My top three takeaways from the Women in Product conference

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend the second annual Women in Product conference that took place in San Jose. Around 1,500 product managers, all women, all working at some tech-related product, at many, many different stages of their career. I was inspired not only by the women on stage but also by the women sitting next to me, listening, asking questions, and sharing their knowledge. Some of the talks I heard had familiar content but each one managed to teach me something new. That said, at the end of the day, these three talks are the ones I’m still thinking about.

Go-Jek‘s approach: beyond ride-sharing. Multiple features in one app.
Source: From Ms Chan’s slides,

First, Connie Chan’s lightning talk titled “Cross-Border Innovation” and focused on how the Asian app developers approached mobile product  delopement. In Silicon Valley, current wisdom is to have a different app for each function or activity. For example, Google has over 100 Android apps, some with obviously close affinity and others with functionality overlap. Yet each has to be downloaded, installed and used on its own. The Asian approach, which Ms Chan called the Super App, melds different and varying functionalities into one app and leverages the existing audience to introduce new functionality. The assumption is that users will find what they need while gaining benefits such as a single login and identity without the need to re-enter payment credentials for each. To paraphrase Ms Chan, each functionality within the app shares distribution and traffic with the others, while maintaining mindshare and relevance. The Super App approach is so different than current Silicon Valley thought but yet makes so much sense from the marketing and growth perspectives. Bonus: extra insights from Ms Chan.

The second talk I liked was by Jen Dante of Netflix who talked about the importance of failure when building products. As PMs, we tend to focus on success so much that we often forget that we can learn from building products, features, and experiences that users don’t like. The consequences of rewarding only successful products or features doesn’t mean that failure won’t happen. Rather, failures will be hidden and the opportunity to learn from them will be lost. Fear of failure discourages bold product initiatives and will most often result in what Ms Danta called “consensus-driven decision making” which ends up being political and discourages bold moves. She introduced the audience to Netflix’s culture of discussing, measuring and yes, celebrating failure. Ms Dante’s closing statement: “when you fail, you learn.”

My third takeaway was from a talk by a PM I have long admired and gotten to know through her posts, Julie Zhou. She introduced us to the three questions product managers should ask at product reviews to figure out not whether we can build something, but whether we should.  

  • 1st question: “What people problem are we trying to solve?” where the focus is on people. Will the product or feature benefit actual users? Is there an emotional or social benefit aside from the functional one? What is the simple, human benefit?
  • 2nd question: “How do we know it’s a real problem worth solving?” Well, the “know” part drives the collection of both qualitative and quantitative data about the product, while the “real” part means to ask if it is something significant to our users and if it’s worth solving.
  • 3rd question: “How will we know if we solved this problem?” Which leads not just to acceptance criteria or the definition of a set of success metrics, but rather a softer, more intuitive approach. Ask yourself what will be different in the world if we do?

What I liked about Ms Zhou’s and Ms Dante talks is that both are working on complex products in large companies, both with a large number of users and revenue driven by those users, and both are in charge of major product decisions. Yet Ms Dante’s talk focused about the importance of numbers, Ms Zhou focused on more big-picture questions. For me, both are important to consider as part of the product development process and great to have in my toolkit.

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Gartner’s emerging technology hype cycle – 2017 edition

For the past few years I’ve taken a look at Gartner’s Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle as a way of following what products and technologies make it out of the Silicon Valley bubble and into the real world. It’s an interesting yet in some way humbling exercise to see what products that we think are the best thing since sliced bread never make it out of the Trough of Disillusionment. Quick reminder: Gartner maps technologies on its Hype Cycle as Expectations as a function of time. They describe the first, exciting part of the Hype Cycle as the Innovation Trigger, which peaks at the second stage, aptly named the Peak of Inflated Expectations. The third, downward slope is called the Trough of Disillusionment. The successful technologies and products slowly make their way out onto the Slope of Enlightenment and graduate to widespread market adoption in the Plateau of Productivity.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2014-2017
Sources: Gartner 2014, Gartner 2015, Gartner 2016, Gartner 2017

First thing I looked for this year was what Gartner thinks of voice-activated smart speakers such as Google Home, Amazon Echo, and the yet-to-be-released Apple HomePod and Facebook’s Aloha. Since last summer’s report Home and Echo have seen a jump in sales and in the 2016 holiday season, “US sales jumped nearly 1,000% from the same period a year earlier. But even outside the holidays — when about three out of every four smart speakers was sold last year —sales have been up 39 percent on a year-over-year basis… Google Home topped US online sales of smart speakers during the holidays, Amazon’s Echo Dot — which sells for less than half the price — held that title in the first quarter.” Yet what’s interesting about that report, from only two months ago, is that “49% of U.S. consumers don’t use voice assistants. Half of the potential market still needs convincing that voice assistants are the wave of the future, and companies need to ensure that newcomers have a positive first impression.”  

Cat listening to cat sounds on Google Home

The Hype Cycle reflects this spurt in adoption. In 2016 Natural Language Question Answering, what I see as one component of smart speakers, was sliding into the Trough of Disillusionment but expected to reach mainstream adoption. This year, it’s off the chart which I take to mean it has reached adoption faster than predicted. The other component of smart speakers are Virtual Assistants, which remain just under the Peak this year. This could indicate that Gartner believes that while smart speakers are becoming more widespread, it’s their capability to interact and answer questions via voice that are more valued by consumers than assistants. This will change as assistants become more versatile and voice interactions become easier. Google, at least, placed an emphasis on creating more apps for Assistant at their annual I/O conference, which bodes well for this technology.

Second technology I’ve been following is AR. At their F8 conference this year, Facebook demoed fun VR products but it was their talk about AR that I found most interesting. Michael Abrash, the chief scientist for Oculus, talked about some potential uses for AR that have some fascinating implementations, especially when enhanced by the social graph. He talked about near term applications such as seeing your friends dish recommendations on a restaurant menu and some (very) far but amazing applications such as adding name labels for people you know in a crowd. Yet Abrash added that “real, always-on augmented reality glasses are at least five years away. And that was his early estimate. He also said it’s possible we’re 10 years out.” Interestingly, adoption is moving faster than predicted for VR. Gartner places VR well on its way to adoption on the Slope of Enlightenment for 2017, where it was last year as well, but this time with an expected time to reach the Plateau in 2-5 years as opposed to 5-10 last year.  AR has spent the last few years slowly sliding into the trough and Gartner placed it at lowest point of the Trough for 2017, with expected time to reach plateau in 5-10 years, matching Abrash’s prediction for glasses.

Third, IoT. I’m rather surprised that Gartner still sees IoT platforms and the connected home at the Peak of Inflated Expectations where I see them somewhere in the Trough of Disillusionment. That said, last year Gartner moved IoT itself (meaning devices?) off the Cycle and into the Plateau but left these two at the peak. It seems that IoT is at a crossroads of sorts. Devices themselves have been “smartened” in various ways, with varying success but the platforms connecting them into a usable tool aren’t quite there yet. Moreover, there is a disillusionment from what a connected, smart home will eventually be capable of and it may be that consumers aren’t quite ready to pay a premium for connected devices vs those that do their job.

Fourth, self-driving or, as Gartner calls them, Autonomous Vehicles. These are one of the few items on the Cycle with a 10 year or greater adoption prediction but the only one on the way down from the Peak into the Trough. Interestingly enough, in 2015 and in the years before, Autonomous Vehicles were slowly climbing up the cycle but had a prediction of 5 to 10 years to reach the plateau. In 2016 and 2017, they have not only started sliding down, but their adoption horizon has been pushed back. It’s interesting to note, though, that almost every major car company now has offices in Silicon Valley and is working on some version of this.

Finally, I’m surprised drones are still on the Cycle – they seem to have been widely adopted by everyone from ecommerce giants to wedding photographers. Everyone seems to know what they are and how they’re used and they’re so common there is already government regulation on where and how to use them. Maybe next year they’ll be firmly in the Plateau of Productivity?

Till next year!

My inadvertent Facebook experiment & what it might mean for the future of social apps

It started with a trip abroad, with limited connectivity. It continued with an unexpectedly dead phone and a forced edit of apps, and continued for a few more weeks mostly because I was just too busy to get back to it. In the end, I stayed off Facebook for almost two months, which included my birthday, a day I’m usually happy to spend time on Facebook.

I didn’t go back because the Facebook “experience” was wearing me down. What I wanted was to stay in touch with a close circle of friends that I cared about and to receive updates about significant life-moments from those a not as close. What I got was page after page of in-stream ads, “suggested posts” that had no meaning for me, articles that someone more distant to me liked, a distant friend who connected with someone I have never met, and more. What’s worse, all of these irrelevant distractions hid the updates I did want to see. Now, this isn’t new. All of those irritations have existed for a while and I was still on Facebook. What tipped the scales for me were the political posts – their frequency, their extremism, and their clickbait headlines.

And you know what? I didn’t miss it. I found that cutting Facebook from my day saved me frustration and time. I figured that I could stay in touch via email, WhatsApp and Slack, and I felt that it worked. During this period Facebook sent me twice daily emails with attempts to draw me back, but the content they chose to highlight just served to show me that not logging in was a good idea. Examples included “[distant friend] commented on her photo” and “[a coworker from 10 years ago] shared an update” which did not really interest me.

Then came last Friday, when out-of-town friends and former neighbors posted that they were enjoying the Giants game at AT&T Park. My husband saw it and wondered how it was that they were in San Francisco and that we didn’t know. After a short exchange in the comments, I logged in and noticed that they had, indeed, contacted me on Messenger over a month ago. All this led me to spend some more time on Facebook to see what else I had missed. Turns out – another biggie: friends visiting from Europe left a wall message, along with a birthday wish, that they were in the Bay Area for a few days…. two weeks ago! I had missed them completely. On the bright side, I had several wonderful birthday greetings which were fun to go through.

So what’s going on? Does this mean Facebook is impossible to quit? Kind of. Facebook exclusively owns many of my lesser relationships and it created an easy, person-based way to contact them, one where I don’t need to know their current email or phone number. Once a connection is established, that friend is reachable forever. That’s a very potent draw, and a huge competitive advantage. Sure, Snapchat can entice the teens with cool features, stories, and streaks, but they still connect on Facebook because they can easily get in touch with each other when they need to coordinate a homework assignment.

Facebook’s welcome screen. It’s all about friends.

What’s intriguing is whether Facebook’s ownership of these relationships means game over for any other company that tries to implement a social application. Is this a barrier that no other competitor will ever overcome? In our age of constant innovation I want to doubt that. After all, Yahoo was well established when Google came along. Yet take a look at voice-operated speakers. Already, Facebook is playing catch up with Amazon and Google, but their upcoming home video-chat device is one that has social interactions already built in. Will Facebook be the only company to ever own our meaningful social graph?

I want to wrap this up with a recommendation to listen to a Forum episode from earlier this week with Tristan Harris, a design ethicist. He argued that the social media companies, including Facebook and Snapchat, aren’t behaving ethically because they are intentionally preying on “very deep human evolutionary instincts.” Says Mr Harris: “It’s very useful and very important to know what other people are thinking about you and saying about you, [such as] if other people in your social group are hanging out and you are not invited. The ability to know at any moment where I am in the social hierarchy is new and is being deliberately manipulated to get attention. They’re playing with the delicate and vulnerable parts of the human psyche.” So when we find ourselves unable to resist Facebook’s pull, now at least you we know why.

A few musings on notifications in iOS by a long time Android user

This week, after my Android phone died again, I decided to venture into the world of Apple and borrowed an old iPhone 6 from a friend. I’ve spent the last few days fighting with my muscle memory (where do I swipe?) and Googling “how do I…” when I can’t find an essential setting. Since my Android died abruptly, I couldn’t use Apple’s Move to iOS app, so I’m installing apps only as I remember that I need them. This is actually turning into an interesting purge as there were apps on my Android that it turns out I really haven’t been using. But I digress.

Aside from the changes in UI that were predictably hard to get used to, and I’m not holding a grudge against Apple for this, I’m truly exhausted by one thing: notifications.

  1. iOS alerts: so many, each its own, large-ish message.

    The sheer number: there are so many alerts and each one is its own message. Android encourages notification bundling but iOS seems to do nothing of the sort, and doesn’t seem to offer it in their settings. This means that I get an alert for every news item, every email, every Twitter like, and every new post in every WhatsApp group, including multiple posts in the same group.

  2. They pop up everywhere, repeatedly, in multiple locations. Whereas in Android they’re only on the lock screen in the same format as in the notification drawer and requiring the same action, on iOS they’re on the lockscreen, the notification center, and as alerts, as temporary banners, and as badges. Speaking of the variety…
  3. At every app install, permission is requested by the app to send notifications. I agreed to most, especially the messaging and mail apps, as these are notifications I want to receive. I was then summarily overwhelmed. Going into settings I realized that there were many different aspects of notifications that I could control, such as badges, banners, sounds and alerts. After looking up what they meant, I realized that I have lots of control but not for what I need: minimizing and grouping alerts.
  4. Dismissal of notifications takes a swipe, to get available actions, and a click, to choose view or clear. Why not just a swipe? Each notification has to be dismissed individually, there’s no dismiss per app or per group. Update: Notifications can be dismissed for the entire day, I missed this.
  5. The badges stick until actively dismissed, which drives me crazy. Email, for example, keeps telling me I have 38 unread emails. Yes, I know, but these are not new unreads, they are ones that I already know about and decided not to read or delete for now. The badge is useless, which is why I downloaded the Gmail app, where badges are not for total unread but only for new unreads. I get that this is decided on an app by app basis but this doesn’t make sense to me, especially for iOS’s default mail app.
  6. Choosing channels in Apple’s News app – why are so many on by default?

    There is no hierarchy of notifications in the general settings, only in some individual apps, who mostly don’t offer additional options. Gmail is one exception and allows notifications settings for different types of email, where I can chose to be notified only for Primary emails, not Updates or Social. It helps minimize notifications without a risk of missing important messages. I also cannot set how many notifications I’d like to receive from an app daily (Nuzzel does this well.) The good is that some apps, such as Apple News, do offer customization abilities so that I can choose what channels I want to hear from. The drawback to this is that it’s in the News app and not reachable from the News notifications from Settings, so it needs to be discovered independently. 

So, is it just a question of me getting used to a new UI or are iOS notifications really that stressful? I’m in the process of customizing and maybe, by next week, I’ll feel more at home in this new OS. Meanwhile, I am more appreciative of the changes that Android has in store for Notifications in O: more granular control and the realization that too many notifications cause anxiety and not all notifications are equal.

Finally I love how every iOS app puts the back button in a different place, but that’s a post for another day.

Citymapper integrated bike-sharing and it looks great

Going on vacation is my way to see what Citymapper has been up to. It’s pretty much the only app that continues to surprise me every time I update with some new, useful feature. Last time it was the journey companion (hitting Go on a chosen route provides cards throughout the trip and reminders when to get off) and this time around it was integration with the local bike-sharing service.

 

Paris, like many cities, has a bike-share program with multiple docks throughout the city. Like many of their counterparts around the world, the Paris bike-share system has its own app, which shows docks with their available bikes and empty slots. Like the advantage of a complete route planning app over a static Metro map, bike-only apps are good at a providing bike information, not information on what transportation option is overall better given user preferences. Citymapper offers not only bike routes but also combines bike segments with other public transport options like the Metro. It also has updated information on the number of bikes available at a pickup dock and the number of empty spaces available at the destination dock.

What I don’t know, because I didn’t actually use the bike-sharing option in Paris, was whether the app has the ability to change the destination bike dock en route based on the closest bike dock to the user’s final destination that actually has available slots for checking in a bike. On several occasions in Paris I saw riders cycling towards a dock only to discover that there were no available slots, pulling out their phones and then cycling away in frustration. This is one situation where Citymapper can offer more value, like Waze and other navigation apps, by changing planned routes due to changed conditions along the route.

One other feature I could see use for is predicting availability ahead of time by looking at and studying docking patterns throughout the day and week, similarly to how Google Maps considers historical traffic patterns when predicting times and routes for future travel. This could be useful during periods of high demand for bikes and slots during rush hour, when bike traffic can be more unbalanced and demand higher for bikes and open slots in certain locations.

Finally, and I know this isn’t a simple request, but it would be so useful for those users with no international data plans (ahem) that need route planning on the go. The Paris Metro has dense (in the city center) crisscrossing lines, with trains arriving every few minutes. Helping tourists find just one, optimal route even when they are not connected could be extremely helpful. Another lesson learned in Paris is that there are some stations (Châtelet-les-Halles as the the most obvious) that should really be avoided for transfers between lines because they are so huge. I haven’t seen Citymapper offer routes that specifically avoid large stations and it could be a helpful option, and doable seeing as it already offers routes that aim to be rain-safe.

The inherent conflict between Facebook and its Safety Check

There’s a bit of a flurry around the negative aspects of Facebook’s Safety Check going around this week, mostly based on the reaction to the London fire. The problem, as Techcrunch reports, is that the Safety Check causes unnecessary stress because, for one, it’s not geographically specific enough, asking users miles away if they were OK, and two, because it can be triggered by many events, not all of which should be considered dangerous. Techcrunch makes the interesting point that not all disasters affect people around it in equal ways. A terrorist bombing such as the one in Manchester could involve people from all over the city but a fire in a tower is unlikely to involve people not living there.

Asking users in the perceived area of a tragedy to say they’re safe. They can either answer that they’re safe or not in the area.
Source: Facebook

Finally, Safety Check causes distress by “by making Safety Check a default expectation Facebook flips the norms of societal behavior and suddenly no one can feel safe unless everyone has manually checked the Facebook box marked “safe”.

In a series of tweets, Zeynep Tufekci‏ adds that Safety Check “can be comforting—but it is also adding to the fear-mongering around the world. People check-in safe even when never in danger. Humans are already bad at estimating risk/danger. We already have sensationalist media stoking fear; social media options matter a lot. For both mass and social media fear-mongering is engaging. Pageview/ratings driven mass/social media can converge on sensationalism.” So instead of being a helpful tool to tell people that they are safe, Safety Check stokes hysteria.

The tool originally made sense, and in some way still does. A check-in to tell friends and family that one is OK when a local tragedy occurs is not necessarily a bad idea. Consider the total unavailability of Bay Area phone lines during the hours and even days after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Even before the widespread adoption of cell phones, telecommunication systems are designed to handle an average load, not the maximum possible when almost every subscriber is trying to use the system, as well as people calling in. Add to that the probable power outages that take some parts of systems offline directly after an event, causing another reduction in capacity.

It makes sense to have an asymmetrical check-in product where people affected by an event can quickly (and with little connectivity) say that they are OK while any of their friends can check that notification whenever they want. It also makes sense that Facebook create such a tool. It has the ability to share information with the people who matter. Adding to that is the incredibly high percentage of the population already on Facebook, almost guaranteeing that everyone who needs to see the check-in, will. Creating such a product also fits in with Facebook’s goal to create social value. So where did it go wrong?

There is another problem, though, beyond the geographical inaccuracy, the definition of a check-in worthy event, the ensuing fear-mongering and stress creation. Being on Facebook creates a perception of profiting from a check-in, even if that wasn’t Facebook’s original intent. Consider the new features added just this week: adding a personal note and fundraising, one which pushes engagement and the other monetization, both of which can create unease.

So what can be done? Techcrunch suggested using “Facebook to post a status update saying they’re fine if they feel the need to — or indeed, use Facebook (or WhatsApp or email etc) to reach out directly to friends to ask if they’re okay — again if they feel the need to.” The problem with that is that people no longer trust that their important family and friends will even see an update they post. If it doesn’t have the importance inferred by an official check-in, the newsfeed algorithm might not deem it important enough to show. An email might be too cumbersome and time-consuming to send.

WhatsApp, however, is a much better option. By updating a chosen group or two, users can notify the important people in their lives and only those people. Others, not in the group, can assume that if they were not updated, it means the person was not close to the disaster. It can reduce stress for both the affected people, their friends and family, and people who weren’t in any danger from the beginning. The only disadvantage of that solution is Americans aren’t big users of WhatsApp, meaning that there is not one app that users can go to to update friends, and that’s a shame. 

The takeaway is to realize that even a feature with the best of intentions can have negative ones, and to always strive for better. Corny, I know, but it has been a tough week.

 

Tech, climate change, big data, and making a difference

A while ago I wrote about the challenges of writing a tech blog about apps and gadgets when world-altering events are going on. This came into focus this week after the president’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord and the ensuing conversation. Then, surprisingly, commitment to support the Accord poured in from cities, states, universities and companies around the US. Michael Bloomberg pledged to make up some of the $2 billion in lost funds toward climate action programs. He’s also “leading a coalition, made up of three states, dozens of cities, and 80 university presidents, that vows to uphold the Paris Agreement.”

Listening to a talk with Paul Hawken about this topic this week educated me a bit more about what the Paris Accord really means and what Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative set out to do. By adopting 15 different strategies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, and meeting the goals set out in them, we could avoid some of the more disastrous consequences global warming. Yet out of the 15, says Mr Hawken, 11 are aimed at larger corporations and utilities. The only actions relevant to individuals were to drive less and install solar power. This is what he set out to change, and came up with a way “map, measure and model the 100 most substantive ways to reduce global warming.”

Mapping air quality at a block-by-block level.
Source: Google

The interesting takeaway from this for me is that maybe there is more that tech can do with the “map, measure, and model” part of the equation. After all, collecting and analyzing data is their bread and butter. Google’s new pollution mapping initiative seems to be a step in the right direction. By attaching relatively cheap sensors to its street map that were out and about on city streets anyway, Google was able to create a street-by-street, block-by-block map of pollution levels in three cities, including Oakland. They then took a closer look at what data points suppose them on the map. In Oakland their analysis exposed areas where quieter residential streets were exposed to higher levels of pollution because of wind direction and spots where vehicles accelerate. This gives the City of Oakland a way to understand how to prioritize public works projects if reducing pollution levels for residents is a priority. Says Google: “With nearly 3 million measurements and 14,000 miles captured in the course of a year, this is one of the largest air quality datasets ever published, and demonstrates the potential of  neighborhood-level air quality mapping. This map makes the invisible, visible, so that we can breathe better and live healthier. It helps us understand how clean (or not clean) our air is, so that we can make changes to improve it.”

In the light of political change, it will be up to local entities, not the federal government, to take action on global warming. To do so they’ll need to collect and analyze many data points. Google’s mapping initiative shows that tech companies, especially those driven by location and mapping data, can relatively inexpensively help with this component proving, perhaps, that change is possible from the bottom after all.