Category Archives: User Experience

Seven Deadly Sins of Enterprise Software Development & What to do About Them

Software Eats The News: Will Nextdoor Eat Local Media?

In 2005 I tried raising money to develop a platform for connecting people with their neighbors, public services, politicians and deliver personalized news, real-estate and other high-value content and services. At the time I was the sole breadwinner with three small children rapidly going broke after working at a struggling startup so I shelved the concept and found a job.

And then just the other day I discovered that my city is now using Nextdoor as a news, communication and civic engagement platform. After reviewing their vision, funding and penetration I believe Nextdoor is now positioned to execute on what I envisioned 12-years ago and revolutionize local news & civic engagement.

So instead of worrying just about Facebook, journalists need to be thinking about their Nextdoor strategy.

So what makes Nextdoor special?

  1. Their use of mapping-technologies to mirror and connect physical communities.

2. Building civic engagement tools to enhance communication between public agencies and the public they serve.

How is that different from Facebook and local media?

  • Traditional News approach: Journalists curate everything and publish to non/low-interactivity platforms so impossible to connect and hear directly from neighbors, politicians and public entities. Journalists and sections may be focused on specific communities but since space and journalists are limited, features very little actual local news/information.
  • Email, Facebook & Twitter: You can connect and engage directly with other community members, government and politicians but connecting is extremely inefficient as you need to find and connect one-at-a-time with each person or organization. Also since birds of a feather flock together it leads to people primarily connecting and engaging with friends and folks who look and sound like you. And neither provides sophisticated civic-engagement tools.
  • Next door provides a much more efficient GIS/ address-based platform that automatically connects you with your neighbors and public agencies. Enter your address, and then through the magic of geocoding and mapping software, Nextdoor finds the city and neighborhood you reside in, applying physical geography to the virtual world. Next they provide tools specifically designed to connect public agencies they serve.

So what’s that enable?

Delivering truly-localized/personalized news and engagement based on the many different political and civic spaces/boundaries you live in.

You belong to not just a specific neighborhood and city but to many geographically-defined government and civic areas, e.g. City council districts, county council districts, public-school attendance zones, state and federal representative districts, public-utility, non-profit and business-service areas, etc.

Nextdoor by using mapping technologies, can now connect you with not just your local police but all of your geographically-specific political, educational, business and non-governmental organizations.

Instead of landing on either a generic screen or an information bubble of an algorithm-chosen feed, you can view both news stories and updates from your elected officials, public servants, favorite non-profits and local businesses.

And news orgs could either integrate or build their own geo-enabled platform and deliver personalized news to you. So instead of just getting a story about the city council, you could see exactly how your representative voted.

What does this mean for journalism and news orgs?

The opportunity: A new platform for delivering local news to a built in and engaged audience.

One of the reasons Patch failed and why local news sites struggle is that the World Wide Web is organized around interests, size and discrete facts, not geography.

Entering your address in Google displays info about your specific house but little about your neighborhood.

Enter your city and it tells you only information at the city level.

Go to your local news site and you may get the option for info about your local neighborhood but almost nothing about regional, state and national decisions with local implications and participation.

A geo-enabled information architecture using real-world boundaries provides an entirely new method of discovery and organizing information.

And this represents a huge opportunity for journalists to deliver localized content on the Web to a built in audience via Nextdoor.

The threat: It also represents another threat to local publishers that don’t adopt a geo-enabled platform and approach to news as they lack the personalization and integration capabilities of Nextdoor.

After all, much of what passes as local news involves public affairs announcements, and now that residents can easily get that info direct from the source, it’s one less reason to subscribe or visit a local news site.

Nextdoor also represents a new competitor for advertising dollars, further eroding the economic model for local news, especially since advertisers will be able to target down to the specific address level. Having worked for a real-estate information service provider, knowing a users’ address enables you to target them for all sorts of mortgage, insurance and home-service products specific to the house, e.g. you can see when their house was refinanced and target them with refinancing offers with fairly solid info about the interest they paid vs. now.

So what will Nextdoor do next?

I have no idea as I’ve never spoken to them, but as someone who envisioned similar concepts over a decade ago, I’d:

  1. Build more and more integration points into local public services and political establishments, so Nextdoor becomes your one-stop shop for civic engagement.
  2. Provide two-way communication and organizing tools to enable residents to give feedback and create conversations with both their neighbors, their elected officials and other public-service agencies.
  3. Allow media partners to post their content on the site and enable them to leverage the platform to deliver personalized news in exchange for a revenue share. And since Nextdoor controls the platform, they will determine the deal structure.

What should news organizations do?

Decide whether they want to be content organizations feeding other people’s platforms or whether they want to be information technology organizations that provide civic engagement and intelligence solutions.

  1. If you want to just provide content, then focus on trying to be the first on your block to negotiate a deal so you don’t get locked out. If I were Nextdoor, I’d be putting out RFPs and getting news orgs to compete for placement.
  2. If you want to control your own destiny and compete from strength, integrate geo-enablement capabilities into your content management systems, develop a geo-enabled information architecture and geographically-discrete content.

The challenge is that for 99.9% of the world, even for software developers, the previous paragraph is pure gobbledygook. The only reason I understand it is because I minored in geography, took several GIS courses 20-years ago, have 20-years of software experience and built MyRepresentatives.com as an after-hours public-service project that began providing address-level personalization for Memphians. (Unfortunately we had to shut it down due to work and family constraints.)

If you’re interested, let me know and I’d be happy to explain in more detail how news orgs can leverage geo-personalization to increase both site and civic engagement.

Software is Eating the News: Are you in the in the Entertainment or Work business?

work-vs-entertainmentRight now, news organizations still haven’t really clarified what business they are in and/or what their audience is really looking for, as a result they often measure and focus on the wrong things.

Information technology businesses fall into two primary categories:

  1. Entertainment: The goal here is to help people have “fun,” to spend their downtime with you. And the more time spent with you the better. It doesn’t really matter whether that time spent makes them a better or worse human being, helps the planet, it’s fundamentally about entertaining people. Think Facebook, Pinterest, movies, gaming, etc.
  2. Work: The goal here is to help people take action and solve problems, whether pay their bills, stock their pantries, lose weight, learn new skills, influence public policies. In this case, the goal is to often spend the least time possible, as the primary thing you care about is the outcome. Traditional B2B software and Google search falls primarily into this category; you’re not using it for fun but to get the task done as efficiently and effectively as possible, and the less time spent the better.

So are journalists and news organizations primarily in the entertainment or work business?

Traditionally, they have straddled both worlds and as a result have muddied their value proposition, measure the wrong things and apply the wrong business models.

Additionally, what one segment of the audience and what journalists’ often think of as entertainment, others often think of as work, politics being one of them.

work-vs-entertainment-politics

In the entertainment world, your goal is to get people to spend as much time with you as possible, since the whole point of your existence is to fill people’s free time. In this scenario, display advertising as a revenue stream and products that encourage spending time make sense.

In the work world, your goal is to minimize the amount of time people spend with you and instead give them the answers to their problems, or eliminate their problems all together. In this case, the less time spent on your site/application is often better, since the goal is to increase their time. In this scenario, display advertising makes absolutely no sense and products that don’t solve problems are bad.

work-vs-entertainment-metrics

So should news organizations focus on delivering more entertainment value or more work value?

And that will be a question for another day. 🙂

CA Investigation: Too Many Facts & Not Enough Design= Missed Opportunities

Hats off to the Commercial Appeal for a good solid piece of investigative journalism about how Shelby County General Sessions Court Judges are absent way more than they should be. http://bit.ly/CAJudgeInvestigation

Unfortunately, because they and most other news organizations are still stuck in a primarily narrative story mode, where text-based stories that disappear shortly after creation are the norm, they missed multiple opportunities to transform their work into more useful, usable and longer-lived content.

If the Commercial Appeal and other news organizations are going to succeed on the Web, they’re going to need to move beyond just writing stories to creating information products that maximize both the value of their work to the news organization and their audience.

So what do I mean by that?

So instead of just writing stories, think about the different challenges your audiences face and how if you structured the information differently, you can help them solve those challenges. And secondly, how could you leverage the information to drive ongoing engagement over time.

Below are a few thoughts that came to mind after I read the story.

Learn how the brain works

The brain has three types of memory:

  1. Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
  2. Working Memory: The brains RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory.
  3. Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.

The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.

Just think about all the stories you’ve read where you’ve confused the various characters and have to constantly refer to earlier parts of the story to understand who’s who and what’s what.

Just as we no longer rely on just oral communication, we can’t rely on just text in a world with almost infinite design options if you want to maximize your story’s impact.

I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.

Help me understand my government

First, while the article was chock full of information, I still don’t understand how the different courts are structured or work. There was a paragraph or two buried in the article about the different courts, but since the article was so fact dense, the information was quickly pushed out of my working memory as I tried to absorb other details in the story.

The local court system in Shelby County is incredibly confusing, but there is nowhere you can go that explains how the different courts are structured and compare them with each other. The CA provided some limited explanation of the court structure in the article, but if they had created a table that explained the various courts and provided links to more in depth descriptions, they would have both provided better context – and created evergreen content that would be helpful to anyone who is trying to understand the Shelby County Court system.

While the investigations are great, developing rich base content about the people and institutions  that serve us would fill a giant information gap in the market and provide a better foundation for stories like this to build from.

Unfortunately, by not thinking of themselves as a Wikipedia for local government, they missed out on the opportunity to:

  • Better serve their readers by providing insights into a confusing and opaque system.
  • Create evergreen/longtail content that will be relevant months and years after it was written.
  • Deliver a better user experience as the structural details of the various players, processes and systems get lost in traditional storyform.

Just ask yourself, where do you, your friends and family turn to when they have questions about their local government? Is it a local news site? And is it easy for them to find the information they want? Or is there an opportunity for you to fill?

Help me vote

Second, by not structuring the story as part of a larger voter-guide initiative, they lost the opportunity to make it easier for me to make decisions about the upcoming ballot.

The upcoming ballot in Shelby County will be huge – especially with all the various judgeships on the ballot. As someone who’s not involved in the legal community nor closely tied to the local political parties, I don’t have a clue who these people or what their duties.

If the Commercial Appeal created a ballot structure with links to the various articles/information – or that had the information in such a way that I could easily save as part of a voter guide, the stories would go from “Hmmm… this is interesting and potentially outrageous” to “Oh… this is great, they’re creating a comprehensive voter guide that I can easily use to help me make voting decisions.”

Instead I read the article, thought this is bad and I need to save this information for when I vote, then promptly lost the article and got lazy about copying the information to a form that I could use to decide and document my ballot choices. As a result, I may not ever use the information in the article as part of my voting decision-making process because of the additional work required by me to make it usable for me. (Okay, I will but only because I’m a nerd who invested so much time writing about the article.)

Don’t make me work

Stories are great for painting pictures of events and conflict, but they frankly suck for providing detailed minutiae as our brains can only hold so much detail in our working memory. Instead of forcing people to remember a bunch of facts and figures, news organizations need to focus on new ways to help people easily understand both the larger context and the details of who’s doing what – neither of which traditional text-based stories are very good at doing.

So considering how much time is invested in investigative work, in the future news organizations need to think how best to communicate that information to their audiences for their audiences’ benefit – and how best to transform that information into valuable longer-term assets.

 

Bad UX! Bad product management! Bad RIM! Or, why does my BlackBerry have a flashing light?

Want to know why the RIM management team should be fired and BlackBerry has gone from cool to crap?

The green flashing light!

Anyone who’s owned a BlackBerry knows what I’m talking about. In the top right corner there exists a mysterious flashing light – sometimes it’s green; sometimes it’s red. What it does and why it’s flashing no one knows and no one cares as far as I can tell.

Instead, it just irritates! At night if I want to use the alarm function or want to leave my phone next to my bed I have to cover it with a shirt or something else so it doesn’t bother me. I finally managed to figure out how to turn off the green light but now an orange one appears…. sigh 😦

I’m sure I can find out how to turn that one off as well but my point here is: How many tens of millions of dollars has RIM wasted on a feature that adds limited to no value – or even negative value over the years?

Just because a feature may have made sense in version 1.0 doesn’t mean it makes sense in version 2.0! As a product manager you have to be ruthless about what features to include and which you exclude.

Products are just like art – whether music, writing or photography – what you exclude is just as important as what you include. There’s a classic scene from the Movie Amadeus where the king tells Mozart, “It was good there are just too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect!”

Take that too heart! It will save you money from developing drivel that few people use and frustrates even more users.  Even better, it will focus your efforts on polishing the key pieces your customers really care about.

Just imagine all the wasted engineering and design efforts that have gone into enabling the flashing lights. I can just imagine being in design reviews where they’re trying to increase their screen size but can’t because of the flashing light.

RIM wake up! Eliminate the flashing light and focus your efforts on what we really want: Touch screens, bigger screens and more apps! Until then I’ll wish I had an Android or iPhone.

Am I right? Let me know what you think.

Why I hate the term product manager

Product managers are supposed to be the voice of the customer and the market, but in most companies that’s a lie. Why? Because a product manager by definition is first and foremost responsible for their product – which is inherently internally focused. As a result, when they look at the outside world it’s almost always through the lens of their specific product.

Instead of looking at how their product fits into the customers’ ecosystem, processes, etc… they look at how their customers fit into their product – and then can’t figure out why adoption rates are so low.

And since in larger organizations each PM typically looks at the world through their product silo, it’s difficult to figure out how each of the pieces fits together.

So what can organizations do?

Create market, customer, persona or process advocates

Organizations need customer or persona advocates that aren’t tied to a specific product but instead responsible for becoming the subject matter expert on the markets, customers, personas or processes served by the company.

In some companies the UX department handles this but oftentimes the UX group is more focused on the screen design usability without understanding the larger context.

By making individual PMs responsible for being customer advocates it should help force the product managers to be more customer centric and drive collaboration across the organization.

Map the customers’ customers journey

I’ve read a lot about customer journey mapping but for the most part it’s always been in the context of the customer’s journey with your company. For B2B companies, mapping the customers’ customers journey may be even more helpful as it forces you to understand what your customers’ processes are and how you potentially fit or don’t fit into their processes as your number one goal is to help your customers be more successful.

By mapping the customers’ customer journey you should be able to spot opportunities to develop new products or better position your existing products to meet your customers’ goals.

Tell me what you think.

Beyond Squares & Points: Using free-form shapes to search Google Maps and other applications

Map showing examples of searching for travel information such as eateries and hotels using freeform shapesToday you can search for places using a square or a circle – or an existing boundary such as a city, but what about when you want to search for something that’s doesn’t fit in a square easily, e.g. searching for vacation rentals along the coast of North Carolina?

You can’t! So as a result you have to search city by city or include areas that outside the area you really want.

The solution: Searching with free-form shapes AKA polygons. In the old days, you needed specialized software to create boundary files, e.g. city or state boundary. Now you can create boundary files right from your Web browsers at sites like http://www.openstreetmap.org.  The next step is to make the functionality truly easy to use and embed it directly into Bing, MapQuest or Google Maps so that users can easily draw an oval or whatever shape they want and then find what they’re looking for.

Hopefully, SimpleGeo, a startup out of San Francisco will add that functionality to their service, so organizations can easily embed it in their applications.

And you should be able to do the same thing on your phone – but with your finger, just drag your finger on the screen to define the area you want to search.

The next step will be to embed the functionality into any of the many sites that help you find real places, e.g. Yelp, HomeAway, Air BNB, Realtor.com, etc…

Below are my favorite potential uses, what would yours be?

  1. Travel Information: Hotels, home rentals, eateries, etc… I rarely travel in a square or a Zip Code, I generally travel in a line and want to know what’s available along a stretch of area.
  2. Real Estate: Often times we want to search in specific pockets – not just by Zip code, e.g. around a specific school.