Category: design

The Product Solution Stack Test

(tldr; A product strategy is only as strong as its weakest link.)

The Twitter dust-up this week ostensibly about digital having been a mistake for newspapers felt a bit like Groundhog Day (the movie.) New day, same argument, same result.

Steve Buttry and Mathew Ingram both posted eloquent rebuttals:

Buttry:  The newspaper industry’s colossal mistake was a defensive digital strategy

The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.

Ingram: Sticking With Print Would Not Have Helped Newspapers Avoid Death

Shafer’s piece assumes there was some magical Eden in which newspapers were unassailable, and that it would have been possible to remain there if not for the sin of pushing too hard into digital. But that simply isn’t the case.

Newspapers were never likely to dominate digital in the way they had print. Many of the causes are secular – the Internet is a supremely disruptive force that inherently flattens structures, eliminates middlemen and creates value at scale.

Newspapers on the other hand were middlemen built to extract local value from news and advertising. The worth of local journalism aside, the future of the print delivery business was always going to be problematic.

But blaming our travails entirely on those outside forces risks ignoring the mistakes we do own. And at the product and development level, we failed at some basic digital blocking and tackling. Those failures can be attributed to a lack of systems thinking in our strategies, and a lack of respect for just how difficult the ‘system’ of a legacy media company can be to navigate.

Developers have a concept of the ‘tech stack’ to describe the collection of software and subsystems required for a project. A typical example is ‘LAMP’ representing Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP in a common combination of operating system, web server, database and application/template software for a web site. Each component is dependent on the other and works together as a single system.

In product development, we also attempt to design coherent systems. But unlike a standard software stack, product solutions are emergent properties that reflect the desires, needs and constraints of a wide range of constituencies including humans, machines, cost and time.

  1. Reader Need (desirability)
  2. Business Need (viability)
  3. Visual Design (on brand and articulate)
  4. User Experience (function, usability)
  5. Development Effort (feasibility)
  6. Systems Integration (between disparate services and tools)
  7. Workflow (process for creating & publishing)
  8. Culture (shared assumptions that govern behavior)

Note that some of those layers (desirability, feasibility and viability) are typical human-centered design concepts. The others represent the people and processes necessary to actually bring a product to life including designers, developers and journalists.  To succeed, any product must ‘pass the test’ of at least minimally satisfying the requirements for each of the eight layers in that stack. And, because the stack crosses multiple organizational boundaries, creative and strategic conflicts will typically abound.

And more to the point, each layer in the stack is entirely capable of vetoing a product decision considered ‘solved’ in any or all of the layers above it. So, solving for seven is still a failing grade.

For instance, readers would undoubtedly prefer (level 1. Reader Need/desirability) a news site with no ads. But that would violate the need for revenues (level 2. Business Need/viability.)

And the further apart the levels the more complex the negotiations and solution will be.

Imagine a preferred design that dictated the use of triangular photos on the homepage. We could undoubtedly build the template and create a script to automatically crop images and avoid manual effort. But triangular photos are such a radical departure from accepted journalism norms the newsroom would likely reject the idea. (Possibly rightfully so.) So, all of the work to develop a product solution that worked from levels 3 to 7 would have been wasted, because we failed to solve for culture (level 8.)

So why have newspapers struggled with digital?

  1. Our guide star is often an internal business need, not an external customer need.
  2. We have failed to modernize many of our backend systems (starting with the CMS) causing many product strategies to fail at that level.
  3. In the name of expedience we launch features and products that do not meet the minimum requirements of all eight levels of the product stack.
  4. Our organizations are often siloed in a way that can return ‘false positives’ in the product stack test due to the inaccessibility of data.
  5. We have not explicitly enough discussed the complexity of the full product solution stack, so we have under-estimated the difficulty involved.
  6. We have failed to invest in the product and development resources that could help identify and resolve these issues.

When we solve those issues and are building products that ‘pass the test’ then we can go back to arguing about the ‘original sin‘ of digital journalism. Until then, we are still learning how to do digital media and are not ready to write the post mortem. Time is short, but the solutions are at hand if we take advantage.


That’s not how innovation works

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In the New York Times today by Joe Nocera – worth a read:

This Apple, the post-Jobs Apple, has become risk-averse, its innovative capacity reduced to making small tweaks on products it has already brought to market. Though its leadership still talks a good game, it has so far been unable to deliver on the kind of knock-your-socks-off products for which Apple was once famous.

Just to review the timing here:

  • iPod – 2001
  • iPhone – 2007
  • iPad – 2010

So it has been four whole years since they released a product that revolutionized an entire industry. That is less than the span between the iPad and the iPhone (6 years), but more than the iPhone and the iPad (3 years.)

Fair enough then, we should be expecting something more soon. Unless the magic was lost with Steve Jobs as Nocera insists.

But expecting the next big thing to be a mobile device misses the point. Sure, Apple could and probably is moving into wearables. Maybe their next big announcement changes everything about t-shirts or sneakers or whatever.

Or, maybe they continue to build their iTunes ecosystem by disrupting the TV industry as they did with music. (Would that even count as ‘disruptive?’ It is really an evolutionary innovation that is more about lawyers than tech.)

Or, maybe with iBeacons and 600 million iTunes credit cards on file they are about to blow up the world of retail transactions and tie together digital and physical commerce.

They certainly hope to, and that certainly would be disruptive. And the key to disruption is that it reframes the debate in ways people don’t see coming. Like people who thought the iPhone was a fancy iPod that could make phone calls and would be a dud:

An iPod is a divergence device; an iPhone is a convergence device. There’s a big difference between the two. In the high-tech world, divergence devices have been spectacular successes. But convergence devices, for the most part, have been spectacular failures.

Listening about product management

Everyone has a list of books worth recommending to someone new to your profession. For instance, this collection I posted on Amazon last month.

But what about a recommended playlist? For product management.

Sounds unlikely, but I am thinking of podcasts not Top 40 hits. (Though You Can’t Always Get What You Want would make a great theme song.)

If you have even a passing familiarity with Public Radio or podcasts these are probably all familiar titles.

This American Life has been my favorite podcast for years. But how does it inform product development? Easy one. The show features fantastic storytelling and journalism, and after more than 500 episodes has plenty to say about projects and innovation. A few of my favorites on failure and innovations are below. Also note, the episodes require payment to download to your phone but can be streamed for free. Another interesting example for product managers.

RadioLab is in its 11th season, and should be required listening for product managers. The show focuses heavily on science, psychology, cognition and related topics. Go listen to Games right now – especially the second segment The Rules Can Set You Free.

Freakonomics is the radio version of the two books. And as the name implies it takes a non-traditional approach to economics. From the deadweight loss of gift giving to the negative externalities of home burgular alarms – it is a great show to help you think a bit differently.

99 Percent Invisible I saved for last because it is so good. The show, all about The Designed World, has been around for about 3 years and is just short of 90 episodes to date. I have only listened to the first 50 – 60 so far, so may be missing some good more recent examples. Topics hopscotch from toothbrush design, the implementation of sociotechnical principles in hospital operations to the use of smart technology to improve downtown parking. The episodes are short, so download a dozen and start listening.




A link too far?

So, it is going to be a spectacle, especially during a slow news week, when one media company sues another for hyperlinking:
Gatehouse sues NYT Co. over local Websites (
Gatehouse Media sues New York Times Co. over copyright issues (

(For ongoing analysis Dan Kennedy at Northeastern University is tracking the case at Media Nation – he has posted the complaint here)

They say all politics are local, and even on the Web, most business is as well. So in this case there may be a disconnect between the open ideals of the Internet and the cold reality of Website publishers trying to compete with giants such as To put it another way – it is easy to be high minded about such things until it is your ox being gored.

The ‘what are they thinking’ perspective is ably represented by Jeff Jarvis and Mark Potts:
When did Gatehouse become clueless

The other side of the story (What they ARE thinking) is so far represented only by the GateHouse complaint.

As someone who competes for online readers in the broader Boston market I can understand GateHouse’s concern. But – I think/hope this might be a technological and design problem, not a legal one in the end.

After all, is basically doing what most Websites do – they are aggregating content and linking to original sources. So, it is hard to imagine GateHouse winning outright with this complaint. And, if they did it is hard to imagine the case law thus created would be 100% beneficial to anyone. Let’s all hope they get some mediation and a settlement.

As to the merits, on a first read the trademark dilution complaint appears most on target (to a non-lawyer anyway.) The design of the Newton page seems to imply that – mixed in with Globe stories and blogs – is just another NYT property. A quick fix there might be to simply separate Globe and ‘other’ content into different news lists with different headers. Just make it clear what owns and what they don’t. That is the design solution.

A larger problem (at least for a smaller media property competing in the Boston market) is Google juice. This is where we need a tech solution.

Many small papers have an ongoing complaint that any Web-first breaking news they publish shows up quickly on larger regional Web sites via sharing with AP. The issue is not that AP picks up Web stories, nor that (among others) feeds them to their site. The problem is that Google gives big Web sites preference in their search rankings, regardless of whether or not they are the original source for the content.

This happens on a weekly basis when a murder or natural disaster story hits our Web site.  If we publish at 9:00 a.m. it gets to AP by 9:30 a.m. and before 10:00 a.m. Google News has,, and etc at the top of the search results – while our original and ongoing reporting is in the middle or bottom of the page.

Imagine this same scenario for WickedLocal. If “Your Town” eventually expands to 125 communities who is going to get the search traffic for Newton TAB stories? One would assume will get a high rank – and a potentially lopsided share of those first clicks. To be fair I don’t see a strong indication of this effect yet but check out this search result and you can see the beginning of it. So, if 100 readers click to and 30 click through to the WickedLocal story is that good? And, is that a gain of 30 for GateHouse or a loss of 70?

So – the ‘simple’ tech solution: Newspaper.coms, the Associated Press and Google need to get together and agree on some ground rules. Newspapers would add metadata to links and external feeds indicating a URL for the original source material. AP would transmit this info with their wire stories and Google would respect that metadata when crunching their Google News algorithms. This would allow everyone to link and excerpt to their heart’s content – but it would NOT reward aggregators with improved search engine rankings built on top of someone else’s content. It would basically be a sort of reverse ‘nofollow’ tag for news stories – that gives credit where due.

AP already has a partnership with Google that is aimed at reducing duplicate wire stories in the index – would it really be too difficult to make this same concept serve individual newspapers? Technologically probably not, politically who knows?

UPDATE: Some more commentary from the blogosphere:
GateHouse Lawsuit vs. New York Times Co. has Dire Implications
A Danger to Journalism
GateHouse: O hai, internetz — we r fail

Gatehouse sues NYTCo over aggregation: But do they have a point?

Globe vs. Gatehouse Part I

Peeking inside Pandora’s Box
GateHouse v NY Times Co.: Not So Simple After All

Looking for multimedia judges

The New England Associated Press News Editors Association (NEAPNEA) is holding a multimedia contest and conference this September in Concord, NH.  Region One of the National Press Photographers Association will be helping sponsor the event and will be providing a speaker or two.

So – I am looking for a photo department or similar group of people to do some multimedia judging for the contest. Obviously – being located outside of New England is a requirement.

There are only about two dozen entries – which can be accessed via URLs. The judging and some brief comments on the winners would need to be done by the end of August.

Let me know by email or comment below if you have interest.