Resolutions, Metrics, and Morality of Apps

Happy New Year, everyone! How are those resolutions coming along so far? 

This year, along with my annual Dry January routine, I decided to deactivate Facebook¹. I don’t think it’s a bad service, and this isn’t going to be a hit piece or anything, but it had become a time-suck for me and I wasn’t getting enough out of it to continue².

Around the same time, I also happened to check the iOS app store on January 3rd. Here’s what I found:

 App store screenshot, Jan 3, 2018

App store screenshot, Jan 3, 2018

More than half of the trending terms were for some flavor of health- and fitness-related app³. This didn’t come as a surprise — people resolve to lose weight, get in shape, meditate, and increase their overall “wellness” (gross) in the New Year. It’s why I was there, too! 

It did get me thinking, though, about how download and usage rates of software after the New Year could be used as an indication of how the morality of apps are perceived by users. If downloads and usage rates spike in early January, it’s likely that users see your apps as virtuous — something to improve the lives of users. If there’s a rash of account deletion, or a decrease of downloads, page views, and usage starting January 2nd⁴, it’s likely that users see it as a vice. Not necessarily bad, but definitely not something that is seen as healthy. I think drinking booze is awesome, but I wouldn’t call it a virtue. 

1.2.png

So, Product Managers, Designers, and Engineers — don’t just ask yourselves if your products are good or bad. Start asking, “is our product seen as a virtue or a vice?” as well. 

I’m not here to say that one is better than the other, but it should be aligned with why you’re here, the philosophy of what you’re trying to accomplish as a company or software creator. Virtues and vices can both make people feel good; are you making people feel good with satisfaction or with an indulgence? Both of these positions are valid and, ideally, intentional.

Here’s a breakdown of the categories of software apps out there from a moral perspective⁵:

Virtue Apps

Virtue apps are seen as those that help you do what you should be doing — getting healthier, wealthier, wiser. They’re positioned as not just making your life better — they’re making you better. 

The most obvious category here is weight-loss for New Year’s resolution. I don’t have access to the typical fitness app signup or usage metrics, but if I had to guess, it would look something like this: 

1.3.png

Big spike for January, plus a smaller spike for pre-summer⁶ diets because you probably forgot about your New Year’s resolutions by February. I’m betting most Virtue Apps have a similar trend line. 

Meditation is another category of app that’s all the rage right now — Headspace, 10% Happier, are good examples, plus the allegedly-forthcoming Sam Harris app I wish I could include but it’s probably never going to be finished (devs are probably spending too much time on vice apps). 

Productivity and organization is another example of virtuous apps. Sounds seductive and awesome — if only I had everything organized I’d accomplish so much more. For me, though, “I’m going to get organized this year!” usually means “I’m going to take more disorganized notes in the first couple of weeks in January.” This is an area I’d actually like recommendations on — is there an app that cures laziness yet? 

Some virtuous apps even go out of their way to make sure you know they’re virtuous. The diet and weight-loss industry definitely isn’t without its critics, so it’s important to explicitly address them — I hate the term “virtue signaling,” but here we are. For example, My Fitness Pal showed me this warning for submitting a log with 0 calories (obviously they’re not up on the Intermittent Fasting trend). They want me to know that developing an eating disorder isn’t something they’ll give me social status for (NB: one of their remedies for this is using their app more often). 

 My Fitness Pal calorie deficit warning, Jan 3, 2018

My Fitness Pal calorie deficit warning, Jan 3, 2018

For a virtue-focused app, it’s important to be seen as virtuous and actually valuable. The morality-positioning questions you want to ask yourselves might be something like:

Are we promoting good behavior? Are we actually helping people? How do we keep helping them all year?

It’s of note that products can be seen as virtuous even if they’re closer to vices. There are some virtuous “wellness” apps that have the same sort of micro-transaction/addiction schemes as described in the vice section. An analogous real-world example would be something like sports drinks vs soda — they’re both packed with sugar, but Vitamin Water is usually considered healthier than Coke (both owned by the same company, btw).

Vice Apps

A vice app can be defined as something that’s taking away time away from the things you should be doing, especially if it isn’t bringing you joy. Should is definitely a value judgment here, but isn’t all morality?

Social Media apps are probably the most obvious vice apps. There is no end to the criticisms about how people, especially the younger crowd (I’m not going to say the M-word) are glued to their phones. This disconnect from the present is generally for social media — looking at Twitter, browsing Reddit, posing for pictures to post on Instagram or Snapchat, etc.

The other broad category of vice apps are games. A game, by definition, is the opposite of work (you know, that thing you should be doing). There’s nothing inherently wrong with games, but if they’re becoming a distraction/addiction, they’re going to be seen as anti-productive. Losing some productivity isn’t he worse thing in the world; darker versions of this are are free-to-play games with micro-transactions that deplete your bank account as well as your time.

For a vice app, the positioning question to ask yourself is something like this:

Are we providing a pleasurable indulgence or being predatory?

If it’s the former, how do we make sure it stays that way without being evil? If the latter, are we really okay with that?

Grey Apps

Grey apps are those apps that can be seen as good or bad, depending upon your own attitude and goals. I’m assuming dating apps see and increase in new accounts and account deletion. Why? Two user types making resolutions for the new year:

  1. “I’ve been single since the horrible breakup last August. I think I’m finally ready to get back out there. New year, new love!”
  2. “[Dating App] is full of a bunch of [gendered-insult]’s and I’m super over dating. I’m going to take some time and focus on myself for a while.”

Dating apps are awesome and effective (virtuous!) tools for meeting new people with similar interests, such as your love of standing in front of Machu Picchu, holding fish, or not voting for Trump. But if you’re just swiping as a kind of time-passing game, or if you’re only dating because of social pressure or boredom, it can be a vice. 

The other software-adjacent grey product category might be podcasts. Podcasts, just like most media, have good and bad incarnations of them. Maybe your resolution is to bone up on your Hardcore History lessons or to stay informed with Pod Save America — subscribe! Or maybe you’re spending too much time listening to fluff/gossip podcasts instead of reading — unsubscribe! If you’re a podcaster, seeing a uptick or decrease in downloads might indicate how your listeners feel about your content’s value. 

The positioning questions for grey content creators might, in addition to the virtue & vice questions, be something like:

Are the right people using our app for the right reasons? 

Wrap up

The decision to make a virtue or vice app doesn’t make you a good or evil organization — a virtue-focused app can be created by an evil company, and vice versa (see what I did there?). How users perceive the morality of your app should be congruent with your company’s mission. Your key usage metrics in early January can be a great indication of which side of the coin you’re on. 


Footnotes:

  1. Wait — where am I supposed to share this article??
  2. The scales tipped when I found out that you could still use Facebook Messenger with a deactivated account. Now the only things I’m missing are event invites and curated Washington Post articles. 
  3. I don’t know how much this differs from normal trending numbers, but looking at it a couple of days later didn’t show any. I’m also not sure how the “trending” list is generated by Apple — could be totally user-generated, Apple promoted, or a mix. 
  4. Yes, the 2nd— no one starts a resolution with a hangover. 
  5. Completely made up by me. But it feels right, yeah? If any companies explicitly or implicitly listed in this article want to reach out (thusspokekayvon@gmail.com), I’d love to geek out on them with you.
  6. Northern hemisphere, obviously. Sorry Aussies! 

Kayvon Ghaffari is a Product and Business Development consultant. He enjoys behavioral economics, user-centered design, and psychologically satisfying third items. He lives in Seattle with the best cat

Opening Pandora's Process

I had the opportunity to be interviewed last year by the awesome Hannah Chaplain, CEO and Co-founder at Receiptive.io about my experience experimenting with the Pandora Prioritization process at LiquidPlanner. 

Here's the link to the blog post with a great summary of the lessons learned, and link to the podcast itself

Enjoy!


Kayvon Ghaffari is a Product and Business Development consultant. He enjoys behavioral economics, user-centered design, and psychologically satisfying third items. He lives in Seattle with the best cat

Losing the Game of Thrones - 3 Project Management Lessons

This article was originally published on GeekWire.com - Spoilers through Season 3

George RR Martin’s world of Game of Thrones has a few dragons, a bunch of zombies, and increasingly powerful magic. These are fun, but not the point. The reason the show speaks to us so deeply is it’s a very human story, in spite of the fantastical elements. It’s a story of scheming, passion, power grabs, love, irrationality, and petty squabbles that boil over into all-out war.

As such, we can draw parallels to our lives and careers. I’m a Program Manager by trade and tend to see things through that lens — Game of Thrones is no exception. Good projects are rewarding, bad projects are war. For every moment of triumph, there are ten failures.

While learning from one’s own mistakes is good; learning from the mistakes of others is better. To that end, let’s take a look at three project management rules broken by the biggest losers in the Game of Thrones: The Starks, followed by examples of characters doing it right.

Lesson 1: Focus on People Over Process

The field of Project Management is fraught with “best practice” processes. Funny thing, though, people do the actual work. Processes are valuable only insofar as they support people getting things done. The best PMs gauge when the people start working for the process and recalibrate accordingly; they know when to break the rules and when to write new ones.

If there’s one thing Ned Stark loves, it’s following the process. The people serve the Lords, the Lords protect the people. So, too, with Lords and the King. He justifies his actions by citing that “our way is the old way;” not exactly the agile manifesto. This worked well in the relatively stable environment of his Lordship in Winterfell. However, he was woefully ineptwhen dealing with the highly politically charged environment of King’s Landing.

 “Is this meant to be your shield, Lord Stark? A piece of paper?”  —    Cersei Lanniste r

“Is this meant to be your shield, Lord Stark? A piece of paper?” — Cersei Lannister

As the King’s Hand, Lord Stark naïvely trusted his colleagues to play by the rules, just as he did. He followed the process, completely ignoring the people breaking the rules in front of him. He did everything right, and it cost him his head.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “Never be stupid on purpose.” If processes hurt more than they help, it’s time to change or throw them away. This is a core life lesson in getting things done in the business world as well as life in general.

Doing it right: Jaime Lannister

Jaime swore an oath to obey and defend The Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, with his life. When King Aerys ordered Jaime to burn the city and massacre its citizens, he disobeyed and killed the King. Sure, he was given the disgraceful nickname Kingslayer, but he got the job done and saved half a million lives.

 “There are no men like me. Only me” — Jaime Lannister

“There are no men like me. Only me” — Jaime Lannister

Lesson 2: Maintain a Global Perspective

The role of a Project Manager is, in theory, an impartial one, and the ability to maintain a global perspective on a project’s priority level and where it fits into the roadmap is paramount. However, I’d be hard pressed to find a PM who hasn’t had an emotional interest in at least one of his or her projects. You plan it, you launch it, you watch it grow, and remove obstacles in its way. If you’re not careful, it becomes your child—and like a proud parent, you will fight for it. However, problems arise when you’re so invested that you view success of the project as more important than success of the organization.

The Lady of Winterfell, Catelyn Stark, loves her five children. It was this love that led to a pattern of selfish and irrational behavior and condemned an entire continent into civil war.

Catelyn consistently mistreated her husband Ned’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow, holding her own children above him. Jon became so miserable and unwelcome, he left his home and family as soon as he could and resigned himself to a life of celibate servitude on The Wall.

After a failed assassination attempt on her son Bran’s life, she arrested Tyrion Lannister without authority and without evidence (read: imprisoned). This provoked the Lannisters to retaliate, which ultimately led to Ned Stark’s execution and the War of the Five Kings. Later, Cat committed treason by arranging to trade Jaime Lannister, then a captive prisoner, for her daughters, Sansa and Arya, thus losing a valuable advantage for her side in the war.

The result of her myopic territoriality was millions of dead bodies, including members of those she sought to protect. It’s fitting that her final act in life was murdering an innocent girl in retaliation for her son’s death.

By focusing on a small piece of the world, you lose perspective about what’s really important. We all have our pet projects, but knowing where they fit in the roadmap and prioritizing them accordingly is necessary. It’s important to fight for your projects, but nothing will ensure their ultimate failure faster than burning down the company in the process.

Doing it right: Varys

As the King’s Master of Whispers, Varys commands the greatest spy network ever seen in Westeros or the rest of the world. When asked by Ned Stark who Varys truly served, he replied, “The Realm, my Lord.” His global perspective gives him the insight and wisdom to realize that the success of The Realm as a whole is what matters, despite having some of his favorite features cut.

Lesson 3: Don’t Piss Off Your Stakeholders

If you ask what makes a good PM, they’ll often say, “he/she gets things done.” While I’m sure many people appreciate efficiency in the abstract, what that sentence really means is “he/she gives me what I want.” The term Leader Servant isn’t a joke. Make your stakeholders happy and they’ll support you forever. If not…

Robb Stark was named King of the North by the northern lords, who were outraged at the execution of their Liege Lord, Ned Stark. They believed in Robb and his ability to forge a free and independent northern kingdom—something they wanted. The new king enjoyed fervent support and won every battle. Eventually, Robb’s crown began to fit a little too well and he took their support for granted.

Jaime Lannister, a prisoner of Robb Stark, killed two of Lord Karstark’s children in an escape attempt. Karstark, one of Robb’s bannermen, understandably demanded retribution by Robb in the form of Jaime’s head, but was refused on the grounds that he was a valuable hostage. Karstark was outraged but remained loyal to his king. Catelyn later arranged to free Jaime, hoping to convince the Lannisters to exchange him for her own captive children. Robb made a show of accusing his mother of treason, but no punishment was meted out for this crime. Ultimately, Karstark’s thirst for vengeance compelled him to disobey orders and kill two Lannister children in a rage. Robb responded by executing Karstark. The result? Robb lost half his army as Karstark loyalists deserted.

That was bad, but losing half your army is better than losing your head. When King Robb was still Lord Robb and in desperate need to cross a great river, he pled with Walder Frey to grant him safe passage over Frey’s bridge, known as “The Twins.” This wasn’t merely letting an army walk across a bridge—to allow this passage, Frey was actively taking a side in the war. He became a stakeholder in Robb’s rebellion. In return for the risk Frey was taking, Robb reluctantly agreed to marry one of Frey’s daughters. With the alliance solidified, Robb marched on the Riverlands to defeat and ultimately capture Jaime Lannister, a major turning point in the war.

As the war progressed, a promise made months prior for favors long done became less relevant to the immediacy of battle. He met a beautiful young battlefield nurse, fell in love, and married her—thus breaking his word to Lord Frey. Robb’s chief enemy, Tywin Lannister, used this strategic blunder to bring Roose Bolton, another one of Robb’s bannermen, and Walder Frey to his side. The result was the incident known as “The Red Wedding,” in which Robb, his pregnant wife, and Catelyn Stark were assassinated while his army was ambushed and destroyed. Brutal? Yes. Unexpected? No.

 “The Lannisters send their regards.” — Roose Bolton, Stakeholder

“The Lannisters send their regards.” — Roose Bolton, Stakeholder

By ignoring or slighting your stakeholders, they’ll eventually work to undermine your efforts. They probably won’t go as far as murdering you and your family, but it might feel like the corporate equivalent.

Doing it right: Daenerys Targaryen

The claim to the Iron Throne may be her birthright, but Daenerys knows her power only comes from her constituents. She listens to her stakeholders and prudently uses charm, force, or both as the situation dictates to get them what they need.

Conclusion — You Win or You Die

Project Management is, at it’s heart, a social job. Neither a fancy title nor traditional processes will save you. The thread that ties the Starks together is a failure to deal with people properly. Blindly expecting them to behave the way you think they should, focusing on your own narrow goals, and ignoring their needs spells project death. If you want to win, work on your people skills.

Oh, and having dragons might help, too.


Kayvon Ghaffari is a Program Manager at LiquidPlanner. He enjoys behavioral economics, disruptive innovation, and psychologically satisfying third items.

The Velvet Glove - On actually being a PM

I’ve been asked occasionally by friends and associates what it’s like to be a PM, specifically in the software development game. Whether it’s a good job, if I think being a PM is a good career path for him or her, etc. I love answering this, because it’s a profession and set of philosophies I’m very passionate about. It can be a really fun and rewarding job—for the right person. You have to feel good about the team winning and be comfortable with personal accomplishments that are less tangible than creating a sculpture or writing a distinct piece of code. There’s a big difference between managing a project and being a PM. You have to feel it in your bones—people can smell it on you if you don’t.

Here are some thoughts and, as we say in the biz, “lessons learned” on actually being a PM.

The Hard Skills Are Easy

The worst-kept secret about being a PM is that the nuts and bolts of the job are important, but pretty easy. The schedule calculations can be done by anyone who isn’t an idiot (and even by a few who are), and it’s even easier if you have good PM software to do it for you. Maybe you’ve always suspected this. Maybe you’ve even asked a PM what his or her job consists of, and he or she told you that it’s managing the “iron triangle” or “triple constraints”:

Scope — what needs to get done
Schedule — when it needs to get done
Budget — how much it will cost

Easy, right? But, how much direct authority does a PM have to control these? Oftentimes, very little.

The Soft Skills Are Hard

Have you ever seen a project go perfectly according to plan? Probably not. If you want to know what being a PM is like, don’t ask him or her what the job description is; ask what is pissing him or her off right now.

PMs can’t make unilateral decisions about any of the three corners of the triangle, even if they are the right ones. In most organizations, PMs don’t have the authority to hire and fire. Decisions are made and overturned by senior leadership, which oftentimes run contrary to the PM’s plans—in the most frustrating cases, this happens without his or her knowledge. The truth is that while the PM position does not have much granted authority, it does have very real accountability for the success of a project.

I struggled with these concepts for a while, way back as a junior PM. “If only these people would stop messing with my project, everything would be perfect!” The epiphany came when I figured out adjusting to these imperfections without negatively affecting the project and the team is the job.

Some PMs want to solve this problem by being granted more authority, as if to wield the iron triangle like a fist. I prefer to be the velvet glove. A good PM doesn’t need to be granted authority to have the power to help ensure a project’s success. As a wise man once said, “power resides where men think it resides.”

People Do The Work

Many PMs get caught up with the process instead of with the people. The schedule isn’t magic. There are best practices, sure, but hammering them down the throats of intelligent people who just want to do their jobs without impediments will hurt your project rather than help it. A project that emphasizes people over process fosters an environment in which it’s fun (or at least tolerable) to work.

Software development, for example, is a creative job. Most of the engineers I know actually love writing code; many of them hate everything else that goes along with it. Constraints like in-your-face deadlines shift an engineer’s focus from the code to the clock, which hampers creativity and can encourage cutting corners. Administrative tasks and meetings are distracting.

People want to get to a state of flow. This means that you, as a PM, need to remove obstacles before they pop up, while not getting in the way yourself. You need to do everything that isn’t the measurable work, so that people who are doing that work aren’t distracted with unimportant minutiae. Learning when to intervene and when to stay out of something is a delicate dance. As god once said (in Futurama), “when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

If that all sounds too touchy-feely for you cynics out there, just remember this: processes don’t do the work, people do. Happy people do more work, unhappy people do less, or leave.

People Hate Meetings for a Reason

If you’ve worked in an office setting, you’ve been to a boring meeting. This is epidemic. I’ve actually seen people cringe at the sight or mention of a PM because of their association with terrible meetings. If it’s for you, then the team won’t want to be there—they want to be working, not herded into a room to give you status. If the meeting is for the team, where relevant problems are identified and good decisions are made, people will usually recognize it as productive. Administrative tasks are the same. Do you create reports and schedules because you have to, or because it’s useful to the team? When should you involve them? A good PM edict regarding engagement with his or her team can be summed up thusly:

“Everything I do with the team is for the team. Everything I do for myself, I do by myself.”

Certifications are Just Checkboxes

Obtaining your PMP, CSM, or other certification is great for learning about the craft, but it doesn’t make you a good PM, nor will it guarantee you a job—just like creating a perfect project schedule doesn’t mean your project will be on time. Yeah, sure, if you learned something by studying for a test, great, but there’s no direct causal relationship between possessing a certificate and managing a project well.

Here, too, people are the key to success. Build relationships; network. An impressive CV is less important in the hiring process than connections and cultural fit because a PM is a personality driven job. No one chooses to work with the iron fist PM.

Bring Donuts

You can probably ignore the rest of the article and still be alright. Seriously. Bring donuts.

Dropping Dead Rats - How to take away product features

I stumbled into a conversation between two developers about getting rid of existing product features and how to justify their removal to the user base. One of them asked me, “you’re a product manager, how do you take away a feature?” This is a core product management problem. The analogy (inspired by a true story!) we landed on goes like this:

Decrementing a feature your customers use is like taking a dead rat away from a dog. Unless you do it right, they’ll fight, or they’ll run, or you’ll have a mess on your hands.

These are three strategies for dropping the “dead rats” in your product:

Create a better feature that solves the same problem

A dog might like a dead rat, but not as much as it loves steak. The dog likes the dead rat because it was available. Show it a better alternative and it’ll drop the dead rat without a second thought.

A user’s primary concern isn't the feature itself; they care about solving problems, they care about results. If you take away the user’s ability to get results, they’re going to push back. The user story “I want to watch movies in the comfort of my own home” doesn't imply the medium in which it’s being watched. The problem was first solved by VHS, then DVD, and now with digital streaming services. The ability to solve the problem is the essence of the feature, regardless of the mechanics of how to do it.

I, like most people, don’t miss the physical VHS tapes—but I’d fill the room with crane kicks if someone told me I could never watch The Karate Kid again.

Provide solutions in a better format and there’s nothing to fight about.

 “If do right, no can defense.” — Kesuke Miyagi

“If do right, no can defense.” — Kesuke Miyagi

Remove the problem the feature was built to solve

Sometimes the reason your dog ends up with a dead rat in its mouth is because your yard is full of junk. Clean up your yard and you’ll have fewer rats for the dog to latch onto.

Many sub-optimal product features exist only to support other sub-optimal features. The road to hell is paved with duct tape and spider-catching flies, especially in an agile software development shop. A two-week “enhancement” is much easier to justify than a complete re-imagining of the the way a product component or the entire product works. People might even provide feedback about how the new feature is better (read: less terrible). However, elbow macaroni and glue-on sparkles only go so far.

 “Well, basically I just copied the plant we have now. Then, I added some fins to lower wind-resistance, and this racing stripe here I feel is pretty sharp.” — Homer J. Simpson

“Well, basically I just copied the plant we have now. Then, I added some fins to lower wind-resistance, and this racing stripe here I feel is pretty sharp.” — Homer J. Simpson

Pay your tech debt, remove the sources of frustration, or you’ll end up with the fanciest junk yard on the block. A rat wearing a tiny top hat and monocle is adorable, but it’s still a rat.

Rip it out

If all else fails, yank the dead rat out of the dog’s mouth. Neither of you will like it, but at least it will be over.

Removing a feature that some of your customer base uses without a better alternative is a brutal endeavor. The hard truth is sometimes a feature needs to be removed without a great alternative for the user. Maybe the feature doesn’t scale, economically or technologically. Maybe it breaks new business rules or your company wants to pivot the product to a new target audience. Sometimes 90% of users hate the feature and 10% love it.

 “Kali Ma… Kali Ma… Kali Ma Shakti de” — Mola Ram

“Kali Ma… Kali Ma… Kali Ma Shakti de” — Mola Ram

In any of these scenarios, a subsection of your user base will be unhappy with the loss of a feature, and a subsection of unhappy users will leave. Pick your battles carefully, and when you do, take decisive action. The only thing worse than a dog with a dead rat in its mouth is a dog with half a dead rat in its mouth.


Conclusion

Only hungry dogs need rats; keep them well-fed.

Consistently delight your users with the creation of new and better features while removing obstacles and frustration—and bank credibility for the times you have to make an unpopular choice.

 Illustration by  Michael Ortlieb

Illustration by Michael Ortlieb


Kayvon Ghaffari is a Program Manager at LiquidPlanner. He enjoys behavioral economics, disruptive innovation, and psychologically satisfying third items.