Better Tech Dev

Insights on Technology Development from Austin Higgins

The Future of Business and What to Do Now

Most companies are undergoing a transformation in how they do business. This transformation started with the e-commerce wave and continued through big data, the cloud and more. Now, many companies are still in the middle of the transformation.

In the near future nearly every company will be a technology company and a media company.

The Technology Company

There are a number of ways to consider how companies will become technology focused. Companies use technology to replace processes, build services or as an end product and in hundreds of other ways.

The world is becoming more automated. Processes, data and documentation has already been digitized for decades. But more automation is replacing human processes. Chat bots and automated IVR system are simple examples of this. When was the last time you called a company – any company – and talked to someone immediately instead of going through an automated process? This is how a company leverages technology to outsource processes and must be technology focused to ensure the process still provides value to their customers.

The collection of data to enhance products and services has already disrupted organizations in recent years. Data is collected digitally, stored in a cloud and analyzed with algorithms. Companies of every industry need access to quality data to make decisions.

Even cottage industries or one-person service companies will have to become technology companies. Consider a carpenter or a plumber. How much more effective could they become by utilizing technology to automate certain processes and analyze data?

The Media Company

Brand loyalty is on the decline. People are cutting cable at high rates, so advertising dollars are being redirected. Pop-up ads are the bane of the Internet.

How will companies get the attention of customers?

Companies will have to tell compelling stories of their value and, essentially, why them. Large media and product brands have been doing this for years. Just think back on the last Super Bowl commercial that you talked about with friends after the game.

Regardless of company size, business leaders will have to tell stories with engaging content across multiple platforms and media types.

What You Can Do Now

 While you can still succeed as an organization today without being a tech company or a media company, that time will come to an end at some point. So, what can you do today?

  1. Evaluate your manual systems and identify what can be automated.
  2. Perform an assessment of your digital assets and ensure that all data flows have integrity.
  3. Ask the big questions about your product and services – how can you digitize it? How can you have access to high-quality data? What can you do with your data to make better decisions?
  4. Identify the most successful marketing campaigns and determine the emotional impact they had on your customers.
  5. Engage your employees, partners and customers to find the right stories to tell in the right way.

Every industry is moving at a different pace, but they are all headed in the same direction: technology and storytelling. The only question you have to ask yourself is are you on the same path?

8 Things I Believe About Building Products

I have spent the bulk of my career helping organizations of all sizes figure out how to solve customer problems. Most of the time this has involved a form of technology development or implementation.  While watching some products succeed and others fail, a few trends appeared.

Customers should always be at the center of everything a product organization does. But, most of the modern trends in product development miss the mark on what you should do. Leaders, managers, individual contributors and consultants propagate outdated advice on building technology products.

If you want to build technology solutions that solve real problems for customers, this is what I believe about building products.

1. Your methodology is irrelevant to your success.

Agile, Scrum, SAFe, Waterfall, Lean are all suitable methods to achieve your product goals. But they aren’t the end-goal, just the process. Methodology is secondary to hitting your targets. Be the best Waterfall organization instead of a mediocre Agile group.

2. Stop developing business cases. 

The further out you predict the financial value of a product launch, the less likely you will be accurate. A 10-year revenue forecast might as well be a 100-year one. If you don’t spend the effort on value capture either, what is the point of a projection?

3. Your customers don’t want your product. 

Your customers have no interest in the actual product you deliver. Instead, customers want the solution or benefit it provides – whether actual or perceived.

4. More data won’t save you.

Key performance indicators are important to determine whether your products are on track for success. More indicators don’t mean you will have better insight. Likely, you only need a handful of discrete data points.

5. Planning trumps execution every time. 

Spending the time to plan products up front saves you from negative customer impact, bloated costs and moving in the wrong direction. Time to market matters only if you are moving in the right direction in the right market with the right customers.

6. Defects won’t lose customers.

One hundred percent defect-free products rarely exist. Customers don’t leave products because of small flaws in overall functionality. Customers leave products that don’t solve a problem or don’t benefit them in an identifiable and, preferably, quantifiable way.

7. Build simplistically. 

Technology product development doesn’t need to be complicated. From ideation, through documentation, development and launch, you should have one resonating mantra – keep it simple. This applies to your product as well – not just the process. The simplest solution is the most elegant solution.

8. Technology innovation is overkill. 

Most cutting-edge technology only marginally improves the value you can deliver to your customers. You should identify methods to incorporate nascent technology in your long-term roadmaps to future-proof your products, but don’t get caught up in the technology buzzwords.

What To Do About Too Many Priorities

When I was in the Air Force, we always had a laugh during our safety briefings. During basic training and early in our careers we had the Air Force core values drilled in to our brains -integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do. These were designed to be the guiding values that drove all of our decisions with integrity first.

During every single safety briefing, the commanders would tell us safety first. This started a common joke in the service – safety first but also integrity first.

Which was it? Should we be safe or act with integrity?

Safety and integrity aren’t mutually exclusive, those of us in the briefings understood that and this story just demonstrates a point.

You can only have one top priority.

There will always be a long list of goals for your company, organization or career. But if you shift your focus to too many goals your chance of success will decrease. And more importantly, your team members won’t be equipped to make the right decision. Should they be safe or act in integrity?

So what can you do about it?

  1. Document all of the things that you care about – revenue, client satisfaction, employee turnover, cost savings et cet
  2. Determine which of these influences the others – client satisfaction for example can be measured by revenue, retention and referrals
  3. Focus on the items that impact most of the things you care about

You could make the case to ignore Net Promoter Scores and instead focus on achieving customer referrals. Customers don’t refer business or products they aren’t very happy with.

Are you making it difficult for your customers to do business with you?

Over the weekend I made a stop at a local music store to sell a used instrument. I’ve been playing music for over 15 years, so I usually love going to music stores. This time I couldn’t wait to leave.

Within 30 seconds of walking in the store I told one of the managers I wanted to sell an instrument I no longer use. We talked for a minute or two as she inspected it. We made a deal and she told her staff to make it happen.

Three minutes in and I thought I was done.

As soon as the store manager turned me over to her staff it took over 20 minutes to have a piece of paper filled out and copied in to their archaic system. I spoke with five different people and the money literally changed hands three times.

The sales person had to fill out a piece of paper, get two signatures and type the information in to a computer system to log the purchase. Not only was it manual it was a duplicative manual process. They weren’t sure how to do this, so they had to go find a large binder with sheets of notes.

Another salesperson tried to sell the instrument to me not realizing that I was in the process of selling it to them.

One person took the cash from the register then handed it to another person who walked 30 feet and handed it to another person who handed it to me.

Here are a few things we can learn from this experience:

  • Never make it difficult to do business with your customers.
  • Your processes, systems and tools should support your value not get in the way of value.
  • When dealing with customers give plenty of options for communication and support but always have a primary channel. Avoid confusing overlap.
  • Your secondary and tertiary revenue models impact your primary revenue source. Don’t neglect your other customer groups, channels or revenue streams.

Customer loyalty can only go so far. Perhaps next time I should just donate my used instruments.

3 Things We Can Learn from MoviePass

MoviePass is in trouble – again. The company has been around since 2011 but came in to the main public eye sometime in 2017 with its too-good-to-be-true promise of unlimited movie tickets for $9.95 per month.

This business comes at an interesting time. In 2017, domestic box office ticket sales hit a 25 year low. And just this past month, a new theater opened up near me with tickets priced at $19 and some change. Average ticket prices have gone up somewhere around 25-30% in the last 10 years as attendance has fallen.

MoviePass offers customers one free movie per day. The process to get the ticket is entirely too complicated. Customers receive a prepaid debit card in the mail after they subscribe. Then, they can select a movie from select theaters when they are within a certain proximity of the theater. The cost of the ticket is loaded on the debit card and the customer can go the theater and get the ticket.

Critics, investors and theaters have spoken out about the business model. The company has been hemorrhaging money and has had to raise additional capital just to stay afloat. The executive team considered raising the monthly price for their 3 million customers but instead opted to lower the number of movies customers can see from one per day to three per month.

I can’t imagine the 3 million customers will stay for long. Or that the business will survive without major changes.

As a fan of the cinema, I considered subscribing to the service. I decided against it for a number of reasons and chose to watch the company’s story unfold from afar.

Here are a few lessons we can learn from MoviePass.

1. Build easy to use products. 

The process for customers to use the service is cumbersome. A customer can’t just buy a ticket on their phone and go on with their life. They have to take 3 additional steps – including a geo-located one – just to use the service.

Customers would be better served with an easy flow and simple steps. A simple solution is an elegant solution.

When you are designing products and features for customers, focus on usability. Not just from a design standpoint but from a process flow standpoint. This may sound like it is common sense. But obviously, it is not taken seriously everywhere.

2. Don’t alienate your suppliers. 

MoviePass faced tough criticism from major theater chains like AMC during their pilot program in San Francisco as well as after the nation-wide launch. Theaters wan’t more than just ticket sales – they want to know why you are purchasing and to build a longer-term customer relationship so they can provide better experiences, ancillary sales and promotional items based on relevant data.

MoviePass cannot exist without major theater chains. Alienating and competing with your suppliers is not a good business model.

Look at the end to end value chain and supply chain for your products. Who are your partners, suppliers, vendors and impacted organizations? Competition is healthy and encouraged. But where are you alienating key partners that you cannot replace elsewhere?

3. Save the best for last. 

Anytime a company raises prices or lowers value is not a good sign for customers. Had MoviePass started with one movie per week for $9.95 per month would have been an amazing deal. If they gradually increased the number of movies, customers would have received more value the longer they were with MoviePass.

Unlimited sounds better as a marketing ploy, but if its not scalable it is really just a lie.

When planning a long-term roadmap for a product, are you increasing value to your customers, keeping the same value or (gasp) reducing value for your customers? One of these is correct. One is tolerable. One is a cardinal sin.

Coffee Holds the Answer to Your Product Questions

The average consumer has no real interest in products. Features, competitive advantage, price points, usability and delivery are all meaningless to them. When a customer is making a purchase decision they are hiring someone or something to do a job for them. This applies in virtually every industry and product vertigal. Customers hire products, they don’t buy them.

The Job-to-be-Done framework was pioneered by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. But still, most product leaders don’t realize the motivation behind customer purchase decisions.

Why People Hire Coffee

Coffee is an almost perfect way to explain the job to be done framework. Coffee is one of the oldest beverages, consumed by most people in the world today. Yet the way it’s consumed and the reasons why vary more than just how many sugars someone likes in their coffee.

Coffee can have many features, competitive advantages or delivery mechanisms. Coffee can be high quality or low quality. It can be sweet or bitter. It can be cheap or expensive. It can be instant or scientifically crafted. To make it more complicated, each feature is on a sliding spectrum. There can be near infinite types of coffee.

As a product leader, how can you decide what features to focus on when developing your product? You must first consider the job for which your customers are hiring coffee.

Three People. Three Cups of Coffee.

Some people choose not to make coffee at home. Their reason for consuming coffee is really to create a break in the day. To go to a coffee shop sit and read a book or otherwise checkout for a bit. They really don’t care that much about cost, convenience or time, because they are after the experience not the consumption.  

A lot of people have a deep love of coffee. They may buy high-quality beans to grind for each type of brew. They likely own a few brewing mechanisms and can make coffee in nearly every possible way. For this person quality is important but the focus is on controlling the experience.

Many people don’t care about the coffee experience and treat coffee like a utility. Make it quickly, drink it fast, get the caffeine fix, rinse and repeat as needed for fuel each day. Instant coffee and fast-brew machines solve this need.    

What You Can Do Right Now

There are a few practical steps you can take as a product leader. Realize that customer segments and demographic data is one-dimensional. Seeing your customers as a “tribe” isn’t necessarily actionable.

  1. Define your customers by job requirements
  2. Understand the motivation behind the job requirements
  3. Create hire-able and sellable solutions to these job requirements
  4. Demonstrate the solutions in a way that fits their requirements

It takes time, thought-process and energy in the beginning to do this right. If you aren’t solving challenges for your customers, what is the point?

A Better Status Report

I’m pretty confident that no one actually reads status reports on active projects. In the rare case someone actually takes the time to read them, they glance over the bullet points and store the physical (or digital) report in a folder – or more likely the trash can. They never look at them again. Or think about them. Or even want to think about them.
Many organizations opt for status presentations. Which by most people’s definitions are a waste of time. Why must I read the info on the report to you? Can’t you just read it yourself?  
While in-person meetings have the potential to boost compliance of reading or listening to a status report, there is another option. Meetings are superfluous and no one will take the time to read a status report. 
Perhaps people will listen to a status report instead? 
A 2016 Yale School of Management study found people can assess others’ emotions most accurately when communicating solely via voice—far better than written or computer-spoken words, and even better than video chatting. And if you’re in it for the speed alone, you can probably speak twice as fast as you can type. (Pierce, David. “Phone Calls Are Dead. Voice Chat Is the Future.” Wall Street Journal. 8 July 2018.)
Consider this:
  • Project leads create their standard status report that is stored in a shared repository like Box, SharePoint, Dropbox or a shared folder. 
  • Project leads record a 1-2 minute audio (or video) recording going over an executive-level summary, the key highlights of the project, upcoming milestones and any pertinent issues.
  • The recording is stored in the same repository. Business and technology leaders can simply listen to the short recording and go about their day.
  • No unnecessary meetings. Communication improves with voice instead of just reading a stale template. 
The technology exists to do this right this moment. Every smart phone in existence can record audio. Project leads are accustomed to giving updates on the state of their projects – the good ones can do it in under a minute. It is just a matter of changing perceptions and procedures.
The only downside of shifting to a voice-based status report is the discomfort of change. But business, technology and process always changes. The question is, will you control the change or will the change control you?

Practical Business Value by Austin Higgins

Most organizations use bloated methods to prioritize products and features of tech products. They spend weeks (and sometimes months) trying to come up with the perfect formula to determine what they should spend their time on.

Resource allocation is important. But at some point, too much analysis and debate ends up hurting the organization in the long run. There is no way to have a perfect answer or a perfect ranking of product features.

Pragmatism is important. Is it better to do the “right” thing or the actionable thing? Most of the time, it is better to be actionable.

This is why I focus on real, quantifiable business measures of success to prioritize products in a method I call Practical Business Value. Marketing and tech leaders should only focus on 3 key categories:

  • What do customers want?
  • What is the real, financial value?
  • What are the technical dependencies?

That is it.

Don’t reinvent the wheel and don’t turn every decision in to a science project. Understand what your customers want and need from you, determine what is technically possible and technically advisable and factor in the cost and benefit. Use effective financial metrics like breakeven and return on investment.

Then get to work.

The Importance of Hyperfocus

We’ve all seen it before. Requirements, documentation and designs are behind schedule. It takes weeks – or sometimes months – for teams to put together exactly what they have been working on. You need development to start to meet specific timelines, but the teams haven’t delivered.

What went wrong?

Probably nothing. There are competing priorities for people’s time. Status meetings, standups, governance, other projects and normal distractions of the office place get in the way. These aren’t excuses, just reasons why teams don’t deliver on time.

Is there a better way? Teams that hyperfocus on tasks – especially requirements – have a higher chance of succeeding: not just on time but ahead of schedule.

When I was consulting for a Fortune 100 client, the team I was working with kept seeing delays in business, UX and technical requirements. Based on certain estimates, it could take months just to define a mid-size project. I thought it was absurd! It turned out, teams were pulled in too many directions and weren’t focused.

We came up with a solution that has morphed in to Hyperfocused Product Requirements. The framework is simple: gather the right people, follow a strict timetable and deploy a flexible framework.

Get the business lead, a technical architect and some designers and analysts in a room together. Make sure these people have the ability and authority to make actual decisions. They shouldn’t have to go back and discuss with a steering group, 3 status meetings and a committee to decide on a user flow.

Timebox each activity so that everyone stays on task. Schedule in breaks and table anything that does not explicitly help reach the goal. Determine a level of detail and quality you are comfortable with before the session starts.

Start with a few questions: In 10 words or less, what are we building? What will this product do? How will customers benefit from this? In what ways will they realize the benefit? Then list out each step, task or feature of each answer. You can use classic requirements templates like “As a x, I must/should/would like to y so that I can z”.

Won’t this take time away from status meetings, updates, standups, governance and other projects? Yes. That is the point. If you get the right people together with a task, deadline and framework you will absolutely accomplish what you set out to accomplish.

The goal is to produce good work, not make excuses.

5 Questions for Product Design

It is too easy for executives to say “I don’t know where to start” when defining new requirements for a product. The truth is, product requirements should be one of the simplest procecesses about building a new product.

Most of the time the requirements process is inconsistent across industries, departments and teams – even when building the same type of product. The methodology doesn’t impact the overall success of the product if you do not start with the right questions.

Any leader can take a small block of time and work through the following questions.

1. In 10 words or less what problem am I trying to solve?
2. in 10 words or less what am I trying to build?
3. in 3 sentences or less what does this product do?
4. In a list form, what benefit will users have from this product?
5. in 10 words or less, how will users realize each benefit?

Requirements should not be complicated. Any person with any background can get started in creating new technology products or enhancing existing ones.

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