Memory Load – Don’t overestimate the amount of complexity people will put up with. Their memory will often not perform well enough. Avoid complex processes, workflows that require memorization (as opposed to intuition), and lack of transparency in where the user is within a task or workflow.
  4. Motor Load – This refers to the amount of actual action a user has to take at any one time or to complete a task. Stay away from designs that required too many steps/clicking, requiring very precise hovering or positioning, and excessive HCI switching (meaning the need to go back and forth between mouse, keyboard or other peripherals to complete something.

Naturally there are tradeoffs to these concepts and as Einstein famously said, “[you can] make everything as simple as possible but no simpler”. But by keeping these concepts (and many others) in mind you increase your chances at creating a great design and ultimately a great user experience.

Neil McElroy: The Product OG

I’ve often thought of Product Management as a relatively new role in world. While it’s true that digitally it is, the idea and approach, it turns out, isn’t at all.

Neil McElroy was working for Proctor & Gamble in 1931 and wrote a job description that would change the “top-down” approach to a method creating product or “brand” teams as he called it. In just a 3 page memo he laid the foundation for what would later become known as product management.

Product guru Ken Norton wrote a great summary of the important points of McElroy’s job description. One of the things he pointed out was that changing the perspective of the company to a view that was customer-centric as opposed to company-centric was critical. As Norton pointed out the job description had these important parts:

“(a) talk to customers and uncover their problems

(b) develop a product that solves the problem

(c, d) create a channel strategy and sales collateral to sell the product

(e) track the right metrics, iterate, and drive profitability”

Like so many great ideas, quotes, and adages, McElroy’s ideas have stood the test of time. He would later go on to influence the founders of HP with his product perspective! Before the internet, before ubiquitous computing power, the framework that would shape how many innovate was laid described on a typewriter, nearly100 years ago!

The Product Manifesto

concrete dome pathway

There’s a team of product managers working on a “Product Manifesto” meant to frame the tenets of product management and innovation. The idea is that this will help people of all experience levels in becoming better product managers. It’s also meant to help with product managers and working with stake holders who often don’t understand how to work with a product team. It includes vision setting, strategy and problem understanding.

One of the people working on it is Victoria Ku who’s a Product Manager at AirBnb. She was recently on the Product Podcast to share some insights and experience and there were 4 really interesting points she made.

  1. Product Management is inherently ambiguous – The role acts as a generalist and there’s no one, clear, way to do everything. But this allows for flexibility and a fluid approach. Maintaining this fluidness even as you scale is important. It allows creativity and a broader arrange of ways to contribute. It’s okay to have some structure, pillars and principles but guard against making dogma and process more important than innovating.

2. Problem > Solution – Many others, myself included, have written about this concept. In Victoria’s words, problem focus and avoiding the rush to solutioning is the “root of innovative success.” Stay married to the problem but open minded on the solution.

3. Scaling Agile is Hard – Agile struggles and sometimes falls apart in large, cross-functional organizations. Interoperability from teams becomes challenging. It leads to hybrid models and lacks consistency.

4. The generalist nature of the role makes it prone to burnout. Find the areas you can be more flexible and avoid taking on too many roles. Stress means success is failed way of thinking. It’s easier to fall into a hole than it is to climb out of it. There’s a great piece on building resilience by recharging here. In short, burnout suppresses creativity and the ability to innovate.

You can check out the whole interview here.

Emotional Stimulus, OMG

I broke my own rule this week. Too many factors came together and I didn’t make time to read nor listen to anything new or noteworthy. Here’s “re-share” of some thoughts on big decision making from last year. Back to the routine next week!

 I was contemplating a tough decision to make last week and went back to some notes I had on making “big decisions”.  It may sound obsessive that I have a notes to consult and maybe that’s not for everyone but it does light up the analytical side of my brain and helps me break something down.  If you’ve never studied the physiology of psychology, part of the challenge we face is that all stimulus comes in through our senses and has to pass through our limbic system (where emotions happen) before it gets to the higher-order thinking part of our brain.  So, this framework is a set of steps/questions to ask that help make better decisions:

  1. Find expert advice (reference material) on the subject – it’s foolish to simply think we “know it all”.
  2. Get the facts or due diligence – uninformed optimism isn’t good for your marriage, personal or professional relationships.
  3. Ask for advice – it’s wise to learn from experience but wiser to learn from someone else’s.  Life’s too short for you to make all of the mistakes.  Last week I wrote about humility allowing us to put the ego aside to seek learning – same concept here.
  4. Set a goal.  Likely you’re making a decision about something you picture in your future – this is the dream.  Dream + Date = Goal and helps you not stay in this analysis stage too long.
  5. Think about the “cost” or cons of the decision and remember this: It is ALWAYS easier to get into something than to get out of it.
  6. Plan for problems or consider them.  At the summit this year the former Navy seal talked about preparation and that’s where this comes in.  You can’t solve tomorrow’s problems today but if you’re prepared you have a better chance.  You can’t solve for everything up front or you would never make a decision.
  7. Be a little braver than you think you need to be – our fear of something is almost always worse than the thing itself
  8. Step out in faith.  Courage is the ability to move ahead despite fear.

The Art of the Guy

clear light bulb

Guy Kawasaki is a legendary marketing guru that helped Apple distinguish the Mac and other products in the early 80’s. He went on to become a VC, speaker, author, and evangelist for many great tech companies. I recently revisited his speech on the Art of Innovation. Here’s a recap of his 10 errr 11 tips on how to innovate.

  1. Make Meaning – Similar to Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” concept, aim to make meaning or make a difference. The best companies make meaning and the money follows. If you start with a focus just on making money it’s much more difficult.
  2. Make a Mantra – Mission statements are often cold and inaccurate. He uses the Wendy’s mission statement as an example of what not to do (Wendy’s: To deliver superior quality products and services for our customers and communities through leadership, innovation and partnerships.) What they should say is something like “Good food fast” or “Affordable Tasty Food”.
  3. Jump the Curve – Incremental developments have a place and happen but real scientific revolution happens when you jump to a new order of thinking or problem solving.
  4. DICEE – Go DEEP with innovation, in an INTELLIGENT way, that COMPLETELY solves a problem in a way that is EMPOWERING and ELEGANT. Those 5 traits make great product in any industry.
  5. Be Crappy – Perfection is the enemy of good enough. If you wait until perfection to ship, you’ll get beat by the competition every time. Don’t ship crap, but understand some blemishes will be there.
  6. Let 100 Flowers Blossom – Try many ideas and don’t be afraid to pivot. Netflix started as a shampoo subscription company. 3M invented sticky notes. Many great companies were made by allowing their clients to guide them to new ideas often very different from their original vision.
  7. Polarize People – Innovation often polarizes people. Ad agencies hated Tivo because people could fast forward through commercials. Candle makers were afraid of the light bulb and on and on. If you’re disrupting something, some people won’t like it.
  8. Churn Baby Churn – build v1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and keep iterating as quickly as you can. Don’t listen to the naysayers who think it’s impossible – keep chiseling away at the problem you’re solving.
  9. Niche Thyself – Be valuable and unique. Not one, not the other but both.
  10. Perfect Your Pitch – Master your sales line. Make a great introduction and have an “elevator” spiel. In 20 seconds, state why your idea matters.
  11. As a bonus, Guy shared his thoughts on presentations with the 10/20/30 rule. Make no more than 10 slides, speak no more than 20 minutes, use a 30 point font. For font size, take the oldest person you expect to be in the audience and divide their age by 2 which is how he got to 30. So if you’re pitching to class of high school students you then you can go with 8 point!