Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Great idea - even if it is being done already

When you have (what you think is) a “great idea” – what do you do? I get this false positive often, so I write a quick summary and maybe a sketch in one of my many notebooks (yes, with a pen) or, if I’m online, I add it to my perpetual JR-ideas document (yes, of course it's a google doc).
Sometimes, I actually believe I have an original, great idea and I begin to consider plans to get it from concept to market. Many times, the idea is probably crap, and I know it, but I write it down anyway (there's an analogy here with cow-produced fertilizer - where maybe this idea can help another better idea grow... so maybe that's why I keep it). In either case, the step I recently realized that I avoid for a while is the obvious research step - the online search (yes, of course that online search) to see whether and how this idea has been done before...

I'm pretty sure I avoid the search for 2 reasons:

1 - If I find other examples of this idea too soon, it might ruin my creative process and sub-consciously guide me towards the pre-existing designs... I'd be influenced and "my" idea might not get a fair shot at becoming unique or innovative.

2 - I'm never quite sure whether finding examples of the idea is better or worse than NOT finding examples... This is actually the root concept I wanted to make in this post (it always takes me a while to get there, doesn't it?)...

So if I find no results in my search - that is, no examples of products implementing this idea - I can look at that optimistically ("yay! I'm first! I knew this was a great idea!"), or, pessimistically ("...of course nobody's doing this - I knew it was a bad idea.. they probably tried and failed or did the research and found no market or no margin")...

If I do find results in my search - examples of this "unique" idea - again, the optimist says "see? This IS a great idea! People are already spending money in this area!", while the pessimist says (in their best Eeyore voice) "hmmm... too late... again".

The other day, I had one of these self-proclaimed "great ideas"... one which I actually told a few people just to get their reaction. My personal litmus test passed, which is "I would buy one of these!"

The Idea: Crank-powered Cell Phone Charger

You've seen those emergency radios, right? with the crank on the side so you don't need batteries... well... why not power a cell phone that way? We all have "emergencies" where we have no power in our cell phone, but urgently need to call home to see if we should be picking up milk or pizza ;)

Was I right? Is this a great idea?

Of course it’s a great idea (is it?) – that’s why it’s been done! (does that make it a great idea?)
When I finally took the obvious step of searching for such a product, I found more than a few – including the Sidewinder, which was exactly what I envisioned when I wrote this (ahem...) totally original idea in my ideas list.
In fact, CNet, Gizmodo and Engadget all reviewed such devices (ok... Engadget's was a review of a different kind of cell phone charger which probably had no predecessors when the dude pictured did his search for "hamster-powered cell-phone charger"), but the Gadgeteer reviewed the SideWinder as far back as September, 2003 ;)

So - my conclusion is, it's ok to take a bit of time developing an idea before even looking at the market... I think it does help the creative process... but when those 4 minutes of innovation are over (ok, maybe 40), I'll do the search! Even if the results (or lack of) leave me confused and optimistic (or is that pessimistic?), at least I'll know whether I can just buy one - rather than designing, developing, producing, testing , fixing and producing again, just so I can have one myself.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Beer Pitchers 2.0

Maybe they were thinking "they're too busy bowling to notice"... or maybe bowling alleys aren't the only ones using this new beer interface... I haven't gone bowling in a long time, and, come to think of it, I haven't ordered a pitcher of beer in a long time either, so maybe the whole 'beer pitcher space' changed around me while i wasn't looking...
I'm referring, of course, to the "Beer Pitcher Implant", which, no doubt, is filled with high quality, organic, spring-water ice ("it's to keep the beer cold!"), but also serves the unfortunate purpose of cheating the buyer out of about 24 ounces of the purchased fluid... I don't think they reduced the price of the pitcher since implementing this new chrome...
Any way, I forgot to mention the beer was actually pretty cold, but we drank the small quantity so fast that trying to keep it cold with this new feature is a total farce.
Kudos to the product manager responding to the users who complained their beer wasn't cold, but who forgot to test this thing with real bowlers (er, beer drinkers)... you think he escaped (or got fired) before the user feedback poured in - or you think he got promoted for reducing the cost of every pitcher? (I'm so negative)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Monday morning meeting

I was moving slowly this morning, trying to wake up for the start of the week as I drove to the train station at 5:55am. Thinking the normal morning product thought (“I wonder if there’s time to get a coffee?”)… when I suddenly get this sense, out of nowhere, that I’ll probably hit a deer on this fine Monday morning (really...this was the actual thought - a very weird thing)- so, I slowed down a bit – to about 35mph. That thought was quickly followed by a memory of running directly over a suicidal bunny last week, which, I swear, did this head-first dive (on this very same road) directly into my rolling right front tire, as if I was about to run over a very tasty looking carrot and he figured he could beat me to it... just like in that book of bunny suicides... So, with that unpleasant thought in my mind, I found myself trying to recall the cartoons from that book... and within seconds, I caught about 2 frames worth of a speeding deer out of my left eye and “Thwack-bam!”, I hit that deer with barely enough time to just touch the brake and brace myself with both hands on the steering wheel. In an empathetic harmony, I simultaneously let out an audible “Uh!” as I saw a bit of deer dust (and maybe a slight splash – yuk) spray from my right front fender. I looked in the rear view mirror to see the deer collapse (rather peacefully) by the roadside and within the next 5 seconds a thousand thoughts raced through my mind as my heart rate built up to an all out sprint... I thought about whether my car was damaged, and whether I should stop... thanked the deer for not being big enough or high enough to trigger my airbags or smash through my windshield... wondered if anyone saw this spectacle of the deer-infested suburbs... wondered if the deer saw my face as clearly as I saw hers...and...then... I thought about whether there was a market for The Book of Deer Suicides.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The important stuff...

This blog isn't about my family - it's about web products and products in general... But since my Dad died last Tuesday, posting to my blog about web products seemed so unimportant - i felt like I could only continue posting after writing about him in some way...
But this blog isn't about the important stuff, like family and relationships... so, to honor my dad in this post, I guess I'll just focus on the stuff relevant to this blog - his love of technology and the web, his connection to web products and his interest in products in general. I won't mention all the important stuff, such as the relationship I had with him - which, unlike any of my friends relationships with their fathers growing up, was open and honest, based on complete trust and, in many ways, more of a friendship than most experts (or maybe even I, as a dad myself now) might consider healthy. And I won't mention how much I loved him, 'cause even if I tried, there are no words on paper or bits on a web server somewhere which could fairly describe the depth of my love for him... and I won't mention how deeply I trusted him and respected him and how comfortable I was in his unconditional love for me and my wife and my kids - 'cause that certainly isn't relevant here.... and I certainly won't get into his relationship with my mom - which started when they were early teens and started again in their 60's... and I won't get into my Dad's love of his grandchildren (again, no words...), nor his commitment to all the people he helped as patients while he practiced psycho-analysis for 20+ years (after changing the course of his prior 15+ years as a stock-broker - imagine?)...and his love of his profession as a therapist and his passion for life and all the things that brought him joy - I won't mention it! Most of all, I'll skip all the talk of his courage and resilience as he cleverly battled cancer for 7 years, even though the doctors figured his to be less than a 1-year fight - which is forgivable, as they clearly didn't know him and clearly hadn't met his partner in this battle - my mom, who had already beat this evil disease herself and who, with her power of positive thinking (and cooking) could likely cure world hunger - not to mention (which I won't!) the motivation he had, to live to see all 3 of my kids be born, and his other 3 grand-daughters grow into beautiful young women, none of which would not have been possible given his original prognosis... no... all of that is irrelevenat for you, the reader of this un-important blog...

So - what is relevant for this blog then? My dad loved technology... starting with any physical electronic or audio/video gadget, maturing into computing gadgets in the late 80's and more recently turning into a pure love of the web. He was the first person I knew on the web... in fact, he was on the pre-web - on Compuserve's CIS service - getting online help from Gary Yost of Autodesk 3D-Studio fame when we founded Vivid Images together with my Brother-in-law (flying logos for videos). Then he gravitated to the web, where he would give me on an almost daily basis a rundown of the best new sites at a time when only a few hundred were posted per day (on the whole web!). He even started his own column called "How Come?" when he hooked up with a friend who was running the earliest ISP I ever knew. He was the first to tell me about Yahoo, about AOL, about Google (which, even my friends remember as an ironically early foreshadowing of my future employer) - and he was the first to get hooked on Ebay, when he slowly sold off a collection of a few hundred car magazines which were abandoned at our house by an old nomadic friend who reviewed cars and bikes for a living. In fact, he started a site called "SearchAllAuctions" which, before Ebay had cornered that market, allowed people to see search results across all the auction sites (yes, there were actually other players in that space back then). He must have hit a good idea on that one, as Ebay sent him a "cease and desist" on crawling their auction listings ;). He was a pioneer of the web the same way he was an early adopter in all his adult years in audio, CD's, home video production, and anything else electronic. Having secret insight into my future, he was also an avid spreadsheet user - starting with Lotus 1-2-3 and even a hardly-known product called Lucid-3D.
More recently, of course, he maintained a personal DVD Ratings list on Google Spreadsheets, which I subscribe to... and he even, in his last few months, began designing where his vision was to help people understand and cope with the complex relationships between stepparents and stepchildren.

So - that's the relevant stuff here... not very important, but relevant to most readers of this stream of bytes who, luckily, don't come to my blog to get the stuff which makes life important. The important stuff are the people waiting for you to stop reading this so you can get back to them.

"Burn Slowly the Candle of Life" - Edward Rochelle (original credit to the Moody Blues)

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Product Managers aren't exactly artists... but...

Making my first foray into the art world this weekend, I went to a demonstration by an artist, Elizabeth Pruitt, in a gallery near my home. It was intriguing... to watch someone slowly turn blotches of paint into a practically alive version of still objects. And, while watching Elizabeth, an analogy of painting artists to software product creators came to me quite clearly.

Elizabeth set up her still life model to be a pre-defined image of what her product would become. If you didn't like the way the roses sat atop the box, or if you just don't like brass urns and grapes, than you know in advance that you probably won't like her finished product - even before her brush hits the canvas. On the other hand - if you love the way these objects fit together the way she has created the physical model, and you've already enjoyed the beauty of her other paintings, than you will love this particular painting when done (which we did!).

The point is (yeah, I'm finaly getting there) that Elizabeth defines her product well before she paints it. She figures it all out before any tubes of paint are even opened. The objects, their relationship to each other, the colors, the shadows, the light (!), "the story" (as she puts it). Do all painters work this way? I think not. I'm guessing there are some which start painting without a real vision of where they'll end up...and while they still may achieve brilliance, they couldn't convince anyone else of that until the work was done.

It seemed so clear to me that product managers - at least in the software space - also work closer to one of those methods or the other... either diligent about defining every behavior of their finished product, every graphic, every navigation, every functional feature - or - loosely outlining only the highest level definition of what they are creating (uh..."web-based collaboration", as an example)... while most fit somewhere in between these two extremes (guess which side I am closest to ;)

As I thought about this blog entry - it also ocurred to me that this line of thinking is very close indeed to a brilliant Malcolm Gladwell speech (a rendition of which I heard at a sales conference about a year ago) which expands on the concepts put forth by David Galenson in his book "Old Masters and Young Geniuses".... Here's a quick excerpt from his site:
"Experimental innovators work by trial and error, and arrive at their major contributions gradually, late in life. In contrast, conceptual innovators make sudden breakthroughs by formulating new ideas, usually at an early age."

Seems like analogies come easy when comparing creators in any medium - just took my a bit by surprise at first since it seemed painting was so far from my work for me when I first stepped into that gallery.