Praneet Rambles

My thoughts/work on User Experience, Customer Experience and other interesting brainwaves on stuff I read and follow.

Jul 18

Want to increase conversions? Increase the number of steps

Here is a best practice when designing interfaces and interactions: Reduce the number of steps.

You reduce the number of steps in completing a task thereby reducing the barrier and having better conversion on the task.

Intuitive! right?

But time and again we have seen examples of a counterintuitive practice, where increasing the number of steps in a task has increased conversion. There is a very good example from twitter from a few years back. Luke Wroblewski explains it quite well on how increasing the steps to Twitter’s on-boarding process and making it gradual, boosted the signups by 29%.

Recently I saw something similar with Upworthy’s Newsletter signup interaction. They have broken this into two steps.

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Let’s see what happened here. Yes, it is a two step process instead of directly asking for an email ID to signup for the newsletter. However, they have used a principle from the persuasion expert’s dictionary called the “Power of Commitment”. A bit of introduction first:

Power of Commitment

“I LIKE TO DO WHAT I SAY.”

This principle defines that we like to think that our behavior is consistent with our beliefs. Once you take a stand on something that is visible to other people, you suddenly feel a drive to maintain that point of view to appear reliable and consistent.

Lets break the Upworthy’s interaction:

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Step 1: Upworthy applies this principle by asking for a relatively minor, yet visible, commitment from you by asking you if you agree with a feel-good statement. Also notice the color of the “I Agree” button? They know that if they can get you to act in a particular way, your belief is reinforced. 

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Step 2: So now that your belief is reinforced, they tell you that they are also committed to the idea and ask you to join the mission and receive good content in your mailbox. Also notice how the button “I’m In!” is laced with commitment.

I would like to see how many users have signed-up for Upworthy’s newsletter. However, my bet is that it could be better than websites which have a subscribe link in the right side of the page.


Jul 16

Are you a UX Designer looking to work at a Startup?

Congratulations! you probably made a good decision to take the plunge and work at a startup. To put your skills and yourself up to a real world task and create an impact.

However, having tried to hire UX designers at three different organisations startups I am not entirely happy with the applications that come in, either as a reply to a job post or one of those cold emails trying to seek an opportunity with the startup.

Here are 6 ways on how to improve your chances of finding an opportunity at that exciting startup:

1. Your CV is also your design artefact:

If you want a job as a UX designer, who will build great interfaces with awesome navigation and easy to consume content, then really show it. Your CV is the first design artefact that potential hiring managers and startup founders look at. Have you heard of the best practices like: most important information above the fold, provide hooks into the website, by providing the call to action in a prominent place, why aren’t we seeing these practices being followed when creating a CV?

2. Pay attention to the details:

Spelling mistakes and alignment issues in your CV and portfolio.

Seriously what are you conveying to the potential manager with these? Please take care of such issues before you send out your CV.

3. Write better cover letters:

Cover Letter is not a place to showcase your skills at pick up lines and it is also not a movie script. I have seen cover letters which broadly fall into these categories.

Cover Letter as a pick up line: 

(Below are some lines from emails I have received. these are used here for illustrating the point after sanitization.)

"You can give me a call anytime at 9********* if you see the profile fit."

"If I am fulfilling your requirements then please let me know."

"It would be a great pleasure if u have look at my resume, expecting your reply."

"I am a Senior User Experience Designer"

"I am looking forward for a positive response from you and I assure you I would be and strive to be a beneficial asset for your company."

"This is ************ with 4 years of experience,  looking for full time career opportunity in field of User Experience Design in Bangalore."

" I am ********** completed degree ********* from *******.I have added my portfolio link, please look after to it and do the needful "

On the other end of things, I see cover letters which are essentially a biographic account of the person’s life or a repeat of the resume, including the skills and the operating systems they are comfortable working on.

Here is a formula of writing a great Cover letter:

In a few bullet points precisely tell me, who you are, what do you do best, how will you contribute, what do you believe, what are your expectations from an ideal job.

4. Do your research on the company:

Don’t just limit this research to the startup’s website. Do take a look at other social profiles these startup’s have put up and places where try to have a conversation with their clients or the community in general. Most startups these days have a blog or a Facebook page that talks about their culture and their workplace. If you don’t see any of these or don’t see the founders on Quora, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, it probably is a good idea to give this startup a miss.

5. Try and start a conversation first:

Ask questions about the startup, the team and the company culture when you first write to the startup with your application, this gives you a chance to interact with the founders/managers to get a sense of whats happening at the company. Also a great hook into showcasing your thoughts on how you might be able to contribute.

6. Interact with the team:

It is important to meet your potential colleagues to try and see what they think of design and how it fits into the startup’s mission. Yes the founders would try and sell to you the vision of the company and what they are trying to achieve, but it is the developers and product guys that you will work on a day-to-day basis. It is a good idea to try and spend some time talking to them about the product, what they like in it, how they think the product can be improve. If you can spare a few days to work with the team on a test task, before you make your final call, it gives you a lot of insights into what team is like to work with, how are decisions made in the company, what is their expectation out of a UX designer.

This post was triggered after reading Imran’s post here to try and see this from the other side of hiring. Do let me know if you have more points to add to this list.


Apr 19

Role of UX Designer at a startup: Lessons learnt at AlmaConnect

This is originally posted on AlmaConnect’s Blog here.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

Steve Jobs

For the last nine months I have been wearing the UX Designer hat at AlmaConnect. This is a post about lessons learnt and observations on the role of a UX Designer at a product startup like AlmaConnect. To be able to reach out to a larger set of UX Designers and Startup Founders out there, I try and generalize the findings and observations from my experience at AlmaConnect.  

First what is User Experience Design?

User experience (UX) is the way a person feels about using a product, system, or service. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful, and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction and product ownership, but it also includes a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease-of-use, and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, because it is about an individual’s feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change.

Note to startup founders:

The quote above from Steve Jobs nicely summarizes the role of the designer in your team. A designer is not a production resource, who comes in at the very last stage to apply the layers required to make the product look flashy or build aesthetics into the product. A designer can help you define and draw out a roadmap of your product on how it should function from the early days of product planning. 

AlmaConnect in this respect has been on the forefront of understanding the role of Design and how to incorporate it into their processes. Right from the early days of the product, AlmaConnect worked with design consultants to figure out a product task flow and its interface level details followed by building the functional product. Once you do this kind of a strategy, there is a deep understanding of the users and their needs. There is a focus on giving the users an easy to use experience. 

This focus on design shows in the product and the company at large today where AlmaConnect is figuring out the missing pieces in the puzzle to  cater to the needs of the Alumni.

Now to the UX Designers, what is expected out of you at a startup? Be prepared to deliver/produce:

0) User Research: talking to the users and stakeholders, to understand needs and sometimes testing the concepts that you generate down the line. User Research flows through the process as a constant tool to either generate or validate ideas and concepts. 

1) Personas: description of various kinds of users your product has or will have, what are their skill levels when it comes to using technology and computers, their exposure to internet, their expectations and their needs. Personas is a great tool sometimes to just make sure everyone on the team understand the user needs and be on the same page.

2) Product feature lists: list of various features that your product will have based on the user needs.

3) Task flows: how will the users interact, what will they do first, what will it lead them to, and how will they finish the task that they are doing on the product.

4) Wireframes: Wireframes of all levels of fidelity, right from rough sketches on the board when you are brainstorming to high fidelity wireframes which illustrate the placement of content, navigation structures, text fields, labels and buttons.

5) Documenting interactions: figure out the best way to explain the interactions to the dev team.

6) Following up on the live product: Using analytics to figure out what is going wrong with the system, any amount of user testing will not give you a 100% foolproof product, you need to keep track of the product on how it is being used and keep iterating by going back to step 0.

7) Use Social Media to your advantage to communicate with the users and  get feedback or get insights on the users

At most times your deliverables are only wireframes that go out to the Visual Designer or if you are the Visual Designer as well, then final visual mockups. It is important as a UX Designer to get through most of the above deliverables atleast to make sure you are on the right path. Just because no one is asking for these deliverables does not mean they are not to be done, going through the process helps you to be better prepared for product review meetings and other key decisions that need to be taken for the product.

One of the key areas of focus at AlmaConnect, which I believe should be the case with all product startups is dont just focus on User Experience, think ahead and focus on the User Engagement. Last few months it has been a recurring theme of discussions to understand how we deliver an experience to ensure higher engagement. The UX Designer plays a vital role to imbibe such mindset at a company.

Finally, as a UX Designer at a startup be prepared to wear multiple hats such as:

A researcher, A product manager, A designer, An idea-guy, A copy-writer, A visual designer, A silo breaker between teams, A marketing manager, A user evangelist

Overall one most important task that you do at a startup is being the user evangelist  i.e. you take the role of the advocate who is fighting for the user in all the discussions and debates internally. It is your job to push back sometimes on ideas to ensure you are able to reach out to 90% of your user base and they are given an easy-to-use product satisfying their needs.

Sounds like too much to handle for a person, and as some would term it  a Unicorn of Designers. However working at a startup which is usually low on resources, every team member tends to wear multiple hats. A good thing about startups is, no one is worrying about making mistakes and failing, as long as you are prepared to learn form the mistakes and iterate. So you dont need to be a master of all the roles stated above, as long as you are a master in one or two. You should be prepared to get your hands dirty and move out of your comfort zone. Just like you, everyone else in your team is also prepared to learn from the experience. Once you have this mindset of learning (making mistakes and iterating), working at a startup can be a very rewarding experience. You learn a lot about yourself and your skills in a very short period of time.

To summarize:

1. UX is not just the look and feel, it is how your product is functioning and how it is being developed

2. Following a UX process is the key

3. Dont be afraid to make mistakes and learn

4. Take on more responsibilities(wear multiple hats) and learn new skills

5. As a UX Designer, dont just think about the experience, but figure out how to ensure engagement

Praneet Koppula

AlmaConnect Product Designer

Aug 2012-Apr 2013


Apr 17

The path to #NewAlmaConnect : Part 2

A lot of thought and brainstorming went into the #NewAlmaConnect product design and even so close to launch this new version we never hesitate to go back to the drawing board occasionally to fix UX issues. AlmaConnect team is deeply committed to only provide the best in experience. So, we thought we’d share a few of the decisions and principles that went into the first major revision of the product. It is only fair to say this is just the first big step, and we will be at it to iterate and fix issues as we get more feedback from our beloved users.

Key Product Design Decisions
Really early on we decided to focus on the overall product experience and therefore we wanted to bring together all the aspects of the product features, UI, visual design and branding to reflect in the #NewAlmaConnect. So, then the visual elements are carefully thought about and added to provide utility, enhance the aesthetic of the product and help guide the user to the most important behaviors we wish to encourage. 

Our early product conversations about long term strategy led us to focus in on the “On the Network” page. It was really the hub of every main goal we have and critical to creating what we hope will be the best source for being in touch with the past friends and alma mater on the internet. We created, discussed, iterated and threw away about 6 different versions of wireframes before we all agreed on the general elements, and layout of this page. Once the layout was fixed, we quickly prototyped other pages like the directory, memories and profile page to ensure the layout was flexible for these pages as well.

You can see some of our early design iterations here

As a consequence of the overall product experience strategy, even the color palette chosen for the #NewAlmaConnect was to play a key part in the user’s experience. AlmaConnect is a platform to bring together alumni, colleges and students and have a an open platform to share information but also is a platform for alumni to be connected to their alma matter, a place where they spent the best years of their life. The primary colors of green and teal were chosen to signify the two most important characteristics of the platform: Openness and Nostalgia. Teal signifies trustworthiness and reliability to enhance the feeling of openness to connect with your old friends and alumni who could potentially be a great wall of support and open doors of opportunity. Everything about your alma matter brings back memories of days spent in canteens, cramming for exams and spending awesome time with friends and to signify that nostalgic feeling and restore those wonderful memories, we have used a shade of Green to reinforce and restore that feeling for our users on the platform. Green is also a color of renewal and restore. It became a obvious choice for us to pick these two colors when we were all looking over large sheets of color palettes. 

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Color Palette: Shades of Green and Teal

We had to rethink icons used on the platform, we wanted to bring out the obvious human actions associated with daily behaviors and daily objects we use in real life into iconography. You would see an icon for Jobs, which is basically a hand knocking you to signify an opportunity knocking you at the door and you will see an icon with a finger raised for Queries.

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Icons for Jobs and Queries

Another important decision was to be totally ruthless to make it simple for our users. All too often design and product teams find themselves falling for the design they have in hand and nurture it at the expense of the usability and functionality of the feature. We were careful to form as few emotional bonds as necessary and really work on rational arguments for the features and pages we designed. We were never afraid of showing our wireframes and early iterations to who ever was willing to give us feedback. As soon as we figured the UI problems we did not hesitate to make the hard decisions to dump it and build again. A lot of decent features have been dropped or iterated or otherwise cut in order to pursue this goal but it’s helped ensure that everything we finally placed on the page was obvious and simple to use. 

Each of these main decisions really fell out of a single principle of keeping things as simple as possible. It’s not enough that the product is simple, but even the values and strategy underpinning it should be simple and straightforward. This strategy also works well with our Technology team which also believes in building simple code, but being very robust and effective.

Under the strategy a key principle which drove the design was to aid the user in goal accomplishment by providing cues to task extensions. As a result of this decision we had to think through a number of widgets across the product which only come into user’s notice when required. A practical example of this was the creation widget which appears on the directory page as soon as a user starts using the filters. Incase the intention of the user was to filter out a relevant set of users to invite them to an event, the widget which appears in the third column just aids in this. Instead of going to the “On the Network” page and start to create an activity and select the relevant filters, they can do pretty much the same thing, right where they are in the directory section. Also another key insight we got from our user behavior analysis is that users come to the directory page to quickly search a user and get their contact details. This insight led us to bring out a quick profile information widget as soon as a user does a mouse over action on a profile picture/name wherever they are currently on the platform. 

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Profile Information Widget on the Directory.

Finally a key product goal was to evoke nostalgia and make the users feel at home, reliving long lost memories. User profiles is an area we spent a great deal of time to figure out just how to accomplish this goal. We zeroed on the following based on our user data and analysis:

Profile page is the connection to their past themselves. We really wanted to take this to the next level, therefore the play on Facebook’s Cover Photo on AlmaConnect becomes a background photo to the user’s profile snippet and we encourage users to upload a picture of themselves from their college days. Also the Memory Lane on profile page brings out some lost memories from college days with “a little help from friends”

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Profile snippet with background college photo.


Conclusion
UI Design of a product is an outcome of the various key decisions taken to represent the product’s goals and ambitions. These were our key product goals and decisions in summary:

  • Focus on the overall product experience
  • Be totally ruthless to make it simple for our users
  • Aid the user in goal accomplishment by providing cues for task extension
  • Evoke nostalgia an make the users feel at home, reliving long lost memories

You can see our final designs on AlmaConnect’s Facebook page here.

Finally many thanks to all those who were directly(ideation, designing and consulting) and indirectly( as test participants, feedback givers) to this new design of AlmaConnect.


The path to #NewAlmaConnect : Part 1

This post was originally posted here and is reposted on this blog.

We have been working on the #NewAlmaConnect for quite sometime and we actually got serious on 11 Aug, 2012, when the whole team sat together for a workshop to brainstorm. Notes from that meeting led to some early low-fidelity wire-frames. 

In about a months’ time we had iterated these early wireframes atleast 6 times. On each iteration, we all thrashed the wire-frame and kept only the UI elements that we knew were scalable. 

Starting from the first wireframe till the seventh iteration for the “On the Network” page.

Version 1: A three column layout, with inspiration from email clients

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Version 2: A boxy approach with inspiration from Pinterest

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Read More


Feb 18

What if both spouses work for startups?

This is a post inspired from a post by Mark Suston’s wife at Bothsidesofthetable on 12 tips to make it work. Mydh and I both started working for startups around July 2012. This was just a little over 3 months after we got married. It has been 6 months since and we are coping with our lives as we try and figure out our careers at our startups. Below are some pointers from both of us on how we deal with work-life balance.

1. Share Chores. 

When both spouses are working at startups, the chores at home always get piled up. Find out what you can do to help each other and pick up taks whenever you can.

2. Prioritize and figure when you can block your time away from emails and calls.

Emails, calls and meetings go round the clock. Figure out a way to prioritize whats important(board meetings on tuesday night, call from your ceo on a sunday morning, text from boss while you are at the movies). Make schedules when you can inform your spouse about a pending important discussion or a meeting upfront. figure out a time when you can quickly check emails once you are at home(you dont want to be be checking your emails, while having dinner together). Resist the tempatation to work long hours in general.

3. Cut-off and block emails and calls on weekends.

Block everything away for the weekends as much as possible, maybe a call or an email are ok, but make efforts to cut yourself away from work on weekends. 

4. Take up activities/hobbies you can do together or individually.

Do projects together to keep each other engaged. Also do remember to leave out space for the other person to do personal projects or pursue own hobbies. these help in keeping yourself inspired.

5. Listen to venting out and share notes

There is bound to be cribbing, complaining and furstrations when one works at startups, let the person vent out. No, do not give suggestions/solutions unless asked. vent out as soon as possible and keep away from bring these up during the weekends. At some point, you will exchange notes on working styles, organization setup, leaders’ style, this is good, both of you will learn a lot from each other.


Aug 1

Microsoft Tries, Tries Again to Take on Gmail, This Time With Outlook.com

I think they have hit the nail on its head, and wow just a visual interaction design overhaul can bring about a lot of change in how a user perceives or sees/discovers some previously existing features, just as if they are seeing them for the first time.
I just saw a colleague use the sweep function in the outlook.com interface and go wow, this is a great feature, obviously he never found this feature in his Hotmail inbox.
Also finally Skype gets some clear direction, with some integration with outlook.com

via AllThingsD by Ina Fried on 7/31/12

Microsoft has been making the same case for a while.

Very little about Web-based email has changed since the arrival of Gmail, and it is time for something better. It’s the case Microsoft made several years ago when it overhauled Hotmail, and the same one it made when it offered a significant update to Hotmail.

That said, Hotmail is still seen by many as decidedly unhip, particularly in the U.S. Rather than attempt to give Hotmail another face-lift, Microsoft is introducing an all-new Web service, to be dubbed Outlook.com.

“We decided it was time for a new email service,” Microsoft’s Brian Hall told AllThingsD.

Under the hood, many of the features of Outlook.com are carried over from the latest iterations of Hotmail. The biggest change to the service is the appearance of the inbox, which now looks much more like a desktop program, with fewer and smaller ads.

For now, Hotmail and Outlook.com will coexist, but over time, Outlook.com will become Microsoft’s only Web mail service, with Hotmail’s users transitioned to the new service.

“We will move all Hotmail users, just because it is a hell of a lot better,” Hall said.

However, the first goal, Hall said, is for Outlook.com to attract tens of millions of new users — folks like young people and tech enthusiasts who haven’t been joining Hotmail in recent years.

There were a variety of issues with Hotmail, Hall said, ranging from its stodgy brand perception to the fact that it had lots of in-your-face banner advertisements.

“People weren’t satisfied, and with good reason,” Hall said. The ads, he noted, “weren’t creepy, like Gmail, but they were distracting.”

Outlook.com features some advertising in the main inbox, as well as in messages from unknown senders. When a message comes from a known contact, the small ad space on the right hand side is replaced instead with contact information, as well as context-specific ways to engage with that person. With a Facebook contact, for example, Outlook.com users can see their latest status update and reply.

Another feature of Outlook.com is its unified contact system, bringing together all the information one has about a person, whether from Microsoft or a third-party service like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

New users can get an Outlook.com e-mail address, while existing account owners can transfer their account while keeping their existing Hotmail.com or Live.com address.

In a future release, Hall said, Outlook.com will also get the ability to make Skype video calls directly from within the inbox.

Hall declined to say what Microsoft’s expectations are for adoption of Outlook.com, but said the company is building the service to work for a billion or more customers.

“Our expectations are pretty high as far as people liking it,” he said.


Jul 24

Make Your Users Do the Work

via Nir and Far by Nir Eyal on 7/23/12

The belief that products should always be as easy to use as possible is a sacred cow of the tech world. The rise of design thinking, coinciding with beautiful new products like the iPhone, has led some to conclude that creating slick interfaces is a hallmark of great design. But, like all attempts to create absolute rules about how we should interact with technology, the law that design should always decrease the amount of effort users expend doesn’t always hold true. In fact, putting users to work is critical in creating products people love.

Several studies have shown that expending effort on a task seems to commit us to it. For example, when buying a lottery ticket, players are able to either choose their own numbers or play a set of digits generated randomly. Certainly, choosing either option has no effect on the odds of winning. Traditional thinking would predict that the less effortful path would be the one users prefer.

However, the opposite is true. Despite the considerable effort required to pick the lottery numbers, a process reminiscent of filling out multiple choice questions on the S.A.T., players who choose their own numbers play more. This phenomenon isn’t just about a skewed perception of luck. According to a classic study by Ellen Langler, even when players are explicitly told their chances of winning, they choose to trade worse odds for the ability to play the numbers they spent the time and effort picking.

Examples of how escalations of commitment makes our brain do funny things abound. Its power makes some people play video games until they keel over and die. It’s used to influence people to give more to charity. It has even been used to coerce prisoners of war to switch allegiances. Commitment is powerful stuff and it plays an important role in the things we do, the products we buy, and our perception of who we are.

Totally Committed

The last step of the Desire Engine, a framework I developed to help explain a pattern found in habit-forming products, is the investment phase. After a user has been triggered into action and duly rewarded, the investment phase is where the user is asked to do work and starts building commitment. It is here that the user is prompted to put something of value back into the system, typically in the form of time, money, physical effort, social capital, or personal data.

As in any feedback loop, the cue, action, and reward cycle predictably condition a series of behaviors. Whenever users want the reward, the thinking goes, they do the intended action. For example, what prompted you to start reading this article? You were probably feeling a bit bored and were looking for something stimulating to read. You took the cue (boredom), now you’re doing the action (reading), and you’re now anticipating the reward (keep reading, it’s coming).

But this pattern differs slightly in products that truly hook users. The brain has a unique system for keeping us searching for rewards; it adapts. Soon, something that seemed novel and interesting becomes common and dull. To keep pace with the brain’s adaptation to stimulus, habit-forming products improve with repeated use. It is here that the investment phase is critical.

Bits of Work for Future Reward

Unlike actions in the standard feedback loop, investments are about the anticipation of rewards, not immediate gratification. The investment is a bit of work, which makes the user more likely to use the product in the future. In Twitter, for example, the investment comes in the form of a follow. After a few flicks through the stream have primed the user with titillating tweets, the user will find someone new and interesting to invest in. While there is no immediate reward for following someone, doing so makes the service more valuable and more likely to be used next time.

LinkedIn provides another example of a company that understands the power of asking users to make small investments in the site. As Josh Elman, an early Senior Product Manager at the company told me, “If we could get users to enter just a little information, they were much more likely to return.” Elman continued, “We made you type in your current title and position at sign up and then were able to use that to draw you back in.” The tiny bit of effort associated with providing workplace information created a hook the system could use get users to return.

Commitments as a Strategy

Habit-forming technology creates an internal trigger, an itch to use the product, unprompted by an explicit call to action. The user engages with the service whenever cued by a particular emotion or context. The investment is the string that pulls the user back. The aim is to get the user to return unprompted. To do this, the habit-forming company increases the value of the product with each pass through the Desire Engine. Value is added to the system in two ways:

Stored Value

Every time users input data, they create stored value. Evernote, Salesforce, and Pandora provide examples of products which do not necessarily create burning desires, but create habits by getting users to do bits of work. A habit is a behavior without, or with very little, cognition, and thus these products meet this definition. People use these stored value products as part of their regular routines. The more users invest, the less they think about using them. Evernote’s “smile graph” demonstrates how over time users increased engagement with the service the more they used it over time.

Other stored value technologies, like games, create rabid users by getting them to invest every time they play. Racking up higher scores, advancing to the next level, or earning and tending to virtual goods like a cow on a farm or the clothes on an avatar, are all examples of the power of commitment. These game mechanics disappear if the user stops playing, increasing the need to stay engaged. The stored value of these elements of the game are earned with time spent playing or purchased outright with real money.

Network Value

Products that increase in value as a greater number of people use them have a network effect. Companies which display this characteristic give investors joyful palpitations because of their ability to become industry standards and crowd-out rivals. Ebay, Skype, AirBnB, Pinterest and older technologies, like the fax machine and telephone, get better the more users join the network.

The Killer Combo

Where user investment really becomes valuable is when stored value meets a network effect. Facebook and Pinterest, both services which were useful as stored value products, exploded in use when the power of the network effect took hold. Both are habit-forming products, which bring large numbers of users back unprompted. The combination of stored value and a network effect, along with continual investment from users who regularly add content, has created a strong pull for a large percentage of their users.

Habit-forming technologies take hold when a pattern of trigger, action, reward, and investment, creates desire in the user while providing increasing amounts of value. The more users invest in a way of doing things through tiny bits of work, the more valuable the service becomes in their lives and the less they question its use.

Of course, users don’t stay hooked forever. Though these companies have a good ride, the next big thing inevitably comes along and creates a better way to start building user commitment. While the mantra of making the experience easier to use certainly has its place, the rule must be followed with a strategic purpose in mind — namely increasing the value of the service the more people use it.

Note: If you liked this post, and committed to reading this far, you should sign-up to be the first to receive future essays like this one for free via email. It’s a wise investment.

Thanks to Josh ElmanJules Maltz, and Max Ogles for reading early versions of this essay.


Jul 12

Jul 6

To Sell More, Focus on Existing Customers

For Service organizations this basically translates to reduce churn, increase usage and concentrate less on acquisition. this is also the primary insight/learning from my stint at Grameenphone for almost an year and half.

via HBR.org by Rick Reynolds on 7/3/12

Strengthening your relationship with your existing customer base is one of the best ways to increase sales. Your company’s account management and operating teams play critical roles in making this happen. If they’re not performing at their peak, the door opens for competitors to step in.

Seeking new sales without strong account management and operating teams is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it. Identifying and fixing the holes — the gaps in customer satisfaction — can help your company retain existing accounts and increase new sales.

Research from the AskForensics Knowledgebase reveals that there are four gaps business-to-business companies need to address to achieve best-in-class performance. These gaps were identified through in-depth, qualitative sales and account forensics interviews with prospect decision makers in accounts generating at least $15 million in contract revenue for Fortune 1000 companies: Improve Training for Frontline Staff
Employees who have daily interaction with customers often leave more of an impression than your sales team. As a result, your frontline teams are vital to expanding and retaining existing customers. These teams need to be trained in client protocol and procedures, your company’s internal processes, and how to effectively interact with on-site client stakeholders.

Provide Timely Responses
Being responsive to your customers’ concerns is a clear indicator of your company’s desire to meet and exceed expectations. If there are deficiencies in how effectively and quickly you respond, your customers will question your commitment. This is true at all levels of your company, not just for the teams in direct contact with customers. Being responsive, though, is only part of the equation. The other is to communicate what has been done to address the customer’s need or problem.

Offer More Proactive Ideas
As a service or product supplier, customers look to you as the expert. They rely on you to perform important tasks they cannot do themselves. This places more emphasis on you, as the provider, to be proactive. When you are not proactive, value erodes. Understand Requirements
This is account management 101, right? Well, it doesn’t always happen. In every account there are needs that are not being adequately addressed. Even if they are peripheral needs, not addressing them leaves you vulnerable.

When attempting to generate a sustained increase in sales, the first place to start is with existing customers. Your selling investment is lower, you have an existing relationship, and you can leverage your efforts from other services and products you already have in place with your customer. This all works to your advantage if you are delivering best-in-class support. If you are not at this level, take the steps necessary to close the gaps.

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Jan 25

A.G. Lafley vs. Steve Jobs

age old battle. do we ask the customers or not? i answer really is to find out when to ask, what to ask and how to ask.

via HBR.org by Scott Anthony on 1/23/12

Usually the question comes right after I tell an audience that I put former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley on my “Innovation Mount Rushmore” as a reminder of the importance of investing time and energy to understand the target market.

"But how do you square that with Steve Jobs?" an intrepid audience member asks. "After all, Jobs said, ‘It isn’t the customer’s job to know what they want.’"

It feels like a classic battle — the scientific approach of a company that launches 80 market research studies a day versus the intuitive touch of the iconic innovator of our time.

But it’s a false comparison. Both approaches rest on the belief that you need to understand your customers better than they know themselves so you can predict what they want without having to ask them to articulate what they want.

Sometimes it is completely appropriate to follow the simple approach of asking customers what they want. As Kevin McFarthing noted in a recent blog post, in more mature markets directive questions can provide useful input. Further, MIT professor Eric von Hippel’s research shows how in some industries so-called lead users can be vital guides to future innovation opportunities.

However, in the uncertain circumstances that innovators searching for new growth typically encounter, it pays to be wary of the value of asking customers what they want. Customers will happily tell you what they think they want (or what they think you want to hear), but it might not be what they actually want or need. Remember — even the nicest, most honest customers can be cold-blooded liars when they sincerely say they will buy or do what they won’t. Further, in some industries customers lack technological sophistication to know what is or is not feasible, limiting the usefulness of their guidance.

In these circumstances it is tempting to rely on intuition. Be careful, however, of the classic trap of mistaking your own views for the market’s views. I’ve seen many entrepreneurs who have developed elegant solutions to things that matter a great deal to them — and really to no one else. Intuition grounded by years of in-market experience should always be listened to carefully, but it pays to augment even the best intuition with focused research.

Research should primarily focus on understanding the problems customers can’t adequately solve today (what Innosight calls “jobs to be done”). From my experience helping companies and entrepreneurs build businesses I have come to believe two simple rules of thumb:

  1. It’s easier to shift spending than it is to create it.

  • Where people send their time reflects their priorities better than what they say.

  • As such, the biggest signal that you’ve hit on something worth probing is when you find customers spending a lot of time or money on clearly inadequate solutions.

    Lafley himself hit on one of these kinds of insights when he was a young brand manager at P&G. Customers regularly rated the packaging of Tide’s laundry detergent as “excellent.” Then why, Lafley wondered, did he never see a customer open a package by hand, relying instead on scissors or nail files? It turned out that customers didn’t want to risk breaking their nails on the so-called excellent packaging. Score one for first-hand observation.

    Insights that turn into innovation opportunities can come from intuition, science, or sheer randomness. Increase the odds of success by seeking to understand customers better than they understand themselves. It’s worth the effort.


    Jan 9

    Study: Millennials prefer sharing over ownership

    In countries like India and Bangladesh, where ownership becomes a status symbol, are we leaning towards sharing or still believe in Ownership??

    via Putting people first by Experientia on 12/22/11

    car-sharing

    The idea of sharing things instead of owning them goes against everything we’ve been taught as a consumeristic society.

    Those who have spent their lives “keeping up with the Jones’” may find it hard to suddenly relinquish their death-grip on idea that owning things is the path toward happiness. But younger generations, poised to inherit the economic turmoil and environmental disaster caused by consumerism, are increasingly embracing the alternatives offered by collaborative consumption.

    Findings of a recent independent study revealed that Millennials (18-34-year-olds) are more willing to used shared vehicles than individuals from previous generations.

    The study, commissioned by leading car sharing network Zipcar, surveyed over one thousand adults to better understand the current generation’s attitude toward car ownership.

    Read article


    Lego is for girls

    via Putting people first by Experientia on 12/22/11

    lego_friends

    In its new focus on products for girls, Lego is using quite a lot of ethnographic research:

    “To develop Lego Friends, Knudstorp relaunched the same extensive field research—more cultural anthropology than focus groups—that the company conducted in 2005 and 2006 to restore its brand. It recruited top product designers and sales strategists from within the company, had them join forces with outside consultants, and dispatched them in small teams to shadow girls and interview their families over a period of months in Germany, Korea, the U.K., and the U.S.” […]

    Lego won’t say how much it spent on its anthropology, but research went on for months and shattered many of the assumptions that had led the company astray. You could say a worn-out sneaker saved Lego. “We asked an 11-year-old German boy, ‘what is your favorite possession?’ And he pointed to his shoes. But it wasn’t the brand of shoe that made them special,” says Holm, who heads up the Lego Concept Lab, its internal skunkworks. “When we asked him why these were so important to him, he showed us how they were worn on the side and bottom, and explained that his friends could tell from how they were worn down that he had mastered a certain style of riding, even a specific trick.”

    The skate maneuvers had taken hours and hours to perfect, defying the consensus that modern kids don’t have the attention span to stick with painstaking challenges, especially during playtime. To compete with the plug-and-play quality of computer games, Lego had been dumbing down its building sets, aiming for faster “builds” and instant gratification. From the German skateboarder onward, Lego saw it had drawn the wrong lessons from computer games. Instead of focusing on their immediacy, the company now noticed how kids responded to the scoring, ranking, and levels of play—opportunities to demonstrate mastery. So while it didn’t take a genius or months of research to realize it might be a good idea to bring back the police station or fire engine that are at the heart of Lego’s most popular product line (Lego City), the “anthros” informed how the hook-and-ladder or motorcycle cop should be designed, packaged, and rolled out.”

    Read article


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