Product Management Technology

Why Privacy is About to Change

The world of data privacy is about to change. Currently most companies feel free to treat your personal data as an asset that can be leveraged by their company. As you no doubt have realized, many companies sell your personal information to other parties to cross sell their products. For example, my friend Marc once put his dog’s name when answering an online promotion only to see that his dog started to get a lot of related mail over the next few months.

This problem is getting much worse. With the rise of social networking and people’s dependence on the Internet, much more of our private information is now available online. For example, banks often use “private” information to verify your identity when calling customer service. But now such information like mother’s maiden name is easily accessible via Facebook.

My prediction is that two things are about to happen. One is that people are going to start to become much more concerned about their privacy as they continue to put more and more information online. Secondly, some company with lots of private data (like Facebook) is going to play a bit too fast and loose with privacy, causing a public catastrophe. As the importance of privacy increases and companies fail to safeguard it, we’re looking at a major change in public policy on privacy. Likely this will mean that consumers will own all of their data and companies will need explicit permission to share it with others.

When I talk to people about this, I often get the response, “This is technology, it’s no place for government policy.” But once technology becomes entrenched into our everyday life, that is exactly when it starts getting regulated. Remember that 100 years ago electricity and telephones were the top technologies of their day and now they are two of the most regulated industries on earth.

As an example, I’d like to talk about another new technology that totally changed the world. It was introduced in Seattle in the early 1960s at the Seattle Artificial Kidney Center. This was one of the first dialysis machines in the world, made possible by advances in technology allowing a permanent stent to be placed into the body. This allowed people to have regular treatments where blood is moved outside of the body and cleansed by a machine. These machines were greatly oversubscribed due to their lifesaving nature and extremely limited availability.

The head of the center Belding H. Scribner knew that making a decision on who should get treatment was incredibly serious. He created the Admissions and Policy Committee to decide who deserved treatment the most. These decisions were based on characteristics other than medical fit — the patients were already screened by a panel of doctors. This committee was a cross section of society composed of seven lay people – a lawyer, a minister, a housewife, a state government official, a banker, a labor leader, and a surgeon who served as a “doctor-citizen.” The group considered the prospective patient’s age, sex, marital status, net worth, income, emotional stability, nature of occupation, extent of education, past performance and future potential. Essentially they needed to determine which of these people was “worth” the most.

While Scriber’s solution was a good one, it was shocking when it reached the national stage. In November 1962, Life magazine ran an article called, “They Decide Who Lives, Who Dies.” While the article started as a study into this new wonderful and life saving technique, it quickly became a study of what the author referred to as: The Life and Death Committee.

This article sparked a national conversation and led to the creation and popularization of bioethics. The inventors of dialysis were amazed that public discussion focused on the decision of who got the treatment rather than the amazing ability of the machines to transform what was once a death sentence to a chronic condition.

Today when there are issues on life saving decisions based on limited availability (i.e., for transplant organs) a person’s worth is no longer considered. Doctors use a number of factors such as age and health to wean down the list. Once patients are one the list, organs are distributed based on severity of the condition, the time on the wait list and the geographical distance between the donor center and the hospital.

It’s tempting to think that Bioethics is a much greater social issue than personal privacy. But it’s not. Bioethics has just had more time to mature and enter the social consciousness. In fact, I was once in a business school class where we were presented with the Seattle Artificial Kidney problem of deciding who should live. This was a case study used at both the beginning and end of the class – essentially to show how much we’d learned during the class. However, it wasn’t in a Bioethics class but a Decision Sciences class!

We were given the following problem: “Five people were dying of kidney disease and we only had the ability to save one of the five.” We were given short bios of each person, e.g., a 50 year old doctor with 3 children who is working to cure cancer. We were to rank order which of the people we should save. While the exercise was very interesting and really showed how to rank order on a number of criteria, no one brought up any of the ethical issues. The teacher even seemed unaware of them. Even today with five decades of Bioethics behind us, whole classes of students can ignore the social issues when presented with a technical problem to solve.

In short, technology can often go unhindered while it is being developed; however, once it becomes enmeshed in the social fabric, decisions are not made on technical merits but on how they affect society as a whole. What was once a technical issue becomes a social one. Or to quote Spiderman’s Uncle Ben “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Product Management Uncategorized

Are More Choices Good or Bad?

I’ve been following some of the recent research on how people make choices. The following summary represents two sides of an argument on whether or not more choice is a good or bad thing. In actuality, Malcolm Gladwell’s point of view is actually the standard thinking — that more choice is better. Barry Schwartz, the author of Paradox of Choice says that some choice is good but more choice isn’t always better. Below I present their views as a mythical debate on the virtues and vices choice.


I’d like to tell you all about the person who has added more happiness to the world than anyone else: Howard Moskowitz. Howard is the creator of chunky tomato sauce. A market researcher, Howard discovered that certain customers had fundamentally different tastes in tomato sauce. When Howard started his research the world thought that there was only one “best” type of tomato sauce that everyone would prefer. This was a platonic ideal of spaghetti sauce — that was captured in the old world methods of sauce (like Ragu). However, what he discovered was that people’s preferences were not focused on one universal platonic ideal but differed in three dimensions: regular, spicy and chunky. At the time, no one was manufacturing chunky tomato sauce and that’s exactly what Moskowitz’s client — Prego created.

Giving people the right kind of tomato sauce is like making them the right cup of coffee. If you ask people what kind of coffee they like, they will tell you that they like a dark, rich, hearty roast (but only 25-27% of people actually prefer that). Most of you actually want milky weak coffee. If we came up with a blend to coffee to suit everyone, the best score you can get is a 60 out of 100 on average. However, if we could segment you into 3 or 4 coffee clusters, you would move from a score of 60 to 75 or 78. The difference between a 60 and 78 is the difference between coffee that makes you wince and coffee that makes you deliriously happy.


I agree with the vast majority of what Mr. Gladwell has to say with one exception. Though some choice is better than no choice – more choice isn’t always better. This is a bit counterintuitive because in Western society we believe that freedom is good and more choice means more freedom.
However when I go to the supermarket today there are 175 salad dressings and that’s not including the 15 extra virgin olive oils and 42 vinegars I could mix together for customized Italian dressings. There are 75 varieties of iced tea, 230 soups and 40 brands of toothpaste. However, all of these choices don’t make people any happier — they actually make them less happy. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Paralysis: With so many options people find it difficult to choose at all. As an example, one of my colleagues examined employee engagement with employer sponsored retirement accounts. She found that for every 10 more funds offered, participation actually goes down 2%.
  • Opportunity Cost: With 175 salad dressings it’s easy to imagine a salad dressing that must be better than what you have chosen. When there are lots of alternatives to consider it is easy to imagine the attractive features of alternatives that you haven’t chosen. These untaken choices subtract from the satisfaction of what we’ve chosen even when we’ve chosen a good option. As the following cartoon suggests, you can never be happy if you’re always wondering if you should be doing something else:
  • Escalation of Expectations: In the old days jeans never fit right. They were stiff and painful and eventually if you washed them enough they fit all right. Today, I went to buy jeans and was completely overwhelmed by the options. I spent an hour trying on jeans and left with the best pair of jeans that I ever had. But, I felt worse, I wrote a whole book to explain this The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Going in, when I thought there was only one type of jeans, I had no expectations but with 100 pairs of jeans, I should be able to find that perfect pair of jeans. What I got was good but not perfect. When I compared what I got to what I expected I was disappointed. Today everyone expects things to be perfect and you can never be happily surprised – which is a shame.


In order to make customers happier, part of the solution is to reduce (rather than enhance) number of decisions an individual makes. Think about the freedom of going to a restaurant with a tasting menu. The chef makes the decisions freeing you from choosing what to order – not to mention choosing what kind of salad dressing to buy. It doesn’t have to be that drastic though – customers can be happy with customization as long as it requires relatively little work on their part. A good example of customization with little work is the Pandora radio application. You just tell Pandora the songs that you like and Pandora creates your perfect radio station.

However, businesses can only do so much to raise customers’ happiness. Marketers continue to bring out new and better products – trying to convince consumers that these new products and new choices will make them happier. While these new options may be slightly better, most of the time it’s at the margins. Consumers need to lower their expectations of new products and realize that even the most customized product only provides the core benefits of the product itself and maybe a little more. No matter how customized your dishwashing detergent is, it will never make you as happy as the woman using it in the television ad. Taking that mindset, customers can be happier by ignoring most of the choices and just focus on the few clusters that really matter – and realize that the other differences won’t be all that significant.

If you like this sort of discussion you should watch the videos themselves – they very good. Then you might want to listen to the radio program Radiolab on Choice as well as pick up Dan Arielly’s book Predictably Irrational.

Product Management

How to Make Online Shopping Simpler

When companies design clever new products it’s easy to focus on creating cool new features without thinking about how a customer will actually use them. This often leads to products that were designed to do amazing things but aren’t used to any level of their capacity.

This frustrates consumers because they bought this product with all these great features but can’t figure out to use it. And it frustrates designers because the features right in front of them. The problem is that most customers aren’t interested in figuring out how every feature on every product works. This doesn’t make customers stupid, it just makes them busy. It’s hard to believe for some product designers but the vast majority of our customers don’t care about their products nearly as much as the product designer does. The customer wants them to serve their purpose and then move on with their life.

Microsoft’s Bing search engine takes this idea to heart – at least in its advertising and market positioning. Microsoft has been in a fierce battle to regain market share in the search arena for some time. Since the days when MSN pitted itself against AOL as the leading search destination, Microsoft has been having a tough time. Their search engine was rebranded “Live” which didn’t work out very well and has now been transformed into “Bing.” Instead of trying to duke it out search engine to search engine, Bing has declared itself to be a “Decision Engine.”

You’ve probably already seen Bing’s advertisements marketing it as a Decision Engine. Bing has a number of different videos to explain itself. I found the product tour video particularly interesting.  My only problem with the video is that many of the features promoted are ways of getting at information not making better decisions. Also, many of the features are those that Google and Bing have in common. These are great features that try to predict what the customer “really” wants based on their search query. For instance, when you search for “Mets” you get the current score of the game. If you type in an address, it shows you a map of the area. A further poke at the “innovative” nature of Bing is the organized results on the left column of the page. While I like this feature a lot, it’s an awful lot like the defunct Northern Light Search Engine from a decade ago

But a “Decision Engine” should go beyond providing information to actually helping to make a decision – like “What is the best digital camera to buy?”   Bing attacks this problem by aggregating a lot of data from around the web and presenting it together. Therefore you can compare cameras on ratings, features and any number of attributes. It’s a tantalizing problem because for product designers, researchers, and developers who can continue to gather more information and create even prettier ways to display it. They feel that the more information they give you the better decisions you can make. The problem is that most people don’t know how to use this information. Even if they understand it, do they know how to make the trade off between the different information e.g., size of a camera and image quality? And Bing doesn’t help you determine the most significant characteristics for you. For example, if you’re a hard core photographer you probably have thousands of dollars worth of lenses and really only care about camera bodies that support those lenses.

In order for any of these factors to make sense, customers need a framework to understand how they fit together. One way of doing this is to create a buyers guide with advice from top authorities on the topic. Even photography snobs like to listen to other photography snobs on the best cameras to buy. For a great example of this, just look at  Philip Greenspun’s equipment guide on

But all of the product designers and PhDs at Microsoft research have a problem with that – it’s far too simple. Just have experts tell us what the best things are? That doesn’t use any of the massive computing power behind the super powerful internet cloud. It doesn’t – but it solves the problem.

A slightly more technological way of getting to the same place is trying to understand the customer – asking them who they are and what they want to use the camera for and then providing them suggestions. To me, that’s a decision engine. If someone wants a good camera that takes good and simple pictures they want a very different camera than an enthusiast that wants all the latest features. Then the Bing shopping engine would make a lot of sense. After asking you who you are, it can provide a customized list of products based on the features that matter most to you. Also, you would understand why these features would make sense for you.

I think my favorite “Decision Engine” on the web is “Uncle Mark”  – an annual almanac of sorts written by Mark Hurst the founder of Good Experience. Mark Hurst is a guru of the “simpler is better” school of thought and is a strong proponent of the user experience. In the sixth edition of the Guide and Almanac published in November 2008 he recommends his favorite products across a number of dimensions.  And what does he choose for a camera? He created a Phone, Camera, etc. category and declared the iPhone the winner. Why? Because a camera that you have with you all the time is the best camera of all.

Product Management

Radical Cost Innovation

I remember visiting Bill Gates’s house in 1998 when I was an intern at Microsoft. Next to priceless tapestries hanging in his hallway were plasma screen TVs displaying images from Corbis – the library of images that he owned. The TVs were about 25” across and priced at about $15,000 a piece – the best TVs that money could buy. Bill Gates is the classic early adopter – someone with a lot of money who is more than willing to pay for superb products. Gradually products are refined and prices come down, making these latest and greatest gadgets available to the rest of us. Obviously the first few items are costly to produce and therefore are only available to those with the most money. But what if that weren’t exactly true. What if products were created where the early adopters weren’t the richest people but someone else entirely?

This brings us to Sam Farber. In 1989 Sam’s wife Betty was struggling with horrible arthritis and found it difficult to use many common kitchen utensils. Farber started to look for easier to use tools but found none were on the market. So he decided to build his own. He hired Smart Design, a New York based design firm, to create a set of kitchen utensils that Betty could use. The designers watched people with arthritis use their kitchen utensils like scientists in a laboratory, noting the difficulties they had, making changes and measuring their effectiveness. Based on these findings, they created products that overcame those needs while also ensuring that the tools were attractive, affordable, and high quality. Since its founding OXO has become one of the most popular brands of kitchen utensils in the world. They are most famous for the OXO Good Grips handle that delivers maximum leverage and minimum force. Another product from OXO is their jar opener that allows anyone to open jar lids that are stuck. What Farber proved to the rest of the world was that it’s not just the arthritic that like easy to use kitchen utensils, it’s everyone.

By carefully examining the difficulties of arthritic people with their kitchen utensils, Farber was able to transform an industry. But let’s take it one step further – who is hurting the most in the world? Who is the exact opposite of the traditional early adopters that we visualize: The Third World poor.

Designing products for the world’s poor requires radical cost innovation to make them affordable. In traditional innovation we had products that started at high prices that gradually came down. In radical cost innovation, the idea is to create something that is extremely cheap and gradually increase the quality.

We generally think of cost being proportional to quality. Therefore something of very low cost would be very low quality. In reality, performance divided by price equals value and high value products are very much sought after. Take the example of Toyota – probably the brand that stands for value more than any other in the world. Today Toyota stands for a good car at a fair price that never breaks down. This level of quality wasn’t created by building a million dollar car and gradually stripping it down. It was created by relentlessly focusing on waste and cost until all excess costs were eliminated.

This idea of radical cost innovation is not new. The idea is based on Clayton Christenson’s “Disruptive Innovation” in the Innovators’ Dilemma where he discusses how mainframe computers (e.g., IBM) were gradually driven from the market by inferior but much less costly mini-computers (e.g., DEC) which were gradually driven from the market by the inferior but much less costly micro-computers (e.g., PCs and servers). When each of the attackers (e.g., micro-computers) were introduced, the incumbents (e.g., IBMs) of the world thought that these computers would never be able to compete because they weren’t powerful enough. However, over time, the power of micro-computers increased rapidly and the micro-computers were able to take over much of the “real” work at a much lower price. Christenson’s key point is that cheaper technologies get better faster than better technologies get cheaper.

Another take on the cost innovation idea is in the article Format Invasions from Strategy and Business Magazine. The authors point out that most companies are looking for the next “Killer App” that will totally transform their industry (e.g., Apple iPhone). However, industries are often transformed by radically lower costs. Think about how Southwest Airlines transformed the airline industry by introducing the concept of the discount airline to the American public. This is a trend across many industries: Dell in computers, Wal-Mart in retail, and Nucor in steel. In the words of the authors “massively lower cost is the killer app.”

Taking these ideas forward, if companies could create products that had radically lower costs for Third World customers, they would have a tremendous market advantage. While these products would be inferior at first, companies can increase product performance but keep a radically lower cost base. This would lead to products with a value higher than anything currently seen in the market.

The most famous of these innovations is Tata Motors “Nano” that was released in early 2008. Historically multinational auto manufacturers have thought of the third world as an afterthought—waiting for incomes to rise so that they could buy developed world products. The Nano is a car built primarily for the Indian market where the average GDP per capita in India is about $3,300 per year vs. about $41,800 in the US. The base price of the car was 125,000 rupees (about $2,500). This is about half the price of the cheapest car in India and about five to six times cheaper than the entry level models just about anywhere else. Interestingly, Tata also owns the brands Jaguar and Land Rover. We obviously won’t be seeing at $2,000 Jaguar any time soon but don’t be surprised if we see some of the cost savings of the Nano delivered to some of the world’s top luxury brands.

CK Prahalad, the World’s foremost proponent of Third World Innovation, has been involved in a number of cost innovation projects for the world’s poor which he discusses in The Innovation Sandbox. In one case he helped Ginger Hotels to fundamentally rethink what it costs to run a hotel. Ginger Hotels (formerly Indiaone) has recently opened a hotel in Bangalore that provides rooms for about $20 a night vs. the $300 for other hotels in the area. Each room has an attached bathroom, wireless internet and an LCD TV. While most hotels make a 30-40% profit Ginger clocks in at 65%. One element of savings is in labor. In a 100 room hotel, Ginger has seven employees vs. 50 for a motel or 130 for a modern hotel. Everything else is outsourced.

But perhaps the most amazing Third World innovation is the Jaipur Foot, an amazing prosthetic that allows India’s poor amputees (many of whom were injured by land mines) to live normal lives. The device was a collaboration between master sculptor Ram Chandra and an orthopedic surgeon Dr. P.K. Sethi. The device is designed to be fabricated at a very low cost by relatively unskilled laborers. Even more impressive, the device is built to support the lifestyle of the working poor which includes walking barefoot and squatting. The device costs a mere $30, far less than the $8,000 to $10,000 similar devices cost in the US.

So how can large US firms respond? If large multinational firms do not attack the problem they will be at a tremendous cost disadvantage when foreign goods become good enough to enter US markets. However, there is a simple solution. Invest in making products for the world’s poor. This does not mean simply outsourcing to India to reduce the cost of products. I am talking about radically changing the price point of a product so that it can be afforded by the world’s most indigent people. This strategy has many advantages:

  1. Develop New Technologies
    The main reason to do this is to increase the level of technology in the business. This technology could be used to make products more cheaply and increase profit margins, defend against competitors, or even block competitors in with patents in developed markets.
  2. Cheap to Develop
    One of the great advantages to building products for the poor is that there is a relatively low cost to implement. In order to sell the products at a price that the customers can afford, manufacturing costs must be held extremely low compared to those in developed countries. This allows companies to do this research at a relatively small investment level.
  3. Doesn’t Affect the Core Brands
    Companies would create an entirely new company to product these products. These firms would be making products under different brands. There is little chance that the main brands would be cannibalized. Eventually these products will provide competition when they are good enough to enter the developed world; however, this would happen whether or not the multinationals were invested in these technologies.
  4. Frequent Presence on the Supply Side Already — Outsourcing
    A large number of global companies are already sourcing knowledge work from India and China. This workforce could be leveraged to make and sell products to the poor people in these areas. Sourcing this work from the same regions as the target customers would provide key insights and the ability to test easily.
  5. By Delivering Value to Those Most in Need, Companies Can Make a Real Difference in the World.
    Simply put, this is one of the cases in business where companies can do a tremendous amount of good while making a tidy (if not huge) profit.

Bruce Sterling, the science fiction writer once said, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” We are all waiting to buy the latest and greatest products that the rich and famous have today. Once they come down in price we will all have virtual reality headsets, Japanese super phones, automated homes and whatever else is dreamt up by the mad scientists in the back rooms of universities and corporations. At the same time, whether we realize it or not, we are also waiting for the next generation of radically lower prices from the Third World. These products are already being developed and it’s up to US companies to step up to the plate to maintain their competitive advantage or face being disintermediated by cheaper technologies.