Yahoo!’s new weather app is poor.

The emperor has no clothes.

As an unabashed Yahoo! fan (and former employee), when the company released its new weather app to incredibly lavish praise, I was excited to download it and try it out. Imagine my surprise when my first reaction was along the lines of “what are they smoking?!” To ensure that this wasn’t just an artifact of my contrarian nature, I decided to give it some time.

It’s now three weeks later, and my opinion hasn’t changed. The app is certainly gorgeous, as TechCrunch and others were quick to point out. Unfortunately, it is a triumph of design over utility. Simply put, it fails at its primary function.

There are a couple of reasons I have a weather app on my phone. One is to check the weather where I am today. The other is to check the weather where I might be going over the next few days. I need to dress appropriately, and figure out whether I should pack an umbrella. Note that nowhere on my list is a desire to see a beautiful picture that may or may not have any connection to the city whose weather I’m attempting to find out about.

Take a look at this screenshot from the new Yahoo! weather app.

photo 1

Launch the app, see this, and your first instinct is to assume that there are clear blue skies at the San Francisco International Airport (let’s ignore for the moment that the painted ladies pictured are actually some distance away from the airport). The font for the temperature is an odd choice at best, with some bizarre spacing that makes it a little jarring to read, at least for me. And then if you’re lucky, you notice the key piece of information that the conditions are fair, with a mix of sun and cloud. In what meeting at Yahoo! did someone decided that one of the two most important pieces of information should be the least visible thing no the page? Even the Flickr logo is more prominent!

Now if you think I’m overstating the issue, take a look at the previous Yahoo! weather app – the one that currently comes preloaded on the iPhone.

photo 2

Remarkable contrast, isn’t it? Open the app, and I can very clearly see what the current conditions are (sun with a bit of cloud around), what the temperature is, and exactly what it’s going to be like for the remainder of the week. One glance, and I’ve got all the answers I need.

Only one of these apps is designed well, in my opinion, and it’s not the one that has the media all agog.

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Dynamic pricing for small businesses

I had my hair cut the other day. Well, cut is a misnomer – it’s more of a quarterly buzz with a #2 blade. Anyway, I walked into my usual joint (can’t quite call it a salon) at noon on a Wednesday and it was completely empty, barring the three ladies waiting for a client to show up. Quite a contrast from my previous visit, where I’d had to wait half an hour before someone was available to do the honours. Both times, my ten minutes in the chair cost me $9 plus the couple of extra that I throw in. 

It doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it. My barber shop is inadvertently operating in a beautifully inefficient closed market that ignores available information and eschews any fundamental principle of supply and demand. 

What they should be striving to achieve is a state of equilibrium in which the hairdressers are never waiting for a client, and the clients are never waiting for a hairdresser. Optimal efficiency all around, and importantly from the perspective of the business, no perishable inventory goes to waste.

They can of course get a little closer to that scenario by being a bit more refined about adjusting the supply, but the reality is that there are limits to how far you can go. Just as an airline can’t swap out all its 747’s for a fleet of 737’s on a slow day and then switch back again the next morning, a hair salon can’t adjust its labour force in anything more than fairly broad strokes.

However the lesson that can be learned from the airlines, amongst others, is the power of pricing in influencing demand. Just as the person in the last row middle seat on a flight from San Francisco to New York can have paid $500 more than the person in the exit row aisle seat, it stands to reason that no two haircuts have to be priced the same. 

Certainly you’d have to wage a battle against the long-term conditioning that consumers have undergone. Ultimately though, if my hair place could bring in a few more people with $7 haircuts on Wednesday at lunchtime, and also charge $15 on Saturday afternoons without having to deal with an empty slot, then that’s precisely what it should be doing. 

Now the owner of the place is never going to do this. (S)he has his/her hands full just keeping the place running seven days a week. Analysing data on a continuous basis to determine how much to charge for each haircut isn’t going to happen. And the pricing is just half the battle – arguably more important is finding a way to get that information in front of the people who are making the decision on whether or not to get their haircut, and when to do so. The flow of information is what enables an efficient market to actually exist.

It’s for this reason that I’m excited about where companies like Booker and MyTime are headed. There’s a long way to go, but I believe that these are the sort of edges that small businesses are going to need to stay competitive in the long run. The days of just buying an ad, be it in the yellow pages or elsewhere, and hoping that things work out, are gone. The tools and services needed are going to have to be provided by third parties who can optimize both for an individual business and ultimately for a geography and/or industry as well. It will be interesting to see how the big guys come to the table.

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Yahoo!, innovation and remote working

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a bit of an uproar in the media regarding Yahoo!’s recently announced (ostensible) ban on remote working. It’s a thorny issue in this day and age, but I’m rather stunned at how negative and derisive much of the reaction has been, particularly from generally well respected thought leaders. Maybe this is an illustration of why I’m not (yet) one of them, but I beg to differ quite vehemently.

From afar, and with my historical knowledge of the company and my existing connections therein, I’d contend that this is a very wise move by Yahoo! At the heart of it, I suspect, is a desire to rejuvenate the company and create an environment that is conducive to innovation.

Innovation is a tricky beast. Large companies have a tendency to try and force it, often by instituting defined processes by which people are expected to innovate. Amusingly, these processes are typically named along the lines of “The Innovation Process,” which is perhaps a clue as to how successful they tend to be.

Innovation is not something that can be forced, in any environment. It happens, and most people would be hard pressed to genuinely explain how or why. You can’t sit down and decide that you’re going to think innovative thoughts for the next week, and expect to emerge from your cocoon in a state of enlightenment. More often than not, the truly innovative idea strikes over a cup of coffee with a friend, or a hallway conversation with a colleague about something else altogether.

The reason for this is because it ultimately boils down to connecting the dots in a way that they haven’t been connected before. In order to do that, you need three things.

First, an awareness of what all the dots are, which comes from experience and domain expertise. In my case, this explains why I’m a lot more likely to impact the mobile local payments industry than I am to impact the semiconductor industry. Simply put, I have a lot more dots at my disposal to find connections between.

Second, an innate sharpness of mind that allows you to quickly form connections between what might be ostensibly disparate concepts or entities. This is a rarer gift than we might care to admit, and it’s why most of us so often respond to the latest successful startup by saying things along the lines of “That’s such a blindingly obvious idea. How come I didn’t think of that before?” My experience is that some people just have an ability to comprehend and dissect a lot faster than others. We’ve all heard or lived stories about the executive who is able to stop at slide 2 of the 20 slide deck and give everyone an hour of their lives back by cutting straight to the chase.

Third, you need the cues and triggers that spark you to make those connections. Apocryphally, these triggers are droplets of water from a showerhead. More realistically, they are comments and thoughts from other people that set off an almost inexplicable chain reaction in your mind that leads to a key insight.

It’s that third one that I suspect Yahoo! is trying to address now. It won’t work on its own, and I doubt that’s the plan. The company has struggled in recent years with epitomising Peter’s Principle, and the weak hiring of B and C players that tends to go along with that. As an organization, it is, or should be, gearing up for rejuvenation and innovation. To do that, Marissa Mayer and her team need to act as forcing functions and that is what I see them doing here.

The remote worker can absolutely contribute to an execution play – and that is why it is a red herring for people to bring up Yahoo!’s offshore teams in India and elsewhere. The function of those people is typically tactical and execution oriented. But the core of the company needs to be looking ahead and connecting the dots, and a group of B players working from home are not going to deliver against that need, however unwilling they may be to admit it.

Bottom line – I don’t think Yahoo! is saying that remote working is a bad thing. They are saying that given their particular circumstances, it’s not appropriate. And I couldn’t agree more.

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Yield to your instincts

I’ve spent 15 years exhorting my teams to live by the data. I’m often heard saying “if you can’t report on it, then it doesn’t exist!” Whole analytics teams are known to run the other way if I’m spotted in the vicinity.

I’m happy to put my hand up now and say that I’ve been wrong. Not completely, mind you.  Data is, and should still be, the cornerstone of most of our decision making. We just need to understand that data, and more precisely the use of it, can manifest in different ways.

Too many of us hold ourselves hostage to Excel sheets and Power Point decks full of charts and tables. Unfortunately, with a lot of our day to day decision making the data that we are striving to produce either doesn’t exist, or introduces a significant delay to our decision making because it cannot be collated and interpreted in a timely fashion. As a result, we make a lot of non-decisions and let the status quo meander along.

What we should be doing instead, is trusting our instincts. This is by no means a new philosophy, but for me it’s one that crystallized as I read an insightful work by a former cricketing acquaintance at Oxford. Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” discusses how top sportspeople develop their instincts and that enviable skill that enables them to make the right decisions in a split second at a crucial juncture. And to do it consistently.

Watching a rookie quarterback in the Superbowl last night was unfortunately a great example of this. Colin Kaepernick is a better sportsman than I could ever dream of being, but to my untrained eye, there were moments under pressure where you felt he was desperately searching for information with which to make the right decision. In each case, the moment passed, and ultimately with it went the game.

Now imagine Tom Brady or Joe Montana in some of those same situations. You can’t shake the feeling that they could have pulled off a move that would have left you wondering “how did he see that?!” Even an amateur sportsperson has those moments where the game around them suddenly switches into slow-motion and they know where the ball is going to, rather than where it’s currently at. For a Brady or Montana, that happens a lot more often.

I’ve realized that much the same applies to those of us making product or business decisions on a daily basis. A few years ago I started noting down my instinctive reactions to new product features, or business strategies and tactics, and comparing them with where we ended up days, weeks or sometimes months later after evaluating all the data available to us. Before long it was clear that in 9 out of 10 cases, I could have saved us all a lot of heartache if I’d had the guts to trust my own instinct.

It takes a lot to trust your own instinct, and it takes even more to convince those around you, and those you report to, to do that. What we have to realize is that this instinct is based on years of training. Purposeful training, as Syed puts it. There is probably more data behind that instinct than in the weeks of work that you put your junior analyst through to try and rationalize or come to a decision.

Maybe it’s time we started treating more of our decision making as if we were professional athletes faced with a 90mph fastball. We know what to do, it’s time we just did it (with apologies to Dan Wieden). Try it next time – it’s liberating.

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Mobile is an experience, not a platform

“Mobile-first.” “The future is mobile.” I hear it everywhere, and I’m sure you do too. And very often these days, it’s closely followed by “We’re embracing responsive design.” I asked someone recently what that meant. Like far too many buzzword aficionados, he didn’t have the foggiest idea, struggling to get past the notion of fitting a site onto a small screen.

I see two recurring problems in the way a lot of us are approaching the mobile opportunity. Firstly, we have a natural inclination to consider form over function, and so we look at mobile as a platform rather than an experience. This in turn leads to the second problem, which is that we then typically look for a quick solution to allow us to deliver on what we see as a new platform, and we fixate on popular approaches, such as responsive design, without taking a step back and understanding what it is we really are trying to achieve.

The platform vs. experience issue is not a new one. For those of us who were around when Al Gore invented the Internet, we saw a lot of this in the early days of the Web. Paradigms that were designed and optimized for offline experience were ported directly into the online experience, with little consideration for the fundamental differences. The dot com boom and bust is littered with such stories, but those were perhaps understandable the first time around.

As we transition from desktop to mobile, and I should note as an aside that this is really accretion rather than pure substitution, we need to take heed of the lessons of our recent past. It is imperative that we consider mobile as a new use case, in fact, for most of us, as the new base case. Form has to follow function here, and that means that we should first be asking how people are going to interact with our product or service on-the-go, and/or in bite-sized time slots, and only then consider screen sizes and resolutions.

Responsive design works superbly for publishers with rich content sites. While the context of a mobile interaction may be different, in that users are working with short periods of time, the nature of the interaction is much the same. The responsive design paradigm solves perfectly for this.

For the rest of us, whether we’re an airline or in the local search business, the experience that solves for a user’s goals in a mobile context is a distinct one, and the primary challenge is to define what that is.

The use case becomes a highly personal one. Our devices are fast becoming natural extensions of ourselves, borne out by the fact that we are apparently never more than 3 feet* away from our phones – and that’s most likely when we take a shower in the morning! As providers of a service or product, we not only know when and where a person is, but we potentially have access to a treasure trove of information about a user’s past and present, and that data set is now with them at all times. Our solutions need to be contextually and personally aware, and I’m glad that people are really starting to look at this – Marissa Mayer made this point at Davos just the other day.

* Statistic shamelessly stolen from Walt Doyle’s keynote at Street Fight New York
 
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What does leadership actually entail?

I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read over the years that distill the art of leadership down to the 17 habits and 14 characteristics of great leaders, along with the 23 books they read, the 5 things they eat and drink, and the 9 superstitions that they all share.

It’s getting so ridiculous, that I’ve decided to add my own contribution to the litany.

I’ve been fortunate (mostly!) to be in various leadership roles throughout my life, ranging all the way from “captain of the lunchtime marbles collective” to my current professional position. The one thing I’ve always wanted to have clarified is simple – what is it that I’m supposed to do as a leader?

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s surprisingly simple to articulate, and, of course, deceptively difficult to do. As a leader, be it in the workplace, in a sporting arena or elsewhere, there are really three major things that you have to do. Focus your teams, motivate them, and then drive them to success.

Focus

This is really about the “what”. As any good product manager will tell you, the crux of his or her job is defining the game and keeping score. The same applies to a leader.

In order to deliver efficiently and effectively, your team, whether big or small, needs to understand what it is they are really trying to achieve. And then all along the way, they need to clearly understand where they’re at in terms of that objective.

This is one of the few areas in life where the children’s soccer team is the shining example – the entire collective hell bent on running to where the ball is (only we ideally want to be running to where the ball is going next!)

Motivate

In conjunction with the “what,” a good leader needs to be able to rationalize the “why.” Your people need to have a reason to want to do the “what,” and it’s your job to rally them around it.

This is rarely as simple as “you’ll make a lot of money if we get there.” Sure, most of us work for money – but it’s a collective desire to change the world in some big or small way, shared by the people we spend our days with, that gets us out of bed before the alarm clock rings in the morning.

Ironically, engendering that collective desire tends to require an understanding of and focusing on the individual. We’re all different, and a leader in the workplace needs to know what makes us all tick in order to get us going.

Drive

If, and only if, you’ve nailed the first two, then execution can be the easiest part of the puzzle, even though it’s the most time consuming and ultimately the decisive factor. The reason is simple – if you have a team of people who know what they’re trying to do and are motivated to achieve it, then they’re going to take some stopping.

If you’re resorting to whips and chains, shouting across hallways and liberal use of expletive-laden language, then it’s pretty much a given that you’ve failed to pay attention to the “what” and the “why.”

Driving your team forward and shepherding them over the finish line can require you to play a variety of roles, and it’s critical to be adaptable enough to understand the need as it evolves, and meet it.

It’s amazing how often I have watched people, including myself, fail to do one or more of those, and then scratch their heads as they wonder why they have been so ineffective. Or in some cases, delude themselves into thinking that they were highly effective but they had just been saddled with an incompetent team.

In observing that, and my own experience, I’ve also got a short list of things that leadership is not. These are things that I have tried to do at various times, and have seen others do, but are actually antithetical to the fundamentals of good leadership.

Leadership is not a popularity contest

Far too many leaders, more than would admit it, are obsessed with being liked. That’s not in the job description. What is important is to be respected for what you bring to the table, and the way to earn that respect is by leading.

Trust me when I say that you will gain far more professional and personal satisfaction when you are respected for your leadership, rather than liked as a friend. And the funny thing is, it turns out that the whole liking thing tends to be one of the positive consequences.

Micromanagement is not leadership

This is something we would all say, and in my experience, the micromanagers are the ones who say it the loudest. It usually comes out in the form of “I really don’t want to micromanage, but…”

I most often see this going wrong when leaders are attempting to provide a “framework” for their teams to work within. Instead of this framework being about goals, objectives and constraints, it tends to manifest itself in a list of the 8 steps the team should follow weekly in order to develop their next big release. And what’s usually missing is any explanation of the “what” and the “why.”

Manage to a result, not to a process.

Leadership does not absolve you from participation

All too frequently, I encounter leaders who attempt to set the ball rolling and then walk away while their teams do the work. There is a big difference between being involved, and micromanaging.

You need to be observing, guiding, and providing continuous and constructive feedback. You need to be a part of your team, albeit as a leader, not as a best friend.

The best leaders are always aware of how things are going, and are able to drill down into the relevant detail when it matters, in order to keep their teams on the path to success.

Finally, one piece of advice that I wish I had received a long time ago. If you’re a leader, get yourself a mentor or three. Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar – these guys are the best on the planet at what they do, and they all have mentors and coaches. If they need the help, then so do you and I.

It doesn’t always have to be a formal relationship either. You can learn by observation, and through conversation. Reach out to those who impacted and inspired you along the way – you’ll be amazed at how many little nuggets you will find that will help you shape your own style and philosophy.

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