Thinking Product: Economist Espresso magic

The Economist Espresso is a new digital product released by The Economist this year. The Espresso is a collection of 6 key pieces of news, a collection of smaller news bytes as part of “The world in brief” and a collection of market specific metrics.

The jobs to be done framework developed by Clay Chistensen explains that customers “hire” products to get a job done (More here). When I think of the job that readers of “The Economist” hire it to do, I think there are 2 kinds of jobs it is hired to do –
Use case 1 – “Make me smarter”  (majority)
Use case 2 – “Prevent me from looking stupid”
I think use case 1 is the majority because it is rare to come across environments where everyone reads and discusses “The Economist.” I’m sure there are isolated cases of teams where the manager is a huge fan and insists on discussing it with the team. But, for the most part, The Economist is akin to a “vitamin” rather than a “painkiller.”

However, newspapers / news apps exist largely for use case 2. Very few people ready the news to make them smarter. It is, after all, more of the same every single day – disaster and negativity coupled with a few bright spots. And, I suspect most people hire newspapers to prevent them from looking stupid when their colleagues or clients discuss the news.

That’s what makes The Economist Espresso a masterstroke. The Economist is now solving use case 2 by promising well curated news. The Espresso is helped greatly by The Economist’s stellar brand – we expect thoughtful, quality content and is a fantastic example of a brand extension. Even if The Economist refers to itself as a newspaper, it is generally a collection of weekly opinions and analysis. With Espresso, The Economist plays in the news domain and actually exists as a painkiller for use case 2.

The Espresso requires you to subscribe to the Digital edition for $22 per quarter. This means $1.83 per week to get smart news news 6 days a week? Absolutely. And, I would also get to read the top 10 odd articles, Editor’s picks and a couple of “round up” articles from The Economist as a bonus? This is fantastic. The presence of a painkiller completely changes the game.

the economist espresso

The Economist, then, follows it up with a beautifully designed app that is just a pleasure to read. I get “The Economist Espresso” by email and consume 3 other emails in the morning – TheSkimm, The Quartz newsletter and Ben Thompson’s “Stratechery” daily update. However, I always find myself archiving the Espresso email and heading over to the app because it is so pleasing to the eye. Even advertisements look gorgeous – so much so that I ignore the fact that I see an ad every day despite the fact that I’m paying for it. I think the maximum word count on an “agenda” item (there are 5 of these) is 150 words – just right for a quick skim. And, the world in brief pieces (7-8 of these) are no more than 75 words.

The only small nits I noted –
– It does feel more intuitive to swipe downward and go to the next article rather than swipe left
– The email edition ends with a quote – I can’t find it on the app
– The Espresso recently added a Saturday edition with news on the arts and sports. I, for one, always hope to find more sports coverage. Here’s hoping that changes going forward.

Overall, a fantastic experience thanks a smart combination of thoughtful product strategy and excellent execution.

Thinking Product: Amazon Kindle Support awesomeness

I kept up a product review series for about 9 weeks over the summer before talking myself out of it. I felt I was putting too much pressure on myself and decided to give it a break. As the weeks have passed, I am ready to get back to it. My passion for discussing products and services hasn’t changed. I am still keen to learn how to build great products. And, that means learning how to “see” greatness in products. A part of what made the old series hard to continue was that the “product review” framework felt constraining. So, I’ve decided to keep it more open. Let’s see how v2.0 goes.

The product experience I’d like to discuss today is one with Amazon Kindle support.

One of my recent learning objectives is to get good at Statistics. I was recommended a Statistics textbook by one of my Professors and purchased it on Kindle. I didn’t get to it until Thanksgiving break. When I did, I soon realized that it wasn’t conducive to reading on the Kindle (app on my iPad) because it inspired me to take notes, try out exercises and flip pages to see the answers. I needed to get a physical copy.

This, book, however, was $94 on the Kindle. And, while I’m normally indifferent to education related spending, I felt guilty about making a bad decision and began researching Kindle returns. It turns out that all you have to do is go to “Manage Your Content and Devices,” click on the book and (here’s the catch), if the book was purchased in the past week, you can return it with a click.

Amazon returns

Mine was 2 months old and I’d also read a bit of it on the Kindle. However, I decided to give Amazon’s Kindle support a shot. Here are the emails.


I am a graduate school student who purchased Statistics (Fourth Edition) on my Kindle. However, upon reading it, I’ve found it very hard to “study” this book on the Kindle and purchased a physical copy instead (just purchased a 2nd hand version on Amazon).

I know this is a long shot.. but I was wondering if I would qualify for a return. This would be particularly valuable to me as this is an expensive book ($94!) and I am, after all, a cash starved graduate student.

Thank you for considering this.

Their response came through in less than 2 hours.



I’ve requested a refund of $93.32 for “Statistics (Fourth Edition).” Refunds are issued to the payment method used to make the original purchase and usually complete within two to three business days.

Once processed, you’ll be able to see the refund request here:…

Thanks for using Kindle.

We’d appreciate your feedback. Please use the links below to tell us about your experience today.

Best regards,
Shruti S

Did I solve your problem?
Yes No
Your feedback is helping us build Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.


3 quick notes –

1. I was blown away by the speed of response. As a friend pointed out, this means they likely have authority at the customer support level to make such decisions. A $94 for a book bought 2 months ago isn’t a small decision by any means.

2. My only improvement suggestion would be to add the name of the customer next to the name. “Hello Rohan” would have been fantastic. Audible support does a fantastic job doing that.

3. “Your feedback is helping us build Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.” – In most cases, I would scoff when I see a line like that. It is testament of the consistent awesomeness of all things Amazon that scoffing didn’t even occur to me.

Great product experiences mean making sure your users get supported. Thanks, Amazon, for showing us how its done.

PhraseExpress – Product Review 6

Attribute #1. Delivers on a singular value proposition in a world-class way (purpose): Grade – A+
PhraseExpress exists to make it easy for you to replace oft-used phrases with a couple of keystrokes. I use it to replace phrases that I use a lot – e.g. “please find attached,” “hope you are doing well,” “looking forward to,” “alearningaday,” my email address, etc.

It saves me a ton of time and has never caused problems. Definite A+

Attribute #2. Simple, intuitive, and anticipates needs (design): Grade – B
I don’t find PhraseExpress’ design to be simple or intuitive. 3 areas where it just over complicates things –
1. Clicking the icon on my taskbar doesn’t open the application. It opens a bunch of sub menus. I need to right click -> Edit phrases to open up the application.
2. Right clicking the left hand side of the image above (i.e. where the phrases are stored) gives rise to 5 options – to create a new folder/phrase/bitmap/counter variable/separator. Maybe PhraseExpress’ users are largely power users who understand what all of this means. But, I somehow doubt it. It feels a lot like feature creep.
3. The right hand side is, again, anything but simple. I would scrap this and start all over again to make things simpler.

The only place where PhraseExpress scores high is that it notices spelling errors wherever I type and helps auto correct. But, thanks to bad design, this is only a B.

Attribute #3. Exceeds expectations (customer love): Grade – B
It does what it is supposed to. Solid B here.

Attribute #4. Emotionally resonates (feel): Grade – C
No emotional resonance. I don’t find that to be disappointing as I don’t expect any better.

However, the product keeps popping up with these massive alerts asking me to upgrade to their latest version. Now, I’m really glad their product team is shipping all these upgrades. But, it is text expansion software for god’s sake. I wish there was an easy way to turn the updates off. Sadly, I haven’t found any. And, as a result, the annoying updates cause negative emotional resonance.

Attribute #5. Changes the user’s life for the better (impact): Grade – A
Definitely positive impact.

Overall Rating: B
PhraseExpress is an example of a product that delivers on its purpose well but fails on the user interface. It feels like a classic case of feature creep with way more options than necessary.

But, that said, I still use it and I’d still recommend it. And, I think that speaks to the power of a product delivering on a single value proposition in a world class way.

Context for recommendations – The 200 words project

When YouTube first introduced the “Recommendations” feature, it performed well but wasn’t impressive. Soon, the YouTube team added a simple tweak – below their “recommended for you” list, they added context as to why they recommended the video.

This completely changed the dynamic – where previously users saw recommendations that seemed to not make sense, they just said “YouTube recommendations suck!” and moved on. Now, when they had context, they understood why YouTube recommended a particular video. Thus, click throughs went up by ~20% and also created a great dynamic (for YouTube) in that, when the user found a bad recommendation, they blamed themselves and not YouTube.

So, if we’re aiming to create recommendations for our customers based on their past behavior, let’s consider providing context for better impact.

Netflix’s Product Managers have clearly followed suit. These are the shows recommended to me because I watched David Attenborough’s “Life” series – really helpful and adds so much to my experience.

Context for Recommendations

I’m generally a fan of experimenting with additional context when it provides a look inside your algorithmic black box. I think it makes your product seem more human to its users and feels like your algorithms are working on behalf of the person and their interests rather than just treating them as a row in a user database. – Hunter Walk

Source and thanks to: VC and ex-YouTube Product Manager Hunter Walk’s Blog

Dametra Cafe – Product Review 5

One of my objectives with reviewing products is to mix regular reviews for conventional technology products with those of non-tech product and service experiences. And, today, I’d like to share the story of my experience with Dametra Cafe.

A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I visited a small middle eastern restaurant called Dametra Cafe in a quaint little town called Carmel-by-the-sea. It had really good reviews and we waited 30 mins to get in. The appetizers and main course were really good. The service, however, was excellent – the waitress was friendly and attentive and, midway through our meal, the owner came and checked in to see if we were doing okay. Always a nice touch.

As we were nearing the end of the meal – the owner came out again, this time with a stringed instrument. He said the chef would be joining him for a Spanish song that translated to “To live and to love.” For 4 of us friends who were seeing each other after a very long time, this was almost the perfect song for that moment. Score again. Thus, they began. It had a catchy tune and, within moments, we were all clapping and singing along. (the clip below is of the first part of the song – the our voices got louder once we learnt the simple chorus)


And, after all of this, we were also treated to desserts on-the-house to round it all up.

There were 2 important product insights I took away –
1. Simple freebies go a long way. The free desserts probably didn’t cost them much. They may even have them built in to the price. It didn’t matter. It was a simple and nice touch. Nickle-and-diming customers for every little thing never results in a pleasant experience.

2. Let the product have personality. I touched on this idea in my product review of “The Skimm” – personality plays a big role in the product resonating with customers. There were two interesting notes about this musical experience. First, a friend who I shared this experience remembered having lunch at the exact place and seeing the owner burst into song. It didn’t resonate as much with him as it did with me. That’s part and parcel of bringing personality to your product. You win some and you lose some.

Second, all it took for this lunch to be special was that personal touch. As you can tell from the video, the owner and the chef weren’t great singers. But, they clearly enjoyed it and brought themselves to their little performance. So, we couldn’t help but join. That bit of personality transformed a a meal to an experience, one that was undoubtedly among the best meal experiences I’ve had in a very long time…

A quick note on doing these product reviews – I started writing this as I wanted to understand how to build great products and services. A first step to doing that is learning to “see” and learning to be aware of greatness. And, just thinking about these product review posts has led me to find myself noticing products more and feeling a lot more aware as I use products. It is amazing what our minds notice once we simply decide to do so…

The B2C2B era and its implications for us

Tom Tunguz had a great post introducing B2C2B (business-to-consumer-to-business) companies. The image below explains the idea –

B2C2BThe best way to understand this is to see what happened with the iPhone. In the 80s and 90s, all B2B productivity applications needed to be approved by 1 central corporate gatekeeper – the head of IT. IBM’s initial success in making Windows the corporate standard was attributed to that all powerful line – “No one ever got fired for buying an IBM.” This was a time when computing was necessarily expensive.

Over time, however, thanks to advances in technology and the Moore’s law, personal computing became inexpensive. So, consumers were soon able to crunch spreadsheets and store data at home. By the mid 2000s, enterprise apps weren’t better than consumer apps. In fact, in many cases, they were worse.

The iPhone flipped the old model of B2B sales completely. The product was so good that consumers who fell in love with it began badgering their IT departments to allow them to plug into the official network (that had become easier too). And, soon, the iPhone became a corporate standard across leading companies without Apple having to negotiate with any IT department. The iPhone as just the beginning – we’ve seen this across the board with companies who’ve had tremendous success with B2C2B.

There are a few interesting implications of this shift –
1. Every consumer facing enterprise productivity company in the future will need to grasp this concept and design applications that appeal to customers. The only companies that can escape this effect, for now, are companies that work on the back end.

2. That said, Amazon Web Services, AWS, is a prime (apt word when referring to Amazon) example of the B2C2B phenomenon and a role model for companies working on back end infrastructure. A cornerstone of AWS’ success has been customer love. It has made the lives of startups and entrepreneurs so much better. And, it has been rewarded with more trust as these startups and entrepreneurs have become successful. It, in turn, has proved itself worthy of that trust by providing the back end for companies such as Netflix and Dropbox.

3. Speaking of Dropbox, Dropbox’s move to Enterprise was inevitable. There’s a lot of money to be made selling to companies. And, Dropbox’s success was definitely an illustration of the B2C2B idea. Users loved Dropbox and found ways to use it within their teams at work. Over time, it made sense for corporate IT to embrace Dropbox. However, it is in that step that Dropbox had a few teething troubles. Corporate IT managers wanted more admin and security controls. This, in turn, underscores the challenges with B2C2B. Previously, you could just build products that kept corporate IT managers happy. Now, they have to feel in control AND the users have to love it, too.

4. Companies like Uber are experiencing this effect, too. Uber is already expensed more than taxi cabs. How long before companies strike enterprise level deals with Uber without Uber having to go seek them out?

5. For every positive story, there are companies that have experienced the pain caused by this shift. Microsoft Exchange is a prime example. Too many Exchange users complained about their unhappiness with having to manually archive their Microsoft email every 2 months because space limits on Exchange were outdated. So, there’s been a continuous shift to Gmail. Again, users love it. Companies follow.

6. Speaking of Microsoft, I wouldn’t extrapolate Microsoft Exchange’s troubles to Office. Despite advances made by all Office competitors, including Google Docs, Microsoft Excel and OneNote are still outstanding. And, PowerPoint does its job. (Word, however, is a travesty – can someone fix that?) It is great that Microsoft is proactively figuring out how to make using Office easier in the cloud. They are still the leaders here and the lead is theirs to lose.

7. As cool as “B2C2B” sounds, this isn’t a new world shift. Investment banks and management consulting firms have pursued this strategy for a very long time. There’s a reason that the Goldman’s and McKinsey’s of the world have “client first” written all over their walls. User satisfaction has led to company adoption in all of professional services. Aside from the fact that treating people well is simply the right thing to do, for professional service firms, treating people well is source of competitive advantage. Most of these alumni become future clients.

That said, there is a crucial point of difference. In the case of the internet, aside from the fact that network effects are more powerful (professional services have network effects, too), marginal cost is zero.

8. Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are probably the 4 most influential B2C2B companies of the internet era. Their success is built on the same blueprint – build products that users engage on and customers (advertisers in all cases and others like recruiters in the case of LinkedIn) will follow. It makes sense that media was among the first industries to feel the power of the B2C2B shift. The first sign of customer love is their attention. Companies that do well to capture attention will continue to drive the online advertising market size upward. And, this, in turn, illustrates why valuations for consumer internet companies are off the roof. They are, after all, no longer “consumer” internet companies.

9. That, in turn, is why Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram could be among the best tech acquisition deals ever. Photos and messaging dominate attention in the mobile era. While Whatsapp has a few global competitors, Instagram helps Facebook dominate the world of photos. That’s incredible value of 1 billion dollars.

10. In “How Google Works” by Jonathan Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt, Jonathan and Eric share examples of many decisions Google made that resulted in a loss of revenue for Google but were still executes as they agreed it would be great for the user. I think those examples don’t share the complete picture. Sure, it might have lost revenue in the short run. But, in the long run, B2C2B dictates that the user’s love is far more important for long term revenue. So, keeping the user first isn’t a competitive advantage, it is a competitive necessity.

11. We are in an era where “customer is king” is, for the first time in history, very close to being true. We have more B2C2B companies than ever before and more will be created in the coming decade. Thus, it follows that the B2C2B companies will likely experience most success under leadership that cares about. Now, it isn’t just about what the product can do. It, truly is, about how the product makes the user feel.

12. I’ll finish up with a provocative point. There was a rush of people flocking towards entrepreneurship in the last decade as everyone seemed to be vying to be the next Facebook. For the many who were working for large corporations shipping products to nameless and faceless organizations, building products for human beings they could see, touch and feel felt really empowering. We are social animals after all. And, we want our work to count. Change enough people’s lives and you will change the world, after all. This has resulted in a chain reaction of schools and politicians emphasizing the importance of entrepreneurship. All of this is good. With the advent of B2C2B, however, I would assert that a few of those assumptions will, and should, be challenged. While the gains of creating a startup that goes on to become the next Facebook are, indeed, outsized, I would argue that there are more opportunities than ever before to touch the lives of real customers. That’s what the B2C2B era has done for us.

What makes this all interesting is that the rules of engagement in this era are shifting really quickly. This is why “preferred qualifications” list in technology jobs read like a description for superwomen/men. Entrepreneurship and innovation are mentioned as required traits too often in too many job descriptions. It shouldn’t be surprising, though. With all these shifts, being able to learn, empathize with customers and build products and services that resonate are more important than ever before. And, that’s why I believe schools need to spend time on discussions around “being entrepreneurial” vs. “being an entrepreneur.” We don’t need more companies. We need better companies.

B2C2B, to me, is among the most profound shifts we’ve seen in the past few years. What makes this all incredibly exciting is that this is all just the beginning…

Fitbit Flex – Product Review 4

Attribute #1. Delivers on a singular value proposition in a world-class way (purpose): Grade – A+
When I was gifted the fitbit, my understanding was that I was getting a product that counted my steps. Fitbit has and continues to nail that use case. I don’t like wearing stuff on my wrist. So, after 6 months of wearing it, I began carrying it in my pocket. I think smaller Fitbit products would suit my use case. But, as long as this continues to work, I don’t expect to buy another Fitbit.

This leads to me to a question – what is the single value proposition of a Fitbit? If it is to track more than steps, it has, then, failed. For instance, when I began using Fitbit, I considered logging other kinds of exercise and my diet. But, that fizzled out quickly as it just felt like too much effort for limited return.

Attribute #2. Simple, intuitive, and anticipates needs (design): GradeC, then B in the last 6 months
Ghe physical product is excellent and works pretty well. It’s been working just fine for 2 years (is that too long for their own sake?) Sure, it gets thrown off if you are on a bumpy car ride, but I’d expect that.

The mobile app, however, was awful for far too long. It regularly lost sync with the Fitbit and needed to be re-installed. It had too many things going on all at once. The most recent version has cleaned up parts of that and focused it around steps and active minutes. That’s great. Simpler is generally better.

However, there are still underlying issues. For instance, the challenges section of the app is meant to be an engagement booster. However, the last time I used it, it needed to be renewed every week. What a drag! The challenges should be ongoing. And, this, to me, is a good indicator of the problems Fitbit has with engagement in my eyes. My “friends” tab reveals 1 active friend and 11 inactive friends. Most folks I know used it enthusiastically for a couple of months and then stopped. So, there’s something not right. Then again, it could just be a small sample.

Attribute #3. Exceeds expectations (customer love): Grade – A
My Fitbit strap broke. I emailed them from Singapore. They mailed 2 straps to Singapore for free. What more can I say?

Attribute #4. Emotionally resonates (feel): Grade – A
I think the product definitely resonates. I feel positive just thinking about my Fitbit in my pocket. It makes me feel like I’m working hard to stay healthy. 

Attribute #5. Changes the user’s life for the better (impact): Grade – A+
I take the stairs at every opportunity. I take the scenic route to the bathroom when I can. And, I try to take as many walks and walking meetings as possible. It definitely has had a positive impact on my life.  

Overall Rating – A-
The product has clearly worked for me. But, if I were a product manager at Fitbit, I would consider the following questions –
Super users. What characterizes Fitbit super users? Are my super users just disciplined folk who’ve gotten hooked to a cool product? Have I succeeded in converting someone who isn’t disciplined / hates exercise into a regular user?
Use cases. How many users use Fitbit primarily for the “counting steps” use case? My guess is that the number is not small. And, if it is not small, what can Fitbit do to make sure they build moats around these users? The Apple Watch (if I had one) would easily take over this use case
Active users. What is the active user : buyer ratio? Have there ever been stories of inactive users (cue: my friends and family) who became active again? How can this churn be reduced?
Non-watch users. Is there a large enough segment of people who don’t want to wear something on their wrists? Can Fitbit experiment with product design that is only intended for a pocket? I think the zip does that but could we be more creative? For example, can create a Fitbit like device that works similar to the nametags / badges that most office employees have? (this is both a product and business development idea as employers are working hard to promote ideas around wellness)

I am glad about Fitbit’s IPO. As you can tell from my many questions, a part of me does worry for the future of the company. Looking forward to seeing how it evolves.