Design & Triage in the age of data/info > resources/time

Mailbox: An Ideo Vet Reinvents Mobile Email | Co.Design: business + innovation + design.

As far as interaction design / technology trends go, this is interesting to me on several levels.

We’re well past the point where getting data and information is a challenge. The challenge is no longer in getting it but what to do with it. Triage becomes more and more necessary when there is more data/info than resources/time to process it. I’ve set up triage processes in the major areas where things come at me and compete for limited resources. Somewhat similar to David Allen’s GTD, there’s usually a scan/capture stage, filter/prioritize stage then actual working stage to turn inputs into outputs.

Books: Go into a backlog if worth looking at (Goodreads, Calibre, simple document). Quick skim of table of contents and actual content to decide whether to take a deep dive cover to cover, x-ray just the most important chapters or bail on entirely given the opportunity cost of using time better. Study things if they pass that gate, extracting out important ideas into some kind of information product under continuous development.

Articles/Feeds: Clicked into a backlog (the wonderful Instapaper for cross device access and readability). Then a similar assessment whether worth a conscientious read, quick skim for takeaways or a relative waste of time on closer inspection. Output either to master documents or points of expression/sharing (other people, here, Twitter, etc). I’ve said before that I think the main currency of the web and knowledge economies are links / sharing.

Music: Believe it or not I have a backlog here too. Stuff I haven’t heard at all or in the past year, decision point to keep or delete is based on whether I care if I ever hear something again or not.

Email: Similar type of triage process as the interaction design of Mailbox seems built for. Urgent / important things to deal with now, less urgent / important things to deal with later, things neither urgent / important get baleeted.

Feature Backogs & Bugs: Obviously for product leaders, this has always been an area where it’s painfully obvious there is more to do than time or resources to do it. So you lead and prioritize to focus the team and get the best return on resources. Like achieving a strategic goal or improving upon a metric.

Goals & Tasks: The most important way I’ve found to filter and pare down endless to do lists is to vet everything against a higher level goal. Otherwise reorganizing sock drawers gets the same priority as answering the meaning of life (42). You get those days where you knock off one thing after another continuously, but at the end of the day don’t feel like anything meaningful was accomplished. So rather than the capture everything mentality of GTD I think it’s important to capture only what’s important, letalone do only what’s important. Further, have some exclusion criteria – a decision point why something is a waste of time so there is a heuristic for handling future cases. Works a treat for team and product backlogs as well. “We are not in that business.”

People: Don’t need to start pruning and sorting people yet 🙂 Although one set of buckets might be “good during the bad”, “inconsequential during the bad” and “bad during the bad”. Jokes aside, in person I try to make sure I don’t treat people like I’ve got some better use of my time than interacting with them. But our exposure to social data has obviously increased outside of face time interactions – this is why there are lists in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, you can unsubscribe/ignore/block Farmville, etc. We’ve got more access to social information that in previous times would have required quite a lot of effort to obtain and maintain, if not being altogether impossible for the people that maintain friend lists of 5000 people. Dunbar’s number comes to mind.

Besides the triage theme, the other interesting aspect of this to me is the use of gestures in the interaction design. Was speaking to someone the other day that the physical movements and gestures we can now use to do things have a level of engagement that is just way beyond clicking on a mouse or using a keyboard to interact with abstract objects.

There is something massively satisfying about swiping to delete an email. The trend of gamification hits on something bigger and more important than just chucking birds against poorly fortified pigs. There is an opportunity to engage aspects of physical, emotional and neural self in design and places that have so far been starved of that level of interaction.

Part of the appeal of social (insert app here) might be layer of personal connection overlaid on top of activities that might not have otherwise had it. We’re still meat bags of mostly water whose hardware is geared towards interacting with a physical world and tribes of fellow meat/water bags.

Lastly, I find it interesting how people use their mobile devices as a triage / filtering point, leaving heavy work for a conventional computing setup. I had noticed this in my own usage patterns – every one says that once they get a tablet, it becomes their primary choice for web / content consumption, but I have yet to meet anyone who really wants to bang out War & Peace on one.

I had noticed most mornings I do prefer my phone or tablet to triage incoming information. For the purpose of interaction design we need both an overview/fast parse and detailed view on available information. Zoom out to the bigger picture and drill down where we want to get into the weeds. Helps explain why people find themselves incessantly checking their devices wherever they’re at. We’ve got so much coming at us these days that we need technology solutions and practical strategies to stay on top of it all. I think this is a wonderful opportunity to build remarkable things.

Meet the Data Brains Behind the Rise of Facebook | Wired

Meet the Data Brains Behind the Rise of Facebook | Wired Enterprise |

Was remarking recently that today’s equivalent of the “Plastics” advice given to Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” must be network engineering, data analytics and scaling computing power (e.g. in memory or distributed systems like Hadoop).

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

“Silicon Valley’s most important document ever”: Organizational Design @ Netflix

Silicon Valley’s most important document ever — Tech News and Analysis.

Interesting read on organizational design and leadership. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg calls it perhaps the most important document to come out of the Valley in the recently mentioned GQ article on Netflix. 3 million views can’t be wrong.


Aspirational words on a wall are not enough: Enron had “integrity” on theirs. Do what you say you’re going to do (or are about).


Adequate performance is not enough. Favour results, not hard work: sustained A level performance > sustained B level performance = why B’s get a generous severance package at Netflix. But no brilliant jerks – too costly against effective teamwork. In procedural work the best accomplish 2x more, in creative work 10x more. Reminds me of Paul Graham’s 10x rule re: rock star engineers.


Honestly though? Everyone loves the “we only hire A-Players, B-players hire bozos” bravado, but in practice most self perceived tens are actually fives and somewhat insufferable. Obviously they wouldn’t be rated by others as tens on that basis, but I’m getting at the old stats joke – ask a room if they’ve above average and more than half will raise their hand. The people I find most admirable are the ones who perform at a ten level and manage to be modest, decent human beings anyways. There are way more self defined masters of the universe who aren’t as such but manage keep the attitude.

Keeper Test: If they said they were leaving, which of your people would you fight like hell to keep? Nice but hopefully there’s thought to development and potential to go along with thinning the herd.

Honesty: “I will not lie, cheat, steal nor tolerate those who do“. Cadets, semper fi, hoo ya.

Internal competition around perceived limited resources: undermines team outcomes. Eliminate cutthroat corporate sociopaths – favour collaborative A-players instead and reiterate that more talented people = more accomplished. Also great! Just make sure the corporate sociopaths aren’t in control.


Loyalty gets a near term, not indefinite pass: Neither the company nor employees should tolerate bad indefinitely.

Why companies tend to limit freedom as they grow: Growth = complexity = chaos. Process is one solution to that but drives talent out and limits adaptability when the market shifts. Favour flexibility over efficiency, add more high performance people over rules. Need some rules though against irrevocable disasters and on morality / ethics / legalities.

Rapid recovery is the right model: High performers don’t make errors or fix them quickly. Preventing error may be cheaper than fixing it in manufacturing and medicine, but not creative work. Good process helps talented people get more done, bad process tries to prevent recoverable mistakes.

Policies: You don’t track work days/hours when people are delivering around the clock, so why track vacation days?  Focus on what gets done and don’t track vacation days – just like it no longer matters as much if it gets done between 9-5. There isn’t a policy against coming into work naked but no one does – you don’t need policies for everything. Netflix’ 5 Word Expense Policy is cute: “Act in Netflix Best Interest”

Context, Not Control: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery. That’s the second quote from the author of The Little Prince to go on this blog, for those of you counting. If something goes wrong, ask how you could have provided a better context as a leader – high performance people will do the work right if they get the context. Do occasionally need control in emergencies / when someone is learning / not right for the job.

3 Organizational Models: Tightly coupled monolith, independent silos or highly aligned/loosely coupled. Monoliths are highly coordinated with lots of bureaucracy but exhaust people trying to innovate. Independent silos are self explanatory in contrast. Favour alignment around goals and outcomes but flexibility for groups to move at their own speed – depends on having high performance people in place and calibration on context.

Compensation: How much would this person get elsewhere? How much would their replacement get? How much would you pay to keep them? Compensation stays at the top of the market whether Netflix is doing well or not. Encourage their employees to interview and get ideas of what they’d get elsewhere – they don’t consider this traitorous.

The Laurier Launchpad Program: Strategy & Design

One of the most exciting and engaging projects I’m involved in right now is my role as Strategy & Design Advisor for the Laurier Launchpad Program. Just published this post on Laurier’s site describing what startup founders can expect from the program and some of the thinking that went into its design. I thought I’d elaborate a little more here.

Influences and foundations: Standing on the shoulders of giants

I like to joke lately that I think we’re getting closer and closer to a Grand Unified Theory of product / startup management  – at least compared to when I first started my career, or perhaps I have just become less ignorant.

Some of the influences on the program are as follows:

The Startup Genome Report: Conducted by Stanford and UC Berkeley, this report analyzes more than 650 startups to identify criteria for success. The findings of the report have served as the academic underpinning for the Laurier Launchpad program.

The Startup Owner’s Manual – Steve Blank & Bob DorfBlank is a renowned thought leader in startup management science. He is a key contributor to the above report and established one of the first / best systematic approaches to managing startups: The Customer Development Process. The Startup Owner’s Manual represents a further evolution on Blank’s earlier thinking in “4 Steps To The Epiphany”. This outside-in, market fact driven process is what we are teaching startup founders in the program. While I understand the subtleties around his point, I disagree that product management is mostly an operational excellence / execution function. I think the fundamental idea positioned by Blank & Dorf is the same as what many product management camps (e.g. Pragmatic Marketing) have espoused for years – you win by being outside-in to the market, not inside-out relative to it.

Business Model Generation – Alex Osterwalder & Yves PigneurThe Business Model Canvas has become a preferred framework over conventional business plans to capture how an organization creates and delivers value. One of the things we’re teaching in the program is that startup founders must own their entire business model, systematically test hypotheses and eliminate risk from each area, rather than get tunnel vision around any one particular aspect. Throughout the program, founders will test and refine their business model until they have one that is repeatable, scalable and profitable.

The Lean Startup – Eric RiesRies is the ries-on (sorry) why terms like minimum viable product, iterative design and validated learning have become common language in startup and product management. Ries is a student of Steve Blank, applied the Customer Development process along with concepts of Lean Manufacturing to his own ventures and has since been leading a reboot in the way we think about managing startups.

Running Lean – Ash MauryaMaurya built upon the ideas advanced by Blank, Osterwalder and Ries to create an alternate but similar process to market-driven startup management as Blank outlines in the Startup Owner’s Manual. What is particularly fascinating is that the very approach Maurya advises to startup founders is the same he used to create the book. The MVP was a table of contents and a book was built iteratively off that. How cool is that? A great example of how this process can be applied to taking any solution to market.

The Lean Launchpad course – Stanford ENGR245 / Columbia B8799-0355 / UC Berkeley EWMBA 295T / Udacity: Steve Blank teaches entrepreneurial management science using the aforementioned ideas and has gone through several iterations of that “MVP”. We are thankful to learn from that wisdom and how Blank has made these course models open source.

Flipped Classroom: This is a fascinating shift in education over conventional classroom models. Most of us are used to the conventional approach: students read content, instructors lecture to it, tests are given, people forget afterwards. In the flipped classroom model, students read and learn about content on their own, then go out and apply it in the real world against their own business ideas. This is “experiential learning”. There are no answers they can memorize, regurgitate on an exam and then forget afterwards – we evaluate them on the quality of their analysis, what they learned from the marketplace and what they will do next as they either pivot or persist in response.

There is no formal lecture during class – the classroom is “flipped” because instead students are the ones who give the lecture. Each week, they share what they learned with their peers, and the role of instructors is as enablers who help students move forward with quick solutions, guidance and experience.

Value Proposition

One could just read through all of the above and gain the contained knowledge that way. After all, none of it is top secret and the thought leaders are well known. We know that the value to founders isn’t just in the content itself.

Instead, the value is in providing hands-on support and expertise over and above the content. We’ll connect startup founders with resources, community partners and mentors who have “been there and done that” solving startup problems and building successful businesses. If experience is what other people call their mistakes, they get it from us without having learn the hard way first.

 “I wish this existed when I started my business!”

Our goal is to enable startup founders regardless of background with everything they need to turn their ideas into a repeatable, scalable and profitable business before time and money run out. We want founders to graduate the program not knowing all the answers, but knowing how to get them and turn unproven ideas into proven business models. We want to churn out better and better startups like widgets in a Lean factory.

The number one comment we hear from successful startup founders who are working with us in the Launchpad Program is “I wish this existed when I started my business!”. I am very excited to be able to offer this to new startups and help create the next great business stories to come out of this area.