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I get demos every day. Multiple times a day. I don’t want to see a powerpoint deck – I want to play with something. I don’t want to hear a description of what you do – I want to see a demo. I don’t want you to tell me your background, where you went to school, or where your grew up. I want to see what you are working on.
I still remember my first meeting with Bre Pettis at MakerBot. I walked into the Botcave in Brooklyn and was confronted with a long, narrow Brooklyn-style industrial building where I could see people working away in the back. But before I got to them, I had to walk through a 1000 sq. ft. area of MakerBot Thing-O-Matics printing away. This was an early “bot farm” and it probably took 15 minutes before I walked the gantlet. They were printing all kinds of things, there were display cases of other stuff that had been printed, and a vending machine for Thing-O-Matic parts.
When I got to the back where people were working, I totally understood what MakerBot did and what was possible with 3D printing.
We are lucky to be investors in a bunch of companies creating amazing new products. One of them, Oblong, as been working on spacial computing since John Underkoffler’s early research in the 1990′s at the MIT Media Lab. For a number of years they were described the “Minority Report” technology (John was the science/tech advisor to Spielberg and came up with all the tech in the movie.) The following video is John showing off and explaining the core G-Speak technology.
The demo is iconic and amazing, but it takes too long and is too abstract for their corporate customers buying Oblong’s Mezzanine product. The short five minute “overview video” follows.
While this gives you a feel for things, it’s still showing the “features and functionality” of the tech, applying a general use case. For several months, I kept banging on them to set up a simple use case, which is the how I use the Mezzanine system in our office. I use it every day and it’s been a huge factor for me in eliminating all of my travel.
A few months ago, Oblong had a sales off-site to go through the progress they’ve made this year and to focus on the balance of the year. They’ve had a great year, with a strong quarter-over-quarter sales ramp for Mezzanine on both a dollar and unit basis. The customer list is incredible, their classical enterprise land and expand strategy is working great, and new high-value use cases are being defined with each customer. So I smiled when I the following slide popped up on my Mezzanine during our weekly leadership team call.
While a little abstract in writing (I don’t expect you to understand the first three bullet points unless you know how Mezzanine works), when it’s shown in the first five minutes of a demo it simply blows your mind. And you totally get all three of the core technologies that Oblong has incorporated in Mezzanine (spatial computing, pixel virtualization, and data pipelining.) Your next reaction is “I want one.” And then you are ready for the feature / function discussion, which can easily go on for 30 minutes.
There is endless talk about product development and getting “personas developed” while you figure out how to build your product for them. This approach is equally useful for demos, but it is so often overlooked. I can’t tell you the number of times people start just showing me stuff, rather than saying “here’s the problem I’m going to solve for you that I know you have” – BOOM – and then I’m totally captured for the next 30 minutes.
Try it. The first five minutes is the most important with someone like me. Don’t waste it.
I’ve been in three board meetings in the last month where it was painfully apparent that there wasn’t a person in the company who owned the UX philosophy of the product. I’m explicitly saying “UX” (user experience) rather than “UI” (user interface) as each company had an excellent designer and the application looked great. But the UX broke down quickly, especially as you went from novice first time user to experienced user.
Now, it’s not that the apps sucks. In each case, the apps ranged from good to great. They had huge amount of functionality, did unique things that other apps didn’t do, and solved a clear set of problems in a compelling way. They were fast, pretty, used nice fonts, and had good screen layouts.
But each had a jumble of different ways of doing things. As you went from one set of activities to another, the approach quickly became inconsistent. I kept noticing that my when I was doing a different set of things in the app, the user flow would change. Or when I switched modalities, I would have different ways to do things that were dependent on where in the app I was.
Sometimes I’d click on a label to take an action; other times I’d click on a text description of the action. In some places I cared a lot about the Tab key; in others it was the Enter key. In some screens data was automatically saved after I exited a field; in others I had to take an explicit action. In some situations all the actions I could take were exposed; in others I had to search a menu tree for them. Orientation of the iPhone mattered in some cases and didn’t in others. Sometimes the key set of data that I was working on was the focus on the screen; in others it was only part of the screen.
When I start feeling uncomfortable with UX, I start counting extra key and mouse actions. When I think I should be able to do something with one action and it takes three or more, there’s a problem. When I realize in one part of the app that I can do something with one action, but in the other it takes four, there’s a problem.
In each of the companies, there is an excellent VP of Engineering. They each have a strong design / UI person. Two of the three had founder/CTOs. And the CEOs in each are excellent. They are each obsessed about the product, but they are approaching it from an engineering perspective. What are the features that the user needs? What is the feedback we are getting about what individuals want to do? Each of these things ends up being a story or a task – a feature – but there is no unifying UX philosophy.
In each case, when asked, no one in the company owned the UX. In one case, no one felt qualified. In one case, no one really knew what I meant and kept conflating UX with UI. And in one case it was a revelation that users were struggling with a chaotic and inconsistent UX.
I’m noticing this more and more in the different apps I use, especially at the early stage. Some are crafted beautifully from a UI perspective, but once I start using them on a daily basis I want to scream. Others have acceptable UIs and a layer of UX consistency that breaks down immediately when I become an advanced user. And others are radically different UX experiences across devices.
I’ve come to appreciate the important of a single person in the company owning the UX with this person being the arbiter of discussion around how to implement the UX. There’s nothing wrong with lots of different perspectives, but a single mind has to own it, synthesize it, and dictate the philosophy. But first, they have to understand the difference between UI and UX, and – more importantly – the product-oriented execs who approach things from an engineering perspective need to understand this.
I’ve decided it times to up our game significantly on this. I’m curious about what resources you rely on, thing are amazing, and would give to an executive team that is struggling with this.
I’ve invested in hundreds of companies that have started from scratch and I’ve been though some crazy number of product launches, especially if you include all of the TechStars companies I’ve been involved with. These alphas, or betas, or v1.0 or v0.1 launches are exciting moments as they signify the transition from an idea to a product. And, it’s at that point that the real work begins.
Early in the life of your company you want feedback. From anyone. Of any kind.
It’s often hard to get this feedback. You spend all of your time trying to get some people to use your product. When they have problems, you try to fix them. But you are maxed out – with all the various responsibilities you’ve got and all the things you are trying to do to keep things moving forward.
Occasionally you get feedback. Sometimes it’s precise – a feature request, a suggestion for how to do something differently, or a description of something that’s not working correctly.
Reward this feedback with features. Fix the bug and then tell the person who reported it that you did and thank them for pointing it out. Implement the requested feature and tell the person that suggested it that you did it. Write a blog post about it and name the feature after the person. Be public about thanking the person for the suggestion.
In addition to making your product better, this does two powerful things.
First, it creates a feedback loop with your early users so they know they are specifically appreciated and valued. This will encourage them to give you more feedback, use your product more, and be part of your extended early community of fans.
More importantly, it builds a feedback loop culture into your business. You and your team will realize the feedback matters. You’ll show this through action. Your users will realize this. And they’ll value it, and you, more.
What do you do to get feedback from your early users?
If you are a developer, I encourage you to carve out an hour and watch TechStars CEO David Cohen’s presentation at RailsConf 2012 (30 minute presentation and outstanding 30 minutes of Q&A). He starts out with the assertion that “developers are the new investors” - how could you not be interested in hearing more about that?
David and I wrote a book last year called Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup and this is his riff to a room full of developers about some of his top tips. Special bonus – see a photo of me in my pajamas at minute 7.
I was reminded of the importance of starting with the customer experience while I was watching this brilliant video from WWDC 1997 of Steve Jobs. In the video, Jobs appears to be responding to attack by a troll, but is actually doing something much more interesting. Rather than take the bait and react, he thinks carefully in real time and makes a critical philosophical point about his – and Apple’s – approach to creating new products.
The punch line happens early when he says “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology.” It’s five minutes long and worth watching, if only to see how incredibly durable Jobs’ philosophy has been over the past 15 years.
When I think about the companies we’ve invested in, some of them embody this philosophy deeply in their culture. Oblong, MakerBot, Orbotix, Fitbit, and Cloud Engines immediately come to mind. The entrepreneurs running these companies are completely and totally obsessed with the consumer experience of their products, even though their products embody an incredible amount of technology (in each case, both hardware and software innovations.)
As an investor, I often lose sight of this, especially when I’m working on non-consumer facing companies (e.g. enterprise software companies). But I believe very strongly in the consumerization of IT – namely the notion that innovation in software is now being driven by consumer applications, and correspondingly by consumers, not by enterprise IT organizations and enterprise software vendors. If you accept this, it means that if you are working on enterprise applications, you also need to be obsessed with the customer experience.
When I think about this abstractly, especially in the context of “software eating the world” or my view that the machines have already taken over and resistance is futile, I completely buy the premise that the consumer experience trumps all technical decisions in any context. Apple has proven this throughout the entire customer experience, including being exposed to the product, buying the product, implementing the product, upgrading the product, and getting help with the product. And I think it’s going to get a lot more important going forward.