6 reasons why growing products is so complex

Product development is complex. Outcomes are unpredictable. Here are 6 reasons why.

1. A product’s success depends on it’s audience

At Metro we have millions of users who are inter-connected and who influence each other in unpredictable ways. A single influencer can make or break us on social media.

We know very little about our users. We rarely have conversations with them. We have no signups where they fill out their profile.

We have a good idea of what articles they’ll click/share, but not much idea about what product features they’ll care about.

2. Products faces tough competition.

It’s not enough for a product to be good, it has to be competitive.

We compete for Google rankings. We compete for a slot in Facebook news feeds. We compete for ad revenue. We compete to be a destination.

We compete for attention in an attention-saturated world.

3. Products rely on ever-changing platforms like Facebook and Google

The ecosystem is constantly shifting. Here are just a few of the recent shifts…

  • Facebook launched Instant Articles, Facebook Live, chatbots, and Facebook Stories. Facebook Instants is continually evolving.
  • Apple launched Apple News, then moved from RSS to JSON syndication
  • Google Search rolled out six major updates in 2016
  • Google launched AMP and it’s changing fast
  • Snapchat launched Discover
  • Google Newsstand is adding Omniture support
  • iPhone embraced adblock. Chrome is about to embrace it.

What next?

4. Technology is constantly changing

Social media changed the game. Mobile changed the game.

Riding the mobile wave increased Metro’s traffic by 161%. What’s the next wave for Metro?

There’s also a constant stream of new tech such as CrowdTangle, Bounce Exchange, Content Insights and Google Optimize.

5. People are complicated

We are biased. We have pet projects. We get caught up in company politics. We lose sight of what’s most important. Motivation can fluctuate.

For any particular product feature, we misjudge how important it is. We misjudge how much work it will take to deliver it. We forget to weigh the benefits against the costs. We forget that any day now something big is likely to pop up and derail our plans.

6. Resources are scarce

The lists of things to do is constantly getting longer. The list is infinite, and the resources available are scarce.

Audience, Competitors, Platforms, Technology, People and Scarce resources.

What’s the answer?

How can a digital media brand be successful amid all this complexity?

A good start is to realise that complexity requires a different mindset to complicated. For example, building your own house is complicated.

but a flock of starlings is complex…

(If you want to know more about complex vs complicated check out Cynefin).

We can turn this complexity to our advantage. Find out more in part 2 of this post.


Don’t judge a developer by their job title

I taught myself to program in 1981 (when i was 8) on a ZX81. I submitted a game (“Robin Hood” *cringe*) to Virgin Games when i was 1983.

I got my first real job in 1995. I did frontend development for a search engine – including design and UX. I acquainted myself with the UX classics – The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug, and the writings of Jakob Nielsen.

I’d had some informal training as a designer – my mum was a graphic designer and planned for me to follow in her footsteps. Most teenagers had posters of bands on their bedroom walls but i had posters of fonts.

In 1999 i joined Ogilvy, one of the world’s top advertising agencies. It was here that i had the importance of branding drummed into me. (Although i learned more from Start With Why to be honest).

After a stint at a digital media agency i joined DMGT in 2005. It’s where i work now.

Many projects at DMGT lacked a business case, and had little value. I was desperate to make the business (and not just the dev team) more agile.

I found inspiration in Adapt, by economist Tim Harford (my degree was Business Economics). I self-published a short book about business agility and innovation. I soon discovered the Lean Startup movement which articulated the ideas far better. I founded a meetup about it – the London branch of the Stoos Network.

Early on at DMGT i was given management responsibilities. As part of this i did 2 years of management training. I also became a certified ScrumMaster.

I’ve been at Metro (part of DMGT) for 10 years.

I consider myself what Google calls a “smart creative“.

Steve Jobs on “Deep Collaboration”

A quote from Steve Jobs biography.

Because he [Jobs] believed that Apple’s great advantage was its integration of the whole widget—from design to hardware to software to content—he wanted all departments at the company to work together in parallel. The phrases he used were “deep collaboration” and “concurrent engineering.”

Instead of a development process in which a product would be passed sequentially from… design to manufacturing to marketing and distribution, these various departments collaborated simultaneously. “Our method was to develop integrated products, and that meant our process had to be integrated and collaborative,” Jobs said.

Product development: the power of NO

The power of NO

Successful leaders understand the importance of saying no.

Steve Jobs said, “Success comes from saying no to 1000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.”

It’s echoed in this great video by Spotify guru Henrik Kniberg, “No is the most important word for a product owner… The most important job for a product owner is to decide what NOT to build”.

Tony Blair said, “The art of leadership is about saying no”.

The agile manifesto says, “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount
of work not done–is essential”.

The problem with NO

Saying no is hard.

As Steve Jobs said, “When you say no you piss people off”.

Henrik Kniberg says, “it’s tough, but who said Agile was easy”.

Making NO easier

At Metro we’ve introduced a “1 in, 1 out” rule. For every new feature we add, we have to remove an old feature. This has two benefits:

  1. It forces people to think harder about how much value the new feature will add.
  2. It highlights that many old features we thought would be successful, were complete flops. It teaches us some humility.

This is especially important for non-developers. It’s hard to say no to an idea when you don’t understand the complexities of delivering it.

A bumpy road

So far, the dev team has done too much of the decision making about what features to remove.

Going forward, we want whoever requests the feature (often Alex or Jessie) to make the decision.

The bonus

As a bonus, “1 in 1 out” helps make our code more maintainable – it reduces the “drag” of having lots of old code. We’ve accumulated over a thousand features over the years, so the drag can really slow the team down.


What the hell is a sprint?

First some context. The media landscape is constantly changing. Metro has to adapt faster than it’s competitors.

The good news: Metro has so many ideas about how to grow!

The bad news: the law of competition states that most new ideas will flop 😦

A true story. In 2011, Metro’s Head of Digital has us work solidly for a year on four new ideas: TV listings, better reader comments, user registration, and custom competitions.

They all had ZERO impact. We wasted an entire year. (It was the year Buzzfeed overtook us).

The answer? 3 things…

1. What does success look like?

Do you have success criteria? It matters because your idea is your baby and you think it’s beautiful. You will fight for your baby unless there is a unequivocal way to tell, “actually your baby is a zombie and it’s going to eat all of us if you don’t abandon it”.

How not to do it.

When we made Metro Nutshell we had no clear success criteria. We spent a year (on and off) working on it – the page, the navigation, keeping the content fresh, videos, analysing the clicks, a newsletter.

The result? It was a drop in the ocean: 0.1% of Metro’s page views. We wasted a year, again.

2. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

This is the corollary of having a success criteria.

I actually think that the core Nutshell idea was good, but not as a standalone page (or video).

We should have planned it as an experiment. What was our hypothesis? How could we test it?

What if we put Nutshell in the homepage sidebar? What if we A/B tested it?

The good news: the simpler you make it, the easier it is to test a hypothesis.

How not to do it. Take a long time to create something with lots of bells and whistles… find that you can’t learn from it because there are too many factors to account for.

3. Deep collaboration

Forget meetings and documents. Have daily conversations between writers, video desk, designers, whoever. It’s how Apple make there products so integrated.

Follow those 3 rules and you have a sprint – a quick way to learn what users want and what they don’t.

To find out more read this.

The profit paradox

At Metro, it’s been suggested that we “monetize everything”.

The dev team happens to be very commercially minded. Most of the developers have started their own commercial venture. Plus, i have a degree in economics.

Clearly we need to monetize our product, but we shouldn’t monetize everything. Here’s why.

1. The most valuable company in the world is Apple. Their biggest commercial successes came from Steve Jobs, who put great products before profit…

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation

2. The Obliquity paradox is explained by top economist John Kay in his book of the same name – “the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented”

“At one time Boeing’s leaders would ‘eat, breathe, and sleep the world of aeronautics’.  The company created the 747 and its fortunes soared.  When in 1998 it shifted focus to shareholder return and return on investment the company, well, took a dive.”

3. Metro exists to publish great content, and this requires revenue.

If Metro exists to make profit… why did we choose news? Why didn’t we choose to be an IT recruiter or a property developer?

4. It’s about finding the right balance

Conclusion: the question is “what should we monetize”, not “how do we monetize everything”.

Apple’s design secrets

I’m reading the Steve Job biography at the moment. It’s so gripping!

Here are some highlights about design. First Jony Ive,

Much of the design process is a conversation… There are no formal design reviews, so there are no huge decision points. Instead, we can make the decisions fluid. Since we iterate every day and never have dumb-ass presentations, we don’t run into major disagreements

Jobs’ biographer writes,

Because he [Jobs] believed that Apple’s great advantage was its integration of the whole widget—from design to hardware to software to content—he wanted all departments at the company to work together in parallel. The phrases he used were “deep collaboration” and “concurrent engineering.”

Instead of a development process in which a product would be passed sequentially from engineering to design to manufacturing to marketing and distribution, these various departments collaborated simultaneously. “Our method was to develop integrated products, and that meant our process had to be integrated and collaborative,” Jobs said.

This approach also applied to key hires. He would have candidates meet the top leaders—Cook, Tevanian, Schiller, Rubinstein, Ive—rather than just the managers of the department where they wanted to work. “Then we all get together without the person and talk about whether they’ll fit in,” Jobs said… You need to have a collaborative hiring process.

My favorite quotes from the book are

  • “Less but better”, Dieter Rams
  • “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, Leonardo da Vinci

One last extract from Ive,

Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.

For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential