Jul 29, 2016

The act of "busy"ness

Recently, I came across an ad for a brand that sells packed curd. The ad copy says "busy with work, family, children, relationships etc? Don't have time to make curd? Here it is - {brand name} curd". Many years ago, I was buying such packed curd every week. But ever since I learnt how to make curd, I ask myself why the hell didn't I learn this simple procedure earlier. It's not rocket science. 

But the food industry wants to project that you are a busy person with umpteen number of commitments. That spending a few seconds to mix a tsp of curd in a bowl of milk is not worth your time, they say. (I had written a detailed post earlier about the things I started DIY in my kitchen. If you are interested, please take a look)

The food industry likes to remind you repeatedly that you are a busy person in order to sell quick solutions that are loaded with preservatives and chemicals. 

I have ranted enough about processed foods. But the purpose of this post is much beyond that. Why do we like to remain busy? Even if we aren't, we want to attach ourselves to the "busy" tag. The question "how are you doing?" often gets a response "busy" these days. Is it a way of showing that we are important?

I wonder why some people act so busy in their lives and at their workplace. You ask for their time, they come to you and their body language demands that you better be short and crisp. In a meeting, you try to voice your opinion or ask a basic question, they immediately check their watch. They pride on the fact that they eat late lunches or have skipped breakfast that morning. 

A question that all of us need to ponder - Does being busy translate to being productive? Do we take a step back to reflect upon how our lives are going, how our time is getting spent, what are our priorities etc? 

"Unexamined life is not worth living" - Socrates



Jul 28, 2016

Embracing creative confidence

I have fallen in love with this whole idea of "Creative Confidence" and the principles behind it. In a popular HBR article, IDEO founder and Stanford d.school creator David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley had written about how everyone in the planet are born creative and creativity is not for the elusive few. Through their work, they help people rediscover their creative confidence. I'm planning to read their book on the same topic soon.

Recently, I was watching a talk by Maria Molfino on Femgineer TV where she defines creative confidence as "a mindset that allows one to experiment, make mistakes, let go of perfectionism and detach oneself from outcomes". These principles form the basis of design thinking which is widely being used in building products, services and experiences. From a personal development point of view, these principles are equally valuable towards building curiosity, explore various interest areas and enjoy the process of creativity.

David and Tom Kelley talks about four fears that prevent us from embracing creative confidence:
  1. fear of the messy unknown
  2. fear of being judged
  3. fear of the first step
  4. fear of losing control
In one of his TED talks, David Kelley says, "When people gain creative confidence, they actually start working on things that are really important in their lives."

He also talks about "guided mastery" - a step-by-step process where you experience micro-successes that eventually help you towards conquering your fears and building creative confidence.

These learnings helped me understand why EthnicPalate has become so special to me in the past 6 months. Around the same time last year, I had just started to think about a healthy food catering service but never had the confidence to get started. The four fears led me to procrastinate the idea for around 5-6 months. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the opportunity of a food stall at the end of Dec '15. I took the first step with a lot of hesitation and self-doubt. A few weeks after the food stall, I started taking catering orders in my apartment. There are weeks where I would get a good number of orders but there are also many weeks where the number of orders would just be 1 or 2. I'm not defining my success with the number of orders I get but from the positive, encouraging feedback I receive from my regular customers who love my food.

EthnicPalate's vision is all about spreading awareness of healthy, traditional, local and seasonal foods, from the various cuisines of our country. I had earlier written in detail about why I choose to go local. I had recently come across a term which is the need of the hour - locavore ; It has become necessary for us to adopt local food practices, not just for the sake of our own health but also to protect our environment (reduce carbon footprint) and to keep agricultural eco-system in balance.

I'm not thinking about EthnicPalate's growth/scale at this point of time. The only factor I'm working towards is to ensure the vision with which I started with resonates in every meal I prepare, every menu I plan out and in every communication I share.

Jul 6, 2016

Book Review: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Do you believe in coincidences/signs/serendipity?

I'm not sure if I do but a recent event that happened has made me curious. I recently met someone who had been living in the same apartment as mine for the last 7-8 years. We have hardly met or crossed paths while our respective kids knew each other very well. Turned out that she was decluttering her home as she was relocating to another country. She sent an email to our community with the list of fiction books that she planned to give away. I don't read much of fiction and so I didn't go through the mail thoroughly.

But her last sentence in the mail got me interested. She said that she loves reading non-fiction and maintains a google spreadsheet of books she has read and books she plan to read. She was willing to share the spreadsheet with anyone who might be interested. I wrote to her about the kind of books I have read, areas of my interest etc. The email chain turned out to be an interesting one for both of us as we discovered that our interest areas are very similar. We met up at her place one Friday evening and chatted for nearly 4 hours about various things - books, careers, startups, aspirations, kids, ecommerce, women's challenges in workplace, tech industry etc. Though we met for the first time, it felt like a friendly conversation between two friends who are catching up after a long time.

In the 2 weeks that followed, she borrowed my copy of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Big Magic" (my favorite book of last year) while I borrowed her copy of Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational". It was a very interesting read where the author talks about various aspects of human behavior that trigger irrational decisions, well supported by insights from his various experiments.

One of the concepts that intrigued me and made me experience the "aha" moment was "arbitrary coherence" that is tied to the way we anchor price of a certain product/service.

"Although initial prices are arbitrary, once those prices are established in our minds, they will shape not only present prices but also future prices. Our first decisions resonate over a long sequence of decisions. The sensitivity to show to price changes might be largely a result of our memory for the prices we have paid in the past and our desire for coherence with our past decisions."

The author talks about the difference between social norms and market norms in one of the chapters. I could relate to many of the examples shared.
Social norms - friendly requests people make of one another
Market norms - you get what you pay for

"Companies can get a lot more work done from their people when social norms are stronger than market norms."

I also enjoyed the chapter on the power of "free" and how we fall for it every time.

"Zero is an emotional hot button - a source of irrational excitement.", the author says.

The experiment on the choice between free Amazon $10 gift certificate and a $20 gift certificate for seven dollars is a clear proof of how irrational we can be.

The chapter on high price of ownership showed how we overvalue what we own (loss aversion). The author states
"Moving back to our pre-ownership state is a loss, one that we cannot abide. Downgrading to a smaller home, giving up on comforts etc are tough."
The cure he proposes for this tendency is to put some distance between yourself and the item of interest (concept of detachment that Bhagavat Gita emphasizes)

"Predictably Irrational" is definitely a deep read that requires time to absorb the material shared and to reflect upon the same. Examples of various experiments convey the underlying message of certain irrational behaviors we exhibit all the time.

Overall, I loved reading it and will revisit my notes when I notice such irrational behaviors either from myself or from others. Do read if human psychology, behavioral theories, motivation principles, biases etc are topics that intrigue you. Take your time to read this book, skimming through it may not be effective.

And on the person I met, she has now relocated and we are in touch through various communication mediums. But I miss the "real" face-to-face conversations. Lesson learnt from this experience - do reach out to people proactively in your community, office or social gatherings. You never know - you might find a friend with similar interests as yours. Move beyond Facebook likes and Instagram hearts. Make time for real conversations with real people.

Jul 4, 2016

Why you can eat rice at night?


I'm not a qualified nutritionist, so please use your own discretion before you follow whatever I say. This is purely based on my intuition and experience. My goal is to stay fit and active. I'm not looking for weight loss. So my principles may not apply to you if you intend to lose weight. Okay....enough of all the disclaimers :-)

There has been an increasing trend of many people eating only salads for dinner. "No carbs in the night for me", "I don't take rice, I eat only chapathis" - such comments have become quite common these days.

The most important factor when it comes to dinner is the timing - how much gap do you give between dinner and your sleep time? I usually eat my dinner at 8 PM and go to bed by 10:30 - 11PM. So there is enough gap for 2.5-3 hours for the food to get digested. I have come across people who proudly say they eat only chapathis for dinner but then go to bed immediately after finishing their meal. So eating chapathis and hitting the bed is only causing more harm in the form of bulging pot bellies, disturbed sleep, general sluggishness during the day etc.

After sunset, our digestive system slows down and it is advisable to eat easily digestible foods such as aapam, idli, idiyappam, dosa, rice etc. If you are a North Indian, the recommended foods would be rotis with light dal and avoid heavy lentils like channa or rajma, paneer etc.

Ayurveda recommends eating fresh fruits, raw vegetables and sprouts in the morning and afternoon hours. They are rich in fibre and micro-nutrients. During the morning/afternoon hours, our body's ability to absorb these nutrients will be high. Our body has enough time to absorb and assimilate the raw foods.

Fibre-rich foods need more time to digest and that's precisely the reason why we don't feel hungry for 3-4 hours after eating whole grains or raw foods. Then logically speaking, doesn't it make more sense to eat such fibre-rich foods during the day if you are planning to lose weight?

Whenever I have just a salad for dinner without any carbs, I find it difficult to do any workout the next morning. It also makes me feel groggy. I don't avoid carbs but I eat less carbs in the form of a small cup of rice or 2 plain rotis.

The bottom line is
(1) eat easily digestible foods for dinner - simple, home-made foods that your genes are attuned to
(2) give 2-3 hours gap between dinner and bed time
(3) eat fibre-rich foods like raw vegetables and fruits during the day
(4) eat carbs at night ; be conscious of the serving size

Jun 30, 2016

7 best practices to create helpful product documentation

Image Source: http://www.artistography.org/ 
I came across this quote sometime back (no idea who said it!)
"A well-designed product requires no documentation". 
Though I understand the underlying reason, it is a debatable one. Good product documentation is essential, given that the users/customers are so different from the creators of the product.

Product managers need to consider documentation as an essential "feature" of their product. The depth and rigor of documenting every single workflow, use-case and product feature entirely depends on the product context, domain, target segment and most importantly, what your users need. Nevertheless, based on what I have observed across various software products, good product documentation essentially follows these 7 best practices.

Before I cover them, let me clarify that product documentation refers to "Help" section of your product/app where your users would look for information whenever they have any questions around using your product.

(1) Less is more
It doesn't matter whether you have more resources, time or you have excellent content pros in your team who can dish out tutorials and screen-casts in a jiffy. The most important principle is to keep product documentation short and simple. Identify areas where there is more complexity - workflow with multiple steps to accomplish a certain job, processes/guidelines that ought to be documented for preventing any escalations etc. Ensure your users are not subjected to information overload. If required, perform usability studies to figure out whether your users are feeling overwhelmed with the content you have put out.

(2) Cater to different learning styles
Every person learns differently - some prefer verbal communication, some learn from visuals and some prefer to learn by doing. For the critical areas that need to be documented, provide various forms of learning material - text, videos, screen-casts etc. Measurement is the key here, to understand which form works the best for your target users.

(3) Make it accessible within context
Users typically encounter issues while they are using your product. So make sure the relevant content is made available within context and integrated into the product flow. Keeping your product separated from documentation defeats the purpose.

(4) Personalize the content 
The content that a user might be looking for depends on whether he/she is getting onboarded into your product, started using the critical paths or a veteran user. Based on the stage in the lifecycle, anticipate the kind of questions your user might have and personalize the content accordingly. If your product accommodates various roles and permissions (e.g. - report creator, report access only, admin etc), the content needed by each role would be different. This provides another layer of personalization that you can think about.

(5) Provide a way to gather feedback from your users
For every piece of content, ensure your users have a way to give feedback on its usefulness. It could be as simple as a "like/dislike" button. Take the feedback data seriously and refine your content.

(6) Keep it current and relevant
With frequent product releases and updates, it is very important that your documentation stays up-to-date. As part of your launch signoff process, ensure you have an action item to update the documentation. The responsibility should lie with the product manager. He/She can work with other teams like product marketing, content writers, legal or support but the ownership of ensuring that content stays up-to-date should remain with the product manager.

(7) Make it easily searchable
Most of the times, users prefer to search for what they are looking, rather than peruse through reams of content distributed across various categories. As a product manager, try to keep track of what's being searched to understand the areas your users are struggling with. Ensure the search results provide relevant answers. The search queries also help you to understand the UX paths that need to be optimized or re-looked at in the subsequent releases.

Are there any other best practices that software products with good documentation follow? Do you have any examples of software products with useful and interesting documentation? Please share in the comments below.

Originally published in LinkedIn pulse - https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/7-best-practices-create-helpful-product-documentation-sridharan 
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