Send ‘HAPPY’ to 12345

Last weekend I saw an ad on the train about getting free mental health advice via SMS. All I needed to do was to send ‘TIPS’ to a shortcode.  I decided to sign up for two reasons:

1 I am quite a typical A-type neurotic millennial living in the big city. Stressed out is my default.

2 I am interested in mhealth (mobile health) and I was curious about the service itself.

So I texted TIPS.

And then nothing. Nothing happened. I checked my phone 4-5 times within the following hour ( I’m disillusioned about my phone habits, it was probably closer to 20 times). I didn’t get any confirmation that I had signed up. This was Saturday.

Monday morning I receive this text message. In the meantime I had completely forgotten about the whole thing.

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I end up getting a text message every day..

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until Friday I get this one.

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And I’m like…

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This was all a fundraising trick. I thought they were out to help me but instead they sneakily acquired my number, gained my trust but all they wanted was my money!

Don’t get me wrong, giving to charity gets a big thumbs up from me. However, I want to be part of the process. I don’t want to conveniently get something for free and then I am suddenly asked to give money. It’s comparable to the cards, coasters and pens I get from charities before Christmas. They send me free stuff I never asked for and then ask me to donate. Two things happen then:

  • I don’t want to donate anything because I feel blackmailed
  • I feel guilty for not giving and for the waste of stuff on me, but I cannot give into blackmail and now all I remember is that charity making me feel guilty!

When I got the final SMS, I felt tricked and foolish for believing that the service was there to help me.

Overall, I learned two key lessons:

  •  Feedback is not optional. It is essential to any service operating in this day and age, especially in relation to technology. How often do you pay attention to the ticks (Screen Shot 2016-12-04 at 08.33.21.png) on your messenger app ? This kind of feedback makes me feel satisfied and in control.
  • Don’t make an mhealth intervention a gimmick. I seriously believed that these text messages were going to make me feel better. They didn’t really and by Friday I understood why. They were sent by the Marketing department. There is a place for such interventions and when there are real people with real expectations on the other side, it’s dangerous to put it out without a comprehensive plan behind it.

Anyway, at least it encouraged me try my own little mood booster service. More on that later!

On the female PM debate

I read Marty Cagan’s article on why women make the best Product Managers with utmost interest. I agree that to some extent the qualities society rewards in women are beneficial to the role of Product Manager — such as emotional intelligence and humility. On the other hand, qualities associated with masculinity may be not be as beneficial. However I have a separate argument as to why he found such outstanding female PMs — that of ‘natural selection’.

The female PMs Marty has met are in fact better than average because they have had to face more adversity than their male counterparts. And in that sense, I think this argument also applies to PMs of ethnic minorities.

Structural barriers against under-represented minorities and women mean that they get promoted and hired less in an industry dominated by white men. It means that non-white and non-male PMs will probably have to compensate , by being extra-persuasive, extra-knowledgeable and extra-skilled than her male white counterparts.

It relates to the stories told by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘David and Goliath’, where major disadvantages force underdogs to find workarounds and get better at specific aspects so that they not only make it but exceed all expectations. The adversity experienced by non-white non-male PMs means that they have had to work harder and better than their white male counterparts. They have been naturally selected for being tenacious, experts at leading with influence and always ready to do the legwork — all skills hugely important to the role of Product Manager.

What I meant to do differently after MTPcon

The day after MTPcon I wrote down a list of things I want to do or do differently after hearing all these inspirational presentations. However, it’s been three weeks and I have done exactly none of them.

Here is my list:

1 Regroup with the members of my team individually to understand whether the way we work gives them sufficient psychological safety and try to understand if there is anything we should do differently as a team.

2 Think about the story of my product. Donna Lichaw’s presentation was really interesting but I struggle to see what the story of my product is. Need to book in some time to think it through.

3 Read — from the many book recommendations, start with Thunder Below and work my way down the list shared by Simon Cross.

4 Create an internal equanimity check: when there is a crisis, people at work tend to dramatise —often to highlight the importance of said crisis. But even if I try not to get caught up in that, I feel I need a better technique to calmly reflect on the situation.

5 Make sure to formalise convergent and divergent thinking during team meetings.

6 Never cover up my mistakes and make sure to explicitly own up to them.

7 Schedule a call with a customer.

8 Review our international distribution and engagement rates and see if we could improve the product by tailoring it for specific audiences.

9 Celebrate success with my remote team.

Here are the excuses I came up with for not doing anything about them:

  • I‘m too busy
  • The team is remote and it will never work

Clearly I had plenty of good intentions but my original resolutions were too vague and there were too many. So what I’m going to do now is to focus on the top three things I think are most important and make sure I implement them and also make them more concrete so I can actually do them:

  • Buy Thunder Below online and add it to my reading shelf
  • Book a call with each of my team to just get a feel of how they see our team work, whether they need anything and whether we could improve our collaboration processes.
  • Write my PM manifesto. This is something I heard on the Happier podcast. Gretchen and Liz recommend to write a manifesto to distill the principles you want to live by — this can be for your job, for your relationship, for your family or just for yourself.

So let’s get cracking.

How to pretend to be a great Product Manager

Step 1: Show that you understand and know everything tech-related

Repeat the techie words your developers use with an air of superiority to show that you know what they mean, especially if you have no clue. Maybe start a conversation about the advantages and drawbacks of different programming languages. Explain how you’re currently dabbling in Python, JavaScript and Ruby. And make sure you know how to say C#.

Step 2: Show that you know about design

Whenever a designer comes to you with a prototype or a concept, make sure you disagree with something on the design. If you don’t have an obvious comment to make, tell them the interface is too cluttered or too simplistic (whichever applies). In doubt, you can always tell them to change the colour of the buttons. Explain confidently that with your colour, conversion rates will be much higher. If they disagree, challenge them to an A/B test (and then don’t actually give them the opportunity to do it by shortening the release deadline — you need to maintain your authority).

Step 3: Show that you know everything about the user’s needs

When deciding on future stories, make sure you start all of your opinions with a reference to the users or the customers. Refer back to an imaginary conversation you’ve had with a high-paying customer that confirms how this feature will really address their use case. Your ideas will prove themselves useful once they are released. Have faith.

Step 4: Be the deadline master

Always promise a release about 2 weeks before what your developers are actually telling you is doable. Then shout at the developers to work faster and tell QA to only do minimal regression testing. It’ll show your authority.

If they argue that your expectations are unreasonable, tell them they’re just not agile enough and that they need to concentrate on what’s important. Maybe quote the Pareto principle.

Step 5: Show you’re well read

Make sure to decorate your desk with a Steve Blank and an Eric Riess book. Don’t worry about reading them, you’re probably already doing what they are advising.

Make sure to repost inspirational quotes and blog posts about product management on social media. Have a TechCrunch sticker on your laptop. It’s important.

In all seriousness though…

This is a rather grotesque satire of mistakes that I have made on occasion, and I recognise that it is very easy to fall into these traps, as they are a lot more subtle in real life. For me, the best thing to counter these kind of reactions is to never to get comfortable in your own routine. I find that reading about product management and speaking with fellow PMs, in particular my colleagues, helps me an enormous deal to regularly reflect on my processes and methods.

Here are my favourite sources for thoughts and experiences on product management:

I can’t wait for this week’s #MTPcon in London!

Work vs. family – how do men do it?

Today I was at a women and tech event. This isn’t the first one I’ve been to and I noticed that some of the usual questions came up. Questions about how to give young girls role models in tech, how to bring opportunities to primary and secondary schools, about what ‘in tech’ really means, until we eventually got to the question about balancing work and family life. The three women on the panel gave the usual kind of answers about improving support in the workplace, dealing with guilt, understanding it was ok to take some time out and so on. The two men on the panel stayed silent. I cheekily posted the following tweet, which was then picked up by the moderator.

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At first I was a bit embarrassed as my tweet was not a real question, rather a funny remark to highlight the fact that we rarely expect men to answer that question. Yet, the moderator decided to ask my question in the most sincere and matter-of-fact way that took the two men quite aback. Both their answers clearly showed they had never really thought about that question, let alone been asked it in public. They acknowledged that they didn’t do a great job in terms of their family life and got to the conclusion that society gave men leeway to be bad at balancing family and work life, by judging them less harshly.

It was quite eye opening, both for me and, I believe, the two men. In my opinion, asking women that work/life balance question tends to exacerbate the problem rather than solve it. Whenever I hear it, it makes me question of how I will be able to have a career and a family, how I will manage when my partner will be working, when the best moment for me to have kids is – even though it’s a conversation for me and my partner.

Many of these gender debates are too focused on highlighting the problems and not the solutions. There is a negative bias towards what doesn’t work, while we could try and learn from where and when it works – and constructing a dialogue together with men, rather than question of why we still can’t have it all.

Why NGOs never fail

Ask any NGO workers about failures in their organisation, it’s likely they are going to struggle to come up with an answer. Especially if they are business development people, they probably won’t tell you about a failure. However, many NGOs fail, and often. But the way the system is constructed doesn’t allow for the concept of failure. No, NGOs don’t fail, they learn lessons.

Don’t mention the F-word

Most NGOs depend on funding from their donors. Whether it comes from big international organisations or individuals, NGOs must show that they are doing ‘good things’ with the money they have been given. But there is something really nice about the phrase ‘good things’ – it’s incredibly vague. So are often the commitments of NGOs. If you say that you commit to build the capacity of 200 women in business skills; that sounds like a real thing. Yet often it’ll be measured in the number of people attending a course – rarely in measuring the actual capacities of the women – and even when they measure it, academic rigour isn’t always the norm.

When you depend on showing results to keep your business going, but results are really difficult and therefore really expensive to get, making your results vague is a good way to continue getting funding for the work you believe is doing good.

If you are being vague as to what you want to achieve, chances are you’ll be able to write a positive report regardless of what happened. If your vague results really aren’t great, then you are going to do what the NGO sector loves: you’re going to learn lessons. But make sure they are lessons you have overcome or are in the process of overcoming.

The increasing pressure – both financial and political – on NGOs means that they are cutting corners. Don’t get me wrong, they are still pursuing their good work –  this is in no form a critique as to what NGOs are doing (that’s for another time!). This is simply a critique of the reporting and accountability mechanisms.

If an NGO fails in a project – e.g. doesn’t meet its expected target – they will be worried about getting further funding. To ensure that more funding is secured, they won’t frame it as a failure. They will instead explain the reasons they didn’t achieve what they wanted and explain how they adapted their programme or will change further programmes. And it’s true. Military coups happen, floods happen, ebola outbreaks happen (these are all real examples).

However, a lot of the time, the reason why NGOs don’t meet their targets is because they set unreasonable goals. More and more NGOs compete so they have to overpromise to get a grant – and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission to reduce your targets. Forgiveness is also a lot easier to ask for when you’re learning lessons from your mistakes.

Why failure can be a good thing (even if society is saying it can’t)

The start-up sector is all about ‘failure’ – if you haven’t failed once, can you really call yourself an ‘entrepreneur’? Of course you can, but the start-up sector is well known for learning from its mistakes. Quick product development cycles means quick shipping, means quick failing means quick re-building – all very lean.

For people outside the sector may have difficulty understanding the value of failure, because it’s engrained in our society that failure is bad –

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I can tell which Mum I’d prefer…

I think we need to revisit the whole structure of the NGO sector. Accept that failure is ok – but constant mediocrity is not. I don’t think that investing more in evaluation is necessarily the solution, because it only means that for every million you spend on a project, you pay a million and a half on an academic study. I may be exaggerating here, as I don’t have the exact figures. However, what is key is that it’s not simply a question of evidence – it’s about how donors allocate money, how NGOs work together and how much duplication could be avoided if the NGO sector wasn’t a political competition for resources but rather a concerted effort for creating good in the world.

Why UX design matters in ICT4D interventions

UX design

Joe Dollar-Smirnov, UX Trainer at General Assembly, defines user experience (UX) design as the act of designing an intuitive and rewarding product or service around the needs of the end user. When working on products at OneWorld, I keep two objectives in mind: When interacting with the technology, the user needs have a successful and a positive experience.

To fulfil the first objective of creating a ‘successful experience’ is a pretty straightforward element of ICT4D interventions. Each ICT4D intervention has (or should have) a clear objective as to what the technology is supposed to achieve. This can be providing information on crop prices for farmers or giving community health workers access to their patients’ health records. It is key to the ICT4D intervention that the user experience of the technology is successful, as this will mean that the intervention is reaching its objective.

It is however also important to create a positive experience, because it means that the chances that the user will come back and recommend the product to their friends, family and neighbours are much greater. Bad first user experience will put users off. In the case of data collection interventions, this may also lead to incorrect or incomplete data.

Additionally, it is important to work closely with your users, because you aren’t creating a product you would use yourself – at least in most cases. When you are designing for users who have a different relationship with technology, you need to spend considerable amounts of time testing and retesting. Else, you can easily fall into the trap of creating a product for the elites, who are more technologically-able and therefore more adaptable to new technology. Spending time and effort on user experience design will make sure that your product fits with your target audience.

A successful and positive user experience means that your product is more likely to have a larger reach, engage people and be meaningful, and is not a token product that ticks the ICT box.

If it is so important, why aren’t we talking about UX design in ICT4D interventions?

It is quite easy to convince engineering and management teams to create successful user experiences, since it’s essential to the objective of the product. But what about tweaking and adapting your product through series of user testing to create a positive user experience that leaves the user with a good feeling that means she’s likely to come back and recommend the product?

The eternal iceberg of development interventions – funding models – is a major obstacle in this case as well. With restricted funding and often-unrealistic expectations from funders as to how much time it takes to fine-tune a technology product, bug fixing and actually making the technology achieve its primary objective overrides any attempt to create positive experiences. While funders are easily impressed by products that fulfill their objective, they fail to see the importance of really good UX design in order to create meaningful products, that are constantly improved.

I really don’t want to name and shame some of the products I’ve seen out there, because I know a lot of hard work has gone into them and there are probably people at these organisations frustrated just as I am that they weren’t able to spend more time to improve these products. But if I see one more mobile data collection form with 20 drop-downs, I may change my mind.

I believe it is important that we talk about user experience in ICT4D projects and that we should build a community of practitioners who care about good UX and share the learnings from the for-profit technology sector with development practitioners. We need to increase the amount of training on UX design available to project and field staff, and put pressure on funders to allow us to improve products.

What about the men?

ICT interventions to prevent violence against women more often than not work with… women

In the last decade Information and Communication Technology (ICT) went from being a buzzword to representing an essential tick-box in the development community as more and more donors and NGO professionals see opportunities in ICT to add value to their existing projects, to ‘conquer the last mile’ and to scale up projects faster than ever before. Projects addressing violence against women (VAW) are no exception. There is indeed a plethora of ICT solutions that aim to fight VAW. A recent post by Hera Hussain on ICTWorks talks about some of the missed opportunities to address violence against women and also about some of the projects that are addressing VAW. Her article however highlighted to me an essential problem: too many of these projects target women.

I understand that women need to be informed of their rights, because they need to know that violence – in the household and elsewhere – is always unacceptable and that there is legal and social help available.

In the same way, creating better ways of notifying support services or the police can be helpful for survivors of violence against women.

Finally, gathering data on VAW helps to inform policy decisions and to increase awareness.

But all this will not change the fact that there are people perpetrating violence against women – many of them men. Yet most projects that are involving men to reduce levels of violence against women remain at the community-level. They often come in the form of training, workshops and peer education. They also require a long-term commitment.

While ICT is not the magic bullet some make it out to be, I think that the one missed opportunity in addressing VAW using ICT is the fact that men are not involved enough as part of these interventions. I find it a shame because it’s been widely acknowledged that we can’t address VAW without men on our side – whether that is for addressing rape culture on university campuses or intimate partner violence in the household.

One of the few examples I heard about was from GoJoven Belize at the YTH Live conference last April in San Francisco. They partnered with the Center for Digital Storytelling for a project called ‘Youth Leaders Speak‘, where young people are trained to create their own videos on a variety of issues linked to adolescent sexual health and rights. The presenter worked with a particular group that reflected on male values and masculinities in the community to create their own videos, which they then showed to their community to start a dialogue.

I would love to hear about more ICT projects addressing VAW prevention that also involve men! Are there maybe:

-> eLearning modules for groups of men and boys to learn about concepts of masculinities and VAW?

-> eLearning modules for parents to rethink the values they are passing down?

-> support groups and call-in numbers for men who display aggressive behaviour?

-> SMS advocacy campaigns to raise awareness about values, gender roles and culture?

If you know of any projects, I would love to hear about them!

Dot.Everyone

I just watched Martha Lane-Fox’ Dimbleby Lecture – a bit late I know. I first downloaded it not really knowing whether I’ll watch beyond two or three minutes. However, I quickly found myself deeply enthused by this woman who brings such positive energy and radiance to a room. Her enthusiasm for digital and for her project “dot.everyone“ was palpable from the minute she started, and I needed to watch it all.

MLF is everything I look for in a role model, she is a strong beautiful woman in technology – someone with a passion and someone with the backbone to actually implement her ideas.

I was inspired by her story. Her passion for digital started when she was 25, about my age, with her first big venture: lastminute.com. And it certainly didn’t end there. She goes on to talk about her latest big idea “dot.everyone”, an innovative public institution she imagines will propel the UK to the forefront of the digital age and address the major problems we face in the digital industry and to some extent in society.

She outlines three major issues this institution should tackle:

– how do we improve the understanding of the Internet at all levels of society

– how do we get more women involved in technology

– how do we tackle the genuinely new ethical and moral issues that the internet has created

I commend her idea and I do think it has great merit, yet I see it as somewhat paradoxical and she actually points to it in the lecture.

MLF talks about how Tim Berners-Lee “crucially […] decided not to patent his invention [the world wide web]. He made it free for everyone. The world owes him a debt for that supreme act of generosity and long-sightedness.” For her, like for many others, the fact that the Internet was made a common good very early on was a tremendous blessing. Indeed she refers to the “the original promises of the internet: openness, transparency, freedom, universality”.

Yet, Lane-Fox is saying we should make them a national asset. Even more, she is dreaming about how her idea could “make us the most digitally successful country on the planet and give us real edge”.

I believe that her strategy of making the UK better than others at digital represents an out-dated way of thinking – a way of thinking that still roams the halls of Westminster . It is stuck in the box of the nation state – and is definitely not prepare to think outside it. It chants ‘We as a country want to be better, we want to be the best!’

When you talk about the internet, you cannot reason like that anymore. Borders are not the same as they were last time “we became the powerhouse of the world“. The internet isn’t about seeing one country become better than others, it’s about the world as a whole improving and advancing. This time we have the chance to build a worldwide project. Yet MLF is talking about dot.everyone.UK not dot.everyone.

I forgive her, she is speaking to an audience that may not be ready for my concept of ‘dot.everyone’.

+ SocialGood UK: Adjusting to the rise of the millennial

On Friday 27th March the UK’s digital media enthusiasts came together for +SocialGood UK, a conference on how digital media and technology can be used for social good. The set of panels and conversations focussed on how this can occur both in the UK and around the World.

The topic of +Socialgood is very broad and good on the organisers (Mashable, the United Nations Foundations and BT) for getting speakers on a wide variety of topics and aspects of social good creation. Sadly too little time was available for questions – luckily we have the Internet and #2030NOW to keep us connected!

I won’t do a full recap of what was being discussed. Here are just a few overarching thoughts the discussions and presentations provoked in me.

At the heart of +SocialGood UK were millennials, how organisations, companies and political powers will eventually adapt to their needs and demands and how this process will to a large extent be underpinned by the importance of authenticity.

Millennials are shaping how the Internet is being used, especially through their, sometimes excessive, use of social media. For example, Joanna Geary from Twitter talked about the research they had done into elected politicians’ use of Twitter, which showed that nearly 80% of them are actually on the social network. However, if politicians are on a network that doesn’t mean they are also using it well – similar to the CEO of a company who decides they should ‘do twitter’ without thinking much about how to engage with the twitter crowd – many of them millennials.

Rosie Warin from Global Tolerance presented some of their research on what they call the “values revolution” looking at how many people care more about the fact that their job is meaningful than their salary – 44%. As much as 36% said that they would work harder if their company benefitted society. Even though these statistics say more about how people would like to see themselves rather than how many people have actually chosen meaning over salary, the interesting part of this research is that for millennials the stats are higher, 50% and 53% respectively. A sign of the ‘values revolution’. In the coming years, companies will have to pay more attention as to how they are giving back to society. It will be more than simple ‘philanthropic box-ticking’ – it will be about being an authentic organisation for which social good is weaved into the organisational structure.

The same applies to products. The ethical dimension of a product has become an important factor in customer decision-making. Global Tolerance found that 31% of people would pay more for ethically sources products, this number goes up to 38% amongst millennials, even though their age may also mean that they have lower purchasing power. With the rise of the millennial, we can expect a further increase in the shift towards ethically sourced products we are already experiencing. On that note, there is an interesting video by philosopher Slavoj Zizek*, who talks about the feel-good effect of ethical sourcing and the capitalist system. I think the video makes it clear that being satisfied with the value revolution isn’t enough, especially when it’s unclear whether it is actually changing the way our products are produced or whether it is reinforcing an existing capitalist system.

When it comes to the needs of the younger generation, BT CEO Gavin Patterson gave quite an interesting keynote speech launching the extension of BT’s initiative to teach primary school students coding skills. Knowing little about the subject, I was under the impression that “young kids these days grow up speaking HTML and Python as second languages, rather than French and German”. Patterson emphasised how young people are tech consumers –but they aren’t all tech literate. You can’t deny that coding is hugely encouraged in the UK compared to other countries. The UK government has been a firm advocate of increasing tech literacy amongst young people. This however does not mean that enough is being done – a number of teachers don’t have the skills to teach tech literacy and not all students have access to classes that really help them understand and engage with the technology.

Belinda Parmar from Lady Geek also made the critical point of the digital divide between genders. A particular quote of hers was from a girl student in a secondary school who stated she would rather pick up rubbish for a job than work in technology. Although I feel that statement doesn’t give credit to the men and women working in rubbish collection – it also shows that technology still isn’t cool amongst young girls – despite the efforts the fashion industry has put into the ‘geek chic’. This is a problem. 17% of UK tech jobs are held by women and a mere 23% of degrees in engineering, manufacturing and construction were awarded to women between 2000 and 2011. So it’s great to see organisations like Belinda’s trying to polish the image of tech and working in tech for young girls and to women. It has to be noted however, that the women probably outweighed the men in the audience at +SocialGood UK.

All in all, +SocialGood UK was an interesting eclectic day – I definitely didn’t touch upon all the points that were discussed – but you can find out more about the #2030NOW conversation here and on Twitter.

* Special thanks to Chris for introducing me to Zizek!