The key question is – What is the user trying to do

If you’re in the business of producing anything for anybody; I’m sure this question may have popped into the back of your mind every now and then – What is the user trying to do? Perhaps it has always been there but just hasn’t come to the forefront.

I have great respect for people at work and outside of work who just simply seem to be able to focus in on that question so often. We all get caught up in the daily fire fights, focusing on resolving the issue of the day that we forget the big picture. What problem is the user facing? and are we solving that? or are we just trying to get stuff out the door?

Every time we decide that something is good enough, are we really thinking – Is it good enough to help our users solve what they are trying to do? or is it just good enough to satisfy our immediate need to declare success?

This could apply to politics or product development or research or what have you. For example – Politicians should ask themselves – What are our citizens trying to do? or what problems are they trying to solve? and how can we help them solve their problems?

The question of course is not – Can we solve it for them? Its how can we help them or how can we enable them or how can we provide them tools that can help them solve the problems by themselves.

In the coming days there will be some news on Elsevier’s effort to provide people the tools to solve some of the problems for themselves. More specifically related to finding and using scientific articles. Hopefully that’s more along the ‘what is the user trying to do’ line of thinking and I sincerely hope people see it that way. Will be great to find out.

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How to innovate

Innovation is a funny thing. You have all sorts of ideas that spring into your mind at weird times – in the shower, during your morning jog, when you’re ready to go to bed, etc. You get excited, you want to immediately tell the world about it and get it implemented. Of course reality strikes. You either forget about it, or the idea loses steam or you are not able to sell it. OR you are able to sell it, build it and take a shot at making it successful.

The question is – is that really innovation? What is the basis of innovation? Just a crazy idea that pops into your mind? Maybe but its got to be more than that. For instance – You have to know it will sell. How would you know that? It has to based on some facts. The internet is filled with resources that will tell you how to innovate and there are countless blogs, courses, webinars that do that same.

Here’s are some methods i have read, learned and practiced in my day to day work.

Method 1: (inspired by this podcast on the Product Management Pulse blog) This is the best and most valuable approach. In your industry (or area of interest), meet with as many users of your solutions or services, as you can. Not to find out how they use your product or service but instead focus on their situation. What is they day like? What is a good day? What’s a bad day like? What frustrated them? Think about how you can help them. Remember – the ideas to build your business lie outside you office. Get out, talk to people.

Method 2: Conferences, seminars are a gold mine of ideas. I’m not talking about sitting in your booth and making presentations or just visiting the competitor’s booth. Talk to the people who are attending the seminars. Why are they there? What are they looking for? Now i haven’t personally done enough of this but i have been to a few training sessions and public seminars where i have met and talked to a few people. I can only imagine there is a lot more focus and broader range of people at conferences related to your industry.

** The next 2 methods are more internally focused and certainly not the best way to come up with useful ideas. But if you dont have enough support to routinely engage with users or attend seminars then these would be alternatives. **

Method 3: (Inspired by the Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge) For your business or personal interest, identify what your core strengths are. Look into the past and identify your key success factors. Think about the factors that led to those successes. Keeping in mind where you are now, think about where you would like to be a few years from now. Now think about how you can extrapolate your core strengths and past success factors to get to where you would like to be. While doing this exercise you might stumble upon ideas you need to implement today to get where you want to go.

Method 4: Talk to sources inside your company. Your sales force, your customer service people, your marketing folks, your usage research/business intelligence folks. They all interact with users or study/influence user behavior. They can give you valuable insights that you may want to consider as well.

Last but not least is social media. Pay attention to what people are talking about on Twitter, Facebook, Blogs about your company, your product, your interests. Try and learn from them. Of course take everything with a grain of salt and dig deeper if you find a nugget of information.

These are just some thoughts but the point is the more you can learn about your users/customers the more you can innovate successfully. You should be passionate about getting close to your customers… to genuinely try and help solve problems for them.Find ways to engage with them face to face or when all fails at least over phone. While the Apples of the world may innovate behind closed doors those are very few success stories. You will have far more chances of successes and innovative ideas if you engage closely with your users.

Focus on facts and go make it happen.

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3Be path to having a great day

Public speaking has been one of my interests right from high school through college to a few company events. So i jumped at the opportunity when i was recently invited to be the target speaker at our local Toastmasters club meeting. The topic had to be something motivational since that was the general theme of the day.

Here’s a short version of the 15 mins speech –

There are two kinds of people in the world – Those who are happy at the end of the day and those that are not. You probably want to be the former. At the end of the day everybody wants to feel good about themselves and the way their day went. One way to try and accomplish that is by what i call the 3Be Path.

1. Be confident – Know your strengths and limits. Accept challenges as they come and have confidence in your ability to meet and tackle them. I’m not saying blind faith. I’m saying be confident enough to accept a challenge because of the next step – the 2nd Be – in this path.

“Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong.”

Be also confident enough to be able to turn down challenges if they are outside your limits. If you spend each day looking forward to the next challenge because you are confident about yourself, its the first step to having a great day.

2. Be knowledgeable – So you have accepted a challenge. That’s only the first step. Now you have to find ways to meet them. Read. Learn. Ask for help. A truly confident person is one who does not shy away from asking for help. Accumulate as much knowledge as you can everyday and in your lifetime because that will be your greatest asset. Learn to apply what you have learned. Fail quickly and often so you can learn faster.

3. Be vocal – Now comes the crucial and most important next step and probably the more tougher thing to do. Share your knowledge and experience. Find ways to voice your opinion, voice your thoughts, share it with others. When you spend your day teaching others what you have just learned, you learn more yourself. Talk about it at staff meetings, seminars, conferences, perhaps Toastmaster meetings. It will not only make you the new ‘expert’ but funny enough, you will find yourself feeling more confident about yourself which brings us back to the first ‘Be’. Sharing knowledge and being vocal will make you more confident about yourself.

So the more confident you are, the more challenges you accept. The more you accept, the more knowledgeable you become. The more knowledge you accumulate, the more you will have to share with others and voice your expertise which brings you back again to step 1. It completes the feedback loop and you will find yourself more satisfied with the way your day went. In the end that’s all that matters.

The 3Be path is just plain common sense and you probably already know you should be doing this. Now go ahead and do it.

Simple ideas lead to useful solutions

Sometimes the simplest of solutions can be most useful. For example, if you are out looking for a house and want to calculate how much mortgage you can afford, one simple solution would be look up a mortgage calculator online. I’ve used this tool from Bankrate in the past and found it useful.

Anyway – my point is – sometimes simple tools that focus on a niche area can be very helpful. We are always looking for the next killer app, the next ‘cool’ idea that will solve problems for a lot of people. While we’re trying to build that one solution fits all, we can often get lost in complexity.

Twitter, in my opinion, is a really simple app. I remember years ago, i built a silly little VB client app to post updates on tasks I was working on for this dot com startup. My team mates could also get on the same app running on their machines and post their updates. None of the updates were lost since we stored them in a central dB. Didn’t think too much of it and it got lost in time as we all moved on with our careers. Goodness me… if only I knew.

Here’s another example of a simple app that will have its uses. Kevin Marks is a former Google employee (Read news about his departure). Brilliant guy who worked on all kinds of stuff – Orkut, OpenSocial, Microformats, what have you. You can check out his blog (Epeus’ epigone) for more gory details.

A couple of days ago he put together this application in 12 hours. Amatwit. Using Amazon’s API and the Twitter’s API users can search Amazon for items (currently defaulting to books) and from the search results you can tweet links to those books. Nice.. simple.. useful.

Do you have any simple and useful solutions? Maybe you already have something and just don’t realize it.

Web 2.0 Expo : Eric Ries Lean Startup Presentation

A Disciplined Approach To Imagining, Designing, And Building New Products.

Project Portfolio Management

Just some important information to keep in mind about porfolio management (source – The PDMA ToolBook for New Product Development)

There are four goals in Portfolio Management

  1. Value Maximization: Allocate resources so as to maximize the value of the portfolio.
  2. Balance of projects: say high-risk & low-risk, or long-term & short-term, etc.
  3. Strategic direction: Portfolio should truly reflect business strategy
  4. Right number of projects: Keep in mind resource available.

All four goals have the potential to compete with each other.

Career thoughts

People who have known me since childhood years know i’m a sucker for things like leadership, coordinating things, organizing things, etc. Sometimes i wonder if some of my high school/college friends thought i was going overboard with that thing. I’ve been a leader in high school, been active on several college committees (cultural activities, Rotract clubs, etc). It seemed natural to me that i would progress into leadership roles at work. So that’s how it worked at my first job – team lead within the first year or joining, on to being development/test lead at CompuServe to being a Manager at iWidgets to now being a Project Manager. At this point i think the next step for me is to move into Product Development. I like that its got leadership aspects to it since that comes natural to me but i’m also enamored by the potential to discover and invent new ‘things’ that have hitherto not been thought about. Things that will enable others to be successful. There is also of course the desire to be creative. I’ve always had ideas for things to do… as i’m sure everybody has… so why not the desire to take the next step to implement. It does seem to the natural career progression… more thoughts on this later…