Product discovery – what exactly you call as “product”?

For my related post on involving customers during product development by making them co-creator, one of the readers comment that the same approach will not work in every product development. By involving customers during product development, it might look like a “service” to the customers by taking example of Google v/s Apple way of building products. In case of Google, they work on a product discovery approach, whereas Apple has taken the approach of “Don’t ask the customer what they want, many of the times they themselves don’t know” approach.  In my opinion, major differentiation between these two approaches come from what we “refer” as a “product”. Buying a “box” product  from the store and experiencing  it with hands-on is way different from accessing an online product. This has a significant change the way products are developed. Let me explain this from my own experience.

I used to work in a firmware development team, which had very close traction with hardware. We made certain firmware changes specific to hardware, any further changes to it will result in re-manufacturing the whole PCB. Also product milestones, changes/defect fixes were controlled (ex: All level-1 severity defects should be fixed before manufacturing release, which is the final release). Later point I moved to other team, where we were building cloud solutions from the scratch. Our first major launch was two days away where we had at-least a dozen level-1 bugs were open. When I asked how we can make the release, the product manager replied “We can go ahead and launch then regularly roll-in patch releases by observing customer usage. If customers are not facing any issues, it is fine. After all for this flexibility only we are moving to cloud”.  Well, this fundamental elementary thinking of how we look at defect fixing itself different when it comes to looking into products as something.

Thanks to advancement in cloud technology, tons of mobile and internet products are getting built every day by following the discovery process. They can release, iterate and then improve their products depending on how customers are responding to it.  Recently there was an article about Amazon’s product building which talks about similar approach. On contrast, when you are building anything that is closer to the hardware, taking this approach might create more problems. For example, given a trial a customer might say he wants infrared interface in it, which might result in months of time to tape out and re-design a new board. Whereas in case of web, if the customer wants a button to be changed, probably it can be done in few hours.

In conclusion, I would say product development largely depends on what exactly we call it as product. The development methodology should change and be in sync with it.

Product Innovation – A a non-linear item

Doing product innovation is a tricky affair, irrespective of organizations. Especially for product R & D organizations working on ‘end-of-the-life-cycle’ items, this becomes even more challenging.  Having associated with many innovation practices, councils and approaches I have had my own share of successes and failures. Want to share some experience in form of this post.

To start with innovation is a non-linear process, where predicting output is not very obvious. It is way different from linear activities as a part of software development life cycle, where activities and outputs are very well defined. Even though there are some changes expected from the customer (during development), it can be managed as long as risk management and stakeholder buy-in is place to a larger extent. On the other hand, nobody can predict who, when and how a new innovative idea can emerge. It doesn’t matter about the experience, background or designation; innovation cannot be planned but can only be nurtured by inspirational approach.

In my experience I have seen innovation as both top down and bottom up activity. In top-down typically it is driven by the senior leadership as a special initiative, task-force or specific activities by having a well defined approach. In such cases, many leadership teams take the decision of making it as a ‘project team’ approach where individual leaders and team members are ‘appointed’ and they are asked to take a deterministic approach towards new idea creation. In case of results from innovation becoming critical from innovation, it becomes as a ‘force’ from the top where people are asked to innovate by applying of pressure. In such cases I have hardly seen innovation happening.

On the other hand, when innovation is taken as a bottom-up approach I have seen it working pretty well. For example, I used to work on a consumer device which was initially considered as a standalone entity. Before even cloud or internet-of-things existed, some of us had the conviction that this consumer device should connect with some kind of server (because terminology of cloud was totally unaware of) which can push interesting contents into the device for consumption. As firmware engineers we built initial working prototype which demonstrated the so called ‘cloud-to-device’ functionality by fetching information from the remote server. Then we also got an opportunity to showcase in internal conference and well recognized by senior management.

However the real-fun began when we started interacting with product management folks to take it as a feature in the mainline product. The product marketing folks came back saying they had similar idea in the past, which received lukewarm response from their initial customer survey, hence they may not be interested in taking it as a formal requirement in the product. It was not a easy thing to digest as we have put our heart-on-soul to make the idea fly, but eventually came in terms with reality. Of course, when the cloud computing became a differentiation in business, it was implemented as a big ticket project. It was interesting to be part of idea generation, developing prototype, showcasing in internal conferences and making sincere selling attempts to internal stakeholders, even though it was not accepted as a ‘formal’ item for implementation.

What are the lessons learnt from this whole exercise:

  • Innovation works well when it is driven bottom-up with lots of passion behind it
  • Having a great idea and making a prototype definitely helps to generate initial buy-in as working prototype builds a lot of credibility
  • All ideas might not have buy in from product marketing folks as they have an altogether a different point of view about product and their features. On the other hand one cannot take the route of understanding the business needs first, which might actually block the creative process
  • Innovation is a non-linear activity where there is no success or failure. The biggest reward as an engineer is all about hitting upon an idea and evangelizing it among the organization and give a best shot to make it as a success. One in hundred might receive the success and visibility but it is worth giving it a shot.

Product quality as an experience

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices,” –  Steve Job’s statement during iPad 2 release

I was able to relate well to his statement, which is visible in terms of user experience when it comes to Apple products. I still remember the day when my mother (60+ year old) was seamlessly able to listen to music from iPod when I handed over to her for the first time, even though she didn’t had any previous idea about using any sort of gadgets. The same was true with iPhone, where I felt immense amount of joy owning it. Till date I don’t think any organizations or products can beat Apple when it comes to the seamless experience of integrating software, hardware and user experience.

Purely taking a software view, I could say the excellent user experience achieved because of the high quality software. Professionally I have been handling multiple software programs and projects, mainly focusing on quality which has multiple elements like quality control, quality assurance and metrics based project management. Often as a project manager, one gets into so much bogged down in meeting project metrics, often customer and his experience goes out of window. For example, having a lower priority defect in user interface v/s higher priority defect in corner case scenario resulting in device crash. From the defect density or defect index perspective, it will look better to have lower priority defect open but imaging the impact of it from user perspective.

In such cases I feel metrics based project management should be abandoned and quality should take user experience route. All design and measurement mechanisms for project should be attuned to ensure users get a great experience, which is what Agile or Lean software development is trying to advocate. Perpetual beta, demo releases, iterative development are better ways to do this I also wonder what Apple should be doing in their software development method to ensure such a high quality with on time releases.

After all no customer talks about defect density while using iPhones!

Product building – A discovery process

“If you build it, they will come” is becoming more and more outdated when it comes to product development. In most of the cases former thing (i.e. building) happens but later one (i.e. paying customer) never happens. It is mainly because product development mainly has been focusing on “what I can offer” (as an organization) rather than “what customers want”. The only way to understand what customer wants is to involve them during the product development activity by providing them with working product incrementally (which is popularly known as “perpetual beta” these days)  and ask them to try it out. When the actual customer uses it he will figure what he actually wanted. In summary this is what Agile methodology advocates. Activities like perpetual beta, multiple demo releases to validate the idea, building product backlog based on customer requirements have become critical elements in product building rather than making it as a static activity.

After being part of multiple product development teams, I could also see changes in the way even customer see this way of building products. These days customers are also more than willing to be part of this “discovery” process they will eventually get what they want even though it is not coming out at one shot. Recently in conversation with one of my friend he put it in a very simple way when it comes to a simple item like providing Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to customers:

  • If you ask FAQ in first week, I will give you a notepad file
  • If you ask FAQ in second week, I will give you a PDF file
  • If you ask FAQ in third week, I will give you in HTML file hosted as a part of my website
  • If you ask FAQ in fourth week, I will make it as a interactive platform where you can contribute back to FAQs by making it as a collaborative activity

Recently I came across a very interesting presentation which talks about this whole new product development paradigm. Have a look into the presentation below.


New blog creation – three options

This post might sound elementary, it will be definitely useful for folks who want to start their own blogs. Here is a brief on three options that are available:

  • Creating in WordPress/BlogSpot: This is plain vanilla approach where anybody can create an ID with these two popular blogging platforms and get started. Both of them offer excellent configuration and customization options (in terms of plugins), ideal for starters. In fact I know some of the very advanced and popular bloggers still run with same old WordPress ID. The best part is it comes with 100% free with almost unlimited storage options.
  • Having a domain + linking back-end with WordPress/BlogSpot: This is next level of sophistication where you can buy a domain name (ex: myblog.com) and link back-end with WordPress/BlogSpot by providing re-direction option. This gives advantage of having own domain, but back-end is still provided by WordPress/BlogSpot. However if you want to extend it beyond a blog, this will not be a feasible option as there is no control on the server. Only blog interface is provided to configure/change blog posts. The same holds good for option 1 also. Buying a domain name is relatively less costly (say about 500 INR) per year.
  • Having a domain + having own hosting space: This is second level of sophistication, where you get to control anything and everything. Creating a blog, content management system, web pages, e-commerce etc, can be done at a single button click if you have this option. Provides complete freedom and control over anything and everything. However one needs to pay for domain name (say about 500 INR) and hosting space (say about 3000 INR per annum). There are multiple providers (like Godaddy), where jwritings.com is currently hosted. Their service and support quality is quite good.

Depending on your need and objective, appropriate option can be chosen.

Electronics Rocks 2013

Electronics Rocks 2013
Electronics Rocks 2013

Last weekend, Electronics for You (EFY) folks organized a very interesting electronics related conference (called as Electronics Rocks) at NIMHANS convention Center Bangalore. I got a chance to attend the conference after a long time. The primary objective was to attend the hands-on workshop organized by Kits and Spares folks on their Mango Pi development board as I wanted to get more insights into these embedded learning kits, which was coming as a free item along with the workshop. Though workshop was a major flop show (details below), there were many interesting takeaways.

As mentioned in my previous post on Embedded learning kits, I spent quite some time surveying development boards that can be used for educational/learning purpose.  I started off by looking into the latest Beaglebone black board (by Texas Instruments) with ARM 335x Cortex-A8 processor, which doesn’t come with TI DSP for media processing. Upon conversation I understood, there are applications available, which can do decent graphics processing. However for higher end graphics related stuff, Pandaboard still works better as it comes with multiple media interfaces. Definitely there is also a 4 times price difference between these two (Beagle comes at USD 45 v/s Pandaboard at 174 USD). On business side, I could observe all these boards are sold by multiple re-sellers, who were having different stalls in the conference. Considering the price point and target audience, it perfectly makes sense to take re-seller option.

On the electronics components side, I could see many vendors who were showcasing their list consisting of various parts. Had some conversation with folks from RS components, who are into component selling from almost all the major semiconductor manufactures.  They also seem to have a hub of interesting embedded projects in platform called Designspark, where design engineers can can exchange their ideas and create projects. Along with components, there were also many vendors demonstrating debuggers, tools and embedded design services capability. The debugging space is definitely interesting, but I was not paying much attention as it makes sense only for devices with at least a JTAG interface, which was not my area of focus. From governance side, erstwhile Indian Semiconductor Association (ISA) has changed their name into Indian Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA) with responsibility of promoting electronics ecosystem in India.

Coming to Mango Pi workshop, it turned out to be a major flop. During initial promotion they mentioned this workshop as “Build a wireless robot in 60 minutes” using Mango Pi board and mentioned participants can take away a board at the end of the workshop. I was excited about it and registered for the session by paying extra 1500 INR, specifically for this workshop. It was a total chaos where they messed up everything starting with schedule. I was supposed to attend 11:30 AM slot, but they asked me to to attend the 12:30 PM slot due to increased number of participants . I waited for almost an hour, where there was a big queue and people were flocking into a small room. The workshop co-ordinators were relatively junior guys, who couldn’t manage this chaos, eventually mentioned they will do the next session in a bigger room located upstairs.

The upstairs location was an open one, where the sound system was not at all conducive for a workshop environment. On top of that, workshop speaker was of very low quality, neither he was good in communication nor he had much idea about technical aspects. He went on demonstrating building robots with totally a different kit (where Mango Pi board only plays a part), where there were other components like Arduino board, RF sender and receiver etc. I got totally irritated with this poor organization  ended up leaving the workshop within 15 minutes. When they organize an event of this scale, proper attention to be paid as it creates a strong impression on the whole product that is getting demonstrated. Executing it in such a ad-hoc manner has resulted in nothing short of a disaster.

Apart from the items mentioned above, there were a series of talks happening on multiple themes which I couldn’t attend due to personal time constraint. Probably I should plan and attend those sessions next time. Overall it was a decent conference, which provided me deeper insights into many aspects of embedded systems, educational kits, open source, Linux and related technologies.

Embedded self learning kits

Embedded systems is been my area of interest, ever since I attended computer networks course during my engineering days. In those days mainly networking devices were meant to be primary source of embedded systems as custom designed hardware and software would make networking (packet switching, routing, configuration & management etc…) faster. As a student Linux (or UNIX) was the primary source, where testing of target embedded image to be done in the same PC. In such cases getting the real kick of ‘embedded’ software was absent. Developing the embedded software in a host PC, using cross compiler/linker to generate target image, deploying it in target hardware (typically a board, which is supposed to perform certain functionality) was something an individual can only get in professional work environment to make the ’embedded’ learning complete.

Over a period of time I see the landscape changing significantly with multiple low cost self learning kits/devices flocking the market. Starting off with Texas Instrument’s Panda board, learning kits ecosystem started moving into a different level altogether.  Entry of Raspberry Pi  at $25 price-point about an year back, brought in further changes. Once these hardware folks release the initial hardware is out in the market, tons of open source enthusiasts backed by community are creating necessary software (ex: SDK) and projects by complementing it. This has opened up a new gamut of self learning opportunity, where individuals can learn latest embedded system concepts, programming and complete interesting project right from their homes or hostel rooms. As long as one has a booting Linux machine, it is enough to get started on these embedded learning kits.

Off-late there are multiple domestic providers in this field as well. The Kits and Spares online shop provides a whole bunch of such devices with which an individual can create small and useful projects. There are also specific training service providers like Thinklabs, who not only provide kits but also train in interesting projects like Robotics that can be built around the device. It’s been real fun to see combination of low cost democratic hardware with open source software, which is making Embedded systems learning very easy.

Shortly I am looking forward to lay my hands in one of these devices. Will share more details after that.

Aapkapainter – Home painting at ease

Aapkapainter.com
Aapkapainter.com

It’s been quite some time since I got my house painted. As our little one was growing up, she ensured home walls were her initial canvas using pencil and wax crayons! During vendor short-listing, I came across Aapkapainter (incidentally it is a start-up done by some of my RECW/NITW juniors), eventually signed up with them to get my house painting done. It’s been an awesome experience working with them, right from shortlisting to painting work completion. Wanted to write few details about the work done by them.

Competitive pricing

Initially I had no idea about how to get the painting done. Upon some search, I came to know popular brands (Asian Paints, Nerolac etc…) are offering home painting service on a contract basis and took initial quote from them along with Aapkapainter. To my surprise prices quoted by Aapkapainter was very competitive compared to popular brands, even though they assured me that they will use standard paints for the work. Please also note the fact that standard brands redirect their work to local contractors/vendors, we are also not sure how well they do the job. Finding competitive pricing and placing initial trust (as you know they are my college juniors) I signed up with them for my house painting work.

Professional approach

Right from initial phase, Aapkapainter folks have been very professional in their approach. Understanding painting requirements in detail, providing quotes, suggesting which paint to use for what type of wall, recommending some cost optimization approaches etc, were something I didn’t expect from them. It was a very professional approach in area like home painting, I could clearly differentiate this approach from other vendors with whom I had some initial observations.

Quality in execution

After starting the work, painters showed up properly every day on time, without any major hassles or follow-up. Since we are also living in the same place, they ensured a step-by-step approach by starting the work from one room. Before starting the work they ensured house hold valuables (TV, sofa, fan, wooden/glass cupboards etc…) are well cove

Texture wall
Texture wall

red. None of my family members need to put any effort to move any single item as the painters themselves taken care of it completely. Every day before winding up the day’s work painters ensured cleaning is done in order to ensure living conditions are maintained. The same thing they demonstrated after completing painting work at a particular room by moving back things and setting up in the way they have taken the work before. During the painting they ensured work surface preparation, main-painting and minor corrections were done to the minutest level possible. Check out some main texture work done at my home wall to have a look at their quality of work.

Concerns on safety

As I spend most of the day time at workplace, I was having some initial concerns on my family safety as painters would be working throughout the day in my absence. Aapkapainter folks ensured they sent qualified and proper painters with regular supervision. This ensured here is no safety concern.

What they can do better

This article would remain incomplete if I fail to mention on areas that they can do better. Primarily Aapkapainter has taken an approach to connect consumers to paint services in a vendor independent manner, where their website plays a major role. In that context, their website user-experience can improve. I understand they started off recently, can think of making it much more interactive (ex: Some links are broken in the website). Also some interesting tools (ex: Color comparison, Paint calculator) can be introduced using which users can get a better online experience.

Definitely an area like Home-painting is an unorganized segment. Even though big brands are trying to get it organized, eventually it is up to the local vendor to execute it, where there are definite challenges that need to be met. This also presents a huge opening, which Aapkapainter is trying to address.In summary I got my house re-painting work done in a cost-effective manner with very high quality with zero hassles. I would highly recommend Aapkapainter folks for people who want to get their house-painting work done.