Running Lean: Problem Interviews

The following post is part of a series of posts related to my new project, currently code named CB Reader. For the latest info, please consider joining the CB Reader mailing list.

When I last posted, I introduced the lean canvas and explained how it helped to defined some user problem hypothesizes. Today we’ll start a new phase of Running Lean, the Problem Interviews, where you’ll interview people to verify if your problem hypothesizes and more than likely discover aspects and existing solutions you never knew existed.

Problem Interviews

With your falsifiable hypothesizes in hand it’s time to start talking to people. The book recommends 10-15 face-to-face interviews that last around 20 minutes each. It provides the following suggested interview format:

Suggested Problem Interview Format

Personal Execution and Results

I reached out to the IndyHall community and the Philly CocoaHeads. I did 7 problem interviews, 4 face-to-face and 3 over Skype. I’ve had a few other people say they were up for the interview but they haven’t materialized (yet).

First, the face-to-face interviews went way better than Skype ones. Skype tended to disconnect and get laggy during the calls. This was annoying for the two people whom I’m previously friendly with but for the one interviewee, whom was a new connection for me, it really made the call awkward. Comparatively the face-to-face interviews went a lot smother (even brand new introductions) and I think generated better overall data. Lesson: by all means do face-to-face if possible.

I tried hard to follow the recommended interview format but I found it a bit off focus. For starters that first 10 minutes becomes a lot of you talking with very short bursts of answers from the customer. Part of this is needed as you need to set some context for the interview, however I just felt it was too long considering the target of 20 minutes. The meat of the interview is clearly “the customer’s worldview” section, where they explain what they view as the problems and the solutions they are using currently to solve them (along with their pros and cons). Moving forward I want to rework things to get to that as fast as possible.

Regarding the collection of demographics, the book suggests using tools like Google Forms which can help you graph and measure the various responses. I did this early on but found using the web form during the interview itself to be a bit of a pain as I needed to take notes on things the person was saying that didn’t fit the form. For the most recent interview I sticked to a simple plain text editor, typing in notes manually and then later punching it into Google Forms where appropriate. That said, the biggest value from all this is the free form stuff. Plotting 10-15 points of data isn’t usually that interesting for me so I’d recommend against the forms for this part.

What did I learn?

Before I started I wrote down the following goals:

Problem interviews will confirm pain points:

  • Multiple apps for RSS, Read Later, Pinboard, Twitter is painful / annoying.
  • RSS content can take to long to manually browse.
  • Regrets that you may not be reading enough.
  • Regrets that the time you do spend reading isn’t the most efficient.
  • You get value from Twitter but don’t want to monitor it 24/7.

Problem interviews will confirm use of the following alternative solutions:

  • Instapaper / Pocket / Safari “Read Later”
  • Reeder for iPad
  • Google Reader
  • Pinboard
  • Twitter

Problem interviews will confirm Entrepreneurs and Blog authors as valid customer segments.

For pain points, the biggest amongst my interview base was clearly the quantity of content being hard to manage. All seemed to share a sense that they weren’t getting the most from their reading time. Very few people considered switch apps to be a problem.

All of my suspected alternative solutions (minus Safari’s Read Later) were mentioned somehow. A few new ones popped up including: Zite, Flipboard (was previously known but forgot to list), FLUD, Umano, Fever, Yammer.

During this phase the Google Reader shutdown was announced as well, which made me aware of even more clients (some current, some in-development). I’ve blogged some thoughts on Google Reader in case you are curious.

Finally, my market segment was verified to include entrepreneurs, blog authors as well as programmers.

What’s next?

With our problem verified we move on to the solution interviews. This is where you mockup your solution, show it to people and gauge their reaction. The goals here are to continue to verify your problem and early adopters, figure our the minimum feature set needed to launch, evaluate if people are willing to pay for your solution and then what price they will bear.

I’m breaking away from the book here and doing this in two phases. One is a very digital phase. Part of this is the release of my new intro video and feature survey. The second part will come with more face-to-face interviews, re-interviewing people from before (now with solution demos in hand) and new people — preferably people whom I’m not previously connected to (which frankly I’ve very worried about finding).

Next up: Solution Interviews

LessConf Diversity

I read the following LessEverything blog post and tweeted:

Maybe the irony is lost on me but this reads like pretentious bullshit.

@stevenbristol askes:

it’s not at all meant to be. Can you tell me how?

Sure. Let’s tale a look…

You Are Welcome at LessConf, Please Come

The title is nice enough, grats on that one.

Considering this is the last LessConf and what a unique event it is, I’d like to send a special invitation to people not of “privilege” to attend.

I wonder what he means by “people not of ‘privilege'”? Like money? People who can’t afford to attend conferences?

Allan and I are certainly irreverent, sometimes crass, but we always try to included everyone.

irreverent (adjective): showing a lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously

crass (adjective): lacking sensitivity, refinement, or intelligence

Yeah, I can see that.

And by “include everyone” of course he is referring to his conference that has people apply and only after deeming them worthy are they given the privilege of buying a ticket.

That’s how we’ve always been: You know the person at the office who is a bit weird or shy and no one ever invites to lunch? I always invite that person along for lunch. That’s just the kind of people we are.

Ok so now you are defining “people not of ‘privilege'” as people who aren’t social at work or deemed by you as “weird”. Seems off to me but moving on…

LessConf, like most conferences, is filled with white heterosexual men, “people of privilege.” And that’s great, except that it’s also not great.

Ah so people of privilege are “white heterosexual men” and you seem torn if this is great or not so great. I wonder what he means by all this. I hope he explains. (Spoiler: He doesn’t.)

We would like to extend a special invitation to persons who are not white heterosexual men to join us.

I’m no English major but doesn’t that statement mean the invitation is still reserved for heterosexual men of the non-white denomination?

More to the point, using a phrase like “not white heterosexual men” to group the “diversity” you are looking to bring into a conference community is pretty tasteless in my opinion.

LessConf should be a place where all people feel free to be themselves; where everyone is loved and accepted and safe.

And appreciated gratuitous use of the word “and”.

I don’t care who you are or where you fit in, I would like you to fit in at LessConf. Here’s a coupon for $100 off the price of the ticket. LessConfLovesMeTheWayIAm

Please do come and feel safe to be and express who you are.

This is from LessConf 2012: (A photo of what I assume is a group of white heterosexual men hugging.)

If adding diversity to your conference was a real goal you wouldn’t announce it mere weeks before it opened. The whole thing smells like you haven’t sold out and are trying to use the “diversity” angle to sell more tickets, and very poorly at that.

Best I can tell this conference is something you hand made, picking the speakers, picking the attendees. If it’s not diverse you have no one to blame but yourselves.

Here’s an idea if you really want a diverse conference get people of diverse backgrounds to be on the planning committee. Let them attract a diverse speaker roster. Let the diverse speaker roster help attract a diverse audience.

Maybe Steven and company do want a diverse conference but I have to say making moves this late in the game with the above post is a pretty poor attempt.

More Google Reader Thoughts

What was Google Reader?

To be clear, Google Reader was two things.

First, it was a web-based RSS reading app. You’d visit the site, add subscriptions, browse subscriptions and read the articles that were aggregated. You’d mark things as read and star articles you enjoyed. Google would show ads, just like GMail, and thus make some money.

Second, Google Reader was an API, an unofficial API at that. Many apps that live off of content and RSS were created over the last few years. To help people easily jump in they supported the Google Reader API. This allowed users to authenticate with Google and all their feeds would instantly appear in the new app and management of the feeds would then be mirrored on Google Reader. It was an extremely useful setup for users and for app makers, but not very lucrative for Google which was banking on showing ads on the web.

Instead of becoming the app everyone loved, Google Reader instead became a behind the scenes utility company with no monetization.

Based on my Twitter steam, it’s the API that is the real community lose here — at least for the nerds.

The Impact of Google Reader’s Demise

So what will the impact be? This will vary app to app, and to continue to stretch my utility metaphor, if RSS is the wiring, the more your app shows the wires the more trouble it will in be for the short term.

To explain, there are many apps and services such as Flipboard, Zite, Prismatic and others that are already curating content collections for their users. When a user comes in they chooses the topics and publishers that interests them and the services picks content for display. There is no need to load an OPML list of URLs to XML files. Their users have no idea what RSS is. Even if RSS is the wiring under the hood, none of it is shown to the user unless they actively look for it.

Other apps like Reeder for iPad or NetNewsWire for Mac live with the hood open and the wires very visible. For these apps, there will be a scramble to find a new “sync home” as the apps loose a ton of value without it or become downright broken.

I’ve seen recommendations for NewsBlur or Feedly but I don’t see them as a good fit for this “sync home” need. These web apps are themselves clients, built to engage readers with a unique UI and improve the browsing experience. They are not the stable, faceless API utility companies that are needed here. I’m a bit worried their owners will unknowingly jump in onto this exodus of Google Reader users not fully understanding how it will truly impact their products in the long term.

More specifically I think it will be the dedicated, focused systems that win out. Services that are built for this “sync home” need and just for this need. While I welcome paid-for options I also hope we’ll see some open source variants as well. I expect those services which mirror the Google API closely (like this move) will be easy swap-in options for app developers and thus gain quicker adoption, though maybe we’ll all be surprised and another monster will come out and dominate the space.

A Pipe Dream

Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just provide a URL endpoint, username and password to my various iOS/Mac/Web readers and the subscription sync would just work (no matter what app/service I was using). An open source, standard API for RSS subscription management. Oh it would be nice.

What I don’t want to see is app developers having to support a dozen or so “sync home” options and maybe even not the one I wanted to use. If they stood together now I bet they could get some traction to make this work and simplify their own lives. They have a lot of power right now in choosing who or what will win out. I wonder if they’ll use it?

What does this mean for CB Reader?

Not a ton. CB Reader is a client app, in the respect that it focuses on article management and the reading experience. While I could see having a public API to manage subscriptions I don’t intend for CB Reader to be a faceless “sync home” that powers other apps.

Running Lean: Building Our Lean Canvas

The following post is part of a series of posts related to my new project, currently code named CB Reader. For the latest info, please consider joining the CB Reader mailing list.

It’s no secret I enjoyed book The Lean Startup (Review). Afterwords, I followed it up by reading Running Lean, by Ash Maurya, which is a collection of actionable examples for how to implement the Lean Startup for your next project. I’m doing my best to follow along with Ash’s recommendations and will report my progress here on on the blog.

One core concept Ash pushes is getting out there and interviewing your customers, not after the 1.0, but even before you begin coding. There are a few phases to customer interaction before you have a shipping product and with the Lean Startup principal of measurement they are all designed around learning.

However, before we interview customers we need to figure out what we want to learn and to do that we’ll create our first version of the lean canvas, an extremely simple 1-sheet that describes your product and business model. You are encouraged to spend some time on this but not too much time as realistically you’ll be coming back with edits and changes soon enough.

For my own project, I ended up using Ash’s Lean Canvas web app and it worked great. I did one version early on and then a second version as I prepped my problem interview questions. I wasn’t able to fill out all the squares as detailed as I wanted but as Ash explains in the book that’s fine for now. This canvas can and usually does change drastically as you learn from your customers.

The most important info, for this next phase, the Problem Interviews, is defining your falsifiable hypothesizes. These are the problems your believe effect people, the existing alternatives they are currently using to solve them are the most important, and the customer segment these people fall into.

Next: The Problem Interviews

The End of Google Reader

Alas, as the prophecies foretold, Google Reader will be shutting down July 1st and with it hundreds if not thousands of apps that used Google Reader as their centralized RSS hub will be in trouble.

Many of us saw this coming. I know personally, the previous lack of commitment from Google to improving Reader was one of many things that pushed me to start working on my own CB Reader system.

While in the short term this will be frustrating for many, the long term benefits will outweigh. This is good news.

Announcing a New Project, CB Reader

Ah, the first public breath of a new project. So much potential and so much to do. Exciting times are afoot.

From the teaser page:

CB Reader (code name) is a new project that aims to help people centralize their many sources of incoming online articles and organize them through semantic analysis and social network influence.

This is an application / service for people who use RSS, “read later” tools, Twitter and other sources to manage and read online articles. The big goal is to help you get the most from your limited reading time.

The only real action for you at the moment is to sign up for the mailing list, should this type of app interest you. From here I will be inviting people to participate in various reviews and beta testing.

I’m going to be doing my best to blog progress at it happens. How this will break down:

  • Clickable Bliss Blog — major release announcements only
  • Mike Zornek.com — discussion of the creation process, coding and design
  • “Future Product Blog” — user experience, tutorials, support, tips and tricks.

It feels great to be building things again. Ever since my return I’ve been drowning in accountants, lawyers, agreements and meetings. It’s been kind of a downer but, with this project starting to get momentum, I’m feeling great.