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Don’t Fool Yourself …, Or Why Evaluation Is Important

7 Apr

In 2006, when I was attending Stanford University School of Education for my master’s degree, we were working on our master’s project. One of our professors, who is an expert on evaluation, came to our class to discuss evaluation of our projects. He started by saying:

“Don’t fool yourself into believing that you are developing a great product.”

It was a shocker for us as we all completely believed that we were indeed on our way to developing great products. My project was intended to make it easy for school children to view 3D animations on 3D monitors on concepts that were difficult to visualize in 2D, for example, the rotations and revolutions of planets and the atomic structure of molecules. It was the greatest idea of all time. Why did I need to conduct an evaluation for such a simple, yet powerful concept?

We learned a lot that day, especially not overestimating the usefulness and effectiveness of our ideas. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to evaluate our projects so we completed our program and set out, starry-eyed. to change the world.

However, people in real world who develop products and services don’t always care about the users of those products and services. They come up with innovative ideas (or so they think), and start working on the ideas with the premise that they are developing great products. Case in point: Windows 8, iTunes Ping, Google Plus. They ask the users what they think about those ideas, and, thanks to confirmation bias, come back with user feedback that confirm the greatness of their ideas.

They fool themselves into believing that they are developing a great product. They don’t want to look at the analytics because that would disprove their hypothesis. And I have been as guilty of this crime as anyone else.

The right way: Startup companies

Startup companies too start with the premise that they are working on the world’s greatest idea. And they are right. If they don’t think that way, they wouldn’t risk everything to work on that idea. They spend years developing, launching, evaluating, and iterating on their idea. Their best friend? Usage analytics, which gives them insights into how many people are using their products, where, and when. How many people are visiting what parts of the product more? What macro-level trends are visible? Does making a minor change in a color shade increase or decrease the usage of a page or a field?

More than 90% of startup companies die within two years of launching because of several reasons. But they all know how useful and effective their products are (or not) thanks to analytics data. Analytics do not always save an idea but they help fail early, fail fast, fail often, and help people learn and move on. They can fool themselves but not for long. And that’s why evaluation is critical to developing great products.

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There’s Something About Print Books

7 Mar

In the middle of the fifteen century, the fist major book – Gutenberg Bible – was printed. With the advent of the printing presses, an advancement in printing technologies and chemicals, and the dawn of the industrial revolution, the print books proliferated. Later, some predicted that the Internet was going to kill books, but the number of books published is increasing every year. However, the sale of print books is in decline, mainly because more and more people are reading books on their electronic devices, mostly tablets, e-readers, and smartphones.

Books

The current generation
The current generation, the so called Digital Natives, are considered to be extremely tech-savvy. They are supposed to own all kinds of electronic devices and live their life in a digital world. The printed paper should be anathema to them. We don’t expect them to use printed books.

So what’s the reality? It’s totally different!

I’ve spoken with more than 5o undergraduate students taking business courses in the past few months. The first thing they do when classes start is buy a print book, either a new book, a used book, or a rented one. Many of them are aware of the existence of ebooks, but they all prefer print books. Cost is a factor but not for everyone. I wonder what’s going on?

I asked some students why they prefer print books and got some vague answers. I’ve even asked myself why I prefer print books. I like the touch of the book, I like to display them on my bookshelf, it’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, but I haven’t been able to come up with a better answer. Do we prefer print books because we have used a print book most of our lives? Is it just a habit that’s difficult to break? People break old habits if something compelling enters their lives. Does it mean the current ebooks are not compelling enough?

Some theories
Humans have evolved to be responsive to visual and tactile signals as these traits helped them survive in the wild for thousands of years. Books are tangible things, ebooks are not. Flipping the pages in a physical book is easy and visual/spatial. Research shows that it’s easy to retain information when using a print book versus an ebook. Reading a print book is faster than reading on a screen. Taking notes and highlighting is easier with a print book. There is no battery to charge, no worries of damaging it. The ebooks are mostly a replica of print books.

Some people say that the next generation who are growing up using digital devices since childhood will be more inclined to use ebooks. However, the schools still use mostly paper books and homework though the tests are computer-based and kids use some ebooks and digital learning tools. It might take another 15-20 years before college students use only ebooks.

There must be something about print books.

Related readings
Why Printed Books Will Never Die
E-Reading Rises as Device Ownership Jumps

The Revolution That Wasn’t: Part 2

28 Jan

I recently read some comments about MOOCs.

Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise, Survey Finds: Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and the Sloan Consortium

The findings, released in a report on Wednesday, reveal a growing skepticism among academic leaders about the promise of MOOCs. The report also suggests that conventional, tuition-based online education is still growing, although not as swiftly as in past years.

The article – Top Issues Facing Higher Education In 2014 on Forbes.com, ends with:

You may observe a notable omission from this list: MOOCs. Increasing awareness of their limitations for certain audiences combined with a feeling of “enough already” will make these yesterday’s news in 2014.

The pioneer of MOOCs, Stanford Professor and founder of Udacity, predicted in 2012:

In 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.

Recently, however, he changed his opinion of MOOCs:

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea.”
“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product. (emphasis mine)”

I have taken a few MOOC courses on Udacity, Coursera, Stanford Venture Labs, and NovoEd. I’m enrolled in one or two courses all the time, which I complete at my own pace. I believe it’s a great but overhyped idea, and MOOCs are not a replacement for traditional students and universities.

Meanwhile, I stand by my take on MOOCs two years ago – Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation?

Suggested Readings:

The Search For An Ideal Kids’ Computer

24 Jun

I’d promised my son a laptop on his eighth birthday. He already had a 7″ Kindle Fire and a Dell netbook (small again), and he needed a bigger screen. With so many different types of computers available in the market these days, it’s really hard to make a decision and not regret it later. But I had to, and here’s what I did.

Use cases
The screen size, processor speed, RAM, operating system, touchscreen, keyboard, and all other specifications depend on how the computer was going to be used, so I created some use cases first. It was important to establish who was going to use the computer, what their skill level was, when and where they were going to use it, and so on. Based on my son’s previous usage of his laptop and tablet, I figured out that he needs a tablet 80% of the time to play games, watch YouTube and Netflix, and read some Web sites. It was easier to use a tablet for all these activities. He sometimes used Xtramath.org, which his class teacher required to build addition and subtraction fluency. Xtramath required a keyboard. Looking at the future, he would need a keyboard to write papers and create presentations or might need MS Excel too.

He would use the computer anywhere in the house – on the dining table, study table, or his bed so it needed to be lightweight. 6-10 hours of life between battery charges would be good. He should also be able to take the computer to vacations though using one in the car is not allowed. The computer should be able to withstand a decent amount of shock due to rough handling.

And I’m going to use it too so it should support multiple user accounts.

The decision
Based on all the considerations, I decided that a touchscreen laptop would not be an ideal computer because of the weight and the difficulty of using the touchscreen by extending the arm. So I decided to compare the laptop-tablet “hybrid” computers that Microsoft is trying to promote with Windows 8. My research led me to Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, Samsung Ativ, Dell XPS, and Asus Vivotab. Lenovo had a 360 degrees screen rotation mechanism that put the keyboard at the bottom when used in the tablet mode, which was weird and heavy too. Samsung and Asus came with detachable screen but didn’t come pre-packaged with MS Office, which would put the total cost to about $1250. The benefit was the screen size of 13.3″ but it was just too costly for a kid’s computer.

I wanted a bigger screen but finally bought a Microsoft Surface, which is a tablet with an innovative cover that also works as a keyboard. The good part was that the keyboard ($129) was available for free. Surface cost me $530, less than half the amount of the other options. The only thing I had to compromise on was the small screen size of 11.6″. And it comes pre-packaged with MS Office.

Microsoft Surface

Why not the iPad
Before buying the Surface, I considered the iPad too. It’s a great computer – super fast, elegant, and the app store is full of apps. However, we don’t need a million apps. The iPad doesn’t interact with our Xbox, and the addition of a keyboard is very clunky and un-elegant. Moreover, there are features in Windows 8 that I really like, such as using two apps side-by-side and the handy search and share features.

I understand that I might have made a mistake going with a first-generation device from a software company (they do make Xbox hardware). However, my previous experience switching from an iPhone to a Windows phone has been wonderful, and I hope my experience with the Surface is a similar one.

Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation?

5 Mar

Disruptive innovation as defined by Clayton Christensen:

“Generally, disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream.”

MOOC

Are the MOOCs a disruptive innovation that will, in the coming years, compete with and make the traditional universities obsolete? Some people certainly think so. The cost of attending college has been rising dramatically more than income, student loans are higher than credit card debt, drop-out rate is not going down, and college students are not finding jobs upon graduation. All these factors have led to many asking if a college degree is even worth spending time and money on.

If it’s education that I want, isn’t it easier and much cheaper to take courses using free MOOCs, which are putting lectures of renowned professors online, available for anyone to watch? Why spend thousands of dollars on a degree that doesn’t lead to a decent job? This is a fair question, but the answer is not straightforward.

Why MOOCs are considered disruptive
College costs are skyrocketing. Many colleges are very selective. There are limited seats available and the number of applicants is huge. Relocating to a different city to attend a traditional college has its costs too. On the other hand, MOOCs admit anyone who wants to learn. Period. They increase access to great content, and it’s free or costs a fraction of the cost of attending a traditional college. Though the dropout rate is extremely high in MOOC courses, about 90% compared to about 43% for traditional universities, the number of students graduating from a MOOC course is still very high. It is possible, at least in theory, that most of the students sit at home and learn without spending much money while the traditional colleges shut their doors because there are no students to teach. In short, MOOCs appear to solve a real problem.

MOOCs’ value proposition
The value proposition of MOOCs is access to great content for general populace and low cost. However, great or at least good, content has always been available on the Internet for free. The only thing people needed was to search the Internet. So the value of MOOCs comes from the fact that the best universities and professors are bringing the best lectures to the masses. The MOOCs are also helping instructors flip the classroom by asking students to go through the lecture before coming to the class. A hybrid course helps colleges cut costs too. A person, anywhere in the world and motivated to learn a subject or a topic, can just go online and learn without any hassle and monetary cost. It’s an incredibly convenient and inexpensive way to learn.

Is great content enough for learning?
I don’t think so. Motivation to learn is far more important than content. A highly motivated student will search and find good content on the Internet or the library. And learning is primarily a social endeavor. Learning in a classroom (even a virtual one) helps motivate students and physical proximity to other students and teacher helps encourage discussion and thinking. Learning about diverse opinions and perspectives from a group of students is a more enriching experience.

Issues with large-scale online courses:

  • Requires self-motivated students
  • There is hardly any accountability in the absence of grades (that the students value)
  • The grades/credits are not accepted (yet) by most traditional colleges
  • Employers do not value an online degree as much as a traditional one
  • No real loss on dropping out
  • No encouragement to work hard or not drop out
  • No personalized feedback on progress (except automated grading and feedback)
  • Academic dishonesty in absence of supervision
  • No requirement to write long papers

Do people go to colleges only for access to great content?
Again, I don’t think so. People go to traditional colleges for a number of other factors:

  • To earn a degree/credential
  • Become independent
  • Learn about the world
  • Have a social life and enjoyment
  • Have an enriching college experience
  • Develop soft skills
  • Discuss and learn from diverse perspectives
  • Participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities
  • Build personal and professional network
  • Find opportunities for jobs and other interests

As long as people value these factors, the colleges will continue to thrive. And that … might just be a good thing!

Related readings
Massive Open Online Courses — A Threat Or Opportunity To Universities?
The Professors’ Big Stage
The Trouble With Online College

Are Xbox Users Democrats?

29 Oct

I cut the cord (got rid of the cable) this year. My Xbox 360 provides me my dose of TV, movies, games, and other entertainment. I also watched the three presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney live on the Xbox. To make matters interesting, there were real-time polls appearing on the screen, and users could vote with their remotes or controllers. I did too. After about half a minute of a question appearing on screen, the results were displayed in real time. That was interesting.

More interesting was the fact that Obama crushed Romney on every issue. Xbox users overwhelmingly voted for Obama, about two-thirds to one-third. This was an interesting thought experiment. Almost every poll is saying that the two presidential candidates are tied while the most reputed Gallup poll concluded that Romney is leading. These polls have been proved to be pretty accurate even with a pretty small sample size of 500 – 1000 carefully selected voters. However, on Xbox, more than 100,000 people participated in the voting, and every question had about 35,000 -40,000 respondents, which is a pretty big sample, though it’s a random one. In research, however, a random sample is what everyone tries to have thereby removing all biases.

So why do Xbox users vote for Obama? I have some theories:

  • On most questions, Obama’s name was the first option. People tend to select the first or default option. However, people voted for Obama even when he was the second option, which shows that people were not just clicking, they were actively participating.
  • Women tend to support Obama, but Xbox users are more male than female.
  • Children love Obama, but they are less likely to watch a presidential debate or vote on domestic and foreign policy matters.
  • Young voters (18-29 years) favor Obama over Romney. And they are probably more likely to own Xbox. This could be a plausible reason.
  • The blue states users have more Xboxes. It is possible that the east coast and the west coast, being densely populated, have more Xboxes, and are traditionally democratic. But the red states should counterbalance this number the way the opinion poll results show a tie.
  • Obama has an overwhelming support among the international community. It is possible that they are voting too, but how many international users care about the debate? And was the debate even broadcast outside the US?
  • African Americans support Obama, but it is unlikely that they have more Xboxes than other demographic profiles or they vote more.

Whatever is the reason, we’ll know in a few days if the Xbox polling was accurate. This is a very interesting way of using technology with a large random sample to predict election results. We’ll wait and watch.

Update: Per CNN’s exit polls, young voters (18-29 years) overwhelmingly voted for Obama (60% Obama vs. 37% Romney).  The breakup for the 30-44 age group was 52%-45% in favor of Obama. This is also the makeup of the demographic that owns and used Xbox most. This seems to be the main reason Obama had a wide lead over Romney in the Xbox polling during the presidential debates.

Additional readings
Results from the second US Presidential debate

The Wisdom of Crowds

22 Oct

James Surowiecki, a journalist, had coined the term – The Wisdom of Crowds – in 2004 (The title of his book). In this book, he argued that none of us is as smart as all of us. Or, in other words, expertise is overrated. Not that the experts are not needed in this world, but the collective wisdom of people leads to better decisions. It seems counter-intuitive, but it has been proven to be true.

  • Google was the thirteenth search engine when it had launched in1998 and yet, it became a resounding success because of the quality of its results. The search algorithm takes into account hundreds of factors but the most important factor is the number and reputations of Web sites linking to a particular Web page. It is, in essence, a vote for a page by other knowledgeable people – a collective wisdom in play.
  • Wikipedia, an openly editable encyclopaedia, allows anyone to make changes to its articles. Instead of relying on the knowledge of a few experts, Wikipedia harnesses the small chunks of information people have on a topic and combines those chunks to create millions of articles. Surprisingly, the articles outnumber the professionally produced Encyclopaedia Britannica and the number of errors are comparable too.
  • Reviews on Web sites like Amazon (products), Rotten Tomato (movies) and Yelp (restaurants) rely on the feedback of many people to produce an aggregate rating.

This concept begs a question, though. Can we put a group of people in a room, give them a task, and they would come up with the best decision? Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple. This concept, to work best, has some preconditions that must be satisfied.

Diversity: The people in the group must have diverse opinions, educational and work backgrounds, experience, knowledge, and skills, which would lead to creative ideas and a large quantity of ideas. A group comprising experts on the same topic tend to think similarly.
Independence: The people must think independently from each other. In a group setting, groupthink takes over and the conversation usually follows the most vocal or the highest ranked person.
Decentralization: There is no top-down directive so nobody is in charge and the problem of mere compliance is avoided. Everyone contributes freely and voluntarily.
Incentive: There must be some incentive for the people to contribute to the overall effort. Intrinsic reasons (because I want to) work much better than extrinsic reasons (I have to because I’ve been asked to or paid).
Aggregation: There must be a mechanism to aggregate the contributions of the group. An online environment (Google, Wikipedia) works great even if the group size is millions. In an offline environment (an office setting), a designated leader can do the collection and compiling.

Additional readings
The Dirty Little Secret About the “Wisdom of the Crowds” – There is No Crowd
Crowdsourcing