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Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.

Wednesday
Feb282007

Apple store construction cam

I enjoy a good project webcam or construction blog. There's a new, larger Apple Store being built in Boston and Tech Superpowers has combined a blog with a webcam to follow progress. The blog is filled with neat facts about the equipment being used and how they are recycling the materials. And the timelapse videos are particularly fun.

If you like this sort of thing you might also like the This Old House webcams, which usually show several different views of the current project in real time. They've finished the Austin green house project, though, so they have only the timelapse video to look at currently. 

If your timing is good, you can also sometimes catch Norm Abram at work shooting new material in the New Yankee Workshop cam. They've also got slideshows of past highlights.

Sunday
Feb252007

A more productive Outlook

As I've discussed elsewhere, I am continually on the hunt for good productivity applications. Problems with recent versions of Microsoft Outlook have had me trying out alternative task list managers. None lived up to my expectations and I'd changed over my laptop at work so I decided to give Outlook Tasks another try. I got working productively, but as you will see below, it involves heavy infrastructure and a lot of configuration - and even then usability is still an issue.

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Outlook Taskpad is unusable out of the box
Out of the box Outlook Taskpad is amazingly useless. It retains completed items forever so that your nice little to do list is quickly cluttered with things you've already done. The default sort is alphabetical (even after you set dates and priorities for things). The Simple List display doesn't show priorities or categories and the Detail List is cluttered with more information than anyone other than a project manager for NASA would need.

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Outlook Taskpad can be configured in many ways
Fortunately, Outlook is highly configurable and I have worked out a view that works for me. Right-clicking on the Taskpad header and selecting Customize Current View brings up a dialog with many choices. The first thing is to filter out tasks that are completed. You might want to review completed tasks at some point (say when composing an update email for your team or your supervisor), but you don't want them cluttering up your list of things to do today.

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Hiding completed tasks requires advanced configuration
Outlook Filters include a blizzard of options but, frustratingly, the simple ability to hide completed tasks (at least when in the combined calendar-mini Taskpad view) requires you to go to the Advanced tab and filter out all tasks with a status not equal to "Complete." Given most users never configure their apps at all, never mind going to the Advanced tab, this is an unfathomable oversight.

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My custom view is filtered, sorted, categorized and simple
After filtering out tasks I no longer need to do, I want to make sure I display only the information about each task that I need. Everything else is noise. The default display includes a useless "Task" icon, a checkbox for when you complete the task, the subject and Due Date. I change this to include (in this order) Priority, the checkbox, Subject and Status. Priority allows me to, well, prioritize. The checkbox and Subject are needed, of course.

I use Status as an indicator for items where I am waiting on someone else before I can take further action. I wish I could sort those items down to the bottom of the list or the category, but there is no option to do so. I used to make them low priority to accomplish something similar, but then I tended to forget about them. Another option is to give them a Start Date in the future and set a reminder for that date. Tasks with future Start Dates don't appear in this view so the Task will be hidden until it's needed. This is a nice way to set yourself a reminder to follow up with someone if some time has passed and you are still waiting on them.

Next I use Group By to display everything within Categories. I use categories named after products or projects I am managing. I also have a category for Personal Tasks and one for General Tasks that have to do with work. This option keeps related Tasks together. Categories themselves can only be sorted alphabetically, though, so I assign numbers to each to keep them in the order I want.

Finally, I set the view to Sort by Priority and then by due date. I don't display due date (even though Outlook suggests this) because I naturally set a high priority on things that are due soon and I tend not to go to the trouble of setting due dates on individual tasks. Others may find this more useful.

This view works well enough for me. I get a good feeling whenever I check off a completed task and watch the list get shorter. And Taskpad immediately answers the question of what to do next. I'm not always in front of my laptop, though, so I need ways to access my Task list elsewhere. There are tools for this, but none is very satisfactory.

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Outlook Webmail is not configurable
If your company is hosting an Exchange server for email, they can set up a web interface that (if you use IE6 or 7) mimics the default Outlook interface. Unfortunately it is not configurable like the actual client, but for occasional access from an unfamiliar computer it is functional. This is just the sort of client-server and web interface combo I was complaining that many Web 2.0 solutions lack. It's just too bad you need an Exchange server and that the Web interface is so poor.

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Basic Task access via Blackberry
Another potential "anywhere" access point is your smart phone. If your company has a Blackberry Enterprise Server, for instance, you can access your Outlook email, Notes, calendar and Tasks via your Blackberry. You can sort tasks by Priority, Status, Due Date or Subject. The Blackberry does at least hide completed Tasks, but the default view includes all Tasks from all Categories and this can be overwhelming.

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Sort contacts by Category on your Blackberry
With a couple of clicks of the control wheel, you can filter the list to a single category. This is much more manageable and I find works well for a shopping or errand list. For quick reference applications like this, the Blackberry interface works well. It's accessible and it synchs with Outlook automatically. I wouldn't want to try to organize my Task list (something I try to do at least once a day) this way, though.

It's the best solution I've found, so I am using Outlook Tasks regularly these days. It's a lot of work, though, to get it working the way I like and I am completely dependent on the enterprise infrastructure of my company. If I were a humble consumer or had a company with less IT moxie, I doubt there would be a solution for me at all.

And even after my IT department has done its work and I my configurations, usability issues remain. Many people use their email in box as a sort of to do list. Some (like me) even use colored flags to prioritize them. This essentially means that I have 2 task lists, though, which is hard to manage mentally and in a practical sense means I end up answering email before I get to the things I really need to do. Web 2.0 solutions like GooTodo allow you to email a task to your list so you can get it out of your in box. I'd like to see Outlook add that kind of feature.

Jim McGowan's elegant little Mac tool, Do It, allows you to link a file or URL to any task rather than attaching it as in Outlook. This allows you to quickly find something you need to complete your task without moving it out of your file system. I like this simple app and it even uses .Mac to synch between multiple machines, but they have to be Macs and you have to register each one to start the syncing. It's strictly peer-to-peer and there is no Web interface. Perhaps the iPhone will someday have a task list widget that synchs with your Mac.

Friday
Feb232007

Mac+PC

Readers of this blog on user-driven development will be unsurprised to learn that I use a Mac. You may be surprised, however, to learn that I also use a Windows PC. Macs are great for a lot of things. No one can compete with Apple in making digital entertainment easy and fun. But at the same time, you can't beat a Windows machine for business apps and for full productivity when interfacing with other business users. And at home, I have to recognize that the games my 11-year-old daughter wants to play require Windows too.

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Complex Gateway packaging
The Mac vs. Windows debate can certainly be fun. (Check out this animated parody of the ubiquitous Mac vs. PC ads.) But Mac *and* PC has been working very well for me for some time, and recently I combined the two as never before courtesy of a slick, new Intel-based MacBook and Apple's well-executed Boot Camp beta.

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Simple Apple packaging
Apple's out-of-the-box experience is legendary, and the simplicity of the MacBook setup (3 steps: plug it in, connect ethernet, turn it on) was a predictable contrast with the more complex setup (6 steps, including some assembly) of the Gateway monitor. (I love the super-bright, ultra-sharp 24" FPD2484W, but how can the setup of your monitor take longer than of the computer itself?) And the fact that the svelte little MacBook can drive this monster monitor is a sensory delight all its own.

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MacBook pumps OSX into giant monitor
The real User>Driven story here, though is Boot Camp. Apple didn't announce an official means of running Windows on their new Intel-based hardware until after hackers published pictures of it working on Flickr. Perhaps Apple intended to do this all along, but I have to imagine helped drive Boot Camp into public beta at the least. Perhaps it also helped to silence internal doubters of the idea.

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Boot Camp lets me boot directly to XP
The results are nothing short of magical. After setting up my new MacBook, I downloaded the Boot Camp beta for free from Apple and ran the installer. It automatically made a CD for me with Mac HW drivers for Windows, partitioned my drive and prompted me to insert my Windows XP disc. (As of now, Boot Camp only supports WinXP sp2.) Now with a quick reboot I can have my slick new MacBook and a nifty (if utilitarian) XP notebook in one machine. (Of course, configuring XP also took much longer than configuring OSX, but I can't blame that on Apple.)

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Windows on Mac works with all the same hardware
For people like me who want or need both a Mac and a PC, this is a dream come true. I've got the PC I need and the Mac I really want for the price of the Mac alone. Despite any skepticism there may have been in Cupertino, I think this is a dream come true for Apple as well. How many people out there have always secretly coveted a Mac but couldn't justify buying one after paying for the PC their practical side demanded?

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DVDs look great on the Gateway monitor
Whether they planned this all along or not, Apple has clearly embraced the dual-use model. They continue to improve Boot Camp, recently adding support for their built-in iSight webcam and other features. Boot camp will also be part of Leopard, the next major version of OSX.
 

Thursday
Feb222007

Jet Blues

My father the PR executive always said that when something bad happens at your company you need to get out in front of it, own up to the problem and tell people exactly what you are going to do to address it. That is what JetBlue CEO David Neeleman did today.

As everyone knows by now, JetBlue left passengers on the tarmac for up to 10 hours at various airports this week when their staff was overwhelmed by weather delays. That's what JetBlue did wrong. What they did right was to follow my father's advice. Neeleman sent an email apology to all JetBlue customers (I got one myself, today) that took ownership of the problem (he apologized three times in the note) and provided a link to a video apology posted on YouTube and the company's new Customer Bill of Rights which details what JetBlue will do to compensate customers for any such delays in the future.

Another wise man once told me when I was starting a new job that the key to success was not avoiding mistakes - because they cannot always be avoided - but reacting to them positively. Taking care of customer problems quickly and thoroughly when they occur can, paradoxically, make relationships stronger than they were before the problem occurred.

Nintendo is developing a reputation for outstanding customer service just by fixing problems with its popular Wii game console more quickly than people expected and doing it with a friendly attitude. This is in stark contrast to VW's extended denials and grudging recall of its defective ignition coils back in 2003 which created a great deal of ill-will and blunted the company's previously stellar growth in the US.

As a product manager I have more than once been called into situations where a customer is angry about a problem they are having with my product. Usually this situation arises when they have been talking with someone in sales or customer service who has been trying to minimize, dismiss or gloss over the customer's problem. This usually serves only to make the customer more angry because they feel the company does not care about their issue. 

When I arrive on the scene and listen to the problems the customer is having, I am ready and willing to own up to the product's limitations. Customers understand that your product is a work in progress and that you have to make trade-offs between the needs of different customers. Usually a bit of listening and honesty is all the customer wants.

And once they have been heard, I often find the customer can be very helpful in communicating their real needs. Instead of angrily telling why your product stinks, they will turn around and tell which feature improvements are really important to them and why and which ones can be deprioritized.

So be like JetBlue and Nintendo. Don't be afraid to admit your mistakes, problems and limitations. Listen to your customers, have an open discussion, and let them help you decide what to do to resolve their issues.

Wednesday
Feb212007

The science of prioritizing

It's been said that "when everything is a priority, nothing has priority." In a recent entry of Inside Product Strategy, software product manager Dave Jones describes a modified version of a technique developed more than 20 years ago by Japanese engineer Noriaki Kano that can help you sort through long lists of requirements and enhancement requests to decide which features should be in your next release.

The article is a bit long-winded, but it essentialy advocates combining multiple ranking schemes for your projects and assigning scores to each proposed feature (or enhancement or bug) for each scheme. You could, for example, assign scores on a 1-4 scale for things like "wow factor," "revenue potential," "request frequency," or (in the case of bugs) things like "severity." The scores you assign are ultimately arbitrary, but combining the schemes by adding up the points can help you sort through a long list of possibilities quickly. It can also provide a documented justification for your ultimate decisions.

I used a method like this for vendor evaluation, ranking each competing vendor on a scale of 1-10 for various things like financial viability, price, support, training, demo-able interface and the completeness of their coverage in several feature areas. Adding up all the scores quickly narrowed the field to two contenders and I was able to make a final choice on one or two of the variables I felt were key. A year later we are very happy with our choice of vendor.