A Tale of Two Gadgets

Amazon_Kindle_PaperwhiteADD_2013_35827154_01For someone who’s an avid reader, I came into the world of ebook readers screaming and kicking. The smell of a book, transitioning from the crispness of the new to the musty of the aged, always had a special place in the hall-of-fame of my olfactory senses. Plus the physical action of turning a page, which to me is like a deliberate step forward in the acquisition of knowledge. Not to mention my habit of writing on the fly-leaf a note of where I bought the book (for example, the book Dark Sun, Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes has the ironical inscription – Borders, Pentagon City Mall, Arlington, Virginia, 2005). In a manner of speaking, I test drove the Kindle using the app on my iPad 1. The advantages were immediately obvious (no more half suitcase full of books from my US trips, for instance) but I finally decided to buy a Kindle Paperwhite to make it easier for me to read outdoors – a very important use case for me. And that – the Kindle Paperwhite – is my favorite gadget of 2014, largely because it has none of the advantages of a feature rich iPad. Let me explain.

In a world afflicted with almost incurable attention deficit disorders and gadgets making multi-tasking easier, the Kindle paperwhite’s single use-case focus is like the whiff of a new book bright ray of internal hope. The device does just one thing – downloads books over a Wi-Fi connection and presents the first chapter for you to start reading. That’s it. Get done most efficiently the stuff the user is looking to do and then get out of the way. Yes, the device steps in time to time, in a manner very unobtrusive, to adjust screen brightness, dictionary for words to look-up and highlight portions of text – and all these make that single use-case, reading, a much more enjoyable activity. But alas, there is no way to quickly check if that inconsequential email has arrived, if someone has posted a world changing 140 character tweet or if the first cousin’s daughter’s birthday pics have been uploaded onto Facebook. What a sense of liberation. Someone did mention that the Paperwhite carries an “experimental browser”. This is one experiment I’d be very happy to see fail. I have noticed that I fidget around apps much less on my phone after a longish stint of reading on the Kindle. That is the power of simple devices and software in changing user behavior for the better. This is also a great lesson for product designers who often get swayed by the SUV approach to design – pack so many features, bells and whistles that the user gets swayed by their shiny (albeit of little or no use) allusion only to have the core use cases suffer. Thank you Amazon for such a simple device – and yes, Kindle, I’ll get you the leather cover for Christmas – it is a long overdue gift of gratitude

Before I move to the next gadget a quick mention of a simple and (almost) single-use case service I use regularly. If you are into investing – minus the masochism that you are the world’s best fund manager – then check out scripbox. Their single focus in business is to make investing simple. They do all the non-simple work of asset-class identification, research and monitoring but hide it cleverly away from the user. Quick disclosure – the founders are known to me. And I, in my misplaced product management of hosepipe information systems exuberance have advocated several times numerous features and functions that the founders have patiently heard and politely ignored. They ask of every feature – “does this make investing easier?”. And if there isn’t an intuitive affirmative answer, they pass the idea. Try them – you’ll not be disappointed

GoqiiNow to the other device. I wanted to add a gadget to my fitness routine that was smarter than a pedometer. As I do with experimental devices, I was loathe to burn a lot of money for it. Just around Diwali I noticed GoQii was selling their devices on Amazon with a three month contract that brought the price down to my range. I bought one and my nightmare with the delivery started. Long story short, the consignment was delayed and finally arrived at a time when I was leaving town (and in-between I discovered how you can track on Amazon orders delivered but not those in transit). I vented my frustration on Twitter and immediately the COO of GoQii joined in the conversation. Right through the Diwali holiday week, a single customer support rep, aware of the details of the situation, kept touch with me. GoQii shipped an additional consignment to the address where I was about go even when the first was not delivered (the problem was actually with the delivery partner though GoQii never tried to disown the problem by apportioning blame, like Amazon did). When I finally got the gadget, they shipped me two premium straps absolutely free of cost – one each to the two delivery addresses. The product itself, I must confess, is quite buggy – flaky syncing of date/time sometimes, shows distance covered even when idle and the battery drains rather fast. Now all these bugs are fixable with firmware upgrades – and I am sure the company is working on it. But what sets this gadget apart is the exceptional customer centricity that comes bundled along with it. The company is quite famous now and it really could have ignored an irate dissatisfied customer buying the less than $70 device from a partner website. But they did not – their CEO left his personal email ID so I could get this resolved. I never had to use it (if a CEO has to resolve an issue then that to me is good enough indicator that the company is best avoided for business). The lesson in all this is simple – a product with bugs will be acceptable to users if there are other aspects of the relationship – things more permanent in nature than software bugs – that delight

Endnote: That’s it my dear readers – thanks for being with me in 2014. I wish you and your families the best for the season and may 2015 be healthy and prosperous for both the mind and soul. Take care.

Containers and Payload

tangoAny system/tool/platform/product that combines content with workflow has two components. Let’s call them the container and the payload. Each requires something from the other to be of any worth together. And either of the components can be worked on – though not entirely independently – for betterment. But sometimes strange things happen. Take for instance e-mail. The e-mail ecosystem has the client as container and the mail (the stuff we write) as payload. E-mail client developers assumed they had not much control on the payload so they went about making the container smarter. Search, labels, keyboard shortcuts, themes, threaded conversations and so on. Later providers like Mailbox (and I am told Inbox, though I am still waiting for an invite) attempted at taking the payload and infusing smartness into it. But in reality for e-mail ecosystems no matter how smart the containers became, the payload was slowly moving towards extinction. Conversations had started moving away to instant messaging platforms of various forms (IM clients) and delivery mechanisms (like WhatsApp). No matter how smart the container became, the payload was getting irrelevant by the day and those with their necks immersed in the containers (no pun) never saw that happening

This presents a rather interesting situation for those building content and workflow combos. The conundrum – which should be made smarter – containers or payloads? One way to examine this is to ask the question – what would reduce friction between the user and the task outcome? (Just pause a minute to consider that strikethrough. Very often we focus on the task and become oblivious to why the task is performed). Workflow and content combos in enterprise software invariably play to productivity and efficiency. The question for a product manager finally boils down to how can those two be improved

Product managers have different levels of leverage on the container and payload (example, email client developers have less control on the payload. Imagine a mail client asking email senders of recipients to add tags to their text before they can be processed). Control over payload is usually less. And this is where effort should be directed to make the payload smarter over the condition in which it arrives even before we start looking at smart containers. For example

  • Text mining to improve contextual understanding of unstructured content
  • Interlinking of entities for multi-dimensional content
  • Algorithmic understanding of relationships
  • … and so on

As we work through the layers of containers and payload, it is useful to remember that it takes two to tango. And their could be work to do at either end