Why desktop first experiences limit you
If you started pre-mobile or desktop-first you can never assume 100% of your users are mobile. This often limits your ability to innovate.
Let me explain.
Take Yammer or even Ring Central. It’s not that their mobile products are inherently crappy. They have smart product and engineering people, so I am sure their mobile products are solid.
The bigger issue is they can never fully exploit mobile because only some percentage of their users are mobile. Even if that percentage is relatively high - say 75% - they still have to support users who are only using their product sitting at a desk with a browser window. This simple fact restricts how deep they can go into mobile and therefore limits their imagination.
"Don’t waste life in doubts and fears; spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour’s duties will be the best preparation for the hours or ages that follow it."
Don’t fight on their turf
In the mobile enterprise category there is a knee jerk question and answer — “Will you build a desktop version” and the response is usually “Yes!”
Creating a desktop web version of your mobile app will cripple innovation in your mobile app. Mobile is the unknown wild west so as a startup it’s to your advantage to keep the fight there.
Incumbents like Box, Cisco, Microsoft, and Salesforce are anchored to the desktop. By building a desktop web version of your app you start fighting on their turf . They are forced to answer the question “how will that work on the desktop?” because their existing customers expect a desktop version. The simple act of asking “how will this feature work on the desktop version” cripples their mobile apps, here’s why:
Drawing and annotating on a iPhone / iPad is natural, easy, and even fun. On the desktop drawing and simple annotations like arrows are a niche feature that are usually cumbersome to use for novices.
Talking into your phone is something we do multiple times a day. When was the last time you saw somebody talk to their computer at work. And when you take a Skype call most people find a private room and/or put on a headset.
The concept of presence doesn’t really make sense in mobile - you are by default present. On your computer you need to establish whether the person you are working with is actually sitting at their computer.
Apps are siloes and this constraint is a benefit when it comes to content security. It’s easier to lock down a piece of content within a mobile app and track who saw it, who screenshoted it, etc. and for some people who don’t want their sensitive information going viral this is a benefit. Once content is made available to a desktop application it can move freely between applications and it’s out of your control.
The reason most of these companies create boring apps is rarely because they are lacking in talent to do so. Instead it’s a structural issue that creates opportunities for startups.
If you are addressing a problem best solved on mobile then go all-in. Never compromise your mobile app experience by attaching a desktop web version to it. Fight the incumbents where you have a comparative advantage.
 I specifically use the term desktop web version to differentiate between web integration e.g. Instagram posting your photo to the web and web version e.g. Box.com has a mobile and web version of the same basic product.
Many thanks to Semil Shah @semil for talking through these points and to Kevin Spain @kevinspain for inviting me to share at the Emergence Capital Business Mobile Apps conference
Most of the best apps don’t exist yet (I am hiring to build them)
Mobile is still early. In ten years we’ll be talking about mobile software platforms (e.g. Android, iOS) with 6 billion daily users. That’s rather large. I expect that there will be at least fifteen apps that each have 2 billion daily users, and hundreds that have 200 million daily users.
The exciting part, is that most of these apps don’t exist yet, that’s why I am hiring:
A) Android engineer.
B) Back-end engineer. experience in node.js and AWS.
What we are looking for
Technical skills and competence are the starting point for us. If your code cannot get it done there is no point in talking. However, just because your code is great that doesn’t mean you are the right fit for us and vice versa.
1) You’ll teach us a few things, and we’ll teach you a few things.
2) You’ll push the boundaries of mobile interface design.
3) You’ll ignore things that don’t benefit the customer.
4) You are not a curmudgeon - or put another way you are an optimist that engages in how to get shit done.
5) You love to learn and teach by writing, sharing, and talking.
If you are interested please email me directly at email@example.com with examples of products you’ve built. Since you’ll be working closely with the existing team you either need to be in SF Bay Area or willing to relocate sooner rather than later.
I am looking forward to working with you.
I’ve been using Evernote for four years, and have not paid them a dime. While I am not a heavy Evernote user, I do value the service. Every so often I peak at Evernote Premium and each time I find a reason not to upgrade.
This past week Evernote launched their Market where you can buy branded wallets, bags, computer sleeves, and more. I found myself looking for a reason to buy something. If I hadn’t recently replaced my wallet I would have instantly bought this one for $99. Once the iPad becomes a bigger part of my daily workflow I’m fairly certain I will buy this stylus.
I used to pay for Flickr premium and each year at renewal I would spend much too long considering renewing my $20/yr membership, however I will gladly spend $210 on a beautiful canvas photo from 500px.com.
As Paul Graham points out people do overvalue physical things.
Why? As humans our senses - feel, sight, taste etc. rule us. It’s easy and intuitive for us to see and feel the value in a $99 wallet that I get to unwrap and touch each day. On the other hand, it requires effort to understand the value of Evernote Premium which includes smarter searching (searches PDF files) and offline notebooks. Deciding to purchase Evernote Premium is a reasoned purchase decision . One need to carefully analyze the benefits and costs of these features.
Kudos to Evernote for extending their product line in a useful and creative way. I’m looking forward to seeing much more of this across our industry.
 Want to understand the role of behavior economics in pricing, watch or attend Michael Dearing’s pricing workshop.
Fixing mobile push notifications
It’s hard to overhype the power of mobile push notifications. For the first time in human history you can tap almost two billion people on the shoulder and say “hey! pay attention to this!”
With this much power in such a small feature it was ripe for abuse. And abused it we have.
The basic problem with push notifications is they are used as an email replacement. I can see marketers and growth hackers getting all hot n’ heavy realizing that they they can now send the weekly “people you should follow” email that nobody reads as a push notification to your everybody’s mobile device.
An email is like retrieving mail from your mailbox - you do it on your own terms. Push notifications are somebody knocking at your door saying “look at this!!” Next time you decide whether something should be an email or a push notification think about whether you would want somebody knocking at door with this message.
To make matters worse apps treat mobile notifications as a binary setting - either everybody can interrupt you (notifications ON) or nobody can interrupt you (notifications OFF). That’s not how life works. Certain people in our social and professional circles are allowed to randomly interrupt us, while others need to reach out in less intrusive ways and schedule time. Apps are blunt instruments and they treat all of the contacts they import from your address book exactly the same way.
The situation has gotten so bad that most people simple err on the side of caution and just say no when prompted to turn on push notifications.
OK, we get the problem. What are the solutions?
- Increase cost of sending push notifications. Interrupting somebody is not free. App developers would think hard about when it’s appropriate to send push notifications if it cost more to send them.
- Ok to Interrupt Me: Either at the address book level or in the app set certain people as “Ok to Interrupt Me” — which means that you’ll receive push notifications from them each time they send you a message. If I work at Oracle it’s fine for Larry Ellison to interrupt me, but I don’t want to be interrupted by somebody in HR.
Any other ways to bring sanity back to mobile push notifications?
So you want to be a Product Manager?
Over the years many people have asked me what it takes to be a product manager. For awhile I gave them an answer that required lots of reading. A few years back I realized that while reading is useful there is a much faster way to determine whether or not you have the chops to be a product manager.
- Try attending 3 meetings each day for the next week explaining to people with different ways of thinking, different motivations for working, and different financial incentives why they should do something.
- Try getting 3 people who don’t report to you (i.e. you don’t control their time) to build something entirely new with you.
- Try taking an email that deserves 200 words and cutting it down to 20 words so people actually read it.
- Try telling the CEO that the business model we rely upon for 70% of our revenue is a dead end and convince him or her to adopt a different business model. (advanced topic)
- Try taking a feature list with 40 things and cutting it down to 4 things you’ll actually do.
Attending conferences and/or buying certifications programs in product management is a complete waste of time and money. Instead, dive into it and along the way you’ll figure out whether product management is for you.
10 ways to learn how to become a good (mobile) product manager
Plenty has been written about learning to be a good product manager. Yet, most of of what’s been written assumes you are building products for the enterprise or PC consumer web. Many of these skills do not instantly translate to mobile. In some cases they will hurt you. Some of the very best SaaS and PC consumer web product managers are struggling with the shift to mobile. It’s a new game that requires us to learn new skills and tactics.
1) Keep your team small
As a product manager your job is to determine the resources needed to ship the product. Smaller teams build better mobile apps. As your team grows you, each person comes with their pet feature and so the team is tempted to add more features. Apps with lots of features and/or places in the app don’t do well. Mobile is currently sexy, so everybody wants in on the action. Saying no to smart and talented people is hard, so learn how to say no.
2) Fill your team with artists and troublemakers
Who do you want on your team? Mobile is virgin territory, so now is not the time for settlers. Whether we care to admit to ourselves or not we carry the mental baggage of the web, keyboards, and chairs as we build new products for mobile. At this stage we need artists and troublemakers to help us break from these existing mental models. Good artists and troublemakers will bring some extra headaches, but will help your team shatter your existing mental models.
3) Be playful
Or put another way don’t be boring. Even the most basic utilities should be playful.
The Yahoo Weather app is a utility — it’s job is to deliver accurate weather forecasts. A simple text based list view could do that. Yet, the photos of the location sitting behind the weather forecasts are playful and they frequently convey additional useful information like time of day and season at the location.
Playful features are found across mundane tasks and places, like the boring flight safety video made fun and playful by Virgin America
Or the boring tip jar that’s turned into some playful competition.
4) Develop a mobile native state of mind
Likely the most important, yet hardest to explain. A short story should do the trick:
In 2008 a team of talented Yahoo! product managers, designers, and engineers built the initial Flickr iPhone app. It was fast and beautiful. Apple loved it so much they featured it across the App Store and their retail stores. While the features were incredibly well executed the team had not (yet) developed a mobile native mindset. The initial Flickr app was designed to make your existing photos (those that you uploaded to flickr.com) available on-the-go. Taking new pictures with the Flickr app was a second class citizen. In contrast the Instagram app was designed around the iPhone camera. If the camera did not exist, neither could Instagram. The asked two very different questions that clearly show they were operating with different frames of mind:
The Flickr team asked how can we make Flickr.com better. The Instagram team asked how can we make the photos you take with your iPhone camera better.
It’s impossible to achieve this state unless you are 110% committed to mobile. Organizations that rotate product managers, designers, and even engineers on and off of mobile are wasting their most valuable resource - people.
5) Don’t ignore the web
While it’s obvious that customers prefer native mobile experiences this doesn’t give you a license to ignore the web. Your app is the place people make their home, while the web remains a great way for people to find their way into your home.
6) Ship quality quickly
The web is a forgiving place. If you ship with bugs they can be fixed quickly as you control release cycles. On mobile Apple adds a time delay to your release cycle by requiring apps to be submitted and reviewed. While the fixed version of your app is sitting in the iOS app review cycle it’s collecting one-star reviews for the bug that is annoying customers. These negative reviews remain with your app forever. Shipping quickly remains the mantra as speed wins, but in the world of mobile we need to add a quality modifier.
7) Use apps with only one hand
As you begin to get deeper into mobile you’ll begin to appreciate the difference between tablet and phone apps. One simple way to begin developing this sense is by forcing yourself to use an app with one hand. If an app becomes practically unusable with one hand it’s an app more appropriate for a tablet than a phone.
8) Always be watching
The world around you is one large research lab. In vibrant and densely populated cities like NYC, San Francisco, Tel-Aviv, etc. people use restaurants and cafes like their dining rooms and living rooms. This gives you an honest view into how people really use their devices. Carefully watch (not in a creepy kind of way) how people use their device and actively ask yourself questions:
- How close to their body do they hold their phone when using it?
- Do they tap quickly and aggressively or slowly and gingerly?
- Do they talk to their phone in public or excuse themselves and find a slightly more private place when talking or listening to audio?
- What apps are they jumping between?
9) Test your app with drunk people
People testing your app should be slightly buzzed. We are not talking silly drunk — a two drink buzz is perfect. Sober people talk with filters - “oh, that’s cool.” By removing the filter this translates to: “why the fuck would I want that?” To get an accurate read on the market you need reactions from people who talk without filters - if you want to raise your chances of getting reactions from these people don’t use sober people.
The other benefit of this approach is that people use their phone while walking, on bumpy bus rides, during sex (oddly enough) and various other situations where they experience diminished hand eye coordination. A few drinks roughly replicates this diminished hand eye coordination state.
10) Use a crappy $50 smartphone
Developers loves gadgets. We are first in-line to purchase the latest high-end devices (I’m guilty). These high-end smartphones only represent ~15% of the global market. By using an iPhone 5S or Samsung Galaxy S4 you are not directly experiencing the world you are trying to serve.
Looking for iOS 7 opportunities in all the wrong places
I’ve had a chance to spend some time on new and existing apps designed for iOS 7. Most of what I’ve seen are prettier apps designed to match the iOS 7 look and feel. Apple is effectively using iOS 7 to run a large design contest with the prize an App Store promotion. If you are a developer looking for fertile ground in iOS 7 and you believe a prettier app is going to deliver a big pot of gold I am afraid you are going to be disappointed. Other than a brief and mostly inconsequential App Store promotion, there is no big win here. However, if you don’t get with the program and fail to upgrade your app for iOS 7 it will look like it was made for Windows ‘95. This will hurt - badly. I dumped a few apps that failed to quickly upgrade to iPhone 5 (taller screen and retina display) and the iOS 7 upgrade is far more involved.
The idea of all these developers and designers working overtime to create iOS 7 looking apps is boring. Matching the look and feel of iOS 7 is about about protecting the downside risk of your existing customers dumping you for a better looking app . It’s the price you pay to continue playing this game, but it will not structurally change your business. If perfecting pixels for iOS 7 is about protecting your downside risk, what’s the upside risk? Failing to focus on structural changes that could 10x your product and business. If you are looking for an edge in iOS 7 there are two significant structural changes that you need to be looking at.
1) AirDrop is a new distribution channel
App developers love to complain about the App Store distribution channel. AirDrop is your chance to do something about distribution. AirDrop provides a person-to-person local distribution channel. What does that mean? You can take a piece of content (photo, video, game level, etc.) and send it to a nearby user with an iOS device using the default share screen. I’ve been using it for a few weeks and once 90% of the iOS installed base upgrades to iOS 7 and they tweak the user interface a bit (set AirDrop to open by default) this will be an important new distribution channel. Developers will build clever ways to get existing users to reach out and touch non-users through the AirDrop channel. Here are a few quick ideas:
- Gaming apps: Unlock levels on games could include sharing a key via AirDrop with nearby players.
- Merchants: ”Leslie want to share a free latte with you courtesy of Starbucks Coffee” which prompts people I send it to to download the Starbucks app to redeem their coupon.
- Bars: Could make for an interesting way to buy a lady across the bar a drink: “Mike wants to buy you a drink…Redeem it Here (or say Thanks, but no thanks).”
2) iPhone 5C brings a new type of customer
Sometimes the biggest changes have nothing to do with pixels. The iPhone 5C’s price is designed to attract a customer that cannot afford or does not want to spend $600+ on a phone. While its price is currently unknown rest assured that Apple will set the price to attract an entirely new type of customer to the iPhone fold. By selling 18 million 5C devices each quarter they would almost double the total number of iPhones sold each quarter.
For the past five years app developers have become accustomed to a certain clientele. They care deeply about design, have disposable income, and have been well trained in touch gestures. New iPhone 5C customers hailing from Malaysia and Algeria won’t be dropping $4.99 on a cute sticker pack or extra powers in Dots. How will somebody with limited disposable income enjoy your app? WhatsApp answer to that was a $1/year subscription. Simple for billions of people to understand and affordable for all. If you are aiming for a large global audience you’ll need to figure out how to serve and delight somebody with a disposable income of a $1/month instead of $5/month.
McKinsey told AT&T in 1980 that it expected the market for cellphones in the United States in 2000 would amount to only 900,000 subscribers. It turned out to be 109 million
It’s easy to poke fun at mistakes like this. The question we ought to ask is why are mistakes like this made? A McKinsey project that generates such a projection is usually researched and delivered at the board room level. This is the absolute last place you should go to figure out where the world is headed. Board rooms of public companies are infiltrated by people who live in a bubble. They travel in private jets, have country club memberships, use admins to answer their email, and are still using BlackBerry devices. To figure out what’s really happening you need to directly experience the world you are trying to understand.
- Marisa Meyer refused to get broadband in her house until a majority of American had broadband in their own home.
- Fred Wilson was already experiencing the social web each and every day through his blog avc.com prior to his investments in Twitter and Tumblr. Through his personal blogging experience he developed a keen sense of why the social web was so important and what made it tick.
- Steve Jobs personally answered email from irate and happy customers.
Just to be clear, asking ones’ children how they feel about a product does not qualify as experiencing the world you are trying to grasp. That’s simply one persons opinion outside of your age group. Even in relatively simple products like Twitter or Vine there is deep nuance to each of these that can only be understood and appreciated by living in and through them.
"Eric Schmidt famously counseled Sheryl Sandberg to grab that seat on the rocketship, but I wanted my daughter to learn about building rocketships, not finding her seat."
In a world with so many distractions the one thing you cannot afford to lose focus of is your customer.
For the past three weeks I set a calendar reminder to alert me each morning to ignore things that do not help our customer. Each time this alert goes off it triggers:
1) a moment I spent with a customer - usually a moment where they were struggling with a product feature that we need to fix.
2) energizes me to do more of #1 so we can make our product even better.
3) reminds me to drop something I am currently working on.
My six rules for mobile app design
Mobile app design is hard. In fact, it’s far harder than web app design. The web is a forgiving place. If you have a couple of superfluous features on a web app they just get ignored. Mistakes on the web can be fixed in a few minutes or hours. On the other hand, one superfluous feature in your mobile app can be fatal. And even if you figure out the right feature mix they need to snap neatly together in your app.
Over the past few years I’ve developed a set of rules or more accurately a checklist of sorts. Things I mentally check for when building mobile apps. For much too long they sat in my head or were scribbled into a notepad, so it’s about time I share them. Here we go:
1. Simplifies the useful
For some people simplicity has become a religion. Like all religions it’s often taken to an extreme. You’ll see designers jettison app features in the name of simplicity. I guess you could design a house without central heating to remove the complexity of dispersing hot air throughout the house. In most parts of the world you wouldn’t want to live in that house. Simplifying does not always mean removing features.
The better way to think about this is to simplify the useful. Your app is (hopefully) really useful at one or two things - at most. Make those one or two things incredibly simple to use. Instagram obviously did this for making your photos prettier.
2. Distributes itself
Distribution is hard in the physical world where we have physical constraints. There is only so much shelf space to go around, so that means if you can secure one of the limited spots on a Whole Foods or 7-Eleven shelf you immediately have meaningful distribution. The reason Coca-Cola is so successful is not because it’s a superior flavor. Early on they figured out how to distribute the product everywhere. Distribution in the digital world is far harder. The App Store is not going to wake up one day and proclaim “each category will only have 100 apps!” When a massive supply of products exists it makes solving distribution that much more critical. Put another way, when everybody has distribution nobody has it.
Distribution has become more challenging on mobile. On the web there were multiple ways to distribute — SEO (Yelp), eBay (PayPal), Craigslist (AirBnb), Facebook (Zynga). All of these have either dried up or don’t work well on mobile.
What does it mean for a product to distribute itself? Put simply your app works best when it requires an existing user to touch a non-user. You can certainly create a profile on LinkedIn but the point of the product is to connect that profile to your professional network, each time that happens you are potentially pulling a new user into LinkedIn. Your app has to be able to do this as you cannot rely upon the good graces of Apple or Google to promote your app.
I often hear people telling themselves lies about their distribution problem. The lie usually goes like this “well my app will inspire people to tell their friends about it.” People don’t wake up wanting to tell their friends about great apps they use. They are thinking about three hundred other things that day and your product is likely at the bottom of that list.
3. Fits into people’s lives
Designing a usable app is hard. However, exceptional designers can make it work. But as my co-founder points out fitting into people’s lives is even harder, yet critical for building a sustainable business, so the layer cake model was developed:
- Layer 1: does it look like something you want to use?
- Layer 2: does it work with my data?
- Layer 3: does it fit into my life?
Every app starts at the bottom of the layer cake and has to travel through each layer to become part of people’s daily lives.
In layer one you look at the app and ask yourself whether this is something I would want to use? If you pass that layer then congrats as only a small fraction of products pass through this layer. In the second layer you are using the product with your actual data or for services like Uber you are using it to hail a cab.
An example of a product that worked with my data is Gmail. It got better for me the more I used it. I stopped worrying about storage and recalling was email was fast with great search. On the other hand, once Mailbox and Basecamp had my data for a few weeks it failed this second layer. In the case of Mailbox it generated more work for me in the form of snooze notifications instead of helping me get work done.
In the third layer of the cake you ask yourself if the product has become part of your life. This doesn’t mean you use the product each and everyday but you turn to this product each time you have a job it fulfills . I don’t need OpenTable everyday, however when I need to make a reservation I always check OpenTable. For some products moving across these layers takes days or weeks, while for most it will take users months and years to reach and pass the third layer . It took me a few years before I passed through the third layer of the cake with Twitter. Today, Twitter is an indispensable tool for me.
4. Uses the damn touch screen
PC web designers struggle with the shift to mobile. Deep within their design DNA is the assumption that people are sitting in a comfortable chair with a keyboard in front of them. To experience truly native mobile experiences we are going to have to wait until kids who were born post 2007 begin designing apps . Their digital experiences were formed entirely by touch screens. They will instinctively understand that mobile is less about words and more about photos, videos, audio, drawings, and more generally direct manipulation.
Email was born in the desktop era and is certainly built around text. So, the Mailbox app could have used some combination of text and pull-down menu to snooze email. Instead they used a very natural touch gesture — swipe to snooze. It shows that even text centric apps can be re-imagined to incorporate touch screens. Instead of complaining about how hard it is to type use that constraint as an advantage.
5. Opens to the primary thing
Whatever your core thing is about the app should open to this screen. Snapchat is a fantastic example of nailing this. Each time you open the app, it opens to the camera. Apps that require you to setup structure around them before getting to the main thing are asking to be deleted. GroupMe requires me to setup a ton of things before I actually start a group conversation.
Quip is a useful new app that I started using yet I want it to always open to the “desktop” of documents screen. After all the app is about documents.
6. Has a ‘Got it’ screen
In the app store you have one screenshot to explain your app. App stores gives you five slots, but more realistically you have one. Open up the App Store on your phone and you’ll see why.
When we designed the Gigwalk app our ‘got it’ screen was a map with pins of jobs (aka Gigs) each paying $4 to $15. Once you saw that screen it told you what the app was about.
Once you find that one thing your app is about the ‘got it’ screen becomes self-evident. If you are struggling to find this screen it’s a clear signal that you need to keep looking for that one thing.
7. Break the rules.
Nothing interesting is built by following all the rules, so break some along the way!
 Patient venture capital is designed for exactly this scenario as most products take years to realize their full opportunity as people move relatively slowly through these layers.
 It’s a good idea to test your app with a five year old.
Mobile is fertile ground for business model disruption
The mistake we often make is thinking technologies disrupt existing businesses. A competent incumbent can usually copy a new entrants product. It’s far harder for them to copy a new business model. I learned this lesson fairly early on as a newly minted product manager at Siebel Systems.
Siebel Systems (CRM category leader prior to Salesforce) was not disrupted by the web. If it was a technology disruption then porting Siebel’s products to a web architecture should have done the trick, yet it did nothing for Siebel’s business.
Siebel was disrupted by a new business model - subscription software - that the web enabled. Siebel customers looked at the Salesforce’s product - it resembled Siebel’s web based software in every possible way - and asked themselves “you mean I don’t have $1M upfront for that Salesforce.com stuff?” The web created an opportunity for an entirely new business model that disrupted Siebel. Siebel simply packaged up its existing product in a web-architecture but continued to distribute it and price it the same way.
In a foot in mouth moment the Executive VP of Products for Siebel said to me in reference to Salesforce - “how hard is it to stick a credit card form on a product.” He was fired about ten months later.
Fast forward to today, as we sit here and watch the transition from PC Web to mobile you’ll find many enterprise companies suffering from the Siebel disease.
They realize mobile is important so they create a serviceable mobile app, stick a screenshot of it on their website, and proclaim to the world they are mobile ready. As products these apps are built for existing customers who have to use the product - the WebEx app is a great example.
Baked into these products is the assumption that in a mobile first world customers are going to continue finding and buying your products in the same way. Can you sign-up for their service using mobile? No. Can you buy their product via mobile? No. The mobile app is just an accessory (a term Justin shared with me). Their business model and distribution remain the same.
This is a dangerous spot for enterprise software incumbents. Mobile provides fertile ground for business model disruption. Why? Everything is changing.