A rant about TV remote control usability

“DStv: so much more user-friendly,” says the ad in the background as I try in vain to press the button on the remote control just right so I can pause my show and go get another cup of coffee. It probably has something to do with last straws and camels and stuff, but that ad finally put me over the edge and onto the computer to write about the user experience of DStv’s remote control for their HD PVRs.

It is often much easier to figure out which companies practice user-centered design and which don’t when they produce physical products as opposed to online interactions. Think about Target’s redesign of the prescription drug bottle as an example of deliberate design, and America’s 1040 Tax form as an example of what happens when there is little to no design input on a product.

Three characteristics of a successful freemium business

I’ve been thinking about Evernote and Dropbox, and the characteristics that make them successful freemium businesses.  Of course, a lot has been said about freemium, and Ning’s recent decision to drop that business model has placed it under renewed scrutiny.  But I don’t think it’s time to bury freemium just yet.  I wanted to write down some quick thoughts on what I believe are three essential characteristics of a successful freemium business:

  1. Be patient with usersEvernote’s cohort analysis shows that initial conversion rates are at about 1%, but once users have been with the service for 18+ months, that jumps to 4% — more than enough to be profitable.  And it’s not actually a bad thing to have free users for that long — at that point they are so invested that they’re not going to take their data elsewhere.  They know and love the product, so when they hit the storage limit, they’re comfortable with paying.
  2. Have a natural (and inevitable) path to upgrading.  With both Dropbox and Evernote, if you use the product long enough, you’re going to have to upgrade — at some point you’re going to run out of storage.  If you don’t have a natural path to upgrading you need to create one, or you’ll find yourself in trouble.  Users will use your free product for forever and be happy with it.  You need to make it inevitable that a certain % users will hit one of your limits.
  3. Have a great free product.  It might sound contradictory, but if your free product sucks, the switching cost will be very low.  Dropbox and Evernote are successful because users love the free product, so when they run up against the limits, the decision to pay is an easy one.


Favorite UX / Product Management posts of the week (2010-07-10)

I read quite a few excellent UX/PM posts this week, and wanted to make sure you don’t miss out.  So here are some excerpts from my favorite posts of the week.

User Experience Design in the Agile context

In Agile UX and The One Change That Changes Everything, Anders Ramsy writes about how user experience design can be adopted to fit the agile mold a little better.  He calls for less design up-front to basically embrace the MVP approach instead of fighting it:

The first and probably most fundamental change to flow out of starting to build earlier is that of chopping your up-front design phase down to a fraction of what it might be in a traditional model to allow for establishing a foundation of working software, and then evolving the rest of the product on top of that foundation. In other words, we go from Big Design Up Front to Just Enough Design Up Front.

The rest of the post is devoted to how to do that, including thoughts on lighter, conversation-centered documentation, and the importance of collaborative design.

Why the Kindle is a better e-reader than the iPad

I just read an interesting New York Times article on “social reading” (Yes, People Still Read, but Now It’s Social), and it got me thinking about the future of reading, and the e-reader battle that’s currently going on, particularly between the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle.  And then I upgraded my Kindle software to v2.5 this morning, and it made it clear to me why I think the Kindle is a far superior reader to the iPad.

No one will deny that the iPad’s iBooks app has a nicer user experience than the Kindle.  It’s colorful and pretty, it has a nice bookshelf, you can turn the pages with your fingers, and, uh…  Well, that’s where it stops.  The two major issues with iBooks are:

  • Since it’s a back lit display, it starts hurting your eyes when you read for too long.
  • The battery life is, you know, not ideal…

Now consider the Kindle.  Though not as pretty to look at, you can tell that Amazon decided to focus on the reading experience.  You don’t have to plug it in all the time, and you can read it for hours without hurting your eyes.  But it is v2.5’s forays into social reading that really starts to set the device apart.  There are two features in particular that I think are brilliant:

South African tech industry: don’t succumb to Goldilocks syndrome

Hey, South African tech industry?  Meet me behind the rugby field at 15:00.  We need to talk.

I’ve been back in South Africa for 3 months now after 6 years working in Silicon Valley, and I think I finally figured out what’s been bothering me about the tech industry here ever since I got back.  The problem is that we have some serious Goldilocks issues going on right now.

This one is too cold

The first problem we have is a severe inferiority complex.

Remember: just because we’re not in Silicon Valley doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re doing.  Like Morpheus says in The Matrix: “Some things are true whether you believe in them or not.”  We’re good at what we do.  We’re really good.  Why does it matter if anyone knows it at this point?  They will, soon enough.

I know that many of those dudes in San Francisco treat us like the little brothers of the world — adorable but not to be taken seriously.  But that doesn’t mean we have to grovel.  Who cares what they think?  Haven’t you heard?  Silicon Valley is dead.  You can be brilliant anywhere.  So we might as well be brilliant in the most beautiful place on earth.

How to make a 2-week Agile sprint

One of the hardest parts of Agile development, but also one of the most powerful and rewarding, is figuring out how to make the process work for the team you’re part of.  Even though the guidelines are clear, there is simply no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to Agile.

We as Product Owners need to loosen up a little when it comes to pre-determined process, and work with our development teams to design an Agile process that works for everyone involved.  With this in mind, developer @darb and I evolved the following sprint guidelines for one of the applications we are responsible for here at Yola.

The ingredients of a good sprint

Every two weeks we sit down and discuss the next sprint, and we make sure the following ingredients are included:

GeekDinner Presentation: The highs and horrors of website redesigns

Last night I attended my first Cape Town GeekDinner, and I have to say that I will definitely be back next time.  Good food, good wine (thanks Delheim!), great atmosphere and discussions, and a few 10-minute geeky talks sprinkled in between… yes, this is an idea I can get behind.

I also got to do a short talk on 5 things I’ve learned about website redesigns from being involved in various projects at eBay and  The slides are posted below.  As I mentioned in my talk — since you can’t say a whole lot in 10 minutes, I went with breadth over depth here.  There are obviously a lot more that goes into redesign projects (and yes, I know Content Strategy is about more than not using Lorem Ipsum in your designs…).  But these are a some things I’ve learned going through the process a few times:

There is no excuse for confusing site navigation

I am moving countries with my family in 3 weeks, so I have been doing a lot of account canceling over the past week or so.  For the most part, it’s a pretty smooth process.  But that changed when I encountered the labyrinth that is the Microsoft Billing department. Describing how I was eventually able to cancel my Xbox Live account would take way too long, so let me just focus on one part of the experience that is indicative of a company stuck in late 90s Information Architecture.

In order to get to my payment options for Xbox, I have to follow this sequence:

  1. Go to
  2. Click on “Marketplace” at the top (this automatically shows the “Xbox LIVE” link in the second tier navigation as selected)
  3. Hover over “My account”
  4. Click on “Manage payment options”

Here is the screen with the major areas called out:



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