The Unsuspected Danger of Building Good Products

What makes a good product?

Best-in-market technology? Stellar user reviews? Right time of entry? Each of these factors indicates potential, but in truth, a product could have all three of these items going for it and still tank-it in the market. Just ask any of the 75% of venture-backed companies who fail to return their cash to investors.

So what’s happening?

Turns out, a lot of times, people are just focusing too much on quality.

The Difference Between Quality and Product-Fit

Sounds strange, right? Focusing too much on quality. But it’s true. In the early stages of building a product, more attention should actually be allocated towards the overall fit of your product within the lives of your users.

There’s an important difference between the quality of a product and product-fit. “Quality” is how well a product solves a customer issue. “Product-Fit” is a product’s ability to make the customer solve the issue, using your product. And beyond picking your product just once, Larry Page looks for it to pass the “toothbrush test” and be used twice a day.

The quality of a product is important. And quality does factor in to the overall fit of a product. But quality is not everything. Factors like price also play a significant role in the overall fit of a product vs. the other options in the market.

The original Echo was nothing to look at and lacked “skills” but sure found Product-Fit

Take the Plaxo story for example.

As a division of Comcast, the team at Plaxo was developing a product to solve the issue of Contact List disorganization. At the time I was the GM at Plaxo and working hard with the team on this shiny new product: The Plaxo Personal Assistant. It had premium, automated features. Integrated, cutting-edge database technology (Cassandra). Machine Learning. It was a beautifully-crafted product in a wide-open market. To boot, seemingly every working business professional griped and groaned about the issue of Contact List disorganization, and there we were: proudly holding the answers.

And then we went to market…

Our quality was through the roof. Demand was high, and competition was low. What better conditions could you ask for?

Product Page for Plaxo Personal Assistant (2011)

Well, there we stood. And what we got…

……………………..

………..

… was crickets.

As a product person, this hurt. Everything I had built up to this point in my career had worked. How could I expect people to trust my judgement after a huge failure like that?

Around the same time as this letdown, Eric Ries was gaining traction with his Lean Startup movement. I went to the meetups and heard Eric talking about the hundreds of other failing startups out there. He argued that ideas should be built simpler and proven faster to avoid overinvesting in them. Everything he was describing was exactly my pain at the time.

We invested two years’ worth of time and money developing a high quality product that no one would pay for. Dwelling on quality and neglecting product-fit With Lean methodologies failure still happens, but it happens faster, and allows you to move on sooner to the next idea. Failure becomes a valuable part of the process and not some ominous threat.With concepts like Minimum Viable Product we could’ve spent under six months teasing out these unknowns earlier on in the process. The fact that our price-point was too high and our entire initial business plan needed major adjustments would’ve been quickly evident.

I came away from this experience with a conviction that that overinvesting in a product’s quality, and waiting too long to shift that focus over to its overall fit within the market, is a serious pitfall. Equipped with these new methodologies, we then tried out some other ways of pivoting the business, and they, too, seemed not to fit in their markets. But we had found a way to get to this point in the process in a fraction of the time it had taken us before.

Team whiteboard at Plaxo as we explored possible pivots (2011)

At this point we had verified that there was no way to grow the business and recommended Plaxo be shut down. I expected I would part with the company but the management team at Comcast noticed the value in what we had gone through and asked me to apply what we were learning to their TV business. And so my work at Comcast Silicon Valley began.

We’re still applying the Lean methodologies today for our new product offerings and seeing success with it. Even if that success means failing quickly and getting to those products that do fit in the market and ultimately succeed in influencing the lives of our customers. Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas is still a great way to flesh out a variety of business models–I’m even using it on a project today.  And never again will I over-build large and expensive products without testing for product-fit early on.

Lean Canvas by Ash Maurya

Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera.

When to Ask Forgiveness and Secretly Build a Product Anyway

It feels counterintuitive to keep something secret at work. And yet we all see situations where organizations kill really good ideas. Organizations with and without models for disruptive innovation in place. If an idea is perceived to detract focus from the current top-down directives, it’s likely to face insurmountable opposition.

You can’t get the green light to build an idea without some sort of proof. And often you can’t get any proof without actually building it.

So what do you do?

Give up?

Not if your idea is a baby tiger, you don’t.

Yawning tiger cub
New ideas are like “baby tigers” that need your protection [photo by tambako]

Baby Tiger Ideas

Tigers may be an apex predator, but baby tigers need protecting until they’re more developed and able to fend for themselves in the wild. The baby tigers are those ideas that could be unstoppable, if only someone would see their potential and protect them.

A while back at eBay someone spotted a baby tiger and a group of us took it upon ourselves to work together and protect it until it grew into a $2B business.

It was 2008.

“Mobile” hadn’t quite taken off yet. eBay’s mobile site was underperforming in comparison to desktop. Management decided to fire the whole team. Forget about this mobile thing, our focus should be on the core business. Soon after this, Apple made an announcement to a select number of developers inviting them to participate in a new service they were preparing to launch at WWDC: the App Store. Some of these developers were at eBay.

Well luckily for eBay, these developers saw the opportunity in this and formed a band of renegades to get it built. One of these people was a designer on my team who came to me about the project. We got all of her other work covered by other team members and she was able to focus solely on the app so we could have it built in time for the launch. By the time the launch came around and the app was built, the project was shown to management and they were quickly on board with the whole idea.

Steve Jobs introducing eBay as an App Store launch partner (WWDC July 2008)

The eBay iPhone app was a major success, and a significant factor of the success came from the opportunity of being featured as part of the App Store launch – which lead to even further exposure and positive relations with Apple that helped as this whole “mobile” thing really took off. In 2010 while only 12% of top 500 Internet retailers had mobile-optimized Web sites, 7% had mobile apps, and only 2% had checkout features. eBay accounted for 50% of mobile eCommerce in the U.S. that year and 70% of that came from the iPhone.

These unexpected opportunities come up, and you really have to know how to spot them and take advantage of them.

Here’s a few things to think about when doing this.

Timing

Release an idea into the “wild” of an organization before it can defend itself, and it may very well be killed before it ever stood a chance.

Think about what dangers your idea may face when it’s proposed. What aspects will be scrutinized? What if it’s brought up to the C-level? How will it do then?

Framing

Often there can be a mismatch between the actual scope of something, and how much required effort various stakeholders perceive. If an organization’s general wisdom is that a feature is impossible or a lot harder than it really is, it will likely get killed.

Build your PoC or proposal in a strategic way so that it can specifically invalidate these kinds of assumptions.

Putting in the Hours

It may be necessary to put in some extra time to lay out the groundwork for your idea in any off hours you can find. Take advantage of opportunities like company Hack Days, where employees are encouraged to work on personal projects and share what they’ve done. Occasionally I’ve seen folks use these moments to share ideas they’ve worked on outside the office as well – whatever works.

Patience

But remember, it may not be wise to show all of your cards until your hand is ready to be played on the table of internal appeals. Mind the lasting importance of first impressions. It may be to your advantage to keep aspects of an idea behind the curtain until you’re ready to withstand its potential critiques.

Tact

If the opposition you’re aiming to circumnavigate is within your personal management chain, there’s a high risk of resentment and retaliation (however the idea pans out). Be mindful of what you broadcast and who may be involved and affected by these efforts.  

Cooperation

Seek out assistance and support in these situations.

People often gripe about middle management. But middle management can actually be a valuable asset in coordinating these, sort-of, guerilla collaboration-efforts when it appears necessary.

If you’re in middle management, don’t underestimate the liberty you have in your role to facilitate these projects. And if your approaching someone in middle management about an idea, find a way to contextualize it in terms they’re likely to sympathize with.


We all have to take some risks in life.

Don’t let your ideas get thrown to wayside without a fair fight.


Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera.

Billy Bean character in 2011 Moneyball (via Filmofilia)

The Dos and Don’ts of Leading Inherited Product Teams

Know Your Game Plan before Stepping into a New Locker-room

How do you Product Manage teams that know more about a product than you do?

When Product Managers inherit pre-existing products (whether it’s a change of company or an internal re-org) there are a lot of factors that need to be locked-down. Team Dynamics. Product Strategy. Performance Assessment Timelines.

Having a clear game plan in these situations can help you stay on the offensive, and not just feel you’re digging your product out of a hole. Below are some dos and don’ts I’ve picked up along the way after going through this process a number of times myself.

Game plans often need adjustments, but some truths remain constant and can be used to guide decisions as you move forward.

Do: Establish the Right KPI’s

Right as you step into a new product, figure out how the teams are measuring success.

How are we tracking performance? I’ve seen both extremes here. Teams that are drowning in data, and teams with no data at all. What’s the objective of your product? And what is the best metric to measure this objective? Getting to the right metric for your product is important.

I like Dave McClure’s Pirate Metrics, “AARRR!”, as well as Jonathan Kim’s refresher of the model.

What’re your retention metrics? You’re being judged on how much you’re moving it forward – it’s your responsibility to find the best way to measure success.

Define success for your product and illustrate that you’re doing a good job. This is your best chance to setup the goal posts–because if you don’t someone else will.

Don’t: Lead Blindly

Just as you shouldn’t blindly go along with whatever KPI’s were previously in use, you also want to avoid blindly doing what you think execs want you to do. Don’t build products without actively understanding why you’re building them.

Following orders without reason is not a strategy.

Analyze the issues your product is aiming to solve and make data-driven decisions. Read more on How to Say No to Your Boss in a previous post.

Do: Focus Your Strategy

Are the teams utilizing random, or no, feature prioritization? Are there disorganized backlogs? Is there a software methodology in place?

Whatever the current picture, these items need to be established from the outset.

Consider bringing in outside perspectives. Whether it’s a design consultant, or someone who can help to shape your strategy. It helps on multiple levels to seek fresh and objective approaches to the problems the team’s been living with for months or years. While you may be thought of as the “outside” perspective it may be more effective for you to facilitate that process and have an ally.

Seek to build a strategy that’s based on the objective of the product, and centered on customer needs.

An outsider’s perspective in Moneyball really helped Billy Bean (via Filmofilia)

Don’t: Think You Have Nothing but Time

People can tend to think too long-term in these situations. Deciding they need to completely redo the app. Start all over, in a new direction. Thinking, “it may take us a year and a half but it’s going to be worth it once we get there.”

Leaders often underestimate how much time they have. They take a long term, waterfall approach to rebooting the app of the team but fail to realize they need to produce results in the short-term in order to get to make it to those further-out time-frames.

The reality is, as a leader, you’re often judged much sooner than you’d like to be.

Do: Get Early Wins

It’s important to have a long-term strategy and make investments that are going to pay-off in the long run. But it’s also important to get some smaller wins under your belt along the way. Identify ways to move the product forward between now and the three month mark. Then again at the sixth month mark.

These may seem small, but it can signal to the rest of the organization: look, things are changing. Things are getting better. We’re making improvements.

Some of those early wins that you chose to go after can be useful teaching moments for your teams, and they can also buy you time to go after the goals you’ve set further-out. In business school a good deal of focus was spent on “change management” principles like those of John Kotter’s Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail [$] in the HBR. Around that time, I posted some thoughts on large company inertia on my website as well.

Don’t: Create Toxicity

It may sound obvious, but some leaders who step into an environment with poor cross-functional relations, see an opportunity to create camaraderie around their shared, negative sentiments. It’s “Us vs. Them”. Essentially fanning the flames of dysfunction and creating toxic cross-functional dynamics.

While this may create an instant gel around you and your team, it won’t pull the cross-functional teams together. And until you’re able to unpack that and create a collaborative environment amongst the other teams you have to work with, you’ll be drudging through a negative work environment.

Do: Get In-Tune with Team Dynamics

What’s going on? Are the different functional areas collaborating with each other?

When stepping in to manage a product team a couple years ago I found that Engineering, UX Design, and Product weren’t communicating. They were all completely silo’ed, which wasn’t helping the product. This is a good example of an instance where I brought in an outside perspective who was able to reboot everything and get it humming along. I was given a different area to manage after doing well with that team and to this date they’re still a well-functioning unit.

See what other dysfunctions there may be. Who’s getting in the way? Move them out of the team, or the company – quickly.

Who’s being undervalued? Find the diamond in the rough. Can they take on more responsibility?

Don’t: Think You Have All the Answers

Between implementing all your clever frameworks and reboots, don’t forget to listen to the team members.

Leaders seem especially prone to this mistake – failing to listen to the teams – when a product is failing and they step into fix it. It’s intuitive to think the quality of a product is reflective of the teams but sometimes this just couldn’t be further from the truth. Often you’ll find the team members themselves are frustrated with the product and have a pile of ideas that nobody seems to be listening to.

So listen.

If you were a coach stepping into to work in a new organization, you’d want to understand who your star players are. Who are the people that are going to be creating problems in the locker room? Who’s really talented but has a bad attitude? In sports though, the KPI’s are straightforward.

You’re judged on your wins. In Product, wins can be much more ambiguous. Getting clarity on what type of wins you and your teams should be going after will bring a lot more focus and success to your efforts.


Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera.

The One Question Your Product Demo Should Answer

Wizard of Oz Experiments, Pixar, and Other Elements of Product Storytelling

Why do we demonstrate products?

Should we be demonstrating products?

What’s happening beneath the surface of an effective Product Demo? Where should we be focusing our energy when creating them?

What makes these things tick?

Steve Job’s memorable Product Demo of the original iPhone (Jan 2007)

Product Demos can do a lot of good for your products. But there is one specific result that a well-crafted Product Demo creates that far outweighs any others.

They answer the simple question:

What’s in it for them?


Direct the efforts of your Product Demo toward showing audiences why they care about your product with the three following steps.

Step 1: Wizard-of-Oz It

As Product People, it’s natural to want to show off our prized creations. We might cavalcade our products through the streets, if the marketing budget allowed it. But, alas, we have to get our kicks during the Engineering Demos, because the Product Demo is for the consumer. And the consumer doesn’t care about the hoops or scrums, sprints, long jumps or high jumps our teams had to go through to make these things.

They just want to know what’s in it for them.

A well-focused Product Demo demonstrates how a product can serve end users. It does not demonstrate the actual product, itself.

There’s a difference.

Watching how a product can serve end users is like watching a highlight reel. The latter can feel like being forced to sit through an entire sporting event in the span of your five-minute demo, if you make the audience follow you through every single screen within your app.

Keep things focused on what’s in it for the audience by crafting the Hero Case of your product. The ideal scenario in which an end user benefits from the product.

The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939

This is where Wizard of Oz Experiments come in. As many of us know, a Wizard of Oz Experiment is one in which the subject thinks the computer program their testing is autonomous, but is actually being operated by a hidden person. One of human’s greatest strengths is our ability to imagine. We’re able to vividly picture elaborate scenarios in our heads on a whim and can be so enthralled by these imaginary moving pictures that we forget where we are. Why get in the way of that?

Set up a presentation that transports the audience into the Hero Case. And don’t take them out of it with unnecessary distractions like logins and page loading screens.

Wizard-of-Oz It.

The audience’s ability to visualize themselves using the product will make this type of demo feel realer than the actual thing.

Step 2: Tailor the Hero Case to Every Audience

Just as users aren’t concerned with the inner-workings of a product, not all end users will have the same Hero Case with your product.

In a tweet I have saved, former Pixar Storyboard Artist Emma Coats shares advice about storytelling that bears similarity to this notion.

Just as writers and audience members will have different ideas about what’s interesting, individual audience members will have varying ideas about that, too.

Consider your audience and tailor that Hero Case you present to them to match their profiles. If you’re interviewing with a reporter or a journalist, cater it to their beat. They’ll be doing this later on anyways, so take control of how that message gets shaped. If you go on the air with a local radio host, tie in a hometown, or two.

XFINITY X1 Olympics Product Demo (2018)

And if you happen to be presenting the XFINITY X1 platform for the Olympics to a group of youth figure skaters in Nashville, who really love the twenty year old figure skater Bradie Tennell, it only makes sense to show them how to soak up every second of their hero’s possible screen time. Right?

Plus, there’ll be plenty of other chances to show off the rest of the marquee Olympians (e.g. Shaun White).

In a great piece in the First Round Blog a while back, Rob Falcone argued this in reference to startup pitches, “Your Product Demo Sucks Because It’s Focused on Your Product

Good demos don’t have to be perfect for the product. They have to be perfect for the audience.

Rob Falcone (2014)

Step 3: Storyboard The Hero Cases

I’m a big fan of Pixar. I value a lot of the concepts in Ed Catmull, the president and co-founder’s book on fostering creative environments; and I also just enjoy the sheer awesomeness of seeing a scene from the first Toy Story movie get pitched on a storyboard.

Watch Joe Ranft Storyboard Pitch a Scene from the Original Toy Story

When drafting up the Hero Cases to present in your demos, storyboarding can be a really useful tool. When you label each card that represents a scene, if you will, in a particular Hero Case; the words you write down on the card naturally become the script for the demo. It’s a helpful way to figure out how to paint the picture you want the audience to visualize.


In movies, we don’t usually see characters doing things like chores, or brushing their teeth. Myriad exceptions exist of course, but even the exceptions are intentional. The filmmakers include them to reveal something about the character, or to set up the next scene. But every scene that makes the final cut in a movie is necessary to the plot. And if a scene is not necessary to the plot, it’s cut.

Take a look at the script of your demos and see if any sections don’t pertain to the plot of your Hero. Anything unrelated to the Hero Case is a distraction.

Stay focused, and make it clear to the audience what’s in this for them.


Thanks for reading! Please comment anything I missed or approaches you’ve found to get audiences more engaged. And for more on the Art and Science of Product Demos, check out my field guide to demos:

3 Practices for Building Strong Presentations

Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera

How to Say “No” to Your Boss

Or Worse: Your Boss’s Boss

It’s a product manager’s worst nightmare:

An Exec gets an idea from a teenager that lives next door. Imbued with optimism, the higher-up urges you and your team to drop everything and put all hands on deck. This is where we should be focusing right now.

Great.

Well, not only do you disagree with the efficacy of this proposed feature, but you’ve also seen the train wrecks these situations can cause. Teams get frustrated by being told to do something without understanding why it’s important. Execs get frustrated by a lack of production.

Your instinct is to push back.

But is there any good way to say “no” to your boss? And if there is a good way to do it, is it ever a good idea in the first place? For me, the answers are: yes, and definitely.

If you’re in a leadership role, working within a hierarchy, being able to say no to your boss can actually be an essential skill for success. If done correctly, it can make you a better leader, a more valuable employee, and a more reliable teammate.

Plus you’ll never actually have to say the word “no” to your boss.

Here’s how:

1. Stop Thinking in “Yes” and “No’s”

The first step in effectively saying “no” to your superiors – when it seems necessary – is to stop thinking in “yes” and “no’s”. This part’s really about good listening.

When a superior gives a sudden order, it’s natural to analyze the order itself. But by immediately jumping to that step, you’re missing the bigger picture. Before rushing to give this person an answer, ask them some questions about the idea they’re proposing.

Create a dialogue with them and, eventually, your team members.

2. Identify the Issue

Just as great art often comes from pain and suffering, great ideas often come from problems and difficulties. But in a business, some issues are more important than others. Find out where this idea came from. What customer issue would this feature be solving?

The issue at the root of an idea is more important than the idea itself. An idea may be interesting, but if the problem it solves isn’t that important, than the idea really isn’t as valuable as it may seem.

3. Enable Your Team Members to Weigh In

Once you’ve identified the underlying issue, go back with your team members and evaluate the problem. adult-analyzing-brainstorming-1080865

Bring in the data: Are we losing customers from this issue? Might we gain users by solving it? Are we already solving it? Might this new idea, in fact, be a better solution?

If it becomes evident that this issue is significant, take a moment to explore other viable solutions, and weigh them against the original proposition. If, on the contrary, the underlying issue is revealed to be insignificant, it’s probably best the feature not be built.

4. Sleep On It

Whether you found the underlying issue to be significant or insignificant, take a page from old wisdom and sleep on it.

Even if you manage to complete this process within the same business day, you don’t want this person to feel like they’re being brushed off. Aside from the notion that you probably owe it to this person to give their idea at least a full day or two’s worth of consideration, you never know. This part may surprise you.

You might have an idea yourself. Someone from your team may send you an overlooked piece of data they stumbled across.

I could’ve used this advice earlier in my career. There was a instance at eBay years ago that I can remember clear as day. While figuring out how to enable users to find items that accepted PayPal, an Exec suggested we have the logo pop up on every search result that featured the service (already accepted by 95% of sellers). At the time I was a very-much green UX designer and I’m thinking in my head, this guy wants to make the website look like the sidewalls on a NASCAR track. Only the problem was I wasn’t just thinking this in my head. I actually jumped out of my chair and shared my reaction. At the time I was so green I didn’t even understand that my actions were unadvisable. It just seemed so wrong I had to stand up.

drawing of eBay search results on a whiteboard illustrating a PayPal logo listed next to every item for sale.
Whiteboard drawing of proposed eBay Search Results with PayPal logo on EVERY row (2002)

I realize now that while my stance may have been justified, there was a better way to go about expressing it.

If the circumstances allow it, give yourself a chance to process the findings before presenting them.

5. Present a Data-Driven Decision

Most of all you must follow up.

Never assume that, if you’ve found the idea to be something you shouldn’t pursue, that you just leave it there. If you don’t follow up with the Exec they will naturally think you ARE pursuing the idea. And if they ask you about it later, you’ll be on your back-feet in terms of reporting on your earlier process (steps 1-4)–and will need to start over.

In the end, you can let the data speak for the decision.

Demonstrate that you’ve analyzed the issue at the root of the idea. You’ve explored viable options. And ultimately you’ve landed upon the solution that best aligns with company goals.

And if this means essentially saying no to an Executive’s idea, at least you’ve followed a judicious and egalitarian process. You’ve done what you’re paid to do.

A good executive will be able to see that.


Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera

3 Practices for Building Strong Presentations

A Product Demo Field Guide

There’s a few components to a product demo. The content of the presentation itself. The nuts-and-bolt logistics of how you’ll physically present your content. And then there’s another aspect you have to plan for — the technical difficulties. The mishaps. The curve-balls.

The unexpected.

Though after having delivered a hundred some-odd product demos, these “unexpected issues” have taken a much more predictable air about them for me. In fact I’m pressed to think of a single presentation I’ve given where at least something didn’t go differently than planned.

We can’t know exactly what to expect during the course of a presentation. But we do know the general types of issues that arise, and we can position our presentations in a way that doesn’t allow these issues to unhinge them.

Below are three different ways to address the factors I’ve found to play a consistent role here. By using these frameworks when planning and producing a product demo, you can avoid a great deal of pitfalls that tend to surface while presenting.

3 Practices for Strong Product Demos

1. Limit the Variables

When planning a product demo, it’s understandable to want to “think big”. You want to wow your audience. Dazzle them. Give ‘em the real thing! And then before you know it, you’ve assembled a Rube Goldberg machine of moving parts. Variables that add extra degrees of risk in the successful execution of your demonstration.

But the thing is, the less moving parts you have in your presentation, the less opportunities there are for errors.

An elaborate show of function is not the aim of a product demo. Effectively communicating why a product is relevant, and how it can impact users should be the aim of a product demo.

Anything that jeopardizes that mission is a liability.

2. Establish Contingency Plans (and contingency plans for those too)

Once you’ve trimmed the fat of unnecessary variables, assess the remaining components and identify any possible stress points.

Play out all the scenarios in your head:

What if the WiFi network at a venue gets overloaded? Personal hotspot? Ethernet cable? Maybe I’d be better off using stored content, and not relying on having a connection at all.

What if the file gets lost? Cloud copy? Hard copy? USB Flash drive? USB-C adaptor for flash drive?

What if the device dies on stage? Backup device? Powered on, plugged in, with the demo up— standing by on another video input, just in case?
It only sounds paranoid until it doesn’t. Just ask Bill Gates…

Each demo has a unique environment and requires its own assessment. Creating an exhaustive set of contingency plans allows you to easily circumvent any “unexpected” malfunctions.

Establish and ready your plan B’s, C’s, and D’s (E’s and F’s if you have them). The more you have, the less stress you’re presentation will take on.

3. Improvise 

It’s true. Even with a structurally sound presentation, and an alphabet full of backup plans at your disposal. The best laid plans go awry.

But that’s okay. It’s part of the gig, really.

Stay loose.

Now, onstage, is not the time to be rigid. Stubbornly trying to execute your original plan, when circumstance calls for impromptu adjustments, will only make things worse.

Equip yourself with the advantage of expecting to improvise. Planning on it. Anticipating the moment when you’ll need to think on your feet, briefly.

By simply realizing beforehand that you’ll likely be called upon to make small adjustments throughout your presentation, you’ll enhance your ability to make small adjustments throughout your presentation. Everything from needing to do your demo in half the planned time, to adapting to glitches.

I can remember a product demo I gave where the audio wasn’t working. Naturally, the product being demo’ed had a feature that allowed the user to ask the device what song was playing. Well, given there was no audio the audience couldn’t hear the song playing. But instead of distracting the audience, from the feature itself, with our technical difficulty, I just talked around it.

Something to the effect of, “Now, if you hear a song you like, you can ask the device… and the song will appear on the screen.”

Looking back, maybe it was better that way. Maybe… by not having the song playing, the audience was able to focus on the feature more intently, rather than on the song itself.

Either way, the presentation was fine.

Improvisation is a small but useful tactic to the smooth execution of a product demo.

Hopefully these concepts seem obvious, in part, to most people. The concepts, themselves, are not the key here. The key, here, is deliberately integrating these features into the preparation and production process. When utilized as a cohesive playbook, these approaches can keep even the most sabotaging of issues from the audience’s attention.

Keeping the focus on the product.


Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera

Favorite Winter Olympics Press

When your team works as hard and long on a project, like the experience we built for the 2018 Winter Olympics, its nice to step back and see what those outside your company think of what you shipped. And even better if it’s positive. 🙂 Here’s a roundup of my favorite clippings so far:

Engadget sat down at CES and offered a balanced view of the exclusive features that XFINITY customers will get on X1 and Stream App for the Winter Games.

Forbes piece highlighting our new virtual Olympics channels which dynamically pull together the best around key topics and sports which the journalist defined as “…the result feels like the future.” Article talks about blurring the lines between traditional TV and streaming.

From one Olympics fan to another, Gear Diary highlighted how if you have XFINITY X1 “your experience is about to jump to a whole new level!”

With my friend and neighbor Jim Kozimor announcing Curling for NBC I was thrilled to see Bloomberg pickup on how our virtual channels are a great way to catchup on one of the most unique of Olympic sports.

CNET also zeroed in how our editors and algorithms will play the role DJ in how we curate Olympics Channels much like Spotify does music.

I really enjoyed this lively podcast interview of my good friend Vito Forlenza around what sports we expect to be popular and what we together learned from the Rio Olympics experience.

Variety grasped the key behavioral change we’re seeing in PyeongChange of Voice Searching. We are seeing nearly 50% of all traffic to the Olympics Home screen come from the X1 Voice Remote… up 2X from Rio in 2016. Voice searching is just so natural it’s becoming dominant.

https://twitter.com/jank0/status/963839321827557376 

[developing story – will likely ad more as games progress]

The making of an Olympian


As a boy, growing up, one of my first memories of the Olympic movement was traveling with my family to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. Seeing the athletic feats first hand in alpine skiing and luge particularly struck a cord with me. Learning of the personal struggles athletes make in order to rise to the top of their game as competitors, let alone medal winning Olympians, is truly inspiring. And so when my role at Comcast allowed me, starting in 2014, to help shape the at-home experience of the Olympics I jumped at the chance.

This week in sharing our latest experience we’ve crafted for PyeongChang with the public I had the chance to spend time with two very special Olympians.

    • Sasha Cohen: In Atlanta this week she shared with a crowd, filled with young girls from the Georgia Figure Skating Association just starting their own journeys, what she most cherishes about becoming an Olympian. She recounted the sense of accomplishment in medaling, however its not what she most cherishes about her skating career. Her advice to those starting out is to appreciate the journey… the preparation thru training, scripting the programs, designing her costumes, etc. For those of us who build products for a living I think this also can hold true. Not that driving your KPIs isn’t gratifying (it is) but it really is the craft, the team effort and the process that I believe provides lasting joy. Sage advice from a 33-year-old Olympian.
  • Scott Hamilton: scott-hamilton-preston-smalley One of the all time greats in figure skating, he not only made his mark as a gold medalist himself but in helping many of us at home experience the routines of countless others over the years as a broadcast announcer. In gaining a peak into who he is as a man I can say this… the journey of becoming an Olympian really forged his medal and shaped who he is to the core. Nothing came easy to him in life — from battling major health issues as young boy to facing the world without the support of his mom when she died battling cancer while he was just 19. Thru it all he had to actively choose the path he took and no one would have blamed him for succumbing to the obstacles he faced. He said a big reason for his success was “making the easy decisions” like choosing to not to party the night before a big early morning workout — decisions he saw others, who were more physically gifted than he was, not make. I can’t wait to read his new book coming out next week.

As I reflect on what our product development team has put together for Comcast customers I can proudly say its the best way to experience the Olympics short of (or maybe including) going to PyeongChang yourself.

preston-demo-atlanta

Demoing the X1 Olympic experience at event in Atlanta (1/30/18)

My personal favorites from the experience we’ve built:

    1. Voice Remote: We’ve leaned into what we know from the Rio Olympics were the most popular phrases people say (mining the now 500 million commands processed each month). For example focusing in on the names of sports and the top athletes over the ability to search by nation. We’ll have live results and always connect you with something interesting to watch.
    1. Olympic Channels: While previous Olympics had areas by sport, there wasn’t an easy way to enjoy a lot of video without picking and playing each one. For PyeongChang we’ll offer 50 virtual Olympic Channels powered as dynamic playlists… allowing you to both lean back and enjoy or lean forward to skip to a segment that looks interesting. We’ll apply to all the sports as well as curated topics like biggest upsets and funniest moments. In a waywe’ve tried to combine the simplicity of live with the control of OnDemand.

      corporate_x1-olympics-home-screen-2

      Olympic Home on X1 (Comcast)

    1. XFINITY Stream App: In the past if you wanted to stream live the Olympics on your mobile phone or laptop you had to go install or signin to the NBC Sports App. For PyeongChang while you can still do that, we’re making it easy for those already used to the Stream App to make that video just a tap away whether you’re home or not. No muss, no fuss.
  1. X1 Sports App: For over half the X1 households that use this feature every month, it needs no introduction. For the Winter Olympics it’s sporting its own tab right alongside the other major sports in season right now. You’ll find it complete with everything you’d expect: all the events live at that time, background info, current results, related videos, and of course the ability to tune right in. Just press the “C” key on your remote to pull it up.

Creating this multi-platform experience that brings you the events in the way that you want was only possible given the previous technology investments we’ve made over the years. It does feel like this Olympics experience is a glimpse into the future of TV where the viewer has the choice of when, where, and how they want to watch. I can’t wait for you to try it and hope you take a moment to root for TeamUSA. It all starts on Feb 8th.

280 characters = Navel Gazing

Twitter’s move to test doubling the character limit of tweets this week can’t help but remind me of internal discussions we used to have 10 years ago at eBay around Item Title length. In hindsight those discussions were pure navel gazing and distracted us from the core issues our business faced. I fear Twitter is doing the same today.

55 Characters

eBay Search Results

eBay Search Results (circa 2008)

In the beginning when Pierre Omidyar built eBay to help his fiancée collect Pez dispensers on eBay (spoiler alert: this was startup lore more than truth) he placed a limit on the number of characters a seller could use in their title: 55 characters. This stuck for a number of years however sellers would often complain that they would like more space to describe their item. As we discussed it internally at the company several reasons emerged as to why it would be a bad idea:

  • It would erode listing fees like adding a second category (doubling listing fees) or adding a subtitle (50 cents). Remember these listing fees made up about a third of eBay’s revenue at that time (balance was final value fees, paypal transaction fees).
  • It would make search results less relevant. eBay at the time worked on a pure title search and so by allowing sellers to add more words would mean some items only tangentially related to the keywords would appear (thru keyword spamming).
  • It would be harder to visually scan. Both the item page and search results would be harder to read with a longer title. In face there was some concern that even the search results loading time would be adversely impacted.

eBay Logo Circa 2008And so it went on. The topic was discussed at length and always controversial. Eventually in 2011 the company decided to expand it to 80 characters to align with Amazon and other online retailers platforms. At that point the search infrastructure had improved tremendously and was able to still provide relevant results. Did it fundamentally change eBay’s business in the end or help in its battle with Amazon? No.

So what’s the big deal for Twitter?

I think the lesson here for Twitter is one of putting heir energy and focus on topics that really matter. For example they should focus on the fact that Twitter is a two-sided marketplace of publishers and readers. Publishers are looking for audience and to get their message out. Readers are looking for interesting topics from the general (celebrities, politicians, news) to the more nitch (product management, design). And yet the way it’s positioned is not nearly that clear–and this 280-char test isn’t helping.

Ironically Medium, who already has a much clearer two-sided value prop and now business model, is doing exactly this.

Prepping your TV for Kickoff

Growing up I wasn’t much of a football fan but having spent the last 5 years building features for sports fans… It’s become a passion of mine and one that I’ve dug deep on in terms of customer needs all in the name of “research” right?

Despite the headlines of ebbing viewership of football… It still represents 1/3 of the top 100 programs overall (NFL 29, NCAAF 2) in the last year and remains the biggest deal in TV… period. The only thing close is the Olympics, NBA Finals, World Series and major live awards shows like the Oscar’s… and no not Game of Thrones or House of Cards—they don’t come close in terms of delivering massive audiences.

So naturally my team at Comcast focuses hard on sports fans–still unclear why other TV providers seem fine ceding us such a lead in terms of differentiation on the experience but fine by me. 😉

My team’s feature lineup

Here’s the key features we’ve built to help the sports fan…

  • Sports Guide: new this season is destination for all things football including a live scores strip, live games, replays, commentary and more. And for the first time we’ve extended that to the XFINITY Stream App so you can tune into the game while on the go (or when you can’t get control of the house TV) including broadcast channels like NBC and ABC both in and out of the home.
  • Fantasy Football: Also new this season is a partnership with CBS Fantasy offering a personalized view of your matchups–allowing you to track the action right on your TV. Below is a view of my picks trouncing my fantasy league commissioner this week (sorry Ralph–I couldn’t resist) including ranking and analysis.
    fantasy-football-left-nave
  • Sports Companion: The X1 Sports App allows you to keep tabs across the leagues with realtime scores, deep statistical analysis, and ability to tune in or catch-up on replays. A majority of our fans also personalize their view enabling all their favoriting teams to appear in one place regardless of what sport it is.
  • X1 Voice Remote: greatly enhanced this season and now with full coverage of not just NFL but also NCAAF, MLB, NBA, NHL, and NCAAB. Now you can say things like “top running backs in NFL” or “Le’Veon Bell vs David Johnson stats” using your Voice Remote. Can’t watch an NFL game you’re interested in? Just ask for the team stats for any live or recently completed game (e.g. “what’s the score of the 49ers game?”) to get real-time stats.

Bringing it all together

This marks the 4 year anniversary of working together with the founders of OneTwoSee and 18 months since I led the acquisition  of the company. Since joining Comcast, Jason Angelides and Chris Reynolds have taken on leadership for this area under me and have led the team to even greater heights including these innovations. Their team combined with their engineering counterpart fellow Cal Poly Eng alum Matt Barbour deserve a ton of credit for not only picking winning features to build but for operating a set of features used by 1 in 4 X1 households every month… a total of half-a-billion times last year. How high will we reach this season? Can’t wait to find out but the first two weeks of football under our belt look promising even as we lap last year which followed the strong Rio Olympics.

What’s driving my team?

Since civilization began and the Greeks held the first Olympics 2,000 years ago sports has been watched live–and to this day it’s still by far he best way to watch whether you’re in the stadium or at home. However those rights aren’t cheap and PwC reports next year TV licensing rights will exceed venue ticket sales in terms of revenue for sports leagues. So at Comcast my team aims to make the most of those rights by making it easy and fun to follow live sports and ultimately tune into the games–making the rights worth it. So we’ll continue to expand what you can watch (e.g. streaming every Olympics event live) and make your sports experience personalized around what sports, teams and players you care about.

I hope you enjoy this football season and for those of you lucky enough to be Comcast X1 customers… 🙂 let me know what you think. We’re always aiming to make your experience better.