Interruptions, context-switching, and flow

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?

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.

The different levels of beta testers

June 5th, 2008

We recently launched the beta program for ClearContext Personal.  I was planning to have my next blog posts here be about our product planning process and how we put together the product plans for our ClearContext Personal and Pro products, and the things we learned by first focusing on the needs of very sophisticated email power users with an incredible pain point of dealing with huge volumes of important and time-critical email.  I’ll get to those soon, but first I wanted to make some observations about our recent beta push.

When we first started ClearContext, our initial beta testers were friends and colleagues.  These people all provide valuable input, but no matter how  much you push them, they are biased towards you and often give you the benefit of the doubt – and are typically pretty forgiving in terms of the finer points of product functionality and user experience.  We still use these people as the first wave of people to give us friendly input on new stuff we are working on, but we recognize that it’s just that – friendly input.

As we’ve developed a base of customers, one big benefit is that we’ve grown an active beta group of users eager to try out new technology while it is still pretty early in development and provide feedback.  These users are quite vocal about what they want to see in the product and very active and important to us when it comes to defining the final feature set we ship with and the details of how certain features work.  Not to mention helping us find that final round of bugs to fix.  These users have been the core of our beta testing process over the past few releases and are a key part of our release process.

We utilized those two groups in testing early versions of our Personal product, including helping us make sure the product was as easy to install and use as possible.  They provided a lot of really good feedback and helped us release a great product that is getting lots of good reviews

When we opened up the beta program to a wider audience, though, we now had a new type of beta tester in the mix.  Many of these beta testers had never heard of ClearContext or anything like it and hadn’t seen any videos or tutorials on the website before installing the app.  Things like ranking your contacts based on how important they are, prioritizing and color-coding incoming email, and providing context around email such as related messages, contacts, and attachments – these were all brand new concepts to them.  We received a lot of useful feedback that was very different from any of the prior feedback when we presented the app to a large group of users who had never seen anything like this before.  One of the biggest things we learned from this process was that even for a lot of very tech-savvy email users, for them to take full advantage of some of the brand new concepts we’re introducing, they could benefit a lot from more guided setup and explanation.  So, we’re adding a lot more of that type of functionality (and a lot more of their feedback) into the product to make it easier for users to understand how best to take advantage of ClearContext – so we can help make their email experience better and reduce their stress and frustration with email.

It’s really amazing that the web provides the ability to get so much great input from such a wide range of users interested in and excited about new technology.  But that input is only really valuable if you understand the perspective of your different beta groups and really listen (and act on!) to what they are telling you.  We’re very thankful to everyone who has helped us in this process and hopefully other companies understand how valuable these people are as well, and how important it is to take full advantage of that valuable resource. 

Product launches are tiring!

May 19th, 2008

OK, I just wrote a long post over on the ClearContext company blog.  We just launched a new product that lets us serve a much broader market than we’ve been dealing with so far.  Over the next few posts here I’ll be talking about why we chose to work with the power users first in developing our products, how we put together the product plan for ClearContext Personal, and what the launch involved.  I’m exhausted and need sleep soon, though.  In the meantime, check out what TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and GigaOm have to say about the launch!

Cuban and Yahoo…

May 15th, 2008

"What would happen if MicroSoft or Yahoo or a MicroHoo went to the 5 top
results for the top 25k searches and paid them to leave the Google
Index ?"

Mark Cuban, 5/14/08

"Carl Icahn presented an alternate slate of directors … Since early 2000, Mr. Cuban has been the majority and controlling owner
of the National Basketball Association franchise, the Dallas Mavericks. …"

5/15/08

Nice.

There are people who think Outlook doesn’t need help?

May 5th, 2008

Charlie Cooper wrote this post today with the simple premise that Outlook is in need of a "a top-to-bottom overhaul."  That’s something I’d consider far from controversial.  Yet a number of the comments are from people who seem to think Outlook is just fine the way it is.  That sort of blows my mind!

Use Outlook for any decent amount of time with a good-sized mail file and things will slow to a crawl unless you aggressively perform mail file maintenance (check out these tips Brad put together on the CC blog – they are a lifesaver for heavy Outlook users).

Companies like ClearContext and Xobni building on the Microsoft platform, Xoopit on Gmail, and whole new platforms like Zenbe and Zimbra (not to mention a slew of older webmail providers) all exist largely due to the fact that there has simply not been much innovation around email in the last decade or so.

I recently wrote about three next steps for email – this need has been a recurring theme among bloggers for the last few years, and a bunch of startups are now working on various ways to make email better in ways that Microsoft has not been able to do with Outlook.  Charlie and others talk about a number of reasons why Microsoft has not been the company making these changes, but it’s largely a simple BigCo vs startup situation.  Each rev of Office/Outlook is a HUGE undertaking and every single change is part of a massive project planning and development process, making it tough to be very nimble.  On the other hand, by focusing just on specific areas, startups can move much faster, even building on top of the existing Outlook platform. 

And there’s another big issue here as well – integration with non-Microsoft services and applications.  To really take email into the next generation means seamless integration with a lot of applications, content, and services that don’t come out of the Microsoft world – not an area where Microsoft is likely to lead the charge.

Outlook most definitely can benefit from a lot of next-generation advancements around email, and unless Microsoft heeds Charlie’s advice about a major rewrite, it’s likely to be a lot of startups who will be addressing the problem.  So I guess I hope Microsoft listens to some of those commenters who think Outlook is just fine!

Three next steps for email

April 29th, 2008

It’s the end of April and as Brad Feld and his partner Chris Wand point out, people are once again talking about the problems with email.  Even the New York Times was back on the case (including a mention of ClearContext among the potential solutions).   Why do I say back on the case?  Well, there was a flurry of activity around the topic of email overload and potential new solutions in March and also in January …and November ’07 …and also October ’07 – I could go on….  Many of the articles/posts linked in those blog posts touch on a number of the same topics – all revolving around a number of deficiencies in email clients designed for a set of use cases developed many years ago that no longer reflect the realities of how email is used today.

Here are three key areas where email clients haven’t kept up with the pace of change:

Volume – email clients are designed around the concept of messages being handled on an individual "one-by-one" basis.  That worked fine when emails were just the electronic versions of memos that used to be put on your desk.  But with most information workers now receiving over 100 emails a day (and far, far more for many people), that approach is no longer feasible.  This is largely block-and-tackle stuff.  To handle this volume of information, email clients need to automate the processing overhead to make it easier for people to quickly process the email and figure out which emails actually require action and attention.  This also includes taking the level of granularity up a degree and pulling related messages and threads together so users can deal with sets of information rather than wading through messages one by one.

Integration – email clients are for the most part a silo designed for handling email messages really well.  Many of them have calendars and other PIM functionality tacked on, but it’s usually exactly that – tacked on.  Email has become a dynamic project management and collaboration tool where people routinely exchange status updates and work assignments for projects, have group discussions, and often  replace status and planning meetings with emails. That requires real integration between all of the pieces of information beyond the emails themselves – the associated task lists, appointments, documents, etc.  And integration extends beyond the email platform to external applications on servers or in the cloud (CRM, project management, HR, basically any enterprise app) that require all that data – a process that now often involves cumbersome manual exporting or copying of that information from the messaging platform to the application. I wrote yesterday about a number of companies that are focused on this integration specifically around contacts – which now encompass a far richer, wider, and more dynamic set of information than just the traditional address book.  Contacts are just one piece of a much bigger and more interesting puzzle – putting that together so businesses can take advantage of all the data exchanged across email is a very interesting and exciting opportunity.

Context – email clients are also pretty dumb.  With some rare exceptions (meeting requests, for example), they handle and present all incoming messages exactly the same way.  Messages with your friend’s new baby pictures, Facebook notifications, a project update, and someone inviting you to lunch are all completely different classes of message that should be processed in completely different ways.  Some companies are starting to recognize this – Xoopit, for example, is starting out by doing special things w/ media (photos, videos, etc.) sent to Gmail accounts. There are countless opportunities to do intelligent context-specific processing of messages.  I’ll expand on this soon in a post that lays out the primary classes of email and how they can be handled much better than the way most email clients currently work.

In his blog post, Chris highlights Salesforce.com as a company that looks at itself as "not just as an application but as a platform to facilitate the
gathering, organization and integration of data across disparate
sources and applications and because they recognize that data are more
useful and actionable when freed rather than trapped."  That’s definitely the future of email and email platforms.  Email has become, and for the foreseeable future will remain, the central hub of activity around which the majority of business activities take place.  But email as a platform will lose much of its allure if that data can’t be seamlessly accessed and shared with applications looking to add or pull out value from all of those communications.  At ClearContext, our upcoming release (currently in beta) is focused on building structure around the data in email based on identifying the implicit relationships between all the pieces of information that can be gleaned just from observing existing user behaviors – and providing value in ways that benefit the individual user, but can also be expanded across the enterprise.  Check the ClearContext blog for updates – we’ll be opening the beta program to the public soon.

Where are your contacts going to live?

April 28th, 2008

Xobni today revealed (to TechCrunch) some plans for a Yahoo Mail version of their product.  What they do with email (pulling conversation threads together, exposing who is linked to each other based on who is cc’ed, and some cool analytics features) is the less interesting part, though.  What’s most interesting and important about this news is that they have now officially announced their intention to enter the battle to be the place where your unified rich contact list lives.

Plaxo is probably the best known company specifically focusing on that space.  They started out as a pure play online contact manager, grown through aggressive spamming, but have overcome that initial stigma to regain a decent reputation (GoodContacts was an early player in this space that never gained the traction of Plaxo and was acquired by Reunion.com a few years ago, before this stuff really started heating up). Their new Plaxo Pulse service integrates the rich contact list with feeds/activity across the web.  Hmmm, remind you of something you’ve heard about recently?

Yes, FriendFeed and Socialthing! are two companies who are coming at the space from the social media aggregation side, and currently getting a lot of buzz.  These companies focus on pulling together all the information about your friends from various sites – it’s a logical and easy step to aggregate all the profile/contact info here as well. XoopIt is another cool company aggregating information from your friends/contacts.  Rather than focus on updates from social media sites, they are starting with a focus on one specific type of information from your contacts – pictures and videos.  What’s richer content around a contact than the media they send?

Of course, the most obvious contenders here are the source of much of the data for some of these companies.  Facebook, LinkedIn, and the nine zillion other social networks out there that many people already use as a sort of distributed online address book that is always up-to-date since everyone maintains their own account. And those other guys…. Microsoft (access to a couple of contact records via a few users of Outlook/Exchange, Hotmail, and various other services), Yahoo, Google and the other big players always loom large in areas like this.  But right now it looks like a bunch of much smaller companies are the ones making the really innovative moves forward in this space.

The biggest question here is whether or not a huge number of people are going to fully cede control/ownership of their address book to some company in the cloud that maintains a walled garden.  And I think the answer is no. The winner of this race is going to be the one who provides a set of rich services to aggregate all the information around contacts and keep them updated, but also give the user full control over the list of contacts.  That means letting the user export that address book to/from desktop apps, other online services, basically whatever they want to do.  With OpenSocial, DataPortability, and other standards/organizations starting to get a lot of buzz, there will be a lot of opportunity for someone to create a rich, distributed contact list service that is totally open.  Whoever does that and lets people integrate and access that list from various web services, their email client, their phone, and basically whatever/wherever the user wants will have created a very valuable and useful asset and service.  And as central access point for that data, one with huge network effect and user lockin.

Two marketing email common sense tips

April 15th, 2008

Taking a quick break from the strategic email posts/analysis to make a couple of points re: some very tactical email usage mistakes I’ve been noticing a ton lately as we’ve been spending more time looking at the nature and content of incoming email.  This is specifically directed at anyone who is sending out sales/marketing emails.  It’s amazing how much stuff you notice about emails when trying to automate the process of putting them in the right bucket.  Here are two big things that stand out.

Tip #1 : This is re: email marketing messages sent to broad audiences.  Test to see if your email is by default going to be spammed by the default Outlook Junk Mail Filter rules.  This is the easiest test in the world to do, and one of the easiest to address.  Yet companies continue to send emails that automatically get junked and never even make it to the inbox. 

Tip #2: This is re: directed/targeted email marketing messages send by and to specific individuals.  When you’re sending an email pitching your services to a specific individual at a company, spend an extra minute or two checking their website or doing a quick search to see if they publish their email address.  Sending an email to their real inbox rather than hoping an email to "info@company.com" will make it to them will increase your response rate significantly.  Pitch emails sent to generic inboxes are so much likelier to just be insta-deleted.

It’s pretty surprising to me that with email marketing having been around for so long, these fundamental mistakes are so common.  As email clients become more and more sophisticated, not making mistakes like this will become even more important.

Facebook Introductions on the way?

March 27th, 2008

Facebook just released a feature that suggests people you may know, described well in this Inside Facebook post.  This feels like the biggest step Facebook has taken to get closer to the type of introduction functionality that is at the heart of LinkedIn and  going there seems like a very obvious next step for Facebook.

A quick rundown of the new functionality first. A sidebar entry on your homepage rotates through a couple of people who you share friends with like this:
Pymk

and the see all page shows you lists of people who you share friends with.  Dyk_2
A lot of the people are just people who you share hyperconnected Facebook friends with (Jon Staenberg knows EVERYONE!).  But it’s also very interesting to see people who you share friends with in completely different social circles.  I’ve definitely had a few, WAIT A SEC, HOW DO THEY KNOW EACH OTHER?!? moments.

My experience browsing the lists is that about 25% of the people suggested are people I actually am friends or acquaintances with, but just haven’t added on Facebook.  About 50% are people I am familiar with, but don’t know personally.  And the remaining quarter are people I don’t know at all.  Basically, a perfect platform from which to launch LinkedIn-style introductions.

I’ve written about contact segmentation in social networking in the past.  This is something that is going to be more important in social networks as boundaries of friends, business colleagues, and online acquaintances start to blur.  Facebook is giving a nod to that with their Privacy Changes and Friend Lists.  But as Facebook and other networks break down the tenuous walls around friends and contacts, having context about the nature of these relationships is going to be more important, and that’s something we’ve been working on.  The ClearContext Contact Exporter lets you extract and export sets of contacts from groups of Outlook folders, allowing you to export everyone you’ve invited to parties onto Facebook or groups like your investment contacts into LinkedIn.  But now that the roles of these social networks are overlapping more, it’s more likely to have both types of contacts in both places, so having richer information about the strength and nature of your relationships known by those sites will become more important – and analyzing email interactions is a good way to figure that out.  In our upcoming ClearContext release we’ve already added more contact-focused interactions directly into messaging workflow, allowing you to work with groups of contacts related to specific contexts or projects.  As we continue to be overwhelmed by information and and ever-increasing number of ways to exchange that information and interact with each other, it’s a really exciting time to be working on intelligent solutions to help people survive in this new era of hyperconnected communications.

Update:  One of the most hyperconnected folks around, the lovely Adriana Gascoigne, just wrote about how much she loves Facebook for virtual networking.   She’s not alone on that by any means, and that is exactly why I think we’ll be seeing functionality like Facebook Introductions soon.