Category Archives: Design

The Importance of Perspective

Steve Johnson has a video on his site that shows a wonderful optical illusion. I’ve embedded it here for your viewing convenience.

This video is a great example of how important a role perspective plays in how we interpret our environment.

Perspective is also incredibly important for people when researching, designing or building products.

Specifically for Product Managers, it’s important to be conscious of how your perspective (your background knowledge, assumptions and existing viewpoints) on a situation influences how you interpret it.

To maximize your perspective, and avoid false assumptions and conclusions, try to get as many inputs as you can when researching requirements. This does not simply mean talk to more people, but make a conscious effort to to improve your domain knowledge, document and validate your assumptions clearly, and talk to different types of people in different roles, in different types of companies and with different needs.

It’s actually quite amazing how much insight you can gain by consciously broadening your perspectives on a given situation.


What Origami can teach us about Product Requirements

Tom Grant has started an interesting series of posts entitled Against a Grand Theory of Product Management. The articles are interesting reading, but make sure you have your thinking cap on when you start, because Tom is discussing an important but rather abstract topic.

He pulls in references ranging from Middle Range Theory (something I’d never heard of before) to Darwin’s theories (something I think we’ve all heard of but probably don’t adequately understand) to help convey his points. I had to read the posts a couple of times each to better grasp the specifics of his arguments.

In Part 2 of his series, Tom asks:

If someone can figure out why even the most meticulously written and reviewed requirements don’t stop some tech companies from making products that their users don’t like or can’t understand, that’s a big contribution to our little field of study. Best to have more middle-range theory before even thinking about the GToE [Grand Theory of Everything].

This is a great question. But before I answer it, I want you to watch the following video. It is from a TED Conference talk given in February 2008 by Robert Lang. Not only is this a fascinating video, but as you’re watching it, keep Tom’s question in mind. Don’t read on though until you watch the video. 🙂

[BTW, if you are impatient and read ahead, the important stuff starts at about 2:30 in the video.]

Lang talks about the evolution of origami, that took it from a traditional Japanese art form that most of us associate with creating things like this:

and turned it into an art (and science)  form that allows people to create things like this:

And what caused that evolution? In Lang’s words, the answer is “mathematics”, or more specifically, the creation and utilization of a set of rules that provide a language for defining what can and can’t be done in origami.

The rules define the crease patterns — the lines along which folds are made — in the paper. And there are 4 rules:

  • 2-colorability — any valid crease pattern can always be coloured with only 2 colours and will not have the same colour in two adjacent areas.
  • modulus (M-V) = +2 or -2 — at any interior vertex, the number of mountain folds and the number of valley folds will always differ by 2
  • For any vertex, the sum of alternate angles around that vertex will always be 180 degrees. e.g. a1+a3+a5 … = 180 degrees  & a2+a4+a6… = 180 degrees.
  • No self-intersection at overlaps – a sheet when folded cannot penetrate itself

[Note: if you don’t understand these rules, watch the video. 🙂 ]

Now these 4 rules define the properties of valid crease patterns, but there’s still something missing. How can those rules be applied to create sophisticated origami? In short, what goes in the box? (see 4:40 of the video)

Lang discusses that as well, and provides this diagram:

In short, the physical subject is reduced to a tree figure defining the key components (“flaps” in Lang’s terminology) of the subject. In this case, those are the legs, antennae, horns etc. of the beetle. That’s fairly easy.

Then some process must be used to take that tree-figure and create a base form for the final origami. He calls that the hard step.

And finally the base form can be refined to create the finished model. That’s fairly straight forward.

The “hard step” is accomplished using the rules defined above and the language for applying those rules. Given those rules are mathematical in nature, they can be written precisely and unambiguously and then executed to create the final model.

What does this have to do with product requirements and Tom’s question?

When looking at product requirements, there are analogies to Subject-Tree-Base-Model example given above.

  • Product Managers investigate  real world problems, needs, scenarios etc. (Subject).
  • They then take their learnings and create abstracted representations of them (requirements) using artifacts such as problem statements, personas, use cases and user stories (Tree)
  • These artifacts are then used by engineering teams to create prototypes and mockups etc. to ensure that the requirements were understood and addressed in the product. (Base)
  • The final product is built, tested, tweeked etc. with the appropriate “fit and finish” before being released. (Model).

Sounds pretty good so far right?

But herein lie the problems.

  • There currently is no language for requirements like the one defined for origami, that can precisely and unambiguously convey what is needed and define that in a way that ensures it can be built.
  • Requirements should be implementation neutral, but as we all know in technology, the ability to fulfill a requirement can often be limited by technology choices and decisions that were made well before the requirement existed.
  • Other constraints such as time, resources, knowledge, legalities, finances etc. all factor into how well a requirement can be met, or perhaps if it can be met or not.
  • In many cases requirements contain unknowns or ambiguities that are filled in by assumptions during the development process. This is a reality of developing products in a business environment.  In the origami situation, this is would never happen. A model (like the stag beetle) can only be built when the full crease pattern is defined.
  • There is no concept of people “liking” or “understanding” the origami in Robert Lang’s rules. i.e. Tom Grant asks about why companies build product their customers don’t like or understand.

This last point is key and deserves a little more discussion. What people like and understand is complex and is not static. In general, what people like is based on overall experience and emotion. It is not something that (currently) can be defined in a set of requirements.

i.e. users of this product must feel giddy with excitement the first time they use this software

So, can origami teach us something about product requirements?

Absolutely. The origami path from Subject->Tree->Base->Model forms series of transformations that is akin to the requirements gathering, communication and development process used when creating products.

Once a set of clear foundational rules for origami were defined and understood, not only did they open up new possibilities for forms never thought possible, but those rules formed the grammar for a language that makes precise and unambiguous communication also possible.

There is almost certainly a set of rules and language for precise definition and communication of requirements, but it has not yet been clearly formalized. That is likely a necessary stepping stone in the maturity cycle of product development.

But even with that requirements language, changing market landscapes, customer preferences and needs, technological, resource and time constraints will all work together to make product success a “grey box”, where those with great vision, insight and execution are likely to succeed but never guaranteed that success.


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Taking the “mess” out of Messaging (part 3)

Continuing this series (click the links for part 1 and part 2), let’s look at the following question:

  • How can we get out of this mess?

Given the problems cited in part 2 – laziness, review committees, truthiness – it’s not easy. There are many other reasons of course, and the combination of them makes it difficult to change the behaviour of an entire industry.

Differentiate yourself

It takes effort, skill and planning to create great messaging. Like many other things, it’s difficult to describe what makes great messaging, but you know it when you see it (or read it, or hear it)!

Messaging should be a weapon of differentiation for companies. Tied very closely to positioning, messaging can impact audiences in ways that no technical achievement can. The now famous 1000 songs in your pocket message for the original iPod was simply brilliant.

Why? It was completely focused on the value to the customer. It spoke directly to them, was conscise, appealing and spoke about the iPod in a way completely different from any of it’s competitors.

Watch the video, and observe the story it tells.

The “dude” is sitting behind his Macintosh, listening to his music and clearly enjoying it. He then transfers it to his iPod, puts on the earphones, selects a song on the iPod with the thumbwheel, and within seconds is enjoying the song again. He then tucks the iPod in his pocket and dances out the door. The voiceover comes on and in only 6 brief words, speaks volumes to the audience:

iPod. 1000 songs in your pocket.

In 1 minute, Apple demonstrated how easy it was to enjoy music on their portable player, and focused the audience on the 1 thing they wanted the audience to remember. It worked amazingly.

Now, someone else — not as savvy as Apple and their advertising agency — would probably have promoted the iPod as follows:

  • Comes in 2 models with 5 GB and 10 GB hard drives
  • Capable of holding 1000 or 2000 songs respectively (in 160Kbps MP3 format)
  • Patented thumbwheel interface
  • 2-in backlit LCD display
  • 60-mW high output amplifier
  • Battery life of 10 hours (your mileage may vary)
  • Firewire port with 400 Mbs transfer speed
  • 3.5 mm headphone jack

In fact, if you looked at how other competing music players were advertised, they actually were marketing technical specs. Instead of benefits, they actually spoke about things like the amount of RAM they provided or the audio formats they supported.

It amazes me that in the 25 years (yes it’s been about that long) since the original commercial that introduced the Macintosh to the world, very few technology companies have been able to match the simplicity, clarity and effectiveness of Apple’s messaging.

And the obvious question is, yet again, why?

Rules for getting it right

It takes culture, commitment and command in the craft of communication for a company to create consistently compelling commuiques like those of Apple.  For the rest of us mere mortals, we can try something a little more mundane to mend our messages. 🙂

For whatever reason, people seem to think that in business writing, all the rules they learned in school are no longer needed. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Follow these rules (created by none other than George Orwell himself) and see what a difference they make:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

If you want more detail on any of these, check out this article.

And here’s the original essay where he first wrote these rules (way back in 1946).

For business writing, one other rule is needed.

Apply the “So what?” test to everything you write. If what you’ve written doesn’t provide a good answer the question “So what?”, rewrite it, and ask the question again.

I’ll stop there. 🙂

In the next part, I’ll discuss whether the industry can ever fix the messaging problem for good.



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Related Posts

Guest Post: There’s no such thing as MEDIUM

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NOTE: The following is a guest post by Tzvika Barenholz, a Product Manager living and working in Israel. If you feel inspired to write a guest post of your own, click here to find out how to submit it to us.

We all know the situation: you’ve collected a bunch of product requirements, put them into a nice excel sheet or clever table-like GUI front-end; you’re all psyched about making the big decisions, prioritizing and leading the product to the proverbial “next level”. You sit in front of the screen, crack your fingers, stretch a bit and place your hands in the typing position.

“First item, feature xyz” – yes, you say it out loud, you’re psyched remember? – “First column, Importance” (or priority, or appeal, or whatever is your favorite alias for customer value)

OK – now what *was* the priority of feature xyz?

Let’s see. A couple of big customers have asked about it in a recent expo, so probably high, right? Then again, it’s one of those things that make the product more complicated, so call it low. Having said that, it would really improve average sale price, which is aligned with the five year plan, so high it must be. But what about breadth? It really would only appeal to a fraction of our customers. Back to low again.

And on, and on.

Exasperated, you note that after 20 minutes you’re still on item #1 out of 37. It’s looking more and more like a long night of pizza and coke with the developers. The next thing you know, there’s a little voice inside your head that whispers: make it a medium!

Of course! How foolish you’ve been to overlook this possibility before. A medium is right in the middle between high and low. It’s the perfect answer for what seems to be neither here nor there, or both here and there. Your right index finger then makes it merry way to the m key.

But STOP – you’re just a moment away from falling into a trap as old as the hills. Why? Because there is absolutely positively no such thing as a medium, except maybe as a shirt size.

“Medium” is a shirt size, not a useful priority rating

Prioritizing something as medium is just a way chickening out of making a decision. If you don’t have enough information to make the call, go get the information, then make the call. If you’re piling up different qualities like “broad appeal”, “helps sales”, “improves margins” and “technologically strategic”, then by all means, add 4 columns, fill them out with highs and lows (or yes or no, for the more advanced practitioners who know how to make an even cleaner cut), and then rebuild the priority column as an index composed of them all.

But whatever you do, don’t just cop out. Don’t just type medium and move on to the next item, or you will end up building the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

Apple’s unsolved usability problem: Deliberate choice or Mistaken persona? (UPDATED)

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When you stare at this picture, is the design problem as obvious to you as it is to me?

MacBook Pro 13" on Desktop

MacBook Pro 13" on Desktop

This is a picture of my shiny new MacBook Pro (13″), upgraded from my slightly older shiny MacBook Pro (17″). Actually both are brushed, not shiny, but you get my point. (Poor image shot with iPhone 3G with bad camera.)

Isn’t the design problem obvious? My laptop is a portable office, and it often needs to dock at the stationary office. I go on and off the road, then come back. Or, I just want to go to a meeting, then return. Besides, as a Mac user, I like the clutter-free sleek look.

The MacBook needs a port for a docking station. I’m not saying that Apple should manufacture docking stations. But they should make a single port that would allow Belkin to do so.

I’ve had a PC laptop for 15 years, and always had a docking station. It was assumed. There was a handy little port on the bottom of the computer that provided high-speed access to all the busses (USB, Video, Power, etc.).

There is at least one vendor (Bookendz) out there who has tried, but honestly I don’t think this cleans up the desktop. It’s a workaround based on the fact that there is no single port to enable docking. Some of the youtube videos on the product make it appear awkward and unstable.


So the problem is there: Apple has not provided a single port that will enable docking.




Mobile (ok, thats not me)

(OK, that’s not me in the mobile office.)

There has to be a good reason for this, doesn’t there?

So I wonder: Why hasn’t Apple provided a single port for a clean, sleek docking station?

  • Would it drive prices?
  • Is this a niche usecase? What % of people dock?
  • Does Apple think its users spend all their time in airports?

This has to be a deliberate decision for Apple. If so, they are saving costs for her:

Mobile (ok, thats not me)

and frustrating people like me


Good PM requires trade-offs, and requires you to say no to some users. But docking feels mainstream for mobile professional users, and MacBook Pro is for the mobile professional. Or is it?

Which of my assumptions is off? Is this a case of Misunderstood Persona, or Difficult But Important Tradeoff?

– Alan

UniFlame understands the value of customer experience

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As a former technical writer, it’s always disappointing to see the sad state of virtually any kind of instruction manual or guide. These documents are literally afterthoughts, included I’m sure, simply because laws require assembly instructions or usage manuals.

In fact, too often with goods made in non-English speaking countries, you end with documents like this.

So, when I come across a set of instructions that is clear, unambiguous and easy to understand, it’s worth a positive shout out.

Recently, I bought a rather inexpensive charcoal grill. It looks like this grill to the right.

Nothing fancy. It’s not from a major name brand. But whomever created the assembly instructions knew what they were doing.

First, here is a shot of the COMPLETE assembly instructions


(click image to enlarge)

What’s great about this?

  • 8 simple panels, shown clearly on a 2 page spread
  • All parts clearly drawn and all assembly pieces identified and labeled with a letter
  • Minimal text to read and (mis)interpret – i.e. no tab A in slot B silliness

Yes, this particular photo shows the French instructions (it came with similar English instructions as well), but to be honest, the words could have been in any language and it wouldn’t have affected the clarity of the diagrams.

Here’s a close up look at one of the panels.


(click image to enlarge)

Note the letters associated with each of the 4 items in the diagram (bolt, 2 different washers, and a nut). Why is this important. Well take a look at the next two pictures.


(click image to enlarge)

Every item required for assembly is clearly packed and labeled (!!!) for easy access and identification. How easy? Notice that items B, G, K, F (used in the 2nd image above) are actually packaged together in the picture!

They could have just put everything into little plastic bags, tossed them into the box,  and let me figure out what was what, like many manufacturers do. But someone (I don’t know if Uniflame has Product Managers) decided that would not be acceptable. And on top of that, they included the tools I’d needed — screwdriver and small wrench — to put everything together.

But that’s not all. Whomever designed this little package of assembly parts, went one step further. Here’s the back of the package.


(click image to enlarge)

Yup. The letters are also printed on the back. So why is this important? Because the back is where someone assembling the barbecue is going to access the parts. Note the serrations in the cardboard.

Someone actually thought through this little detail and decided to print the part letters on the back and serrate it for easy access. And believe me, it saved me a lot of flipping the package over and back to figure out where the parts were that I needed.

Now, this is not a complicated grill to put together. It could be done with poor instructions, but it does say to me that someone at Uniflame actually cares about customer experience.  None of the points listed above are big things, nor are they costly to implement, but in most cases, companies bypass the extra effort altogether, looking at them as expenses and not as value-add.

And because UniFlame chose the latter, I’m telling all of you.  So, if any of you are  looking for a good charcoal grill, go and get this one from your local retailer. It’s about 1/2 the price of the comparable big name brand, and it works really well.

So, hats off to you Uniflame. You’ve impressed one product geek enough that he decided to let a lot of other people know.


The value of simplicity

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We have 3 different types of food blenders in our house. They are pictured below. I’ve tried to show them roughly to scale with one another.


The first is a “traditional” blender with a base, a large 56 oz. (1.75 L) pitcher-style container and several speed settings for the blades.

The second is an immersion blender with a number of attachments for mixing, blending, chopping etc.

The third is known as the Magic Bullet blender. It has a small 16 oz.  (.45 L)  container for the contents being blended and a simple on/off mechanism for the blades.

While they all have benefits and are clearly different, guess which one gets the most use in our household? Given the title of this post, it should be pretty obvious.

Yes, it’s blender #3, the Magic Bullet. And why?

Simplicity in all aspects of usage. Most blending jobs are very simple quick tasks. e.g. making a smoothie, or blending some sauce or something similar. The usage scenario goes something like this:

  1. Place the contents to be blended into the blending  container
  2. Blend for 10-15 seconds (maybe 20 seconds in extreme cases)
  3. Pour the contents out of the container

There’s not much more than that. In *most* cases, the amounts are small (< 16 oz) so I don’t need the large blender which is both heavy and a bit of pain to clean. Also the immersion blender is pretty good for a lot of tasks, but I find it inefficient unless I truly have to immerse it into a pot or other container for “in place” blending.

In short, for the majority of my blending tasks, the Magic Bullet addresses the needs well. There is a lesson here for software and technology PMs, and I think you know what that is:

A simple solution that addresses a use case well is likely to be used often by your target audience.

Of course, most technology products do a lot more than a blender, but that doesn’t mean they have to be complex to use.