Category Archives: Interaction

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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Guest Post: Measuring Product Management (part 3)

This is part 3 of a series of guest posts by Don Vendetti. Don is the founder of Product Arts, a product management consulting company in Seattle.

NOTE: If you’d like to write a guest post, contact us and let us know about your idea.


In part 1 and part 2 respectively, I discussed the answers I received from company executives on the following questions.

  1. What is the value that product management brings to your company?
  2. How would you measure success for the group and individuals? i.e. on what metrics would you reward them?

In this part, I’ll look at the following question.

Question #3:  Is Product Management Effective, in Your Experience?

The dominant answer here was a resounding SOMETIMES.    I’ll let some comments speak for themselves.

(VP Eng) “Never adequately. It’s a tall order and they are often placed in the organization where they cannot succeed or with unenlightened leadership. If they are in sales they become too deal / feature / near term focused. If they are in engineering they become too development / feature / development focused. If they are in marketing they become too abstract and disconnected. Ideally they are in line of business management reporting directly to an SBU Manager or GM. Where they have done best it was where the corporate imperatives were obvious, and they were well connected and led.”

(VP Ops) “Currently, our model defines product management in terms of marketing activities, so the value is less than optimal.”

(GM) “Yes, the good ones. As always, if their direction is good, and they have goals that make sense, and they are managed, they can usually meet or exceed their goals.”

(VP Eng) “Both successful & unsuccessful.   Needs to have an environment for success – expectations, aligned groups, business goals.  PM needs to stay outwardly focused.   Needs to bring customer into the company.”

(Program Mgmt/Former VP Mkt) “For Agile shops, the product owner role is critical and delivers great value to the business and to dev teams — the product cannot be built without one.  For more waterfall oriented shops, it can be tricky.  I find that product managers that seek to translate market requirements (from marketing/ customer facing teams) into product specs for engineering program managers will often deliver dubious value.  It is best if the product manager is closer to either the customer (e.g. product marketing manager), or to the developers (e.g. program manager) to avoid being an odd-man out. “


Let’s compare where we ended up as the primary value of Product Management with the Mandate previously posted on this site:

The Product Management Mandate These Results
To optimize the business at a product, product line or product portfolio level over the product lifecycle. To deliver measurable business results through product solutions that meet both market needs and company goals.

They are both in the same ballpark with regards to business and products, but there is definitely a divergence beyond that, with the Mandate missing the key element of MARKET NEEDS.

It is a primary expectation of company executives that product management is a bridge between the internal functions and understanding the market needs and this got lost in the Mandate.

Where we still don’t have clear guidelines are the actual measurements to use, but we do have a general direction in which we need to head.   It is imperative for product management to be able to tie their activities to measurable business results to be perceived as adding value for executives.

These do not have to be tied directly to revenue or profit, but there is ideally some way to tie to leading indicators of them – usage, penetration, retention, quality, cost, etc.

If the feature sets you’re prioritizing or the activities you’re doing do not somehow support an improvement in these indicators, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing… pronto.   It also important that you communicate where you’re impacting business level results so that the execs are aware of it.

I have also personally found that the “intangibles” carry a much higher weight than emerged from these exec comments.   Be assured that even if there is no formal process for measuring how you are perceived in the organization, you are constantly being assessed for leadership skills and ability to collaborate and facilitate internally and externally.   These will ultimately steer your career progression.

Lastly, it’s clear from the final comments that product management success is strongly correlated to a supportive organization with clearly defined roles, objectives and mission.   If you find yourself in a company without these, it’s time to exercise some leadership to help create them or to perhaps move on to greener pastures.    It’s really not that much fun to continue to struggle where personal success is unlikely.


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Related Posts

Measuring Product Management (part 1)
Measuring Product Management (part 2)
Measuring Product Management (part 3)

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 2)

In part 1, I discussed the findings described in an article entitled Canada’s Innovation Gap, which was published in the Globe and Mail earlier this year.

In short, it indicated that Canadian businesses are not investing in research and development at the levels they should be (relative to businesses in other countries), and the heavy reliance of the Canadian economy on the resource and manufacturing sectors (both beaten down heavily in the recent economic downturn) put Canada at risk of falling behind other nations in economic growth, standard of living etc.

It’s a sobering article, and if you live in Canada, you should read it, because unless there are clear changes in how we conduct business in Canada, we’re headed for some hard times ahead.

I had mentioned that in this post I would look at some of the solutions proposed by the article’s author Konrad Yakabuski. But in researching the topic more, I came across some other research from the Conference Board of Canada (an independent think tank) that provided additional context on the innovation problem in Canada.

I’ve reproduced some of the Conference Board’s research below, but as always, go to the source and get the full details there.

***Warning to readers who worry about Canada’s future. The information presented below is rather ugly.

The Conference Board of Canada publishes an annual report entitled, How Canada Performs – A report card on Canada. It measures and compares Canada to a number of other industrialized countries in 6 areas of measurement. These are: Economy, Innovation, Environment, Education and Skills, Health and Society.

The scorecard below shows the 2008 numbers and some of the 2009 data. The final 2009 data will be released soon. The grading is similar to how many schools grade students. A is the best, followed by B, C and D. I didn’t see any Fs in the scores, so D can be considered the worst mark.

As you can see, Canada does fairly well in the first 4 categories, but rates a D in Innovation.

The following scorecard shows how Canada rates against a number of other industrialized nations in innovation. Canada occupies the lowest category, along with Austria, Australia, Italy and Norway. A surprise for me was seeing Ireland with an A score. I don’t know much about the Irish economy, but I have never pictured them as a more innovative country than say Germany, Japan or even Sweden and Finland.


And finally the Conference board provides a breakout of the various categories that make up the Innovation score. The table below — you’ll have to click on it to see it clearly — makes it patently clear that Canada’s innovation problems are widespread.


Click the image above to view in detail

Cs and Ds across the board for Canada. What’s most surprising is that Canada only got a C for scientific articles and a D for the manufacturing category. Even with good educational institutions, it seems we’re not publishing enough new research. And for a country that has traditionally had a large manufacturing sector, most of it is clearly pretty low tech; processing for natural resources, and of course, the auto manufacturing plants in Southern Ontario.

So, what can be done? One thing to keep in mind is that what the Conference Board, and the original article by Konrad Yakabuski talk about is innovation by large corporations and universities,  Hi-tech manufacturing is not something done by startups. Fundamental research is not done by entrepreneurs. The objective here is not to simply raise Canada’s grades on national report cards.

The objective must be to create, grow and instill a business environment and culture that enables entrepreneurs, small, medium and large companies to develop and go to market with new products and services on an international scale. Our captains of industry and successive governments have enjoyed direct proximity to the world’s most affluent nation for decades, but have focused on short term profits without long term investment and growth in mind.

In Part 3, (I promise) I’ll look at some of the ways to help address the innovation problem.


BTW, if you want to see what other Canadians think of this problem, read the comments on this article in MacLean’s magazine. The article itself is not too interesting, but most of the reader comments are spot on.

Related Article:

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 1)

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What was Twitter’s Biz Stone smoking?


You can see the new version of this article at the following URL:

A couple of months ago, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone appeared on The Colbert Report. Watch the interview below and then continue reading the blog post. Pay close attention during the latter part of the segment as Stone describes Twitter’s plans for revenue generation.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

[NOTE: If you don’t see the video in your browser, wait a few extra seconds for it to load, refresh the browser window or view the original here, or if you live in Canada, view it here]

If you were impatient and couldn’t watch the whole thing, here’s a recap of the key parts, starting at about 2:55 into the video:

Stone: Twitter provides a new way of messaging. It’s really the messaging service we didn’t know we needed until we had it. You send out 140 character bursts of information to anyone who wants to receive it; they receive it in real time and that’s when some of the magic happens.

Colbert: [looking perplexed] It’s the what? It’s the what?

Stone: [matter of factly] The messaging system we didn’t know we needed until we had it.

Colbert: [astutely] That sounds like the answer to a problem we didn’t have until I invented the answer. [audience laughs loudly]


You can see the new version of this article at the following URL:

Analysis part 1

I do agree with Stone on his first sentence. Twitter does provide a new way of messaging. I wrote about it previously in Twitter: The Napster of Messaging. But after that, Stone starts speaking mumbo jumbo.

The “service we didn’t know we needed” line makes little sense. Thankfully Colbert quickly calls Stone on it almost immediately.

Later, starting around 4:30 into the video, the following exchange happens:

Colbert: Does Twitter charge anything?

Stone: It’s totally free.

Colbert: So I assume that “Biz” in Biz Stone doesn’t stand for “business model”?

Stone: [somewhat sheepishly] No. No it doesn’t.


You can see the new version of this article at the following URL:

Analysis part 2

This in my opinion was the best exchange of the interview. Colbert intentionally asks a question to which he knows the answer, only to follow up with a real zinger; an easy target, but quite effective. This does set up the context for further questions a few moments later.

The interview later continues:

Colbert: How would you make money? Are you going to make money off of this? How?

Stone: Yes we are. We are going to become a strong, profitable, independent company. We are going to continue to stay based in San Francisco.

Colbert: You and  [audience laughs. Stone looks annoyed.]

Stone: We are recognizing a difference right now between profit and value. We are building value right now.

Colbert: Wait. What’s the difference between profit and value?

Stone: Well right now we are building on value. That means extending the service worldwide, globally, so that more people have access to the real-time network. And not just on the internet. There are over 4 billion mobile phones and when we network them together it is very transformative especially when you realize it works over both texting and the web.  As we grow that network it becomes more valuable; as we add features to it, as we make it more robust. When we get to a certain point where we feel we’ve gotten there, we’ll begin experimenting with revenue models. This is not unlike how Google approached their revenue.


You can see the new version of this article at the following URL:

Analysis part 3

This last exchange is where I think Stone goes right off the rails. His line about “value” and “revenue” is utter rubbish.

Extending the service – taking it global etc. — has nothing to do with value. That’s called “extending the service”. Value is not added with new features and capabilities. To quote Warren Buffet:

Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.

Value is delivered or derived, not added through code and new functionality. Newsflash Stone! Millions of people are getting value today out of Twitter. Even with the frequent appearances of the Fail Whale, people continue to use the service.

And what’s this about Twitter networking the world’s 4 billion mobile phones together and being “transformative”. That’s just more mumbo jumbo.  I guess with 45 or 50 million users of Twitter today, that’s just not enough to figure out how to generate some revenue?

Finally, what’s with the line “When we get to a certain point that we feel we’ve gotten there…” Huh???? Biz, could you just be a little more specific? And, hey VCs who’ve invested MILLIONS into Twitter….is this what passes for intelligent business speak from the founder of one of your portfolio companies?

But the interview continues:

Colbert: How long out is that?

Stone: How long is what?

Colbert: Before you experiment with revenue.

Stone: We’re going to start experimenting this year. But we don’t have to hit a home run right away. We have patient investors. We have time to work it out. We’re going to be exploring and experimenting starting this year and we have time to figure out what the perfect revenue model is.


You can see the new version of this article at the following URL:

Analysis Part 4

Hold on a minute. Almost immediately after saying “When we get to a certain point that we feel we are there…“, Stone indicates that “this year” is when that certain point will be reached that they will feel they are there. Wow. So why didn’t he say that in the first place?

So in summary what is Twitter?

It’s a free service that solved a problem people didn’t know they had. They’ve raised tens of millions of dollars in VC money, and the company’s goal is to be a strong, profitable, independent software company based in San Francisco. They’re currently in a phase of value building but later this year they will start “exploring and experimenting” with revenue models, but there is no urgency to find great model because they have patient investors.

For those you reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Personally, I find the whole interview rather amusing; and not in the typical Colbert way. Stone seems like a nice guy, but his comments in the interview truly leave me suspicious about Twitter ever generating sustainable revenue, and also leave me wondering, what he was smoking when he went on the show?

But maybe I’m wrong. What do you think?



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.


Upcoming ProductCamps

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ProductCamp New York was last weekend and it appears to have been quite successful. Alan attended and wrote up this post about it.

If you missed the New York session and want another chance to attend one, there are 4 5 more in the works in the coming months, starting with ProductCamp Austin in only a few weeks.

ProductCamp Austin
Date: Saturday August 15, 2009
Location: The University of Texas at Austin, McCombs School of Business, Austin
More details: click here.

Followed by one in September.

ProductCamp RTP2
Date: Saturday September 26, 2009
Location: Cambria Suites, Raleigh-Durham Airport
More details. click here.

And 2 ProductCamps in October.

ProductCamp Toronto 2009
Date: Sunday October 4, 2009
Location: Ted Rogers School of Business @ Ryerson University
More details: click here.

ProductCamp Seattle
Date: Saturday October 10, 2009
Location: Amdocs, 2211 Elliott Ave, Seattle WA
More details: click here.

And to round the year off, Boston is holding their camp in November.

ProductCamp Boston
Date: November 7, 2009
Location: Microsoft New England R&D Center, Boston MA
More details: click here.

For information on these events as well as other events relevant to the Product Management, Product Marketing and Product Development communities, check out our Events page. And if you know of an event we should list, let us know in the comments of that page.