I heard a news story (quite) a while ago about how hospitals were using robots more and more to assist with surgeries. This isn’t some sort of futuristic Asimov style robot, more like 3D goggles and remote control of laparoscopic tools. Anyway, the interesting part was that the doctors were convinced that their hospital had to have the latest robot.

If you don’t have it, I think it would be a really big problem, but I think everyone just assumes you have it because why wouldn’t you? You know, it’s like having blood or beds or lights in your OR now. You have to have a robot.

This is the echo chamber at its finest. A bunch of people convincing themselves that the world works a certain way because the only people they talk to are experts in that world-view. And this happens everywhere – I see it all too often.

There’s a pretty easy way to figure out if you live inside the echo chamber. Just as yourself when the last time you sat and talked with someone from your target audience/market and asked them about their needs?

The scary thing about the echo chamber is that it can often times start feature and product wars amongst vendors that are scarcely relevant to customers’ actual needs. But this is an opportunity for those with good listening skills, you can avoid that war by talking with your audience and learning what truly causes them pain day in and day out.

Get a few people on the phone who don’t think about this problem all day long. Someone who needs your product, but doesn’t obsess about it. You may be surprised that they have better insights than you.

Postscript: if you are interested in the NPR news story, you can find it here: Medical Innovations Can Come At A Cost

For the win, flickr: n0sebluntNo feature is unimportant. If it serves a purpose then it’s important to someone. And while those purposes may vary wildly, I have started to think about all of them in terms of two camps: Winning and Keeping.

Winning Features

Winning features are those that help you win a deal. They often times have the sizzle that gets people excited about what you’re doing and give you a leg up on the competition. These are the things that the sales guys get excited about and might just get you written up in techcrunch.

(Updated to include…) An example is eye popping reports, they often look great and seem to convey the info you need. However, after a month or so within an application you may find that they are lacking key information that make them truly functional. Now, it wasn’t the intent of the graph to not do a good enough job, but as is often the case, without a lot of careful thinking and planning, many graphs & reports fall short of providing truly actionable results.

Keeping Features

These are the trusty guys that keep churn down. Keeping features are the ones that sales usually doesn’t bother showing, but that makes the everyday user happy. These are things that people often don’t think of when they are buying, but within 1 week of using your product they couldn’t imagine a world without it.

(Updated to include…) An example here is general navigation and workflow. Getting yourself to the place that you use within the application most often may take 3 or 4 clicks. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal during a demo, after a few weeks of having to work your way in to your destination you’ll be wishing for a shortcut. It’s important to note here that calling out easy navigation probably won’t make a huge difference in a demo unless you are very good with positioning that statement.

They can’t be both?

No, I’m not saying that. I would never say that you should be building features that just get people in the door and are useless afterwards. It’s more about who you are appeasing. Winning features may still excite your existing customers, but they probably aren’t going to get the daily use that Keeping Features get.

There’s also the question of where they come from. Sales, competition, and innovation will usually drive the creation of Winning Features. Existing customers and support teams will usually drive the creation of keeping features.

and so?

Well, I’m not saying this is revolutionary. But recognizing that your features live in these two camps; that they have two masters – Sales and Churn Prevention – may help you to strike a better balance based on the stage of your company.

Also, being able to communicate goal bucket sizes for Winning vs Keeping may better help set expectations across the organization from quarter to quarter. It also helps you to ensure that you development team isn’t off in Winning land when you need them focusing on Keeping, or vice versa.

So, where do your current features land, Winning or Keeping?

Netflix - Cost vs Value
I’ve worked on product pricing more times than I’d like to recall. It’s a tricky business, you have to balance value, cost, perception, competitors, market factors, marketing, and many other considerations. In short, it’s a pain, and it’s not easy.

But pricing is very important to your business. It can not only give you an edge in the market, but it can also help define who you are in the minds of your customers.

But most importantly, Pricing helps to define value in the eyes of your customers

Don’t get me wrong, you can’t dictate value. But pricing specific add-ons, features, or services at a premium can have a very real impact on how people perceive the worth of those items.

Netflix’s most recent move to price streaming separate from DVD-at-home was smart (see their blog post). It was clear that they were leaving a lot of money on the table. It’s also clear that they felt that they were undervaluing their DVD-at-home service.

(Side note, being a long time Netflix customer, I always thought they were undervaluing streaming. Their blog post reveals that their internal view was actually flipped from mine; they saw the DVD as an add-on to a streaming service.)

Pricing changes aren’t something new to Netflix, their world is moving fast and they’ve had to shift things around a few times to keep prices in line. And this recent change will probably be followed by a few more.

Now bring into the mix that fact that Amazon has started to get more seriously into the streaming movie market. Now we can expect some fierce battles shaking out in this arena – there’s a lot of money to be made in movies at home.

So this brings me back to where I started – with pricing establishing value. This move is strategic in that it allows Netflix to clearly look at their streaming service as it’s own viable product with distinct profits and costs.

This will allow them to better measure, manage, and grow their streaming offering as the market heats. In the end, we can only hope that that will provide more value for all of us.

I’m a firm believer that you have to enjoy what you do. I do what I can to help keep that going at Argyle, but I’d like to think that I can have a bit more reach than that.

That’s why I love it when Josh inserts a bit of humor into our app. Many of our users have commented on some of the funny error messages we throw from time to time.

We’re not afraid to let people know right away that we have a sense of humor, it’s even in our Getting Started tool:

He is cute -_-

That’s why I was quite happy to see this tweet today from James Avery over at Adzerk:

It’s always nice when I know we made some one chuckle while they were work.

Btw, if you are wondering what made him giggle, here’s the little guy we inserted when you have a bit of a problem with your password:

That error is inconceivable!!

And don’t worry, these aren’t all the little easter eggs, we’re always on the lookout for more ways to amaze and amuse.

Help by Dimitri N.

help by Dimitri N.

“Turn ‘GAS COCK KNOB’ to PILOT index on gas flow regulator.” I’m sorry, what? This is actually one of the more decipherable lines within the owner manual for my water heater.

Earlier this week I had the misfortune of coming home to a flooding garage. It turns out my water heater was leaking. As part of the repair I turned off the gas and water for safety. I was at the point of turning it all back on and was befuddled by the help I was provided. It clearly wasn’t written for a layman.

Who needs your help?

The problem is that the people who understand jargon and complex contexts don’t need instructions. They can do this stuff in their sleep. Laymen like me need instructions. And the same is true for your application.

The people who need help on your site are lost, confused, and in need of soothing, practical, and readable advice.

Who writes your help?

There’s nothing wrong with industry jargon when used amongst others who speak it’s tongue – it’s a more succinct conversion for them. Jargon, when defined and used consistently can actually help an industry or vertical to mature as the collective group of people stand on common ground.

The problem is that it’s far too common to find help that was written within this jargon. While I’ll admit that this is the right place to introduce it, it’s not the right place to assume it’s already understood.

Simplifying help

Make help accessible to people who are new to your field or who may have been practicing in isolation. Don’t be afraid to use terms that are more common, or to provide asides that explain new concepts when they are introduced. It’s also a good idea to use alternative, friendly descriptions of objects to ensure that you are on the same page.

Here’s a good rule of thumb:

If a help topic read out loud to someone once is not understandable, and executable, then it is too complex.

I rewrote that line 4 times to reduce complexity and increase clarity. Because this whole blog post is a help topic, and you have to ensure readability of all help topics.

What next?

Here’s something we did in an industry group I worked on within the email community a little while back. We asked non-industry people, like your parents or friends outside of work, to review help and informational documents that we had created.

That made sure that it was something anyone could grasp, and we weren’t writing for experts who didn’t need help.

So keep in mind your target market and write some help that is actually helpful!

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