On Medium’s new ‘applause’ feature

I really like Medium’s new ‘applause’ feature for ‘liking’ articles.

medium-applause

The idea is that the extent to which you like something is not binary… it’s not either “I like it” or “I don’t”. It’s a spectrum.

There are other ways they could have done it. They could have made it a star rating, a rating from 1-5, or 0-10 (like NPS). But all of these have a meaning that’s so closely associated with rating things (hotel rooms, websites, products and so on) that it would feel odd attaching it to Medium content, where the author is clearly visible. Replacing it with ‘clapping’ makes it a much more human interaction.

Clapping is something we humans do all the time to indicate how when we like something, and generally, how much we like it. The more we like something, the harder and louder we clap. The Applause-o-meter is a common method for gauging audience reaction to a contest between a few different people, with the candidate who receives the loudest applause winning the match.

That’s what I like about the clapping UI on Medium. It takes a very common behaviour on the internet (rating something) and gives it a very human and emotional touch. The more you like a piece on medium, the more you click to ‘clap’ for it. This also makes clapping a lot more meaningful than just going for the 5 star button… each click to clap is an additional investment – you need to decide once again on each click if it’s worth one more – so five ‘claps’ is worth much more than one-click to leave a 5-star review.

The downside?
Each click is an additional investment. In our time-drained world, each click is a little bit of friction. Will people leave as many ‘claps’ as they might want?

There’s also possibility for abuse, such as clicking a hundred times on one article to artificially bump up the total number of claps – but that’s something Medium can easily secure against with a bit of logic.

Great PMs don’t work alone

Sometimes there’s a perception of Product Managers that the best ones are product geniuses who always and immediately have the right answers for every product problem: PMs whose product instincts are so sharp they can arrive at the best solution at a moment’s glance; who can look within themselves and find the solution deep down there and pull it out onto a wireframe through a simple act of will.

I suppose there are a few crazy geniuses out there. And I’m certainly not doubting the power and value of instinct built up over years of product experience.

But the whole truth is that being a great Product Manager is less about moments of divine inspiration, and more about work and grind: questioning, discussing and iterating. Hypothesising, experimenting, failing and repeating. Doing the work.

The whole truth is that great PMs don’t work alone. They’re not mad geniuses who are supposed to always have all the answers.

Great PMs are masters of The Process: the process of gathering input and inspiration from myriad places, and synthesising that into a solution. PMs talk to the customers, to the sales team, the finance team, the engineers: they talk to everybody. They know that ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere, and they actively seek out ideas and input from across the business.

But be careful. This is not the same as “gathering requirements” or “translating business objectives into development objectives” (two definitions that often come up in the context of Product Management that I really hate).

This is not about making sure everybody’s input and ideas are squeezed in to the product. It’s about a process of gathering ideas and inspiration from as far and wide as possible (the divergent thinking phase), then boiling that all down into the solution that best solves the problem for the customer (the convergent thinking phase).

Product instinct is less about always knowing what the solution is. It’s much more about knowing which solution, from a list of possible ones, is most likely to work, and which should be tested. It’s about quickly assessing and prioritising a variety of options and making the right call.

So don’t think you always need to have all the answers. Use your team and your network to build your list of options, pick the best one, or combination of best ones, and go.

User Experience is everybody’s job

I’ve met lots of product teams who will tell you: “User Experience is a design thing.” They hire ‘User Experience Designers’ to design the User Experience, and generally assume that they alone are responsible for the overall UX.

I believe that simply assuming the User Experience is a ‘Design Thing’ is a very dangerous mindset, for three very important reasons.

UX is in the middle between Product, Design and Technology

Within a product, the overall User Experience isn’t delivered only through design.

Certainly a big part of the UX is the visual design, the interaction design, the brand design, and so on. But an equal part of UX is the implementation of that design through technology. The danger in assuming that UX is a ‘Design Thing’ is that it quickly leads to people from other disciplines disconnecting from worrying about the User Experience at all. Every technology decision has an impact on the User Experience, which makes every engineer who is making any technology decisions – (which is every engineer) – equally responsible for ensuring a great UX.

Too often I see product tradeoffs being made where teams decide to sacrifice the user experience in favour of saving time, saving cost, avoiding that refactor or simplifying that internal process. These are all terrible reasons to sacrifice the User Experience. Additionally, sometimes the best User Experience improvements come exclusively through technology improvements. For example performance improvements, which can have a huge impact on UX, often come from deep and complicated engineering innovation.

Engineers: The User Experience is your job, too!

User Experience is also about solving the right problems for the user, and solving them with the right priority.

The user will judge the user experience to the extent that it solves their problem. A perfectly executed product that doesn’t solve a problem for the user won’t lead to a great User Experience.

This is where Product Managers should feel in command of the User Experience: in making sure the problems you’re solving are urgent and pervasive within your market segment, and that the solutions you are delivering are differentiated and defensible. Make no mistake: this has the biggest impact on your User Experience – and the resulting product success – than anything else, so it makes sense that you should focus here.

Product Managers: The User Experience is your job, too!

The overall User Experience goes beyond just the app/website/service/widget that you’re building.

When we’re working as Product Managers on digital products, we’re all so concentrated on our app, website, widget or whatever, that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that your app is just one piece of the whole User Experience.

The overall UX starts the moment the user first hears about your product, and goes all the way to support, fulfilment, billing, etc. In other words, the User Experience spans the entire customer lifecycle.

We hire people with titles like ‘User Experience Designer’, but then put them to work designing user flows within single apps or products. To me, there is a difference between Interaction Design and User Experience design.

Interaction Design is concerned with the design of discreet experiences – interactions – within customer experiences. How does the user interact with this feature/product/widget?
User Experience Design takes a holistic view of the entire end-to-end user journey – from their first contact with the product via a marketing message, the app store or even a word-of-mouth recommendation, all the way to customer support, billing, delivery, etc.

But it’s not only the job of the User Experience Designer to think end-to-end. Everybody working on the product should have the entire end-to-end flow in mind, to understand the unique context of each user, why they are there, what problems they have and what they are hoping to achieve.

Marketeers, Support Engineers, PR folks, Delivery technicians, Logistics technicians, etc: The User Experience is your job, too!

Why this matters

Users have more ability to discover and switch to new services than ever before. Traditional lock-in effects like platform dependencies and data ownership are eroding thanks to open platforms and data portability, and there are great alternatives in every product vertical. The thing that keeps people using your product or service is the quality of the user experience, from end to end.

Companies that become great and enjoy great customer loyalty do so by developing a culture of unwavering customer focus. Sure, many companies say they are customer focussed, but actually being customer focussed is more than just a mission statement – it’s a deeply embedded culture that everyone lives and breathes from the CEO down.

A couple of examples:

  • Facebook prioritises the customer experience over everything. Facebook understands that their business model depends on gaining more and more users who each spend more and more time using Facebook. Their business is cultivating user attention. Everything else in the business comes second to user engagement.
  • Amazon is another company which was founded and grew on the fundamental premise of making the experience great for the customer. When Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com in the mid 90s, he knew that the key to scaling massive consumer adoption extremely quickly was an unwavering focus on a great customer experience, and he considered the customer the most important thing in the business. He built this customer-first attitude into the company’s DNA from day one, and every innovation they have delivered – from 1-Click ordering, to personal recommendations, to the Kindle eReader to the voice-controlled Echo – has been about making a great customer experience and making it easier to shop and interact with your content.

A few ways to make sure you’re thinking end-to-end about UX

  • Do you share a common set of User Personas across all departments, including tech, QA, product, design, marketing, comms and support? Having a common set of personas ensures that everyone has the same user in mind when designing their solutions.
  • Does your QA team test the entire acquisition and on-boarding funnel? It’s important, but insufficient, to focus your QA efforts on the app/website/etc. You need test coverage of the whole end-to-end experience. If you don’t QA your marketing or your support functions, you should consider doing so. For example, you can test your support team with the ‘secret shopper’ approach.
  • Consider a ‘Stop the line’ policy for the User Experience. It’s a familiar concept to your engineers – certain situations within the build environment, such as test coverage dipping below a certain level, or open bugs exceeding a certain threshold, will trigger a ‘stop the line’ where no new check-ins can occur until the situation is resolved. What if you did the same for User Experience? What if you gave everybody in the product team – from Product Management and Design, to Engineering, QA, Marketing, Comms, Support, etc – the permission to Stop the line? To put a pause on building anything new until the UX issue is resolved? What impact would that have on your customer focus?

Ultimately, the User Experience is the culmination of every touchpoint you have with your customers. This experience can, and should, be designed from end to end. But it’s not just the ‘job’ of Design to get it right.

UX is everybody’s job.

The evolution of the design discipline

I’m not a designer by trade (which means I have never been to design school or worked as a designer professionally), but I spend a lot of time designing things – websites, apps, experiences, presentations, flyers, posters and so on. The tools and resources needed to design beautiful things are more accessible than they have ever been before.

But what does this mean for designers? I mean, for people who call themselves designers; who are designers by profession?

I don’t think the design discipline is at risk of disappearing; of being absorbed by the greater masses. It is, however, becoming increasingly democratised and accessible. The lines between amateur and professional are blurred. That doesn’t force the designer into another profession – but it does force the designer to articulate his value in ways that differentiate him from the crowd.

Try this for a parallel: take a look at journalism. Journalism was also once a ‘closed system’, now it is hugely open and accessible. Journalism once required a degree in arts, journalism or literature, and your career started in the pit of some local rag newspaper writing articles by the thousands on local fairs, traffic jams and pub brawls. Now anyone has the ability to write something that reaches a million people instantly – and you don’t even need to be able to write a grammatically correct sentence to do it.

Modern forms of democratised media are changing traditional print journalism in big and irreversible ways – a situation nobody denies but nobody has a solution for. Partly because, I think, there is no ‘solution’. This isn’t a problem to be solved – it’s evolution.

What enabled this disruption? The internet, of course. But abstract it a different way and you see it was enabled by ubiquitous access to tools; tools that facilitate both creation and distribution.

Do should journalists start worrying about their jobs? Will they be replaced by citizen journalists and bloggers and twitterers? Maybe… it’s clearly happening faster than they think. Sure, a random blogger sitting in their bedroom cannot replace the TIME journalist who goes behind the lines in Afghanistan, Syria or wherever. But when a witness to a disaster or tragedy can upload a video to YouTube in seconds (think the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria), the role of that TIME journalist changes.

There’s another example that you might not have thought of: software engineering. Back in “my day”, you needed a computer engineering degree to write software (I know, I have one). Code was complicated and inaccessible. Now, anyone can write an app or build a website in minutes. There are frameworks and programs that let you build an app with a WYSIWYG interface and publish it directly to the store. There are code camps for designers and even code camps for CEOs.

So as a software engineer, does this make your profession less valuable? Maybe, maybe not. Right now there’s enough complexity in the growing infrastructure to keep plenty of software engineers busy (someone needs to build the frameworks and WYSIWYG editors, right?). But what it certainly means is that the lines between amateur and professional are becoming blurred. And why? Tools: tools that facilitate creation and distribution.

We can debate for hours whether using a WYSIWYG application framework to publish an app makes you a ‘software engineer’ or not. But in the end, does it matter? If the goal was to publish a well-crafted, functioning app, who cares if you’re a ‘software engineer’ or not?

So too with design. Like with software and journalism, the tools for the production of design, the availability of resources and materials and means for distribution have made design an accessible discipline. The lines between amateur and professional have blurred.

If I was an automobile designer, I wouldn’t be too worried that the average joe would put my job at risk. Yet. But what about the future? Imagine a time when you can design and build your own car with special software and a 3D printer? What role does the automobile designer have then? Would there still be automobile designers?

Professions evolve. You had to be a computer scientist to operate the first computers, now there’s one in your pocket. I also hear there used to be a profession called “Typesetter”. Where are they now?

My point is not that design is at risk of becoming extinct… on the contrary. Design is growing, evolving – it’s reaching the masses.

So where does that leave designers? I’d say: learn the lesson the journalists struggled to learn: lamenting the state of things and reminiscing on the days when only a ‘designer’ could design won’t stop help you any more than it helped the Typesetters. Embrace the evolution – see it as an opportunity to influence how millions (billions?) of people design, create and enjoy the world around them.

Your customers are not lucky to have you

You’re lucky to have them.

Without your customers you have no sales, no revenue and no business.

When the line at the post office stretches out of the door and into the street, I think: “How can I avoid doing my business here next time?”

When my cable goes down and it takes 30 minutes to contact tech support, I think: “What other cable providers are there?”

When an app I paid for (with my money, or with my time, and it’s irrelevant which) is slow or hard to use, when it crashes, when it doesn’t work, I think: “Is there another app that will do what I need to do?”

Your customers always have another option. Particularly for products that create needs or activate latent needs (as do many of the apps and services that exist in the modern consumer space), not fulfilling the need is a perfectly reasonable option for most people.

Beware the hubris of thinking that your customers are lucky to have you.

Seeing the future

I found a great quote from the book Meta Products (Rubino, et al) on what makes future thinkers and innovators good at innovating, and I just had to share it:

“We’ve studied the ideas of some of the well-known futurologists and innovators such as Juan Enriquez, Steward Brand and Katherine Fulton among many others, and we can identify a similarity between them that perhaps can explain why they are so good at looking at the future: they are genuinely interested in ‘change’ and in understanding why we change. They keep abreast of scientific discoveries and research challenges. They are very interested in linking the past to our present and intuitively reflecting on the future. There are characteristics in the attitudes of the great futurologists and innovators that cause them to be constantly dissatisfied with the ordinary, forcing them to look for controversy and confrontation wherever they are. It’s not that they are difficult people, it’s probably just their way of identifying the real motivators for doing what we do, and why we change. Futurologists and innovators also love serendipity — when you find something you weren’t expecting to find, or when you have the ability to link together apparently unrelated facts to create unexpected and valuable new information.”

In other words, the ability to “predict” the future is linked heavily to one’s ability to see and understand not only the past, but how our aspirations and motivations as humans cause us, and with us our society, to change. Change is the greatest opportunity for new innovations and new business models, and understanding the human aspirations behind change can help us see what is coming. So, a student of human aspiration is in a unique position to understand the evolution of human wants and needs.

The book is an incredibly interesting exploration in product design in the fully connected world: the so-called “Internet of Things”. How should we as designers and creators of products enable fully connected experiences through our products and services?

You can read the whole book online for free here, or you can buy the print version from Amazon here.

Good Design is…

Good Design - Dieter Rams - small poster

In the 1970’s renowned German designer Dieter Rams defined ten design principles that embodied his view of design and product development.

He said:

  1. Good design should be innovative.
  2. Good design makes a product useable.
  3. Good design is aesthetic design.
  4. Good design makes a product understandable.
  5. Good design is honest.
  6. Good design is unobtrusive.
  7. Good design is long-lasting.
  8. Good design is consistent in every detail.
  9. Good design is environmentally friendly.
  10. Good design is as little design as possible.

Timeless.


(The translation is mine from the original German, but I’m sure there are countless others, including on wikipedia.)

Original German version:

  1. Gutes design sollte innovativ sein.
  2. Gutes design macht ein Produkt brauchbar.
  3. Gutes design ist ästhetisches Design.
  4. Gutes design macht ein Product verständlich.
  5. Gutes design ist ehrlich.
  6. Gutes design ist unaufdringlich.
  7. Gutes design ist langlebend.
  8. Gutes design ist konsequent, bis ins letzte Detail.
  9. Gutes design ist umweltfreundlich.
  10. Gutes design ist so wenig design wie möglich.

You can download the image above as a desktop wallpaper in English or the orignal German.

Consistency is not a rubber stamp

Consistency - a row of blue and orange map pins

Stop signs are always red. Exit signs are green. Play buttons are triangles. These are patterns and norms that, when appropriately leveraged in a design, can help communicate expectations and function. It doesn’t matter if you are an interface designer working on a software UI, a software engineer writing code or a manger preparing a powerpoint presentation: consistency is important.

What consistency is not, however, is copy + paste. As a great designer on the maps.nokia.com team said in a design review recently: “Consistency is not a rubber stamp.” It’s not a cookie cutter. It is a careful and thoughtful association between what you are doing and the user’s current knowledge. In other words, the question to ask is: “will this design allow my user understand what they need to do or what I am trying to communicate to them, given their experience, knowledge and understanding?” Two elements of a system can be consistent with each other without being the same.

Consistency for consistency’s sake (or, on other words, forcing total consistency at the expense of function) is a design crime of an similar magnitude.

Rather than asking the question: “is this consistent?” – ask the question: “will my user/reader/audience/etc easily understand, given their context and knowledge?”

As Emerson famously pointed out:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

Simplicity

Simple - small image. Click to download in full wallpaper size.

Human beings are naturally complicated creatures. We live complex lives and we interact daily with incredibly complex systems: office politics, personal relationships, government bureaucracy… we are surrounded by complexity. The reality is, though, that much of this complexity need not exist at all.

When humans look at problems, we have a tendency to look for the most complex solution to that problem. I think complex solutions to problems arise when:

  • We do not actually understand the core problem we are trying to solve.
  • We are trying to solve too many problems at once.
  • We design separate solutions to related problems that are not compatible with each other.
  • Often, the complex solution is easier to design than the simple one.
  • We are humans… we feel a natural sense of achievement when we create something complex.

(A more pessimistic or controversial reason might be that we sometimes develop complex solutions to problems, either consciously or subconsciously, as a defense mechanism: that is, we think that if we can show that our job is complex, we can become indispensable… in other words, we use it to justify our job/responsibility/existence.)

The problem with complexity is that it’s expensive:

  • it’s expensive to build
  • it’s expensive to maintain
  • it’s hard to learn – for users and for developers

As product creators we need to find the simple in the complex. Simplicity is so much easier: less code, fewer mistakes and a lighter learning curve.

Your value as a creator of meaningful things is in how simple you can make it; not how complex.

Classic product management wisdom from one of the fathers of industrial design

In 1955 Henry Dreyfuss, one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, in his book “Designing for People” wrote the following :

“The successful performer in this new field is a man of many hats. He does more than merely design things. He is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste and he has painstakingly cultivated his own taste. He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed, and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as liaison linking management, engineering, and the consumer and co-operates with all three.”

Clearly this sentiment is as relevant for designers today as it was 55 years ago when it was written. It’s also interesting how the description rings true for product managers. In fact, I couldn’t have come up with a better description of the modern-day product manager if I tried.

Product management is more than schedules, roadmaps and powerpoints. Product management is about identifying a need and building a solution. It’s about understanding people (users) and understanding “how things are made”.

Designing for People - Henry Dreyfuss - Many hats sketch“From the book Designing for People – Dreyfuss’s sketch of the multi-skilled designer.