You’ve been there. A customer asks for a thing they consider to be an easy ask and it’s not in the current product. It might actually be easy or it might be quite hard – you don’t know yet (and you have a sneaking suspicion for one or the other).
You could say “no, not ever”, or “not yet”, or “absolutely – we’ll do it for you” – there are lots of ways to solve the request side of this equation. Those solutions, however, are intimately linked to the way you go about developing your product features.
Committing to building a feature – whether it’s something you intended on building anyway or whether it’s a brand new request that fits into that strategy – requires you to define a Minimum Viable Feature. This description should contain a statement of the problem you’re trying to solve, specifically the Job to Be Done, who the feature serves, and the potential impact created by the feature. Your definition also has to be built in the context of the existing technical capability and business direction of the product.
A Minimum Viable Feature is not just the lowest common denominator of the thing the customer wants you to do and the way you want to do it. It is a carefully considered construction that delivers the job the customer wants to accomplish while laying the groundwork for how similar customers might also want to use that capability in the future. If you put your Future You hat on, you might say that the best feature design helps anticipate and address the future challenges you’ll have while not making people wait until you get there to get 80% of the benefit.
Let’s say you were building an app that let customers tell you about a home improvement problem and you wanted to get as much detail as possible from them so you could accurately estimate the issue. The simplest solution? Ask them to tell you about the scope of the problem, and perhaps take a picture of their leaky sink. The most complicated solution? Take a video of the sink and automatically diagnose the problem. The Minimum Viable Feature version of this might be a highly targeted survey that walks you through the most common problem areas of a specific home improvement area and then instructs you how to take the most helpful video or picture of a specific area to get the maximum input for your effort.
Your version of the Minimum Viable Feature will differ – but the key is to deliver enough functionality and fidelity to the job the customer wants done while building a path to the future of this feature. The more often you do this and the more specific you are about the customer, the benefit, and the way you’ll know if you’ve succeeded or failed, the closer you’ll get to that ideal.
If there’s nothing else you remember from this post, spend 15 minutes writing down your goals for your next project so that you explain them better to the people who matter. The simple act of writing down your goals is a powerful organizer for you, the people you are interacting with in your project, and the people you want to benefit.
Build the Big Picture
When you paint the picture of a problem, a high-level reason why that problem needs to be solved, and a proposed end state that is a great start. That statement doesn’t explain the How, or the resources and tactics you use to get from “project not done” to “project done” within a known amount of time and effort.
So spend a few minutes writing down the ideal state and how you want to get there. Your way will probably be different than mine, which follows a template of prompts. STOP and go do that, then come back.
It seems silly to focus on such a small goal, because knowing what you’re going to do for your project, feature, or idea is obvious.
Test that theory the next time you feel you have alignment on “what is my project” or “what is my feature” by asking someone else to tell you what they think your project is, what benefits it will deliver, and to state the goal you’re both working to achieve.
When the goal of the project, the definition for that project, and the benefits of that project are clear(er), it’s a lot easier to know where to start.
What does this look like in practice?
Consider this example: “Build a new web site Widget.”
If you know: “we have never introduced a thing like this before onto one of our pages,” you might want to test that results differently to make sure there is no required dependency in your environment.
If you know: “we use these things all of the time, and this is a new instance of a thing we do already,” your comfort level will be increased.
And if you know: “we have already described the ‘look and feel’ of this widget in the fonts, colors, and information architecture of our website, for example page xyz,” you will have made it much easier to know what the thing is that you are building.
Stating the benefits for your project helps you to understand the measurement you’ll need to quantify these benefits. Then, find the measurement as it stands today. Yes, it does seem elementary to find a baseline, and you need one to prove that something change. If there is no baseline, state your assumptions and move on.
Getting Started …
In the spirit of a brief solution, I’ll keep this post short too. When you’re ready to make your next project better, set a timer for 15 minutes and write the overall goal, 3 things you want to do toward that goal, a statement for how you will measure your progress, and any questions you have about the project. This simple exercise makes it easier to share what you’re doing, how you’re thinking about it, and how to make progress.
My happy place is an art studio where all of the items have their own section.
I love to draw. Ever since I can remember I’ve created doodles, pictures, paintings, and other kinds of art. And it generally comes naturally to me – the kind of skill that other people call “artistic” and that I call “just drawing” – until it doesn’t.
I’m not sure what this gap feels like to people who don’t draw, so I’ll try to describe it in terms most people find easy to understand: imposter syndrome. When I don’t “feel” like drawing, I come up with every excuse to avoid that practice. I stay away from art materials and all of those wonderful colors. I stop drawing because there’s no chance of messing up.
That’s really not fun. Sometimes it has lasted for years. I am not sure of the first time I had this feeling but I would guess it happened when I enrolled in a Ph.D program in History instead of renting an Art Studio and drawing for a living. Maybe not drawing was a good thing, though.
If I hadn’t taken a break from drawing I would have spent much less time with computers. I might have missed out on learning to program. I might also have not engaged with new technologies like mobile and social and local commerce.
I am drawing again.
It doesn’t take much to get started again on drawing. Just a little bit of time.
The hack that got me going again? Repetition. Small pictures. Doodling. Pretending “this drawing doesn’t matter.” Because the real benefit to creating and writing about it is a pattern itself – the self-reinforcing loop that happens when you make stuff, and look back later to see whether it’s good – and its absence is an anti-pattern.
So if you see me stop drawing, ask me to draw you something. Give me a commission. It doesn’t need to be paid, and it can be just enough to give me an idea. Making art pays off for me in many more areas of my life than the artwork I create. That process of making is a pattern that leads me to a place where I build amazing things.
Admit it — it’s really great to get the message you want, when you want it, and in the time and place that you want it. And that vision is usually hard to match.
Most Messaging is not Like This
And it’s really horrible to get most unwanted messages. It should be simple (and of course it’s not) to find the right balance of messaging across various clients — be they email, iMessage/SMS, or social — so that you get more signal than noise. The reality is that everyone sends you all of their messages all of the time. Unless you filter communication aggressively, split your contact lists into “family”, “friends”, “acquaintances”, and “block that”, you’re going to have a hard time finding the zen of messaging.
The Unrestricted Inbox is No Fun
The irony of messaging as a category is that as it gets more popular it gets more awful (thanks Nir Eyal for this visual of Message Hell). Yet almost every app and remote communication method needs messaging, because messaging solves the problem of communicating 1:1 (or 1:many) when we are all not physically in the same place and need to respond to each other. We all want the (algorithmically-delivered or not) perfect signal of “need to know” and “just in time” messages while also wanting desperately to avoid the inverse: “crying wolf while seemingly urgent and important”, “informational but not urgent”, or just plain spam.
But Blocking Email is Not A Solution
What will we do to keep the best parts of messaging across clients and channels and remake the part we don’t like that causes inefficiency, anger, and frustration?
Clay Shirky, in the well-known talk above (watch it if you’ve never seen it before), talks of “filter failure” and poses that as an antidote to information overload. However, that talk was several years ago. Things have gottne a lot worse with the volume and speed of information since then.
A Modest Proposal
Here’s the problem as I see it — we have information overload and filter failure. Some of this is bacn — “email you want but not right now”, and we have spam (we all know what that looks like). We have communication from different groups: home, family, work, social, and commercial communications. And we have the very real problem of multiple identity disorder, because there is no universal namespace for messaging someone that would create a “phone number” for all communications.
Most people would say, “I’m not sure I like this but this is sort of fine, because the idea of a universal mailing address sounds even worse.” The whole purpose of messaging, they might say, is “to have varying degrees of anonymity and intimacy based on the level of familiarity and trust you have with the individual who’s contacting you.”
The Typical Answer: Don’t Cross The Streams
This “trust” issue is the crux of the problem we face when we want more signal and less noise in our messaging and in our communication in general. We all have internal business rules we use to govern how we respond to different types of messages.
Whether we have enumerated these “rules” or not, they might look like:
“Answer the phone call on the second or third ring when my spouse or partner calls”
“Text my friend in an hour if I’m busy, or immediately if we are in the process of meeting for coffee or a meal”
“Ignore that spammy message from someone or some business I don’t know.”
“Never look at LinkedIn connection requests (ok, I kid — but this might be a special category for a segment of the population).”
Get More Quiet, Based on Our Actions
Our messaging apps and messaging platforms in general do a poor job of interpreting our own behavior and in translating that behavior (and future, intended behavior) into human-readable business rules that govern apps and give us more signal than noise.
We don’t live in a utopian (or dystopian, depending on your worldview) future when we have universal messaging or aggregate delivery of messages to a single client or brain box and a system to rules to respond automatically or manually to those messages. But given the overall desire to reduce noise and increase signal in the messaging conversations we do have, I propose the following suggestions:
Turn off notifications on your phone or tablet. This seems like a no-brainer but the struggle to fight “notification creep” is real. It only takes a few app-created nudges to generate a storm of messages you don’t need or want, generated by app developers and not by your own actions.
Unsubscribe from information you don’t need or want. Try Unroll and Sanebox to clean up your email — future you will thank you.
Aggressively filter the information you get. Your mileage may vary depending upon your style, so this might mean uninstalling apps, unfriending certain people, using email filtering rules, or just not looking at your devices so often.
Use text messages and iMessages to maintain ongoing, single-threaded conversations to the people who matter to you. What’s better than email? Having only one conversation to respond to, stacked in chronological order. If that person is on your list (let’s say … in your top 25 people), they should either leave that list by falling below a threshold or you will have a clear signal that you need to reach out to them because they’re not at the top of your list.
Think about simple rules and habits that make your life better. When you encounter product managers and other people who work on products and services, be sure to tell them what’s working and what’s not working in the products you use. (Hint: they would like to know what regular people feel.)
What could product managers and developers do to help with the message problem? A great start would be more levers and dials to adjust how we receive messaging. Don’t worry — I’m not suggesting that we create Advanced Settings Panels everywhere — but rather that the products themselves observe and respond to a series of behaviors derived from passive activity and active activity. Passive in this case might mean the messages I don’t respond to, and active could mean the messages I do respond to or arrange into folders or lists. The goal should be to develop a personalized set of rules that will automatically deliver message Air Traffic Control to the average user, not the power user.
What about Ads?
Building a personalized set of messaging rules will make easier to present promoted content in a clear and consistent manner, penalize spam, and highlight the important messages I’d like form the people that matter most. It could be an elusive goal, but I believe that improving messaging incrementally has amazing potential to increase happiness and productivity.The popularity of messaging need not cause its antithesis by creating messages we hate. We should be building new and clearer ways to ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time, on the right communication channel.
Trying products early in their lifecycle is a rush. You get the thrill of access before a crowd, you feel like your feedback makes a tangible difference to the future of a nascent product, and you just feel … special. It’s almost like that feeling of finding a band or an athlete on the cusp of stardom and being able to share the knowledge selectively with a friend. Continue reading →
When you get that endorphin rush from seeing a sale you may think you’ve won a customer. If everything’s gone right, you’re absolutely on the way to a relationship that might last years and will produce great things. More frequently the purchase is just the beginning of the process of moving from trial to loyal (and avid) customer.
Think of this example – if you had a lemonade stand and someone showed up once to purchase a refreshing drink, would you think of them as a regular customer or someone who showed up needing lemonade that day? Their needs for a cool drink could be related to the outside temperature, hydration after a long walk, or a need to try the most talked-about lemonade on the block. But the first day they show up at your lemonade stand, a buyer is not a customer.
Now think forward, and imagine that for several hot weekends in a row you’ve seen the same person. You know a bit about the time they show up, how many cups of lemonade they buy, and perhaps have made chit-chat and talked about something more than the weather. You could definitely call this person a customer, but not yet a loyal buyer. You don’t know when the lemonade stand around the corner will come calling.
When the same customer shows up on a rainy day, asks you why you haven’t opened the lemonade stand, and presents you with a few ideas for other things you could sell (“psst – Brownies go extraordinarily well with a cold glass of lemonade”), you’re well on your way to earning a Customer For Life.
It continues with dedicated service
Why did your customer come back? Undoubtedly you’re not the only lemonade stand in the neighborhood. And you might not even be the cheapest. But people are creatures of habit and want to know where they are going to make a purchase with someone who cares about them and what they think.
Learning more about your customer and the key drivers of their business is the single best thing you can do to build success. Not “success” in the traditional sense where you measure the sheer dollar amount of the contracts you bring in and the quotas you make. I’m talking about success as defined by the raw ability to understand why your customer is hiring your company and to translate that into the products and services you deliver for them.
Success might mean not selling to a customer today until their business has matured to the point where they really take advantage of your solution. Success might mean highlighting the single feature in your product that – no matter how they use it – will improve their business so that they talk to other people about you. Success might mean calling a customer up just because and saying “hello, I’m calling because I wanted to know more about how you’re doing and how I can help.”
Success Grows with Your Understanding of The Customer
It’s easy to think you know your customer. They bought something from you, after all. Isn’t that enough? But remember that their business is changing and developing at the same time yours does too. The solution that worked for them months or years ago might not work as well for them now for the needs they have today. Or perhaps, the reason they bought your product hasn’t changed a bit.
The point is that their business – like yours – is not static. You need to keep on asking the customer what they think, why they continue buying, and what they need to really succeed. The capital S in Success stands for Solves Their Problem. Which problem did they hire you to solve?
Which Job do they want done? Learn more about that and then next time a customer asks you for your answer, you’ll be able to speak simply in the words of a customer just like them.
If you’re like many people you balance easily. Riding a bicycle was an early thing for you. Likewise trying a skateboard or balance beam. Maybe you even are clever enough to use a unicycle or a slackline.
Not me — I’ve always been a little off kilter. I didn’t really notice it when it took me until I was 10 to ride a bike. I have trouble reading when cars are in motion — instant motion sickness. I hate being the passenger in a car unless I have something else to distract me (music). Continue reading →