Food and technology

We’ve made a lot of progress in meeting the world’s food needs.

We’ve done this by using more technology to increase the yield of our lands.

While the benefits have not been as evenly spread as we’d have liked, things are getting better.

But, we’ve done a poor job in some areas – especially in our treatment of animals.

I think we’re going to see tremendous progress in food in the coming decades. We’re going to see more Soylent inspired alternatives to unhealthy food. Drones and artificial intelligence are going to help us further improve land yield. But, I’m most excited about two other innovations.

The first is large scale vertical farming that start ups like Plenty and InFarm are working hard on. Vertical farming can greatly improve yield, can be done indoors and uses sensors to optimize the growth of plants.

And, the second is lab grown meats from the likes of Memphis Meats. Once we figure out how to produce this on a large scale, it won’t just be a more humane method of meat production. It will also be significantly better for the environment. Studies show that clean meat could potentially be produced with 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, 45 percent less energy, 99 percent less land use and 96 percent less water use than meat made through animal agriculture.

In a remarkably prescient note, Winston Churchill had predicted this 80+ years ago.

It has taken us a while. But, I’m optimistic we’ll get there soon.

(A longer, more detailed version of this note is on Medium or LinkedIn as part of “The Notes by Ada” project)

Mesh Wi-Fi systems

Traditional Wi-Fi set ups don’t scale well with multiple devices. You lose a lot of speed for each step you take away from the router and have to install extenders if your home happens to be longer than it is wide.

And, let’s face it – extenders really suck. You need to create a new Wi-Fi network and only get pitiful speeds even after doing so. You’re likely reminded of this every day – especially if you live far away from family and use video calls to stay in touch.

Mesh Wi-Fi technology gets rid of all these traditional set up limitations by replacing the hub and spoke router model with a mesh that blankets your home with the high speeds that you’d get using a LAN cable.

This video does a great job explaining why mesh Wi-Fi is great.

We live in times when having good internet access is way more important than having cellular access. And, a mesh Wi-Fi system is a game changer. We pay for a 100 MBPS connection and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a 110 MBPS speed outside our home (!) – where we’d never have been able to connect to our extender even.

A real game changer. I couldn’t recommend it strongly enough.

Things we can count on to always be present

There are a few things we can count on to always be present in our workplace –

  • Obstacles – Unexpected obstacles that throw our well laid plans off
  • Feedback – Room for improvement in how we do things
  • Admin – Admin work we’d rather not do
  • Politics – People issues or politicking (as long as there are more than 2 people working on something)

Despite their ever present nature, we still regularly react to obstacles, feedback, admin and politics with annoyance. We often act surprised, astonished even and let these things get us down.

Perhaps we should save the surprise for things that are actually surprising. These are ever present in our lives and make things interesting (up to a point).

So, we might as well love them for what they teach us and get on with it.

Length of a feedback survey – 2 principles

When you create a feedback survey, you make an important decision on its length. The length decision is a trade off between survey completions and useful information. 

If the survey is too long, customers won’t complete it. If it is too short (e.g. 1 question), you may not get the information you need.

I’d suggest 2 principles as you think of the length of a survey –

  1. The length should be proportional to the time spent with the experience
  2. The length should always be a few questions shorter than what you think you need

A simple example to illustrate these points. I had an email exchange with the support team of the company that manages US embassy appointments to change the location of my appointment in their system. It took me a minute to write the email. They sent me a response and asked for feedback. However, the moment I clicked the survey, I decided to close it. That’s because I saw what felt like 30 radio buttons. If I spent 2 minutes (at most) on an exchange, I’d like the survey to be a simple “Happy” or “Not happy” with an optional text box. I’d be more inclined to spend 5 minutes on a survey if it was for a 1 day boot camp that I attended.

As a general rule, we tend to over complicate surveys. My sense is that most feedback surveys would be far better if they just stuck to 3 questions –

  1. How likely is it that you’d recommend our ___ to your friends?
  2. What did we do well?
  3. What could we do better?

All of this is subject to what you are trying to achieve of course. But, I would hazard a guess that some feedback is better than none. Uber, for example, does a great job with this trade off by leading with the rating. You can add comments if you want to but you don’t have to. They’ve taken these principles to heart.

And, their results (a thriving feedback community) follow what is an excellent process.

ALearningaDay email

On most days, I open up my inbox to see what I call “ALearningaDay email.” That’s typically a note from someone in this community about a recent post. It is either a note sharing their experiences, feedback or interpretation. There have been times when these notes have brought a tear to my eye.

I love these notes and they continue to be my favorite kind of emails. They’ve been a wonderful way to get to know many of you – some of whom I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting in person.

I’ve heard from a few of you over the last weeks about missing the comments section. I’m sorry I shut down a channel for conversation. Over time, having another channel to communicate (for just a comment or two on average per post) was causing overhead. And, when I lost the ability to use Disqus as I moved to WordPress managed hosting (which has been excellent so far), I thought it was a perfect time to close the channel.

That said, the point of the move was not to shut down the conversations. I am still reachable as ever via email – rohan at rohanrajiv dot com. So, for those of you who’d like to carry on the conversation and share your notes, I’d love to hear from you. For those who get the daily email, please feel free to just hit reply.

Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Is it really a serious problem?

There are 3 kinds of problems that deserve to be called serious problems in my book –

  1. Matters of life and death
  2. Anything that causes tremendous pain or illness
  3. Anything that affects the ability to get access to food or find shelter

Given the quality of modern, urban life, many of us rarely encounter serious problems. So, we get lax about our definitions. Suddenly, a deadline that’s slipping, a tough conversation or a setback on a project can be labelled  a serious problem.

Every one of us faces challenges and obstacles. But, most of these aren’t serious (thank the force for that). The moment we label such challenges as “serious problems,” we give them far too much importance and reduce our ability to channel our limited bandwidth on tackling problems that actually make a difference in the long run.

Perspective is the biggest gift we can give ourselves.

Retention – feat the tragedy of the commons | Thinking Product

There are two questions to ask when we think of retaining users  –

  1. Are we continuing to drive value for our users via continuous improvement or better surfacing of value?
  2. Are we reminding users of the value they can drive?

Both these questions are important but drive contrasting approaches. The first question focuses on improvements within the product while the second is essentially a notifications/reminders driven strategy.

1. Are we continuing to drive value for our users via continuous improvement or better surfacing of value? 

As mentioned above, there are two ways we drive value here. First, we keep making improvements within the product. For most enterprise products, this continual part of the roadmap is typically driven by customer feedback. For consumer products, it is generally driven by rapid experimentation and copying successful features from other consumer products. And, while consumer product management is arguably more gut driven than enterprise product management, great consumer products are often molded by their users. A seminal example of this is the story behind Twitter’s hashtag.

The first hashtag appeared thanks to Chris Messina, a user who suggested using # for groups. Interestingly, he got inspiration for this from another social network (perfect illustration of my point above) – Jaiku- and from tags on Flickr. In time, Messina’s idea spread and Twitter, after a period of resisting it, came around to it.

Second, most products generally do a poor job surfacing value to users. That’s because our assumptions about the most valuable aspects of our products are rarely what our users value. This is where analysis of usage data goes a long way in improving the product.

Overall, however, this question is all about continuously improving our products to drive value for our users and is the surest proxy for long term product success.

2. Are we reminding users of the value they can drive?

Any savvy mobile product manager today has a sophisticated notifications strategy. She has a point of view on when to surface a push notification versus a badge and when to use email to drive users back to the product. This isn’t limited to small companies trying to get traction. We see the largest companies use notifications a fair bit to drive usage as well. For example, Facebook gets very aggressive with email notifications if you don’t visit your profile or feed. I use Facebook primarily for my blog’s Facebook page. But, that engagement clearly doesn’t count for Facebook – so, I receive an email reminding me of what’s going on on Facebook every day.

Twitter, recently, shifted its notification strategy pretty drastically as well. This was what a notification email from Twitter looked like until the first week of July.

And, this is what happened once they shifted strategy.

Now, I have to click on “Take a look,” head to Twitter to see what happened. Twitter has been having difficulties with user growth and this is clearly a metric mover. The big question with such changes, of course, is whether it will continue to be a metric mover in the long run.

Notifications are important. When done right, they are good reminders of the value a product can drive for the user. However, too often, they are used as short term metric movers that only end up annoying users. The problem with notifications is classic “tragedy of the commons.” If a company has 5 teams who all want to drive up their numbers, how long before they all surface frequent notifications and compel the user to turn off notifications?

The bottom line – a retention strategy that is driven by notifications is a poor retention strategy. I think retention strategies work best when 80% of the effort goes into driving real value and the remaining 20% (and not any more) focuses on reminding users via notifications.

If our users aren’t listening to our many reminders of how great we are, maybe we ought to revisit our assumptions.

Don’t wait for inspiration

This is my third attempt at writing a post today. The previous two didn’t work. After 9+ years of attempting to ship something every day, such days are not new. Some days are just slow days and I know when I feel stuck.

The good news is that I don’t waste time reveling in feeling stuck. If I’m unable to think of something to write for five minutes, I walk away and come back later.

My biggest learning from these days is to not use terms like “waiting for inspiration.” Inspiration is intrinsic and comes from a clarity of purpose. Waiting for something we control is not a great use of our time.

Instead, it is on us to seek it. If we look hard enough, we’re sure to find it.

At least that’s one of those things this 3,400 day journey has taught me.

Check and do what?

The next time you pick up your phone to check a feed or email, ask – “Check and do what?”

Take note of the reasons you hear.

I’ve found 2 types of reasons –
1. The first kind (20% of the time) involved a clear reason for checking, e.g., clearing out email backlog as I hadn’t checked in a while or connecting with someone
2. The second kind (80% of the time) revolved around boredom and instant gratification. I knew there was no need but I still wanted to do it – just because.

Eliminating that second kind of checking is an easy shortcut to a more fulfilled life.

PS: It is hard to stop the second kind of checking cold. So, find a replacement. Every time you find yourself wanting to check for boredom or instant gratification, pick up a book or just take a walk around the house.

Insecure t-shirt

I have a t-shirt in my wardrobe that I call my “insecure” t shirt. On a whim, I wore it on a day when I was just feeling behind and uncertain three years ago. Since then, I’ve done it nearly every time I’ve felt that way.

There have been three lessons from the process of wearing these over the years.

First, like most things, the first step to move past discomfort is to acknowledge and accept it. And, wearing that t-shirt was a sign to myself that I acknowledged my discomfort. Over the course of the day, it then became easier to accept it and move on.

Second, the feeling of discomfort didn’t last for long once I acknowledged it. In the past, I might have let such feelings take over my mood for a day or two. But, given I’m hyper aware of them thanks to this t-shirt, I’ve come to realize that such feelings are fleeting.

Finally, the frequency with which I’ve worn the shirt has decreased a fair bit over time. I remember reading Eckhart Tolle say “Don’t take your thoughts too seriously.” Wearing my “insecure” t-shirt was an experience that brought that learning. It taught me not to give too much credence to fleeting thoughts and feelings of discomfort.

As I learnt, it wasn’t the feeling but my response to it that needed fixing.