May 23, 2014
Communities take many different forms, but most can be classified as horizontal or vertical.
A vertical community is driven by aspiration, a mix of wish and ambition. There is a desire to emulate and embrace what the best of the community represent.
Vertical communities rely on celebrities at the top of the scale. Sometimes these are celebrities in the pop culture sense, but every community has a form of celebrity, the people who attract the lion's share of interest. They are the reason most try a service and why they return.
Celebrities define success for the community and motivate those who aspire to achieve the same status. Vertical communities often have a score of sorts and a person's status relative to others is fluid.
The heart of horizontal communities, on the other hand, is affinity. People are drawn by a sense of belonging and commonality. There's an inexplicable feeling of being at home.
There aren't superstars and followers, brands and audiences. Everyone is equal.
The aspiration of a horizontal community is for the community itself to grow and thrive. Success and sacrifice are shared, and status is a reflection of what the community has achieved, together. It might be a park restored, voices heard, legislation passed, or bringing something new into the world.
Though we experience horizontal communities regularly with our friends and neighbors, they are rare online. Something is missing. Nearly two years ago, I wrote a post on Svbtle to see if others felt the same way.
Since then, a strong, delightful community of kind and creative people has formed around this idea we call Uncommon in Common. I'm working with a few friends to build an online home for Uncommon. Meanwhile, the community itself has taken root. We've had gatherings, mailed postcards around the world, and shared meaningful, memorable stories via a weekly dispatch.
If you're curious about slow, thoughtful, horizontal communities in a sea of real-time, vertical, social networks with insatiable needs for our attention, reach out or send me a note. There is much to be done.
May 1, 2014
Every few months, it seems a new, beautifully designed project launches featuring interviews and profiles of designers.
Cheers and high fives to anyone who pulls it off. Bringing something new into the world is a great thing.
I'm struck, though, by how many of these feature the same group of designers, people who speak and write in high profile venues and who have been profiled many times before. They, too, are wonderful people who have earned their success. Their stories, perspectives, and advice are very valuable.
But there are so many other voices out there. Designers are some of my favorite people. I'm amazed by (and envious of) their talent, but they are endlessly fascinating people, with a unique way of looking at things and wildly diverse interests. Even better, they are humble and honest about their craft and struggles.
We would all benefit from widening the circle of people who we hear from on the topics of art and design. So, I took 5 minutes and put together this list of people for the next project about the life and work of designers. All are delightful and worth hearing from. Plus, they will each tell you about 20 others you should talk to (and insist that they are less talented than all of them).
And Keegan Jones, just because there can never be too much Keegan Jones.
March 29, 2014
One year ago, my sister, Laura, passed way. Such a sad time that was, so much hurt and heartache at the loss of a uniquely wonderful person.
Trying to process it all that weekend, I wrote Saying Goodbye to a Sister. I included a link to a memorial fund, as her medical expenses had grown quite large.
And that's when the Internet gave me one of life's great gifts, the gift of slowly coloring the edges of a dark and painful experience with goodness and warmth. More and more, when I look back, I think of those things, good deeds in a weary world.
I'm grateful for people like Om and Semil, so genuine in their concern and offers of help. Someone posted a link to the post on Hacker News of all places, and next thing I knew, strangers were donating to the memorial fund. Friends gave beyond their means.
Daniel wrote "I'm placing Laura under People I'm Sad I Never Got The Pleasure of Knowing," and others sent similar thoughts. She would've enjoyed their company and stories greatly. I wish I had shared her more in the present tense.
Then there is Anna, Nicki, and Clare, who in inexplicable ways, played the part of comforting sisters from great distance, with their care and thoughtful, encouraging words delivered at just the right moments.
I was reminded that week of the immense power of the Internet to knit people together from far off locations and divergent perspectives. It's easy to forget that; I don't think I will again. That potential, always there, but sometimes hard to find amidst the noise, is part of the inspiration for the Uncommon community.
I delivered a eulogy at Laura's memorial service. It was largely based on the essay, but I added a coda that I've been thinking about as the anniversary approached.
We can learn from those that leave us early. I feel like we have to. Laura's life was a constant reminder that there is another way to be.
The first reminder is this: Be present
Laura loved to spend time with people. She was never in a hurry to leave the table. She didn't want moments with friends and loved ones to end.
The second is: Be kind
Laura loved everyone. She saw and respected each person's value. She never judged others and couldn't understand people who did. It broke her heart when people weren't respectful of those who saw things differently.
The third is: Be who you are
In a world that tells us that nothing is enough, that we should never be satisfied with ourselves or our life, Laura found peace and happiness in who she was. Laura had dreams and she had regrets, but she also knew that she was, at that moment, who and where she should be.
And the final reminder is this: Be willing
When I think of my sister, she was, above all else, willing. Willing to try anything and go anywhere. Willing to love and willing to hurt. She was willing to change all of her plans at a moment's notice and willing to be there for you no matter what. She was willing to be lost and willing to be found.
One of my favorites parts of the past year has been seeing Laura's spirit and example, her kindness, presence, and willingness, where I might have missed it before. I saw it as Lisa left the states for an adventure in Berlin and when Radhika said yes to an invitation to travel from London to Austin to perform. I see it in Allison's joy in life, Erin's poetry and non-profit work for young women, and Wesley's genuine love for people, conversation, and exploring new cities. And I see it now in my son's college choices, each 1,800 miles or so away.
My great joy has been watching four friends who each live to travel, which my sister loved more than anything. People travel for a variety of reasons, but there's a kind of travel that feeds your soul; travel that you're incomplete without. I see that in the very different adventures Lora, Jennifer, Keegan, and Cassie have embarked on around the globe. I'm inspired by the possibility they see around every corner and their taste for the unknown. My sister's life was defined by her six-month trip around the world with a girlfriend, and each update from Cassie's current journey with her own friend makes me smile.
In the end, I'm thankful for friends. Thanks to everyone, so many I haven't mentioned here, for your kindness. I only hope to live up to your examples when given the opportunity.
March 23, 2014
If you're building an app or website, you're likely using a tool to manage the process, such as Basecamp, Trello, Pivotal Tracker, GitHub Issues, or Sprintly. Some teams use a combination of these (one for big picture planning, one for specific tasks, for instance) and also incorporate more specific apps like InVision for design feedback.
Each of these has its own approach to tracking tasks and progress, sharing images and documents, and enabling discussion. Once you choose the best tool for your team and establish a workflow, you can turn your focus to building great products.
A few months later, it's common to encounter increasing frustration with your choice and start to wonder if you made a mistake. Conversations start happening in other tools, a Google Doc becomes the de facto backlog, and people start adding work to the project tool after they've finished it. I've had this experience many times over the years, with a variety of products and team sizes.
In these moments, changing the tool is rarely the right decision. I've seen teams fall into a cycle of evaluating, choosing, trying, and discarding tools. We blame the tool for what are really team issues, dysfunctional processes, or simply a failure to be persistent and consistent in how we use it. More often than not, changing how we define features, discuss them, make decisions, and communicate is what's required to improve things. The tool has only shined a light on something we'd rather not face.
That said, I've recently become convinced that it's time for these tools to evolve. They do an excellent job of providing a centralized place for project tracking and discussion, but there's been little innovation outside of increasing flexibility (for example, making it possible to group tasks in different ways).
There's a missing piece. These tools are enabling discussion, but they're not helping with decisions.
What needs my attention?
In a large project, conversations are spread across hundreds of tasks. One person may be responsible for a task, but the discussion is where decisions are being made: from defining the feature initially and finalizing copy to debating design and implementation details. Inboxes overflow with notifications about these conversations, but unless you respond in realtime, it's very difficult to know where your attention is needed. Which update was just to keep me the loop, which is asking for my opinion, and which is waiting on my decision? Every comment is treated the same as every other comment.
What was the decision?
The result is that the only way to find the actual decision within a discussion is to read the discussion. Making it possible to revisit the reasoning behind a decision is a great thing; requiring that someone read through the debate about button color and placement to find the moment when an option was chosen is silly. Offering the ability to close a discussion or mark it resolved is of little use if the resolution isn't clearly documented.
Whether the discussion is tied to a feature or page, or something smaller, it's common to have multiple questions and answers in the conversation. Sorting through this is a time-consuming challenge. Are we waiting for someone else to vote? Which decisions have been made and which are still being debated?
The result is:
- Time wasted going through every discussion and image or document someone was notified about to see if they need to comment
- A lot of people chiming in, but little clarity on decisions
- Too much notification noise, making it easy to miss critical updates
- The true status of a task is hard to discern, as the complexity and outstanding issues are surfacing within the dicussion
There are manual processes that help with each of these things. You might make sure that a story or task is small enough that lengthy discussion and multiple questions are unlikely. Anytime a decision is made in a thread, you could add special formatting and update the beginning of the topic, the story description, and/or the original spec.
But our tools should be smarter, too. Choosing who to notify on a comment is an example of a helpful bit of flexibility that does little to solve the underlying issue. It isn't any more effective than it is with email threads; there's no clear responsibility and people tend to err on the side of including anyone remotely involved.
A few ideas:
- Add different comment types, such as Question, Answer, and Vote
- If someone wants to quickly survey the team about something, provide a simple thumbs up/thumbs down interaction and vote tally, instead of the weight of 8 different +1 comments and notifications
- Provide the ability to assign a question to someone within a discussion, while adding others who need to be aware
- Require a summary when a question is marked closed or resolved, which is displayed next to the question, with the discussion hidden by default
- Provide a dashboard view of discussions that are in progress, prioritizing those that are awaiting a decision, as well as ones that require a response from you
The next evolution of project tools might be found in one of the current offerings, a product already focused on team communication like Slack, or an entirely new app. Whichever it is, I can't wait.
Note: This is just a start. There is much that could be done for product management generally, from improving the spec process to shepherding an idea through definition, writing, design, development, testing, releasing, and sharing. If you and your team have come up with clever solutions to these sorts of challenges, whether manual or technological, reach out on Twitter or by email. Also, if you work on a project tool and want to talk, I'd love to lend a hand.
January 29, 2014
Next month, I'm thrilled to join Pingboard, a new Austin startup.
Pingboard sets out to solve one of the core problems faced by small and medium size companies: how to add, update, organize, and harness employee data. The problem looks like disparate Google spreadsheets and a hodgepodge of information silos; the result is overworked studio managers and disconnected employees.
I've had the privilege of working on interesting products during my time at Gowalla and, more recently, Return Path. My focus has been on consumer apps, but I've long been fascinated by products that solve problems for people at work. Watching and learning from great services like Intercom, Sifter, Basecamp, Asana, Slack, and Editorially is an ongoing pastime. As a product manager, I'm eager for the challenge of creating tools that make the hours we spend at work easier, more productive, and when possible, more enjoyable. I'm grateful for the chance to join this talented, thoughtful team building a great product and company in my favorite city.
If Pingboard might solve problems your company is currently facing, let us know and we'll follow up with you. We're currently running pilot programs with a few companies, but will be opening things up soon enough. This is just the first step forward.
I'd love to learn from you, too. Office managers who craft a thriving, productive culture out of chaos deserve great products that put them first. Startups and growing companies deserve solutions without the baggage that typically comes with "business software." How can Pingboard made your work and your company better? Drop me a note and let's talk.
Read more about the vision behind Pingboard in this post from Bill Boebel, Founder and CEO.
P.S. For those of you who know me through Uncommon, there is much in the works as we continue to reimagine online community together. See you on the front porch.