Product Leaders as Curators & Editors

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A few years ago, I wrote a few posts to outline the requirements for exceptional product leadership:

While I have been gratified that people continue to find utility and value in these posts, I’ve come to believe that product leadership, particularly the issue of prioritization and phasing of a product roadmap, remains daunting and challenging for most teams.

In particular, the need for organizational scalability and speed of innovation has driven the widespread popularity of small, independent teams building product and features. Unfortunately, the side effect of the explosion of small teams has also amplified user-experience fragmentation and the haphazard quality of many web-based and mobile software applications.

As a result, I’ve come to believe that there are two facets of  product leadership that have become increasingly important for delivering a high quality product experience: curation & editorial.

Curation Amplifies Your Product Experience

Around 2014, I remember first being struck by a product management job description at Pinterest which incorporated the concept of curation as a core responsibility of product management.

The dilemma of product prioritization is always simple to understand: most software teams, filled with talented people, have more ideas for great features that the capability to execute. As a result, there has to be some process for filtering down the ideas to answer the question of “what do we build next?”

Prioritization on metrics, customer requests and delight is not hard to operationalize, but it still leaves open critical questions:

  • How does the product & experience come together for the user after we ship?
  • How does the product communicate the changes to the customer in way they can easily understand and utilize?

I believe curation is the key to answering these questions.

Curation is an under-appreciated skill in software design. In the world of art, curation is a critical and valued function. A curator ensures that the pieces of art not only combine to amplify each other collectively, but also gives thought to the experience a viewer will have when engaging with the collection.

Users need some level of coherence in new versions of your product. With proper curation, features and changes amplify each other, and lead to a greater customer appreciation of your efforts through a product experience that is more coherent and easier to communicate.

Without curation, software feature prioritization tends to devolve purely into the line-item value of a given feature, rather than how it fits in general with the whole product, or the product release. Great curators won’t think twice about cutting a piece that doesn’t fit the theme of the show, even if it is exceptional.

Designers, not surprisingly, tend to intrinsically understand the value of curation, and valiantly attempt to connect features together into a coherent product experience. Unfortunately, they often are forced to incorporate together a hodge-podge of features that have been prioritized independently by different small teams.

This is not an argument against constant enhancement and iteration of code, or the constant shipping of bug fixes and small feature enhancements. But for user-facing features, teams need to be wiling to hear from product leadership that a great idea for a new feature is not enough to qualify it for immediate prioritization. Customers cannot endlessly absorb a haphazard array of changes and feature enhancements. The perceived quality of the product drops, and customers fail to perceive the value in the features that are shipped.

Every Creator Needs an Editor

Understanding the value of editorial comes easily to professionals who have worked in content & design.

In my experience, many otherwise talented engineers and product managers balk at receiving critical review of their work. Sure, most software engineers understand the value of pair programming and code reviews. But for some reason, when it comes to overall feature design, the sentiment almost always shifts to stubborn independence.

Unfortunately, just like in writing, having a great editor is essential for the overall quality  and consistency of the finished work.

Even the best writers benefit from having a great editor. J.K. Rowling may have written all seven Harry Potter books herself, but she had a team of editors ensuring everything from line level quality to the plot consistency of the overall series.

Why editors? In general, editors provide three levels of assistance to writers: proofreading (spelling, punctuation, grammar), copy-editing (phrasing, style), and developmental-editing (plot, character development, pacing, tone, and effectiveness.)

Most writers at first balk at the idea of an editor. They are professionals, after all, and incredibly skilled. Why do they need someone in between them and their readers?

The answer is two-fold: first, editors provide a more objective “second-pair of eyes” not affected by the sunk cost and confirmation bias inherent in any creative process, and second they are typically individuals who are exceptionally talented at finding errors and issues that will be perceived by the target audience.

The same applies to software products.

Even exceptionally talented engineers & designers become blind to their own work. While each function can have their own version of an editorial process, my experience has been that if product leadership doesn’t actively engage in the editorial process, the quality and the coherence of the product suffers.

Product Leaders as Curators & Editors

Most software companies have moved to a bottoms-up, distributed organization process for their engineering, design & product teams. Amazon, of course, is famous for their two-pizza team concept. As a result, the need for curation and editorial to keep the product experience coherent has become critical.

If you look critically at organizations that have a distributed culture, but still ship high quality product experiences, you’ll find that there is an accepted culture of curation & editorial in their product process, connecting all the way to the CEO.

If you are a product leader, think carefully about how you can incorporate curation & editorial into your process as you scale.

Make Things As Simple As Possible, But Not Simpler

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.
Albert Einstein

It has become fashionable of late, during the second coming of Apple, for a large number of consultants, executives and professional speakers to frame simplicity as an absolute good.  Simplicity, however, can have a number of negative implications for both design and usability, so I thought it prudent to highlight a few of its limitations as a guiding principal.

Ockham’s Razor vs. Einstein’s Razor

Before jumping to technology, it’s worth noting that this debate has origins in science as well.  Ockham’s Razor famously dictates that, given two hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.  While not absolute, the principle is important because it shifts the burden of proof to the more complicated explanation.

Einstein (as quoted at the top of this post), pointed out the obvious: simplicity has its limits.  As a result, Einstein’s Razor is commonly stated as:

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Too many entrepreneurs and executives preaching the simple religion forget this.

Example: iPhone Home Button

When the iPhone launched in 2007, it was an extremely aggressive vision of the future of the smartphone.  Bucking the trend from 12-key numberpads to full QWERTY keypads, the iPhone debuted with just one button.

What could be simpler than one button?

iphone

Well, technically zero buttons would have been simpler.

iphone-0

Why the single button?  Apple decided this was as simple as they could get it without hiding a key function they felt people needed to be able to access with “tactile” accessibility.  Apple had decided to remove quite a bit of tactile access from the phone.  Feature phone users lost the ability to know that the “*” key was in the bottom left, or “3” was on the bottom right.  Treo & Blackberry users lost the ability, without looking, to know where keys like space and return were.

The answer? Apple decided that the importance of having a tactile method of accessing “home” was more important than enforcing that next level of simplification.  Simple as possible, but not simpler.

Wait? They Added a Switch?

Industrial design aficionados might have already spotted an issue with my previous example.  Apple may have reduced the keypad to a single button, but they actually were applauded at launch for adding a new physical control.

Apple added a hardware switch to mute the phone.

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Along with hardware buttons for home, power, and volume up/down, the iPhone added a physical switch for turning mute on or off.

With most other dominant systems at the time (Nokia, Blackberry), turning off your ringer meant navigating from:

Home -> Settings -> Ringer (or Volume) -> Off

Now you could argue that Apple “simplified” the ability to turn off the ringer, but from an interface standpoint they added a control to their highest level of information architecture (the device) for this one function.  This is roughly the equivalent of a website adding this function to its primary header.

In the push to reduce the number of controls, simplicity gave way to an equally important design consideration: minimizing the number of steps to perform a high value action (with the added benefit of tactile access, crucial for a function you might want to perform sight-unseen, in your pocket)

Simplicity Can Lead to Overloading, Which Is Complex

Anyone who has worked on a design project around information architecture is familiar with the tradeoff.  Reducing the number of controls or number of entry points definitely simplifies the interface.  Fewer choices, less cognitive load on the user.

Unfortunately, if you have five branches at each level of a command structure, you can make 25 commands just two steps away.  If you have three branches at each level, you need three steps to reach that same number of commands.

No one wants to replicate the Microsoft Office hierarchy of thousands of commands littered across dozens of entry points.  But if your software honestly has four key functions, “simplifying” to one entry point can make the users job harder, not easier.

Wealthfront: Building Trust with Transparency

At Wealthfront, one of top priorities is building trust with guest visitors to our site.  Interestingly, we’ve discovered that over-simplification has another negative attribute: when people don’t readily see the answer to a key question, there is potential for them to assume you’re hiding that information.

As a result, our new user experience is a careful balance of simplicity, but balanced with providing crucial information to our visitors, even at the risk of some complexity.

We show our clients up front our investment choices, down to quick answers for why we’ve chosen each particular ETF.  We provide examples of both taxable and tax-deferred account allocations up front, even before the visitor has signed up for the service.

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To be sure, like all software interfaces, there are significant improvements that we can make to our new user experience.  But it’s worth sharing that our experience has been that blind adherence to simplicity can actually hurt the level of confidence and trust people have with your service.  This interface has seen the company to record growth in 2013, up over 250% for the year (as of September).

More broadly, it’s worth considering that when you bury functions and features, you may trigger emotions in your user that aren’t positive:

  • Frustration. They don’t know where to look for something they want.
  • AnxietyThey worry that the thing they need is no longer supported.
  • Distrust. They assume that you are hiding something for a reason.

So remember, when someone preaches the religion of simplicity, think carefully about Einstein’s Razor.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

How to Recover the Left Side Navigation in iTunes 11

I can’t believe I’m writing this blog post, but I am.

Last night, I tweeted out my joy at finding out that Apple did, in fact, provide a menu item to re-enable the side navigation in iTunes 11.  Now, while I’m not a huge fan of the complexity and modality of the older iTunes interface, there is no doubt that after using iTunes 11 for a week, you wish for the halcyon days of the left navigation bar.

Surprisingly, enough people tweeted and commented in gratitude that I realized I should probably summarize in a blog post.

iTunes 11 – Default

This is the iTunes 11 default interface. (Try to ignore my taste in movies for a second)

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iTunes 11 – Sidebar

This is iTunes 11 with the sidebar enabled.

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All of a sudden, the shockingly horrid modality of the iTunes 11 default interface is resolved.  You can easily select which sub-category of content in your iTunes library you want to browse, and viewing connected devices and playlists has once again become trivial.  It turns out, you still end up with the horrid choices for navigation views within a “domain”, but at least we’re 80% of the way back to the (limited) usability of the previous iTunes interface.

Wait, How Did You Do It?

It’s hidden under the View menu, “Show Sidebar”

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Simple does not mean Easy to Use

Just as cuffs, collars and neckties are subject to the whims of fashion, so also do memes in design tend to come and go in software.  I think iTunes 11 represents a bit of a teachable moment on a couple concepts that have been overplayed recently, and what happens when you take them too far.

  1. Consistency does not always lead to ease of use.  Having a more consistent interface between the iPhone, iPad, AppleTV and Mac OS renditions of iTunes may seem like an “obvious” goal, but the fact is all of these devices vary in terms of input mechanisms and use cases.  The truth is, many users sit down at a desktop for different tasks than they sit down at a TV for, and the interface of the desktop is optimized for those tasks with large, high resolution screens and a keyboard.My best guess here is that Apple optimized the interface for laptops, not desktops, and for consumption, not curation. However, Apple would have been well served to provide a “first launch” experience with packaged pre-sets of these minor configurable options, to let users who are upgrading easily identify their primary mode of operation.I would love Apple to take a more proactive stance on how to build applications and services that provide elements of commonality across the multitude of devices that users increasing use to author, curate and consume content with, without blind adherence to making everything look & behave “the same”.
  2. Simple does not mean easy to use.   On the heals of Steve Jobs mania, it has become ultra-fashionable to talk about simplicity as the end-all, be-all of product design.  The fact is, there is often a trade off between reducing the number of controls that an application (or device) has, and introducing increased modality for commonly used functions.  The one button mouse was, in fact, simpler than the two button mouse.  However, it came at the expense of pushing a significant amount of functionality into a combination of selection and menu modality.Look at the poor “single button” on the iPhone.  Simple, but now stacked with modality based on the number and timing of presses.Designers would do well to consider the balance of simplicity, accessibility and the difficult decision of which functions are so key to an application that they require “zero click” comprehension of availability.  For iTunes 11, the hidden modality of managing the devices synched to your iTunes library is unforgivable. (The likely sin here is being too forward looking. As we move to iCloud for everything, the need for devices to be tethered to iTunes goes away.  But we’re not there yet with video.)

I hope this helps at least one person out there have a better experience with iTunes 11.

The Game Has Changed. Design for Passion.

One of the most exciting developments in software has been a resurgence in the focus and priority on design.  With the growing dominance of social platforms and mobile applications, more and more people are growing comfortable productively discussing and utilizing insights about human emotion in their work.

Google: The Era of Utility

The progress of the last five to seven years is really a significant breakout from the previous generations of software design.

For decades, software engineers and designers focused on utility:  value, productivity, speed, features or cost.

If it could be quantified, we optimized it.  But at a higher level, with few exceptions, we framed every problem around utility.  Even the field of human-computer interaction was obsesses with “ease of use.”  Very linear, with clear ranking.  How many clicks? How long does a task take?  What is the error rate?

In some ways, Google (circa 2005) represented the peak of this definition of progress.  Massive data.  Massive scalability. Incredibly utility.  Every decision defined by quantifying and maximizing utility by various names.

But let’s face it, only computer scientists can really get passionate about the world’s biggest database.

Social: The Era of Emotion

Like any ecosystem, consumer technology is massively competitive.  Can you be faster, cheaper, bigger or more useful than Google?  It turns out, there is a more interesting question.

Social networks helped bring the language of emotion into software.  A focus on people starts with highly quantifiable attributes, but moves quickly into action and engagement.

What do people like? What do they hate? What do they love? What do they want?

In parallel, there have been several developments that reflect similar insights on the web, in behavioral finance, and the explosion in interest in game mechanics.

Human beings are not rational, but (to borrow from Dan Ariely) they are predictably irrational.  And now, thanks to scaling social platforms to over a billion people, we have literally petabytes of data to help us understand their behavior.

Passion Matters

Once you accept that you are designing and selling a product for humans, it seems obvious that passion matters.

We don’t evaluate the food we eat based on metrics (although we’d likely be healthier if we did).  Do I want it? Do I love it? How does it make me feel?

The PayPal mafia often joke that great social software triggers at least one of the seven deadly sins. (For the record, LinkedIn has two: vanity & greed).  Human beings haven’t changed that much in the past few thousand years, and the truth is the seven deadly sins are just a proxy for a deeper insight.  We are still driven by strong emotions & desires.

In my reflection on Steve Jobs, he talks about Apple making products that people “lust” for.  Not the “the best products”, “the cheapest products”, “the most useful products” or “the easiest to use products.”

Metrics oriented product managers, engineers & designers quickly discover that designs that trigger passion outperform those based on utility by wide margins.

The Game Has Changed

One of the reasons a number of earlier web giants are struggling to compete now is that the game has changed.  Utility, as measured by functionality, time spent, ease-of-use are important, but they are no longer sufficient to be competitive. Today, you also have to build products that trigger real emotion.  Products that people will like, will want, will love.

Mobile has greatly accelerated this change.  Smartphones are personal devices.  We touch them, they buzz for us. We keep them within three feet of us at all times.

Too often in product & design we focus on utility instead of passion.  To break out today, you need to move your efforts to the next level.  The questions you need to ask yourself are softer:

  • How do I feel when I use this?
  • Do I want that feeling again?
  • What powerful emotions surround this product?

Go beyond utility.  Design for passion.

Top 10 Product Leadership Lessons

On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to give a talk at the 9th annual Harvard Business School Entrepreneurship Conference.  I’m trying to be better about posting the slides from these talks as they happen.

Context & Caveats

This talk is based substantially on a lecture I gave at LinkedIn on August 31, 2011.  It’s heavily based on the unique product, strategy and organizational issues that you see currently in fast moving, hyper growth, consumer-focused software companies.

At the same time, many of the higher level business and management issues discussed are fairly universal, so hopefully there is something useful here for anyone who is passionate about building organizations that build great products.

So take a look, and I look forward to the comments.  FWIW The Optimus Prime quotes are from this excellent list of Optimus Prime quotes for the workplace.

Be A Great Product Leader

Pinterest & LinkedIn: Identity of Taste vs. Expertise

It’s hard to go three feet in Silicon Valley these days without someone commenting on the phenomenal engagement and growth being seen from Pinterest and other curation-based social platforms.  What’s a bit surprising to me, however, is how many people refer to this demand as a growing interest and search for “expertise”.

As I have a passion for finding a more human understanding for what drives engagement in real life and then mapping it to online behavior, I think the use of the term “expertise” here is misleading.  Instead, I believe what we are seeing is an explosion of activity around an incredibly powerful form of identity and reputation: the identity of taste.

Expertise is Empirical

If you go to LinkedIn, you see a site that is rich with the identity of expertise.  LinkedIn has rich structured data around sources of expertise: degrees, schools, companies, titles, patents, published content, skills.  They also have rich sources of unstructured content about job responsibilities, specialties, questions & answers, group participation, status updates and comments.  There are even implicit indications of expertise related to other online identities (like Twitter) and relationships to other people with expertise (connections).

This expertise can be tapped by using LinkedIn’s incredibly powerful search engine, either on site or via API, or by browsing the talent graph displayed in catalog form on LinkedIn Skills.  Github has created a powerful identity for developers based on their actual interests and contributions in code.  Blogs, Tumblr, Quora and Twitter have helped people create identities based on the content they create and share.

The power of identity based on expertise is that it is concretely demonstrated.  Education, experience, content and relationships are all very structured and concrete methods for measuring and assessing expertise.  However, in some ways, expertise is limited by it’s literal nature.  Factual. Demonstrable. Empirical.

Taste is Inspiring

Pinterest, however, has unlocked an incredibly powerful form of reputation and identity that exists in the offline world – an identity of taste.  People don’t care about the expertise of people who are assembling pinboards.  They care about how those combinations make them feel – the concept, the aggregation, the flow of additions.  The Pinboard graph begins for most people with their friends, but people quickly learn to hop based on sources to people they don’t know, finding beautiful, interesting, intriguing or inspiring collections of images.

This isn’t an identity based on expertise, really.  It’s not even clear how closely related it is to a graph of interests. Curation-based social platforms evoke a different phenomenon, and with it, some very powerful emotions and social behaviors.

Taste is different than expertise.  Taste does not imply that you are a good person or a deep well of expertise on the domain.  Taste is not universal, although there are certainly those with a predilection for influencing and/or predicting the changes in taste for many.  But when we as human beings find people whose taste inspires us, it’s a powerful relationship.  We map positive attributes to them, ranging from kindness to intelligence to even authority.  Fame & taste are often intertwined.

You Are What You Curate

Curation-based social platforms are based on the interaction of three key factors:

  1. A rich, visual identity and reputation based on curated content
  2. An asymmetric graph based on not only following people, but specific feeds of curated content
  3. A rich, visual activity stream of curation activity

It’s the first item that I seem to see most under-appreciated.  Vanity, as one of the most common deadly sins in social software, drives an incredible amount of engagement and activity.  As people are inspired by those who create beautiful identities of curated content, they also become keenly aware of how their curated identity looks.  When people signal an appreciation for their taste, it triggers power social impulses, likely built up at an early age.

This, more than anything else, reflects the major step function in engagement of this generation of curation over previous attempts (anyone remember Amazon Lists?)

How Does Taste Factor into Your Experience?

I always like to translate these insights into actionable questions for product designers.  In this case, these are some good starting points:

  • How does taste factor into your experience?
  • Is the identity in your product better served by reputation based on taste or expertise?
  • Are the relationships in your product between users based on taste or expertise?
  • Are you creating an identity visually and emotionally powerful enough to trigger curation activity?
  • Are you flowing curation activity through your experience in a way that stimulates discovery and the creation of an identity of taste?

Don’t underestimate the power of good taste.