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Entries in Product Management (2)


Crowdsourcing The Destruction of Software Patents

I've written previously in this blog about my skepticism regarding patents (and especially software patents). To this end, Joel Spolsky has done enterpreneurs a community service.  He's created a website for crowdsourcing the discovery of "prior art" to help prevent the issuance of software patents. Spolsky explains all.  Here's a link to his explanation and to his site, Ask Patents. Go out there. Find some prior art. Blow up somebody's crappy patent as a community service to entrepreneurs everywhere. 


Designing a Technology Product? Consider Its Return on Attention.

I just noticed Tom Davenport's book, The Attention Economy, sitting on my bookshelf. I read it a couple years ago and I flipped through it again.

Attention is still a cool topic.

Telecommunications software and services rule my world today. But a few years back in Ernst & Young's consulting practice, I directed a strategy program for CIO's called "Navigating the New Technology Landscape". I ran it out of E&Y's Center for Business Innovation in Cambridge, MA. My focus on "attention" started with a series of NNTL conference discussions around "information overload" and the overload's challenges to internet infrastructure. In those conversations, software product managers and their customers were heavily absorbed in matters of transaction volumes, data base storage capacity, network capacity, and generally managing data quantity (scale) and quality. But it also became clear to me that these problems were really just short term technology constraints.

My sense was that human attention (not disk space and bandwidth) was the permanent scarce resource and as a result I shifted toward the idea that human attention should be the foremost driver of software product design.

We set down a basic principle. Value (pick your own definition) was to be found by focusing information technology design and development around helping people efficiently get something from their invested attention. Ever willing to over-apply math within stochastic settings, I carried around a little formula in my notebook at the time: "a return on invested attention ("RoA") equals the value of acquired knowledge divided by the intellectual energy required to acquire it".

RoA = Knowledge Value / Energy Invested

This is all pretty obvious but it was certainly not explicit for software design at the time. Instead developers operated with a goal of alignment to business requirements and software usability. Usability as then practiced, was screen-based Taylorism (time and motion analysis) applied to software interfaces. It was necessary but was itself not sufficient. We argued that software products which delivered a low attention requirement (and presumably high return) had the best shot at success. Of course, me being so smart, did I invest in Google in those early years? Ahh. No. Apple? No. Do as I say, and not as I do.

Tom Portante and I ultimately wrote a quick piece for the early (and very cool!) Wired Magazine. We also presented the subject at a couple tech conferences before moving on. So it turns out that Davenport, a friend from those days, with co-author John C. Beck, picked up the subject and ultimately wrote a book about it called "The Attention Economy" (By the way, a very belated thanks for the acknowledgement Tom). Tom was, at the time, E&Y's thought leader in knowledge management and process reengineering and was one of re-engineering's intellectual fathers worldwide. The book took a run at quantifying attention's value, establishing its place within the range of human (and business) activities, and it nodded toward the idea of structuring and directing (actually scripting) attention. His work significantly broadened my narrow product manager's view of the subject.

The problem with conceptual frameworks is that they are, well, conceptual. They therefore frame thinking more than they direct action. As such, attention still frames much of what's happening today but it still won't tell you how to make something. But hey those frames are interesting! Consider these questions: What is the comparative return on attention ("RoA") for a student's college experience versus online learning? What is the return on attention for a social network versus a friendly hello by phone or e-mail? Does Google Reader and Twitter have a higher return on attention than subscriber lists and web surfing? For highest RoA, should I watch the news on TV or over Google news?

So what's my point? If you're building information technology products, return on attention remains a durable (though amorphous) design consideration. But the subject ought to at least be the basis for a product manager stepping back, gathering all the features, functions, and user interactions, and then wondering; "Am I increasing or reducing the intellectual clutter in someone's day?" And; "How do I actually analyze that question, or answer that question, and more specifically how do I adjust my product design?"

I wonder if my blog has a positive return on attention (Resist your tempation to write me a clever e-mail).