Trojan Horse 3.0

A Trojan horse – usually an eavesdropping kind of a computer virus, or as some of you may know the mythological wooden horse with hidden warriors inside used by the Greek to end the siege of city of Troy. I think the brilliant metaphor continues to evolve and its latest incarnation is social media! Specifically, the rampant mis-information on social media.

Don’t worry I am not asking you to give up your WhatsApp! However with great power comes great responsibility according to Voltaire or Spiderman 🙂 depending on whose philosophy you follow. I strongly believe that Social media is being used as a Trojan horse to manipulate and literally hack into the minds of billions of people. We need to do something about it.  Social media is probably as profound an invention as the internet itself. However, I believe it is a huge contributor to some crises of our times. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of world-wide-web, highlights these challenges in 3 parts. First, we have lost control of our personal data (huge topic, not for now). Second, it’s too easy to spread misinformation (a.k.a. Trojan horse 3.0) and third,  political advertising needs transparency and understanding. In this blog post, I share my perspectives.

  1. People are the biggest subjects of mass internet adoption & social media

The first apparent signs were seen in Arab spring. People used social to rally public opinion and an uprising. We began to see fundamental impact in Tunisia and other places. Fast forward to today – Brexit is a reality, despite our utter disbelief. Donald Trump got elected on a super controversial and rather ingenious campaign. Most people are still gobsmacked by these results.  These movements have been enabled by social media. Can anyone predict what are the long-term consequences of these events? One thing is certain, the reductionist narratives are succeeding far more than they used to. Savvy people who know how to manipulate social media are grabbing power. The future,   to say the least looks very much on an edge. How did we let this happen?

2. Majority of people do not verify facts, and are prone to cognitive bias. We need to acknowledge this, without an excuse

Most people look at a headline online and assume it must be true. People look at an internet meme negatively associating someone with a crime, and over time, they think it must be true. We are not the most logical creatures we think we are, we are prone to errors of judgement all the time. Information bias, confirmation bias, belief bias, ambiguity bias, conjunction fallacy and more are known pitfalls of our own cognition. These make us an easy prey when we are faced with complex social decision. We favour simple looking options and complete information over complex options and incomplete information – often ignoring truth or facts in the process. Ironically, real world is often full of complex options and incomplete information. Consider Brexit. People were given simple options (In or out), and total but apparently complete mis-information i.e. we go out of EU and we get back ÂŁ350m a week, we keep single market access, and we are in control of free movement – sounds awesome, right? well except it was not a fact. This red-bus photo or similar ones were distributed and seen millions of times, thanks to social media.

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Courtesy : mojoworking.eu
Reality however, turned out far more complex. We have heard ridiculous red, blue or white Brexit, hard-brexit, a “deep and special” partnership, god knows what this all means in future but people voted nonetheless!

 

 

 

3. There is no silver bullet to address the root cause, however we can make a good start with a transparency movement, and a sufficiently strong industry response to this phenomenon

With billions of people X times the content, it is literally impossible to police everything. I have seen algorithms and AI tasked with identifying “bad” stuff, but it is also well known that algorithms are probably even more biased than human beings and are prone to manipulation. Perhaps, a good start would be to start with a transparency movement – Google has made a good start by including a fact checker on some of its content.

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Courtesy : Thisinsider.com 
At least it will act as a warning sign to not take information at the face value – others should follow suit. In fact, I believe with Google and Facebook pretty much controlling most of the products in question, there should be a strong industry response translating in explicit features such as the one describe above, online ads reminding people, awareness campaigns and TV commercials.

 

Ultimately though, we do not believe everything a stranger tells us in the real world, we use discretion. Why should the virtual world be an exception?!

Thanks for reading, please let me know what you think in the comments section.

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Smartphone is now officially boring. Wait, that can be a good thing!!

The rumour is true. When was the last time you got really excited watching a smartphone launch? I bet it was a long time ago. Even the once highly sought after leaks are all too lacklustre these days. I love to be on Twitter during a major launch event and watch some really funny mock-tweets. It has got to a point where people don’t even know the difference. They just love Apple and buy! see one of the Jimmy Kimmel creations below!

In all seriousness though, we all know that smartphones have transformed the world. Growth in smartphone base, number of apps, and the amount time people spend on the apps is just staggering. This is true despite seeming lack of innovation. I highly recommend reading this blog post. It highlights that Apple & Google are now unassailable until the next S curve is here. AR, VR, AI, voice and chatbot may all turn out to be a thing, but that may not affect the S Curve of the Smartphone. In fact, as the unit growth in smartphone continues, Apple and Google will focus more on improving software, experience and the ecosystem. The massively increased share of revenue via app stores, is certainly a leading indicator of this shift. The reason I say the slow innovation is a good thing is because I believe it is an opportunity for Enterprises. They can focus now more than ever to catch-up on the incredibly challenging task of gaining, keeping and transacting with customers on Mobile. In fact, I strongly believe that many enterprises need to re-think their very perspectives on this.

We need to stop thinking of Mobile as “an interface” and think of it as “the interface” and invest sufficiently, where it matters

Imagine, a fictitious sandwich company that wants to leverage mobile. Sounds like a great idea. You can build an app to enable ordering, delivery, streamline payments, click-to-buy and a host of other things. Alright, assume you have a great app and a fantastic user experience but think about it for a second. How many of us will care to download the Sandwich company app, and even if we did, how many will use it or keep it without deleting? With almost zero footprint of user’s attention, it is incredibly hard.  Even more so for a sandwich company! Business, technology and operational complexity even in a sandwich business is significant, and it would be foolish to suggest that there is one strategy. However I believe, as enterprises strive to leverage mobile they need to consider the following 3 key dimensions. Attention, interaction and transaction. If we consider economics of an app based commerce, we can assume for most businesses it means lower costs, increased margins and potentially great 1-1 customer experience. This is very foundation of e-commerce, so nothing new here; but apart from having a great product, I believe we need to incentivise customers along these dimensions.

Attention

Unless you are Snapchat and you can make a rainbow jump out of people’s mouth, there needs to be londonist32_4a compelling incentive for customers to even notice your app. Some offers are simply not good enough – for instance “a chance to win X” or “a chance to win trip to Y”. We can do better! something tangible, of real benefit to the customer.
Best fulfilled in context and instantly. For the sandwich company for example – 40% off your first purchase, or ÂŁ5 credit on first usage. Nothing new here, most mobile native start-ups do this, so I wouldn’t dwell on it too much.

Interaction

How many times a day do you expect people to open the sandwich app? In order to continue to occupy people’s mind-space, we need to incentivise the customer regularly for visiting the app. I understand that this is easier said than done. Obviously some app categories don’t need this kind of interaction incentive. For instance, great content e.g. Netflix, ultimate productivity e.g. Dropbox, Social e.g. Instagram, to name a few.  So, interaction incentive is when you give something to the user for coming back to the app. Some games do this really well – every time you stop playing but come back to the game after some time, you get free virtual coins. 7bbe7d884987539834f8d9780cc1a3dd_send-me-a-candy-crush-meme-candy-crush_510-522Depending on the nature of business you can decide the frequency of your incentive. For instance, the sandwich company could do one of their best deals exclusively for app users every 2 weeks. Obviously all needs to make commercial sense – generally though customer retention cost is less than acquisition cost and there can always be limited number of deals. Oh and there is word-of-mouth! invite a friend and both get credit. Remember Uber? Virulence is an important feature that needs to be built in to the app. It is expensive though! You could build social invites too. We all hate random invitations on Facebook, something to keep in mind!

 

Transaction

This is the holy grail. Assume that customer downloads the app, interacts with it regularly to redeem your generous incentives. How do you ensure they transact? Well firstly, the sandwich better be good, the ordering, payment, click-to-collect all needs to “just work”. That often is not enough, we still need to incentivise. FreeCharge-Mobile-AppYou might think we’d be out of business after giving so much away in offers. However, with added volume of transactions, you will realise that it almost always makes commercial sense. Otherwise Starbucks wouldn’t do it – collecting stars on the app whilst having the ability to cut the queue is simply fantastic. So, how about an app exclusive loyalty program for our sandwich company? There can be a mix of options – coupons, points, virtual currency, or simply cashback. It is needless to say that apart from offering direct incentives, your app can just create magic through experience that cuts the time and effort it takes for customers to transact or reduces anxiety associated with the transaction. Invisible payments (Uber), cutting the queue (Starbucks), live waiting times (Citymapper), real time tracking (Dominos) are all fantastic examples.

To sum up, I believe that whilst its not necessary to pester the users with deals & offers enterprises must make explicit effort to address the attention, interaction and transaction barriers when they think about their adoption and engagement strategy. While we hit the maturity curve of smartphone product lifecycle, it is now more important than ever for enterprises to catch-up.

A small disclaimer – I realise any generalising is dangerous & this may or may not apply for everyone. Thanks a lot for reading, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section.

 

3 Reasons leaders should re-assess diversity within their teams

Have you ever heard of mildly racist mondays? Please do not be concerned 🙂 seriously! a hilarious colleague of mine invented this ‘comic theme’ a few months ago.  You basically gather people of at least 3 different nationalities, pick a topic and start debating. Add a dash of millennials to the group and you have a recipe for some genuine fun! The topics often range from the famous Indian head-shakes, to the queue conundrum with the British. The banter is almost therapeutic and very good for team-bonding. In a way, we celebrate and appreciate diversity . As a result, we work better together, trust each other more and are more tolerant towards each others way of thinking. Hey and Mondays do not need a reason to be jazzed-up, right?

Anyway, speaking of diversity, 3 key themes stand out –

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1. Diversity is a multi-dimensional concept

Diversity is not only about nationalities, races, genders and sexual orientations. Diversity can be much more than that. A millennial that does not believe in hierarchy is diversity. An individual that requires as a minimum a strong sense of purpose, is part of diversity too. Moreover in product teams, you may have a designer, an engineer and a marketing person that think very differently. This diversity of thoughts, beliefs, and opinions whilst not legally protected, needs some serious consideration.

2. Culture trumps process – every time!

I believe culture and diversity are joined at the hip. In order to create or maintain great culture, you need to re-assess the importance you give to diversity. Brian Chesky (CEO, AirBnB) puts in aptly in his article – “The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products“. The article also implies that strong culture removes the need for arduous processes. It is like doing mental math vs. doing calculations on paper. Mental math is great culture whereas calculations on paper are like processeses – they may achieve the same goal but processes are much slower (in most cases). Great culture means that you can trust people to make the right decisions!

3. Diversity helps avoid cognitive biases thereby improving decision-making

Recently Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in his interview to Sam Altman of Y-Combinator talked about how Facebook places its bets on the future. He highlighted the strong role culture plays in that decision-making, whether it be testing a new ad-format or choosing the next big thing or people to invest-in. Mark’s commitment to diversity is visible from the quote below (17:00 in the clip)

“We invest in people who we think are really talented, even if they haven’t done that thing before – like the CFO who hasn’t taken a company public before – we simply are committed to invest in talented people”

Having the diversity on the team also massively helps in putting checks and balances on the decision-making. This Deloitte University Press article sums it up nicely. It says, diversity of thought leads to the following –

  • Avoiding group-think or expert opinion errors – as you benefit from having all the diverse perspectives on the same problem or solutions
  • Increasing scale of insight – this is something that I have personally experienced in my career .. quality and scale of ideas or ingenious solutions is infinitely better in a diverse team
  • Helps organisations identify the right talent to solve their most pressing issues – imagine having an option to use a broad spectrum anti-biotic as opposed to a single specialised anti-biotic that may or may not work in a bacterial infection (Sorry – for that example ;))

All these can be achieved through – hiring, managing and promoting differently. Please read the dupress article above for more insight.

Okay! now that I have given you 3 reasons to re-assess your understanding of diversity – if you want to learn more about the famous Indian head-shake, please DO NOT ask me. I really don’t know 🙂

Premium brands & great customer service – an unending cause and effect cycle?

An impromptu trip to Vienna, Austria began with a – “Thank god they haven’t banned Uber there”. We were traveling Uber style and for the most part it worked like it always does; magic. One of the attractions was a vertical strip of island located on the Danube river – for those familiar with Vienna. We pushed the button for an Uber and a Mercedes Benz E-class pulled over. A suave driver with an exotic accent welcomed us in English, and we were on our way. The GPS was whispering away quietly in German. 20 minutes into the ride we discovered that we were going around in circles for a while. After a discussion with the driver, we decided to drop the plan and go somewhere else. Who’s fault was it? Uber’s? Unsure! Nonetheless, I felt the 26 EUR charge was not justified for the trip. I contacted Uber via the app,  service rep promptly responded with a 20 EUR rebate saying you only pay for “most optimal route”. All done under 20 minutes. No annoying phone line or “Speech recognition”.
Over the years, I remember dealing with Apple Customer Service – 3 times to repair issues with Macbook, 2 times to repair iPhone and once to complain about slightly squeaky headphones. Result? Every time Apple delivered – replacement headphones, replacement iPhones, and wait for it, replacement Macbook motherboards! Good quality? probably not; customer service? Top notch 100%.
I kept wondering why that is, and one of the hypothesis came to mind that it may have to do something with the economics of their business models. We all know Uber charges about 30% commission on the rides, makes them cash rich – I mean its the dream business model, right? We also know Apple probably makes better margin than any other company on their products. Cash rich too. There are lots of reasons why the premium brands are premium however, that would be a much wider topic! So, premium brands have much better margins and therefore can invest in better customer service, thereby increasing the “feel good” factor. This feels like a virtuous circle. What comes first? A premium brand or great customer service? I don’t think there is an easy answer. I think the premium brands such as Uber realise that they want to differentiate not only on the basis of product but also on the basis of customer service, so the margins are alway higher. Perhaps the competition can undercut them on price, but they will find it hard to undercut them on the service with lower margins. For the record, this is a completely untested, un-researched hypothesis. At least at the outset it makes sense though! Tell me what you think in the comments.
As we reach Prague on the train, it reminds me that I don’t have any Koruna’s! Damn… open that Uber app to the Hotel.

The difference between Pokèmon Go & Google’s “inceptionism”

Folks, it is the Pokèmon Go season 🙂 are you excited?

Battle-Multiplayer
Can someone tell me where does the Pokèmon Go?
Perhaps not?! Ok, tell me one thing honestly. Do you get strange looks from your millennial friends when they find out you haven’t played Pokèmon Go or that you don’t know how to use Snapchat?  well, good news, you are not alone. I will give you in on one more secret. I have never watched the “Game of Thrones”. For whatever its worth, I don’t feel like watching it either.

In the hyperconnected ADHD world, virality is an everyday thing. New fads catch the masses and they spread like wildfire. Profound technology waves however, rarely do so. They start relatively unannounced, and grow like strong forces of nature, very hard to stop. The growth is rarely abrupt. Think – iPhone, social, e-commerce etc. the tweet below is a nice reminder.

 

Artificial intelligence I believe is one such profound technology wave, and it is growing like a strong force of nature devouvoring information, getting smarter and better everyday. We are still in its early days but are beginning to see some really really cool applications. 

A London based company owned by Google called DeepMind we recently learnt  improved the power usage efficiency / PUE of Google’s data centres by 15%. Can you imagine how much money that saves for the company that runs one of the largest data centre ops on the planet? Not too long ago, DeepMind AI became the first to beat a world champion at the infamously difficult game Alpha Go. These are not small developments. On a much larger scale they signify a tectonic shift in the maturity of machine learning. DeepMind algorithms use convoluted learning, more specifically reinforcement learning. In simple words, they learn without specific programming given a goal, they “try to figure the best way” to solve a problem.

 

These relatively specific developments when multiplied by the opportunity scale promises nothing short of a revolution. This one I believe is going to be an “Inside-out” one. Take an industry e.g. aircraft manufacturing, apply deep learning and you have a 15% or even better efficiency in outcomes of a process for instance predictability in ordering of wing parts. Algorithms will let us learn causality like never before by letting these neural networks figure out hidden patterns. There is a good blog post by Google about machine vision visualisation; click the link in the caption below. 

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How a machine sees a painting (credit Google Research)

We are not too far away from an applications of computer vision that once seemed far fetched, for instance looking at your CCTV, your computer might tell you who is on the door before you find out! Ultimately more exciting and probably scary applications will come too. I believe that will take some time, and to my earlier point, highly potent AI has just made an unassuming entrance, now just wait and watch as it turns into an unstoppable force. I will leave you with an image created by convolutional neural networks – this sort of gives us a flavour of how computers “see” or some would say “dream” things. Credit Google Research.

Only if it could teach me how to use Pokèmon Go or Snapchat. Nope, I like being stubborn, I don’t think so.

 So the difference between Pokèmon Go and Google’s inceptionism is that one seems like a fad, and the other seems like a unstoppable tech wave, let’s see where they both lead us. 

Why product leaders should instil & harness “soft-power”

From “dawn to desk”,  we go from task to a user story. Pressing  deadlines, endless kanban boards, life in the post-it lane is not easy. It can be quite stressful, especially when your friends are called grunt, bower, and git.

On a more serious note though, many of us know that product organisations are unique and team dynamic makes or breaks success for everyone. Most product organisations need to operate at the intersection of creative, customer, data, and technology. In other words, diversity is both desired and inevitable. It is worth pausing for a second and thinking about what contributes positively and negatively to this coveted “team dynamic”. I have observed that big words such as empowerment, collaboration, and alignment can be hard to translate on the ground. It ultimately comes down to how everyone on the team really feels. This in my opinion, is highly influenced by the type of power dynamic within the team.

This tweet really sums it up for me. Most of you may be familiar with leadership constructs that rely on hard power.  Even situational leadership talks about “directive” behaviour. You know, where you order, and people follow; there is little room for opinions or discussion.  While that might work in some places, it is definitely a disaster in product teams. Leaders need to remember that using hard power is a one way street.  Interdisciplinary talent, differing skills & personalities is a norm when it comes to building products. Designers, engineers, data scientists, and marketers are all highly qualified & accomplished within their respective areas. As a product leader, you are rarely qualified to tell them how to do their job.  You use directive behaviour, and the first thing the leader loses is respect. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean you don’t hold people accountable or you don’t coach and give feedback it just means that product teams are somewhat different. If a person on the team doesn’t respect you, you get no dedication, commitment and loyalty. The “power trip” you have just had does not help anyone.

There is a secret weapon though…. soft-power! It means influence, or your ability to persuade others without formal authority. This is one of the fundamental tenets of product leadership but very often forgotten. Imagine working on a really complex app, and you need to get your UX designers to create magic. Let us say you want to add an icon to the app to indicate camera functionality. Do you choose an image icon, you choose a camera, or you choose a circle with a red recording button? while it seems like a trivial decision, some product leaders will go on a power trip. They will say this is what I want, it is my way or the highway 🙂 this not only creates a potential sub-optimal outcome, it damages relationships in the team. The UX designer may not want to work with you, may stop caring about product that he may have felt passionately about. Product leaders need to recognise that everybody is on the same side! a product leader could instead suggest how they perceive customer goals, listen to ideas, persuade the designer, even give him or her a free leash to go out of the box and seek direct customer input. In my experience the latter option creates amazing outcomes. When given responsibility and freedom to choose, people put their hearts and minds into the task, they will feel a sense of ownership. This style of collaborative working, where a product leader instils and harnesses soft-power in the decision making, fosters a great team dynamic.

Teams are made up of people and not “resources”, success depends on how everyone on the team feels. Product leadership is not only about the “what”, but it is also massively about “how”

 

 

Bot(x+ai) – chat = future? 

You are right, computers aren’t all that smart, not yet. A few real world machine learning   applications have made a debut on our smartphones. For instance, your photos app now recognises that you were with a dog at the park. Google photos and the iOS 10 photos both have similar search and classification features. Another example, is my SwiftKey keyboard; it uses machine learning to vastly improve auto-completion, and next word prediction. So much so, that many times it completes literally whole sentences while typing. Now, that’s pretty great and machine learning has come a long way. So what? we love asking this question and rightly so! Different tech companies have slightly different bets to answer this question. However, there seem to be some underlying themes. For example, Bots as a theme has begun gaining traction a lot recently. Especially since Facebook launched “chatbots” a few months ago.

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Notice the spike in Google Trends for Bots (in RED) in April 2016 when Facebook announced chat bots for developers

Google followed with Duo and Allo, and we know that WeChat has been doing this for a while too. Conversational UI, assistant, chat based commerce and all that is apparently the “next big thing”. But is it? What does experience tell us?  well as Ben Evans nicely puts it in his blog –

Are assistants just a bunch of “if-else-then statements”? see original blog post here (open in a new page)

From my experience of using a Facebook messenger chat bot, it would appear so, it is NOT intelligent. Period. Perhaps one day, it will get there. Oh yes, and there is the Uber integration. Have you heard of a newly launched platform that does not have a sexy means to call you an Uber? Alexa, call me an Uber, Google Home Call me an Uber, Facebook bot, yada yada… Enough with the Uber already. I quite like the concept of chat, don’t get me wrong but as Ben Evan’s blog nicely highlights, the magic dissipates as soon as the algorithm starts asking you too many questions. In the short term though, the fact that my Google photos can figure out my Christo Redeemer photos without me labelling them is definitely magic. It happens without me having to chat with anyone, or without providing any significant user input.

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Google magically finds my Christo Redeemer photos!

So, lets recap. Machine learning is great, but its not so great that it can converse with us and create magic yet.

I believe the real magic is somewhere else and we should not get distracted by the user interface such as chat. As the title of this post suggests, we should rather take a real world problem, let’s say “making a shopping list” and apply machine learning till the algorithm matches or surpasses human abilities at solving for the task. For instance, looking through your regular shopping lists and when you want stuff, can the algorithm automatically predict what you need every other week? That would be awesome. Finally, for gods sake do not chat with the user. Chat requires too much user input and my bet is on applications that make the input invisible real fast. Imagine that our machine learning shopping list app just gently notifies the user his or her auto-populated shopping list. Yes, you can then send it straight to Amazon fresh and order stuff at the push of a button. Simple, right? I know!! I appreciate it is a very hard problem to solve – but in my book it would definitely be magic. I am not the only one to say this, a lot of Silicon Valley pundits say that the next wave of startups would take a problem, and add AI. Thats what I find exciting about the future –

I am happy to be proven wrong, but hopefully we can do away with chatbots until they can truly become magical.

 

Ps. for any VC’s willing to fund my shopping list idea, do reach out at @abhinandanshah or the comments section 🙂

For now, bot out…