Category Archives: Product Management

Strategy – Power of Empathetic Design

When I was soliciting ideas for my next blog, I kept hearing things about design and its ramifications to a product user interface. To me the term design is above and beyond just the user interface of a product . I agree user interface is a key element but design has elements that go far and beyond just a simple user interface or intuitive product abilities.
Good products are designed with empathy or as I call it empathetic design. So what is empathetic design, new products and features only take off when people find useful things to do with the product or service. People who start with design in mind are not there to create new industry, they are there to create an experience that resonates close to their heart and the hearts of several other people (think about It is true that most design elements start with a frustration that an individual faces but is that problem faced by several other people. So the question is how to validate that problem? 
 As Eric Reis says in his book “Lean Startup“, you need to build something called as the minimum viable product “MVP”. Get the minimum viable product our there in the hands of people and observe what they do with your product and get validation. Empathetic design is about doing things that you can focus on and doing them well.  But when you focus on a particular feature or function you need to focus in the broader picture as well. Similar to what Tim Brown wrote in his book “Change by Design“, when Amtrak came to IDEO to design the high speed rail car, IDEO did not only focus on designing the rail car, they also focused on the entire experience of travel by train from the curb-side.  Now that is something (BTW even as I write this blog, in China they have a high speed train from Shanghai to Beijing that is faster than the acela service from Amtrak, but I bet you the curb side experience maybe significantly different between both)
As mentioned in prior paragraph focus on a few things and do them well but ask yourself these questions “are the few features that I am working on are they about to solve a problem worth solving ? and are people willing to buy your solution since the problem is pervasive?”. As I paraphrase what Larry Page said in his interview with Charlie Rose “Innovation is not innovation if it cannot sell” So to that effect empathetic design depends significantly on the premise of open value co-creation. (Apple is an exception, but their folks observe their target consumers a lot of which I proudly claim to be one)
One of the companies I admire is P&G from a value co-creation perspective. This is one company that has figured out a way to make decent margins on a commodity product “the detergent”. They find ways to sell detergent to their constituents in so many different and innovative ways (the other company that I admire is Coca-Cola, I mean sugared water really?). Going back to P&G, the company participates in many competitive industries which initially thrived on patents and proprietary technologies  etc. Now P&G openly courts innovations on their products via internet with their connect+develop program. The reason why P&G and the likes make decent margins, is because of their focus on the overall experience i.e. Some one wants to wash with Cold water there is Tide Cold etc. If there a defective box or a canister, the stores where their products are sold take the product back no questions asked (similar to what Amazon does with the overall experience). These are things that help people gravitate towards these products/services and continue to be repeat clients.  The net of what I am saying is that empathetic design is a profitable venture as long as you look at the experience and the overall utility of the product/solution.
If you observe carefully empathetically design products build on top of other ideas (in most cases existing ideas that are incomplete from an experience perspective). They usually simplify/ refine on the existing idea and in most cases it usually works. Think about it, was the iPod really a new kind of a mp3 player or was it that the iPod provided a way to carry all my music and listen to when I want or where I want. To complete the experience I have a legitimate way to download content for it as well. Now that is empathetic design at its best. 

The bottom line is empathetic design keeps the user in mind and whether you use cases in development or any other methodology in any other department it will be doomed to failure if all departments fail to have the same understanding of the problem the company is going to solve for the user.

(BTW All the companies I mentioned here are just to make a case, I am not endorsing that my experience is commonly shared, but if you look at their 10K, it proves my point. Your experiences may vary)
You can contact me @ kkanakas on twitter with your comments

Product Management – What makes a great product ?

Every now and then a product comes along that changes the way we view and do things. The product becomes a natural extension ourselves and the way we express ourselves. In most cases these products are not net new thinking (i.e. invention) but they innovate upon existing ways. In most cases if you are like me you end up thinking, Duh!! what didn’t think of that!

      Yes, I am little over analytical on matters such as that and sometimes the window opportunity goes away. But there are also times where I don’t think much and just do it, those moments sometimes payoff  but most of the time I end up saying maybe I should have gone slow. In my line of work I get to see a lot of complexity in how we build software and there are a lot of moments where we over think a problem, make the problem more problematic than it already is. After going through several discussions around this topic with folks that much more smarter than me I have narrowed them down to 3 things:

1- Product must be simple 
This to me is the golden rule. When you make your end user or client think for just the basic functions you have lost them. The immediate gut reaction is “If the basic function is so complicated, I wonder how the complicated functions are”. And once that mindset takes hold it is a uphill task to regain any lost ground.  I am not saying that you make your product idiot proof, because that would be wrong and painting everyone with the same broad brush. There can be features that require some advance thinking but those things are not features that everyone uses everyday i.e. the HotSpot  feature on Smart phones, how many people truly know how to use that?

2- Product must understandable 
To this day I have not figured out what was the purpose of the scroll lock key on a keyboard and why is it so important to keep the key on a standard keyboard in the first place? When you don’t make products understandable for basic functions, it makes the end user feel like the product is talking down to them and somehow questioning their intelligence. Don’t do that, you might start alienating people without even knowing it.

3- Product must be complete
Last point is when you think of the basic function or whatever basic scenario you are delivering. Make it complete. A great example of a complete product is a power utility company, when you have electricity the only thing you worry about is flicking the switch and the power comes on.  You don’t even think about how the power gets transmitted to your home. That is a complete product and definitely miss it when it not there because it has become such an integral part of your life

These are just some of my musing on how a product or service ought be delivered. There are several great examples of these ideas in the market place today. Just think of them if these products did not have these capabilities would you have incorporated them into your daily lives.

Strategy – Is Standardization is good thing? I think not!

When some one says Standards or Standardization, what comes to mind? Maybe something that is well known or accepted. In my mind the term commodity comes to mind, which means when something is a standard you have to work really hard to differentiate yourself. This problem is even more acute when you develop products within the confines of your organization.  The general model that worked in the past was that when people developed in a waterfall model. 
                   Standardization also means everyone can do what you do just as effectively and in a cost efficient way. In short when you have a Standard is easy to duplicate what you do and then worst thing happens, you compete on price and not on value.

Value  =  Worth/Cost 

Based on the formula, when you standardize i.e. a standard way of doing things. This means it can developed cheaply and value diminishes because there are many suppliers in the market place that do what you do and hence the worth of what you do lessens and hence value is lowered. In the above formula  worth can be expanded to the following (thanks to Baldor electric company)

Value(product) = (Quality(product) x Service(product)) / ( Cost(product) x Time(product))

So if the quality (from your clients perspective) of your product is indistinguishable from the competition and if the services to implement your product are expensive or not (even though it is standardized). Cost to make the product is less due to standardization and the time to make the product might even be less. You might be able to eek out some value but that value proposition is temporary, eventually (based on the above formula) the value number drop below zero and your product will be a commodity (because it already on a downward trajectory). 
 Standardization is not all doom and gloom, look at it another way if you want to broaden adoption then  go for it (you might not make a significant amount of dollars in the process but people usually recognize the utility of the product). Now  broader adoption can happen if you develop something that your client base values but if you are stuck between  a rock and a hard place, standardization maybe your only option.
Some people may argue that the Windows operating system is a standard and it is still  making money for it’s company, to that I would say yes. But in it’s hey day the switching costs were high for an average user which is why the Windows Operating System enjoyed a high value status. Today there are a lot of substitutes that provide a standardize UI experience, which is why there is now Windows 8 in order to differentiate itself from the standard operating systems.  When you fall into this kind of commodity trap the best way out is to disrupt yourself otherwise if you don’t your competition will do it for you and it will be too late for you to react.
Appreciate your thoughts on this one.
You can contact me @ kkanakas on twitter with your comments

Product Management – Solution versus Product. What is the difference?

What is a solution and what is a product? Like everyone else I have struggled with this question for a long time.  How differentiate between the two? Solutions are mixture of various components where the sum of the components are greater than their parts. A product is a singular component that solves a singular purpose. This explanation sounds very easy conceptually but when you try to implement it practically, it is very hard. But it need not be.  Solution and product depend on the problem that is being solved. Now let me assure you all I am not an expert at this and what I am writing is strictly based on my experience, so feel free to disagree with me and provide your feedback to me on this topic so that I can improve my understanding.  When I am not able distinguish between the two i.e. solution or a product. I take a look at something that we all take for granted each day, when we are thirsty we need a drink. Let us a take take a closer look at this.

Problem:  I am thirsty
If I am thirsty, I usually have a few options. I can go the cheap route and grab myself a glass of water or  the expensive route get bottled water (funny same water packaged in a bottle is more expensive, but we will get to that part later). I can even get a  bottle of juice if I feel that I need something with a little more taste. Now water, juice, and energy drinks they are products if my perspective was to quench my thirst, then any of them would be a suitable product to quench my thirst. But suppose my intent is in the context of an  athlete and as part of my athletic regimen, I did not want to dehydrate or get a cramp while I am training or physically exerting myself.
Problem: I sweat a lot and hence dehydrate and cramp up, I need something to replenish my energy
Whoa ! what just happened here? We just went from me being thirsty to me not wanting to dehydrate and wanting to replenish my energy, and there lies the subtle difference between product and solution. In order to make sure that my energy and dehydration problem is solved I do not need just a product, I need a solution to my problem.  Now that solution could be a product or a group of products but the sum of all capabilities of a product (products) solves my problem of not dehydrating and still being able to enjoy peak performance. 
So when a product or a set of product tends to focus on the bigger  problem that a person is having, the propensity to do what it takes to solve the problem is greater. Because the cost of not fixing the issue has serious consequences (based on the context). Now even if I was thirsty and I decided to forgo my drink of water for a few more hours it generally does not hamper my overall performance and I can always make up for not having water later anyways (through drinking coffee, tea or something else). 
Oh! I almost forgot about the bottled water reference earlier, is the filtered bottled water a product or a solution ? I say it is all a matter of perspective. Please feel share your thoughts on this one.
You can contact me @ kkanakas on twitter with your comments

Product Management – How to say No!

It is very hard to say NO but sometimes you have too, in order to focus, You have to say No!

If you are like me there are several things both at work and life that demand your attention but understand that you cannot satisfy all the demands. When you go down the route of satisfying every demand you invariably end up cutting corners. Cutting Corners = Nobody is happy.

                             But saying No does not come easy, in order to get started down this route  it requires some homework to be done. Here are some of the rules that have worked for me :
  • Set your goals 

                 I know this sounds corny, but trust me having a set of goals helps you understand what you want to accomplish and if there are demands being made that are orthogonal to your goal. Well put them to the side or just don’t take on those demands (i.e. say NO). I was initially doubtful that this technique worked, but in my past experience as a product manager, I applied it and to my surprise it worked

  • Look at what you have on your plate and really assess if you can add value by doing everything or the additional demands that are being put on you

              I am not a “multitasker” and I am not ashamed to say it.  In order for me to get the job done well I need to concentrate on the work at hand. Whenever I sign up for key projects I look what I have on my plate and assess the level of effort required that is my liking. Like every other type A personality I don’t like “good enough”. If I cannot justify that I will be able to do a good job on a project then my involvement in the project is not meant to be. I apply the same logic to my meetings. There are some folks who believe being in more meetings apparently adds value to the work people are doing. I believe that meetings to have a clear outcome (i.e. inform or call to action) otherwise having a meeting to have a meeting is just a useless waste of time. BTW it did take me a long time to get this place and I am still learning at this skill.

  • You can say NO politely 

          You really don’t have to be a d**k  about saying No. You can do it politely and make sure you don’t burn any bridges.  Burning bridges can haunt you later in your career or future business relationships. The other day some one wanted me to review a document and told them politely “I would love to, but I am tied up with another key deliverable and I won’t be able give the document the proper attention it deserves”. It took me several years to perfect that line, I think I have finally cracked it. 

Just being busy for busy-ness sake does not make you productive or useful to anybody you are working for or with. There is no substitute for listening well, although my wife would argue that I still don’t listen well. To me that just means there is room to get better.  Just like everything in life, transformation happens in increments and learning to say No will happen that way as well.      
You can contact me @ kkanakas on twitter with your comments