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.


Apollo shoots for the moon

Michael Fitzgerald has an article in the New York Times about Web 2.0 word processors that talks about the shift to online apps that started with the late '90s idea of the network computer and now seems to be catching on with wide adoption of broadband.

He talks about these online Office substitutes being mostly for people who don't want to pay for or manage heavy-duty traditional apps like those coming out of Redmond. He also touches on the ability to share documents stored online (though without providing any examples of where that is useful).

He shows some healthy skepticism of Mitch Kapor's claims of unsettling the major players with a new online application paradigm, but he cites only inertia as his reason.

My main concern with online productivity apps is access. They are both more and less accessible than their traditional offline counterparts. They are more accessible in that you can get to them from any web accessible computer (and sometimes other connected devices). But while net access is becoming more ubiquitous, it is not universal. I spend two hours most workdays on the train disconnected. I work with my laptop - and it's prime productivity time because there are no office-mates or children around to distract me - but I couldn't use an online word processor during those times.

This is why I think Adobe's new Apollo technology is so interesting. Rafe Needleman on Cnet's Webware blog says the coolest thing about Apollos is that it allows you to create connected apps that run outside the browser. Maybe he's just more connected than I am, but I think the coolest thing about it is it lets you make apps that work both online and off and that synch up automatically when you reconnect. Check out this demo at Demo where Mike Downing shows an ebay app that doesn't miss a beat when he dramatically pulls the network plug on his laptop. zdnet also has a good backgrounder on Apollo if you are curious. Adobe also has a wiki page on Apollo with a good selection of info for developers.

People are saying Apollo is Adobe's move from the browser (with Flash) to the desktop, but it's more than that. Making RIAs work offline is bringing Web 2.0 to the offline world. Even if Apollo doesn't reach the moon, I see good things coming from this idea.


Adjusting to new UIs

Mark Asdoorian, a friend and colleague for many years, sent me this amusing link about medieval monks getting used to the new-fangled printed book with these comments: "Great bit about how adopting a new UI can always be confusing to some users.  Gotta have quick eyes to read the translation."

If you've ever helped users (or parents) through a new UI, this will seem very familiar!

Netflix wins 2006 User>Driven Hall of Fame

Readers had the most fun picking products and services for the Hall of Shame. My nomination of the Comcast HD DVR touched off a string of posts (and private emails) from frustrated users. On the other hand, everyone had their own opinion on nominations for the Hall of Fame, with only a couple of things receiving more than one vote.

Netflix received the most Hall of Fame votes, though, and I think it's fitting they should win. My wife and I are subscribers and regular users, as are many people we know. The basic DVD-rental-through-the-mail subscription service was a real paradigm-shifter some years ago when they started up. But what has kept Netflix number one over Blockbuster's efforts and the efforts of other imitators? My theory is that Netflix is User>Driven.

Check out this article by Joshua Porter of User Interface Engineering about how Netflix uses fast iterations to continually improve their user experience. According to Porter's interviews with Netflix designers, they change some aspect of the site on average every two weeks! And it is hardly change for change's sake. They test each change in isolation for a couple of weeks to see what effect it has on user behavior. If a change results in more people who attempt to add a DVD to their queue succeed, then the change is a success and it stays. If not, no matter how "well designed" a feature is, it goes. As I discussed in my entry on paper prototyping, more and faster iterations (combined with user feedback) is the best way to get quickly to an optimal product design.

Lending support to this idea is Eric S. Raymond's Web essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, wherein he admonishes us to "release early, release often." Raymond cites the rise of Linux as an example of fast iteration and user participation in development and describes something he calls the Delphi Effect (more properly the Delphi Method). This notion, that the properly aggregated inputs of many random people are better than the isolated input of any single expert, is described at length in the excellent book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

Fast iterations and the abandonment of designs people worked hard is an emotional business. Good designers take pride in their work and want to see it succeed. Users don't know designers, though, and have no emotional investment in the work. And since it is they that must live with the product, data about how useful it is to them must be the deciding factor. The path to success is to learn to embrace failure. Or, as former IBM Chairman Thomas Watson, Sr., once said, "If you want to increase your success rate, increase your failure rate."


See Ben Brophy's thoughts on an improvement NetFlix could make:




Who knew Bill gates was User>Driven?

Bill Gates appeared on the Daily Show Monday to talk up the launch of Windows Vista. Among the things he said was this tidbit.

"We actually went to 50 families from 7 countries 2 years ago and talked to them about how they were using computers, what they wanted to do. We actually found there were 800 different things we did in the product because of their input."

Now you could argue that the data is 2 years out of date or that, given their history of usability issues, Microsoft may not have known how to conduct these interviews in a productive way, but I have to give Bill credit here. He stated the goals of this program just they way I would have.

What did he say? First, he said they picked 50 families from 7 countries. So they tried to go out to people representative of their target market as users. Very good.

Second, he said they talked to them about how they were using computers. Notice he didn't say "showed them what we were thinking of" or "got their input on our product designs." He said they asked them how they used computers in their every day lives. Once you understand how the product is really used, you can design improvements to support those uses.

Third, he said they talked to them about what they wanted to do. Notice he didn't say "asked them for ideas on how to improve the product." No doubt they get suggestions every day, but what he's really saying they explored with people was their goals. Once you understand the users' goals, you have half of what you need for innovation. The other half is technology to apply to those goals, something Microsoft has in abundance.

Bill also talked about the "500 expert users" they recruited for their beta program once the product had been designed and mostly coded. Though feature and usability feedback usually comes along as well, beta programs are mostly for finding bugs in environments and under conditions you haven't reproduced (or even thought of) in your lab.

Bill didn't talk about it, but apparently Microsoft also conducted classic usability testing of their designed before finalizing them. You can see this process at work in the Windows Vista developer's blog where Jim Allchin describes how they changed security features to make them more convenient based on user testing.

I wonder how new this process is in Redmond. Could that have been the missing link in Microsoft's development process that brought about such blunders as Windows ME and the dancing paper clip? Will Vista and Office 2007 be more usable than their predecessors? My experiences with text formatting in Word don't give me a lot of hope. Ironically, though, what Bill Gates said casually on the Daily Show does!

Share your Microsoft (Vista, Office or any other MS product) experiences in the comments section below.


Bill Gates on the Daily Show:



Windows Vista Developer's blog article on security vs. convenience:




A faster horse

At the annual sales meeting for ATG this year, the SVP of Marketing, Cliff Conneighton, told what I think is a good story about product innovation. He said that if you'd asked someone in the 18th century what the perfect mode of transportation would be, they'd describe a faster horse that can run all day, carry a heavy load, and not need much food or water. They would not describe a car or a train or an airplane because, Cliff said, no one had yet laid out a vision for these modes of transportation.

What cliff is getting at is a couple of fundamental truths about product innovation. The first is that most customers have little or no imagination. They can imagine incremental improvements to what they have (a faster horse), but they can't usually imagine something entirely different that solves their problems in a different way, even though it would be orders of magnitude better (an airplane).

The second is that, because of the first, there are situations in which you can't actually go out and ask your customers what they want. You can't ask them to design a revolutionary new product for you because they don't know what technology can do for them if it's something they haven't seen before.

Here's another example. I described in an earlier post a story that Patricia Seybold told about how Staples reorganized their site based on the organizational schemes submitted by real users. The results were so good that they rolled them out in their bricks-and-mortar stores as well. So Staples asked their customers how to improve the product and it worked. Staples was not asking the customer to innovate, however. What was innovative was Staples providing a means for the customers to give that feedback in a systematic way (through software, natch). While some customers may have dropped organizational suggestions in a suggestion box somewhere, it took someone with imagination at Staples to push the concept to its logical end and devise software to gather the feedback.

As I've said before, the task in being User>Driven is not to ask customers what they want but to ask them what they are trying to accomplish and what obstacles they face in meeting those goals. A good product manager and engineer can then put their heads together and devise a solution to those problems based on their knowledge both of the problems and of technology. This is where the vision comes from.


Patty Seybold:



My post on Staples: http://userdriven.squarespace.com/blog/2006/5/14/eating-my-own-dog-food.html