Microsoft’s Mistakes. You too can learn from them.

microsoft (Part 2 of 2) The other day I briefly highlighted what I saw as the ‘Good parts’ and ‘Good starts’ within Windows Live Events to clearly distinguish where I feel the product has missed a golden opportunity; and highlight some broader takeaways that should be applied to the current and next generation of online web products and services.

Not so good parts…

Overall, I found the user experience pretty good, as long as I didn’t have to interact with the page and its components and features. In some cases I found the negatives to be in the simple user interaction and experience design, in others it was the sense of being mislead by the user interface to expect bigger and better functionality from my click.

Where’s the pop?

The User Interface didn’t POP. By pop, I am not referring to those annoying ads that everyone loves to hate, but to the responsiveness and feeling that goes along with the interaction of the user interface. Here, with Windows Live Events, I found the interface experience, my user experience, to be slow, sluggish, and, at times, sleep inducing.

When I log into my account and select an event that I want to update or invite people to… let me do it QUICKLY and painlessly. I want to login (pop), click (pop), invite (pop), and go (pop). The interface rendering times, the additional pages that were being loaded again and again, can all benefit from a major overhaul. Empower me, your potential user, to do what I want to do with my event…efficiently, productively.

Microsoft, did you ever hear of Ajax or dynamic page elements? My advice to you is to make the event overview and its management a single page, a page that loads the ‘dashboard’ view once and dynamically allows me to enter new information or be updated while I am looking at my event. Don’t force me to navigate back and forth, again and again, to manipulate my details and invite people. All those extra pages, all that extra loading, all that interruption in my workflow of planning and managing and ENJOYING my event just slows me down, ruins any potential happiness I may get from some of the features, and makes me want to look elsewhere for a UI that will be fast, responsive, and fun to interact with.

The sluggishness I found to be present within the UI goes beyond the unnecessary extra page loading that occurs, but is also found in the initial page downloading and rendering. I am not, as of the posting of this article, sure what is going on under the hood or what sort of processes at Microsoft are resulting in this bloated feeling that appears to be all too common to Microsoft products, that causes such a slow and sluggish feeling (I used IE , FF, and Opera browsers). The sluggish interface is not unique to Windows Live Events. I also experienced excessive sluggishness in Microsoft’s (now discontinued) Live Product Search — a product I thought was head and shoulders above the competition out there. With Live Product Search, a product that I truly enjoyed and recommended to people, as with Windows Live Events, its big negative was that it was slow in how it responded to user interaction . Back then, I stopped using Live Product Search, and most likely many other people did too, because it was just sooo slow.

The ‘fun potential’ of the user interface is present, but quickly dissipates when the actual interaction portion of the user experience equation is taken into account. Correcting this portion of Windows Live Events will go far towards user adoption, but is also the lesser of the ‘Not so good parts.’

The future is in Modular Innovation.

Within Windows Live Events It is nice that I can blog about my event; even though it is not readily obvious that I can do so at first glance at the event’s dashboard view. It is nice that I can share pictures and discuss the events with friends and other attendees. It is nice that it is an experience integrated with the Windows Live suite of web products.

Wouldn’t it be NICER (or great, or awesome) if I could blog, not just on Windows Live Spaces, but on WordPress (The Product Guy’s platform) or other blog formats? Wouldn’t it be NICER if I could share or integrate with my pictures on Flickr or other photo sharing platforms? Wouldn’t it be NICER if I could communicate with other people, in real-time, or via Twitter or receive updates when there are new bits of information being shared?

Answer: Yep.

While the layout of the page presents the promise of a sharp user experience and alludes to the potential of a great, integrated, centralizing event planning application through some obvious and some hard to find features, it falls far short. So far short, it only is integrated with Microsoft – a very limited web product audience.

Windows Live Events, what could have been a nice module that combined and brought together information from other web products (modules) online, instead is only a repackaging of a proprietary Microsoft-only event planner.

Those tougher to find features on the Event’s homepage are the ones that drew my greatest attention for which I also carefully chose my words when describing. I purposely described “the good” with words like “promising” and the “layout encourages.” While there are hints of good ideas, hints of implementing (a) Modular Innovation(s), Windows Live Events, in my opinion, missed a great opportunity. (Of course, I am not saying they cannot make a reattempt at this opportunity through a future release.)

The (missed?) opportunity…

Event planning is not unique to the Internet. What I did like seeing was their eye towards greater integration with other services. However, without allowing for integration with third-parties (Via an API? perhaps.), what could possibly be the incentive for people to sign-up and use Windows Live Events? For people that are not Windows Live-only users, there isn’t any.

Integration is the key to any chance of broad-based success for Live Events. Have I mentioned this a few times already? Hmmm… it must mean it is IMPORTANT! What is unique here? Microsoft Events does present a nice, simplified UI, but with so many other product options out there, there is nothing making this new service stand out. This is where the opportunity lies.

Windows Live Events would be more interesting to the public at large if events could just simply integrate with other blog platforms and social networks to invite friends from your social network to your created Live Events. Don’t limit the users to the Microsoft blogging platform and picture sharing — let me choose and customize my user experience by connecting it with other online products (that aren’t Microsoft, if I choose).

‘missed?’ well, one can hope that the Windows Live Events team will heed my advice and make many of these improvements.

Learning parts…

There are many constructive lessons that can be learned by poking at and experiencing Windows Live Events that, when applied to other web products, will result in broader acceptance and adoption, and an overall better experience that your users will come back for time and time again.

To build a larger base, secondarily, Microsoft will have to clean-up and make enjoyable (interactive, responsive, not slow) the user experience; but, primarily, at the very core, empower its users through modularity by…

  • Allowing integration. Enabling people to connect their Live Events to their other online experiences (Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Blogger, IM, etc.). For example, let me invite people that are my close friends in MySpace to my party being planned via Live Events.
  • Allowing portability. Enabling people to download or move all of their event information for editing or manipulating on other event or related platforms. This will allow more people to try it out, without worrying about losing their information and experiment with different methods of interacting with and using and leveraging Windows Live Events. Also, how neat-o would it be to be able to download all of the plans, pictures, and discussions surrounding an event and burn them to a DVD to watch with your friends next time you meet up?
  • Allowing modules. Enable people to interact with Windows Live Events as a module. As a module, you can place features, actions, or other types of updates within any other service. Also, as a module, other services can transmit information to the Live Events module (e.g. friend X has accepted the invitation to your party).

In the end, some nice User Experience (UX) and integration (barely), but the 2 big problems that I have found to be all too familiar to the majority of Microsoft’s web products (not unlike their desktop products) are:

  1. sluggish UI and UX really hurt any gains made by some of the good UI decisions, and
  2. openness — connect to and give the people a way to connect complementary services and other platforms (social networks, IM, blog, flickr, twitter, etc.)

It will be interesting to watch Windows Live Events and see what of my advice is eventually adopted and the resulting consumer responses (and their corresponding UX gains).

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

About these ads

Looking for the good in Windows Live Events…

date (Part 1 of 2) So, clearly, Microsoft saw there was a huge need and demand for an online event planning utility — and Windows Live Events was born. (Sarcasm)

But, seriously, there are some positive, along with the negative, aspects of this new product offering.

Last Friday, Microsoft released Windows Live Events. After completing my review of this new web product, which is clearly aligned to compete with the likes of Evite, mypunchbowl, Renkoo, as well as many others, I came away with mixed feelings about its future, and some solid observations of user experience that I feel everyone can benefit from hearing and thinking about, as well as apply to other projects to create more successful web products.

Good parts…

The User Interfaces start out well. The initial visual presents a simple, cohesive overview, easy to find and click primary actions, summaries, all with just the right amount of detail.

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An especially nice section of the interface, are the huge buttons, along the top, dedicated to the most frequent event related actions — nice and easy: inviting guests, tweaking event details, communicating and sharing — all relevant to the event.

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The summary information is presented in fairly good balance to the event details on the same page. It is a very nice experience that allows the user to quickly login, take a peak at the event, and know the latest information — easy to take it all in ‘at a glance.’

Good starts…

I found it difficult to clearly classify the parts of the page that are for sharing and socializing entirely with the Good or Bad parts section of this post. My imagination (or was it my hopes?) got the best of me when I saw the parts for blogging, discussions, and picture sharing.

Before clicking on any of these ‘Good starts’, I was filled with all sorts of cool ideas and questions…

  • Is ‘Blog about this event’ going to really let me connect this to my blog (powered by WordPress) or other blogs out there?
  • Will I be able to ‘Share photos’ on Flickr?
  • ‘Discussion,’ that will be a fun way to quickly coordinate and keep track of everything.

The social and communication components of the page contain considerable promise. These components provide some nice, and fairly easy to access (blogging and calendar integration are somewhat buried) features. The _layout_ of the page definitely encourages the sharing of event related photos and group discussions.

While my findings did not live up to my expectations, one can hope that some day they do, and, at least, they are a good start to integrating with a social community, even if it is Microsoft-only, for now.

In Part 2 of my discussion of Windows Live Events I will delve into the negatives and other universally applicable product lessons. 

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Yahoo Rocks my World! (Sorry, Google.)

my_y_bang_logo Yahoo has just surprised the financial analysts. Yahoo just reported that they are seeing increased revenues and user-generated momentum in search, as well as other key web products.

I was not surprised.

As a matter of fact I have been talking about Yahoo and how they contrast with Google for some time. Put simply, Yahoo gets the normal users; and Google gets the geeks. I believe this is the beginning of an emerging trend where we will see more and more users seeking out and returning to the Yahoo user experience (UX) over that of Google’s current product offering.

Google’s got Tech

Google has the technology, the scale, speed, and algorithms to present excellently targeted search results and advertisements. Hey, we already know that. And, big deal if their interface is sterile, or the more powerful aspects of their technology and products remain elusive to the average user. Everyone knows how to start a search. So what if I (and everyone else) are only successful on the first search query 15% of the time that and it takes, on average, 4 attempts to find what I (we) want? (http://www.ysearchblog.com/archives/000494.html)

Discussions with developers and product managers at Google have lead me to believe that at some level they understand that their current appeal is overly skewed to the more technically inclined individuals. However, over the past year I have seen very little movement in the realm of UX (other than Desktop Search – but, to be honest, that is another techie oriented product; the average home user doesn’t use it nor know about its existence) that would or could appeal to the broader audience, that I so often talk about. For a company like Google, where they have (nearly) unlimited resources to solve a problem, I wonder just how much they believe in moving the company to the next level in User eXperience.

Cool features are great. But what do all these cool features matter if most people never know about them or how to take advantage of them?

Google is known and used by the typical Internet user for search. Google’s search interface is simple, but all their other search tools as well as other Google product functionality is hidden from the ‘normal’ user. A user’s interaction with Google is limited to a text field and a search result list. That’s it!

Google, help me find what I want. Facilitate my introduction to and use of your other web products. Stop intimidating people with overly complicated, overly technical interfaces where the average person is going to be too timid to click and see what happens — especially if they were finally able to locate what they were looking for – probably accomplished through trial and error.

The Internet, and finding what you want and using new web products can be an overwhelming experience; albeit for many, nerve racking and scary. And Google has, to date, not visibly sought to lower the bar for the user or simplify or make the experience enjoyable. They have a visible attitude that goes something like this: We (Google) will lead with new technologies, dropping in more interfaces and Google paradigms to learn, and it’s your (the user’s) job to figure it all out.

There is one more thing I would like to mention before I jump into my discussion on why I believe Yahoo’s approach is ‘The Approach’ that is driving the shift now being seen in Yahoo’s latest quarterly report. APIs.

API Philosophy: getting to the guts of the products

There is a very interesting observation that can be made with respect to the APIs offered by both Google and Yahoo. I believe the differences in the cores of these APIs, as well as what they are most known for, speaks to very different philosophies that drive the product innovation processes at Google and Yahoo and, again, where Yahoo draws its strength and growing consumer-driven momentum.

Google’s APIs are targeted to empower the web developer to connect to Google and create more technically sophisticated applications. The emphasis is on deep technical integration.

Yahoo’s APIs are targeted to empower the web developer to leverage the Yahoo platform and, more importantly, create more standardized, easier to use, visually and interactively pleasing web products. The emphasis here is on the interactive user experience.

The key is user experience. The future of successful web products and platforms is user experience via Modular Innovation. Both companies provide for Modular Innovation (MI); Google’s are very technical, Yahoo’s ‘average’ consumer focused and geared towards real-people engagement.

Technology may (does) produce great results, but the user experience (of course, when coupled with sound technologies) is what makes the users want to come back and drives the product’s growth momentum and, in turn, revenue.

What is that that I feel?

Many people do not or are unable to clearly identify what aspects of a product made it “feel right” or why they “enjoyed” interacting with it. But, those same people do know that they will come back for it again, and as their enjoyment and comfort with the product increases, so too will their frequency of using that product.

That product is Yahoo!

When you go to Yahoo and its various connected products and services you can consistently expect to see and experience…

  • Simple interfaces
  • Clean page layouts
  • Animated (for a purpose) UI components
  • Mouse and interaction responsiveness
  • Minimal clicks to accomplish one’s goal
  • Intuitive functionality
  • A guiding, helpful presence.

Briefly…

Simple interfaces with clean edges and layouts allow for the smooth transition of the user’s eyes from page element to element. They facilitate intuitive designs, interactions and results. Animated page elements, not for the sake of animating, but for the sake of the gentle transition from one state of information or ideas to another are invaluable to empowering the user to accomplish things painlessly and pleasingly in as few clicks as possible. This is Yahoo!

Please & Thank you.

A wonderful example of the added value and top-notch user experience that Yahoo presents is within their Search product. Yahoo presents an extremely pleasing search experience. There have been countless times where I have attempted, on other search engines, to find something online, and search and search I did — sometimes without success — many times spending endless hours.

In what I feel is a great example of the Yahoo approach to excel in user experience is their Search Assistant. As I enter my search into Yahoo Search they automatically provide me with suggested auto-complete phrases. When the search runs, I am also presented with helpful ways to refine, try alternate ideas, phrases, and topics, and zero in what I want. I do not have to search for the Search Assistant. I do not have to figure out some complex way of entering more advanced queries. I do not have to worry. When I need it, I receive the right amount of help with the Search Assistant. Yahoo caters to its users’ needs, does not ask them to figure it out, but guides them on a journey to increase their gradual exposure and comfort with everything that is Yahoo. Yahoo, thank you.

It’s all about the trend.

Yahoo is not (yet) my default search engine. But, when I am having trouble finding something, it is to Yahoo I go — because Google is not going to help me. When I want to find a better way to do something online it is to Yahoo I go to see if they will offer or introduce me to something that will facilitate my task — they have content and services on their homepage for me. With increasing frequency many of us are returning to Yahoo for Search and the other products that they have been acclimating and introducing everyone to on each of our returning visits.

This is the heart of the trend in Yahoo’s visibly improving, more competitive, performance.

As Yahoo continues to push in their portal and user experience strategies, so too will the frequency of return users continue to increase. An ever improving and useful user experience will drive sustained growth in returning users, that will, in turn, drive revenue and future success of the Yahoo suite of products. A fact that many other Internet companies (and their constituents) can benefit from by truly taking to heart.

Remember, neither strong technology nor a cool user experience alone drives sustained success of a consumer product, but when intelligently combined, they result in sustainably successful products. Yahoo, you rock my world!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Worldwide Vacation Day — Courtesy of Google

Grrr…How’s your day? Mine is fine, I use Microsoft Office. How is that a good day, you ask?

Well, it is as good a day (comparatively) as it can be with Microsoft Office … especially, when seeing what kind of day Google Docs (Google Office) is having. Ugh.

We (the universal WE) put more and more of our virtual office online as newer services become available. We, at my company, are very careful and selective about which portions of our virtual office are moved to third party services. More and more of everyone’s most critical documents and services are being placed online — software as a service is great…

… but, not even Google can do it trouble free. Today, October 10, Google Docs is down. Users are getting 404-Not Found errors or funny server messages. How can any other start-up, which is by its nature smaller and with less resources, provide any business with the 24/7 availability uptime that is needed, that is absolutely required?

If I have a problem on my personal computer, it only impacts MY productivity and MY work.

If (I mean, When) Google Docs goes down, then MY WHOLE COMPANY would come to a grinding halt.

In the ideal Google World (I hear they are working on that too, link ;-)) everyone in the world would be using Google Docs and Google services — and (the Google ideal version of) today would be a Worldwide Vacation Day.

Data must be portable! Data must be able to be redundant, shareable, and synchronizable across services and products!

The data is mine, and I should be able to determine the user interface, the user experience that I want to use to interact with it, be is MS Office or Google Office or SomeOther Office. If I want SomeOther Office to store my data and have Google Office edit it, if I want to store my files locally or at another online file storage service (e.g. Amazon Web Services S3) then I should be able to.

These IF’s and WANT’S are what will shape (are shaping) the FUTURE of products on the Internet. No one will put all their eggs in one basket, even if it is the Google (golden) Basket.

To sum up…

  • Let me choose which service and software I want to use to get stuff done,
  • Let me choose which services I store my information at,
    • And, hey, let me keep the content synchronized across different options (in case they go down!)
  • Let me choose my own user experience – that works best for me
  • Let me control MY data and how I access it…

… because, if you don’t…

Well, you just won’t be part of the future of the Internet and the coming time of Modular Innovation.

If you arent working on solving this problem right now… don’t worry, someone will be presenting solutions soon, and since they are nicely modular, flexible, open, and customizable, it will be easy for me to switch to THEM.

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Never do just enough.

important / warningWhen you come to the conclusion that it is time to raise money, raise MORE than you need. Now that you have decided…

Yes, I have something.
My product is working.
My user base is growing.
The hurdle ahead of me will need real capital investment.

… then, don’t raise just enough money. I have seen this same mistake, again and again and again! Every new entrepreneur thinks they can minimize the equity they have to give up, raise just enough for a few months on this new strategy, or just to get past that next hurdle. Everyone of those that think that they can do it on the cheap, that assume that their strategy will work give or take a few months because, hey, they carefully thought it all through, they lived and breathed this concept for a few years already, they know what they are talking about, is foolish. A company leader that approaches this problem this way is being reckless and jeopardizing the future of the company and its product — yet, I have seen it again and again (etc.), and seen it again after seeing these company leaders strongly cautioned. Don’t make this easily avoidable mistake.

Do not raise exactly what you need (or just a little bit more), based on projections, blah blah etc. etc. Be smart, recognize that you are not psychic and the unforeseen and the undesirable will always happen and alter your plans. Now that you have decided to bite the bullet and raise the VC money, don’t do it part way, or you will only get part way to your success. Part way to success is failure.

How much more?
Depends on how much of your company you are willing to part with and how much you need to set aside for potential future fund raising, and etc. You want to have enough money to carry you at least a year out, comfortably, and based on the new strategy that this money is being raise for — don’t assume that you will be able to go back to the other strategy temporarily. Always plan for the worse. You will be happy that you did. And, if you are raising another round in less than a year to take that next planned step, you wont be racing against the clock to not run out of money — have that cushion to find the best deal that you will also be comfortable with. ;-)

Finally. I cannot stress enough, the number of times I have seen a start-up be overly optimistic about their path ahead and ask for too little or just enough money. Later on they had to give away huge chunks of their company to just stay afloat or just, simply, sunk. Approach fundraising with care and consideration, but then go all in when your product and company are ready.

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Creating your product…it takes money.

Money TreeLately, I have been working with a startup that is building its initial prototype product with the help of some angel financing. As it often does, the question came up of…

When should we raise VC money?

When you raise your first non-seed/angel round depends on many variables, not the least of which is your current burn rate and the criticality with which you need it.

Some basic guidance…

Do it based on need — not NEEEEEEED!
Approach with care. Only raise the VC money (you are going to be giving up a big chunk of your “baby”, your company) if you know that you need to. The sooner you tap into the VC money, the more you will be giving up. If you are on a sound footing with the current funding you have, stick with it — the frugality you learn now will also benefit you as you grow, and be appreciated by all your future investors.

Desperately needing. When you NEEEEEEEEEED it, it may already be too late. The distinction I am making is that raising money should be based on a strategy and planning — not based on the fact that you will run out of money in a month and will crumble without it. With a plan, your needs are defined as tools that will facilitate your entering into new markets or accelerating the growth of your product. If you are desperate, everyone will know it, you will have to give up much more of you company (if you are lucky), or basically you won’t even get a chance at raising the money — who wants to bail out a needy, early stage, pre-product start-up??? Try your angels…if they still believe in your product and your plan.

Wanting. Also, ask yourself, do you need it or do you just want it? Pause now, think carefully. You have raised an angel round and everything is working very well. Everyone is getting paid, you are hitting your goals, you are about to start your alpha, your beta, etc. Why are you even talking about raising more money, from a VC, and not an Angel? If you are thinking about going to a VC to help you start building your product, before you have anything real to show for it, or because you want an even bigger money cushion than your Angels provided, for bragging rights, perhaps… then, think again.

Goal Driven. Raise VC money based on achieving goals: development goals, revenue goals, user base goals. Before you have a product, before you have revenue, your angels, your family, and your friends are the best ways to build and solidify your initial vision. If you are lucky, you will never need to raise VC money, and the angel funding and support was just the right amount to get the job done successfully. As you build your product and company, and work with your current pre-VC financing, never stop, and remember to …

Build, build, build. The more value you bring to any round of fundraising, the more capital there will be to raise, and the smaller the percentage of your company you will have to surrender.

Conclusion
Think carefully before you decide whether or not to raise Venture Capital. Do it based on product and company goals, do it from strength of product and positioning. And, once you decide to raise your first VC round, go all in, raise enough for at least 1 year of execution on your new trajectory that you hope the money puts you on — don’t skimp on your chances for success.

Good Luck!

Jeremy Horn

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