Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Interruptions, context-switching, and flow

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Mike Gunderloy at WWD writes "The more you allow yourself to be ping-ponged around from IM chat to
email to what you should be working on to social network to phone call,
the less likely you are to ever hit a flow state."  He points to a great post by Darren Rowse on "batch processing."

There has been a lot recently written about the time cost of working in an interrupt-driven fashion.  This Microsoft Research Study by Mary Czerwinski, Eric Horvitz, and Susan Wilhite documents the level of task-switching and interruptions user face.  We’ve mentioned this topic on the ClearContext corporate blog and the IMS methodology is built around batching concepts like only checking your email every few hours.

Mike’s post touches on what I consider an even greater issue with the interrupt-driven information overloaded world most of us work in – the impact that has on the creative flow of ideas.  Nathan Zeldes of Intel wrote in  Infomania: Why we can’t afford to ignore it any longer that "because of Infomania, employees are not creating new ideas to the extent they could."

This is not a new issue by any means  Back in 2003, gavinb writes "this translates to the idea that 2-3 interruptions per hour can halve productivity" and points to an article by Bryan Dollery that describes why that’s the case:

Flow takes time to achieve, and it is fragile. If a programmer’s flow
is interrupted it can take a large amount of time for her to regain the
state, sometimes up to an hour. That’s an hour of lost productivity to
your team. If a programmer is interrupted many times during the day she
may never reach this state. Without this state, creativity is crippled.

I highly recommend reading the rest of Bryan’s article as well as the others referenced in this post.  They provide some really valuable insight into the second-order impacts of interrupt-driven work styles beyond the basic loss of time and productivity.

The beta excuse (part 2) – is the private beta BS?

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Longtime readers of the blog have been eagerly waiting on this post for quite some time, as it has been almost two years since I wrote part 1.  Sorry to keep you waiting so long!  In that post I wrote about some of the frustration and confusion around the use of the term "beta" in the software release process, largely due to the way it has been used in the web 2.0/SaaS world.  Brad Feld just wrote a post bringing up the subject that largely echoes this key point from my previous post (and questions whether "Private Beta is Bullshit"):

And this is where things start to become a potential problem as I see a
lot of this trend spilling over into non-web based software products as
well.  Because now all of a sudden, "beta" can become an excuse to put
out shoddy, bug-ridden product that is really more an ad-hoc market
test than anything else.  For companies like ours that still deal in
real product that we sell to people on a traditional software basis (as
opposed to an ad click revenue model or something), this is an
important step in the product development process, and the blurring of
"beta" lines definitely makes things more confusing to a lot of users
out there.

"So – why not get rid of the "private beta" label and call all of these things alphas." he asks.  Well, because they often aren’t alphas!

I think this issue is actually about two very distinct points.

One point is Brad’s key point (and I made in 2006, the WSJ made in 2005, and zephoria made in 2004) – the fact that the way this term has been used has largely made the term meaningless, and "betas" now range from bug-ridden early alphas to true beta quality almost ready for GA software.  Brad’s post has a lot of great comments, including a couple that point out "beta" is also sometimes used as a marketing tag to denote "new" features – even after they are in widespread general release.

There’s a second point, though, and a valid reason for private betas to exist (funny timing on Brad’s post, as our ClearContext Personal product is currently in, you guessed it, private beta).  In the old world of disks and distribution through traditional channels, you as the developer were able to control who you gave access to the beta and push out in waves you selected.  With both web-based apps and software that uses the web as its marketing and distribution channel, the way a lot of companies reach their users is by putting something out on the web.  A number of Brad’s comments describe scenarios where a limited beta is a very useful and valid part of the process.  And logistically, what’s now commonly referred to as a "private beta" is often the best way for companies to accomplish that.  With our latest product, we did an alpha with a small existing group of customers.  Then we did an initial beta, again with existing customers only.  Next we opened our private beta to a few thousand users.  I posted about the different types of beta testers and the part they play in our release process.  On our corporate blog we posted specifics about what we gained from the private beta – the biggest thing was getting usability feedback from brand new users who had never seen anything like this product before.

A lot of companies still use beta as an excuse for taking shortcuts and not having a really rigorous development and release process, but the advent of web-based deployment and/or distribution of software has also somewhat changed the nature of the beta process. Perhaps companies will standardize on usage so people can have some understanding and expectation about what it means for something to be called a "beta" release, but I doubt it will happen without any external pressure.  It would be nice to see some of the leading tech blogs call companies on this and evaluate whether their "beta" releases are really deserving of that tag.  A "how close to ready for primetime is this app" rating would be a very useful service to their readers.

Three weeks without being online? WHAT!?!

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I’m back in the US of A!  OK, well, I’ve actually been back for 3 weeks now.  But it still feels like I just got back.  Before really getting back to blogging, wanted to give some quick observations on being gone and away from all sorts of online communication.

On my family trip to India from Dec. 12 – Jan 1, even though I had easy access if I really wanted to, I made a concerted effort not to get online or do work.  I spent a grand total of zero minutes on the phone during that period and 1.5 total hours online in 3 sessions, almost all of that checking email.  I didn’t read any online news or any online blogs.  I didn’t check Facebook or Twitter or web traffic reports or stock tickers or anything.

And it was really refreshing and invigorating.

Like I said, I did check email 3 times to make sure nothing critical had come up regarding key deals/milestones/etc. for ClearContext.  But, besides that, I let my away message handle everything else.  Of course, this was possible due to planning ahead and delegating things to a very capable team.  But the main thing to point out that many of us forget is that it actually is possible.

Upon my return, I spent two days getting my inbox down from thousands to about 50 emails that required more than a one-line response.  There’s no question that the prioritization and categorization capabilities of ClearContext were a huge help in doing this.  By my third day back I was back to an empty Inbox.  I shudder to think how much longer it would have taken to get through my inbox processing everything sequentially and individually.

Perhaps even more eye-opening to me was how many blog entries and news items I read when checking every day, as opposed to when I bunch them up.  I had many RSS feeds with over 100 items that I was able to scan and only felt it necessary to read a couple of items, whereas I would have likely read a couple of items every day from those feeds if I were checking frequently.  After three weeks away, I felt caught up on both news and technology in just a few hours. I’m definitely going to check most of my feeds less often.  The same thing applies to news sites.  For most stories, I can definitely more than make do with far fewer updates.  And it definitely didn’t hurt to check things like Facebook quite infrequently.  Some things to think about in terms of where those little chunks of time go.

OK, I’ll leave you with a few cool India pictures I stole from my brother-in-law Jeff before getting back to serious blogging!

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The Amber Fort in Jaipur.  Amazing.

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The Taj Mahal in Agra, amazing that they were able to build things like this hundreds of years ago.  The next picture shows the scale of the Taj.2167466383_d41d3f4a12

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Some white rhinos we saw in Northern India on safari.
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And, of course, me on an elephant!

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 10th, 2007

I feel like the mall, wishing people happy holidays before the middle of the month, haha.  Heading to India later this week, so I’ll be taking a break from blogging until after the holidays.  I have 42 blog post ideas queued up in my list, so lots of writing on tap for 2008.  Best wishes to everyone for a fun and safe rest of the year.

What are friends? Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

I got an email from Macy’s today.  It was actually from my "friends" at Macy’s wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving.  Now, it so happens that I actually DO have a couple of friends who work at Macy’s, but I’m pretty sure they had nothing to do with that email, and none of the people in online marketing or ecommerce or whatever else at Macy’s responsible for that email are actually my friend.  Neither are the people at Yahoo, GoDaddy, my insurance companies, my credit card companies, various casinos, or countless other "friends" wishing me well.

This doesn’t really bother me, but it does make me think about a broader topic related to the word friend. The meaning (or at least connotation) of that word seems to keep getting more and more diluted, and in recent times it’s Facebook that is leading the charge to genericize (hmm, apparently that is not really a word) that word.  When it comes to online communications, the word friend is largely becoming synonymous with the term contact.

What’s the point?  None, really, just a random observation.  Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends reading this blog – and to the rest of you, too!

The four A’s of “Inbox 2.0″

Monday, November 19th, 2007

I need to come up with a new term for "Inbox 2.0" because I find it pretty annoying.  Maybe next-generation messaging or the Intelligent Inbox or something like that.  But on to the topic at hand…

Matt Blumberg made a great post today on Automated Relevance. The entire post is well-worth reading, but I think the most important statement is this one: "I think of relevance as the combination of Relationship and Context."  He also writes some good stuff about the significance of the channel/medium of communication, but imo while it’s important, that is very much secondary to relevance.

A lot of what Matt wrote touches on three themes I’ve spent a lot of time on around messaging.  Following up on the Three I’s I wrote about, here are four important A’s when it comes to next-generation messaging.

Automation – As the volume of information we are presented with continues to increase.  Forget about just increasing email volumes – I now check Facebook updates at least once a day, check Google Reader blog feeds a couple of times a day, have various LinkedIn communications to manage, and occasionally take a peek at Twitter – all new channels of information that just plain didn’t exist in my information processing pipeline until relatively recently.  Managing that volume of information requires automation, plain and simple.  The simplest piece of that is automating mundane processing steps like filing and categorizing information.  More interesting automation can take place at a higher level by intelligently utilizing the context and relevance of information (including the context in which the information is being accessed) to figure out what types of things users are likely to want to do with that information.  I give some examples in my post The Context Web.

Aggregation – Two facets of aggregation are important when it comes to processing ever increasing volumes of diverse information.  One is aggregating together content from the same streams/channels.  Message threading is an obvious basic first step, which is becoming increasingly common.   Aggregating messages around  related content is a next step.  The second facet of information aggregation involves combining information across different channels.  Pulling together related email information, combining it with relevant schedule and project information, external information streams, and related content on the web.  Zimbra (now Yahoo) is one company that has already started to create that sort of integration to external content from within email.

Accuracy – This is an often overlooked, but critical point, when creating intelligent information solutions.  At ClearContext we spend a lot of time balancing the line between accuracy and automation.  The more structured and well-defined information is, the more accurate you can be at doing intelligent things with it.  In many areas, though, accuracy needs to be effectively 100% or else the solution loses the bulk of its value.  If someone needs to double-check their spam filter, the utility of that tool has dropped tremendously.   If an application causes you to miss a big meeting because it deemed that information unimportant, you can pretty much kiss that program goodbye.  A classic solution to this problem has been to require large amounts of markup/metadata to be provided.  However, adding a big burden on the user’s normal workflow just doesn’t work.  A more pragmatic approach is to increase the level of automation based on the confidence levels of accuracy.  Newsletter?  Yes, file that away in the appropriate folder.  Note from an important contact that is 80% likely to be a business context and 20% to be personal in nature?  Bring that to the user’s attention and let them do the final step in filtering.

APIs  – Brad Feld wrote about email APIs today.  Programmatic access to next-generation messaging information is definitely important, but I think of APIs in a fundamentally different way when thinking about this stuff.  Rather than thinking about them in the traditional sense of data/process access methods, I think the more important ones are information-oriented and context-rich APIs.  What do I mean by that?  To be honest, I’m not exactly sure.  But I don’t think what’s really needed to take solutions to the next level is a bunch more APIs to grab messages and contacts.  Instead, I think we need constructs that let us deal with information, relevance, and context.  Much of that can even be data-driven, using information contained in the message itself.  Looking at services like TripIt on one side and notifications coming into the inbox from various Web 2.0 apps/sites, one can definitely make a case for email itself being the API for email – or at least an important self-contained component of the next-generation messaging API.

We’re currently prototyping a lot of features in/around these areas.  I look forward to sharing more specifics in the upcoming weeks and months.  In the meantime, here’s an overview of stuff I’ve written recently touching on these topics:

Semantic Web is great, but… – The basis on which a lot of this stuff will be built.  Best part of this post is the set of links to good writing on the structured/semantic web.

Contact segmentation… – This will be the basis for a lot of the context/relationship stuff Matt wrote about in his automated relevance post.

Email is sexy again – Contact relationships and priority – a key building block in analyzing email communications.

The Context Web – more thoughts and links on the semantic web, and my take on what to call it.

Inbox 2.0 – Response to NYT post that rekindled a lot of email-focused discussions.

Three I’s of Inbox 2.0 – Information, Interface, and Integration

And of course, this post, the four A’s – Automation, Aggregation, Accuracy, and APIs.

OK, I quit: 3D Mailbox

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

3D Mailbox (via TechCrunch) might just be the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.  The fact that this app exists makes me reconsider even being in the email field.  This 3D email app (yeah, wtf I know) "brings the thrill of flight to your inbox" and is where "email meets flight sim." Well, OK then.

See, you get an email from Australia, IT ARRIVES ON QANTAS, THAT’S RIGHT! 

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Attachments?  Yeah, FEDEX HAS THOSE!!!!

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Visit them to check out the rest of their screenshots and watch their sweet trailers.

How PR firms use blogs

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Scoble writes on PR via blogs today.  Most PR folks I talk to are very savvy about getting blog coverage for their companies, and most have a pretty straighforward approach just as Robert describes.

However, I don’t think his "anti-coverage" strategy is really a different PR approach or trend, I think it’s just PR for a different purpose.

Companies want blog coverage for many reasons:

  • Reach mainstream media journalists who are looking to the blogs for news/feature stories.
  • Build awareness in the venture/analyst community. 
  • Build general awareness of the company among tech early adopters.
  • Lay foundation of cites in preparation for future launch/news
  • And many others

What the company is trying to do dictates the PR approach to bloggers.  When a company is trying to get mainstream media coverage, it wants to be perceived as hot and new and news that everyone is talking about.  The coordinated, tiered approach to getting the news out there makes a ton of sense in that scenario.  On the other hand, if a company is trying to slowly build up a userbase during a beta period and looking for early adopter feedback, it makes sense to slowly and organically build up a base of coverage that people searching out information on the space will be likely to find.

Now that just about everyone utilizes the blogging community as a PR channel, it’s going to become more and more important for companies and PR firms to create longer-term "full blog coverage lifecycle" PR strategies for companies they want to promote successfully.

Building a profitable company is not obsolete

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

One part of the current Web 2.0 boom (and perhaps the part that most justifies a lot of the bubble talk going around) that is reminiscent of the dot-com days is the focus many companies have on pageviews and users over revenue models and profits.  A lot of industry folks claim this is completely different due to the monetization magic of AdWords and the resurgence of online advertising in general.  In some cases that holds true, but oftentimes it’s just an excuse for a lack of substance and product people are willing to actually pay for.

What I enjoy most about the startup world is solving problems for people and companies.  Which is why building products and solutions that people actually want to buy is always a major focus for me in my businesses.  This once standard approach sometimes feels almost unconventional in the startup world these days.

So I always like it when I read things like "Then, for us, we knew in our hearts, and we didn’t want to be a web 2.0
company that’s just all hype and glam. We knew that we had planned all
of this carefully with our board. We had always wanted to start making
money." from startups that become really successful.  In this case, it’s from an article about Zimbra, an open-source email startup that sold to Yahoo for $350M.  That’s a significantly bigger exit than a lot of pretty "hot" web 2.0 acquisitions.

Here’s the full podcast and transcript.   

Sick

Monday, September 4th, 2006

Ugh.  What a holiday weekend.  Had aspirations of getting ahead on a lot of work stuff, doing tons of errands,  writing a few blog posts, and doing tons of fun stuff.  Instead, I spent Friday and Saturday in bed w/ the flu/cold/something and just rested watching TV on Sunday.  At least today I was better again and was able to have a great BBQ w/ a bunch of good friends – that really saved the weekend for me.

So, here’s a startup tip for you.  If you want to challenge your immune system, make sure one of your co-founders has a couple of little kids.  That will get a constant stream of new bugs coming into the office until one manages to take you down!  At least by the end of the year I think we’ll have antibodies for everything, though!

I’ll be back in the office tomorrow and look forward to following up on some of my prior entries.  Hope you had a great holiday weekend!