February 11, 2014

If You Took a Photo, You're Sharing it, Right?

Back in the olden days, or at least to the 1980s, proud parents would take photos of their family, have the film developed at a photo lab, and then take the hard copies of these photos home. Some of the photos would be placed in keepsake books. Others would be framed. But you pretty much had to be in the same physical location as the person holding the photo. They brought the photos to you, and you looked at them, lovingly, or at least passively, for a moment, before handing them back or to the next relative down the line.

Entire histories of lives come and gone are frozen in these physical collections - to be viewed irregularly, as memories are shared with nostalgia. But in the last two decades, our ability to take an exponentially increasing amount of photos, more quickly, in higher quality, and share them instantly practically anywhere, has turned the notion of scarcity on its head. Now anybody, should you choose, can see any photo you've ever taken, on any number of social outlets of your choice - whether you're using a phone or a more professional camera, or even +Google Glass.

With these barriers out of your way, with everyone having this seemingly infinite capability to capture practically every moment, you're also seeing people's intent for distribution change not for nostalgia to the past, but for a time sharing window of minutes or days. Photos are no longer looked back on as bits of the past that one happened, but in many cases, a lens (so to speak) into a shared present. Here's what I'm doing right now. Here's an experience I just had that you need to know about and engage with... right now.

I took all of these photos, but only shared some.

So as a parent, as I take photos at home or out on our trips, and see others with their various cameras and smartphones taking images in, I'm not thinking of these hardbound photo books that get passed to future generations, or even in most cases, online photo book equivalents like +SmugMug or +Shutterfly, but instead to ephemeral destinations in the stream, be it Facebook, Instagram, Google+ or Twitter. And the target audience has changed as well. The photos you're taking of your kids and friends aren't always for them to have a shared memory of what you did together, but instead for you to update other friends, other colleagues, and often strangers, to the experience you're having.

If I didn't share it, did it happen?

The more professional photographer may take hundreds or even thousands of photos on an adventure. They'll painstakingly go through each shot and find the very best ones that were captured with the optimal setup and lighting. Then, after much editing, they'll share a select few - a best of the best, to an audience who has come to expect a high level of quality from them. But for the rest of us, usually the best we'll do is pick our favorite few and lob them to the nearest social networks where our friends and family will see it. Or worse, we'll just delete the ones that make us look bad, and post the entire glob of photos as a collection - a digital slide show that hopes our friends will care enough to find their favorite, and leave us a comment, Like or +1 in return to give a head nod of agreement.

Now that my kids are entering their sixth year of life, and are on the home stretch of kindergarten, I've captured my unfair share of thousands of photos - some good, some bad. I've backed them all up to +Google Drive so I can get to all my photos on all my +Android and ChromeOS devices - or any device with an Internet connection, really. With online storage space becoming cheaper and the ease of posting getting down to almost zero, there's nothing stopping me from taking more photos. And the more smartphones and wearables we get with cameras, the more we can be constant amateur shutterbugs.

And think forward a bit - away from today's streams. As technology advances forward, the way we share changes. We've moved from slide carousels of vacations and Walgreen's photo labs to online photo book replicas, and in-stream editing. We're not backing up our photos to CDs and DVDs, and I don't see a future where I'll hand my kids a microscopic Flash drive upon graduation. They'll just know. Any photo that's ever been taken that I want them to have will be available - and I shouldn't have to do anything. We've eliminated the physical barriers that dictated how we share. Even more, these virtual walls are coming down. In the mean time, I bet when you take that photo, you're thinking where you're going to share it.

February 10, 2014

All Product Experiences are Personal

There's a well-worn saying in the world of politics: "All politics is local", spawned by former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who explained that a politician succeeds by understanding the needs of the people who voted them into office. What directly impacts the individual's happiness and well-being will almost always trump a more philosophical issue - even if it is one of national interest.

Product development isn't all that different. The success of creating an engaging community with social software, or a popular application for mobile, or the latest hot website, derives from how the individual user feels when interacting with your product. No matter how much one group may enjoy your service, if an individual finds it to be complicated or questions its value, you're going to have a challenging time getting them to visit a second time or do more than quickly uninstall your app - as opinions are formed practically instantly.

Get this formula wrong, and you might end up with a site that may have a lot of registrations or an app with a high download number, but actual usage that lags far behind what is expected. This problem can lead to an almost unnatural amount of user churn, as the population of initial signed up users needs to replaced, not just with new ones to keep growth high, but to backfill those who've stopped using a product. Product success takes more than a good idea, but an entire package - from a clear message of what users get from your product, a fast and smart interface, and near-immediate benefits.

Users don't want to spend a lot of time setting up your application, filling out forms, or hunting for good content. They want to immediately see value, and later tailor it to their specific needs. So don't hassle them by obscuring the app's intent, and hiding the most important, informative or exciting elements behind a nest of menus or a maze of choices. If users are often confused, there's a good chance it's because you made a mistake.

Unsurprisingly, not every application is for everyone. Sites or applications tend to find audiences of similar groups - be it by age, geography, life stage, or any matter of personal preferences. It is a rare event when something crosses the chasm from audience to audience and becomes so mainstream that "everyone" is on it, or "everyone" is using it. That doesn't necessarily mean that by not reaching everyone, the product has failed, but that there is a ceiling on its potential. The company behind the tool then has to make a decision - whether to optimize the product to be an incredible experience for the limited audience, or to modify the product further, potentially at risk of alienating its original users, to attract a wider audience.

You can see this tug of war as initial users of a product (see: The Five Stages of Early Adopter Behavior) can be excited about the prospect of a service reaching the masses, only later to be annoyed at how a service has changed when the mainstream does arrive. It's all too common to see people migrate from community to community online or switch from app to app to keep one step ahead of the pack.

This makes every product decision critical, as well as the ability to listen to user feedback, take rapid action, and act on bugs that impact wide audiences. As I've experienced many times as an early user or as an employee at companies making user-facing software, it's very likely that bugs or quality gaps impacting one person also impact many other people who haven't spoken up yet. Tackling the most reported bugs, even if they are small ones, can be as critical as stopping a short-term outage, depending how forgiving your customers are.

And we as users need to understand that just because we love something doesn't mean everyone will. Other people have different needs, usage patterns and work environments. So while we can embrace the role of an evangelist, what fits us may not fit everyone. I often find, even at home, that my wife's preferences for software and hardware differs from mine. Cast the net wider, and you can see greater diversity in terms of preferred applications, news sources and more. Just because I love something doesn't mean you will, and just because as a developer, you expected me to use a product in a certain way doesn't mean that I will, nor will others. (See: Stop Telling Me How to Use Your Products)

The best product managers I've seen are exceptionally patient and compassionate. They don't bully users into following a strict instruction set, and don't mock you when you come to a different conclusion. They genuinely want to know where they can improve, and learn from you, to ease the onboarding process and make their product even more inviting to the rest of the world. Even if they may be focused on the big picture, every individual user counts, and that makes all difference between success and stagnation.