A thought on product thinking

I feel like we’re trying too hard to make “product thinking” a thing with fancy words and lofty concepts. Like we have some kind of inferiority complex with other disciplines we’re trying to make up for.

Talk to customers, understand the market and the business, and experiment until you get it right. That’s pretty much what product management is, right? How you do that looks different for every company, but that’s where the art comes in.

You can’t codify product management.

The user experience of treadmills

Sheila Marikar wrote a very interesting piece for Bloomberg called The Race to Disrupt Your Tedious Treadmill Workout Is Heating Up. It talks about the mind-numbing boredom of running on a treadmill, with a focus on their design:

Today’s electric machines absorb shock better and look sleeker, but the ones in most gyms retain a certain quaintness, with their last-gen phone-charging cables and omnipresent menu of Calorie, Heart Rate, Manual, Random, Hill.

It then discusses how companies like Peloton are trying to change that:

In a kettlebell-adorned lounge area afterward, Foley talks up the treadmill’s design. “You don’t want to hit a little button 20 times when you’re running full sprint,” he says. “So we asked, ‘Where are your hands, and what would be easy to interact with?’

“Fitness equipment is a very dopey category,” he adds. “It hasn’t evolved. You still sometimes see the dots rotating around the track. It’s a 1979 interface.”

I love reading stories about how user-centered design is used to upend and dramatically improve the user experience of entire industries. We saw it in phones, in the taxi industry, and countless others. I’m looking forward to seeing it in treadmills as well.

The rise of “real-time mood-based marketing”

Ok this is creepy:

Over the past few years, Spotify has been ramping up its data analytic capabilities in a bid to help marketers target consumers with adverts tailored to the mood they’re in. They deduce this from the sort of music you’re listening to, coupled with where and when you’re listening to it, along with third-party data that might be available.

And they’re not alone:

Spotify is far from the only platform helping brands target people according to their emotions; real-time mood-based marketing is a growing trend and one we all ought to be cognizant of. In 2016, eBay launched a mood marketing tool, for example. And last year, Facebook told advertisers that it could identify when teenagers felt “insecure” and “worthless” or needed “a confidence boost”.

Using storytelling to demystify meditation

I enjoyed this interview with Anna Charity, the head of design at Headspace. Here she explains designing the product specifically to make meditation feel more inclusive:

One of the main things that we considered when we created the brand was that meditation should feel like it’s for everybody, and it should feel accessible and inclusive. More importantly, we try to show meditation in a really everyday way — we show it in contexts that people can easily imagine. And one thing that all of us have in common is, is that we have a mind. Ever since Headspace’s inception we have always used characters and storytelling to explain meditation. As we all know, our minds are a complex place. They are full of different thoughts and emotions, and it isn’t always an easy place to inhabit. (That’s the reason meditation is so valuable.) From this, we knew we had to develop a style that communicated these ideas in an approachable and relatable way. And more importantly we found that characters are a great vehicle to represent the weirdness inside your head because they feel playful and memorable.

Product managers and the prioritization of problems vs. solutions

Scott Colfer writes about product roadmaps in this article, but it includes what I think is a pretty valuable overview of the core role of a product manager:

Product management makes promises to solve problems over commitments to specific solutions. We take the human tendency to specify the means of doing something, rather than the result that is wanted, and redirect it by specifying what is to be achieved, rather than how to achieve it. Product managers are usefully agnostic about solutions — we help teams to prioritize the most valuable problems to solve and then help them to prioritize the solution that requires the least work for the most value — and we’re happy when we learn something that helps us to refine and simplify our solution.

Video games to help fight climate change

Karn Bianco asks What if video games could help fight climate change? No, really:

One of the first in a new line of climate change-focused games was survival game Eco. Developed by Seattle-based Strange Loop Games, this massively ambitious civilization simulator includes everything from detailed ecosystems and realistic climate modeling to player-driven government and economies. Players work together in a shared online world where every action impacts the environment around them. Laws to restrict or encourage almost any kind of behavior can be suggested and enacted to test their effects on the world.

This is a really neat development. I also like the ideas about how this could translate to long-running simulation games like SimCity:

Imagine a SimCity that puts people (not cars) and sustainability (not endless growth) first. Where designing a city that’s easy and safe to navigate on foot or by bike is not just possible but rewarded, with lower pollution and healthier citizens. Where constructing energy-efficient buildings provide long-term in-game benefits like lower energy demands, as well as a chance to learn about real world trends like passive housing.

Why America gave up on mass transit

Jonathan English’s article on mass transit in America starts off sad, and just gets worse from there:

One hundred years ago, the United States had a public transportation system that was the envy of the world. Today, outside a few major urban centers, it is barely on life support. […]

At the turn of the 20th century, when transit companies’ only competition were the legs of a person or a horse, they worked reasonably well, even if they faced challenges. Once cars arrived, nearly every U.S. transit agency slashed service to cut costs, instead of improving service to stay competitive. This drove even more riders away, producing a vicious cycle that led to the point where today, few Americans with a viable alternative ride buses or trains.

It’s important to note that this is not an accident. It is a direct result of urban design:

The story of American transit didn’t have to turn out this way. Look again at Toronto. It’s much like American cities, with sprawling suburbs and a newer postwar subway system. But instead of relying on park-and-ride, Toronto chose to also provide frequent bus service to all of its new suburbs. (It also is nearly alone in North America in maintaining a well-used legacy streetcar network.) Even Toronto’s suburbanites are heavy transit users, thanks to the good service they enjoy.

Likewise, in Europe, even as urban areas expanded dramatically with the construction of suburbs and new towns, planners designed these communities in ways that made transit use still feasible, building many of them around train stations. When cities like Paris, London, and Berlin eliminated their streetcar networks, they replaced them with comparable bus service.

Some further reading that digs into pedestrians and cars a little more:

The benefits of buttons that don’t do anything

CNN has an interesting article about placebo buttons:

In New York City, only about 100 of the 1,000 crosswalk buttons actually function, confirmed a spokesperson from the city’s Department of Transportation in an email.

The article quotes Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer for the reasoning behind this:

According to Langer, placebo buttons have a net positive effect on our lives, because they give us the illusion of control — and something to do in situations where the alternative would be doing nothing (which explains why people press the elevator call button when it’s already lit). […]

In the case of pedestrian crossings, they may even make us safer by forcing us to pay attention to our surroundings. And ultimately, pressing a button doesn’t require much effort.

The BCC had a similar article a couple of years ago. Press me! The buttons that lie to you also quotes Ellen Langer, because there is nothing new under the sun:

But instead of framing this as an irrational delusion, Langer described the effect as a positive thing. “Feeling you have control over your world is a desirable state,” she explains. When it comes to those deceptive traffic light buttons, Langer says there could be a whole host of reasons why the placebo effect might be counted as a good thing. “Doing something is better than doing nothing, so people believe,” she says. “And when you go to press the button your attention is on the activity at hand. If I’m just standing at the corner I may not even see the light change, or I might only catch the last part of the change, in which case I could put myself in danger.”

Prioritize themes, not features

Mind the Product has a good write-up of C. Todd Lombardo’s talk called Roadmaps are Dead! Long Live Roadmaps! I’m also in the “prioritize themes, not features” camp:

Every theme on your roadmap should have a problem, an objective, and even some potential ideas you have to solve those problems. In practice, this changes how your roadmap looks. Rather than being a list of features, it might start from an objective of reducing support costs, and then show themes that might help reach that objective such as improving invoicing options or expanding payment types. By removing the details of what features will be built to fulfill these themes, it gives the team the freedom to figure out how best to solve the problems presented.

This is similar to some thoughts I had in a 2011 post called Product roadmaps are safe.

Data mines vs. data factories

Nicholas Carr discusses the importance of using the right terminology when we talk about how companies use our data in his essay I am a data factory (and so are you). On the problems with the “data mining” metaphor:

Data does not lie passively within me, like a seam of ore, waiting to be extracted. Rather, I actively produce data through the actions I take over the course of a day. When I drive or walk from one place to another, I produce locational data. When I buy something, I produce purchase data. When I text with someone, I produce affiliation data. When I read or watch something online, I produce preference data. When I upload a photo, I produce not only behavioral data but data that is itself a product. I am, in other words, much more like a data factory than a data mine. I produce data through my labor — the labor of my mind, the labor of my body.

On extending the “data factory” metaphor to the platform companies:

The platform companies, in turn, act more like factory owners and managers than like the owners of oil wells or copper mines. Beyond control of my data, the companies seek control of my actions, which to them are production processes, in order to optimize the efficiency, quality, and value of my data output (and, on the demand side of the platform, my data consumption). They want to script and regulate the work of my factory — i.e., my life — as Frederick Winslow Taylor sought to script and regulate the labor of factory workers at the turn of the last century. The control wielded by these companies, in other words, is not just that of ownership but also that of command. And they exercise this command through the design of their software, which increasingly forms the medium of everything we all do during our waking hours.

The factory metaphor makes clear what the mining metaphor obscures: We work for the Facebooks and Googles of the world, and the work we do is increasingly indistinguishable from the lives we lead. The questions we need to grapple with are political and economic, to be sure. But they are also personal, ethical, and philosophical.

This brings up a point I haven’t given much thought to. It’s not just that platforms use the data we create to further their business interests. It’s that they are also invested in having us create a very specific kind of data. Data that can be as useful as possible to advertisers. That changes our behavior and gives rise to the prevailing wisdom that people are not being authentic on social media.


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