Monthly Archives: December 2009

Future Shop fails again!

When will retailers learn that having a great website is pointless if you can’t actually fulfill a customer transaction when they want to buy a product?

I was going to quit blogging for the holidays, but then the following happened to me this evening and I had to write about it. A similar problem happened last year on Boxing Day with this retailer. You’d think they’d fix the problem by now!

Future Shop – a large Canadian retailer (http://www.futureshop.ca) now owned by Best Buy -  started their Boxing Day sale a bit early this year with a number of online specials.

My wife and I were looking for a new washer/dryer and saw this special:

After a quick bit of online research, we decided to make the purchase. How much better does it get than that for an online retailer?

When I went to checkout and pay for the purchase on the webstore, I got the following screen:

click image to enlarge

This virtual “waiting line” took about 45 minutes to go through. I had to sit and watch that progress bar slowly inch forward. Eventually it reached 100% and then I was greeted with the following wonderful message:

FSDataAccess error ’800a000d’

Type mismatch

/Checkout/CheckoutControlLib.asp, line 79

Yup, after 45 minutes, a coding error. I tried going through the line again (same error) and a 3rd time (same error). At least 1.5 hours wasted on this purchase.

Was it just me experiencing this? Twitter gave me my answer. :-) - Click on tweet images to enlarage









So I guess it wasn’t just me!

I tried a fourth time — another 20 minute wait to get to the checkout, but this time it was successful — or at least appeared to be. But wait, what’s this message in stage 2 of the checkout? It says, under Stock Status that my item is OUT OF STOCK???

click image to enlarge

But that’s not right, because the product page says there are clearly 2041 of these units in stock!!

click image to enlarge

So, now what gives? I did get a final web page that said an order confirmation email would be coming to my email address. That has not arrived yet. We’ll have to see if Future Shop can actually fulfill a transaction on an advertised special via their website as we appraoch 2010.

Future Shop web site Product Management and Development Teams, a big FAIL to you this Christmas Eve.

Future Shop Customer Service, what are you going to give me for the roughly 2 hours of my time I spent trying to get a transaction through your site?

Saeed

What Origami can teach us about Product Requirements

Tom Grant has started an interesting series of posts entitled Against a Grand Theory of Product Management. The articles are interesting reading, but make sure you have your thinking cap on when you start, because Tom is discussing an important but rather abstract topic.

He pulls in references ranging from Middle Range Theory (something I’d never heard of before) to Darwin’s theories (something I think we’ve all heard of but probably don’t adequately understand) to help convey his points. I had to read the posts a couple of times each to better grasp the specifics of his arguments.

In Part 2 of his series, Tom asks:

If someone can figure out why even the most meticulously written and reviewed requirements don’t stop some tech companies from making products that their users don’t like or can’t understand, that’s a big contribution to our little field of study. Best to have more middle-range theory before even thinking about the GToE [Grand Theory of Everything].

This is a great question. But before I answer it, I want you to watch the following video. It is from a TED Conference talk given in February 2008 by Robert Lang. Not only is this a fascinating video, but as you’re watching it, keep Tom’s question in mind. Don’t read on though until you watch the video. :-)

[BTW, if you are impatient and read ahead, the important stuff starts at about 2:30 in the video.]

Lang talks about the evolution of origami, that took it from a traditional Japanese art form that most of us associate with creating things like this:

and turned it into an art (and science)  form that allows people to create things like this:

And what caused that evolution? In Lang’s words, the answer is “mathematics”, or more specifically, the creation and utilization of a set of rules that provide a language for defining what can and can’t be done in origami.

The rules define the crease patterns — the lines along which folds are made — in the paper. And there are 4 rules:

  • 2-colorability — any valid crease pattern can always be coloured with only 2 colours and will not have the same colour in two adjacent areas.
  • modulus (M-V) = +2 or -2 — at any interior vertex, the number of mountain folds and the number of valley folds will always differ by 2
  • For any vertex, the sum of alternate angles around that vertex will always be 180 degrees. e.g. a1+a3+a5 … = 180 degrees  & a2+a4+a6… = 180 degrees.
  • No self-intersection at overlaps – a sheet when folded cannot penetrate itself

[Note: if you don't understand these rules, watch the video. :-) ]

Now these 4 rules define the properties of valid crease patterns, but there’s still something missing. How can those rules be applied to create sophisticated origami? In short, what goes in the box? (see 4:40 of the video)

Lang discusses that as well, and provides this diagram:

In short, the physical subject is reduced to a tree figure defining the key components (“flaps” in Lang’s terminology) of the subject. In this case, those are the legs, antennae, horns etc. of the beetle. That’s fairly easy.

Then some process must be used to take that tree-figure and create a base form for the final origami. He calls that the hard step.

And finally the base form can be refined to create the finished model. That’s fairly straight forward.

The “hard step” is accomplished using the rules defined above and the language for applying those rules. Given those rules are mathematical in nature, they can be written precisely and unambiguously and then executed to create the final model.

What does this have to do with product requirements and Tom’s question?

When looking at product requirements, there are analogies to Subject-Tree-Base-Model example given above.

  • Product Managers investigate  real world problems, needs, scenarios etc. (Subject).
  • They then take their learnings and create abstracted representations of them (requirements) using artifacts such as problem statements, personas, use cases and user stories (Tree)
  • These artifacts are then used by engineering teams to create prototypes and mockups etc. to ensure that the requirements were understood and addressed in the product. (Base)
  • The final product is built, tested, tweeked etc. with the appropriate “fit and finish” before being released. (Model).

Sounds pretty good so far right?

But herein lie the problems, because that “hard” step in origami, is REALLY hard in product development.

  • There currently is no language for requirements like the one defined for origami, that can precisely and unambiguously convey what is needed and define that in a way that ensures it can be built.
  • Requirements should be implementation neutral, but as we all know in technology, the ability to fulfill a requirement can often be limited by technology choices and decisions that were made well before the requirement existed.
  • Other constraints such as time, resources, knowledge, legalities, finances etc. all factor into how well a requirement can be met, or perhaps if it can be met or not.
  • In many cases requirements contain unknowns or ambiguities that are filled in by assumptions during the development process. This is a reality of developing products in a business environment.  In the origami situation, this would never happen. A model (like the stag beetle) can only be built when the full crease pattern is defined.
  • There is no concept of people “liking” or “understanding” the origami in Robert Lang’s rules. i.e. Tom Grant asks about why companies build product their customers don’t like or understand.

This last point is key and deserves a little more discussion. What people like and understand is complex and is not static. In general, what people like is based on overall experience and emotion. It is not something that (currently) can be defined in a set of requirements.

i.e. users of this product must feel giddy with excitement the first time they use this software

So, can origami teach us something about product requirements?

Absolutely. The origami path from Subject->Tree->Base->Model forms series of transformations that is akin to the requirements gathering, communication and development process used when creating products.

Once a set of clear foundational rules for origami were defined and understood, not only did they open up new possibilities for forms never thought possible, but those rules formed the grammar for a language that makes precise and unambiguous communication also possible.

There is almost certainly a set of rules and language for precise definition and communication of requirements, but it has not yet been clearly formalized. That is likely a necessary stepping stone in the maturity cycle of product development.

But even with that requirements language, changing market landscapes, customer preferences and needs, technological, resource and time constraints will all work together to make product success a “grey box”, where those with great vision, insight and execution are likely to succeed but never guaranteed that success.

Saeed

Help with research into email usage habits

We all use email, most of us every single day. A friend of mine is doing a research project into email usage and problems we have in finding information in our email messages.

Please take 5 minutes and help with the research. The survey is mercifully short and applicable to virtually every one of you.

Here’s the URL:

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/FTK9262

If you want to see the final results, you can provide your email at the end of the survey.

Also, please pass the URL onward to your friends and colleagues and ask them to fill it out and do the same.

Thanks

Pleeez vote for us….it takes 5 seconds…

OK, this request won’t even be subtle.

We need your vote to win the Best Professional Life Blog Category for the Canadian Blog Awards.

Voting closes soon so vote now.

It’ll take 5 seconds. You’ll feel great after voting. We promise.

If we win, we’ll figure out a nice way to thank you for your support.

Here’s the link. —–>> CLICK HERE <<——

Please vote now.

Thanks.

Cdn. Blog Awards. We’re Finalists, Help Us Win!!

Thanks to all of you who voted, the FIRST ROUND of the Canadian Blog Awards.  We’re 1 of 5 finalists.

OK…actually, thanks to the 16 of you who voted and helped us barely squeak into the final round of the Best Professional Blog category in the 2009 Canadian Blog Awards!

Click the image to expand.

Come on folks, we need your support! We can’t let a basketball blog win this can we? No. So here’s all you have to do to give us a great little present for the holiday season. And it won’t cost you a penny!

But do it right away. Don’t delay. The Voting closes on Dec. 19th!

1. Click on the voting link ==>> here<<==

2. Select On Product Management as your #1 choice!


3. Click the Vote button.

4. Enjoy the good karma for the rest of the holiday season.

Thanks

An ecologically unsustainable business model

Given the Copenhagen Summit this week (I have low expectations of that BTW), I thought I’d present my own ecologically themed piece.

Computer hardware is getting cheaper and cheaper all the time. It’s almost unbelievable how much computing power and utility we can purchase today, compared to just 3 or 5 years ago. This is true for servers, storage, printers, monitors, networking equipment etc.

But, as our needs grow, or hardware fails, and new equipment arrives, what do we do with the old equipment? One area of personal frustration with computer hardware is with low end home/office printers. Printers can be bought new (or refurbished) for less than the cost of the replace ink/toner for those very same printers.

I wrote about the crazy pricing model of computer printers here. It’s been a couple of years since I wrote that and unfortunately the time has come to replace one of my printers (again)!

Canon, can you spare a print head

This time, it’s a Canon MP 610 printer. It’s actually a nice printer. It does all the usual stuff — scanning, printing, copying etc. It has independent ink cartridges for every colour so you only need to refill what you use. In fact, it has 2 black ink cartridges. One is used for text and is large capacity. The other is used for images and is “normal” size.

So what happened? To make a long story short. The printer won’t print black text through the large capacity black text cartridge. Apparently, we don’t use the printer “enough” and the print head got clogged. And apparently, this clogging is a common problem when ink-jet printers are not used regularly.  Given the price I pay for ink-jet ink, why would I use it for printing text. I use my laser printer for that!

I tried to remedy the problem, but no amount of self cleaning via the printer’s maintenance program would fix the problem. So I took it to a printer repair store. The guy there said the print head was blocked and he’d try to clean it. After cleaning, he put it back in the printer and the printer refused to accept it. A message was displayed on the screen indicating the print head was not installed.

What if a spark plug cost $1000?

The remedy? Get a new print head. I called Canon Canada. They passed me to a parts supplier. The parts supplier quoted me a price of $119 for the print head!

The entire printer (with ink!) is available online for about $150 and they’re charging me $119 for a print head. Oh yeah, and all sales are final, so if the new print head doesn’t remedy the problem, I’m out $120. Would people stand for this price gouging if it were applied to car parts?

So now I have a useless printer. And this is not the first time this happened. I had the exact same problem occur with an all-in-one Epson printer (shown at right).

Can I send my junk into the Sun?

The Epson printer is in a box in my basement. I didn’t want to take it and dump it at the landfill. Now I have 2 printers that are useless to me.

And in case you are wondering, whether I’m getting another printer. The answer is yes.  My kids do use the colour printer for school projects. So what’s my solution?

I was tempted to buy a Canon MP 640. It’s a really nice printer. It’s like my 610 but has wireless and Ethernet networking support and a few other bonuses. Price would be about $200. But I decided against that.

For $39 — less than the cost of ink cartridges – I bought a Canon MP150. Actually I bought 2 of them! Why? Free shipping for orders over $50. Not quite as “nice” as the 640, but at 20% of the price of a replacement printer, and 33% of the price of the print head, it’s more than going to meet my kids’ needs. It also won’t dent my wallet too much either. And when the first one goes belly up, which it definitely will,  I’ll have a full second printer to replace it.

Am I proud of this conspicuous consumption? No.

Do I like all this technojunk I’m accumulating? Absolutely not.

But this is the result of ridiculous pricing policies and poor product design from printer manufacturers. Whether Epson, Canon, HP or anyone else; they’re all guilty of driving people to this behaviour.

  • If the replacement print head were $50 and there was an option to return it, I’d have bought that without question. I’m sure that price still gives Canon a healthy profit margin.
  • If these printers weren’t made with built-in obsolescence — why do the print heads constantly get blocked?? — I wouldn’t have to keep buying printers.
  • If these companies sold original printer ink at reasonable prices, I’d actually use more of it, continue to buy their inks and continue to give them a revenue stream.
  • If there were easy to access recycling and recovery programs SPONSORED by these manufacturers, most of this technojunk wouldn’t end up in landfill. And I’d be more inclined to purchase from those manufacturers.

I’m one person, and in a span of a few years, I’ve purchased 4 ink jet printers. Now multiply that by the millions of people who, like me, have similar problems and you see the scope of the problem.  Is this an ecologically sustainable system? Absolutely not.

If there is anyone reading this who works in the printer industry and would like to respond, I really want to hear from  you.

Saeed

P.S.

As mentioned at the top of the article, this technojunk problem is rampant within technology and not just with printers.  I have a couple of wired routers, a Wireless B router, a old cable modem, computer speakers, keyboards, old desktop PC cases, several burnt out motherboards and hard drives (internal and external) all collecting dust in my basement. I’m not a pack rat, but I loathe just taking this to the landfill.

I also have a 19 inch ViewSonic LCD monitor that stopped working 18 months after I bought it. Reparing it would cost more than the monitor’s purchase price.  It’s also in my basement collecting dust as I don’t want to take that to the dump either. Any suggestions on what to do with that? I’m sure it’s simply a circuity problem and the LCD is fully intact. Anyone know how I can use it to create a digital picture frame?

Guest Post: Measuring Product Management (part 3)

This is part 3 of a series of guest posts by Don Vendetti. Don is the founder of Product Arts, a product management consulting company in Seattle.

NOTE: If you’d like to write a guest post, contact us and let us know about your idea.

——-

In part 1 and part 2 respectively, I discussed the answers I received from company executives on the following questions.

  1. What is the value that product management brings to your company?
  2. How would you measure success for the group and individuals? i.e. on what metrics would you reward them?

In this part, I’ll look at the following question.

Question #3:  Is Product Management Effective, in Your Experience?

The dominant answer here was a resounding SOMETIMES.    I’ll let some comments speak for themselves.

(VP Eng) “Never adequately. It’s a tall order and they are often placed in the organization where they cannot succeed or with unenlightened leadership. If they are in sales they become too deal / feature / near term focused. If they are in engineering they become too development / feature / development focused. If they are in marketing they become too abstract and disconnected. Ideally they are in line of business management reporting directly to an SBU Manager or GM. Where they have done best it was where the corporate imperatives were obvious, and they were well connected and led.”

(VP Ops) “Currently, our model defines product management in terms of marketing activities, so the value is less than optimal.”

(GM) “Yes, the good ones. As always, if their direction is good, and they have goals that make sense, and they are managed, they can usually meet or exceed their goals.”

(VP Eng) “Both successful & unsuccessful.   Needs to have an environment for success – expectations, aligned groups, business goals.  PM needs to stay outwardly focused.   Needs to bring customer into the company.”

(Program Mgmt/Former VP Mkt) “For Agile shops, the product owner role is critical and delivers great value to the business and to dev teams — the product cannot be built without one.  For more waterfall oriented shops, it can be tricky.  I find that product managers that seek to translate market requirements (from marketing/ customer facing teams) into product specs for engineering program managers will often deliver dubious value.  It is best if the product manager is closer to either the customer (e.g. product marketing manager), or to the developers (e.g. program manager) to avoid being an odd-man out. “

Summary

Let’s compare where we ended up as the primary value of Product Management with the Mandate previously posted on this site:

The Product Management Mandate These Results
To optimize the business at a product, product line or product portfolio level over the product lifecycle. To deliver measurable business results through product solutions that meet both market needs and company goals.

They are both in the same ballpark with regards to business and products, but there is definitely a divergence beyond that, with the Mandate missing the key element of MARKET NEEDS.

It is a primary expectation of company executives that product management is a bridge between the internal functions and understanding the market needs and this got lost in the Mandate.

Where we still don’t have clear guidelines are the actual measurements to use, but we do have a general direction in which we need to head.   It is imperative for product management to be able to tie their activities to measurable business results to be perceived as adding value for executives.

These do not have to be tied directly to revenue or profit, but there is ideally some way to tie to leading indicators of them – usage, penetration, retention, quality, cost, etc.

If the feature sets you’re prioritizing or the activities you’re doing do not somehow support an improvement in these indicators, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing… pronto.   It also important that you communicate where you’re impacting business level results so that the execs are aware of it.

I have also personally found that the “intangibles” carry a much higher weight than emerged from these exec comments.   Be assured that even if there is no formal process for measuring how you are perceived in the organization, you are constantly being assessed for leadership skills and ability to collaborate and facilitate internally and externally.   These will ultimately steer your career progression.

Lastly, it’s clear from the final comments that product management success is strongly correlated to a supportive organization with clearly defined roles, objectives and mission.   If you find yourself in a company without these, it’s time to exercise some leadership to help create them or to perhaps move on to greener pastures.    It’s really not that much fun to continue to struggle where personal success is unlikely.

Don

Related Posts

Measuring Product Management (part 1)
Measuring Product Management (part 2)
Measuring Product Management (part 3)

Vote for us in the Canadian Blog Awards!

We’re happy to report that we’ve been nominated again for the Canadian blog Awards.

But we’re also tired of never winning! :-( So help us win an award (or 2). If we win, we’ll do something really nice for you, we promise.

This year, we’re nominated in two categories:

  • Best Professional Life Blog
  • Best Group Blog

There will be 2 rounds of voting:

Round 1: Dec. 1 – 12 (determines finalists)
Round 2: Dec. 13 – 19 (picks the winners)

HELP US BECOME A FINALIST!!!

The first step is to make it to round 2! The voting mechanism is pretty straight forward.

1. Go to the voting page in each category. Use the following links.

2. Select us as your first choice :-)

3. Vote for anyone else you want (hopefully ranking them lower than us!)

4. Click VOTE at the bottom of the form.

5. Tell all your friends to do the same via your  blog, Twitter, email etc.

Thanks.