You are not your users: the Viaweb example

From the interview Paul Graham did with The Macro:

Aaron : That’s the 30- and 40- years of software trauma that people are dealing with. Which is why I think people are still amazed every time something works. A little bit amazed.

Paul : You know what, though? I’ll tell you. The one real advantage of having a Ph.D. in computer science is you don’t blame yourself. Because you can say, “This is really hard and painful for me.” And instead of stopping at that point, you can say, “And I have a Ph.D. in computer science, so here’s an interesting data point. That means it’s probably too hard and painful for almost everyone,” right? Except the people who wrote it.

Aaron : Right. Because they know all of the quirks and all of the tricks, and they internalize that.

Paul : Yeah. Well, that’s why it’s really useful to go and watch your users use your stuff. If you build something for users, go and stand behind them. And my God, it is so hard to say, “Oh, no, don’t do that. Just click on that obvious button right in front of you. What are you doing?” It’s not so obvious.

Aaron : Why do you think people have such a hard time taking that step and actually going and spending time with their users?

Paul : I think because they think they know what their users are already like. And they don’t realize how different they are. And boy, let me tell you, direct marketers are very different from programmers.

When looking at people who are using your software the "wrong" way, it's just so hard resisting this impulse to reach out and tell them, "Don't do this! Do that instead!" - yet the best way to learn is to keep your mouth shut and keep observing. Taking a step back to put yourself in the shoes of your users is tough, but the benefits are worth it every step of the way.

Focus is hard: staying on the critical path

I read "Traction" by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares over the Christmas holidays. The book is full of interesting and relevant advice for startups looking to find and build an audience for their product. In short, they recommend going through a 5-steps process called the "Bullseye framework" in order to identify which distribution channel is the best for your company at a given point in time. The five steps are the following:

  1. Brainstorm: find a reasonable way you could use each of the 19 traction channels they present
  2. Rank: order your ideas from most to least compelling
  3. Prioritize: identify your top 3 most promising channels
  4. Test: run an experiment for each of the 3 channels
  5. Focus: direct all of your effort towards the selected channel

They go on to introduce the concept of "critical path": the key steps you have to follow in order to reach your traction goal. The key is to stay on the path until you've reached your goal:

While I agree with this line of thinking, I've found it very difficult to apply it in practice. Forcing yourself to use one single channel is hard and triggers a lot of discussions: "Should we really stop going to events X and Y to do just online ads? Those events have been a big source of leads for us in the past!". In any case, forcing yourself to give a hard look at your various traction channels on a regular basis is an interesting and useful exercise.

The power law of online content

I have been reading Work Rules by Laszlo Bock lately. Chapter 8, dubbed "The Two Tails", addresses the topic of performance repartition across employees. Laszlo observes that though some attributes (such as employee height) are distributed according to a normal repartition, others (such as employee performance) follow a power law:

What's interesting is that I observed the same phenomenon taking place with content I've been posting to various online services. Incidentally, it's also something Paul Graham observed about startup investing:

The two most important things to understand about startup investing, as a business, are (1) that effectively all the returns are concentrated in a few big winners, and (2) that the best ideas look initially like bad ideas.

In startups, the big winners are big to a degree that violates our expectations about variation. I don't know whether these expectations are innate or learned, but whatever the cause, we are just not prepared for the 1000x variation in outcomes that one finds in startup investing.

For instance, my top-viewed answer on Quora (out of 225) has been viewed 4 times as much as my next best one, and close to 20 times as much as my 20th most-viewed answer (note: this graph does not show a power law distribution, it only illustrates the relative audience size for each answer):

It's even worse on Slideshare (though the sample size is much smaller, only 7 presentations), where my top presentation strongly dominates the 6 others (note: same here, this graph does not show a power law distribution, it only illustrates the relative audience size for each presentation):

On a related note, most of the contact & consulting requests I receive come after someone saw that specific presentation. 

What I find particularly enlightening is that I would most likely not have been able to predict in advance that a specific piece of content would resonate so much more than most others. In addition to this, online content can take a life of its own a long time after it was initially published. Case in point: my top Quora answer started getting a lot of views 18 months after I initially wrote it.

In "Traction", Nikhil Sethi shares an interesting piece of wisdom related to this:

Said differently, if you're trying to build an audience, it's important to publish new things on a regular basis, but also to invest as much as possible in your winners, since those are the pieces of content that are going to have the greatest ROI for you. That's counter-intuitive to most people. Says Paul Graham:

To succeed in a domain that violates your intuitions, you need to be able to turn them off the way a pilot does when flying through clouds. You need to do what you know intellectually to be right, even though it feels wrong.

Not all pieces of online content are born equal. Act accordingly!

UX is hard: the Quora comments edition

A while ago, I wrote an answer to a question I found interesting on Quora. This was far from the first time - I have written over 200 answers so far:

As it turns out, it looks like a lot of Quora users can't seem to fathom the difference between a question page and an answer page. Here's a short sample of typical comments I received on my answer:

When Quora includes an answer as part of their newsletter, they use the direct link to that answer. This means that users coming in are exposed only to your answer, and not to the question page itself. This has an interesting side effect: most commenters do not seem to understand that there's a difference between the two. Thus I'm exposed to a regular stream of scathing comments from people who assume I asked the question, even though my answer directly contradicts it. Happily enough, other Quorans came to my rescue:

Now I'm not sure what could be done to fix this. Adding a notice asking the commenter "Are you sure this is where you want to post?" would sound paternalistic. Putting two comment input boxes (one for the question, one for the answer) would be downright confusing. Allowing the answer writer to move comments back to the question would be lots of handywork. In short, the problem is real but finding a good solution is tough! Though I'm sure (or at least, I hope) Quora product managers are hard at work on this and will fix it soon... In the meanwhile, I'll keep enjoying the upvotes, and will try not taking the scathing comments for myself :-)

As a side note, here are some interesting things I noticed while writing this article:

  • Content can resonate with an audience a looong time after it was initially published. Even though I wrote the answer more than 18 months ago, only recently did it take a life of its own (when for some reason Quora decided to send it in one of its weekly emails).
  • Out of 1680 upvotes I have received in total, close to half (765) have been received on that one answer.
  • People seem much more likely to add a comment when they disagree than when they agree. I'm left to wonder what would have happened with the old UI, when the downvote button was as prominent as the upvote one!

Elon Musk

I've read a number of very interesting pieces about Elon Musk recently. Taken together, they try to explain who's Musk, why he's doing what he's doing and how he is able to accomplish everything he has. If you have a some (actually, a lot of) time during the week-end, I encourage you to go ahead and read them all!

First is this article by Nathan Kontny, aptly titled "The Scientist":

In 2004 at Burning Man, a yearly gathering in the Nevada desert, someone erected a 30 foot wooden pole with a dancing platform on top. Dozens of people failed to climb the pole. And then there's another who gives it his try. He doesn't look like someone who could climb it. And as he's trying, suspicions are confirmed. He's terrible and looks like he's about to fail. He hugs the pole the whole time as he squirms and inches his way up. With sheer determination he reaches the top of that platform. Who was he? Elon Musk.

Beyond the anecdote, there is a relentlessness to that man which can't help but impress. It is more fully explored in the 4-part articles on Wait But Why? (highly recommended read by the way), that review pretty much all of Elon's projects and how he's able to get them done:

  1. Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man
  2. How Tesla Will Change The World
  3. How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars
  4. The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce

For context, here's the introduction of Tim's first post:

Elon Musk, for those unfamiliar, is the world’s raddest man.

I’ll use this post to explore how he became a self-made billionaire and the real-life inspiration for Iron Man’s Tony Stark, but for the moment, I’ll let Richard Branson explain things briefly:

"Whatever skeptics have said can’t be done, Elon has gone out and made real. Remember in the 1990s, when we would call strangers and give them our credit-card numbers? Elon dreamed up a little thing called PayPal. His Tesla Motors and SolarCity companies are making a clean, renewable-energy future a reality…his SpaceX [is] reopening space for exploration…it’s a paradox that Elon is working to improve our planet at the same time he’s building spacecraft to help us leave it."

So no, that was not a phone call I had been expecting.

This guy is inspiring... and probably a bit frightening too :-)