Archives For Whatsapp

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Whatsapp has successfully capitalized on the messaging market by changing some old habits around SMS and chat applications.  Slack now is attempting to do the same with email.  In a way, we could look at Facebook and say it is just one giant mailing list after all!  And yet, when we talk to the users, they find their experiences with Facebook or Whatsapp to be “different”.  One of my friends the other day argued that sending something on Whatsapp is a lot easier than sending something over SMS.  When we parse this step for step, it only saves steps when the messages are to a group, since Whatsapp has a persistent notion of groups. When pushed to explain, my friend was unable to really say why.  I’m sure all of us have found that sharing a photo to Facebook is a lot easier than sharing it over email.  Once again, quantifying this is hard.

I have recently become a Slack user and I find it significantly easier than email threads.  It’s still early days to draw conclusions on this, but so far, it seems to be simplifying my collaborations.  One could argue that conceptually, it is not really all that different from discussion boards or forums or even email threads at the core of it.

So, why are these new world apps doing so fantastically well on age old problems?  It is really important to understand the difference between creating products that have “differences” from existing products and creating those that are just…, well, “different“! In fact, you need the perception of being different!

In his book, “Hooked”, Nir Eyal states that one way of creating successful products and changing people’s old habits is by taking a problem, creating a solution and then taking away steps from it until you are left with just the bare minimum steps to solve the problem.  Let’s take the case of sharing a status over Facebook, for example.  You are able to write something and post it – there is no need to select a mailing list or a group to share stuff with, let alone handle the creation and management of such aspects.  A select few will whine about how they don’t want the entire world (which seems to be roughly equivalent to the set of friends we have on Facebook these days) to know about their status.  In reality though, algorithms and the users have been getting smarter at this – algorithms figure out how to bring you the key updates of relevance to you and the users are getting better at tuning out what they don’t really want to see.  It is really the same thing that Whatsapp has done with messaging.

The lesson here is very simple and yet hard to do – revolutionary products do not always need green field problems.  Revolution in products can simply be about taking an existing problem and approaching it from a user centric perspective.  Building products with incremental differences, especially in a field where some habits have been established, is not going to be useful.  However, showing that your product is different (in a simpler way!), even if it were only in a single (but important) dimension, could make all the difference!

Disclaimer: All thoughts are my own and does not reflect the views of my employer in any way. 

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Telegram saw 8M downloads the day Whatsapp was acquired by Facebook.  This is not new.  When Parse was acquired by Facebook, the blogs rushed to write about why this is great for their rivals. Stackmob accelerated its Parse migration pipeline and came out with it in just a weekend! There was outrage when Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo!.

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There are, of course, several reasons for such reactions and in each case, it is slightly different. Early adopters get so entrenched in their favorite platforms that there is a sense of ownership – when a drastic change occurs, it feels like their trust has been misplaced or that they have been betrayed.  But, beyond all this, there is another challenge here that we are seeing, such as in the case of the Whatsapp-Facebook situation – why should Facebook have all my data?  This alone causes a split market in terms of data ownership.

When Facebook published its recent upgrade to the Android app, it asked for permission to read SMS.  As much as I like to be on top of the world of mobile apps, I said no to the upgrade on my primary phone.  I had enough secondary devices on which I don’t use SMS to try out the new app!  To this day, my Facebook remains at v3.9 on my primary phone!  The thought of Facebook reading my text messages just did not sit well with me.  Of course, now I’m faced with the challenge of using or not using Whatsapp!  (Just to remove any ambiguity, I fully plan on continuing to use Whatsapp, unless Facebook decides to mess with it like LinkedIn did with Pulse!).

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Recently, a friend that I recommended SwiftKey to said that he did not agree to SwiftKey learning from his GMail – they had no business knowing the content of his emails!  My reasoning around the benefits of personalization that can shave off minutes in typing a single email did not manage to convince him.

So, what exactly is behind these strong feelings about who can or cannot read the various parts of our data?  Mostly, just personal principles.  For most people, when it comes down to it, as long as the data is “secure” and “private”, this means nothing and they only stand to benefit from all the personalization it can enable.  However, there are two problems – we don’t always believe it is in fact, “secure” and “private” and we have our biases in which companies we love and trust.

But the knee jerk reaction to these acquisitions tells a very interesting story.  In reality, we are faced with this particular challenge:

Do I want to give more of my data to the bigger companies that can aggregate various types of data to learn all kinds of crazy things about me? Or, do I want to give my data to a small startup that has no resources to even consider implementing security correctly? 

This is a very difficult conundrum, particularly because, “implementing security correctly” is a non-trivial task, that most developers are quite bad at by default.  When you are big, you have a responsibility to keep the data secure – way more so than we can imagine.  When you are small, there is no real upside to spending the time on security.  It slows down the development to think about it from an architectural perspective and get the pieces right. All the security holes in Snapchat and other small apps are testimony to this. Security gaps happen even in big companies, where this is taken seriously and experts are hired to ensure correctness. One can imagine why it is more or less just “winged” in the smaller ones. This is not a reflection of anything in particular – it is often just a lack of resources to focus on everything, when you are a startup.

I don’t particularly have an answer to this conundrum.  But, as a user, convenience trumps everything – which means that I will use an app from a small startup if it does the right things to make my life simpler.  That said, I generally have less issues with giving up my privacy to the bigger companies – the value that personalization can bring is huge and I’m looking forward to it!

Twitter brings curation and quick summaries together.  In an information overloaded world, that is powerful.  But until they can prove they understand user experience, it is hard for me to take them seriously.  

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Twitter’s IPO has been big news.  After all the speculation on their valuation and the criticism of not having that critical woman board member, a 63% spike on their opening price was not a bad show!  26% of teenagers think Twitter is an important social network.  Evidence suggests that people are more likely to follow influencers on Twitter than on blogs or any other places.  Snapchat, the ephemeral photo exchange app, is valued at least at $3B.  The average age of Facebook users is going up and the younger generation is migrating to the cooler places – Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, etc.

Twitter has taken short communications to the mainstream in a massive way.  SMS was always fairly popular – but, Twitter took it to new levels of popularity by providing equivalent functionality, only richer in content!  Other apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat have followed suit in a similar vision of short messages, but branching in the type and mode of content exchanged – and in Snapchat’s case – limiting the time to live for a piece of content.

While there are a number of possible explanations for the wildly growing popularity of this style of messaging, one that I think is a major contributor is human attention span.  Variety is interesting.  Holding our attention span for long on one topic is hard.  Topics get boring.  Just as the tide was turning from theres-a-lot-of-information-to-catch-up-on to struggling-to-keep-up-with-the-information-pace-and-volume, these short messaging innovations caught up with us.  The illusion of being able to catch up with information quickly is attractive.  Being able to quickly produce content also helps – a single picture or a few words can get it out there.

Curation combined with short messages surely allow us to see a preview of information, leaving it for us to decide whether we want to consume more.  Of course, this is simply hiding information behind yet another level of indirection – a typical computer science solution to problems.  The real content is buried in links that are increasingly shared as these short messages.  These links often lead us to more old style “blogs” (I’m guilty as charged!).

Bringing curation and quick summaries together is clearly the strength of the Twitter class of platforms.

Yet, taking Twitter seriously is tough for me.  Why so?  Fundamentally because they are yet to prove they understand user experience. Reading the Twitter stream on the Twitter app on the phone is painful.  There is nothing that screams “come spend time on me” on this interface!  If you want to see a worse design of a new generation app, you can take a look at Quora, but, we’ll stay on Twitter for now.

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The highlighted stuff provides zero semantically useful information. The user name gets a bold typeface, but then, the picture already tells me who the user is!  The rest of the text is all uniform, resulting in a massive stream of text on the screen!

This is why it is hard for me to take Twitter seriously.  The real brilliance in next generation content sharing is going to be two-fold – semantic information extraction and presentation.  At one glance, I should be able to extract the most meaningful summary of the content I’m trying to consume.  Once this happens, the need for platform level indirection (i.e., Twitter leading to TechCrunch) decreases – rather, the summary can come directly from the content provider.  Although, as innovation goes, it is unlikely that it will come from the content provider and hence, some platform that summarizes and presents (note that it doesn’t have to be the same one doing both) will likely evolve.

Could that be Twitter in the future? It will certainly be great shareholder value if Twitter can figure that out!  But until then, I will continue reading my tweets on Flipboard, ignoring the full page Twitter app ad that now regularly appears in my Flipboard stream.  After all, flipping over it only takes a second!

Great product management is about what you manage to keep out of your product. 

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I’ve certainly been there and I’ve watched most PMs do this – pack as many features as possible into a product or a release.  More features = better, right?  That provides the perception that we are capable of producing tons of stuff.  Of course, the better PMs will enforce quality bars on those features.  There will simply be a large number of reasonably good features that work reasonably well.

Except it’s all wrong.  The best PMs are constantly thinking about how to keep the product minimal.  It is what we keep out of the product that really defines good program management.  It is extremely hard to do and even harder to keep doing on an ongoing basis.  But, the best ones know that even at the cost of taking a gamble at going after the wrong feature set, that is the right thing to do.

I learnt this the hard way.  By trying to explain why there is nothing specific about Bluetooth or WiFi in application level peer-to-peer in a company that doesn’t quite understand applications.  And that sharing photos using peer-to-peer to one device in front of you and sharing it with 10 or 10,000 users across the globe requires the same fundamental underlying technology.  Sure, the techno geeks who lived in the same world as me got it.  But, I was unsuccessful in getting too many others around me to see that reality.  Instead, a minimalistic product needed to have been built, albeit with the grander vision influencing the architecture and design, to have created interest and momentum and avoided overwhelming the people who needed to fund the effort.  Luckily, this is an area where I’ve learnt from mistakes.

Recently, I’ve had a plethora of phone problems (minor digression and rant – my Galaxy Nexus has more or less died, I’m desperately waiting for Verizon to carry the HTC One and in the meantime, I have a completely unstable phone that drives me insane!).  In this state, the one application that has been a source of problem is Whatsapp.  Every time I move my SIM to another phone, it wants the phone number to be reverified and the setup to start all over again. While it migrates the groups I have created to the new phone, the messages do not migrate.  And, on the phone with no service, it constantly pops up the message that Whatsapp can only be installed on a phone with cellular service.  In fact, a few months ago, I realized that I couldn’t download Whatsapp on my iPod Touch.

Whatsapp is an application that works over data (ala IP).  There is nothing that technically prevents it from working just over WiFi (and hence, on any connected device).  However, it is not supported in Whatsapp.  In fact, there is a short and sweet message on their FAQs that states simply this – “We currently do not support tablets, computers, or Wi-Fi only devices, and do not plan to do so in the foreseeable future.

So, here is a case, where extra engineering effort was potentially spent to ensure that an app that otherwise would just seamlessly work on all devices only works on phones with service.  Of course, people have bypassed this limitation.  But, that is for the geeks and not for regular people.

This limitation in Whatsapp strikes me as an extremely thought through product management decision.  They were after the SMS market.  They modeled it as close to the SMS functionality as possible, only sending messages was free.  So, they tied it to the only id that SMS is tied to – the phone number.  If you changed devices, your SMS messages did not carry over – they modeled after this too, with an exception only for groups.  Groups, by itself is almost the only enhancement beyond SMS (and is solving an important pain point).

While this artificial limitation is annoying to people like me, it made the app ultra simple and allowed them to market this to vast parts of the population with no further explanation than

“Simple. Personal.
Real Time Messaging.”

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“WhatsApp is working on building a better SMS alternative.” as they say on LinkedIn.

It is really important to connect with the users at a level they can understand and this is what they did.  Of course, I think it is terrible UX to keep throwing messages at you when you are not even trying to use the app (on a phone where you have previously installed Whatsapp and removed service).  But, that’s such a rare use case that is not worth their time solving at this stage.

Bottomline is that they went for the minimal feature set that aligned with their goals and got users on board.  That’s brilliant product management.  One that is extremely difficult to do – all of us want “backup” features, things that we can fall back to, if our primary plan does not go well.  Worse still, most of us have a hard time picking the single most important feature – there’s always a list of important features.  But, being able to figure out that minimal set is what makes a difference between brilliant products and good products.

We should always be thinking of Minimum Viable Product from the “Minimum” perspective. “Viable” is also important, but that generally doesn’t require special efforts to think about.  Hopefully, you have already understood how your product is viable or you would not be working on it.  Staying minimal requires special efforts.  And it makes all the difference in building a great product!