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Product roadmaps are safe

Over on the 37signals blog they just reposted an old article entitled Product roadmaps are dangerous. Jason Fried says the following:

Instead of the roadmap, just look out a few weeks at a time. Work on the next most important thing. What’s the point of a long list when you can’t work on everything at once anyway? Finish what’s important now and then figure out what’s important next. One step at a time.

It’s hard to disagree with a person (and a company) you have great admiration for, as I do for Jason and 37signals. But I do think it’s important to set the record straight on product roadmaps – particularly when it comes to large organizations. The post highlights two main concerns with product roadmaps:

  • Product roadmaps assume you know what’s going to happen 6 – 18 months from now
  • Product roadmaps set expectations, so you can’t change them (and if you do change them it becomes a worthless exercise)

So let’s look at each of these points in turn.
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My notes from Oliver Rippel’s NetProphet talk on “The current state & future of e-commerce in Africa”

These are my notes from Oliver Rippel‘s talk at NetProphet 2011. Oliver is the CEO of MIH, a group company overseeing African and Middle East online properties like Mocality and kalahari.net.

The state of e-commerce in Africa

  • As soon as e-commerce becomes more than 1% of retail sales, that’s when it becomes mainstream
  • US not the most successful e-commerce market – Korea is, with 9% of retail sales online. US is at 4%
  • E-commerce in Africa is still nascent:
    • Egypt – 22% Internet penetration, less than 0.01% online retail penetration
    • Nigeria – 29% Internet penetration, less than 0.01% online retail penetration
    • South Africa
      • 6 million Internet users, 12% penetration
      • 0.4% online retail penetration
      • 16.7% credit card penetration
      • 14 e-commerce sites in Top 100 SA sites

Positive e-commerce macro-indicators in Africa

  • Big average projected real GDP growth
  • There is a growing middle class of 320m Africans
  • High mobile penetration (World average: 60%; South Africa: 92%)
  • The promise of accessible and affordable broadband Internet is there

Lessons for building a winning e-commerce business in Africa

MIH’s focus is on the full e-commerce value chain
The brands cover the whole purchase cycle: awareness, interest, decision, action, post sale, resale

  • Embrace mobile
  • Leverage offline
    • Go where the users are – online marketing on its own simply won’t work
    • Go to shopping malls and put up posters – whatever works
  • Cash is king
    • 50m million banks accounts in Africa, 95% of transactions are cash-based
    • The only mobile payment system that is scaling is M-Pesa in Kenya: P2P payments
    • They are converting a cash economy into a digital economy, so that can now also be used for e-commerce
  • Build trust
    • Open marketplace model is inadequate in low trust early stage environment – unlike eBay
    • Instead, MIH uses controlled marketplaces that reduce barriers for buyers by building a trusted brand

How long can BlackBerry hang on to its smartphone market in South Africa?

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion just cut their earnings guidance for Q1 2011, blaming slower sales. Even as the future of RIM looks bleak from a US perspective, you wouldn’t think so looking at the South African market. BlackBerries are simply everywhere. I’ve always wondered why BlackBerry has such a large portion of the SA smartphone market, and I can think of two four reasons:

  1. Most BlackBerry contracts come with unlimited free data, which (to my knowledge) no other smartphone handset does at a reasonable cost.
  2. When it comes to business users, it’s still the only phone trusted by corporate IT departments.
  3. A capable smartphone at a reasonable price (although an influx of cheaper Android and Nokia phones might make this a moot point). (Thanks Steyn for pointing this one out in the comments)
  4. The popularity and cost-effectiveness of BBM (although WhatsApp largely takes this away as a selling point). (Thanks Stafford for pointing this one out)

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The latest earnings guidance cut clearly spells big trouble for RIM, and in a great blog post on Forbes, Eric Jackson lists 10 questions he would ask CEO Jim Balsillie based on that news, including the following:

Your bullish analysts used to say “yes, the US business is dying but International is going to keep growing.” You seemed to be saying last night that demand is drying up in Latin America too.  Does that mean the US was a sign of what is to come for your future International growth?

Now combine that with a recent IDC report that predicts Africa would become the first truly post-PC continent:

IDC estimates that in South Africa, 800,000 PCs were shipped in 2010 and the number is expected to decline by about four percent annually to reach 650,000 by 2015. Meanwhile, 1.3 million handsets were shipped in 2010 and that rate is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nine percent to reach 2 million annually by 2015.

You have to ask yourself: how long can BlackBerry keep its apparent dominance in the smartphone market in South Africa? As mobile demand increases it appears that they will simply be unable to produce hardware that can keep up with consumers’ ever increasing smartphone requirements.

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The struggle between Writing and Design, or Why everyone should write

Thinking about writing at Melissa's Food Shop, Cape Town.

How good I am at my job as a software Product Manager depends on my ability to do two things: Understand the needs that real people have when they go online (whether they can articulate it or not), and building products that satisfy those needs as well as meet business goals. It occurred to me this morning that in many ways writing is about doing the exact opposite. To a large extent, writing is about being selfish.

Virtually any book or article you read about writing gives the same advice: Write what you know and what you’re passionate about. Write what’s in you, not what you think people want to read. Just last week James Shelley reminded us that people cannot help but notice an individual with passion. In another post he says:

Although passion may at times appear dangerous, the planet does not need less human passion right now, it needs more passion than ever before “” passion that refuses to be immunized by the lulling caress of consumption and the crippling inundation of knowledge.

But it is this apparent struggle between Design and Writing (with a big D and W) that makes it so damn difficult to write sometimes. As user experience designers we’re trained to get out of our own shoes and into those of others. It’s about their needs, not our likes and dislikes. “You are not the user,” we often say.

But I have a feeling that the best writers (and designers, for that matter) are those who are able to balance this apparent conflict between user needs and internal passion effortlessly. Writers and designers who truly astound us with their work are those whose understanding of what people need are so ingrained in their beings, so much part of them, that they’re able to express their passion in a way that meets those needs “without fuss or bother,” as the NN Group definition of User Experience states.

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Humble Design

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of humility in design. About a month ago David Gillis said the following in a great article for UX Magazine:

When it comes to designing experiences, cultivating a humble approach is absolutely essential. The sheer complexity of the design challenges we face demands open-mindedness – a willingness to test and modify assumptions, to make mistakes and be proven wrong.

Humility is about knowing what you don’t know, and when it comes to dynamic, interdependent, multi-platform systems, there are an awful lot of unknowns.

And then there’s this tweet by a good friend that’s been on my mind for a while now:

Humble

Ain’t that the truth.

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On the creative process, getting started, and chasing Flow.

Last week I delivered a new talk at a Cape Town SPIN meeting (the Software Process Improvement Network). While I was preparing for it I thought of a working title for my next talk:

A talk about preparing a presentation for a talk about preparing a presentation for a talk.

You see, I have a love/hate relationship with new talks. I love delivering a new talk, and I love getting feedback on what worked and what didn’t. I love making it better. And I hate pretty much every moment leading up to delivering it.

But this is, of course, the problem with the creative process.  It’s blood, sweat, and tears, most of the way. Rands recently wrote a post entitled A Hard Thing is Done by Figuring Out How to Start. He writes:

Those who do not understand creativity think it has a well-defined and measurable on/off switch, when in reality it’s a walking dial with many labels. One label reads “Morose and apathetic” and another reads “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out”. This dial sports shy, mischievous feet – yes, feet – that allow it to simply walk away the moment you aren’t paying attention, and each time it walks away, it finds a new place to hide.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life wondering where that damned dial is hiding.

He goes on to explain how random moments of discovery and seemingly useless tangents are all part of the preparation process, and that we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we’re struggling to get started. He closes with this:

W’re addicted to quick fixes, top ten lists, and four-hour work weeks, but the truth is – if it wasn’t hard, everyone would be doing it and a hard thing is never done by reading a list or a book or an article about doing it. A hard thing is done by figuring out how to start.

You’ve been spending a lot of time thinking the result is what matters. You have a bright and shiny goal in mind that is distracting you with its awesomeness. It is this allure of awesomeness that is the continued reason why you keep searching around your house looking for that mischievous walking dial.

My guarantee is that what is going to make this bright and shiny thing awesome isn’t finishing. It’s all the little, unexpected details you discover trying to start. It’s all the small pieces of unexplainable execution that will not only make it yours, but also continue to teach you how you get things done. And when you’re done, you’ll discover finishing, while cathartic, is just a good reason to go start something else.

I’ve absolutely found that to be true. My basic process for preparing a new talk is as follows:

  • First, I spend weeks researching and saving articles to Delicious.
  • Then I live in FreeMind for a few days, building the outline of the talk.
  • I then proceed to tell myself I’m ready to roll, so I  spend another week or more getting all those thoughts onto slides.
  • This is followed by several nights of bad sleep as I start seeing the holes in my thinking, and struggle to find the right words/pictures/length/style/order.
  • And then, suddenly and without fail, about two nights before the talk, I hit Flow. That “mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Things suddenly fit, I spend 10 minutes re-ordering slides and it suddenly all makes sense. From that point on, the process is an absolute joy.

Why is Flow so hard to find? Or is it meant to be hard to find, because the creative process requires struggle as its fuel?

Whatever the reason, Rands helped me relax a little bit and panic less during the beginning phases of the creative process. Because all those starts, stops, and anxiety eventually come together to collide in the ultimate high that happens when things just… flow.

The problem with fluid layouts, summed up in one screenshot

We’ve received quite a few questions about why we changed kalahari.net from a fluid layout to a 960px fixed width layout. There are pros and cons to both approaches, and Smashing Magazine did a great job of explaining those trade-offs in Fixed vs. Fluid vs. Elastic Layout: What’s The Right One For You?

For me, the most important reason to use a fixed layout is that it allows you to have full control over the experience and what the user sees on the screen.

But since a picture is worth a thousand words, I guess you can sum up the problem with fluid layouts with a single screenshot:

The most important characteristic of a good Product Manager

About a week ago I had a discussion with a colleague in our development team about the new product development process we rolled out a few months ago. One of the words he used to describe the new process is fair.

It was a passing comment and I didn’t really think much of it at the time, but since then I keep going back to that conversation, and the importance of fairness in the product management profession.

Loads of articles have already been written about the characteristics of a good Product Manager (see the end of this post for links to some of them). They’re all fantastic, and I go back to them constantly when I’m in the hiring process or looking for personal development areas. But I’ve never been able to find the one characteristic that I think a PM simply cannot do without. I now think that fairness is that characteristic. Here’s why.
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