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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Beating A Dead Horse – some sage advice

We’re always trying to solve the most toughest technical challenges but some challenges are just dead horses. You might as well try riding something else. A mighty philosopher in our firm imparted this sage advice to me –

Dakota tribal wisdom says that when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. However, in government we often try other strategies with dead horses, including the following:

1. Buying a stronger whip.

2. Changing riders.

3. Saying things like “This is the way we always have ridden this horse.”

4. Arranging to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses.

5. Increasing the standards to ride dead horses.

6. Appointing a tiger team to revive the dead horse.

7. Creating a training session to increase our riding ability.

8. Comparing the state of dead horses in today’s environment.

9. Pass legislation declaring that “This horse is not dead.”

10. Blaming the horse’s parents.

11. Harnessing several dead horses together for increased speed.

12. Declaring that “No horse is too dead to beat.” [Classic if you ask me]

13. Providing additional funding to increase the horse’s performance.

14. Do a Cost Analysis to see if contractors can ride it cheaper.

15. Procure a commercial design dead horse.

16. Declare the horse is “better, faster and cheaper” dead.

17. Form a quality circle to find uses for dead horses.

18. Revisit the performance requirements for horses.

19. Say this horse was procured with cost as an independent variable.

20. BRAC the horse farm on which it was born.

21. Promote the dead horse to a supervisory position

via The Humor Bin – Beating A Dead Horse.

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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.

My fav mashup – Gmaps Pedometer

This is simply the most useful mash-up i have ever ‘run’ into.

Gmaps Pedometer

Time to run

back from vacation

The last two week i visited family and friends in India.  I also attended my brother-in-law’s wedding. It was two weeks of total chaos and fun. Spent most of my time in New Delhi but a couple of days in Kerala too. Kerala is like the greenest place in the world.

Loved the time away… cut off from work. Stayed away from email and internet most of the time.

Anway. Now i’m back and have a lot of stuff to catch up on. I’m planning on writing about the ScienceDirect release last month and possibly other things that caught my eye when i was in India.

Shake things up – find new stuff

Sometimes you spend time and resources building features into your product only to find that customers don’t notice it. It can be frustrating.

For the past 7 years i had been shopping at the local Walmart. I knew where everything was and in which aisle. I didn’t have to think too much about it. Quick zip in and zip out process… a guys dream.

So last week, they closed the local Walmart and opened a Super Walmart nearby. Oh the frustration trying to find things. I must have spent at least an extra 15 minutes trying to find what i wanted (time i could have spent lying around on my couch). I did notice one thing though… I found and bought products that i didn’t know existed or were even sold at Walmart. They’ve probably always been there but i never went to those sections or aisles. How about that?

So let me draw a parallel and deduce that every once a while, you need to shake things up with your product. Move things around so people spend just a tad bit more time on your website/product and they may notice features that were always there but hitherto did not notice.