Tag Archives: Business

Improved – Get everything done

Over the past two years I have been working alongside my friend (and co-founder) Stef on Improved. Yesterday evening we released the first version to our friends and family.

I won’t go into what Improved is because its website covers all that; this post exists so that I can mark the moment when this all happened. Suffice to say, our vision is to

Remove the guesswork from finding the right person for the job

Some background info

People who know me closely are aware of the fact that I am a big fan of the Lean Startup model. Yet I just said that we’ve been working on this project for a couple of years, thus contradicting my previous statement.

Here’s my excuse: I have a day job, as Head of Mobile at Trade Me, and this job takes up at least 4 days of my week (sometimes I take work home with me). On Tuesdays however I get to work on what I am passionate about. For the past couple of years I have been spending my Tuesdays juggling work on Improved, with some other client work (for my boutique consultancy called Tmro), and with some other family activities.

This dynamic has kept my brain engaged at 100% and has produced an incredible amount of work related satisfaction (be it Improved, Tmro, or Trade Me). Without a doubt, all these companies / products have benefited from the experience I accumulated while working on the other ones.

Improved is the most recent initiative of this bunch, therefore it took a lot longer for the fruit of the work done on it to show. That ends today.

All in all (an including evenings and weekends) I’ve spent between 4 and 6 work-months building Improved. I am not counting here the effort and work poured into the project by Stef, who’s been doing a bloody awesome job in a similar 1 day a week arrangement for a period almost as long.

Stocktake

We decided to ship our MVP at the point where the platform supports the use cases we considered to be necessary (after doing plenty of soul searching and chatting to other people).

Roughly, these are the “features” of our v1:

  • The simplest possible create and manage Job flow
  •  Support two way messaging and quoting (including Push Notifications) between job owners and service providers (aka Improvers)
  • Search and browse Jobs and Portfolios
  • “Smarts” that support our vision:
    • photo doodling
    • take similar photo assistant
    • before and after comparison tool
  • Social login and straightforward account creation
  • Seamless Native app to Web handover
  • Clear feedback/review process

Apps side by side

Could we have done more? Absolutely! Our backlog is chocka full. Should we have done more? We think not. We want (and need) feedback from our users so that we shape the product into something that people love using.

After the first few user interviews we realised just how differently people think of their interactions around a job. Waiting longer and shipping a more “feature rich” product would basically mean increasing the number of assumptions made. This is a risk we chose not to take.

The next steps

Yesterday we started inviting Beta testers to use the app. We hope that everyone who uses the app (whether they have jobs they want done or they just look for their next customer) will find it useful.

We have an Android app underway, as well. I will shift my attention to finishing that app, while supporting the “early adopters” with anything they may need.

I’d love your help

If you’re reading this, chances are we know each other. Hi! You can help too! Get in touch with us by email and we will add you to our Beta test group. Improved is free for everyone to use, and posting jobs is non commital until you accept a quote (just like in real life).

Here are some other ways you can help:

  • you can upload DIY projects you have already done. This way we can learn more about the types of jobs people do, and the language they use to describe them
  • next time you need to mow the lawn, or prune a tree, or take classes or lessons of any sort, post a job on Improved. It’s free and you can build a pretty neat portfolio that you can be proud of
  • visit our website and send us any feedback you can. Is is clear what the product does? Do you like / dislike anything? Do you have any recommendations
  • spread the word. We have a Facebook Page, a Twitter account, and a Website. Please send our way all the to people you know who need stuff done around the house, who used a dog walker in the past, who took lessons or classes of any sort. Our mission is to enable people to be the best they can be at what they do.

Thank you.

Thoughts on Notifications

Last Friday I was invited by the friendly people at Springload to give a talk on Push / Interactive Notifications.

The slides are targeted at Product people who are responsible with making the decision of including Push Notifications in the roadmap of their apps.

The gist of that talk is that just because you can send Push Notifications or display alerts to the user, it doesn’t mean you should. Notifications are the number one reason why people delete apps and you should keep this in mind when building your apps.

Here’s my (current) Top 10 Notification best practices:

  1. Guided “Opt In” rather than “Opt Out”
  2. Allow user to specify the types of messages they wish to receive. Support DND. Think Time Zone
  3. High volume of Notifications? Consider providing a “Snooze” custom action
  4. Only send relevant messages. This is NOT a direct marketing channel
  5. Don’t send confidential or sensitive data through push notifications
  6. Consider promoting custom actions that do not require the app to start up
  7. Use clear language and keep the message short
  8. Choose the lowest frequency of notifications that still delivers a great user experience
  9. Be aware of context. Is the user in your app right now?
  10. Consider aggregating multiple messages into a more generic “group”

Team vs Group – Some differences

A bunch of people that push each other forward and work together for a common goal form a team. A number of people who work for the same organisation but have individual goals belong to a group. One of the biggest differences between a team and a group is that a team’s achievements always outweighs the sum of all the individuals’ accomplishments.

To better explain my point of view, I will break down my definition of a successful team into the categories below and close with what I believe the manager’s role should be.

Motivation: Purpose, Accountability, and Goals

People in a group are very likely to be sold a goal. Depending on their professionalism, they will push themselves to achieve great outcomes and they will strive to be honest. Any failures or imperfections are forgettable and are perceived to be short-term. Accountability applies at personal level. In this context, the motivation for an individual is most often extrinsic.

In a team, the goals are set together through discussions, planning, and by sharing a common definition of success. The team has personality. Since the goal is shared, they push each other forward and hold each other accountable. Due to the fact that they collaborate closely they often end up raising the bar of expectations for each other in order to deliver better results at both personal and team level. Team players are intrinsically motivated.

Collaboration and Roles

Group

In a group, individuals are less likely to contribute to other skills

In a work group, people share information, they are respectful with one another, and sometimes even behave in a formal way. Meetings sometimes turn into status reporting. Peoples’ ideas don’t always get challenged or augmented. There’s hardly ever any work done outside one’s area of expertise. The skills overlap is kept to a minimum, almost as a sign of  respect. Personal development is determined by one’s own desire to better themselves rather than as a need to fill a gap. A designer is always a designer and a tester is always a tester. The Gantt1 chart for how a project runs is clear-cut. Task B always follows task A and never comes after task C.

Team

In a team, individuals tend to push their peers forward

In a team, the collaboration is not just close, but from the outside it may even look chaotic. There is energy and people often venture beyond the limit of their skill. Developers and testers may end up sketching design approaches. Designers may roll up their sleeves and help with testing. Product owners will join the designers in user testing. Personal development is often done in a way that completes the collective knowledge. A tester may learn to use prototyping tools, while a designer may learn how to work with development tools. Each person may wear the hat of any of the other team mates and may jump in when their help is required. In a Team, tasks A,B, and C may take place at the same time and make a project manager’s life a living hell.

The Manager’s role

In a work group, the manager is almost a dictator (sets the goals, measures progress, and is the only one who can push a member’s limits). In a team, the manager is merely a guide and a facilitator.

All teams start off as a group. It’s a manager’s job to create an environment where people:

  • feel safe
  • speak freely
  • are comfortable with themselves and can be genuine

so that they can discover each other’s strengths, accept the weaknesses, and, over time, build trust.

1 Disclosure: I really don’t believe in Gantt charts.

Sharing Information – My basic principles

As a team leader, I sometimes find myself in a situation where I have to communicate a decision to my team. Here are some key principles that I a guide myself by when I do this.

Do it as early as it makes sense

Timing is one of the most important things to me. If my team find out about the “news” from somewhere else, their trust in me is likely to be shaken. I am there to look after them and to be their voice in the conversations that have an impact on them. The sooner I can do that, the more I can help them.

Give a quick rundown of what will be covered

At the beginning of the discussion I try to clarify what I will talk about. This provides not just structure, but it may prevent questions that would be answered anyway. At the same time, it enables everyone to write down any questions that I may have overlooked in my FAQ.

Ideally, the agenda should be sent with the meeting invite, but sometimes this is just not possible.

Provide context

The reality is that not everyone reads their emails. If these emails contain business speak, are too lengthy, or come from a source that is too far away in the organisation, then it’s possible that people will just skim the message and not retain too much information.

The first part of the discussion should definitely include a quick recap of what has been going on, to bring everyone up to speed.

Stay honest, genuine, natural

I have seen so many people try to become somebody they are not during a presentation. Their pitch or tone would change. Their body language would be awkward. Their hand gestures would be unnatural. I try my hardest not to be one of these people.

Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

I feel like being genuine helps reassure people that I am being honest. Even if the point of the meeting is to “sell” to the team something that they might not be too happy about, it’s still important that my tone is affiliative.

Give just the right amount of information

One very important aspect is finding the right balance between getting lost in the details (overwhelming the team with too much information) and being too vague about what the decision really entails.

Go through a FAQ

I try to think ahead of the questions that the team might have. Putting myself in their shoes is good for several reasons:

  • helps me prepare for the meeting
  • contributes to the decision of how much should be communicated
  • keeps me honest
  • prevents the piling up of answers such as “I don’t know”, and “I’ll get back to you”

Take questions

I am a strong believer in the power of an honest “I don’t know”. Realistically, if the truth is that I don’t know, then anything else I would say is BS. I respect my team too much to reply with a political, or vague answer. It’s also very likely that the answer will be important to me too.

Thank and close

When closing, it’s important to remind people that the communication channel is still open. Some people are introverts, or simply not comfortable asking questions in front of their peers. Others prefer to communicate in writing. Their voices are equally important therefore they need to know that they can follow-up with me.

Apps vs. Websites – The ownership perspective

This topic has been covered time and time again. Typically, these articles cover a mix of technology, performance, ROI, look and feel, and other such metrics.

Today I’m going to suggest that the end user’s ownership of an app (as opposed to a website) is one criteria that businesses should consider when making the decision to build a Native App. I’m also proposing that building a Responsive Website is no longer an option, but an expectation.

In 2014, even the cheapest smartphones come with HTML5 capable browsers! End users do not and should not have to understand why a website is different, and sometimes even feels alien, when viewed on a mobile device. The time when we had to compromise on mobile because of technical reasons is long gone. Let’s leave this here.

If the mobile browsing experience is in the same class as the browser experience then why should you even consider an app?

Unless you’re planning to build an amazing app that you plan to support long term, keep up to date with the fast evolving mobile UI/UX, in which you utilise the mobile platform paradigms to the point that the user feels like it was built in collaboration with the designers of the first party apps, then you probably shouldn’t build an app.

The subtlety here is that it all boils down to the fact that you own your website, but the end user owns your app.

If the user has a bad experience on your site, they can’t get rid of your mobile optimised (hopefully responsive) website. Your links will always work, even if they remove all shortcuts or bookmarks. A short url, a web search result or an ad will always be able to bring them back. When they’re back you’ll have a chance to make them change their mind and convince them to return in the future.

On the other hand, if the user has a bad experience with your app, they can simply forget the app ever existed on their device. They will delete it and they’ll do that almost as a punishment for your failure to delight them. Deleting the app will close all the communication channels once provided by that medium: all extensions and widgets will be gone, all URL schemes will seize to function. The reality is your app is competing with potential photos of their friends and family, or with another app that is more in fashion than yours.

The end user owns your app because they install it, they dedicate disk space to it, and they can get rid of it if they choose to. They are in complete control of this lifecycle and, you may not realise this, this lifecycle has financial and psychological implications.

Unlike accessing your website, when installing your app the user is likely to be asked for their password (or fingerprint for Touch ID). Even if your app is free, the psychological connection is made: they acquired your app. They are now using disk space just to have your app around.

Your app must be delightful, it must add value every time it’s used, otherwise the user will eventually run out of patience and delete it. Once they do, you will face a big uphill battle to convince them to give your app another try.

There is no such psychological attachment to your website because the user is not involved in the site’s lifecycle. They usually just “ask” a search engine for it. When they run out of space for their next photo they won’t think which sites they can remove…

If you can’t build a delightful mobile app, then you’d better have an amazing responsive website. The reality is though, that if you don’t have both, then it’s likely that you’ll never be the first port of call for a mobile user.

Defining a product roadmap – The pyramid of trust

The Product Roadmap is like the north star. The same way a sail boat is guided by a trustworthy, never changing light source, the Product Roadmap is there to give a team direction and comfort that they are moving in the right direction.

The goal

The goal is to get the team to be intrinsically motivated about the Product Roadmap. I’m making the assumption that if you’re reading this post you probably agree that selling a roadmap to the development team is a difficult undertaking.

In order to be able to provide direction and comfort, the Roadmap has to have the team’s buy in. In the remainder of this post I will describe the way I believe a team should be approaching the definition of a successful Roadmap.

The actors

The teams are made of a number of skills. Some teams can have just two tiers (or just one when the leadership is provided from whithin the team) while in larger organisations there can even be a structure such as the one below.

 Product Manager  Ultimately responsible with the delivery of the product
 Technical Lead  The technical go to person for the entire team (cross skill)
 Team Leader  Responsible with the entirety of a skill (e.g. developers)
 Team Member  BA, Designer, Developer, Tester, etc

In reality, the more tiers there are in a team the higher the risk that there will be voices that have not been heard or that certain individuals will end up not feeling represented. Later in the life of the product these are most likely to become the least motivated or the least engaged team members.

The approach

I believe that people’s motivation disappears when the Roadmap is enforced top down. Too much energy has to be spent on selling a roadmap epic as opposed to discussion the merit of that roadmap entry.

Instead, I suggest a bottom-up approach. I call this, the Pyramid of Trust. I will describe how this works by looking at a complex team structure. In a simpler situation, pyramid levels could simply be removed.

The Pyramid of Trust

The Pyramid of Trust … is built from the ground up

Step 1 – Ask the team

Everyone takes part in this exercise. Allocate enough time to allow people to collect ideas and to have a couple of minutes to pitch them. There are no bad ideas at this point. Think of it almost as a brainstorming phase.

This first step is also the most important one, because this is where trust starts being built. Here are some guidelines on how to approach it:

  • Remind the team about the company values / mission / priorities
  • Ask them to suggest a limited number of ideas (no more than 3). These ideas must be good for the product, for the end user, and for the business
  • Once the team have spoken, it’s time for their leaders to contribute with their own proposals
  • Lastly, the Product Manager / Business Owner is going to present their own idea

Step 2 – Find the themes

Realistically there will be many ideas that the team simply won’t have time to build. Some ideas might just be plain bad. Other ideas might need resources that simply are not available. These are just a few reasons why in step two, the Team Leaders should get together with the Technical Lead and the Product Manager to:

  • group these ideas by theme
  • discard themes / ideas that are not suitable

Delegating or sharing this responsibility with the Team Leaders is beneficial because:

  • it gives comfort to the team members who know that they are represented in the selection process
  • teaches the Team Leaders about responsibility and pragmatism
  • is a healthy process that enables excellent technical proposals to survive the selection process

Step 3 – Isolate the Epics

It’s time for the Technical Lead and the Product Manager to make the final selection for the Epics that will make it into the Roadmap.

This is the step where emotion is put aside and the business and the technical skills get together to figure out the best ways forward. At the end of this step the Product Manager will have mandate from the development team to pitch a Roadmap to the business.

The Technical Lead will need to figure out ways to plug the holes in the team’s skills set, resource and prioritise appropriately, find training and upscaling opportunities. All these will help the team be as prepared as they can be when they come about implementing this Roadmap.

Step 4 – Pitch the finalised Roadmap

The Product Manager is now under pressure from the team to represent their ideas when pitching this Roadmap to the wider business or to the stakeholders. Compromises usually need to be made and not everything will work according to “plan”. The bright side to this approach though is that the Product Manager will have the confidence to speak on behalf of the team knowing that if their suggestions make it into the agreed Roadmap then the team are likely to be motivated and engaged as they are, in fact, co-owners of this Roadmap.

Conclusion and next steps

It’s important to remember that if an idea that was generated by a team member makes it into the final roadmap, this person should be involved in the phases to follow: exploration, research, strategy, implementation. This way credit is given where it’s due, the sense of ownership and belonging is reinforced and this becomes a good example for the roadmap sessions that will take place in the future…

A good idea would be to make the roadmap as visible as possible, in a way that does not use actual dates. The focus should be on sequence more than anything. I would suggest three monthly updates on progress. These would also serve as reminders of the common team purpose.