Category Archives: Product Management

When you build a product, these are exactly the comments you hope to read: “Mind blowing!”, “wow”, “great”, “soooooo addicting”. When you are building any product, take a little effort up front to think of the different kinds of users – it is likely to pay off in surprising ways.

Those comments where made about the last product I worked on at Yahoo: Yahoo! Live. I think it’s an addictive product and from what I hear users think so too – it could turn out to be the most successful Advanced Products team product.

What’s interesting is where those comments came from. Dan W pointed out this great post: Yahoo’s LIVE Deaf Chat Room! about how a group of deaf users were delighted by their experience on Y! Live. Those comments above were from this post and the commenters.

This wasn’t an accident. Eric Fixler on my team (and our intern Vibha Bamba) took the extra effort to research users with different kinds of abilities and what they would need in a product like Live. They brought blind, deaf, and physically challenged users into Yahoo and let them play with Y! Live. They listened to feedback, they researched how to make flash screen-reader ready. But most important: they just took the time to think it through: what would it be like for a deaf user to use Y! Live. Turns out that was a good move. I have a friend who is a sign language interpreter and he tells me that webcams are revolutionizing the way deaf people communicate. TTD is still around, but now people will just say get on skype to video conference. Much easier and faster.

I’m proud of the work that the team did (especially Eric and Vibha) and I’m so happy to see these kinds of posts.

So have you thought about how your product will work with all kinds of users?

UPDATE: I just noticed that Mike Quoc (the PM on Live) has a blog now. He linked to another similarly great post.

Bill Scott, a former coworker and web development rockstar, has a great blog post “Virtual Pizza Pie Chart: High Tech Chartjunk” about when a chart design/technology itself becomes the star – instead of the data. He shows a horrid example from CNN:

Bill says:

What I love is how the technology completely takes over. It pops out and looks like it could hurt someone. Then it obscures the rest of the panelists. And finally Anderson is so enamored with trying to keep it from bursting again that he is using all his brain cycles to keep the 3D virtual pie chart on that silly piece of cardboard.

Bill makes me think of a metaphor I often use. Being a technologist is like being a film editor. I’m specifically thinking about personalization technologies but most technology has this paradigm.

If a film is edited well, the audience will talk about how the movie was exciting, dramatic, and the story just grabbed you – no one will say “that was a well edited film”. But if you do your job poorly, everyone will notice – “that was so choppy”, “the editing was off”, etc.

We need to remember that our job is to build technology that fades into the background so the user can focus on what really matters: the content, the community, their friends.

Dear Mark,

I watch the Today show nearly every day, and I saw you on the Today Show today. A coup I’m sure to get onto America’s #1 morning show being interviewed by Meredith Viera. You even brought your mom and sister in tow. So kudos to your PR team for getting that setup.

But it stopped there. Why? Valleyspeak. It was clear that your PR team coached you in how to talk to the press, you got your “key messages” across. You brushed off the Yahoo acquisition rumors with aplomb. But it was all in that doublespeak that you only hear here in the valley (hell, I speak that way too). This wasn’t the business press you were talking to, this was a mass consumer audience. They don’t care about technology, or the technical challenges, or the “focus on your users”.

They want to hear why they should care. You were sandwiched between a segment on plush toys for 6 year old girls and a martha stewart segment. You needed to talk about the fun things people do on facebook. Examples of chance encounters, long lost friends meeting, how a group got someone a job and another saved a life. You needed to talk about the profound impact that Facebook has had on you as a user. You needed to answer Meredith’s most important question “Why would I use Facebook”. She ended your segment saying, “well I still don’t know why I’d use this thing”.

That’s your PR rep’s fault. They should have prepped you. When Good Morning America calls you next week, make sure they do.


P.S. It is obviously easier for me to comment as a viewer and I know how hard it is to deal with consumer press. But Facebook has a real opportunity, just take it and run!

My post last week about Entrepreneurship/Intrapreneurship got lots of reaction, thanks in part to Dave Winer, who linked to it and helped it spread around. Thanks Dave!

A few of the responses got me thinking. In particular, Ross Mayfield’s post sparked an interesting discussion. He said:

But shouldn’t any knowledge worker be able to do this at a BigCo? I have problems with using the word Intrapreneur, except for describing an innovative spirit.

I think Ross missed my point here. The examples I shared (getting sponsored search to Yahoo and getting RSS into Yahoo) were exactly describing the innovative spirit and that anyone who believes passionately can make it happen. In both examples, a few of us pushed big change through, and we did it without deep pockets and at some level of personal risk. That leads to the next point, Ross Said:

The difference between an Intrapreneur and an Entrepreneur is the latter takes personal risk.

I don’t agree that there is no risk in Intrapreneurship, however, it is very clear that someone who starts their own company risks a heck of a lot more. Andrew Fife hit the nail on the head:

…the greatest personal risk is ones monthly salary. Entrepreneurship failure means ones salary goes to zero. Intrapreneurship failure may lead to a slowing of one’s salary growth rate. As someone whose startup recently failed, I can attest that this is a significant difference in personal risk.

Here on my own blog, visitor Phil Ayres commented and summarized what I said (boy am I too wordy). I think he got it mostly right, so let me comment:

1) innovative or disruptive ideas are most easily adopted by organizations when they are forced to do something (50% drop in revenue is a good example you give) – otherwise there can be too many barriers put in place to allow anything new to be adopted.

I disagree with this one Phil. Really, you just need to explain the market situation and paint a picture of how the world will look in a year if you don’t act. Search was easy, the trend charts were all down. RSS was much harder, we saw the future, but there wasn’t any immediate problem. I had to share my vision of the world if Yahoo missed the boat. BTW, Yahoo is #1 in RSS now, and all the others launched RSS – imagine what Yahoo would look like if we were still arguing.

2) work in an organization that encourages intrapreneurship, rather than one that just suffers it. Some companies like the idea of idea-ism, just that their afraid of it.

Agreed. But if you are in that kind of company, fight, fight, fight to set it right. And if people don’t get it, get out.

3) for any idea, build a convincing business plan before investing too much in it. Only with continued buy-in from the execs will you be able to get the other organizational changes that are required to fully deliver.

I would change that a bit. Build a convincing business CASE not a plan. Imagine what success looks like and explain that. Pull some numbers together, but don’t spend 6 months writing a plan, instead you should…

4) Get a prototype, beta, or working thing out of the door and in front of customers fast. Ideas that need many months to bring to fruition will never fly in this model. Maybe better said, pick ideas that are as agile as the organization would like to believe it is.

Bingo! Ultimately customers decide on the success or failure of your business, product, service, whatever. There’s no better way to learn and evolve than getting it out there. Thanks Phil for the insight and the help condensing me.

I first heard the term Intrapreneur from Guy Kawasaki and its something that has stuck in my head ever since. The term has been around for a very long time and simply represents:

The spirit of entrepreneurship within an existing organization.

Intrapreneur is a person who focuses on innovation and creativity and who transforms a dream or an idea into a profitable venture, by operating within the organizational environment. Thus, Intrapreneurs are Inside entrepreneurs….

Before I took my new job, I thought a lot about doing my own startup or joining others just starting our on their own. I’ve long had the entrepreneurial bug and I wondered if this was the right time.

This new job I’ve taken within Yahoo allows me to be entrepreneurial within a large company. It’s my startup within this 10,000+ people company. And, while I was thinking it through, I realized that I had long been an “Intrapreneur”. Over my career, I’ve worked a number of startups and a few big companies. Everytime I worked at big companies, I always found a way to go a bit against the grain to make interesting things into reality.

As an intrapreneur here at Yahoo, I made the biggest business impact of my career (so far). I took over Yahoo Search just as the .com crash was hitting Yahoo. I inherited a business that was making 1/2 of what it made the previous year and each month it got worse. At that time, the prevailing thought was that we should change Yahoo Search to ONLY search the Yahoo Directory and make money by forcing all websites in the directory to pay us an annual fee. I thought this was a very bad idea (duh). So, I got to work with the help of some amazing people and laid out the argument for why full web search with sponsored listings was the way to go. At an exec offsite in Sonoma, I showed exactly how we were going to make it happen, and that we could do it in only a few months. Terry had just joined and realized that there was something to what I was saying and gave me and my team the chance to do it (oh, and he gave us some of the brightest people to help). It was was extremely fun to make this 3,000 person company see things a bit differently and move quickly to re-make itself after the downturn. You all know how that business has turned out for Yahoo and I’m happy to say that the intrapreneurial spirit made that happen.

More recently, I had the chance again to work for change within the company. Early on, people in the company had said “you really ought to look at RSS”. In fact, one of the best My Yahoo engineers had already built a My Yahoo RSS reader on his own time. RSS wasn’t well known at the time (very few newspapers or sites had feeds) but we knew it could be really big. There were a LOT of people in the company who still felt that we should be a walled garden and that doing this would kill our media business. So we quickly (in three months) created a scaleable RSS platform for Yahoo and shipped it (Jan 2004). We purposely kept it hidden and just let it leak out to the blogosphere. The growth was tremendous – users and traffic grew in multiples every month. It grew so fast that we got the nerve up to go ask major papers & sites to start publishing RSS (Newsweek, Time, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal all launched in July of that year, and all with some form of “Add to My Yahoo” buttons). And like any entrepreneurial group, we realized that we were onto something, so we redesigned My Yahoo around RSS, and by that time, the company had caught up and realized it would help Yahoo for us to fully embrace RSS.

Now I have a new job. In this job, I get to play with new ideas every day and look at how to use that entreprenuerial spirit to do some exciting things, learn about new things, and find the next big ideas. I know I’m up for the challenge.

Two weeks ago, as part of my “Living the Customer” post, I promised that I’d be talking about how search engine optimization sucks (from the perspective of the small website owner).

As fate would have it, Jeff Weiner, SVP of Search at Yahoo! just spoke at PC Forum and gave the perfect quote: “Search is the tyranny of the Web master. The only people getting into search indices are those sophisticated enough to get into a search index–they only can generate relevancy by incoming links, and there are a number of people for whom that doesn’t apply.”.

For the last few months, I’ve been helping a small niche content/community site to get noticed in search engines. And Jeff’s statement is spot on. Search results today are largely (and sadly) ruled by people who know how to game the system. It is simply too hard for a new, but good quality, site to get noticed and the techniques that search engines use to combat the SEOs and sploggers work against the little guy.

During the process of getting this site up, I worked with them to do everything right: submitted site maps, got into Y! Directory, got a fair number of links from other sites/directories. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. And then I learned about the “Google Sandbox”. The “sandbox”–which Google officially denies–means that you will not show in the results of any popular/generic query for up to a year. Its been 9 months for this site, and it still doesn’t appear anywhere on popular searches on Google (not at all anywhere in the top 1000 results for relevant queries). Thankfully, it is getting good and relevant traction on Yahoo and MSN Search.

So who does appear on relevant queries? Well, the site in the #1 spot for most queries had keyword stuffed hyperlinks hidden on the page (white on white). The site that often appeared as #2 had two screen’s worth of ads before you scrolled all the way down to the content. And then there’s a ragtag bunch of semi-related sites. Now of course everyone thinks their site is the most relevant, but in this case, the site really is. The site that appears #1 most often is actually quite relevant and deserves its place, but they had to resort to Google trickery to get there. An honest, relevant site doesn’t seem to stand a chance.

In the end, I had to buy keywords on Google for this site. They’re paying about $140/month to get some attention. I guess that helps that google stock price, huh?

When I see all of this, its really clear that search has a long way to go. From a consumer perspective search is losing some of its usefulness as a way to find relevant info and from a small business perspective: forget it – unless you pay an SEO, you are not going to get noticed for a very, very long time. Small businesses need to focus elsewhere…

For almost as long as I’ve worked in product management, I’ve always appreciated getting a true feel for a user’s problem by living in their shoes.

One of my first PM jobs was at Reuters working on a system for doctor’s offices. I wanted to get a real feel of what a doctor and his/her staff go through on a daily basis and interviews & research weren’t cutting it. So, I took a week or so and went and sat in different doctors’ offices. I worked at the front desk alongside the staff and learned how utterly inefficient their day to day lives was. When you first visited, they had to call your insurance company to make sure your coverage was still valid, then if you got referred to a specialist, they had to call and wait on hold to get a verbal approval for the referral and find a doctor that was in your plan – and most doctors weren’t in more than a few plans. Then, after you left, they had to fill out tons of paperwork with each insurer offering a different form, different terms, different questions they needed answered. It was eye-opening to say the least and we ended up building an amazing solution that cut a lot of time out of these people’s days. The system was very well recieved.

Fast forward to today. At Yahoo! I have access to lots of survey research, customer feedback, blog posts, and focus groups. We also conduct “ethnographic research” where we visit people’s homes and follow them through their normal daily activities (some of which include the internet). And this research is truly fascinating. But it still isn’t enough.

So lately, I’ve been trying to get much closer to our customers. Actually, not closer, but I’ve been wanted to live in our customers shoes (like I did at Reuters).

Blogging here has been great for me to not only meet all of my blogging goals but it has also allowed me to get the true feel of what its like for a professional blogger to get started (too difficult still). It’s also got me to learn some of the intracacies of YPN. I’ve made $15.17 so far, and I’ve been literally incented along the way to pay close attention to ad relevance and give that feedback to the YPN team.

Lately, I’ve been spending time trying to get a site listed in search engines and ensure that its “search engine optimized”. I used to run the search team here, so you think I could do it in my sleep, but it is really frustrating to get your site found in Google, Yahoo and MSN. Tomorrow I’ll write about SEO and my thoughts there, but again, I have a HUGE appreciation for small business owners trying to do a good job and get found on search engines. I feel first-hand the exasperation of dealing with search engines and the temptation to spend huge $$ on SEOs who know how to game the system. All those years that I ran search, I never fully appreciated how those folks felt, now by going back to the fundamentals, and living the customer, I get it.

All of my training as a PM taught me not design products as if I am the customer. But no one ever taught me to actually try to become the customer. It’s an eye opening process and one that I think makes a better product and makes me a better product manager.

I have a birthday coming up in a few weeks and Craig and I sat down to set up an Evite for the party. In the process however, I came across one of the worst error message schemes ever and just had to point it out.

We couldn’t remember if Craig already had an account, so we just started to register again. It was actually a simple registration form and we quickly hit submit. Then:

You have entered invalid data. Please check the errors below.

The error below was telling us that the email address was already used. We fixed that and moved on.

But I came back later and tried a bunch of different things on the form: 1) leaving fields blank 2) typing the wrong password to log in 3) using an existing email address and all of them led to: You have entered invalid data? Come on…in one sentence you blame me, you use a technical term (data) and you call what I typed “invalid” even if its just that I accidentally forgot to fill out a field.

I’m picking on evite a little here, but it’s a supposition I see on too many web sites today: its the user’s fault. And maybe it is, but it’s time to use that sage old advice: “it’s not what you say, but how you say it”. Just take a little time to make your error messages helpful and appropriate for whatever the error – it’s not that hard and it’ll make me feel that you are actually on my side.

A good friend of mine is a French translator who also does voice overs for French language TV commercials, training videos, etc. At lunch this weekend, he told me a story about a client that made me think about how overly US-centric most companies still are. Most companies these days do business in every market worldwide, so why is this still an issue? The story:

My friend was recording a voice over for this company – let’s call it “4tel” – and he ran into the issue of how to pronounce the name of the company when it is spoken aloud. He chose to pronounce the way his audience would upon seeing the logo: “quatre – tel”. This company chose to name itself with a numeral and surely they must have thought that the numeral would be pronounced appropriately in each language (vier-tel, cuatro-tel, quattro-tel, etc). Wouldn’t you think?

Well, of course not. “4tel” made him re-record the entire spot and say “Four-Tel”. Do they expect that non-english speakers will just instantly make the connection between a written “4tel” and a spoken “Four”? What if they person hearing it doesn’t know english numbers? That’s still a possibility in many markets.

It shows either a lot of arrogance on the part of a US based company or just complete ignorance when they named their company. Either way, this isn’t a good way to globalize your brand or your products.

So what is the right thing to do? Personally, I’d prefer to either take the ambiguity out (avoid numerals), or let the locals say it how they want. MSFT has the new XBOX 360 and YHOO has its own 360. I wonder how those will be spoken aloud “trois cent soixante” anyone?