Posts Tagged ‘technology’

How (not) to think like a product manager

July 27th, 2016

A Medium post titled Clouseau: A Postmortem has been making its rounds on the internet today. While the title isn’t particularly revealing, the subtitle gives you the gist of the story: “How I vetted and dumped a startup idea in ~20 hours and for under $1000.”

For those who haven’t read the article, here’s a quick summary:

  • A product manager from Google went on a vacation in Europe and stayed in some fancy hotels
  • Those fancy hotels did a poor job of providing rooms dark enough to sleep in
  • The product manager spent time and money investigating a business plan around measuring light levels in hotel rooms
  • This data would be offered as a service and would be a “natural monopoly” in the industry
  • Two light meters were purchased and a logo was commissioned for the project
  • This plan failed because hotels don’t let people barge into their rooms to measure light levels without reserving the room, which was cost-prohibitive

What this unintentionally illustrates is classic “product manager thinking:” marching ahead with a pre-conceived solution set in mind despite having given little or no thought to the problem space as a whole. Instead, they limit themselves to areas where they have existing domain knowledge and try to build a solution around that. In this case, that involved coming up with a data-driven approach built around a technological solution.

But just because someone has a pre-existing toolkit for solving problems doesn’t mean that toolkit is always going to be the best method — or even an adequate method — to solve every problem. As the saying goes, to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As a software engineer I’ve witnessed this type of thinking in every product manager I’ve ever encountered. No matter what the problem, somehow software was going to be the answer, because that’s what they had to work with. Is the toilet broken? Great! Since the problem is broken toilets, we’ll build an app that lets you hire a plumber. Problem solved… sort of.

So I don’t mean to single out this particular product manager when I point out that his “rapid prototype” was an unnecessary waste of time. If anything that’s the industry norm.

Instead, if he’d only taken a couple minutes to ask someone who travels frequently — or even someone who lives in a neighborhood with a lot of nightlife — he’d know that this was a solved problem. In fact, it was solved so long ago that the solution is offered in thousands of stores from dozens of different companies:

Yup. A humble sleep mask will block out light. And for good measure, buy a couple sets of earplugs. Believe me, if you travel a lot, you’re going to wind up in some loud, bright hotel rooms where you’ll need both.

The message I want to leave you with is to avoid this pitfall. Yes, sometimes gathering data and offering it as a service is a sensible solution to a problem. Or maybe some other type of technology. But unless you’ve fully explored the alternatives, don’t limit yourself with a hammer/nail mentality.

Why it’s time to shut up about “wearable tech”

January 14th, 2014

Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin Sports the New Google Glasses at Dinner in the Dark, a Benefit for the Foundation Fighting Blindness -- San Francisco, CA
(Photo by Thomas Hawk. License.)


Lately we’ve heard a lot about wearable tech. It’s said to be an exciting new product category that involves smartwatches, Google Glass, and perhaps fitness trackers.

But how many of the people talking about this future of wearable gadgets are wearing wristwatches, glasses, or contact lenses? And how many of them are wearing clothes and shoes made from fabrics that didn’t exist a century ago?

Wearable tech isn’t the future, it’s the present. Just because we don’t always think of elastic underwear or an old-timey wind up watch as “tech” doesn’t mean they aren’t.

So what are we really talking about when we discuss this seemingly inevitable rise of gadgets we strap to ourselves?

Essentially, we’re lumping together products designed to put on our bodies that are futuristic in the sense that they’re not very good yet. They all suffer from one or more of the following flaws:

  1. Uncomfortable
    Is Google Glass really something you’d be able to wear all day? And aren’t your fingers too fat for a smartwatch touch screen?
  2. Doesn’t work well
    Early digital watches required users to press a button to see the time. Existing analog watches didn’t have this problem. Most new products take years to get right.
  3. Not useful enough
    Microsoft launched a smartwatch called SPOT nearly ten years ago. It wasn’t on the market for long. Why? Most people at that time were buying cell phones that offered more features. It’s one thing to have an extra gadget (or ten) around the house that you don’t use, but the bar for usefulness is much higher if you have to put it on when you get up in the morning.
  4. Looks silly
    Would you wear a fake beard made out of colorful beads? While most people would have no problem wearing one on Halloween, on most days wearing something visible and unusual in public has a social stigma.

Point is, we need to stop talking about HUDs and newfangled computer watches as though they belong together. These are very different gadgets with discrete feature sets — and different problems to overcome.

Even as buzzwords go, wearable tech isn’t meaningful: it’s unnecessary, not descriptive, and even if it were it still wouldn’t be a product category in and of itself. It’s time to shut up about wearable tech and let this buzzword die.

What I learned from my HyperCard middle school digital portfolio

November 15th, 2012

In middle school we were all required to build a “digital portfolio” of our work. They taught us HyperCard so we could link each essay we wrote and our photos into a personal HyperCard stack. It was a portfolio that “we’d add to until we graduated” because computers were the future, or whatever.

But what really happened is that HyperCard was discontinued and most of our essays and photos were saved in unreadable formats. Even the floppies themselves that we’d saved our data to were obsolete. After a couple of years the project was scrapped and never spoken of again.

What did this all teach me? Here’s what I got out of it:

  1. If you’re going to work with technology, you have to keep your skills sharp. Today’s computer skills are tomorrow’s distant memory. It might sound cliche but it’s true.
  2. Care about your digital data? Then keep an eye on it. Make backups. Don’t keep it one place. Data can become unreadable for many reasons.
  3. Not all change is for the better. HyperCard was an app that made it easy to create your own software. (Remember Myst? Built in HyperCard.) There’s nothing like HyperCard these days that novice geeks can pick up and play with. Good ideas can be forgotten.
  4. Paper is still hard to beat for longevity. But then again, do you care about the reports you wrote in your seventh grade social studies class? Not sure I give a shit.

There you go. Sometimes the lessons we learn aren’t the intended lessons; but they’re still valuable nonetheless.

Merriment projector

January 8th, 2012

Merriment projector

How was your Christmas this year, if you could only use one word to describe it? Try and think of a word.

Got it?

Was the word “merry”?

If not, perhaps it’s because you don’t have a Christmas tree technologically sophisticated enough to project the words “Merry Christmas” on the ceiling above. Yes, a merriment projector may be the missing touch in your arsenal of Christmas decorations.