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Friday, December 25, 2015

Do Less So That You Can Do More

7:46 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
Tech industry has been going through a transformation in the last few years, particularly in the area of product development. Terms like "lean startup", "UX" and "user focus" have taken over the industry. It surely is a good change; however, while this approach to product development is being followed and discussed by almost everyone involved in making tech products, it is being executed by only a small subset of people.

This problem is especially true in the enterprise world, and there is a good reason for that: FOMO. Just like FOMO affects user behaviour and drives them towards more consumption of apps & information, FOMO affects companies as well, driving them to build more features in to their products in the fear that they might miss out on the demands of prospects and customers, driving them away.

Let's be clear here - having a lot of features is not a bad thing, especially in the enterprise world where "a few more features" can make the difference between winning or losing a deal. What's bad is having a lot of features upfront in the anticipation that users are going to use them. This is not just a problem for startups but even for mature companies. I am not going to go into the whole "lean product" rant, as there are a lot of awesome articles and books written on this topic, but I will list down three reasons why building a lot of features upfront is a bad thing:

  1. You do not know your customers yet - This is straight from the pages of "The Lean Startup" and is more suitable for new products. While building a new product, you bring in a lot of assumptions with some knowledge and probably some experience; however, the fact remains that you do not know your customers well enough yet. No matter how much knowledge and experience you have of the business domain, remember that you still are in the student mode, and just like a real student there is only one way to get your Masters degree i.e working your way from the lower levels to the higher ones.
  2. That's a lot of effort wasted - This one stems out from the first reason. There is no point in putting a lot of effort building a solution when you have yet to figure out the problem. Instead, you could have used this engineering bandwidth in enhancing existing features and improving user satisfaction.
  3. Removing features is hard - Every product manager worth his salt would tell you that all products require removing features occasionally. It's kind of a necessary evil, because on your way to learning about the customers you realise that some of your assumptions were wrong and that users actually do not need those features. So in the interest of not making your product bloated, removing features becomes a necessity. However, removing features is not easy - some customers might complain, others might even leave, putting you under pressure. The more features you build upfront, the worse the situation becomes. On the other hand, if you decide to play safe and not cut the features, you risk having a bloated product.

Okay, so now that we have established that we should "do less", how can we ensure that we execute this approach?

  1. Treat every major feature release as an MVP - Do not forget about the MVP approach after your first release. Every tech product has two kinds of work streams: minor enhancements and major features. Use the MVP approach for every major feature release. Build a minimal viable product for that new feature of yours and then add onto it through enhancements, based on data and user feedback. This will also help you in getting that much needed time for enhancing experience for that feature.
  2. Always be learning - No matter how much experience you have in the area or no matter how established your company is, always be in the learning mode. Drop your "Steve Jobs complex" and start learning about your customers through constant iteration and user testing.
  3. Err on the side of doing less - When in doubt always err on the side of doing less, because it is always faster, easier and better to add features, than to remove them.

You might be wondering that "doing less" goes against all product advise and can make you lag behind your competition. Bear in mind, though, that doing less is not the same as going slow. The whole idea is that rather than building all the functionality upfront (and losing your agility), you move fast and progress iteratively. While it is counterintuitive, the fact remains that when it comes to making great products, in order to do more, you have got to do less.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Will we ever have a perfect task management tool?

8:26 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
The Problem:
All of us have tried various productivity tools for task management in the hopes that we will be able to find that one perfect task management tool that does it all. Unfortunately, we all have given up after trying different products for a few days/weeks/months, falling back to notepads and spreadsheets. Many companies have tried to build the ultimate task management tool. Some have come closer than others, but no one has been able to crack the code.

Just like everyone else, I have tried various task management tools: Wunderlist, Asana, iOS Reminders, Trello, Google Inbox, Excel, Notepad, mind maps - the list goes on. I used to get excited whenever a new task management product was released in the hopes that my knight in shining armour has finally arrived. But after trying out the product (or worse, just looking at it), the realisation used to dawn on me that this isn't what I am looking for. My heart has been broken so many times that I have now almost given up looking for a new productivity tool. Only rarely do I get excited about a new task management tool now.

Cause of the Problem:
Why is it that, like the legend of Big Foot, we have only heard of the perfect task management tool, but never seen one. There have been talks about this legend every now and then, but when you closely examine the evidence, it turns out to be a false alarm or a hoax. Why is it that something that seems so simple and basic to implement has turned into one of the hardest problems to crack in the software industry?

I believe the reason we are not able to come up with the ultimate task management tool is that this is a real world issue - not a technology issue. Different problems require different approach. While some tasks are easily managed as a list, some require Kanban style boards, others require mind maps and yet other require tables. This problem becomes even more complex when a other factors related to a task are considered - such as due dates, dependencies and priorities.

And then there is another aspect that makes task management even more complex: source of task. We get tasks from different channels and sources: email, personal needs (shopping or attending an event), work-related needs (preparing presentation or launching a marketing campaign), specific work-related software tasks (e.g. CRM tasks, JIRA tasks). It is not easy to pull out tasks from different sources and putting them in one command center for all your tasks.

The Solution:
All this begs the question - will we ever have a perfect task management tool? Will we ever have a single product that captures tasks from various sources and allows us to arrange and manage those tasks the way best suited for our needs. Well there isn’t one yet, but hopefully the day will come when for once the rumours will be true.

Like I said earlier, we have some good task management tools that have come closer than others in solving this problem. Asana and Trello are definitely two of those. In my view the perfect task management tool will have the following characteristics (in the given order of priority):

  1. Ease of use: Task management product companies hate to admit it, but plain old Notepad is probably one of the most used task management tool out there. Its simplicity and ease of use make it the best tool for creating lists quickly. The ideal task management tool has to be super easy and quick to use. Slow loading screens and multiple fields are a big no-no. The best task management tools I have ever used also have some of the easiest interfaces to use. Trello for example is brilliantly simple and intuitive to use. Speed is, of course, a major factor in making a product easy to use, and if you might think that this is a hygiene factor and any product can get it right easily, you would be wrong. Take Asana for example. While it is one of my favourite task management products, its iOS app sucks big time mainly because it does not work offline and feels very slow (as it connects with the server for every action). Wunderlist iOS app on the other hand is a lot better at offline access and performance. Wunderlist and iOS Reminders are in fact the best task management tools I have used, when it comes to performance.
  2. Ability to arrange tasks best suited to the user: People think in different ways and approach problems from different perspectives. While some people are able to work better with lists, others like working with mind maps and yet others like breaking tasks in Kanban style boards or lay them down in tabular form. There is no single best way to manage tasks. In my view, this is one of the biggest reasons no single task management tool has been able to dominate the market. The "perfect task management” tool will have to address this problem and come out with a way that allows users to arrange and visualise tasks from different perspectives. This is a tricky one because a lot of product companies trying to fit different requirements end up building a bloated product full of features. Balancing the requirement to visualise different perspectives, while still maintaining the ease of use, simplicity and speed of the product, is a very tough act to achieve.
  3. Don't forget email: Email is definitely one of the biggest sources of anyone's ToDo list, and the perfect task management tool will have to work well with emails - which unfortunately none of the good task management tools currently do. That is why I got excited when I came across Google Inbox first; however, the problem with Inbox (or any similar tool) is that it is restricted to email and is not fit for managing other tasks.
  4. Work as a service, rather than an app: A good task management product will have to be a service rather than an app. What I mean by that is users should be able to access or add tasks from any context (email, browser, mobile app, work products) rather than just being able to do so from within its web or mobile app. In order to do this, the product will have to integrate with other services and products well and, in doing so, it will need to ensure that it leverages its context properly. While a lot of task management products now do have their apps for different platforms, a lot of these do not integrate with other products (which can be possible sources of other tasks) and are not able to leverage their context (platform) well - even the best ones.

There are probably other important characteristics that I have not listed here, but these are the core features that any product vying to become the silver bullet of task management will have to get right. Currently most of the product offerings “think” that they have achieved characteristic #1 and [some] are going straight for #4. However, unless they get these characteristics right, in the given order, they are no where close to becoming the perfect task management tool.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Shadence sold, but the journey continues

11:25 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , No comments
My last post at OLSUP was two years ago. I had blogged then about working on my startup, Shadence. Actually, I had been working on Shadence, for months before I posted that blog. Anyway, I have been thinking of posting a quick update about what has happened since then and have been unable to do so. I have finally decided to stop pushing this task lower in my TODO list, and so here it goes.

I had been working on Shadence for months, but after refining the idea for months and trying to make it work, I realised that if I keep spending more time on it - without any income - then I will be unable to renew my visa and stay in London, which was (and still is) important for me because of some medical reasons. So I stopped working on Shadence and picked up a contract in the tech division of a global investment bank. That was in May 2013. However, I did not want to shut Shadence down just like that after putting in so much effort. So I tried to reach out to people to see if anyone was willing to buy it.

After some trying, I was contacted by a user of Shadence, who liked it a lot and thought that she could do something with it. After exchanging some emails, and almost calling the whole thing off once, we finally agreed for the sale of Shadence (for a small amount). The lady and her husband - a lovely couple - decided that they want to change the name of the website, and so now Shadence is live as CityBlackBook

Since Shadence, I have been trying to figure out my next move. I tried my hands with an IFTTT for the enterprise world (named Clocen) and a meal planner for healthy ethnic recipes (named GrubActive), but eventually closed both of these for various reasons, primary of which was that I could not see myself as a user of either of these services.

My frustration with not being able to see myself as a user of my own services ended on 25th October 2014. I started exploring the idea of smartphones and various ways it can affect our lives, which led me to exploring the world of appcessories and Internet of Things - a field that I find really fascinating. So after a reasonable amount of research and background work, on 19th Jan 2015, I launched Flipboat - a platform for people to discover and buy smart connected devices. Currently, I continue to work on this new initiative, while working on a contract (which finances my personal and startup expenses). 

Each of my startup endeavours has taught me something, and I hope to apply these lessons to Flipboat so that it can make a difference into the lives of its users.