Shipping Greatness: Practical lessons on building and launching outstanding software, learned on the job at Google and Amazon

★★★☆☆

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Highlights

In some cases, you need to balance the information you want to present with a call to action. The classic example is Amazon’s product detail page. There’s a tremendous amount of information on Amazon’s pages, and the great beauty of them is that nearly every element is measured and sorted by how much money it makes. It is hard to measure the direct impact of some features, like customer reviews, and as a result, those features are at the bottom of the page! Other features are measured easily, such as the “What other items do customers buy after viewing this item,” which is featured near the top of the product detail page.
Engineering managers are frequently coders grown older. The best “eng managers” are those who have been promoted into the role because they love their teams, understand people, know how to ship, and want to build brilliant products. The worst are those frustrated engineers who only wanted more control and more money. You know who you are. Cut it out.
Despite all these warnings, if you’re doing a demo at a live event, no amount of backup is sufficient. You must have screenshots or video for every part of your demo, because you can never fully predict what will go wrong. The launch of GoogleTV was riddled with technical problems and was painful to watch. In contrast, Apple’s launch of the iPad 2 had similar problems but cut away to screenshots while the team forcibly disabled all WiFi access for attendees to the event, thereby remedying the problem. You want to be as prepared as Apple was, not as prepared as Google was.
Within Amazon, people use the word “crisp” a lot to define what a clear and succinct message is.
And if you think anyone can send good email, think again. Kim Rachmeler, the first program manager Amazon hired and former Amazon VP, once singled out a program manager to her team saying, “Her emails were the very embodiment of crispness.” This was high praise from one of Amazon’s greats. Amazon now requires all people-manager candidates to submit a writing sample as part of the interview process. It’s that important.
In Jeff’s case, he brings a completely fresh perspective to your product because he’s never seen it before and has no idea what he’s supposed to do, so he breaks it. The best thing you can do in Jeff’s case is to try to think like Jeff. Put on your giant-alien-brain mask, get some coffee, clear your browser cache, reformat your hard drive, and try to forget everything you ever knew about your product. Then use it.
If you feel a little dubious about this logic, it’s OK—you and your UXR’s assessment of individual participants in studies is critical, since participant selection can introduce a high degree of bias into studies. In our Seattle-based studies, for example, everyone is jittery and sad, on account of the coffee and rain. We correct for that.
When I was at Amazon, Jeff was a well-established details guy who was also very smart. If you wanted to build something substantially new, Jeff had to approve it. I only pitched a couple times to Jeff and I’m sure I was quickly forgotten, but I do know that I never got past my first couple of slides. Jeff jumped right ahead, trying to get to the meat of the conversation.
Discoverability speaks to the ability of a user to find the call to action, such as “Add to Cart.” If your users have a hard time discovering the “Add to Cart” button, your career will be short-lived. Similarly, what if the “Add to Cart” button is actually a plus sign in a button and you were at the helm? That design fails the understandability test, so you’re probably fired.
Jeff Bezos and company pioneered the “write the press release first” approach at Amazon. The concept is that you have one page in which to make the marketing announcement. A great press release or blog post communicates critical information that succinctly describes the product. The benefit of starting with a press release instead of the FAQ or one-pager is that it is inherently brief, readable, and focused on what the real product will mean to real users.
At Amazon, I had a group of trusted Customer Reviews writers who could give us great feedback. I gave them my direct email address—they frequently found production issues faster than my engineering team. They also didn’t hesitate to email Jeff Bezos, and when they did, I got Jeff Mail. When you’re a team lead and you get Jeff Mail, you drop everything and address it!
The best leaders at Amazon and Google have a lot to teach. Remember, this business is new, so the techniques, processes, and tricks you need to ship software weren’t developed until after Windows became dominant. Microsoft’s old approach to shipping software came out of large-scale hard-goods engineering processes. The Internet made three-year development cycles, shrink-wrapped floppy disk distribution, and Microsoft’s old way obsolete.
It’s a given in the software industry that anyone you’d want to work with could easily work somewhere else. Therefore, it’s critical to bring your team along in the decision-making process and enable them to own the product with you.
For example, should we allow users to continue to post with pseudonyms or not? Ultimately, the way that I resolved this debate was by bringing the idea to a group of our top reviewers, under an NDA (nondisclosure agreement). They reacted strongly and negatively; one customer sent a flaming email directly to Jeff Bezos himself. Jeff is great about responding to customer mail, and that customer missive drove a rapid change in our approach, allowing users to have real names, pseudonyms, or a combination of both. It’s clear to me that without that customer feedback, we would have had a painful product launch on our hands. That’s not to say that the launch was smooth—it wasn’t—but at least we avoided the even bigger crisis that would have ensued had we required everyone to have a credit-card-verified Real Name.
If the product is deeply flawed, you’ll find that it’s really hard to get the engineering team onboard. Do you think you can sell the product to customers if you can’t sell it to your engineering team? Engineers are a special bunch, all pajama-clad and dismissive of patents, but that doesn’t mean they are not savvy consumers.
At Amazon it’s critical to have a one-pager because that’s how the business operates—the senior vice presidents (SVPs, a.k.a. the “S-Team”) all sit around a table and read your document quietly and then when they’re all done, they discuss it. This is a strange dynamic to experience; it’s kind of like sitting in an SAT where everyone wants to be the first to put his or her pencil down. For better or worse, it’s how Amazon’s SVPs have worked for years now.
This is why I apply the High School Embarrassment Test (HSET™) to any product I want to ship. The HSET works because high school did deep psychological damage to most of us and left behind hormone-based scars that industries like Hollywood have mined to great effect. You can leverage these scars as well. All you need to do is ask yourself: am I sure I won’t be embarrassed when an old high school friend sees my product? That’s all there is to the HSET.
So first, before you pitch to the one-percenters, make sure you know everything on the periphery of your product. This is a lost cause, but it’s still a good idea. There will always be something you forgot or didn’t know about because it happened yesterday when you were massaging your slideware. Accept your failure now—it’ll be OK and it’s no reflection on your own superintelligent status. When you don’t know the answer, you are much better off saying, “I don’t know; I’ll find out and come back,” than pretending you know. Remember, these are hyperintelligent billionaires—they can smell a lie like a fart in a car. Trying to talk your way out of such a failure will just prove to them that you are a ding-dong who doesn’t understand how smart they are.
Nearly every feature or user experience debate ends up as some form of hostage negotiation. You have their baby, or they have yours, and unless someone’s way is gotten…the baby gets it.