Get a working product

I don’t think there is one way to build a product. Some people do copious amounts of research prior to even starting to build a product, others just go for it. Sometimes it’s due to timing, or money or some other reason.

I’m with Paul Buchheit (creator of GMail) on this one - the psychology of building a product is an important dimension - perhaps more important to some than others.

"One of the lessons I learned from that was just in terms of my own psychology, that it was important that I always have a working product. The first thing I do on day one is build something useful, then just keep improving it."

-  Paul Buchheit, Creator of GMail & FriendFeed (link)

Clash of Domains

I like this section from an article by Paul Graham on ideas:

The clash of domains is a particularly fruitful source of ideas. If you know a lot about programming and you start learning about some other field, you’ll probably see problems that software could solve. In fact, you’re doubly likely to find good problems in another domain: (a) the inhabitants of that domain are not as likely as software people to have already solved their problems with software, and (b) since you come into the new domain totally ignorant, you don’t even know what the status quo is to take it for granted.

I was talking about this only yesterday after a Hack the Government event.

In fact, if you had DomainA (being software for the sake of this conversation) and DomainB, and took the intersection of them, you’d start to see ideas that people from DomainB maybe saw but didn’t know how to do (not being coders) or even new ideas no-one had thought of - not being exposed to software.

A more interesting approach is perhaps to think of the building of ideas as this kind of intersection of domains, where the more domains you add, the morel likely you will find new ideas - so you can iterate over new domain until you get a nice set of ideas.

∑ Ideas(a..x) = DomainA ∩ DomainB ∩ … DomainX

So, you may combined software and home safety and create an app that alerts people when smoke is detected in their home. You could intersect blind users to this and create a more specific app that helps alert and direct blind users who have a fire in their home in a different way.

This iteration over domains I believe can seed many news kinds of ideas. Consider multiple domains completely unrelated - e.g. software, devices, shipping and environment - and see what ideas you can come up with.

Disruptive Platform Innovation

The question I want to open with is as follows:

Is there a difference to the engagement approach between user innovation and disruptive innovation when building a platform to support both.

Disruptive versus Constructive

Disrupters have a view of completely changing existing approaches towards a new approach that most people wouldn’t have considered prior to the disruption (or wouldn’t have considered achievable). Consumer focused innovators however have a view of building products for users by constructing parts of the services or building those services on top of a platform.

In essence it is the Yin and Yang of innovation. Constructive innovation builds products for consumers, there is a shelf life of the product, the underlying technologies are in some way disrupted leading to new approaches and a cycle of constructive innovation.

The point is that there is a clear difference between these two sets of approaches (not to say you can’t be in both - it’s just that the thought process is distinct). As Caroline Howard points out in her Forbes article:

Disruptors are innovators, but not all innovators are disruptors.

In fact, Eric Von Hippel has discussed in detail the differences - and symbiotic relationship - between user driven innovation and producer driven innovation.

The question is, how can a producer help create a foundation for user driven innovation before that innovation has happened? In other words, is there a model that lives somewhere between the producer creating the innovation and the user creating the innovation - is there an approach to patterns of engagement and services that can provide a platform for many producer and user innovations?


Idea Iteration

The idea that you need to iterate on user features doesn’t necessarily work when you’re creating a platform for disruption. What you are looking for is patterns across ideas that experts at a higher level can recognize and categorize.

There are two common but diametrically opposed views to building products. The first is courtesy of Steve Jobs and that is that your users don’t know what they want until you give it to them. More recently there is a growing believe in the MVP model where you build something and then iterate over it until you fine tune it for something people will buy.

The problem is that these models are based on the assumption you have an actual product for users rather than a platform for innovation to trial many kinds of products.

On one hand, the Steve Jobs approach generally doesn’t work as you need to know the kinds of problems people are having in order to build something for them.

Furthermore, the MVP model doesn’t work in building a platform for disruptive innovation as the premise of the MVP approach is in looking at specific products that solve problems for users.

You don’t have an MVP product to take to users as that is not the purpose of a platform - the platform is intended to act as a playground for building those products. Using the MVP principles with those that need to be innovating (product developers, hackers, startups and so on) is a good idea - but it is these groups themselves that would need to be taking their MVP products to end users.

Here are some examples that show the difference:

Product MVP

  • People can sign up to receive offers on their mobile phone
  • Users can store their images remotely
  • Citizens can connect and discuss issues in their local area

Platform MVP

  • Cheap, scalable service to allow sending of mass notifications to mobiles
  • Cheap, scalable storage services
  • Flexible, customizable social framework

In one view you’re solving specific problems for users - often things they can see and touch - or at least view in a specific context. In the other view, you’re providing services that can be used to build user facing products.

In essence, in the platform case your customers are people developing products - the distinction is that you are looking to solve patterns of problems rather than specific problems. For example, you want to create storage services that can be utilized by a host of consumer facing products (e.g. binary media, documents, encryption, privacy etc), rather than specific products (e.g. consumer image social network, secure document vault for lawyers etc).


The following diagram summarizes the above discussion. 


Notice that at each level there is an engagement process where at the higher level engagement is at a higher order and with people who have a horizontal view of problems, services, solutions and how behaviors at a global level can be changed (e.g. we must engage more with our citizens, people want offers in real time).

As you move down the layers, you move into vertical areas of learning and behavioral change where local domain experts and users can feedback into actual problems they are seeing and can create many solutions to address these issues. It can be challenging for people used to delivering focused solutions to consumer problems to see the higher levels of patterns needed for larger scale behavior change (i.e. making it easier for a broad set of users with a slightly less elegant solution than fits specific users - the right side of of the 80/20 rule decreases the higher up the layers you go, until you have an inclusive set of patterns).

In all layers notice there is a constant feedback layer of innovation - also notice that the arrows between the layers go both ways - there should be constant education between parties to improve the services and add new services - this is the MVP approach. As the layers at the lower levels utilize more of the platform services and hence can create even more innovation (due to reduced time to get their base product up and running), they can feed back up to the producers who can create new horizontal services that in turn can be shared across the community.

Furthermore, you can involve everyone in the innovation process at different layers as is shown below.


Notice in the diagram above you move from people with horizontal knowledge (at the top) to people with domain and niche knowledge - the engagement moves in both directions and innovations that move up the layers can be spread across everyone who uses the platform.

The further down the layers you go, the closer to get to clear definitions of consumer focused products - solutions to address various types of consumer problems. As you move up the layers,you find further and further abstractions from the detailed problem and more of a focus on a horizontal solution that fits many requirements (the pattern approach).

Steps to Disruptive Platform Innovation

The following steps will be iterated over, but it’s a start in understanding the steps that could be taken to create an innovation platform for disruption.

  1. Disruptive Business ideas - grand visions or ideas through discussion between experts and industry. Add in consumer focus groups noticing patterns. At this level you are not doing stuff, but rather noticing patterns across the consumer base.
  2. Enabled by disruptive technical platform capabilities to address patterns at scale. People with horizontal technical knowledge are key.
  3. High level business goals - knit together components to do new things. New technical patterns enable new ideas - or make original ideas attainable.
  4. Enabled by more specific technical platform capabilities. The patterns become implemented as composed use of the platform services.
  5. Detailed business goals - customer vision from in the field experience (algorithms, apps etc)
  6. Supported by user feedback. Gather requirements etc. This is where you scale engagement.
  7. Enabled by specific technical solutions
  8. Iterate and build many technical solutions. Start small. Improve the higher level patterns by bottom up feedback.

Humphrey’s Law

The proposition that consciously thinking about one’s performance of a task that involves automatic processing impairs one’s performance of it. For example, golfers who think too closely about their golf swings may find that they cannot swing properly, and a man who thinks too closely about how he knots a bow tie may find that he cannot do it.


In Agile Software:

Customers never know what they want until they see working software. If customers do not see working software until the end of a project, it is too late to incorporate their feedback. Agile methodologies seek customer feedback throughout the project so that teams can incorporate feedback and new information as the product is being developed.

Open Innovation in Vitamins

A BBC article by Helen Briggs this morning caught my eye - initially because of the title - “Vitamin C keeps cancer at bay, US research suggests”, but as I read through it my thoughts led to a more disruptive approach to the world of vitamins.

The research itself is fascinating suggesting that high-dose vitamin C can boost the cancer-killing effect of chemotherapy in the lab and the article itself uses enough medical terms to keep me googling for a few hours.

However, two things grabbed my attention in the article. The first is that vitamins cannot be patented and hence pharmaceutical companies do minimal research (including minimal funding for university research) and trials on vitamins. Secondly, from my very basic understanding of the report, it was reported by influential chemist Linus Pauling (a huge advocate of Vitamin C) in the 1970’s that intravenous injection (as opposed to the much less effective oral use) of high dosage Vitamin C was an effective treatment for different kinds of cancers.

However, clinical trials in 1978 using an oral approach by the Mayo Clinic failed to replicate the findings of Pauling (there was huge controversy over their oral approach versus his intravenous approach). This high profile trail ended general interest into using Vitamin C as a cancer treatment.

Again, having done some Google research, what i can gather is that serious research into this was effectively abandoned for the best part of 35 years - a large part of that no doubt being the fact commercial companies would be unable to patent their findings.

So, where does Open Innovation fit in? Firstly, research is fundamentally about collaboration - in a commercial or non-commercial context. Secondly, as vitamins cannot be patented, large pharmaceutical companies are not going to make relatively huge investments into its research - the optimal approach is a grassroots sharing of knowledge model.

We are making huge strides in open data, open source software, open services and even general openness in terms of transparency, sharing and leveraging the social networks (broad and niche) that are building up day to day around us.

Imagine scientists doing what they do best in the research and development of vitamins but in a completely open world where the data, results, visualizations and engagement happens publicly in a way citizens can understand and be part of.

Clearly there are bigger challenges when it comes to safety of clinical trials and the like, but surely research being simply lost for 35 years isn’t the correct alternative path. While it’s true that general interest in using Vitamin C in cancer treatment dissipated after the Mayo Clinic trial, it’s a fairly safe bet that there was a long tail of scientists (and citizens) globally with an interest in this area unable (or unaware) to connect with each other.

Now, finding, sharing and collaborating is so much easier. Furthermore, reaching the next layer from expert all the way up to the general citizen is so much easier - instant feedback. We have the tools - vitamin research needs open innovation platforms (data, analytics, visualizations, collaboration, stories etc).

The other challenge is really starting to understand what vitamins are actually useful and what is hype promoted by companies with a commercial interest. Vitamins in general could really benefit from data transparency, networks and a feedback loop to help people make that decision for themselves. You just need to read articles like this one to see two completely opposing views from two experts - no wonder we’re confused.

Many of us would love to see real data from real people rather than contradictory expert opinion because as the Mayo Clinical trial shows, those opinions aren’t always based on the same facts.

Disclaimer: I am no expert in the world of vitamin research so I encourage feedback to enhance my knowledge and i’ll update this article as I learn.