My Product as an Equation

One of the most important things I learned when becoming a product manager was being able to see my product as an equation. In the startup phase it’s easy, there’s just costs and they’re often tangible: people, hardware, software. Then you add marketing in various forms each with a different cost/revenue profile, then revenue streams and revenue sharing, then business overhead in myriad forms, and so on.

Developing a mental model of this equation (particularly the more volatile variables) and designing with that equation in mind is a fun part of managing a product. Maybe writing it down and posting it on the wall would be an educational tool for the team?

Did You Know Brainstorming Is 70 Years Old?

That’s right, Alex Osborn started popularizing brainstorming in the late 1930’s. It’s a classic tool I still use, but I have to wonder if there’s something better.

Brainstorming is simple, and I would bet this simplicity is the key to its popularity. Yet even the basic rules that Osborn set out aren’t very common. Brainstorming is too often reduced to sitting around a conference table discussing a topic rather than storming an objective.

I tried a little experiment with my Business & Design students tonight, introducing them to three different idea generation tools: brainstorming, “yes, and…,” and question the brief. Brainstorming and Yes, and… were slow and stiff. Part of this is probably due to my skill as a facilitator, but I also think these tools require some experience to use proficiently. I liken it to building muscles; it takes some time doing it to see results.

Question the brief, on the other hand, more easily generated plenty of usable ideas, and there were even some explicit comments preferring this method, so that we returned to it. My theory is that it’s simple enough to remember but has just enough structure to produce specific kinds of ideas. That’s a balance I’m going to seek with my other concept design tools.


See also my concept design page at Smart Experience.

Alignment Diagrams as Business Tools?

The first book from Rosenfeld Media, Mental Models, is hot off the press (get 10% off with discount code FOSMEX10). I bought a copy this week, and was struck by how widely the alignment diagrams in the book could be used.

In case you haven’t seen an alignment diagram, it basically groups similar mental concepts together and maps them to corresponding content or functions, listed underneath (click for a larger image).

alignment diagram

Just as strategy maps made a conceptually large and complex set of concepts easy to understand (and popular) by visualizing them all on one page, alignment diagrams does the same for what people are thinking and how to interact with them. The book culminates with a chapter on deriving structure and labels from the diagram, for example for a website. But it’s easy to imagine much broader applications, from organizational change planning to communications strategies.

Categorized as Tools

Make Tools: My IA Konferenz Keynote Slides

In my keynote talk at the 2007 IA Konferenz in Stuttgart, Germany this month, I argued we need to create fewer artifacts and more tools. We’re already doing this, but it’s easy to get stuck in a make-more-web/mobile-sites rut and that could lead to irrelevance.

Here’s the slides…

By coincidence, Joe Lamantia’s The DIY Future: What Happens When Everyone Is a Designer addressed a similar theme through a different lens soon after at the Italian IA Summit. Joe and I are friends and hang out in Brooklyn, but I can’t recall us talking about these presentations. Must be something in the air…

Protoscript: AJAX for the Rest of Us

In the evolution of programming languages, we’ve been moving to higher and higher levels of abstraction, for example from binary to assembly to C to scripting. Writing code gets easier, but the more generalized functions are balanced with less flexibility, which limits how much abstraction is practical.

Bill Scott’s Protoscript is a small but significant step in this evolution:

Protoscript is a simplified scripting language for creating Ajax style prototypes for the Web… I am a huge proponent of breaking down the barriers for the non-techies among us to be able to do what us techie geeks can do.

There are many AJAX frameworks out there, but Protoscript is designed to address a different and widespread need — those of us non-programmers who would like to make rich websites — without over-generalizing the code too much. It still involves looking at code, which I think will scare off many people, but it seems he’s thinking about how a graphical interface can control this.

For designers, it means you will soon be able to do more without relying on a developer, and developers can focus more on the backend systems. For everyone else, it means the web will be getting more interesting more quickly.

Are We Arguing When We Should be Designing?

shirt slogan: I'm not going to waste my time debating with you. Does this look like the Internet?

Scanning the Internet-centered design mailing lists these days, I have to wonder if the inward-looking conversations aren’t doing more harm than good.

Earlier in my career, mailing lists and blogs were incredibly useful tools for learning my craft. The mass media hasn’t really covered the story of blogs as more than journals and citizen journalism. For those of us designing complex Internet systems there were (and are) tons of interesting problems to solve, and we wrote about them and shared invaluable information with each other, desperately trying to push the discipline fast enough to turn new ideas into functioning reality. It wasn’t just writing and reading, it was joint, remote problem solving among an entire community.

As I became more accomplished, I didn’t need quite as much of that communication to practice my discipline, the work become more about how to manage teams and help them ascend the learning curve. So these days I blog less frequently and mostly scan the mailing lists. And what I see concerns me. Some of our brightest minds are still having the defining the damn thing discussion, which we realized years ago was proving fruitless.

Perhaps just saying no to something seemingly pleasurable isn’t enough; we need compelling alternatives. So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about tools we use to do our work and tools we make to empower others. The difficulty of programming is a threshold that reduces designers to asking others for help, but we need to funnel our energy into creating tools to solve our problems and then move on to more interesting problems.

More on this in the coming months…

Pens I Can Live With

Late last year I finally became frustrated with using whatever lame pen happened to be on hand. I did some research, tried several options, and corrected the situation. Here’s a summary:

On the inexpensive end, many people like the Pilot G2, though I think the Uniball Signo 207 is as good. Both are refillable rollerballs.

Unlike in Europe where my friends were required to use fountain pens in school, they’re rare in America. Following some recommendations I tried The Lamy AL – an aluminum version of their inexpensive Safari plastic line. Fountain pens can be fussy, but when they work there is nothing smoother and more beautiful. I tried using this all the time, but now I reserve it for letters. It costs about $30.

Categorized as Tools

Reviving How We Used to Think and Write

Richard Powers, winner of the 2006 National Book Award, reports how his speech recognition software has altered his experience of writing to be more like that of traditional oral culture…

…I can write lying down. I can forget the machine is even there. I can live above the level of the phrase, thinking in full paragraphs and capturing the rhythmic arcs before they fade. I don’t have to queue, stop, batch dispatch and queue up again. I spend less mental overhead on orthography and finger mechanics and more on hearing my characters speak themselves into existence. Mostly, I’m just a little closer to what my cadences might mean, when replayed in the subvocal voices of some other auditioner.


The fools at Fast Company lent me the keys to their blog last week. Here’s what I scrawled in lipstick on their bathroom mirror…

Once in while I hear someone talk about innovation as leapfrogging the competition. I love this phrase because it’s so bold. It not only says we are going to innovate on the level of products or processes or management, but also that we’re going to do it in a way that jumps forward to a generation beyond the competition. A leapfrog is the most ambitious an organization can be, and few organizations are actually equipped to make such a massive change. But leapfrogging as a creative exercise to expand our thinking can be a powerful tool.

Let’s say you’re a supermarket getting your lunch eaten by Whole Foods and you want to find an innovative new positioning. You could start by reverse engineering Whole Foods to figure out what makes them so successful and then imagine what it would take to ‘leapfrog’ that success. One way Whole Foods succeeded was by combining the progressive-but-ugly health food store with the attractive interior design and high quality merchandise of newer supermarkets. Lately they’ve also combined their stores with a vitamin store called Whole Foods Body. To leapfrog them you could brainstorm around the question, “What haven’t they combined yet?” One answer is exercise, as in diet and exercise — the keys to a healthy lifestyle. We see this combination happening as gyms open health food cafes, but this is on a smaller scale. The opportunity space for you is a modern, attractive gym and food market that combines the two in a way customers love.

How will your organization leapfrog the competition?

Your personal connection to Katrina

Lou linked to an inspiring report of Alan Gutierrez’s wiki set up in the wake of hurricane Katrina…

When I awoke, I found that the Xavier families, has simply kept the Wiki page going without me. I cleaned up the their markup, buth the information is there.

Now, I’m finding the page gets updated, nice and neat.

Xavier Wiki

Wiki works.

I received a request by more pedestrian means — email — from old university friend Shel who safely fled New Orleans for Florida but who must now settle anew sans possessions. Her list of things needed made it easy for me to provide specific help to someone I care about, lifting me (selfishly, I know) out of a feeling of uselessness here in NYC.

And I started to think how others might do the same. Who do we know, or who is in our network, that was affected? How can we find out? We have tools now. Social network software like LinkedIn lets you search by number of degrees from you and zip code (here’s FEMA’s list of aid-eligible areas, New Orleans is 70112).

Categorized as Tools

Tool: chain of meaning

If you ever get a chance to hear Andrew Zolli make sure you do. He’s a great speaker, weaving compelling ideas and statistics into a story and injecting it with the right amount of humor.

I saw him last week where part of his talk included his idea of the “chain of meaning” where a raw material can go from commodity to product to service to experience (see a summary at Core77 and in an older deck from Zolli). It’s not too different from Tom Peters’ progression of products -> services -> experiences -> dreams.

from coffee beans to coffee grinds to coffee to starbucks

It occurred to me this is not just a way of understanding what has been done, it’s another business development tool. And it’s not just a one-way progression; there may be times when, for example, you’ve created an experience but also see an opportunity to compete on price and move down the chain to product.

Lately I’ve seen the result of not understanding the chain of meaning. In Manhattan on 23rd St. between 7th and 8th Aves two businesses opened in the past few weeks: a bakery and a barbeque restaurant. Both are charging well above market prices, presumably because they think customers want to trade up. But neither offers an experience, and neither has the brand pull of a Nathan’s on Coney Island (where they can charge something like $4 for a hot dog). As I stood at the window of the BBQ place reading the menu I heard a man next to me talking on a cell phone: “They want twice as much as anyone else for barbeque? They’re crazy.” When New Yorkers call you crazy, you’re really crazy.

Categorized as Tools

Tool: levels of abstraction

In 1960 Theodore Levitt wrote “Marketing Myopia” which questioned which level of abstraction was right for businesses to match their capabilities with the desires of customers:

Those behind the railroads are in trouble not because the need for passenger transportation has declined or even because cars, airplanes, and other modes of transport have filled that need. Rather, the industry is failing because those behind it assumed they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. They were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented, product-oriented instead of customer-oriented.

In the dot com boom this was taken to absurd extremes, but I’m finding it using as a tool for product development, considering different levels of abstraction as an idea-generation tool. For example, we might generate different ideas for Sony as a portable cassette player business, a portable music business, a portable entertainment business, a ubiquitous entertainment business, and so on. Each time you go up a level, the possibilities also branch out.

But I figure someone must have already done this. Does it already have a name?

Categorized as Tools

Flash for planning design

Someone – not sure who – makes a compelling argument for using Flash for planning designs rather than Visio. It might also help collapse some of the distance between direct and indirect design; the planning tool is also the prototyping tool. This is a good thing for at least two reasons:

  • Interactive media are dynamic; it’s difficult to use paper to plan designs
  • Indirect design in some firms has gone too far. Work that should be prototyped and iterated is analyzed instead, which can be less effective in finding what works and mitigating risks
Categorized as Tools