Standard Customization. Evaluating Flexibility through Quick-MI.

clip_image001Having choices, broad capabilities and feature sets, is definitely a good thing. All of the previously discussed categories of Quick-MI (4 of the 5 categories)…

…represent the critical components that illuminate the key variables instrumental in the sustained success of many current and emerging products, increasingly becoming part of the Modular Innovation trend.

Having the Flexibility, and being pliable and easy to grasp, further enhances the relationships inherent in successful and emerging products. Flexibility, in the abstract, prevents important relationships from breaking. Without Flexibility, a relationship becomes rigid. Rigid, brittle relationships don’t respond well to strain…

control,
self-determination,
change,
etc.

…often failing under the pressures of the people and products involved.

As previously described

Modular Innovation (MI) is all about relationships, be they between people or products online. In looking at how these relationships are established, maintained, enhanced, and expanded, one can achieve greater insight into the underlying forces shaping Modular Innovation, quantifying the degree by which a product is participating within, as well as evolving towards greater degrees of, Modular Innovation.

Equally important among the 5 categories that make up Quick-MI, is Flexibility. Flexibility is the measure of both the ease and degree of adaptability and customization permitted by a product.

In abiding with the overarching goals of both Quick-UX and Quick-MI (quick assessment for summary, directional guidance, and quantitative comparison), the variables constituting the minimal representative subset for Flexibility are…

  • Customizability
  • Standardization

Each variable and category (e.g. Flexibility) is assigned a value that can be compared and combined. When all the categories’ values are combined, they form the Modular Innovation Index of a product.

Customizability

Customizability is the measure of degree of plasticity of the other 4 categories of Quick-MI. The overall Customizability of the core components of Quick-MI as represented via a product’s present capabilities is sufficiently important to be represented by independent quantification.

Of each feature set representative of each individual Quick-MI category, Customizability is the evaluation of the proportion of the present capabilities that can be customized and adjusted to desired preferences. An example of Customizability of a data feed can be found in the permitting of the recipient, via an API, to customize the format of the data feed, e.g. choosing between JSON or XML.

The Customizability variable’s value is the sum of evaluated Customizability for each individual Quick-MI category; thereby, resulting in a maximum value of 4 (a maximum value of 1 per category: Sharability, Interoperability, Portability, and Convenience). Each Customizability value is determined to be…

  • 0 if the Quick-MI category does not allow any Customizability,
  • 0.5 if the capabilities associated with the Quick-MI category are allowed some Customizability and indication of preference, or
  • 1 if the all capabilities associated with the Quick-MI category can be Customized and have preferences indicated.

01_wordpress-exportWordPress proves a good source for demonstrating the variable value for the Customizability of the Quick-MI category of Portability’s variable User Generated Content Exportability, with this product allowing for some customization of the exported content, by way of controlling which authors are included within the resultant output.

Standardization

The benefits and value associated with Quick-MI’s Flexibility category are weakened through the lack of adherence to common practices and standards. The more non-proprietary, standard methods and formats are employed, the more they will be used in the relationships between product-product and people-product. And, in turn, the more resilient will be these relationships.

Some good questions to ask when evaluating the extent of Standardization within a product are…

  • Is there a non-standard API?
  • Is the resultant file in a proprietary file format?
  • Are standard methodologies employed throughout?

The Standardization variable is assigned the value of…

  • 0 if no standard methods or non-proprietary formats are employed within the product,
  • 0.5 if some places within the product make use of commonly accepted practices and formats, or
  • 1 if all of the product’s touch points follow common standards, methodologies and formats.

02_ostatus Identi.ca is a micro-blogging service much like Twitter. But, unlike Twitter it is built based on free and open software standards, implementing the OStatus suite of standardized protocols; resulting in a Standardization variable value of 1.

Fast and Flexible

Quick-MI is all about understanding and measuring the relationships formed and supported between online products, especially those pioneering the next generation of web products via Modular Innovation.

With too much rigidity, an inflexible relationship can strain and even break. Flexibility of the components of Quick-MI and simplification of benefiting from that Flexibility, through adherence to commonly accepted standards, is crucial to forming strong, sustainable products and product relationships.

Altogether, the 5 categories of Quick-MI …

Sharability,
Interoperability,
Portability,
Convenience, and
Flexibility,

… constitute a sound, representative, quantitative understanding of a product’s ability to foster and maintain relationships both within and without — yielding an oft missed, yet critical, perspective into the success and sustainability of an online product.

Enjoy, Discuss & Tweet!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

PS Try it out, tweak it, learn more about Modular Innovation and share you experiences.

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The Product Guy’s Weekend Reading (January 2, 2009)

reading_w_TPG_thumb5_thumb2_thumb2_t[2] Every week I read tens of thousands of blog posts. Here, for your weekend enjoyment, are some highlights from my recent reading, for you.

On Starting Up…
http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2009/0112/066.html?partner=daily_newsletter
Speculation of the final ‘exit’ of venture capital.

On Design & Product Experience…
http://www.usabilitypost.com/2008/12/29/slip-in-wordpress-dashboard-interface/
A interesting look at a simple and quick tweak to improving the Usability of a prominent element of the WordPress dashboard.

On Modular Innovation…
http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/whats_next_after_web_20_redux.php
From open data to modular websites, the Modular Innovations to expect in the near future.

Have a great weekend!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

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The Virtual Office & You. Belong together?

netconnect The 100% Virtual Office has been part of the promise of the Internet. Why is it then, that we do not see more of them being adopted by either/both established companies and start-ups? Simply put, the 100% Virtual Office is not for everyone.

What is a Virtual Office?

Remote developers and other remote employees. Outsourcing tasks to another company. Virtual Office can be used to describe these scenarios and various other forms and functions of a geographically diverse office environment. Of particular interest for this discussion, is the Internet idealized model, where the Virtual Office serves as the “core” (most important, strategic, etc.) operations and brains of the company. This ideal also describes a scenario where …

  • No significant number of employees work under the same roof,
  • The participants within the virtual office are full-time employees of the real company, and
  • In-person meetings are a rarity.

Not every company would or could be able to benefit from the Virtual Office, whether it is simply through the non-alignment of the company’s process and time sensitive goals with the capabilities of the Virtual Office, or the mismatched skill set of the manager charged with creating and running the Virtual Office.

A Virtual Office can be most successful in settings that meet the following characteristics…

  • Tight budget. The company simply cannot afford the number of people needed to accomplish the goals of the company within the geographically local market. Very typical scenario for start-ups.
  • Time flexible. Timelines are flexible and some time flexibility can be sacrificed if it can lead to large near-term budget savings.
  • Super-organized management. The type of process and planning-organization management is not typically something learned on the job, but brought to the table by the individual(s) creating and running the Virtual Office. If they don’t have this ability in their core, then this is a challenge they should consider passing on or seeking an individual with that built-in set of skills to serve in that capacity.
  • Creative and dynamic management. The processes and the overall Virtual Office machine need to be optimally organized and structured by the leader of that Virtual Office. However, that same leader must also be able to be flexible and adapt to new technologies and ideas as well as the teams and people that make up the Virtual Office. The Virtual Office is a living organism where many of its traits and features are not readily evident (especially since, due to the geographic dispersion of its participants, the normal in-office senses of sight and sound are dulled) and require a creative individual to comprehend, analyze, and modulate, to tune the environment within which the Virtual Office will best thrive. The challenge here is that the creative and dynamic individual is rarely simultaneously the super-organized one — finding the right person with both abilities further raises the bar in the challenge associated with creating a successfully functioning Virtual Office.
  • Employees. Those that are seeking the benefits of and adaptable to the company’s functioning Virtual Office mechanisms. (I will save a more detailed discussion of personnel management for a future blog post.)

As a matter of fact, there are many companies that can benefit from having a Virtual Office, including a few start-ups with which I have worked. Many more established companies often do not have the types of processes in place that easily extend to address the direct needs of a Virtual Office. Some can adapt, most can’t. Typically, it will be easier to establish a Virtual Office for a specific sub-task or sub-group, not the company core, for example, through outsourcing.

If the management is not capable of the above referenced traits and able to not just communicate, but to over-communicate with the dispersed team, then it won’t work. Time spent on budgets will balloon, teams will become frustrated with management and with each other; it may hold together for a while due to some strong players, but in the end, will … end.

Additional Variables.

Recruiting and Hiring. After having the right and appropriately compatible management in place and expectations aligned with the reality of the Virtual Office, the next most important key to the success of the Virtual Office lies within the recruitment process and the individuals / teams brought on board. I will discuss Virtual Office recruitment and the types and trends being seen in future The Product Guy blog posts.

Decentralization. Organizational structure of the Virtual Office directly impacts the processes and the level and type of communication and planning that will best suit it. The more decentralized, the more work that can get done; but, creating a largely decentralized work environment from scratch, where many of your employees may be new and still learning where everything is located, while an ideal to strive toward, is not necessarily the right first few steps to take. Decentralize as growth occurs, as the team foundation solidifies, and the more experienced, higher-skilled employees reveal themselves and can be leveraged in the gradual decentralization of the various processes.

Organic v. Manufactured. I have seen quite a few organically grown Virtual Offices, with a great example being the Automattic people behind WordPress. By organic, I am referring to the recruitment and building of a virtual office from individuals that have had a long standing work relationship with the company in some facility that are, more out of formality, dubbed with a full-time position. For an organically growth entity, there are no new processes or acclamation, they have been working as an informal (or formal) Virtual Office for some time — a very ideal scenario. Note, there continue to be very few manufactured, 100% Virtual Offices out there, recruiting and training newly discovered team members. For the right variables to line up …the right management and team, with the additional alignment of expectations that is required remains uncommon… the right ingredients really (typically) have to be there from day one.

As the skills of people, that make use of the evolving products and tools of the Internet that facilitate the Virtual Office, evolve and become more complex, we can expect to see more 100% Virtual Offices at the core of real companies become reality. But, for now, the skill set and necessary alignment of all of the variables in the 100% Virtual Office model, the manufactured (not organic) model of the virtual company continues to be rare.

Promises.

The Virtual Office holds, for many, the promise of many efficiencies. Nonetheless, it is important to understand and align your expectations of what you will be able to achieve through the creation of a Virtual Office before you dive-in.

The prevalence and adoption of the Virtual Office as the primary organizational unit of the modern company, at this stage of the Internet, is neither a function of the current state of evolution of Internet products that are being created by these companies, nor the tools for the facilitation of the success of the Virtual Office, but is, in reality, a function of 2 parts…

  1. Time. Can the company support the efforts of the Virtual Office? Stand behind the individual responsible for running it? Accept the burden of extra time overhead, greater flexibility of deadlines, and some of the newer uncertainty introduced into the timelines through a distributed office where when miscommunications occur, their impact is magnified?
  2. Multi-skilled leader. Do you have the right person to successfully lead the Virtual Office? Does that person have the expertise with operations and their processes, as well as possess the hyper-organizational skills required to keep everything working like clock-work? Is that person highly communicative and able to convey complex information easily and with rare misunderstandings? Is that person also both flexible and creative, able to adapt/modify the processes and tools needed as goals and situations change?

Those companies that are not able to honestly answer ‘YES’ to both parts, are not right for the Virtual Office. Companies that can honestly answer ‘yes’ to both are rare, indeed. Remember, this is not a put-down to those incompatible companies. Every company has different needs and different groups of employees with different skill sets. It is rare to find all of the necessary skills in a single Virtual Office leader (often these skills are found amongst multiple individuals – not the ideal for a Virtual Office) where the time flexibility exists AND all of the good and not-so-good expectations are simultaneously aligned.

The Virtual Office is often misunderstood as the promise of the Internet, the idealization of the inherent empowerment of the Internet, but, in reality, the 100% Virtual Office, is just another tool, that, when it’s the right fit, can really produce positive and concrete results.

Good luck!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

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