Many great products are very underpowered to start. Laptops were much weaker than desktops when they were first made, but the gap shrunk considerably over the years and the benefit of portability made it worth the slower speed and functionality for many consumers. Wikipedia wasn’t nearly as useful when it first launched, but got more useful every day as people added and edited articles until it turned into a resource that millions of users trust as much as a ‘professional’ encyclopedia. If the functionality and method of attacking a problem is valid, then it doesn’t matter if the product is weak when it first launches. Some of the most powerful products are those that constantly get stronger the more people use them or the more data they collect.
It’s no secret that the Newspaper Industry is hurting badly since it has failed to adapt to the internet fast enough and has found its market share and revenues erode greatly. Their current strategy is the plan to erect pay walls for their content, which users won’t pay for. The problem is that users don’t go to one source to get their news online; they browse multiple sites to get the whole story, from multiple angles. That behavior not only hurts the pay wall plan, but leads to less time on site for the newspapers, so less advertising dollars.
The problem is that the Newspapers are overvaluing their reporters. Yes, there is a difference in quality in newspaper reporters and many homegrown sites, but there are also many ex-journalists who have been laid off due to the industry’s decline and are now working for other sites, so there are still plenty of free news sites with quality journalists. Additionally, even if a paper’s reporter is the most knowledgeable about a story and has the most interesting facts and take on a major story, it is too easy for other journalists to learn those facts from reading the story and then write their own story leveraging that info. So the newspaper pays more for the story than competing sites, which puts it at a disadvantage.
Dating sites seem stuck in the past and follow basically the same blueprint: User creates a profile talking about themselves and their interests and can then search for other people based on what those users wrote about themselves. There are niche sites that act as a preliminary filter (senior citizens, trekkies, farmers, dog lovers, etc) and there are sites that try to collect different data and do matchmaking based on a variety of factors, but they all work the same at the fundamental level. Online Dating is one of the verticals that doesn’t act anything like the offline version. There are many things that the sites can do to improve the experience and make it more natural, engaging and effective, which I’ll discuss over multiple posts. For this one, I’ll focus on the centerpiece of the experience: the user profile. Dating site profiles have the following problems:
- Users have to write about themselves – Not everybody likes to write. Even fewer people like to write about themselves. It is awkward and hard for many to figure out what to say that will portray who they are. So many profiles end up looking very similar.
The iPad is a shining example of how a tablet computer should be designed. Trying to build a tablet that runs desktop apps is missing the point. Desktop apps were designed for the Windows paradigm, one that includes keyboard and mouse inputs as essential. You cannot translate those properly to a tablet by simply trying to map touch input to keyboard/mouse input. It is kludgy and overly complicated for mass consumers. Tablets need to be built with a touchscreen-specific operating system, such as iPhone OS or Android, and all apps should also be designed specifically for a touchscreen input, not a keyboard/mouse input.
Many people are criticizing the iPad as being a giant iPhone/iPod Touch. They were hoping for something more like a macbook tablet and are disappointed. However, I argue that it is actually a good thing that the detractors are calling the iPad a giant iPod. The reason for this is that it makes it easy for consumers to understand the iPad very quickly. While it may be over-simplistic and meant as an insult, it only helps Apple to sell more iPads to consumers.
Consumers reading opinions on the iPad get 1 of 2 stories: Giant iPod or Immersive Content Consuming Experience. So if they like the idea of a larger iPod or the idea of a great interactive tablet then they will be interested in the iPad.
In the previous post, I proposed a six layer human pyramid that could overlay data-driven relevancy and discussed the bottom 3 levels as they relate to a ‘Recent Releases’ dvd movie website. In this post, I’ll describe the top 3 layers, which are potentially the most accurate filters, but can be difficult to accurately achieve. For reference, here is the pyramid again:
The bottom 3 layers focus on other people: what critics like, what the community likes, what my friends like. The top 3 layers shift away from this and move the focus to me. They are personalized to my tastes, which adds a layer of friction to the service, as I must first provide information about myself to the site before it can use these layers as filters to better serve up relevant results. Each layer going up needs more data about me than the last to be successful.
When building a recommendation site, product or service, there are six human layers you can pile on top of pure data-based relevancy. To define the scope of ‘recommendation product’ more clearly, any search service is a recommendation service. Google is recommending websites to the user based on the search term and the page ranks, meta data and inbound links to the relevant websites. If a user gives input to a website and the website then returns output based on that input, then it is a recommendation service. The 6 layers are illustrated in the pyramid below, with the top level being the most accurate, but also usually the hardest to accurately achieve. In this post, I’ll discuss the bottom 3 layers, while saving the top 3 layers for tomorrow’s post.
I’ll use the example of a ‘Recent Releases’ dvd movie site to illustrate the 6 pyramid levels. Without the pyramid, the site would show the 90 most recently released dvds, either alphabetically or chronologically. Instead of making the user sift through all 90 titles and make a decision based solely on name, plot, genre, cast and crew, we can add some or all of the layers below to filter the list to the most relevant releases and give the user more data to use when making a decision. This increases the signal:noise ratio, which is an important meta strategy for the web as a whole, as the internet is full of noise and getting noisier each day with tweets and status updates and blogs and microblogs, etc. Filtering through all of the content on the web to find what is relevant and useful to you will be of growing importance and solutions to this problem will be a big part of the next phase of the web.
Once you’ve launched the product and tested how users interact with it, getting feedback on if they find it useful and what changes would make it a better mousetrap for them, you need to be prepared to change direction accordingly. Many startups fail because they were built for a singular idea that was supposed to be the perfect solution to a problem and they were too focused on that exact solution that they didn’t adapt to the market and users. Rarely will your product be exactly what is needed if it’s a new or unique solution. You design the product thinking of yourself as the user, but then testing shows that you are not your user and they really want something slightly, or vastly, different from your offering. If this is the case, then adapt and adjust your roadmap accordingly. Rapidly iterate, while testing, to find the right combination that hits a nerve with your users and allows your product to take off.
Most successful startups are very different when they reach success from when they first started. For example, Paypal was actually started as a cryptography service, then evolved to pda payments before becoming successful at being the de facto online payment system. People talk about Agile programming all the time, but product management needs to be agile as well. You don’t need to create a 5 year business plan before you create your startup; in fact, there is very little chance that the plan will still be accurate even a few months into your startup if you are doing it right. What you need is a good idea of how to solve a pain point in a better way than currently available, the motivation and resources to build a prototype of that solution, the data from testing the solution on consumers to gauge market reaction, and the ability to pivot and change the solution to match what the market actually will respond to.
Once you’ve done the hardest step, launching the product, you need to measure your users. The reason to launch early is to see how users interact with your product or service and if you have a viable product. To do this, you need to start tracking key metrics and user behavior. It is important to focus on the activity and metrics that really matter in determining if your users are interested in your product as well as how they interact with it. If your product depends on users registering and contributing to the community, then measure that. To do this, we can use a variety of tools and services, free and expensive, using one or both of two methodologies.
Free Tracking Tools
- Google Analytics - Great free tool from google that measures user behavior and traffic sources but also allows you to set goals to measure the KPIs that matter to you. You should set this up immediately.
- Userfly – A free user session tracking tool. Records the actions of your users and lets you watch a video playback. Gain great insight into your users by seeing exactly where they go on your page and where they hit stumbling blocks or are confused about the next step.
- Feedback Form – Let users give you feedback and suggestions directly. The insight gained from this qualitative data can be great.
Expensive Tracking Tools
- Omniture SiteCatalyst – Robust tracking solution that is highly customizable and scalable. You’ll need to add tracking code all over your site, but the reports and data mining possible are powerful.
- Tealeaf – Records user sessions and compiles into reports, breaking down users by behavior types so you can see where users are failing to do what you expect. You can then watch individual sessions to gain insight into what they were thinking to figure out why. This service is great at combining quantitative and qualitative data, but can be very expensive.
- A/B Split Testing – Present one group of users with one experience and another with a slightly different experience and measure the groups against each other to determine which experience is more effective. In an ideal world, you would A/B test everything before you put it on your site. This means everything from the color of a box outline, the placement of a button or link, to the wording of a caption.
- Multivariate Testing – By testing multiple variables at once, you can gain more insight into how multiple elements or experiences affect the metrics in less time and users than with multiple iterations of A/B testing. You can actually test as many variables as you want, but the more you test, the more users it takes to get statistically significant results.
We have established that we aren’t our users and that users can be unpredictable in how they use our site. So the best option is to find out how users behave with our site as early on as possible. Therefore, we should launch with the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in order to get it in front of users to determine its future.
What the MVP is varies by product or service. If you are selling software to businesses, then perhaps its just paper prototypes: photoshop comps depicting what the product will look like. You can show them to potential customers to see if they are interested as well as get feedback from them before you even write a line of code. If you are creating a new website to soothe a pain point, then create just that functionality and don’t worry about the other standard functionality that sites in your market need to have. If you are accurately soothing the pain, then users will respond to your offering; if you aren’t, then they won’t.
Don’t spend months or years developing a product, scared to bring it to market and have it fail; scared that once it’s visible some other company will copy it and steal your potential customers. Get the product out there as soon as possible to test its validity. You need to verify that there is a market for your product and you don’t need to build out every piece of functionality to do so.
Update: Some great examples of Minimum Viable Products in action