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)

Dametra

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.

The Skimm – Product Review 3

TheSkimm

Attribute #1. Delivers on a singular value proposition in a world-class way (purpose): Grade – B
In my opinion, the Skimm exists to make sure you never feel stupid during a discussion of the news. The value proposition of the Skimm isn’t just synthesis of news. It is never walking into a discussion with a fear that you may be perceived as someone who doesn’t even keep up with the news. It delivers on that value proposition very well.

However, I give it an B because I think it targets readers in the US and does well to serve this demographic. I do find myself wondering if they could provide more color on what happens globally. At the very least, I’d love to have that option.

Attribute #2. Simple, intuitive, and anticipates needs (design): Grade – A
This is an area where The Skimm does really well. The email shows up every morning and is typically a 5-7 minute read. They pick out around 5 key pieces of news and ensures you know enough to be going on with while also having options to click through in case you are reading more.

The Skimm understands that users want a byte sized news meal in the morning. And, it delivers on this really well.

Attribute #3. Exceeds expectations (customer love): Grade – A
I’ve had no reason to feel anything less than satisfied. I definitely love it and recommend it.

Attribute #4. Emotionally resonates (feel): Grade – A+
Another strength. The Skimm is witty and fun. This personality is a big part of what makes it an enjoyable read.

As I review products, I am learning that emotional resonance is so critical. Products can’t just be functional. They need to have an identity. And, the Skimm feels like that smart, witty friend who always has something interesting to say.

Attribute #5. Changes the user’s life for the better (impact): Grade – A
I’ve experimented a lot with my consumption of the news over the years. I think it is important to stay abreast of what is going on. However, I also think spending an hour reading the news isn’t going to be my preference. So, I’ve ended up zero-ing on reading headlines and a short description on my Feedly / feed reader and defaulting to The Skimm for a slightly more in-depth read.

It has definitely had a positive impact.

Overall Rating – A
Really simple and really well done. I think it is the emotional resonance that sets the Skimm apart. The team recently celebrated the 3rd birthday – congratulations and well done.

PS: Click here if you are interested in subscribing to the Skimm

Chevron Pump – Product Review 2

Chevron Gas Pump

I had a product moment when I was refueling over the weekend. As is often the case with refueling, my mind was on auto-pilot. The fuel system was very good – no hitches until I had to pick the grade of fuel I wanted. My hand naturally moved towards clicking the button on the left. But, just as I was about to press it, I stopped.

“91” was written on the button. And, there seemed to be lower numbers next to it. By now, my brain was getting out of auto-pilot mode. Ah – so, Chevron had the most expensive product on the left while my natural instinct was to expect the cheapest variant on the left. I chose regular and smiled at the smart product design.

3 questions emerged –
1. Is there a real difference between the 3 variants of fuel? I tend to be skeptical of such variants and view them largely as pricing gimmicks.
2. How much more had Chevron earned due to other users who’d clicked the “Supreme” variant out of instinct?
3. Assuming users generally realized they picked the most expensive variant by mistake (and assuming people don’t normally do that), does this happen more than once? I’d imagine people are on their guard the next time they refuel.

Small changes in products can make a big difference. Companies like Facebook have run millions of experiments on which locations optimize clicks, for example. And, a big part of smart product design is understanding “auto-pilot” behavior – both to make the product intuitive as well as, in cases like this, to monetize.

 

Audible app for iOS – Product Review 1

A big part of this blog has been about learning “how to see.” I see failure as learning today. And, getting to that has been an incredible journey. I’ve wanted to learn how to “see” and understand products for a while now. So, thanks to a suggestion from a wise friend, I’m going to review interesting products and services. In looking at products and services critically, I hope to understand what makes great products/services and also develop an awareness while I use them so I can, hopefully, design great experiences myself.

My framework for reviews will be based on Jeff Weiner’s 5 attributes of a great product. Hope you enjoy these posts.


 

My first product will be Audible’s app for iOS.

Attribute #1. Delivers on a singular value proposition in a world-class way (purpose): Grade – A+
The Audible app exists to enable users to read audio books. It does that better than any other app out there. The Audible audio book library is fantastic and the app ensures easy access to it.

Attribute #2. Simple, intuitive, and anticipates needs (design): Grade – C
The app does okay on being simple and intuitive. You click it open, pick a book from “your library” and start reading. The other tabs are easy to understand.

I definitely think there still is room for improvement – for example –
– I’d like it to play and pause no matter where I touch
– I wonder if the “more” tab could do with less options
– I wish they did something useful with the badge collection
– And, I’d love for them to analyze my reading data and push insights and/or reminders to read

However, it isn’t a bad experience so I would still give it a B. But, it gets a C because it fails in anticipating my needs. Audible has great improved its app over time but its recommendation engine / “Discover” tab remains woeful. For instance, I have 91 titles and a quick scan will tell you that I read certain kinds of book on audible – always non fiction with a heavy bias to topics like psychology and technology. And, yet, the Discover tab never does anything except list out current fiction best sellers.

Attribute #3. Exceeds expectations (customer love): Grade – A+
I have contact Audible many times over the past 7 years and I’ve been well taken care of every time. And, every once a while, I’ve been blown away. They do a great job here.

Attribute #4. Emotionally resonates (feel): Grade – A+
3 words that come to mind when I think of how Audible makes me feel – learning, productive, and happy. 

Attribute #5. Changes the user’s life for the better (impact): Grade – A+
I’ve been thankful to Audible many a time over the past years. It has helped me read a lot and enabled me to learn and grow as a person. Definitely among the highest impact app that’s been an ever present on my home screen and the quick access bar.

Overall Grade – A-
The team has improved the app a lot over the years. And, I’m hoping the team keeps improving. It is a “star” product. A few changes could make it an “all star” product.