Category Archives: Uncategorized

Notes on Zipcast design: exchanging control for engagement

This is the first of several notes about design of Zipcast.

When thinking about Zipcast design, we thought a lot about why people feel trapped in the online meeting experience. After talking to users and observing how users behave in online meetings, I’ve come to believe that one of the core reasons people feel trapped is that meeting participants don’t have any control over the experience. Their screen is taken over, they cannot do anything else on the computer, they are merely observers not participants. So a core design question for Zipcast was – how could you let users feel more in control of the experience? Here are some ways we tried to let meeting participants feel more in control of their experience.

First not take over their screen. Zipcast is just another tab in your browser. You can go back and forth with your email, Twitter or anything else you are doing. Zipcast does take over your computer.

Second, though the presenter controls the slides, you can also navigate slides on your own, checking out whets coming ahead or reviewing what you missed. This small tweak has huge implications. When showing Zipcast to reporters for briefings, I would tell them about this feature and they would be surprised. I would suggest they try it out and immediately they loved the experience. Within minutes, instead of my driving the conversation, they would start asking me questions about the part of the conversation they found interesting. Instead of being this one-way briefing, this simple tweak turns it into a two-way conversation where the participant is engaged.

The third tweak was to make it a social experience where the participants have an effective way to express themselves. The chat channel in Zipcast is very engaging. People actively participate and talk. As my friend Livia Labate pointed out: “Chat is where the action is in Zipcast”.

What do you think? Do you feel that Zipcasts are more engaging as a participant than a regular online meeting / webinar? Any feedback about the experience?

The problem with Groupon

We have been early adopters of Groupon – the group buying site that recently got a valuation of 1.2 billion. Jon especially loves Groupon and is constantly looking for good deals through it. But after our experience last night, I decided never to use it for a evening out again.

We called the restaurant for reservations (mentioning that we were using Groupon – as the coupon instructed). We were given an appointment pretty late in the evening (though we called early). Once we got there, we were told there was a further delay. I don’t know for sure, but I think restaurant staff don’t really like Groupon users and treat them like they are free-loaders.

Back to restaurant – The food was mediocre. The atmosphere not the sort we would have chosen otherwise. In short – the only reason for trying this restaurant was the coupon.

We did not even eat enough to use the whole coupon (which is very unusual for Sushi). We had paid $25 for a Groupon coupon worth $55. At the restaurant, we paid $15 tax and tip (so we spent $40 total). If we had not used Groupon, we would have paid about $55 (tax, tip included). So we saved $15.

For $15 lesser, we ate rather mediocre Sushi at a place we did not like.

My previous uses of Groupon have been different – we often use half off coupon for a place we love to eat anyway. The problem is that we have to buy more food than we need and eat leftovers later. While I love that restaurant, the food does not work well for leftovers.

I have never been a coupon clipper – I don’t buy things at the grocery store just because they are on sales, or go to restaurants because they are having a half off promotion. Instead, I prefer to consume only what I need – if its on sale, that’s great. So maybe you argue I am not the right sort of user for Groupon.

However, I am price sensitive – if I am buying something online, I will always search for the best price. This is why I love shopping and price comparison engines – they let me find a great price for an item I already want. That is crucial – I find an item I want, then search for best price.

Groupon inverts that – it invites you to buy things you don’t want and gives you a discount on them. You find the discount at the same time as hundreds of people, so the restaurant (or other establishment) is overwhelmed and staff often treat the coupon holders as free-loaders. Does not lead to great experiences.

I will still try Groupon, but only for things I already want. And I will use it with groups, so we actually benefit from the volume you have to purchase.

Social networks need time to grow up – thoughts on Buzz

Email is the ultimate social network. There is no doubt about that. And yet not many companies have attempted to unwrap that opportunity.

Google made a big, bold move in that domain last week. Which is remarkable considering Google does not play (or play well) in the social domain. Buzz has unleashed all sorts of reactions and social gaffes (including pretty serious ones).

While I am looking forward to Buzz for my company (we use Google Apps), there are some fundamental problems with the Buzz approach for personal email, and even more so, with the way it was launched.

Most social networks do not launch fully developed. They start small, plant the seeds, watch it grow, react and build on it. At birth, the social network is a newborn baby which slowly learns to crawl, then walk, then run. This is how every successful social network has been built.

In contrast to a newborn social network which develops in relation to its surroundings, Buzz is a fully developed adult who popped out of the (Gmail) womb one fine day. It received 9 million messages in two days (how many did Facebook/Twitter receive in first two days). Buzz has not had time to adapt to users or let them adapt to it before getting scale.

Turning the Google firehose on means instant growth – a huge advantage for other types of apps, but a huge disadvantage for a social system which needs a strong foundation and to get the fundamental of social interations right. Think of how important it was for Twitter to the sociality of the basic tweet right, before letting it grow.

Secondly, not all social networks are the same. We have our private social networks and there are public social networks. Email is a public soical network – with me as the center of my network. Which is why a tool like Xobni can expose that network and fit in, without disrupting the basic nature of email.

In contract, Buzz makes our personal social networks public. This is huge – its a problem (or an opportunity) not just for Buzz but also Gmail itself. The question in my mind is less about user acceptance of Buzz, but more about changes in perception of Gmail. Will people start seeing Gmail as less private because of Buzz?

Is Buzz going to succeed? I honestly don’t know. But its sure interesting to watch Google trying to be “social”.

What is a startup? Is Facebook still one?

The question came up post-crunchies where Facebook won the best startup and Twitter was runner up. The post crunchies conversation in the group I was in quickly turned to what is a startup and when does a company stop being a startup. Clearly Google is not a startup anymore. People also generally agreed Facebook is not a startup. About Twitter, there was mostly consensus that it is a startup at least for a little while more.

The question is what makes a company a startup
1. Is it the number of employees (Zynga has 750!, Twitter has less than 200 – from what I know)
2. Is it the valuation (post billion dollars – you are not a startup?)
3. The company does not have “professional management”. Has a more startupy feel?
4. When company is still figuring out its business model

What other criteria defines a startup? What do you think?

Can Facebook change from a private to public social space?

In another gutsy (though perhaps misguided) move, Facebook is encouraging all its users to go public with their and statuses and other information. The motivation is clear – take on Twitter, and partly Google. Become a bigger part of the open web.

I will leave others to analyze the privacy implications (which are many). I am interested in a different aspect – is it possible to change from a private social space to a public social space. Can a living room become a bar, or a nook become a public park? Yes, you can encourage individual users to change their preference, but a social space is more than the sum of individual user preferences. For example, Twitter lets users be private. But it is predominantly used as a public space. Similarly social spaces are generally public or private.

If I change my statuses from private to public, then do the expectancies of those around me change as well? What about the interactions between someone who is private and another person who is public?

I think its going to be hard for Facebook to make this change and remain the type of trusted social space they have become. Time will tell, but I am predicting that either the change will not have a major impact (people will stay private), or there will be a backlash.

Why I removed Google toolbar

Today, after having Google toolbar on my browser for more than two years, and an integral part of my web browsing experience, I removed it. I did this after I suddenly noticed Google Sidewiki on browser pages (image below, look on left corner) and realized that Google had turned on Google Sidewiki without my permission. Sidewiki is not just another button on the toolbar. It takes space on every browser window – on the left. I know the designer of the Sidewiki and think it looks like a good product. But I did not request it on my browser, and I don’t want my web experience hijacked in this way.


The second thing I noticed was that Google toolbar was taking over new tabs I opened in Firefox. Image attached. Once again, this is invasive – taking over a webpage without my permission. I have setup Firefox for new tabs to be blank. Even if Google provides useful information – I don’t want them to alter my web experience without my asking for it.








The third and final straw was when I noticed that Google was also taking over 404 pages. Image below of what I see when I visit this URL. I was told that Google has been doing this for sometime, but I have not seen it before. While I can imagine this is useful, I did not ask for this option – I asked to see what the website publisher put up, not Google’s helpful 404 page.

Time was when Google products used to stand on their own two feet. We use Google Docs since it is the best way to solve document collaboration for a small company. Gmail – since it is the best web based email service out there. Google Maps since its the best web mapping service. And Google search since its the best search engine. These services did not grow because Google sneakily turned on some options on user’s toolbars. They grew since they are great services (similar to Android which is gaining buzz and I am looking forward to trying it).

But for other products, seems like Google has left that discipline behind and is using invasive marketing tactics to grow new products and grab real estate on people’s browsers. I expect such tactics from sleazy companies like OfferPal, not from Google whose products I love.

Instead of making excellent products that users love (which Google knows how to), they often opt for the quick path. Millions of toolbar installs are an easy way to grow Sidewiki and many people will not even remember that they never turned Sidewiki on. But its a lazy way to grow and sooner or later users will not accept the latest feature / product you impose upon them, or just start ignoring the toolbar options altogether.

Podcast with Supernovahub about designing SlideShare

I was a guest on Christopher Carfi’s podcast for Supernova this morning. We spoke about the design of social systems using SlideShare as a case study. We talked about social networks and the difference between professional and personal identities (read differences between Facebook and LinkedIn approaches). We also discussed object-mediated social sharing sites such as Flickr, YouTube and SlideShare. Was a fun discussion.

Go here listen to the podcast to hear the discussion.

Thanks for the opportunity Chris!

I will be participating in a panel at Supernova on Wednesday at 11 AM (moderated by Dave McClure). Come by!

Beyond A/B testing: hypothesis testing for startups

We do a lot of A/B testing at SlideShare. Such tests (or at least the ones we run with Google website optimizer) are mostly tactical. They are about getting your call to action, the size of your button, or the copy of your landing page right.

While it’s important to do these experiments, they are mostly useful for refining ideas. As Andrew Chen would put it, you can get caught in local maxima if you focus only on them. The substantive decisions : to try a different product strategy, to build new functionality are not tested by A/B tests.

Coming from a scientific background, I have often wondered what other type of testing makes sense for startups. Scientists are used to testing major ideas, and significant advances through a rigorous, metrics based approach. Why should testing with startups be about simple refinements?

After talking Steve Blank and Eric Ries about testing at a Startup2Startup dinner, I had an Aha moment. I realized that the type of testing they advocate is about testing your vision against reality. This is very similar to what goes on in science, where you have to articulate your hypothesis in clear terms, identify your independent and dependent variables, and then test it.

For startups, that first articulation (or the core hypothesis) is often the founding vision. For example, we (founders of SlideShare) envisioned SlideShare to be a particular kind of sharing place. While that vision has evolved, but in many ways, SlideShare is what we first imagined it to be. I remember when Jon described the idea to us. The three of us had been bouncing startup ideas for months, but this was the first idea we completely agreed on. I remember the first mockups (done in paper then powerpoint strangely), and that guides us even today.

For the scientific community, that first articulation is the hypothesis. It could be very simple. X will lead to Y. For my PhD work, my hypothesis was that people with damage to hippocampus (a part of the brain related to memory) would be impaired at categorization tasks. (Yes, I came to startups from cognitive neuroscience!).

A founding vision for a startup is similar to a scientific hypothesis. It’s an articulation of a relationship between a product and a market. For SlideShare, the hypothesis was “People will want to share presentations on the web and with each other, and prefer this to email.” The first version of the product (what we launched with) was a test of this hypothesis. We built a basic product (very simple, just basic uploading, viewing, few social hooks).

The answer we received from the market (in a very short time) was a yes, “People do want to share presentations on the web”. But we could have received a different answer. For example, the answer could have been, “People are too sensitive about their powerpoint and will not share it in a public forum on the web”. In that case, we should have gone back to the table, and figured out how to share while taking care of concerns about public sharing.

The goal of the Minimum Viable Product should be to test the founding vision or initial hypothesis. You need to be open to different answers – the answer might be a yes, a qualified yes, or a no. By framing the founding vision like a hypothesis, you remain open to multiple answers.

However, hypothesis testing is not just relevant at the time of founding. It comes into play everytime you make a significant move, a change in direction, a new feature or product.

If you’re a startup, go beyond A/B testing. Think about testing your hypothesis.

Why I don’t worry about competiton

Often when talking to press or VC’s, they ask a million questions about competition – about Google, Microsoft, and other document sharing sites. I tell them, that’s not what worries me. What worries me is not being able to execute on our own plans, not delivering on the promise to our users, not figuring out what the right strategy should be, not being nimble and agile enough to change as the field evolves, or not focusing on our customers enough.

That’s what keeps me up at night.

Sridhar Vembu from Zoho has written a brilliant post: Companies don’t get killed by competition, they commit sucide about this issue – he is referring to a post about Microsoft Office 2010 which spelled out the death of Zoho.

He points out that people have been asking Zoho the survival question from the beginning. How will you survive after large company does X or Y?

We used to have the same question about Google. Before they launched Google Presently, we used to keep getting asked – what will you do when Google launches their presentation app. Well, it was great once they launched Presently. No one asks us about Presently anymore.

Now they ask about Microsoft – are you not afraid that Microsoft will launch a sharing app? Yes, they might launch a presentation sharing app. No, I am not afraid. They are about collaboration and will focus on that in their sharing site. Our natural strength is presentations as social media. And like Sridhar points out for Zoho, we are small and nimble (only 20 people). We use that to our advantage and adapt.

Often when talking to VC’s, I get the feeling they think I am too blasé about competition. Thing is, I have heard from the beginning. First they told us, a presentation sharing site traffic can never get so much traffic (this is when we only had 2 million monthly uniques). Now we have 18 million monthly uniques.

Then they told us, Google would kill us with their presentation app. They did not.

Then they told us other presentation authoring apps would kill us. They did not. We are thriving.

If you worry too much about competition, you are always playing the follower game, following in their footsteps. You stop seeing the lay of the land since you are so focused on what your competition. Instead of leading the company with your own strategy, you start driving based on someone else’s strategy which you might not understand, and which does not focus on your strengths.

Focus on what you do well, for your customers. Do that better, do it for more people. Differentiate yourself.

Competition is a good thing. It makes things better for the customers. It gives them options. Stop being afraid of it, and focusing on it at the expense of focusing on your strengths.

User Acquisition in the Era of App Platforms panel at TiEcon tomorrow

If you are going to TiEcon, then come by to our panel in the morning tomorrow. Dave McClure is moderating.

Panel description: From entrepreneurs working on new applications to established firms looking to gain scale, effective customer acquisition strategies remain of paramount importance and vital to success. The massive scale of application platforms today combined with the acceptance of modularized content/functionality have resulted in new options for those looking to crack the consumer adoption nut. What are the pros and cons of an apps only strategy? What are the best practices around a hybrid website/app approach? And, is there still such a thing as a website only strategy? Join us as we bring together an exciting panel to revisit the ins and outs of customer acquisition.

Panelists are David Hornik (August Capital), Net Jacobsson (Former Facebook), Jason Oberfest (MySpace), and yours truly.

I think Dave asked me to be on the panel because I represent the “Don’t just be on apps” perspective. While SlideShare has a multi-pronged strategy (we are on all major platforms where professionals are), but we have chosen to focus on the slideshare.net and build it upto to be a destination site. To some extent, its because of timing. We launched SlideShare before Facebook launched its platform, and MySpace was never suited to us. So we did not have a choice. If I launched an app now, then I would consider launching on Facebook and other relevant platforms.

However, I do think there is something to be said about embracing the biggest platform out there: the WEB. On the app platforms, often you are dependent on the vagaries of the platform. One day, Facebook might change the rules on you. Also, the advantage you get from platforms depends on when you launch on them. Early facebook apps had an unfair advantage which later apps did not.

What do you think? Platforms / web / both?