User Research on the Train


Published from the train

I’ve started riding the train to and from work in 2016, and so far have found two key wins.

1. A train ride creates the opportunity to clear my head. The ride often turns into a mental blank space in between the need to be present at either work or home. When I arrive at either spot, I’ve had a break mentally I may not have had sitting in traffic.

2. It turns out that the train is a pretty great way to get a quick and dirty ‘on the ground’ lens into how people are using mobile. The train *is* mobile. mobile.

Walking from one end of a train car to the other, you see 50+ devices, all pointed at something. News, Sports, Facebook, Twitter, chat, LinkedIn, YouTube, a blog, email and more.

You see how people accomplish what they want to do when they are jammed into a crowded space and moving.

Other quick observations so far:

Seeing more games than I expected to see. Young people, old people, doesn’t matter.

Everyone simultaneously runs X audio through headphones while they tap the phone. Playing music, podcasts, and doing calls. (You can hear them all if you are near that person. )

Seeing more very long running chats than I expected – iOS, FB Messenger and others.

Less Facebook than I expected.

Lots of news reading- scanning articles. And man you better get people in a nanosecond- as they are out ASAP if you don’t get them.

Kindles are maybe 5% of the devices I see. Maybe less.

Will update this post or write another as I see more. 

The Time Knock Knock Jokes Saved My Keynote


In October, I had the privilege of giving the product keynote at LinkedIn’s 2015 Sales Connect at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. My job was to represent a hard-working Research and Development team building LinkedIn’s flagship sales product, LinkedIn Sales Navigator, and to walk the conference attendees and a live stream audience through the product’s newest features.

Prepping for a keynote is all about practice, and I had worked with our product marketing team on plenty of that. But as the event date drew closer, I also imagined a few problem scenarios — what would I do if I completely lost my place or if I needed to grab water — and how to handle those situations.

But on the actual day, one problem scenario I had not planned for was a major technical glitch. Just 11 minutes into my 30-minute presentation, the audience and I were looking up behind me at a blank screen. The computer driving my presentation backstage had lost power and crashed.

The computer driving my presentation backstage had lost power and crashed. How long could a reboot take? Five minutes.

I’ll admit it; I felt a burst of stress. This was wedding toast territory, but with more guests and no sip of champagne. Completely free form.

 When a keynote runs into any issue like this one, the main goal is to keep everyone seated while the presentation gets back on track. With the benefit of hindsight, I realized I’d used three steps to help me get through that stressful situation, from the second I noticed the blank screen to managing the audience until the technical issue was resolved. And really, these steps have broader applications in any stressful situation. Here are the steps I took from the stage:

    • Take a breath. The first thing I remember doing right when the presentation crashed was to take a breath. I walked across the stage to grab a water bottle. The breath, the stroll to grab the water, and actually drinking the water had the effect of slowing the situation down a beat or two. It ended up helping me view the moment as an observer rather than as a participant. The net effect was relaxation — immediately. I had some perspective: this technical glitch was less of a problem and more of a need to kill a little time while the presentation was rebooted.
    • Revert to the familiar. The second thing I did, likely unconsciously, was to simply revert to the every day. In the context of day-to-day work in the office, a big part of time is spent in meetings. A big part of meetings is waiting for everyone to be ready to go…to arrive, to dial in, to get video working, and then the meeting finally starts. All those things end up creating small pockets of dead time, and for years I have made a habit of filling those pockets of time by asking if anyone has any jokes they can tell for the 60 seconds we need to wait. In the context of that stressful situation on stage, I immediately went to this same mental space. Now not only was I relaxed, I suddenly felt like I was in a familiar place.
    • Get others involved. Now that I felt mentally under control, I still had to do or say something to kill the time. There was no way I was going to entertain the audience myself. Based on what was familiar to me — getting people to tell jokes during meeting lulls — I asked the audience to share their best knock-knock jokes. A few audience members rose to the occasion and offered some material. And when they ran out, I just started asking more questions, starting with the basics: “Is everyone having a good conference?”

Lesson: When you are in a stressful situation, get others involved.

The end result of these three steps was a five-minute break in the middle of a keynote presentation where no one left their seat. Stress was minimized, jokes were told, and it all seemed to work out.

Here’s the full keynote with the full 5 minute break edited out.

Bonus points: Please help stalled keynoters everywhere by leaving one of your favorite knock knock jokes in the comments below.

Thanks to Derek Pando, Diana Kucer, and Charlene Prince for reading drafts of this.

Originally published at LinkedIn.

Short form Jeff Birkeland can be accessed at @jbirk.

Review: The Hard Things About Hard Things

The Hard Thing About Hard ThingsI am late to reading Ben Horowitz’s well-received book,  The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The book was originally published in March, 2014, but I’m glad I made time to read it and highly recommend it to others.

“Hard Things” is a fast read and is useful for anyone interested in learning about how management, and more specifically, how Silicon Valley companies work.

Horowitz’s idea is to write a management book that covers everything that most management books would never cover:  the messy, hard stuff.

The book is a series of real-life stories — some had previously made their way into Horowitz’s blog — from the author’s time as CEO of Loudcloud. The company later morphed into Opsware before it was sold to Hewlett-Packard in 1997 for $1.6  billion.

Opsware is a useful setting for stories about the grimy inner workings of a software company for two reasons. First, most people have never heard of Opsware nor used the product. Second, Opsware was not the instant rocket ship style company that usually merits someone deciding the journey was worthy of writing a book.

Opsware was in trouble multiple times and in multiple ways from start to finish — a true, and often harrowing, roller coaster.  In that sense, its much more like a day-to-day software or Web company than what many people usually imagine about working at a place like Google or Facebook. Startups are usually hard and most die.

Horowitz is an engaging story-teller (check his hilarious take on his Berkeley High School football coach) and he imparts many practical business lessons throughout: how to fire someone, how to have a meaningful one on one meeting with a direct report, and how to hire an executive to work for you as your company grows are just some examples of useful advice explained in the form of real-world stories.

But my favorite, and in my mind the most useful part of the book, is actually infused throughout — it’s the drop-dead honest and simple way Horowitz has of communicating. You get a sense for this when you read his take on specific stories and he quotes himself. But you also see it in-between the stories in terms of how basic thoughts are conveyed. Simple.

Use. As little. Words. As possible. Say exactly what you mean.

Take this example from the story about Horowitz trying to hire a VP of Sales into his struggling company. He has someone he thinks is fantastic in mind, but this person is apparently a little odd.  So board members plus Chairman and co-founder Mark Andreessen are taking issue.  The potential hire doesn’t look right.  He went to a small school, and he has an off way about him. Horowitz listens and then makes a short, clear case:

“I agree with every single one of those issues. However, Mark Cranney is a sales savant. He has mastered sales to a level that far exceeds anybody that I have ever known. If he didn’t have the things wrong with him that you enumerated, he wouldn’t be willing to join a company that just traded at thirty-five cents per share; he’d be the CEO of IBM.”

Boom. Simple. This candidate has some issues, but he is exactly what we need right now and oh by the way — lets get real, we are not exactly playing from a position of strength. Imagine instead how that statement gets mangled buy someone who is either not clear about exactly what he (or she)  thinks or not willing to just state it:

“Hmmmmm.  You have some good points, there.  Really.  You do.  This guy has some positive points, but we’re all agreed we need the best possible hire.  I guess I need to take another look at this situation with that in mind and report back to the board in 30 days.”

That statement there is a recipe for delay and then losing the candidate to top it off.

THAT, in the end, is the most valuable message of The Hard Thing About Hard Things.  There are some useful, tactical lessons there to be sure.  But really, it’s about communicating with little wasted language or B.S.  This is not about being belligerent — just, well, straight.  Take the time to know what you think and then say EXACTLY that.

Doing so saves time and builds trust, both of which most startups are short on and desperately need.

Will IPhone Simplify Products Around the Web? Maybe.

I ran across this interesting article in the New York Times a bit ago on how product developers are adapting their products to build IPhone applications.

The bottom line being that the IPhone browsing experience may be good over and above the IPhone’s own qualities especially because app makers have been forced to simplify what they do to only the really important stuff (because that’s all that will fit).

This is my favorite quote:

“The small screen forces you to be even more ruthless and focus on usability almost like a haiku,” said Barney Pell, Powerset’s founder and chief executive. “That’s what happens with design for the small screen. You have to think about what the most important thing the user is doing is.”

I was talking to someone at work about this in a slightly different way though. I think the exercise of building the applications may sew the seeds to simplify web products more generally in some cases. If you go through the trouble of honing your product to display just the essential items that a user needs to complete a task — you may as well apply similar thinking to your base product, right?

At a minimum you’ll force yourself to ask: What’s really needed here? And what’s really, well, uh, not?

This second question is WAY harder to address, I think. But its where a lot of great simple products really get their simplicity from.

Long time, no post

I haven’t posted to this blog in a long while. Little bit of business has been going on — job change, summer, the Giants are winning more games than expected, etc. etc.

That said, I will post something meaningful soon and get back into a more regular flow. For now, you’ll have to settle for this unmeaningful post to get the juices flowing.

Friendfeed, Blogs and High Speed Product Development

If you’ve ever been part of a really synched up product development team, you’ve seen examples of high speed development responding to consumer demand, but it’s always fun to point out one when it flies by.

There’s obviously been a lot of attention on Friendfeed of late. Great service, simple to use and perhaps most importantly, gathering momentum by shipping things very fast. Here’s the timeline you can follow from Fred Wilson’s must read blog. (One of my favorites if you are interested in social media and where it’s all is headed.)

  1. Fred, as a user, lists 10 things he’d love Friendfeed to do.
  2. Bret Taylor replies to Fred’s post: Essentially: “Thanks, we’re on it.”
  3. Little additional back and forth in Fred’s comments.
  4. Friendfeed blog post on one feature being released (playing well with Twitter) that relates to Fred’s post. NOTE: This happens to be just 3 days after Fred’s original “feature request” via blog post.
  5. Fred writes a separate post called “I Just Fell In Love With FriendFeed.”

Definitely not the land of quarterly releases. Now granted, some of Fred’s stuff could have already been road-mapped and in the cue, but still. The whole thing creates a vibe of speed, responsiveness, momentum, plus the service just got better in a public way. It goes without saying that when you get someone blogging with a headline like “I love (web product x)” — you done good.

Also puts on full display how valuable just listening to a canned search mentioning your product can be over and above site data, direct customer feedback and other sources of ideas.

Best Local News Clip Ever

It’s been a while since I’ve actually taken in a local TV news program on TV, but everybody has their favorite goofy local news clip of general, mayhem, nonsense or worse. The field reporter chasing a heckler. The reporter almost coming to blows with a local politician. The weather guy or gal standing in the middle of a crazy storm for no real reason. And on and on.

This clip here from New York, though, may take the cake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two local news guys pull this kind of madness off. I’ve watched it a few times and it just gets better and better each time.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

“Back to you, Jim.”

(via TNR blog)