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Building an atomic product
"Everything Starts Out Looking Like a Toy" #60
This week’s toy: an office phone that runs Doom. This is the best reason I’ve seen yet to consider returning to the office, though perhaps a better prompt to go find an unused and unloved office phone system and set up a retro LAN party. Edition No. 60 of this newsletter is here - it’s September 20, 2021.
The Big Idea
The Biggest Small Thing you can do is often the one with the most impact. By “Biggest Small Thing” I mean, “what you can do in the time/space/resource you have that moves the project forward”, not necessarily a straightforward marker for size.
The Biggest Small Thing might vary from day to day.
The Biggest Small Thing is meaningful when viewed by someone else, especially by a customer.
The Biggest Small Thing is probably not perfect.
Kevin Kwok, in his excellent essay “How to eat an elephant, one atomic concept at a time”, writes about new entrants in the design software space. Figma, Canva, and Sketch entered into a crowded market owned by the incumbent Adobe and managed to succeed because they focused on unused areas of the product space that were newly open because of the Internet and collaboration.
Kwok breaks down the idea of product development into “atomic concepts” or a way to explain the abstraction of use cases those products address. In this model, Adobe Photoshop handles image manipulation and creation, but does it in a single player mode - it was built before collaboration in real time existed for images. Similarly, Adobe Illustrator is built for image manipulation, but of vector images (described by math and scalable for many uses) instead of raster graphics (that are harder to scale).
Kwok uses this model to sketch a matrix how these image products compete (or really don’t).
What do we take from this graph? Figma succeeeds because it unlocks collaboration among different layers of an organization and does it in such a way that it speeds up remote development. Canva does some of the same things and makes it easier for the average user to access image manipulation without having to learn the complicated tools and ecosystem needed to use Adobe tools well.
The common thread here: quick, easy, and collaborative. These are not always the most powerful ways to solve the problem: they move the project forward at the moment you need the capability. And the newer entrants to the market have the advantage of knowing more about how people work than the incumbent along with having less technical debt.
Leaping from wireline to wireless
Another way to think about this to imagine digital products as analogs to the way that phone service has developed in more populated and poorer parts of the world. In Africa, people who didn’t have wireline phone service now have access to wireless data at very low cost.
The cost in that case was the fixed capital investment in building telecommunications infrastructure. When line-of-sight microwave tech and temporary cell towers were invented, they were cheaper than the alternative of putting up poles and wires. The innovation they unlocked was an order of magnitude (or more) greater than expected.
Digital products will make the same leap over the next few years as we connect new services that have never been related to one another.
What is your atomic notion?
When you are looking at your product or service, building an “atomic notion” is key to creating independent value to transcend a feature gap or a perceived lack of functionality. If users believe your product solves their very specific problem really well, they will take a chance on it rather than relying upon the incumbent.
The best atomic notions will be nearby to a common use case and enabled by new technology or ways of thinking. For example, making a Minimum Viable Record for your accounts in your sales systems used to involve only one system - the system of record. Your accounts might now live among many best-in-class systems that each touch accounts but are not they themselves the system of record. Providing data syncronization and alignment between SaaS systems is an up-and-coming atomic notion.
What’s the takeaway? Focus on your users when thinking about the atomic notion for your product. What is it that they want to do that can’t be solved by other solutions? Solving this “why” is the key to building a service they will keep using.
A Thread from This Week
Twitter is an amazing source of long-form writing, and it’s easy to miss the threads people are talking about.
This week’s thread: the “Lindy Effect”, describing the likelihood things will last based on how long they have already lasted in this form…
Links for Reading and Sharing
These are links that caught my eye.
1/ All tables are not equal - Stephanie Walter has compiled some great resources on building tables for data products and for enterprise software. When you are building not only data for display but also data for insight and action you need to consider user stories on different size screens and different datasets. Starting with stories in mind that the user will be doing every day is great first step.
2/ Action-oriented thinking - almost every person in your team needs to practice a combination of action and planning. Candost Dagdevriven writes that to develop a bias toward action, you need to give some things up:
The famous ceramic story supports quantity over perfection. One professor split the class in half and told half of their students to create as many pots as they can in a term, and the quantity will grade them. The other half of the students would create only one pot but make it perfect. At the end of the term, the students who created many pots had significantly better results. The action supersedes perfection.
3/ Don’t reinvent the wheel - When considering solutions, people also suggest not to reinvent the things that work. However, sometimes innovation demands we try. Michelin is getting close to releasing an airless tire. Aside from the clear benefit of never getting a flat again, there are new capabilities and questions like recycling existing tires, lowering the cost of manufacture, and performance. The stakes are too big not to try a new solution.
On the Reading/Watching List
Reading: the UX Core Guide might be one of the better resources for UX exploration I’ve seen in a while. It lists common cognitive biases and the reasons they might be impeding the user’s ability to do an action related to product.
As a Product Manager, this is a useful reminder whenever you encounter behavior you didn’t expect from a user.
Here’s an example prompt:
Reading: The Philosopher’s Flight, by Tom Miller, is an alternative-history novel showcasing the talents of women – who learn how to fly and cast spells and magic as part of their education – as they enlist in a World War I era world. Robert Weekes is the son of a philosopher and discovers he has similar talents as he tries to break into a woman’s world. This is a great read for the alternative history, imaginative world building, and all around suspense and fun.
What to do next
Hit reply if you’ve got links to share, data stories, or want to say hello.
I’m grateful you read this far. Thank you. If you found this useful, consider sharing with a friend.
The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.” - Chris Dixon