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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pictures Are The New Words

7:23 AM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , No comments
Web and mobile applications are increasingly making more use of pictures. This trend - more photos, lesser words - is getting much more common in the new consumer apps. 

The old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" has never been more apt and useful than the current times. It is a well known fact that most of the users only scan information on the web, and only read items that they intend to. With decreasing attention spans and increasing number of websites and apps sprouting everyday, the battle for user mindshare is getting fierce by day. And with only a few seconds to gain users' attention, a screen full of words (especially in the case of a new web app) has become a classic design anti-pattern. 

Pictures work as a great tool of engaging users quickly, and they work both ways - for viewing the content and also for contributing. In terms of viewing, these do not just improve the look and feel of an application, but also get the message across quickly. With only a few seconds to get a user's attention, pictures do the job well; they are a lot more easier to scan through. In terms of contribution, these can help reduce the effort required for adding content. It obviously depends on the context and purpose of the application, but it definitely is much easier to upload a couple of images than it is to write a paragraph or fill a form. I believe one of the key reasons behind the success of sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest is that they focus much more on pictures than their competitors do and make it easier for users to add/view images.

Pictures are like words - used to convey your message across. Look at it this way. A romantic novel will have pretty much the same words as a thriller novel. It is the context that those words are in that gives the novel its meaning. Similarly, while a lot of new sites might require users to upload and view images, these can be done for different purposes. Facebook does it so that you can share photos with the people you know; Pinterest does it so that you can pin your favorite items to your board for later purposes; Instagram allows you to apply amazing effects to your photos. So do not mind the fact that every third web application wants users to upload, view or link images, it is what they do with those images that matters.

There are multiple reasons for the recent explosion of picture-centric websites.

  • To begin with we can now afford to have our websites with images, thanks to the increased bandwidth. Imagine opening Facebook Photos or Pinterest or a album Picassa on dial-up modem. 
  • Second, cameras are much more accessible now. A lot of people now have mobile phones with powerful cameras. And in case of smartphones you can seamlessly upload images from your mobile phones directly to a website. This integration of software and hardware has proved to be one of the most important factors in increasing user contribution. 
  • Third, the advancements in web 2.0 technologies (especially on the client side) allow internet based applications to provide seamless and powerful user experience. 
  • And fourth, web and mobile applications have become a lot more user friendly than they used to be, and pictures help in designing these applications in such way. 

I am certain that this growth of pictures on the internet will not just stay but actually increase, especially with advancements in network technologies. This will not just affect how we design and develop applications but also how we process data and information at the backend. I believe we will soon be due for a "Big Data ver 2.0" revolution, in which data processing technologies (such as Hadoop) not just process structured and unstructured text, but also pictures and media clips. The possibilities as always are immense.


[Image Source: worldwidewonderings.net and forbes.com]

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rising Importance Of Design In Technology World

9:19 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
Over the past few years a very interesting trend has taken hold in the world of technology - increasing importance of design. Not that design and user experience were not thought about in the tech world earlier, but (a) it wasn't this ubiquitous and (b) it was more of an after-thought, for beautifying the products. This is changing now. Technology products, both hardware and software, are getting increasingly beautiful and easy to use. The ugly and heavy desktops, laptops, tablets, MP3 players are giving way to beautiful, sleeker and more elegant devices. The clunky, busy and heavy websites and software apps are giving way to lighter, agile and more intuitive applications. While there are many people and companies to credit for this change, if there is one person who can be credited for bringing importance of design from classes to the masses, it is Steve Jobs. Thanks to Steve and Apple, we now understand that design is not just about how something looks, but also how it works. 


On the hardware side, Apple is certainly showing light to the world when it comes to the importance of design. There have been some other examples of simple and elegant design as well. Nest, the learning thermostat, from Tony Fedell (ex-Apple), was also successful in grabbing everyone's attention recently with its clever design. Square, the mobile credit card reader from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, has also received positive reviews for its simple design. However, unfortunately, there aren't many new players trying things out in the hardware area - mainly because of high entry barriers

Software, however, is a different story. Thanks to low entry barriers, the number of new players coming in with fresh applications is very high. These entrants have to identify ways of distinguishing themselves from the incumbents and competitors, and a good design (in many cases) is one of the key differentiators they try to leverage. The increasing importance and influence of design is particularly most evident in the web and mobile world. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that any (mobile/web) software changes get pushed right away and without a lot of effort, and so do not have to wait for long release cycles (as in the case of enterprise software). The ability to change quickly allows players to iterate faster, thereby incorporating user feedback much faster and improving the overall user experience. 

The design improvements in tech world are happening on two separate levels: visible and invisible. The visible level is where things such as layout, typography, graphics and transitions come into play - the "how it looks" part. I believe these are easier to pin down and implement, especially with many UI frameworks, such as Twitter Bootstrap, jQuery UI, and services, such as TypeKit and WebFont, available nowadays. But it is the invisible aspect of design that is harder to pin down - usability, user journey, which elements to show, when and where - the whole "how it works" part. I have not been able to find any frameworks for it, but from what I have understand the keywords here are empathy and details. Empathizing with the user allows you to see your application from their perspective. How would a user without much context of the application work with it? How would they move around? What are the assumptions they might have while using your application? Similarly, getting into details allows you to break a simple process into its smaller constituents and find out ways of simplifying it further. For example, breaking the process of getting from main screen to product information screen into a series of clicks and mouse/keyboard movements, and then reducing the number of steps a user has to take to move around. 

As I see it, the importance of design in the tech world will only rise further from here. And it should, 'cause good design has the power to make technology more human

With the increasing information overload, our increasingly busy schedules, and plethora of apps and websites coming up everyday, good design can be an important differentiator. Apple has shown it, as have Nest, Angry Birds, Flipboard, Tumblr et al. Given the importance of design in the success of products and companies, probably corporates and startups should make the ten design principles (below) of Dieter Rams, the legendary designer for Braun, part of their corporate manifesto. This might sound like stretching it a bit too much, but the point here is that design is important. It took the world some time to get it, but I think we have got it now and are not going to lose it anytime sooner.

Dieter Rams: Ten Principles For Good Design

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Business Model Canvas

6:52 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
Before we begin, a disclaimer - I am not an expert of business models; it is not like I have studied hundreds of them. In addition to that, there is no general consensus on what exactly the term "business model" means, and so in this blog I am using the version that I find most suitable. 

I have always found business models interesting. Successful businesses are a combination of a product or service that serves customers' needs/wants, wrapped up in a business model that works well. Some of the best examples of business models I have come across explained them like short stories that quickly and clearly explained how the suppliers, product developers/service providers, customers/users and markets fit together. You can think of them as executive summaries to thick documents. They give you a quick, comprehensive and a very high level view of how things work in a particular business. Every business has a business model; though, it might be explicit or implicit.  

Given the usefulness of business models (and the general sexiness attached to them - especially in consultant and management circles), it is not surprising that you will find thousands of business model frameworks on the internet. However, I never found a framework which fit well with the way I see business models and covers businesses in a [as much as possible] holistic yet concise and comprehensive manner. That is, until recently. Few months ago I came across a framework called Business Model Canvas. Initially proposed by Alexander Osterwalder, Business Model Canvas is like a mixture of different models put together. The best thing I liked about it was its simple yet powerful approach towards articulating how a business works. It is a great tool that can be used by a company of any size, type and industry. After trying it out a few times, I can now appreciate its usefulness, and thought of sharing how I went about using it - which has a slightly different spin than how its creator suggests. 

The nine sections of this model are interdependent, and the best place to start is by defining the customer segment. Once you have a clear picture of who your customer/users are, things start to fall in place from there. The next thing to define is the value proposition for your business - articulate the value that you are providing to the customers. This will require you to identify the problems and pain points that your product or service will resolve. A clear understanding of target customer segment and value proposition will help you define the kind of relationships you want to manage with your customer and the channels through which you will maintain them. Now, I prefer to identify the revenue streams once all customer related items have been identified , but some people might want to work on it directly after the customer segment or value proposition, while others might work on it at the end along with the cost structure. Once you have the customer related items (segment, value, relationship and channel) and revenue streams identified, you will have a much clearer idea of what are the key activities that you need to perform in order to serve your customer and to generate revenue. You will then have to identify the key resources that you will need to perform these activities. Based on this you will need to understand which resources and activities will be undertaken by you and for which will you partner with others. And then at the end you derive the cost structure of the business based on the previously mentioned components. 

What I like best about this framework is that it works as a great checklist but also allows you to explain your business model as a story (end-to-end). Alexander (along with Steve Blank) does a better job of explaining how one can use this model in this Stanford speak. 


While Business Model Canvas is a brilliant and simple tool, it is still a tool, and is only as good as the person using it. It should be taken up just as any other model should be, and that is as a framework to help you articulate your thoughts.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Musings On Analytics

7:20 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , , No comments
Saying that analytics is important for organizations is like saying that thinking is good for your mind. While it is a major field of study with volumes of books published on the topic, I believe that when it actually comes to analytics, companies focus much more on external factors than internal ones. I do not have not any data to prove this, but based on what I read, hear and observe on a daily basis, it seems that organizations are much more focused towards user and market analytics than operational or application. 

Not that there is any wrong about analyzing users and markets, it is just that based on my experience working with various organizations, I have noticed that there is generally a huge amount of information hidden inside systems and processes of companies. And tapping into these systems and processes using operational metrics can help organizations improve performance and efficiency. For example, if executives in a company know (and have the required data to support) that its buying process is taking unnecessary hops or that a particular checkpoint in vendor selection process takes unusually long time holding back all other downstream activities, then they can take required steps to improve the operational efficiency of that organization. 

So if internal metrics are that important, why are organizations more outward focused when it comes to analytics? I believe one of the primary reasons it is so is that working with external factors is easier and sexier. Don't agree? Think about it yourself. If you had to pick one, what would you rather do - study the user demographics of your product or study the various checkpoints of project approval process? 

Problems In Leveraging Analytics 
It is not that companies do not understand the importance of analytics or do not want to implement it. There are two major problems that hinder the adoption/leveraging of analytics, particularly for inner-facing factors. First is implementing the analytics system(s) in your organization, and second is embedding analytics in your organization. Let me explain these briefly.

Implementing Analytics In Systems
This is actually the easier of the two problems; though, mistakenly seen as the harder one by many - probably because it is the more tangible one. Before you start measuring things around, you need to setup the system that will capture the required data and then display it visually. With a lot of tools and technologies available in the market for doing so, it has become increasingly easier to implement. Companies with consumer/internet based software offerings have it easier here, given the range of software analytics tools available plus the fact that the information can be [relatively] easily tracked and stored in servers. Enterprise players (especially with desktop and server offerings) have it more difficult, as their customers won't be happy having vendors sniffing around their internal networks. 

While it is easier for smaller companies and startups to implement analytics, it is a much harder job for bigger enterprises. That is because large enterprises already have huge amounts of investments in systems and applications. To implement analytics, they will have to modify their systems and processes, which will require huge amounts of time, effort and resources. This is a huge deterrent and probably the biggest reason for enterprises to dance on the sidelines when it comes to implementing and adopting analytics. This, however, is ironic considering that implementing the system is not really the tougher nut to crack.

Embedding Analytics In Organization 
This is the more difficult and understated of the two problems. Embedding analytics in the organizations requires two things: identifying the right metrics and then getting people to use/refer them. Identifying the metrics is definitely a tricky problem because while little information will not help much, too many metrics can lead to information overload. And then looking at the wrong metrics can give you a totally wrong perception of the performance. Identifying and starting with the exact metrics is a very hard thing to do, but it might be advisable to err on the side of more. The reason for doing so is that by capturing more metrics than you thought you would need, you might notice trends or information that you did not consider earlier. Whereas starting with less metrics and then adding new ones later can lead to leaving out of many important ones because of the lack of interest or the effort required in making changes to systems. 

Once these metrics have been identified, they need to be ingrained in the organizational processes to make best use out of them. This is more of a culture issue - people might avoid using these metrics for various reasons. This is why I believe adopting analytics into an organization should be taken up as a change management program. The whole process of identifying the right tools, implementing the analytics systems, identifying the metrics and incorporating them in the process should be taken up as one multi-phase program, else you face the risk of losing momentum and ending up with part-baked solution. 

Different Kinds Of Metrics 
Identifying the right metrics is one of the trickiest parts of leveraging analytics. There is obviously no one-size-fits-all kind solution, as the metrics will vary from company to company and, even within a single company, from division to division. Metrics for a products company will be different than a services one, for a consumer company will be different from an enterprise one, and for a finance department will be different from those of a technology department. What makes it trickier is that these metrics might keep changing as the company grows and should be driven by the organizational level goals it is trying to achieve. 

While there are many ways of identifying and separating metrics, I believe that these generally fall into four major categories as shown in the image below. 

The market-based metrics are actually the easiest to get hold off. There are thousands of market research companies and software providers that provide the required data and tools to get the job done. It is the operational level metrics that are the most difficult to implement and least understood. There is a wealth of information hidden in systems and processes of companies, which can be tapped into by studying these operational metrics. However, as mentioned earlier, identifying and measuring them will most probably require changing existing systems and applications or implementing new systems to start collecting the required data - a big no for many companies (especially in the current economic climate). 

While organizations would prefer to work on all four categories of metrics, the focus should (and probably will) keep changing based on the stage of growth that the organization is in. For example, while for a startup or SME it might make sense to focus more on the market and user driven metrics, I think enterprises ought to have a better handle on the internal metrics. Knowing thyself is important. With better visibility of these internal metrics, organizations can improve their execution and customer service. 

Gut Trumps Data 
While the importance of data and analytics in organizations cannot be refuted, I believe that when it comes to decision making even all of the data in the world cannot trump gut. Data is important but it is only one factor, an input. If data was all that was required for decision making, robots would have been better off running the world economy. So do track and analyze data, but do not forget to listen to your gut as well.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Using Asana

8:26 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
I have been using Asana, a task management tool, for managing my consumer initiative for sometime now, and I am really impressed with its combination of simplicity, speed and usefulness. Asana was founded by Facebook co-founder and ex-employees. Apparently they noticed the problems in managing tasks and projects and communication in Facebook, and realized that people were inclined to use simple tools that could get the job done quickly. This became the permise for creating Asana. 

I have been using it primarily for identifying product features and creating product roadmap. Activities such as adding product features, tracking their progress, prioritizing them for releases have been a breeze since I started using Asana. Now it has turned out to be my primary project management tool. Sure it still is missing some very important features such as offline mode and a graphical view (e.g. gantt chart), but the things that it can do, it does really well. 

Simplicity is a very important factor in making Asana a useful product. A lot of us have used products like Microsoft Project before and banged our fists on desk frustrated with its capability of making even the most trivial tasks difficult. Such traditional project management tools have become so bloated that while they might be useful for managing complex projects, they are not the most optimal solution for managing small or average sized projects (which is where most of the projects fall in). In case you do not agree with me or do not know what I am talking about, try changing a date in your existing plan in MS Project and you will see for yourself. On the contrary, Asana's minimal and simplistic approach to task and project management is one of its biggest strength. 

Speed is another useful factor for Asana. Given its roots in Facebook, I am not surprised that Asana was built with speed as one of its core considerations. It is fast in two ways. First, it is very responsive. It almost feels like you are using a locally installed software. Its creators have developed their own web framework for developing such fast web 2.0 applications. Second, it can be used almost entirely with keyboard shortcuts. This might seem trivial at first, but the fact that users do not have to keep shifting their hands between keyboard and mouse, makes it a lot more easier and faster to operate. 

The overall look and feel of Asana is also very commendable. It is uncluttered, uses subdued colors, beautiful fonts, and does not have toolbars full of icons like its competitors. It has a very [iOS] app like feeling to it. 

Even with all these strengths, Asana still has to provide more features that people have got use to, such as the ones mentioned above, for it to be taken as a serious project management tool. One might sideline Asana in comparison with MS Project or Basecamp, and probably rightly so for now. However, I think the Asana team is taking its time and building the right foundation for their product. And with the kind of team they have put together I am confident this is not the kind of product that you can just write off. The challenge, however, for Asana will be to maintain its speed, simplicity and nice UI even with increasing number of features.