User empathy as core of product design

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                           (photo courtesy: bigpicturecoaching.net)

Software product design used to involve ‘requirement gathering’ then developing them into a usable product, adding in some of your own understanding and experience of how it should be done. The word ‘empathy’ was not a commonly heard term in the business of software, until late.

I was engaging with user experience design when I first encountered the term ‘empathy’, which itself is relatively a new science. That time, I was developing a User Persona, looking into a specific person’s life and trying to walk in their shoes while designing the interaction with the system.

This got more intense as I started diving into Lean Startup practices in product development and building startups. It takes some time, particularly for my MBA students, to grasp the concept – why market data and survey results are not acceptable forms of information when testing an assumption for the core hypothesis – when building entrepreneurial business models. This holds especially true for them because they come from traditional management thinking for the last 12 or 16 months where they learned how to do market research and only accept statistically relevant findings.

Lean Startup talks about first defining your customers to very fine specifics, then meeting them face to face and understand their experience with a problem that you are trying to solve. It does not even recommend suggesting a solution till you can fully understand the pains, the aspirations, and the workarounds of your user for the given situation. When talking to customers, you limit discussion to facts and real experiences rather than hypothetical/what-if questions. This activity of talking to your customers is what builds empathy. You become intimate with their problems and you understand their personalities, wants, and needs. The insights that you gather will give you a clearer sense of the product that you are designing, from its features down to the colors that you will use.

Once you’ve started talking about their problem and pain points, you then find what they are trying to do about it, whether they can get by or they’re really seeking a solution. If the potential customers you are interviewing can live without a solution, there are two possible conclusions: 1) you are talking to the wrong customers, meaning there might be a different set of people who are craving for a solution, or 2) it’s not pressing enough an issue and building a product to solve it a waste of time and energy for everyone. However, if the potential customers cannot get by with the solutions that they currently have, then you are definitely on to something.

The concept of not writing a single line of code or even a mockup solution until you’ve walk in the shoes of your customers and you’ve identified a solution that they’ve been looking for – this is scary in the beginning. Especially for technology people, it’s not easy going out to the streets and doing ambush interviews with people (who match your customer persona) and getting them to share their experiences is not easy. However, if we are to build something that we want people to use and be thankful about, there is no better way.

Perhaps the dreaded concept of “vapor ware” makes more sense now, once you understand lean better. After building that empathy, you sell the concept or pitch it and see how many ready to buy, before you even spend any money on it. Focusing on pull over push is the new game changer in the product engineering business, and it’s changing how we all approach it.

Welcome to the new world of user empathy: it’s not any more about opening your eyes as much as it is about opening your heart, and it’s not about IQ as much as it is about EQ.

Xamun Story

Xamun Story

may be a cliche, but my true inspiration behind xamun.. why do we have to choose between work and outdoors. During school days we did not have enough money to visit and stay where we desired, during work years we keep waiting for the next vacation… which feels never enough… its the ‘what if’… what if we can bring work with us and do it where you want to.. freedom to choose without compromise… to be able to have it all

Dream of a world without borders, where you work on what and where your heart desires

It used to be that the companies were mostly into manufacturing, distribution or retailing. Most of this is asset-based business where people go to the ‘place of work’ where the assets were.

In this century the ratio of knowledge-based business has drastically increased compared to the hard asset based businesses. And knowledge business does not require people to be in the same room to be productive. In fact the trend has been sourcing the best team members globally and delivery project where it’s needed. Lot of alliances is temporary project based and specialized. A lot of the knowledge workers prefer more flexible lifestyle and work from place of their choice rather than formal office and once company for long.

However managing a business with dispersed team is not necessarily easy. Keeping everyone on the same page literally is tough and proper infrastructure and mindset is needed for success. We at BlastAsia since early 2000 has been working with clients across the globe and sometimes it’s a collaboration between not only our team and the client but other third party providers, their team members from another location and to say the least it has been challenging for all. Not only managing projects across the globe but maintaining a tight coordination between different functional units is critical to profitability in service business.

Xamun is our effort in providing a global platform and infrastructure for the knowledge industry to manage their business with ease and confidence. Our vision is to provide a flexible system to those in the industry to manage virtual teams, coordinate across the lifecycle of an engagement and also being connected to the resources and suppliers who are critical piece in a virtual organization. We envision a world of business where geography is not a limitation for companies to source and deliver critical projects and knowledge workers can work where their heart is, breaking the 9 to 5 work cycle, helping reduce traffic, providing better work life balance and hopefully helping in decongesting the city centers and being more ecofriendly.

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Why do we need more meetings & what would it be like if we can do without them

Most people dread meetings, yet lots of time in organizations is wasted in meetings every week. The time spend in meetings are directly proportionate to the seniority of the person in the organization; so higher-up you are, more time you are wasting every day. Also those involved in knowledge service industry (creative and professional services) spend more time in meetings over those into manufacturing, distribution or construction etc.

Research says, meetings are actually one of the key ‘de-motivators’ for the ‘best of the workers’ in any organizations. In fact the slackers loves meetings, as it let them reach 5pm faster, without the pressure of ToDo and other responsibilities and having a good reason why they had to move that deadline.

So why do knowledgeable and intelligent people spend more and more time in meetings, my take are the following:

  • Lack of automation/integrated apps in the creative and professional services, and meetings are the only way to keep tab on progress and relate to different dependent but separate operational functions.
  • Knowledge management, due to lack of systems like social media for internal collaboration, only way to share ideas and experience from top down is to spend time in meeting rooms. Effective online project collaboration can help with this a lot in my opinion.

Meeting

In fact, just by freeing up the need to meet often, the way of working in knowledge industry can transform substantially. In the near future organizations in creative and professional services will probably move towards the following arrangements more:

  • Virtual Organisations, with less and less offices.
  • Globally distributed team that comes together for specific projects and disperse after. Without the need for physical meetings and office space, this is becoming a reality.
  • Less pressure on cities centres as more and more people would be comfortable working from where they like (a beach house or a relaxing mountain side cabin perhaps) rather than required to be staying where the work is.
  • Perhaps drop in migration to developed countries just for work in their chosen sectors, since work can reach them anywhere and probably at much better billing rate with the ‘flatter world order’.

I am looking forward to such a world, aren’t you too?

Process Maturity & Lower Operational Risk in the Creative & Professional Services Industry through Automation (and how cloud is changing the game)

There are tons of papers written on the benefit of ERP implementation in manufacturing. The benefit is an accepted fact in the industry, which does not need more convincing. ERP comes in different variants to suit the requirements of different sizes & types of businesses. Even small to medium manufacturing and distribution operations have implemented certain levels of automation of their value chain to be dependable and profitable.

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Yet, when you look at companies engaged in services, especially in the creative and professional services sector (referred to in this article as knowledge services industry), level of automation is limited to Excel sheets and email. Some may have invested in stand-alone systems to help with specific functions like accounting and record keeping in human resource management. Others may have tried using project collaboration systems or online sales tracking. However, these point solutions are not connected to each other most of the time. This renders companies exposed to classic operational risks that have been identified and eliminated in the manufacturing sector over the last 20 years or more.

This also makes you wonder, how come the ERP software companies did not try to sell a version of their system to the service companies? Why did the sector resist in using integrated systems for operations management that have several obvious benefits? In fact, several consulting companies developing and implementing ERP systems to manufacturers have not even tried automating their own organizations yet.

After doing some research, the following are some of my findings that explain why this sector shuns the concept of automation:

  • The value chain of knowledge services, which produce digital output with no physical raw materials, is very different from those of manufacturing where a lot of effort goes into optimizing the supply chain and inventory level. Typical ERP systems are of little use in this segment, and to cater to this sector a complete rethinking is required.
  • The cost structure is also very different in the IP based output. The first copy costs the most, and the incremental copy is of marginal cost. The biggest assets include the company’s brand name and track record, and largest contributor to the company’s expenses is its people.
  • Most knowledge service organizations are very lean with very little headcount on the support side of the organization. There is an effort among to deploy almost everyone in some or other billable project whenever possible. This makes it difficult to implement a long rollout as required in typical ERP implementations.
  • The number of users varies, depending on active projects and participants across partners, employees, consultants & client side members. The traditional practice of charging for a fixed number of user licenses in not practical in this kind of organizations.
  • Knowledge services companies are usually lightly capitalized compared to manufacturing and usually resistant to ideas of big capital investments in systems.

The above factors made it difficult to build and sell integrated automation solutions to knowledge services companies, despite the obvious benefits that everyone is aware of.

Instead, a large number of these types of companies invested in process standardization through certifications like ISO9001 and CMMI. Organizational process certifications are expensive and are quite labor-intensive, requiring hundreds of hours in identifying and mapping different parts of its operations. The objective of getting certifications is to standardize operations, so the best practice and successes are repeatable consistently across projects and teams. Also, investments are made into certification of individuals in their areas of expertise to adhere to best practices, for example PMI certifies PMP for project managers, agile SCRUM master certifications, six sigma belts etc.

However, without automation and integration across different key operations, it’s very difficult to sustain the process standardization. Sooner or later some team or individual veers off the defined course and only gets to be corrected after the damage is done. Lack of automation reduces transparency and increases the risk coming from lack of compliance, which sometimes are even mandatory in certain professional practices.

Majority of companies that invested in process certifications are those involved in outsourcing locally or offshore. The investment in time and money on those certifications were to help reduce risk and also as a selling point to customers who, most of the time, are much larger in size and exhibit higher process maturity than the selling organizations. Some fortune 500 companies have already made certifications a requirement for their vendors. There are substantial investment/subsidy from governments and developmental organizations in developing countries for ISO and CMMI certifications for the companies involved in or aspiring to get into outsourcing. However need for automation across the operation has not received enough attention yet, probably due to the above-mentioned reasons.

Recent technology shifts coming from cloud and enterprise mobility are changing the game and are dissolving the barriers to implanting automation for this segment. The following are some of the answers to the challenges as discussed earlier:

  • Integrated solutions specific to the creative & professional services industry needs are getting rolled out over the SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) model. The three key functions of Project Management, Sales & Account Management, and People & Skills Management integrated across the organization over an easy-to-use social layer make an ideal platform for these businesses.
  • SaaS removes the requirement for capital expenditure and makes it easier to adopt automation under operational expenses, which can be directly attributed to the specific projects.
  • SaaS and Cloud models allow an organization to extend the systems across the organization to employees, consultants and also across the globe. It offers much needed flexibility to assign and remove access/license to extended enterprise participants as per project needs.
  • The ability to easily implement the solution across the organization without major training and roll out pains (unlike in ERP implementations before), is typical of SaaS & Cloud systems. Nowadays, you can get your organization start using in days if not in hours
  • Cloud powered systems accessed over mobile devices enables users to be on the top of the operations without getting tied down to corporate network and other limitations & IT department costs.

Small to midsize companies can straight away adapt to the best practice and attain process maturity simply by using such a system across their operations, minus the cost and hundreds of hours spend for certifications that they usually incur. Easy visibility of project and collaboration with client’s representatives can give the much-needed confidence for business relations, even if stakeholders are working across the city or across the world. The integrated operations automation approach to boost SMEs towards world-class service delivery can be easier and more cost effective, if done using an appropriate system.

With all the above realities in mind, to empower SMEs in the knowledge services sector, we have developed Xamun, the only system you would need to managing projects, clients and people. We built it after learning from our own experiences in running similar operations over a decade. We believe that through the use of Xamun, leaders in the knowledge services sector can get better control and lower operational risk when managing people and get the freedom to choose where to work from. Ultimately, Xamun enables growth and profitability for your company and a more fulfilling life in general.

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Take a 30-day trial of Xamun and see how it can help yourorganization by visiting www.xamun.com

Points to Consider for Outsourcing

Coming from both ends of the spectrum of outsourcing and offshoring for the last 10 years and picking up on the pain points from others in the industry, the following is my collection of things to consider:

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  • Freelancers: Choosing the right freelance talent works best for specific, one-off assignments. However, if you have a large project which requires a lot of collaboration and coordination, you might want to consider getting an entire team from one company rather than gathering several freelancers and form your team. The latter seems to be the more affordable option, but you have to bear in mind that a lot more value can be delivered by the former. A group from a company has established processes, administrative support, centralized invoicing, and other services that may add a bit more to your cost, but also saves you from a lot of headache. The whole is bigger than the sum of the parts, after all.
  • Cheap: You are already saving a lot by going offshore, I believe a 40-50% saving from what you would pay locally is a good expectation. However, once you try to save more by going to the next cheaper group of service providers, you might be looking for trouble. Remember the people you are working with are also in business and they need to make enough money to 1) deliver quality output; and 2) be interested in doing business with you in the long term.
  • Flat World: Knowledge and know-how are more universal today due to the Internet and people working with each other across the world. Its best to be open minded about what the provider can contribute to your project, not only in terms of labor but also insights. Chances are, the outsourcing providers have had other similar or related experiences that can help improve your product concept.
  • Process: Sometimes following a process seems like a waste of time, but in reality it comes back to bite you later – in the form of missed out items and heavy rework. Working without any clear specifications and processes might work fine in a small collocated team, where knowledge sharing is seamless and instantaneous. However, as the team grows and extends beyond your table and physical office, you just can’t live without specifications and processes. Remember that ‘Lean’ and ‘Agile’ concepts talk about doing only the necessary documentation, not ‘no documents at all.’
  • Trust & Transparency: Starting small, knowing the people from outsourcing providers as intimately as your own team members at your office, and building the human connection is critical. It might be natural if you are in the same office working hours on your project –but when you are across the ocean from your outsourcing team, you really need to make a conscious effort to build the relation and trust. Spend some time visiting them at the beginning and during the project.
  • Big Benefit of Small Talk: To make lot of the above items to happen, there is no substitute for small talk. In the office you get to do this by the water cooler, over lunch, or over beer after work hours. With your outsourcing providers, you should try this over social channels like being part of their FB and Linkedin network. Constant Instant Messaging (IM) via Skype, YM, Live Messenger, etc. is a good option, too. When doing IM with the outsourcing team, perhaps keep a window open – this seems to work well for a couple of our teams. It’s like a police blotter where open discussions and knowledge keep happening between all the team members.

Leverage on Technology: Remember there was no outsourcing and offshoring of service before the Internet, technology made it happen. Don’t think its waste of money or time in leveraging as much possible on technology in getting all the above done smoothly and easily. Try an online tool like www.xamun.com to manage your projects, clients and distributed

The Incredible Power of Online Task Board

Have you ever tried getting something done that requires a concerted effort from a bunch of people? Have you ever organized an event such as an alumni homecoming for your high school class, a New Year’s party for your club, or a fundraiser for your favorite cause? How about something in a more formal setting, such as leading a team for a project at work?

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(not as easy as it seems)

It sure is difficult. The challenge doesn’t come from the tasks at hand; most of the time those are not the problem. You may even say it would be so much easier if you did it all by yourself, right? However, doing it all by ourselves is very inefficient, after all the concept of “division of labor” is supposed to be one of the greatest social achievements that helped human beings progress. So what’s the cause of this conflict? If it’s so easy for each member of a team to do things separately and it only makes sense that a team would be more efficient of you split a set of tasks among its members, then why does it become harder to get things done when more people join a team?

In my experience, in order to resolve this conflict, one must master the process of:

  1. Breaking down the entire project into smaller parts;
  2. Distributing these smaller parts among members of the team;
  3. Monitoring the progress on “who is supposed to do what” before you run out of time; and
  4. Re-planning if some original assumptions change during the course of doing things.

These activities above, known to some as project management, are causes the difficulty if not carried out properly. When we do it alone, those four activities are taken as a whole and are performed in our minds, but in a team this set of activities tends to be overlooked. Some people even think all those things above are actually a waste of time: they would rather get the work done immediately than plan and check it. The thinking is, “it’s all good until things get done”. If a team is doing similar things regularly and all members are familiar with the tasks at hand, risks are lowered from repetition. Then again, if someone slips due to some unforeseen reason, the whole project can be at risk.

Do I mean to say most people don’t do this? No, not really. There usually is an effort among project teams to meet and plan. It’s actually fun to do it, specially at the start of the project. Nothing much gets done in these kickoff meetings (most of the time). Most people after a kickoff meeting resort to emailing each other or making an Excel list and updating it – until some point in the process, things gets out of control and they simply drop all those activities together and just go with the flow.

So you may ask, how about getting one of those project management software like Microsoft Project and trying to keep tabs on everything that’s getting done. Sure, this is better than nothing, but the trouble is, this is a centralized command and control kind of thinking. One person has to take this role and run after everyone in getting things done and finding out if they are doing what they are supposed to and what stage it’s in etc. This type of centralized effort is not very efficient for a number of reasons:

  • The project manager becomes responsible for the success and failure of a project, thus allowing team members to be less responsible for the overall success
  • Reduces the benefit of collective wisdom that comes from collaboration and visibility
  • This still does not provide the communication and collaboration needed on regular basis for project success

By now you should be asking me, “What, then, is the solution?” What do I think makes getting projects done easier, more fun and at a lower risk? If the team is sitting in the same room all day, perhaps all you need to do is take a wall, divide it into three columns (To Do, In Progress, and Done), get a bunch of post-its, write down what needs to be done, and each person just picks up what they are going to do and update the wall. Maybe do a short 15 minute meeting every day to collaborate and update each other, benefit from the collective wisdom and getting the project done successfully. This practice works, for sure. But in a lot of projects today, you don’t spend the day together, you don’t even get to meet each other often.  Heck, team members may even be from a different city, country, or continent. What do you do now? Is there a liberator in sight?

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Introducing: The Incredible Online Task Board!

Welcome the world of web 2.0 and online collaboration. There are many online solutions out there to choose from. Some thoughtful people came up with tools to make task lists online that can be seen by all team members and be updated as required. This can work for rather simple projects, but it lacks the benefit of collaboration and overall visibility. Some teams even resort to using blogs where they can write down the tasks and update each other in real time. That can work, too, I guess. But nothing works like The Incredible Online Task Board.

It’s similar to the real-life or physical task board using a blank wall, but this time distributed teams can work seamlessly – as if they’re in the same room. If you use The Incredible Online Task Board together with a more social collaboration wall like Facebook for free-flowing and easy communication, then you have what we call a perfect combination.

In fact, we made a version of The Incredible Online Task Board and a collaboration wall after experiencing the above issues first hand in dealing with projects both in-house and with clients across the world. The nature of these projects span from something as simple as a list of things to fix, to complicated multi-year projects building complicated products, to the implementation of a business process across different departments, to hiring a specialized resources for an upcoming project. We’ve seen it all, and after several months of using what we created, we are definitely seeing the benefits.

What we created is called Xamun. It exists in two versions – Lite and Business. The former is tailor-made for those users that need the task board and a collaboration wall, while the latter is a robust version that extends to other different functions and areas of management and allows you to run your entire business online.

The power of The Incredible Task Board is at the heart of Xamun, and you can see it for yourself by visiting www.xamun.com and taking a 30-day free trial.

Your Office on the Cloud

how technology is transforming the way we work, specially for the professional & creative services industry; creating digital content by collaborating across the world and delivering globally