streetlight-300w1Often when I am working with teams, I am reminded of fables or stories that I was told as a child. The true nature of those stories weren’t always obvious then, but it is amazing how the insights become clearer with age.

A story I was most recently reminded of, goes something along the lines of:

A business man happens upon a student on an barren street. The student is obviously looking for something but isn’t having any success. So the man asks the student ‘what are you looking for’? The student replies back ‘I am looking for my keys’.
The business man begins searching as well: Looking behind bushes, pushing aside the street garbage cans. He continues helping and some time goes by and but they still can’t find the keys.
The man finally asks ‘Where exactly did you lose the keys?”
The student replies, pointing to the other side of the street, ‘over there in the park’.
The man, bewildered, asks ‘Why are you looking here?’
To which the student replies ‘the light is better’.

This is often a similar rational by teams under pressure. Do what is easy. It comes up in product decisions, evaluating metrics, partnership development, and elsewhere.

In 2012, one of the debates at Yahoo was around HTML5 vs Native — the majority of us were on the Native side for core products with HTML5 for the long tail of devices and news pages (a large number of users came to Yahoo via Facebook and Google links). While there was ample evidence that mobile users wanted Native applications, there was a strong group that was advocating for new presentation platforms based on HTML5. The obvious question was: Why HTML5? And the response was that we have more Front End JavaScript Engineers in the company. It was the equivalant of ‘the light is better’ but missed the mark of what the real need was.

Unfortunately, the HTML5 camp won and we went the route of hybrid apps. It was a critical error — at the time both Facebook and LinkedIn also went for hybrids and Google was still formulating their overall mobile app strategy. However, that mistake cost Yahoo progress they had established over the previous years — Yahoo was the 3rd largest mobile platform with 185M global users on mobile at the time, and the increased prevalence of smartphones threatened that. The hiccup of choosing HTML5 because it was where the light was better; Advertisers and users both wanted rich native experiences and they didn’t care that it was easier to get Javascript developers at the time. That hiccup gave others the opportunity to catch up quickly.

Fast forward to this past week where I was working with a team on whether to build for iOS rather than Android, and the response was ‘well it’s easier to develop for iOS’. That was a poor answer. Sure it might be easier to develop to that platform, but if isn’t where your users (the keys) are, then who cares?

The point of this post is not to argue for or against iOS or Android. The point is about keeping an eye on your users and what their needs really are. In addition to the core customer need, what are their needs in terms of devices, discovery (how much does the app store matter?), payments, device capabilities (social, camera, etc).

It is often easy for teams to gravitate towards where the light is better. Especially as organizations become more and more ‘agile’ and developers cherry pick the user stories that are easier to understand and complete within a sprint, teams often lose site of the true goals. A product owner’s role is to increase the light where it is needed. This may mean a better articulation of the vision/strategy, some additional user tests — get out and speak with customers — Do all the things that don’t scale.

If you want to really destroy the competition, you need to be bold. You need to be able to step away from the light and into where the path isn’t as clear. It is not easy work — it requires putting on both the Strategy Hat and Analytics Hat and extract insights and setting the correct course.

Many of the teams that I am currently working with are dealing with this same issue primarily because they are pushing into new territory such as Omnichannel shopping, fitness tracking, and new communication services — figuring out what users want and what their behaviors will be is difficult. There are ample pressures to simply do what is easy. Be weary that easy isn’t the primary reason for why you are making a particular choice — make sure you are still going to the right place (where your keys are).

Story References:
Nasruddin – the Sufi Jester
Quote investigator – Story origin