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. 

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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…

5 tell-tale signs from iOS10 announcements @WWDC2016

Here is a summary of iOS10 features apple announced today at WWDC2016. At Apple announcements, I often oscillate between * yawn, incremental updates * and * Hey cool!*. I was in the second camp today. This is a well known fact and Apple has proven it again; it is not always first to release a feature, however it is extremely smart at integrating new stuff within it’s ecosystem. Kudos, Apple!

Let us look at 5 tell-tale signs, and my interpretation of what technology trends it bets on

  1. #SiriIsNowOpenForBusiness

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Alexa, Google Home, and the annoying Siri that doesn’t even recognise you when you say “Hey Siri”. Assistants are a plenty these days. Okay, I know it maybe my accent, but there are lots of complaints about Siri! Today marks the day when Apple has finally opened up Siri to developers and yes to Mac devices. Every single app developer will now be able to add Siri integrations, how powerful is that? this move alone can potentially deal a huge blow to Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Plus, we are more closer to a phone these days than to a device that may or may not be sitting a corner of our house. Also, who wants to shell out another $200? Impeccable timing! I hope they fix “Hey Siri” too though.

Tech trend : assistants are here to say, and apple has announced its entry in-style. Combined power of apple developer ecosystem will really make it useful – well done, Apple!

2. #LockScreenHasBeenUnlocked

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Courtsey / thenextweb.com

The Home Screen finally looks alive. Apple has completely re-designed the way you interact with Home Screen. You can pick up the screen to wake the phone, and you can interact with notifications in a really rich way. Swipe left and you can get to widgets and swipe right will get you to the camera. Simple but powerful features. I didn’t use widgets as much, now I might. Plus 3D touch an app and it gives you a widget like experience. This is really cool and feels like is designed to get adoption on both 3D touch and widgets which seem to have been missing a trick so far. Imagine, you can order an Uber using Siri, and then track the status using the widget on your lock screen. Never need to open the app.

Tech trend : Our interactions will slowly become less cluttered, notification fatigue will reduce, and lock-screen will become our favourite hangout. Major departure from “app as an interaction point”

3. #MapsThatDoMore

Apple has opened Apple Maps to developers. What else could it do? People were hardly ever using it (judging from a limited sample of observed behaviours). Google Maps is popular not just because of quality of maps, but also because of its rich information integrations. By opening it up to developer ecosystem, Apple has gone a step further. Google already does this to an extent, but with Apple’s OS integration, I place my bet on Maps that are actually useful beyond directions.

Tech trend : Map as a platform will have amazing business model implications; I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple Maps starts gaining traction. Not in a traditional way but as a “starting point of map-commerce apps” or M-apps 🙂

 4. #HomeKitHasANewHome

Home App now becomes the new home of Home Kit. It cleverly uses Apple TV to detect a register on a shared network as proximity. Imagine your TV switches to your favourite channel when it detects you or better turns on that soccer game just for  you! Smart home is still quite elusive for most people, but apple seems to be setting itself up nicely as the home control devices become cheap, and more integrated, the IOT will really explode. I still think that this platform has a lot of room for disruptions by smaller players.

Tech trend : Apple and possibly Google will extend their App ecosystems to the internet of things, in order to play, all you will need to do is have an app on the app store and there, you have it. A refrigerator that orders milk when you run out. Machine payable web. Go figure. 

5. #MeTooUpdatesAreStillASnooze

Photos – major progress in promoting privacy – but do users really care that you perform many billion computations to recognise that there is a lake and a mountain? Google has a way stronger lead – apple really needs to do more here, but this is a welcome step.

OS X is now MacOS and Sierra Beta is here (Ok, some other time), WatchOS 3 is here, ok. Code playground is free and a lot of people will learn how to code now thanks to some emotionally charged appeals – super, Apple! Apple music is now more simple. Snooze.

Tech trend : Are you still there? check your iMessage with a bubble effect and an animated Mickey mouse. Just what I wanted after trying to to use SnapChat and failing spectacularly.

Thanks Apple… you have restored my faith in humanity again!

 

The story of joyous blackouts & mindfulness

I assume, few people in the developed world are familiar with the concept of a blackout – afterall, in 5 years that I have spent in London, I have not experienced a single one.

Human brain is quite the genius! Some sights and smells can magically trigger decades old memories in vivid detail; sort of like biological virtual reality!

So! Last Sunday, the smell of a burning candle magically took me deep down the memory lanecandles-209157_1920. I was a teenager in a typical suburban family. As some of you may know, this time of the year reckons start of the Monsoon season in western parts of India. Weather changes in a day, from scorching red hot sun to torrential thunderstorms. Many years ago, blackouts in parts of cities were common; especially as the distribution company sought to insure themselves from the storm. Such evenings would start with  a majestic roaring of the heavy dark clouds, and we knew that a thunderstorm followed by a blackout was on its way. The lights would go out like clockwork in a few minutes while me and my sister would race to see who lights the candles in the house. We also had a Kerosene lamp that would burn with a distinctive smell that I love till date! All of a sudden, the TV would stop, and all the background sounds of electric appliances would fall silent, all you could hear was nature – cracking bolts of thunder and the rain. I vividly remember that we stopped doing what we were doing and gathered around the kerosene lamp – just the 4 of us. Me, my sister and our parents.

We never truly appreciated it, but the time showed an unusual quality of slowing down on such joyous blackouts!

We would intently listen to stories, talk with each other like nothing else mattered. Thankfully, there were no cell phones at the time, even though I always thought ringing of our landline phone during a blackout was nothing short of a miracle. Not once do I remember complaining about the power cuts, unless of course it was during a cricket match! The blackouts lasted a few minutes and sometimes more, but when they were over, everyone went back to their business with a surreal sense of satisfaction!

Why all the nostalgia? Because this story really makes me think about our present day surroundings and the concept of mindfulness. Let me explain. Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahnemann explains beautifully in his book “Thinking fast and slow” that the human brain has two distinctive personas. System 1 and system 2. System 1 performs instinctive or well learnt behaviours without spending much mental energy; for instance, driving – you really don’t have to calculate the angle of incidence of an approaching vehicle to figure out that there will be a collision – you just know! On the contrary system 2 is about applying a conscious deeper mental effort, for instance if I ask you to calculate the time it will take for an object to fall from the Eiffel Tower – you will think. This often involves storing some information in your temporary memory and then manipulating it in order to come to a result. A lot of studies have been carried out on system 1 and system 2. Any details though would be way out of scope of this already long post. The crux of it is that your brain has a really finite “slow-thinking” capacity, and the more you exhaust it the more likely you are to make cognitive judgement errors (remember that impulsive buy that you knew was wrong). Okay! There is that, now Google mindfulness. By definition, it asks us to step back and reflect – to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings. I have a theory (based on the story above) that it has become increasingly challenging for us to practice mindfulness because of the information overload. Think about it, you have everything literally screaming for your attention. You wake up and you need to decide whether you want a skinny cappuccino or a latte, you need to open that dreadful device (I am telling you it is the worst offender in this context) your cell phone! You have a thousand notifications waiting from ten thousand apps that you have to think about, respond to. Imagine how much precious and finite mental energy those WhatsApp chats and meaningless Facebook scroll down gestures take. Then you come to work and are overloaded with a further army of attention seekers. E-mails, messengers, meetings (yes!). You come home and are faced with the same dilemma, with 30 news channels and you need to spend precious slow-thinking time wondering what to watch. Don’t even get me started on Netflix. Do you get the point?

buddha-199462_1280Naturally, I feel like we had more mental capacity to practice mindfulness before the advent of satellite television, and modern technology including cell phones. Yes, it does come down to judicious use of your technology – so that you use the technology and the technology doesn’t use you. Nevertheless  a lot of things can actually help. Meditation, Yoga,  learning to switch off before you hit the bed, and more generally switching off push notifications on your mobile as soon as you think they are becoming a useless distraction. Breaks from the hustle bustle of your city and routine are welcome too of course.

After all we need to be mindful that, the best things about life are our memories and experiences and they are almost always not digital!

A blackout, anyone?

@abhinandanshah

Of “Ethan Hunt” and product development

Every “Mission-Impossible” movie is incomplete without a formidable villain in it. In a similar manner, product development in many large organisations is incomplete without the utter disillusionment of stakeholders. Weird comparison, I know. Firstly, there is an entire industry now dedicated to making development agile. Its full of buzzwords that many people pretend to understand. Scrum, Sprint, Gollum, Yoda (you get the point). Watch a great talk on this subject below by Dave Thomas.

Secondly, I have been talking to a few friends working in product development across industries. Most agree that the single most important metric to measure effectiveness of product development in a company is how fast you ship code. Having great ideas matters but if you don’t ship code fast enough, you might as well not do it. Some people pride themselves on releasing on a daily basis some weekly and in case of many companies its their lucky day if they manage to make it to the designated release in a given month.

So what is going on? People use JIRA, Dev Ops, test automation, and all kinds of ninja kit, but when it comes to how fast they ship code, the speed still underwhelms. I tried to analyse why that is the case. Without going into problems too much, I list 3 key areas where improvements can be made.

  1. De-layer ruthlessly until you get to a performing product management function

There are simply too many functions and teams involved. Its not unusual to find that the product owner works in a different team while the developers sit in a different team. The project manager is borrowed from another function while the BA double hats across 3 projects. The scrum masters are roped in like para-troopers and the product owner never even gets to see the developers. Those are recipes of disaster. While it is not always possible for teams to be co-located, we cannot allow too many layers between the product, engineering and experience. Bringing them together within a single coherent structure will be a great start. Moreover, you do away with additional effort of having to “mobilise” a delivery every time and go through a budgeting exercise at the start and end of the development effort.

2. Make sure that the product manager is technical and has a good sense of experience  design

While it is not necessary for him or her to code, he or she absolutely needs to be able to converse and work with development team without feeling like they are talking to aliens. As most industries begin competing with tech industry they need to get this right. In tech organisations you wouldn’t, even by exception, find product managers that do not understand technology. Today’s products are technology products, and not being technical at all is not the luxury the companies can afford for long.

3. Everyone needs “digital” skills. Period.

Digital for many is a discipline and people proudly say that they are a “digital product manager” or a “digital BA” or a “digital user experience designer”. Given most products in question here are digital, the nuances of digital expertise are not materially different skill sets. Have you seen a digital department at Google? The product skills are necessary sure, but digital skills are a must when all of our products are digital. Yes, if you have lots of money you can hire a “Digital PM” but rest assured, it will slow you down. Just to be absolutely clear, the digital functions are immensely valuable and probably engines of growth for many organisations, however, “pure play digital” or “pure play product” skills will be a thing of the past soon.

It is a hard to make generalisations and I appreciate that these many not apply to many organisations. These also may not be exhaustive list of remedies, it is for now just a starter for 10. At the end of the day, these are quite radical changes, and they will not happen overnight. But for every tall order and a “Mission Impossible” you always need charm, wit and courage of an “Ethan Hunt” 🙂

@abhinandanshah

 

3 reasons we are unknowingly addicted to social media 

The biggest source of courage for the fearful is someone else’s fear. (Source : Narcos, Netflix)

Now that I have your attention, let me give 3 actual reasons.

# 1 By the way if it wasn’t clear, first reason is human beings are not as rational as you think they are, they easily fall to cognitive bias 

Ok let’s draw a parallel. Did you know what is common between Gambling and Facebook? In gambling, you play a hand, and almost immediately you have a random set of results, this result “always” has a possibility of you winning. Best thing is, sometimes you might even win big. However those who play long enough realise that most people lose more than they win. People are still willing to put more bets, making gambling dangerously addictive. Facebook and some other social networks on the other hand, rely on a different kind of reward – Social validity and likeability. Studies after studies have proven that what matter to us the most is our relationships, the closeness, and quality of our relationships. The busy lives we lead often mean we cannot give enough time to many of those relationships that matter. We came up with a solution, we digitised it. Whatsapp, Facebook have become more like religions. You upload a picture or a status update on Facebook. The network effect ensures that a set of random outcomes start showing immediately. People “like” you and people comment. The odds of that happening are easily higher than you winning on a slot machine. It’s harder to be liked in real life than on Facebook, and many have found a convenient shortcut. I’m just saying! 

#2 social networks are skilfully designed as habit forming products

A business insider article cites this book and explains further. The book “how to build habit forming products” explains how Facebook or the likes thereof create associations with human behaviour. Facebook has created association with boredom. Whoever gets bored can alleviate the itch by scrolling through their newsfeed. There you are, Hooked. Every now and then, when you feel bored you come back, you like, you scroll and you comment. When you invest that effort, you “load a trigger”, the trigger fires when someone else likes, comments and you receive an external trigger and “pop”! that push notification takes you straight in! Isn’t that really smart and habit forming? you bet!

#3 studies have proven that social networks can be somewhat as addictive as substance abuse  – it’s worth clarifying that they are also different in many ways

Researcher Turel explains further. The Facebook “addicts” showed greater activation of their amygdala and striatum, brain regions that are involved in impulsive behavior. But unlike in the brains of cocaine addicts, for instance, the Facebook users showed no quieting of the brain systems responsible for inhibition in the prefrontal cortex.

That could be because Facebook “addiction” is fundamentally unlike substance addiction, or it could be that the study only looked at people whose daily lives weren’t much impaired by their desire to be on Facebook. 

Trick as usual folks is moderation.