Dec 31, 2014

2014 in review

Coughs and sneezes
pepper rasam and kichdi
Calpol and cough syrup
honey and turmeric milk
messed up sleep and rest

The story of my last few days of 2014, with D falling sick. Before the recency effect takes over and paints a gloomy picture, I felt it's time for me to look back at some of the best moments of this year. I began this year by writing about "small wins" and it was indeed a year of multiple small wins that I collected on the way.

One of the goals I had set for myself was to venture into baking. My new microwave convection oven followed by 3 useful baking classes from LG paved the way to get a head start. Cakes, cookies, muffins and breads were baked multiple times, with different recipes and varied results. Whoever spoke about the joy of baking is indeed true. This is one hobby I look forward to invest more time in 2015, albeit in a healthy way by reducing plain flour, sugar and butter.

Talking about healthy ways of cooking, I also invested in learning the art of salad making from Nandita Iyer early this year. I wasn't too fond of salads/raw veggies earlier but now I consciously make modifications to my diet to incorporate them on a regular basis. I have also started including millets into my meals often, in place of rice/wheat.

Apart from focusing on food, I have also managed to get back into exercise much more frequently than before. The last couple of months have been a struggle though (blame it on the cold weather!) but overall, the number of days I exercised in 2014 is significantly greater than 2013 :-) Hubby dear is a big motivation in bringing about this change. Seeing him exercise everyday diligently has pushed me to a great extent.

In my 2013 review, I had stated that I want to focus more on improving my overall health. I'm glad that I have taken the necessary steps towards this direction in 2014.

The other aspect that I wanted to improve in 2014 was to incorporate reading as a regular habit. Thanks to a conscious decision of shutting down TV, I was able to grab more time in the evenings towards this habit. Yes, I have stopped watching TV since May and I can't believe how much precious time got unearthed !! Here's the list of books from my 2014 reading list.

Finished reading:
The secret letters by Robin Sharma
Hooked by Nir Eyal
Don't lose out, work out by Rujuta Diwekar
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Eat, Delete by Pooja Makhija
The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann
The art of procrastination by John Perry
Playing it my way by Sachin Tendulkar
God's own country by James Joseph
Aaraam thinai Part I by Dr.K.Sivaraman
Aaraam thinai Part II by Dr.K.Sivaraman
Ezhaam suvai by Dr.K.Sivaraman

Half-way through:
Lean Customer Development by Cindy Alvarez
Delivering happiness by Tony Hsieh
Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman
Influence by Robert Cialdini

Apart from reading, I also focused on getting back to writing this year. Managed to write 17 posts in my personal blog and 25 posts in my work-related blog. Better than previous few years but want to keep at it more.

The last time I spoke at a public event was in 2011 at IIMB for a guest lecture on "Consumer Decision Making". Early this year, I set a target to speak in atleast one public forum. I stumbled upon "Product Camp" event by chance and added a topic "Influence of consumer motivations and behaviors on product usage". The speakers are decided by public voting and thankfully, my topic was voted the 2nd in the list. I invested significant amount of time in preparations - from structure, content, presentation layout and rehearsals before the event. The session went well and it was a great experience to speak in front of an audience after a gap of 3 years.

Motherhood and remote working can make a mom feel isolated and lonely unless she takes conscious steps towards her social life. I didn't take much effort in the previous years but in 2014, I managed to meet up with ex-colleagues from work, friends from school and college with whom I had lost touch and now reconnected, new friends with similar as well as varied interests. The efforts I have taken are still minuscule and I need to get out more often and connect with more people in real life.

One of the mini-adventures I undertook this year was to watch a movie by myself in a cinema theater. Yep, I have never done this before in my life. Swimming lessons is yet another scary adventure that I tried again this year. But dropped out after 5 classes this time (hey, it's better than 3 classes of 2009) :-( When I rejoin next year, I wouldn't be surprised if the instructor says "Oh, no! not you again". I also tried my hand at violin for a few classes but couldn't continue as I was getting severe back-aches and the timings weren't working out as well.

On the professional front, I took the independent consultant route for 6 months when I had limited bandwidth. The closer I have come to entrepreneurship so far, if I may say so. Recently, I joined MindTickle, the same startup that I consulted with, on a full time basis. It's early days in a new role, given that I have decided to take up product marketing which is a relatively new area for me. There is a lot to learn, experiment and engage in depth. I do see significant intersection between product management and product marketing and should be able to leverage my previous experiences. Hoping to learn and assimilate new ideas, make a significant impact in my role and share key take-aways/insights in my blog.

As a family, we decided that we want to take our daughter D to new places this year. "Enough of mall hopping and get started with park hopping" was our motto. We took D to various parks in Bangalore during the weekend evenings. She enjoyed playing in the play-areas while we enjoyed the fresh air. We also did picnics at Cubbon Park a couple of times and D has understood that picnic translates to us carrying lemon rice for lunch :-)

Outside Bangalore, we did a 4 day trip to Ooty and a weekend trip to Mysore and Melkote. We also did a couple of day trips - to Ghati Subramanya temple and Mekadatu. It's been 12 years since we shifted to Bangalore and we finally took the time this year to visit the Bull temple and Dodda Ganesha temple in Basavangudi. Exploring the traditional parts of the city is there in our agenda next year.

One of my friends shared with me this amazing quote on parenting -
"what you ARE speaks so loud that the kids cannot hear what you SAY". 
Healthy eating, regular exercise, working hard, connecting with people, respect towards others, caring for the environment etc - I want to set an example for my daughter in these various areas through my actions. The key realization for me in 2014 is to live a conscious life and be aware and mindful of what I do and how I spend my resources - time, energy, money and more importantly, thoughts.

Here's wishing you a very happy and meaningful new year. May your dreams, wishes, hopes and aspirations come true! Lead a conscious life!

Dec 19, 2014

Incorporating millets into your meals

As 2014 draws to a close, I want to write about an important change I made this year. Being a South Indian, rice has always been a staple food on my plate for years on a daily basis. Though I used to take wheat in the form of chapatis or bread, the proportion is less as compared to rice. Having been aware of the fact that excess consumption of white, polished rice (which is a high glycemic index food) potentially leads to diabetes, I was looking for healthier alternatives. I tried broken wheat as a direct substitute for rice but somehow I didn't like it (though it turns out yummy in the form of a kichdi).

I stumbled upon millets and their health benefits through this blog. I also read in another article that millets used to be the regular food (rice reserved only for special occasions and festivals) during our great grandparents days.

There were 3 challenges that I had to surmount in order to make millets a regular feature on my plate:
1. Sourcing them
2. Learning how to cook and what to cook
3. Liking the taste

After a year, I'm glad I have managed to tackle all of them. I'm sharing my experiences below, which would be useful for someone planning to venture into millets. Take this as a Millets-101 course, if you will :-)

Please do keep in mind that anything in moderation is the key. Don't switch completely from rice/wheat to millets. Ensure you mix them up in a week. I have been consuming millets 3-4 times in a week, along with rice / wheat / beaten rice on other days. If you have thyroid issues, do check with your doctor before starting millets.

There are multiple varieties of millets available, the popular ones listed below:

  1. Foxtail millet (thinai in Tamil)
  2. Kodo millet (varagu)
  3. Barnyard millet (kudiraivali)
  4. Little millet (saamai)
  5. Finger millet (kezhvaragu or ragi)
  6. Pearl millet (kambu or bajra)
  7. Proso millet (panivaragu)

Each variety has different proportions of proteins, iron, calcium and other minerals. They are high in fibre too (which makes them a low glycemic index food). I usually stock 500 gms of each variety and prepare them in rotation, so I get all the individual benefits.

Millets have become quite common in Chennai and I have been able to procure them from rice mandis and organic stores. In Bangalore, you can easily get finger millet and pearl millet from any provisions store. You can also check out organic stores or visit one of the Green Bazaar events.

You can also order online from Dhanyam organic store. Town Essentials has foxtail millet and finger millet.

I usually make one of the first 4 millet varieties listed above in place of rice for lunch. Cooking them is simple. Take 1/2 cup of the millets, rinse well. Keep them in a bowl with 1 cup of water. Cook in a pressure cooker for 3-4 whistles. 1:2 is the ratio I follow and it comes out well. It can be mixed with sambhar, kuzhambu, dal fry, rasam or curd.

You can also make breakfast/dinner dishes like idli, dosa, oothappam, pongal or adai with millets. Payasams / sweet pongal dishes turn out yummy too.

This is the proportion I follow for idli / dosa:
4 cups of one specific millet
1 cup of urad dal
1 tsp of methi seeds

Soak urad dal and methi seeds together for 4 hours.
Soak millets separately for 4 hours.
Grind urad dal + methi seeds together into a thick batter. Then grind millets coarsely.
Mix both these batters together.
Add salt and leave it to ferment for 8-10 hours.

You can also try with 2 cups of millets + 2 cups of idli rice instead of 4 cups of millets. The dosa made with this proportion comes out well and there is absolutely no taste difference when compared to regular rice dosa.

Thanks to many food bloggers, you can find many millets based recipes when you google it (also check in youtube).

Finger millet or ragi is an excellent source of calcium. I usually add a few tsp of ragi flour while making chapatis or mix the flour in dosa batter. The same technique can be tried with pearl millet flour too.

You can also make a healthy, wholesome ragi porridge for breakfast.

4 tsp of ragi flour (if you can make/get sprouted ragi flour, even better)
1 tsp of jaggery
1 cup of water
chopped almonds and walnuts.

Take ragi flour in a pan. Lightly dry roast in medium flame till nice aroma comes (in 3-4 min).

Add water and whisk well. Let it boil. Once it thickens, switch off. Add a tsp of either palm jaggery or regular jaggery, warm milk and mix to your required consistency. Garnish with chopped almonds and walnuts.

I find very little difference in taste when it comes to idli/dosa made with millets. As for substituting them for rice, you start to get comfortable after a few times. So keep trying!

I have noticed that my weight is in control and I feel light after a millets based meal. It doesn't give you the "full" or bloated feeling. You also tend to eat less quantity as compared to white rice.

Start off 2015 with a commitment towards your health, by including millets and other grains in your plate.

Feel free to comment below if you have any questions. Happy to help!

Dec 15, 2014

Book review - Aaraam Thinai by Dr.G.Sivaraman

Thanks to a FB post shared by a friend, I came across this inspiring talk on the importance of eating local foods. The speaker Dr. G. Sivaraman who is a Siddha doctor spoke with passion and conviction. Many of his talking points resonated with me and thanks to Google, I researched more about him and his work. I stumbled upon his book "aaraam thinai" during this research. Apparently, he had written a series of articles in Ananda Vikatan tamil magazine, which has been compiled into 2 books.

During my recent trip to Chennai, one of the top items on my agenda was to purchase these books. The book shop near my home had only the first volume which I bought instantly, came home and started reading one evening. Little did I know I would get so hooked onto this book, that I ended up finishing it in a day. Each article is filled with profound insights on traditional food practices which we have forgotten or lost track completely in the era of modernization and globalization. 

After finishing the book, the first thought that came to my mind was "Wish this book had a English translation. The material is so relevant to anyone in India that it has to be shared irrespective of language".

The author has shared numerous insights on the nutritious benefits of small grains (millets) and unpolished rice varieties. He has shared a few recipes too. I have started to include millets regularly in my meals since the beginning of this year. I'll write a separate post on that soon.

Excess use of plastic, processed and packaged foods and shifting away from local foods are the main causes of increasing lifestyle diseases like diabetes, hypertension and cancer. We have to consciously incorporate local seasonal vegetables, Indian spices, green leafy vegetables, unpolished grains and pulses etc.

Apart from food practices, the author also talks a lot about how different forms of pollution is affecting our health and has also resulted in severe environmental issues. A definite eye-opener!

I plan to read it again and implement the principles/ideas suggested in my life. Hope to share my experiences regularly through this blog. I also managed to search around and get the second volume. They are available in amazon too.

If you can read Tamil, do yourself a favor and buy these books. You will not regret it. It's high time we understand our roots and don't let multinational corporations dictate our daily meal plans.

Dec 1, 2014

Book review - God's own office

I stumbled upon this book through Sheroes tweets and got intrigued by the title. Having been working from home for the last 1.5 years, the concept of the book piqued my interest levels. One of my goals in my bucket-list is to work from a village for a year (hope to achieve this soon!). These multiple trigger points led me to purchasing this interesting book.

The author James Joseph has shared his experiences of how he managed to deliver global work responsibilities for Microsoft, living in Kochi, Kerala. The good part about this book is that he doesn't jump into the dos/don'ts of working from home in a preachy way. Rather, he has taken the time to set context based on his life journey - achievements and disappointments of building his corporate career and learnings and inspirations that guided him on the way. The little anecdotes he has shared are interesting and sets the tone for "Why work from home-town?".

Quoting a couple of the snippets I really loved:
"There is equal satisfaction in being a big fish in a big pond and a small fish in a small pond, the former for the professional intellect and the latter for the spirit"
I can totally relate to the explanation he has shared when he compares Bharati (love for knowledge) and Dhanrati (love for wealth).
"Bharati is like riding on an elephant - slow but secure. Dhanrati is like riding on a cheetah, faster than anyone else. We all agree it is Bharati who got us Dhanrati. However, our children are deprived of Bharati and are riding the cheetah with us"
Regarding the tips he has shared to make work-from-home effective, I found the ones on backup, sound-proofing and two doors of separation to be very useful to me. I have often heard of the phrase "out of sight, out of mind" doing rounds when you work remotely. James has shared some useful pointers on how to prevent such scenarios.

When you decide to shift back to your home town, there are other practical implications that can impact your family, especially children. James' insights around living harmoniously with local community and nature, selection of right schools, bringing up with international exposure etc are valuable to keep in mind. The one particular point which was unique and insightful in this regard was related to funerals. One of the quotes that I found thought provoking -
"Immigrants must have a pet with a life expectancy must shorter than yours; else your kids won't know what to do if something happens to you".
If you have the slightest inclination towards working remotely, then this book is a must-read. It's anecdotal, easy-to-read and full of practical tips and suggestions on how to make it work, both for you and your employer.

Nov 26, 2014

The "No-TV" life

It's been more than 6 months since we canceled our DTH subscription. For those of you who are thinking of going down a similar path, let me share with you how this decision has positively impacted me and my family.

Early this year, hubby dear stopped watching TV. I used to watch a few serials in Star World / Zee Cafe or amble around, watching back-to-back recipe shows in Food Food. I get this time ONLY when the little one is asleep or when she is playing.  She used to watch her rhymes DVDs back to back the whole evening. We hadn't exposed her to Cartoon Network or Pogo channels.

Then one Monday morning, when D had gone to her play school, we shifted the TV inside a closet. When she came back from school, she wondered where the TV disappeared. We were glad she didn't throw a fit. The TV was in the closet for nearly 5 months before we decided to bring it back to get some space. We own a 29" CRT TV which is huge and occupied the entire closet. The TV is back but the DTH cancellation stays put.

There were 6 positive outcomes because of this conscious change we made in our lives:

1) I started to sleep on time. We switch off from our devices by 9 PM and hit the bed by 10 PM. Earlier, I used to watch a thrilling episode of Castle from 11 - 12 which would make my mind active and disturb my sleep.

2) I have got back to reading regularly, mostly in the evenings and before bedtime. In the last 6 months, I have read nearly 6 books. For voracious readers, that might sound very less but to me, it feels like a big achievement!

3) We have also started to buy more books, given that we aren't spending money towards monthly DTH subscription.

4) Our dinner time has shifted from 9 PM to 8 PM. I started to cook dinner early these days since I don't sit in front of the TV, channel surfing in the evenings as I used to do earlier.

5) Both husband and I feel more focused and our minds are relatively calm.

6) We do puzzles together or read story books with D after dinner. So that way, we get to spend quality time with her. Earlier, it used to be "Masterchef Australia" time :-)

D still watches her DVDs on TV but the time has significantly reduced, as she is bored watching the same rhymes repeatedly. Hubby and I sometimes watch our FRIENDS DVD collection when we want to have a good laugh. Other than that, TV remains a spot where our furniture is pointing at :-) (What a line, Joey!!)

Nov 23, 2014

Venturing into baking bread

2014 - An important year as I knocked off one of the items in my bucket list !! To experience the joy of baking, to smell the aroma of butter wafting from my new convection oven and spreading warmth and comfort all around. I have been trying out different variations of cakes, muffins and cookies. Some experiments turned out really awesome while some were average. Fortunately, there hasn't been any disaster so far (Love you all, food bloggers for your perfect recipes and drool-worthy clicks).

Baking bread was the ultimate pinnacle I had set for myself. For some silly reason, I was very scared to plunge into baking bread. Maybe, it's because of reading so many recipes that I feared my pav bun would turn into a rock or my bread loaf would turn into a brick. Every time, I passed the aisle that had yeast in the supermarket, I would look at it in anticipation, only to walk away after a few minutes. Early Aug, I took the "bold" step of purchasing a small pack of "Active dry yeast". It sat in my kitchen pantry for another 2 months before I decided "Enough is enough, lady! Give it a shot". I added a goal in my Weekly to-do list - "Bake bread"

One afternoon, I pulled out a pav bun recipe from my bookmarks list and followed the recipe exactly. It came out so good to my surprise. I was elated and thrilled. Soft, light and spongy. I made a small batch and we ate the buns with jam.

Now the initial success gave me confidence to try out a basic sandwich bread recipe. Bookmarks to the rescue again, pulled out a bread recipe and baked this bread loaf a couple of days back.

Recipe adapted from: thekitchn

1.5 tsp active-dry yeast
1/2 cup (118 ml) warm water
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup (118 ml) milk
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2.5 cups of all purpose flour / maida

In a bowl, mix yeast, sugar and warm water, until the yeast is dissolved. Place this bowl in a warm place (I kept it inside my oven) for around 15 minutes. It should have frothed up by now. You will see some air bubbles. If you don't, then do not proceed further. Buy a fresh pack of yeast and try later.

Melt the butter, add salt and milk. Mix well. Add this mixture to the yeast mixture. Add 2 cups of all purpose flour and mix together. If you are not able to knead and it's too sticky, add 1/4 cup of flour at a time and continue kneading for 10-15 minutes. The dough should come together nicely and form a soft ball.

Keep this dough in a covered bowl in a warm place for 1 hour.

After an hour, the dough would have risen well. Punch the dough a little bit and knead for 5 minutes.

Grease a loaf pan with some butter/oil. Shape the dough into a rectangle, so it fits into the loaf pan. Press it lightly so it fits well into the corners. Cover the loaf pan with a wet cloth and keep it in a warm place for 1 hour. It should have risen to the brim of the loaf pan.

Preheat the oven to 200C.

Carefully, remove the wet cloth. Apply a layer of milk on top of the risen dough.

Bake for 25 - 30 min. The dough will start to rise in the first 5 minutes but will take another 20 minutes to get the brown crust. Take it out once you see a nice brown layer on top.

Immediately, apply a layer of butter using a silicone brush. Let it cool completely before you slice them. Enjoy with a dash of butter and a sliver of jam.

Nov 1, 2014

Tea moment

He never had tea or coffee before we met. I have always been a big fan of my dad's filter coffee. Then something changed. I don't remember how and when exactly. Maybe, It was the Bangalore weather, it was the freshly brewed milk tea at the office pantry or it was the time we spent together, talking for hours and discovering each other in our office cafeteria. 12 years later, our mornings are never complete without a cup of chai. Life has changed, a lot….But this is one ritual I love to follow every morning, wherever it is.

There were days when we weren't buying a pack of milk everyday but still the tea would be prepared with milk powder. It didn't taste good but the beginning of the day with your loved one over a hot cuppa makes you feel alive. Then I discovered the art of tea making - a simple masala chai with milk. This has always been our favorite drink every morning for many years. We used to sit on the bed, spread the newspaper and sip tea slowly, chatting about something that happened at work or about a silly news in the paper or just being quiet with each other's presence. Whether it be a busy day ahead or an early start, we never skipped our morning tea. On days when I had to leave for my MBA classes at 7:15 AM, I would still take 30 min to prepare and sip tea. He used to wonder "Can't you skip tea on your MBA days atleast?". "No, never! I can miss breakfast but no tea", pat went my reply.

The routine of preparing tea the first thing in the morning still continues but very rarely we get to share the moment together. Our 3 year old daughter seems to have understood the connection her parents have with their morning tea. She wakes up exactly at the moment when hubby takes his first sip. Then he had to rush to her room to put her back to sleep (She doesn't allow mumma in, btw!). Even if we wake up early in order to sip tea peacefully, she can sense it with her radar and give a shout-out to her dad. So we end up having our special morning tea at different times or in different rooms. Hopefully someday she would realize and let us have our tea moment!! :-)

Oct 19, 2014

The Marathon weekend

Alert: Wrapping up old drafts. So you might hear stories that happened long time ago (okay, not so long! A few months back to be precise)

I love to travel more often that I actually do. When the opportunity presented itself, we planned a nice trip and it was fun and memorable. Hubby dear is into some serious running this year and one of his goals was to run the 10K in Cauvery Trail Marathon in Srirangapatna. Since the run was scheduled on a Saturday, we decided to leave from Bangalore on a Friday afternoon and return on Sunday - ah, a perfect weekend !!

We got a good deal in Ginger Hotels, Mysore through Cleartrip and we grabbed a 2 night stay. Hubby entrusted me to come up with a plan for 2 days in and around Mysore. Trip planning is something I just love to do for hours - browsing through blogs and websites.

We started off from our home around 3 PM and hit Mysore road quickly. Stopped for a snack break in Kamat near Channapatna and then continued on our drive. The rains started to lash heavily and it became quite dark. We reached Mysore around 7ish and checked in. Loved our room at Ginger - clean and cozy. The bed was neat and there was a TV too. Having disconnected DTH at home 5 months back, I was so happy to watch an episode of Castle and Big Bang Theory after a long time.

The next morning, hubby went for the run while my 3 year old daughter D and I stayed back at our room. The complimentary breakfast was very good and they also offered room service as requested. After hubby returned, we decided to go to the zoo, hoping D would have fun. We took the electric vehicle ride and went around. The weather was good for a while before it became sunny.

By the time we left the zoo, we were extremely hungry and had a good lunch at Hotel Sandesh. Though it was expensive, the quality of the food and service were excellent. We then went to Mall of Mysore to while away some time as it was too early to go anywhere else. D was excited to see the small play area where she happily played for an hour. After a quick coffee break, we headed towards Chamundi hills. The view enroute was just awesome and D took a short nap to regain her energy :-) The temple wasn't crowded and we had a good darshan.

The next morning, we checked out after breakfast and headed towards Melkote. Though we have been to Mysore and Srirangapatna multiple times, we have never visited Melkote before. The route from Srirangapatna to Melkote was scenic, with many villages and sugarcane fields on either side of the road. The drive was so lovely and pleasant. Even if you are not into temples, you should visit this place just for the scenic route.

We visited the Cheluva Narayanaswamy temple and Narasimhaswamy temple, which is located on a beautiful hill. The view is just breath-taking and the breeze felt soothing in the afternoon. Thanks to this travelogue, we found Subbanna mess for lunch. The meal on a banana leaf was so sumptuous - puliogare and sweet pongal in particular. They charge a nominal rate of Rs.75.  Absolutely worth it!

One of my motivations to visit Melkote is to visit the Raya Gopura. Having seen this place in so many thalaivar movies, I know I had to visit it. As I climbed up, I can hear that melancholic background score when Shobana bids adieu to Rajni in Thalapathy.

Though the Gopura is marked as a historic monument, it's sad to see plastic and garbage strewn around everywhere. After spending some time walking around, we returned to our car and headed back home. The short day trip to Melkote was really good and I highly recommend you add it to your itinerary, when you visit Mysore next.

Sep 24, 2014

Building a lovable product

I admit it, I consume a lot of content - books, e-books, blogs, links from twitter feed etc. Most of the content is not really assimilated. I don't often sit back and think through what I read and reflect on the relevant take-aways and how I can apply/expand/refute/customize further.

On one of the routine content consumption days, I stumbled upon this wonderful piece - "Don't die of consumption, Learn by writing". I have read this article thrice so far and I intend to read it atleast once a week. Not to say, my consumption has reduced but I have started to consciously introspect, analyze and write down my thoughts around content that resonated with me. The below article is one such reflection.

I was listening to the first lecture in "How to start a startup" series, initiated by the folks at YCombinator. It was a valuable lecture with many useful insights. Although I would have loved it even more if Sam Altman had shared the awesome material in a more presentable format, than reading it aloud from a paper.

One of the points that struck me hard was this:

"Build a product that a small number of users love rather than a large number of users like"

A small group of user community who adore your product would be of immense value through their continuous feedback, since they would want to see your product grow, improve and succeed. They also help by spreading the word around to their friends and family. From a product standpoint, focusing on this small group helps to learn a lot about user behavior. It also helps to build a personal connection with a small community, thereby getting quicker feedback during each iteration.

Sam talks about keeping the product simple and focusing on the ONE core benefit to the user extremely well. This relates to the Minimum Wow Product I had written about sometime back.

If a person has to associate a powerful emotion like "LOVE" with a product, then the product should hit a chord at a more deeper level with that person - his needs, desires and aspirations. In order to do that, the product creator should have a strong understanding of the market - not just the numbers on market size, growth and profitability, but also the softer (and often overlooked) aspects of his target segment - their motivations, context, personality and triggers that influence their behaviors.

It's sort of a chicken-and-egg problem in some sense - Having a user community that loves your product and having a solid knowledge of the motivations of such a community. But it's not an unsolvable problem, if you are willing to iterate and learn.

Sep 23, 2014

Human self-control and its implications on product design

While reading Chapter 3 of the book "Thinking fast and slow" by Daniel Kahneman, there were multiple "aha" moments for me, when the author talks about how self-control is a tiring task for humans. Below are some of the key take-aways for me from this chapter (quoted directly from the book):

"People who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation"

"Cognitive load is one of the causes of weakened self-control"

"Self control requires attention and effort"

"All variants of voluntary effort - cognitive, emotional or physical - draw atleast partly on a shared pool of mental energy. This phenomenon is called ego depletion"

"An effort of will or self-control is tiring. Exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant"

"Effects of ego depletion could be undone by ingesting glucose"

These points give us some clarity on many areas of our life - such as
why we overeat mostly at dinner time,
why we grab a chocolate after heavy mental processing work,
why we are unable to give complete attention and concentration on multiple areas requiring mental energy throughout the day etc.

There are multiple learnings for product creators and designers based on how individual self-control operates:

For a health & wellness product/app that suggests people to make healthy choices in their diet, people are more likely to comply for breakfast and lunch, as the power to exert self-control is high. So the product can ensure the recommendations for breakfast and lunch are planned as a completely healthy meal whereas it can suggest partially healthy choices for dinner when people are resistant and reluctant to exert their self-control.

For e-commerce apps, flash sale can be scheduled in the morning hours since product selection requires significant cognitive effort, given the vast amount of choices the person gets exposed to. Similar argument holds good for weekends too.

On a related note, it will be interesting to see when mobile app users take "negative actions" such as giving a bad rating, disabling notifications and uninstalling the app itself. I presume users would take up such actions in the morning - afternoon hours, when their self-control is high and wouldn't mind spending some voluntary effort in voicing their opinion.

Personalization, reducing friction, being vigilant about the relevant choices displayed (preventing the user from getting into choice paralysis) and giving utmost importance to the ONE task the user intends to perform are all ways by which product designers can help reduce the attention and effort required by the users. These become even more important in the case of habit-forming products where the product expects "unprompted user engagement".

Sep 17, 2014

Notes from Product Camp Bangalore 2014

Couple of weeks back, I participated in a Product Camp event in Ebay-PayPal office premises in Bangalore. It was one of the well-planned and executed events. Product Camp is an unconference where the interested speakers volunteer for a topic they want to speak about and participants vote on such topics before the event. The schedule of the event is decided just before it starts, based on popular topics and speaker availability.

The event kicked off with two inspiring keynote speeches. Piyush Shah, VP of Products at InMobi talked about how the playing ground for mobile startups is the same irrespective of geography. Couple of interesting points he shared:

"You can build and launch an app in 100+ countries on the same day"
"Fast iterations, pilots and making mistakes crucial to learn in fast paced markets like mobile"
"Make every detail perfect and limit the number of details"

The second keynote was by Ravi Gururaj, Serial Entrepreneur and Chair - Product Council, NASSCOM. What a power-packed inspiring talk!

He emphasized the elements that are crucial to building a product startup. Key take-aways from his session:
"For product startups, it is a staircase to heaven".
"VUCA world. Volatility | Uncertainty | Complexity | Ambiguity. Grow up and deal with it"
"Launching is cheap. Competition is everywhere. Discovery is impossible. Loyalty is non-existent. Scaling is hard. Winning is disproportionate"
"Purpose drives plans. Pace trumps perfection"
"User experience design, data science and product management are the careers of future"

He also talked about the diminishing gap between dreaming and doing.

The two examples he shared on innovative design were just amazing. The Chinese bridge construction on top of a bullet rail track without disturbing the train schedule is a spectacular feat. Tesla model S cars redefined innovative design.

His Q&A session was equally enriching as well. If hiring people is a challenge, he asked startup founders to be more generous - not just in terms of equity but also in accepting new ideas and giving the space for startup employees to execute. And most importantly, he stressed on the fact that you don't ALWAYS need to be a founder to run a startup. You can also work for a startup. The role of a founder is to share a powerful vision with his/her employees, customers and investors.

After the keynote sessions, the breakout sessions began with 3 tracks in parallel. I attended the talk by Pandith Jantakahalli on jobs-to-be-done framework. He talked about the basics of why this framework is relevant and the classic milkshake example, followed by how to go about implementing this framework as part of product design.

In the afternoon, Ram Narayanan, General Manager of Ebay India spoke about the key elements to focus when building a two-sided marketplace. Trust, value and selection are the building blocks of a marketplace model. There needs to be a balance between quickly on-boarding new sellers and ensuring the marketplace is not polluted by spammers.

As part of the breakout session, I presented on a topic that I am extremely passionate about - "Influence of consumer motivations and behaviors on product usage". I hope it was useful to the audience and piqued their interest in human psychology and it's relevance in product conceptualization and design. Here are my slides:

It was a great experience, interacting with many product enthusiasts and sharing / listening on topics that are relevant to today's products ecosystem.

Aug 24, 2014

How to give life to vague ideas

In the biography of Steve Jobs, I came across an interesting point made by Jonathan Ive, Chief Designer at Apple. He says, "Ideas are very fragile, so you have to be tender when they are in development".

During the course of the day, your mind could be brimming with a lot of ideas. It could be a startup idea you want to explore, an idea for a book you would like to write, a thought process/framework you want to ideate upon based on an article you read recently, a presentation that you plan to give to an audience and many more.

These ideas can be very exciting to begin with but at the same time, are potential areas where we might procrastinate, due to their inherent vagueness.

David Allen, in his book "Getting Things Done" says that we tend to procrastinate on projects where we don't know the next action steps to be taken.

Living in a world of distractions and its inherent busyness, it becomes even more challenging for us to dissipate the vagueness and gain clarity on ideas that inspire us.

"Strike while the iron is hot" - extremely true for ideas. If you feel inspired, take small steps TODAY. Not tomorrow, not the next weekend.

I would like to share 5 tips that always work for me, whenever I need to make progress with my ideas.

1) Capture the idea then and there
Ideas hit us at odd times. So it's very important we capture it in a trusted system immediately. Many innovation experts suggest that we carry a notebook and a pen always. I would like to adopt this but for now, I use Evernote to capture random thoughts and inspirations.

2) Timebox with your idea
Cut down all distractions. Lock yourself if possible. Set a timer for atleast 15 minutes. Jot down all the ways by which you could take the idea forward. Do not judge or analyze whether it is the right thing to do. Focus on getting as many ways as you can to move the needle.

You can also set aside a definite number of action items (say, 25) and brainstorm until you hit this number. Again, do not judge. Be tender, trust your intuition.

3) Step away from your desk
I have experienced this in action multiple times. While doing chores like folding laundry, cutting vegetables or cleaning up my home, my mind keeps mulling over the idea and I get more clarity on the next steps I need to take. Taking a walk is also helpful, provided you could remember and capture your thoughts quickly.

4) Take a shower
This always works like a charm. There is interesting scientific evidence too which I came across in this blogpost. It talks about the power of being relaxed to get creative ideas.

"If you are in a relaxed state of mind, easy to distract and full of dopamine, your brain is most likely to give you your best, most creative ideas."

5) Universe helps
As your mind keeps chewing on an idea, you get answers and help from everywhere. I personally vouch for this amazing phenomenon which was highlighted by Paulo Coelho is his book "The Alchemist"

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

For a presentation that I'm putting together, my mind is constantly thinking about the structure, content and interesting stories to tell. And my social media feeds keep throwing me relevant articles around the same topic. The topic of universal consciousness is something I want to research further.

Hope these 5 tips were useful to give life to your inspirations/ideas. Would love to hear what other ways by which you make progress.

Aug 12, 2014

How to perform a competitive landscape analysis

Much of my work time in July was spent working on a competitive landscape analysis for a client of mine. It was an interesting learning experience, given that the scope was broad and there were many competitors to be analyzed. A step-by-step approach helped me to unravel the various dimensions, analyze competition and identify the underserved areas (or green-fields). Do note that although these perspectives are specific to a B2B product standpoint, the approach can be customized to B2C context as well. Here's my 9-step approach to perform a B2B competitive landscape analysis.

1) Define the scope of your domain
Which verticals fall under this domain? What are the adjacent/dependent areas in the value-chain? What activities fall under this domain?

Let's say, the domain of your interest is "Customer Service".
The verticals relevant to this domain are customer support, sales and account management.
The supporting functions are product development, procurement/shipment (in case of physical delivery), legal, manufacturing etc.
The activities included in the customer service domain are ticketing, call support, call routing, email support, help desk, feedback processing/routing, response tracking, communication etc.

2) For the activities included in the scope, identify prominent players in each space
Identify the leaders in each space and their relative strengths. Your solution/offering may not be targeted towards the entire scope. But this step gives a good understanding of the overall scope of the domain and the market leaders who could potentially expand/pivot to adjacent areas.

3) Identify an area(s) in the broad scope which you plan to focus on
The criteria for choosing a specific area of interest is based on multiple factors:
- Higher perceived value by your end-customers
- Your own strengths/interests/capabilities in this area
- Relatively less crowded in terms of incumbent players

4) For the chosen area(s), analyze the existing competition
Competitive analysis is much more than a table of feature comparison. Consider the following variables as a template to get an in-depth analysis of competition:
- Customer profile (industry, verticals, customer size, retention, new customers, key customers)
- Revenue and Pricing (annual revenue, number of customers, pricing strategies, product+service offering)
- Funding (stage, total funding, last funding timeline)
- Product Strategy (products offered, positioning and value proposition, releases/rollout)
- Marketing Strategy (inbound channels, social media activity)
- Product overview (demos, screenshots, benefits offered, features)

5) Identify strengths and weaknesses of competition
Based on the analysis in step (4), you will have a fair idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each player. These are based on your own judgment and is dependent on the variables identified above.

6) Analyze competition using positioning maps
In order to draw positioning maps, you will have to identify the key decision factors from an end-customer point of view. You could choose two factors among the following:
- benefits expected by the end-customer (high capabilities, solution completeness)
- pricing
- operational efficiency
- product superiority (innovative, high performance)

Draw a graph with the 2 relevant factors on each axis. Place each of the competitive player in this graph. You could also expand this further by breaking the factors into more specific angles and draw positioning maps accordingly.

7) Identify relevant parameters for the buyer and user(s)
For a typical B2B offering, the buyer and user(s) are different. There will be multiple personas who would be the users of your offering. Identify the parameters that are important to each persona. For the previous example on Customer Service, if your area of interest is HelpDesk, then the parameters that are important to the user would be ease-of-use and speed of response. A supervisor/admin who oversees help desk would want to know the number of issues being raised, responses given, escalations etc. For this persona, the parameters that are important would be summarized insights, a gist of next actions to be taken etc.

8) Rate each competitive player on a scale of 1-5
For the parameters that are important to each persona, rate your competition on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. This is also based on your own judgment, substantiated with your analysis in step (4)

Average the values of each parameter. Narrow down those parameters with an average of less than 3. These are the areas that are not addressed (or underserved) by existing competition.

For example, in the comparison above, products offered by competition are not simple or easy to use by the help desk service reps. Information shown to supervisors are difficult to interpret. A simple, intuitive solution could be differentiating in this space.

9) Finalize the green-field areas
We have a list of parameters from step (8) that are underserved, which could be your potential green-field areas to create value and differentiation. Before jumping into how to address them effectively, you will have to validate with potential customers to check if these parameters are valuable to them and the price they are willing to pay for an offering differentiated in these areas.

Hope this 9-step approach was helpful. Please do share your comments/questions OR if you want me to elaborate on any specific steps.

Aug 6, 2014

My weekly goals system

I believe in juggling many interests and not focus on ONE single thing the whole day. It might sound contradicting from a productivity standpoint but experience has taught me that this is how I prefer my ideal day to be. While I was working full time, my time was spent in 9-10 hours of work in office and 2-3 hours of commute. I didn't make much time for hobbies/activities/interests except I used to blog occasionally and cook new dishes during the weekends.

Now that I work from home, manage a toddler and the household chores, nurture my new found interests towards baking and healthy eating, keep up with fitness, writing and reading, my mind often gets bombarded with a lot of things to do. I used to practice GTD diligently a while back but have stopped completely. I wanted a simpler system to keep myself sane and ensure I make progress in all my areas of interest every week.

"Necessity is the mother of Invention" - I hacked up a simple weekly goals system and I'm seeing progress in the last 3 months ever since I started it.

Being a big fan of Evernote, my goals system resides there. I have a separate notebook named "Self-Development".

Every Monday morning, I sit down for around 30 minutes, thinking about what I want to accomplish that week. I create a separate "note", listing down the tasks in no specific order. The size of this list used to be around 10 items when I started. Now it has grown to 20.

1) I ensure there is atleast 1-2 tasks covering each area of my interest. This way, I don't feel like I'm spending too much time on one and not giving importance to the other. So the list would have "bake a <x> dish", "read 100 pages of a book <y>", "complete competitive landscape analysis presentation for <z>" and so on.

2) The tasks are quantified or measurable. For e.g., one of my tasks is to "go to the gym for 30 minutes, 2 times this week". The task definition is clear and I either achieve it or not. There is no confusion around what I need to do.

3) I add a couple of small tasks that doesn't take more than 10-15 minutes of my time and that I can check them off easily on Monday morning. It's based on one of the motivation theories, the "endowed progress" effect. It gives the required motivation to progress further in the week. For e.g., I need to call up a specific school to enquire about the timelines of their admission process for my daughter. It took me just 5 min to look up their number and call them.

4) Everyday, I go through my list in the morning and make a mental note of the tasks I want to focus on today.  At the end of the day, I go over the list again and check off a few items (thanks to the "checkbox" feature in Evernote!). Writing this post was one of my tasks for this week and I'm checking it off today!

5) At the end of the week, I look at the number of tasks completed. It was never 100% complete but I'm glad the percentage is increasing week over week

This is a very simple system and it's working for me. Awareness, little planning and thoughtful execution result in sustained progress. How do you plan your day/week? Are you a list maker too? :-)

Aug 1, 2014

Introducing Solids to infants

I felt extremely happy and grateful when one of my friends asked me if I had written a blog post on "Introduction to solids". I'm neither a pediatrician nor a dietitian but I have been sharing my experiences related to child nutrition in the past 2 years. One of my goals is to ensure that every Indian mother has the right information/knowledge about child nutrition and the packaged foods industry wouldn't be able to influence us in the wrong direction. These blogposts are just a fraction of efforts towards that goal.

I started off this series by talking about the importance of breastfeeding your baby in the first six months of his/her life.

This is the second post in this series where I want to talk about how to introduce solids in a phased manner. This is applicable for babies in the 6-8 month range.

"Solids" may not be the appropriate word since you start off with liquids (other than milk) and pureed/mashed foods. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to them as "baby foods".

How do you know when your baby is ready?
Around the age of 5-6 months, check for the following signs.

  1. Your baby is able to hold her head steadily
  2. She jumps onto you when she sees you eating from your plate
  3. She shows interest in your food

When should you start?
Ideally, after completion of 6 months. But please do check with your pediatrician. If your baby's weight hasn't been increasing steadily, the doctor might ask you to start earlier (around 5 months).

How should you start?
  • Choose a time frame preferably in the morning hours and on a weekday. If your child reacts to any food, it would be easier for you to take her to a doctor.
  • Avoid introducing a new food when your child is extremely hungry OR when your child has just had a milk feed. Choose a time frame between that. Let's say, your child nurses once every 2 hours and had milk at 10 AM. Then 11 - 11:30 AM would be a better time to feed baby foods.
  • Introduce one food at a time. Monitor the reactions for 3 days. 
  • After 15 days, once you see your child is comfortable with certain foods, make the "baby foods' timings into 2 phases - once in the morning and once in the evening. Continue introducing new foods in the morning (remember the 3 day rule). Serve the foods that your child has become comfortable with in the evenings (around 4-5 PM).
Maintain a food log. This is extremely important to track your child's reactions and/or any allergies. I used a spreadsheet in Google Drive and used to update it every night. I religiously followed it until my daughter was a year old.
Note down the following:
  • Date
  • Time
  • Food given
  • Quantity
  • Reaction while eating (did she eat well / spit it out?)
  • Reaction after eating (did she cry in the evening / did she pass stools? / loose stools/constipated?)
  • Other Comments
What should you start?
I started her off with rice gruel water. My daughter's initial reaction was to cry and spit it out. I tried it for 3 consecutive days, same reaction. I felt disappointed and depressed. The only suggestion that came my way was to start her off with Cerelac. I bought a pack and prepared as per instructions. I tasted a little and my reaction was "this tastes like milk payasam and it's so sweet". While I fed it to my daughter, she loved it and ate well. I was happy but very concerned. In the night, she felt uncomfortable and cried a lot. After 2 days, she had loose stools and my pediatrician asked me to stop Cerelac. In retrospect, I'm glad this incident happened or else I might have taken the easy route of feeding her packaged foods on a daily basis. The following days (and nights) were spent reading and noting down home made recipes that would suit her tummy. I had to depend on the Internet to get the "motherly" advice and am glad it didn't disappoint me.

Slowly, I started her off with fruits and vegetable purees. Sharing a few simple recipes below:

Recipes for 6-7 months

Carrot juice:
Wash the carrots. Peel them. Chop into pieces and boil them in pressure cooker for 3 whistles, cool, puree and strain it.
Same procedure for apple / pear juice.

Carrot Puree:
Once she accepts the juice form, try giving the puree without straining. Ensure it's really smooth and doesn't have any lumps.
Follow the same procedure for potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Banana Puree:
Chop banana and puree them in a mixer into a smooth puree. You can add some water if required.
Same procedure for muskmelon.

Rice porridge (kanji):
Clean the rice for 3-4 times. Drain the water, spread it on a plate and dry it under fan for 2 hours.
Powder this rice in a mixer finely
Store this powder in a air-tight container and keep it in the fridge. Can use upto a week.
While preparing kanji, take a tsp of this rice powder in a bowl.
Add 1/4 cup of water and mix well.
Boil this mixture till it thickens and the rice powder is well cooked.
It has to be runny and in liquid form.

If your baby drinks formula milk, you can add a few drops of it to the prepared porridge. If not, you can add few drops of breast milk.

No need to add salt or sugar. Doctors advise that sugar must be avoided until 1 year of age. Salt can be introduced in very little quantities after 8-9 months.

Recipes for 7-8 months

Yellow pumpkin / Beans / Peas puree:
same procedure as given above for carrot puree.

Mango puree:
Peel and cut the ripe mango into cubes. Puree and serve.

Moong dal water:
Cook yellow moong dal for 4-5 whistles in a pressure cooker.
Strain and give the dal water
Once adjusted to the taste of dal water, puree the dal and give

Simple kichdi:
Cook 2 tsp of rice and 1 tsp of moong dal in a pressure cooker for 4 whistles.
Let it cool.
Puree and serve with a drop of ghee.

Veg kichdi:
Cook 2 tsp of rice, 1 tsp of moong dal, a few pieces of carrots+potatoes+beans in a pressure cooker for 4 whistles.
Let it cool.
Puree and serve with a drop of ghee.

Mixed veg soup:
Pressure cook 1 baby potato, 1/2 carrot, 2-3 beans for 4 whistles.
Let it cool.
Puree and give.

Ragi malt:
Clean ragi grains, soak overnight.
Place the soaked ragi in a casserole or a sprouts maker.
The grains will sprout in 2 days.
Dry roast the ragi sprouts in a thick bottomed vessel in medium flame. Make sure it doesn't get burnt.
Once it's roasted well, it gives a nice aroma.
Let it cool.
Powder it in mixer.
Store this powder in a air-tight container and keep it in the fridge. Can use upto 2 weeks.

While preparing kanji, take a tsp of this ragi powder in a bowl.
Add 1/4 cup of water and mix well.
Boil this mixture till it thickens and the ragi powder is well cooked.
It has to be runny and in liquid form.

If your baby drinks formula milk, you can add a few drops of it to the prepared porridge. If not, you can add few drops of breast milk.

Idli soaked in dal water / apple puree:
Mash idli nicely and then add dal water / apple puree to make it a little gooey.

As you notice the recipes above, these are extremely simple, easy and quick to prepare. Just a little planning can ensure your child eats safe, home-cooked food that's healthy and nutritious.
Backup option
When we were traveling for a short distance or when my daughter wasn't eating much during the day, I used to give her Nestum plain rice cereal. Compared to Cerelac, I found this to be very mild, less sweet and doesn't taste artificial.

Hope these pointers were helpful. Please do share any other ideas/recipes/questions/comments below.

In the third post of this series, I will talk about introducing spices, textures and how to eventually transition your child to regular foods by the time he/she turns one.

Jul 31, 2014

2 most important principles behind successful startups

Over the last few years working for a couple of startups, I have learnt this important lesson -  For a startup to be successful, the following 2 principles are extremely important and in the same order as below:
  1. Focus
  2. Momentum
These 2 principles are crucial, especially in the initial few years when you are trying to establish your foothold.

I came across an interesting article this morning which reiterated my learnings. It talks about how Facebook in the initial years was relentlessly pursuing "growth" to be the key focus area, although many skeptics wondered how they would monetize or generate revenue eventually.

I believe - "A startup should have a vision that is so big, that it inspires everyone around you. At the same time, it should have a focus that is so clearly defined, that it serves as a guiding light to everyone around you."

Focus is even more important if you are entering a new product category. Yes, you will foresee multiple opportunities in different target segments, geographies, customer profiles etc. There could also be a scenario where these markets are not yet tapped by any incumbent players. And it creates an attractive push to go after all of them, from a business point of view. The end result - you go after all these markets with unclear vision, undefined targets, product strategy being pulled across different directions, more strain on limited and precious resources that leads to burnout and eventually, let alone win, you don't even make a presence in any of them.

If you have a solid vision, an empowered and motivated team and a validated product-market fit, the business strategy can be easily simplified by going after ONE specific target market and addressing a specific problem area in that market. The other opportunities / markets can be prioritized and executed based on the learnings from the previous experiences.

It's also important to define how much time is necessary to validate a market. Is it enough to just spend 2-3 months and conclude if a market is attractive? Or do you need more time? Can this exercise be carried out, without investing significant product and technology efforts?

Apart from the markets perspective, what is the ONE metric that you want to focus and improve upon? Is it growth/acquisition (number of users), engagement (number of active/engaged users), conversions (number of premium/paid users)? Decide on that ONE metric and ensure you focus on it for atleast a quarter. Iterations have to be faster but the core focus shouldn't change as much as the number of iterations you take up.

That leads me to the next principle.

The proliferation of different variations of lean startup principles is a concrete proof that emphasizes the importance of momentum/speed in a startup. Yet, there is no dearth of ego clashes and back-and-forth discussions/meetings that act as speed breakers to quick experimentation and execution. Opposite views are important though, to get a wide range of perspectives. But opposition/criticism for the sake of getting your ego elevated MUST be avoided at all costs.

When I attended Scott Cook's session a few weeks back, it was an "aha" moment when he talked about the importance of rapid experimentation and that decisions shouldn't be made through powerpoint, politics and persuasion.

How does a startup come into existence in the first place? The startup founder had a hypothesis that a certain problem statement exists which can be solved by him/her and that there is potential business if it's solved well. There begins the experimentation phase, through multiple rounds of iterations, quantitative and qualitative proof which results in defining the next set of experiments to run.

I attended a Google hangout on the concept of Lean Design. Eric Ries, the author of "Lean startup" said "A startup is an experiment. Focus on the best ways to learn earlier".

Time spent in debating or arguing takes you nowhere. With simpler tools and processes available at your disposal, why not run an experiment on a small scale and see how it works? Momentum keeps you on your feet and learn from your customers. The author of this article stresses the point even further - "Experimentation beats expertise".

I truly believe in the value behind these 2 principles. Whenever I plunge into the "startup" mode, I will ensure they are being followed diligently.

Jul 22, 2014

10 Best Practices of User Onboarding

One of the challenges I had faced as a product manager in an earlier job role was to ensure that my users are actively engaging with my product/app. When I looked at the numbers, I noticed there was a tremendous dropout after the first login. There wasn't any huge marketing budgets back then and so the users who were visiting our product/app were primarily organic. After a round of data analysis as well as talking to a few users, the conclusion was that the onboarding experience wasn't so great. We went back to the drawing board and redesigned the entire onboarding experience from the ground up.

I have been reading up and researching quite a bit on the best practices of onboarding since then and I have distilled it down to the following 10 points:

(1) Issues such as time constraints, short attention span and cognitive overload make it much more important to design a smooth and intuitive onboarding experience. In case of mobile apps, it is even more imperative, given the challenges of app discovery and contextual distractions that come with a handheld device.

(2) Onboarding is a guided path to enable the users derive the benefit / get the job done using your product. Ask yourself the following questions:
    - What benefits are users expected to get?
    - Which ONE of these benefits is most important?
    - Why is it important?
    - What problem does this benefit solve?
    - What is the job that gets done due to this benefit offered?

(3) Onboarding is not a way for you to unravel all the cool features that you have built in your product. Rather, you identify the ONE core benefit your product offers to the user and showcase that benefit in a quick, easy and interesting way. I like this phrase by Laura Klein in her article on why you should stop asking your users to explore -
"People want whatever your product promises to do for them, and they want it to happen as quickly and easily as possible"

(4) Understand the context in which a user discovers your product and design your onboarding experience accordingly. The context could be based on location (office or home), device (laptop or smart phone), time of the day (afternoon or late evening) etc.

(5) Ensure the benefit can be achieved through smallest effort required from your users, which doesn't really demand either high motivation or high ability. BJ Fogg refers to this smallest effort required by the user as "baby steps".

(6) Based on data derived from the first-time interaction, design an appropriate trigger for the subsequent actions. The trigger should create sufficient interest for the user to return to your product/app.

(7) A first-time user is usually skeptical (go with this assumption always!) and doesn't have trust in a new product/app. Onboarding should help build the trust in a small scale. So asking a user to fill a long profile form or invite his/her friends as part of the first-time experience is a bad idea, unless your product depends on this information for showcasing the benefit (social apps are a slight exception in this case).

(8) Do not overwhelm the user with too much information in the first go. When I signed up for Pinterest long time back, I faced this overwhelming feeling when the home page bombarded me with pictures after signup. I never went back to the site for a while. I still am not an active Pinterest user. At the same time, if there is too little to do, the user loses interest and wouldn't want to return. Striking the right balance is important and can be understood by many techniques, primarily through A/B testing what works well with your target user base.

(9) Onboarding is not only applicable for the first-time login. Think through the stages of how your product benefits the users. Showcase the benefits in a phased manner in the user's initial stages of product usage. This can last for upto a week or even more, depending on the product context and complexity.

(10) If your product/app uses a freemium model to monetize, don't include the benefits of the premium product offering as part of the first-time onboarding flow. Let your users explore the free product for a few days (X), get comfortable with it and *really feel* the gaps which would get addressed if they upgrade to your premium offering. Identify the appropriate time frame (X) for your target audience and only then initiate a pitch for your premium product.

Hope these pointers were useful. I have found the following resources extremely helpful to get an in-depth understanding of onboarding practices. => I love Intercom's blog for sharing such interesting insights on product design. This article talks about the successful strategies that other products have used, resulting in a great onboarding experience. => This site has a very good collection of examples / tear downs on user onboarding , taking you through step by step of popular products.

Jul 14, 2014

7 lessons I learnt from a B2B market segmentation exercise

The last month has been a good learning experience in understanding how to perform a B2B market segmentation and sizing exercise. Though I have read about the best practices and frameworks in my marketing courses, getting the hands-on experience is extremely valuable. The whole exercise took about a month and 3 presentations and culminated with identifying a prioritized list of market segments to go after. Academic inputs and theories did provide the required direction and focus since market sizing can be a daunting task without it. Here are the 7 lessons I learnt that I would want to reflect back whenever I take up a similar project in the future. Hope you find them useful too.

1) Start off with a framework or structure
At the beginning of any market segmentation exercise, the definition of your market will be very broad. In order to identify your niche or specific target segments, you need a step-by-step approach to navigating the market space . The framework needn't be something from academic research papers. Rather, you draw up your own based on your needs and assumptions. It should serve as a guide with the objective of helping you identify the segments that make sense to your product/service. It could be a funnel diagram or a simple 10 step approach document that outlines how you plan to proceed further.

2) Identify the criteria you would use to segment the broad market
Start off with the basic parameters such as geography, industry, size, growth rates, annual revenue etc. At a second level, get into parameters that are directly linked to your offering. This depends on your target verticals (marketing, sales, customer support, operations etc) and pain points specific to that vertical that you want to address. List down the possible criteria that would help you to choose the attractive industry. Keep this list as exhaustive as possible at this stage.  For example, if your product is targeted towards customer support teams, a few criteria to consider:
- customer touch points from various sources
- team structure to handle specific types of issues
- processes related to escalation and resolution
- typical workflows and time spent in each stage

3) Include non-quantifiable parameters
Metrics such as annual revenue or number of employees help you to easily segment the overall market into distinct buckets. However, do consider investing time in understanding the non-quantifiable parameters that can be a good source of segmentation. For the customer support offering example, parameters such as complexity of the resolution process will help you identify if your product offering is suited to such requirements.

4) Identify your TAMs
The first insight that you might have to estimate is your "Total Addressable Market" - this is your universe and your total scope. If you eventually build and scale, this is the total potential you could reach for. The second insight that is more relevant for immediate action is your "Target Addressable Market". Based on various criteria that you have identified to understand the segment(s) attractiveness as well as your internal capabilities to effectively address the segment(s) needs, Target Addressable Market is identified for a short-to-medium term objective. You could further narrow down to identify a specific niche market to target in the next 3-4 months.

5) Data will not be handed to you in a platter
Unless you have access to expensive market research reports, you will not be able to get the required data easily. You might have to use multiple sources which can be conflicting at times. In such situations, you might have to triangulate the data points from various sources based on certain assumptions and back-of-the-envelope calculations.

6) State your assumptions clearly
Once you have identified the target market segment(s) based on the defined criteria, you might have to make certain assumptions regarding the willingness to purchase your product/service. You could use certain metrics as proxy. For example, overall IT spending in the last 3 years has increased in this specific market segment. Or this specific market segment is seeing a significant increase in funding activity in the last year. These assumptions have to be further validated by understanding the criticality of the problems you plan to solve for this target market.

7) Use lateral market data
Understanding the end-to-end workflow of a specific process helps you to analyze the dependencies on other products or solutions. For example, if you are building a marketing automation product, you could use CRM market data as a reference to understand industry dynamics. market shares and growth trends.

Do comment/reach out if you have any questions. I'd be glad to address any specific ones focused on your industry/offering.

Jul 7, 2014

The mystery of the snack box

D has been going to a play school for more than a year now. Since she wakes up quite late, she usually drinks a little milk or a tiny portion of her breakfast. I usually pack her breakfast for her mid-morning snack break and she has been eating without a fuss so far (touchwood!). I used to wonder what her friends/classmates bring in their snack boxes. When I ask D, she usually says "biscuits" or "grapes" :-)

Early April, we enrolled D in a new school for a summer camp programme. Being a new school, I accompanied her for 3 days and sat next to her, to get her settled in the new place. During the 10:30 AM break, it was so cute to see all the tiny kids open their snack boxes and eat together. Snack breaks are a perfect time to bond and get to know each other. Yes, it applies to 3 year olds as well. I quickly glanced around to check out the various snacks that kids have brought along. Some of them were the usuals like parathas, cheese sandwiches and bread+jam.

A 3 year old sitting next to us was eating dosa with sugar. The teacher asked him, "Do you like to eat your dosa with sugar?". The boy replied in an innocent tone, "No, I only like sugar". What a cute response!

There were a few snack boxes with store-bought cookies, banana chips and most enticing of them all, Lotto Choco-Pie. The kid with the paratha was staring longingly at the Choco Pie in a colorful pack. He wasn't too keen in eating the rest of the paratha. I was thinking about his mom who would have spent time making a healthy home-made paratha in the morning.

Kids can be easily influenced. They observe their peers, brands, logos, ads, messages etc etc. Food industry is well aware of this fact.

I'm not completely against packaged food products but I believe they should be consumed in moderation. Would I have my meals everyday in a restaurant because it is convenient? No! I apply the same rationale when it comes to giving packaged foods to my daughter.

The goal of big corporations is to make profit. They are not concerned about making healthy choices for their consumers. To get higher margins, they would cut their costs in numerous ways than we could imagine. They not only want you to consume their packaged foods but they want you to consume more of it. A ketchup or a jam bottle is readily available in most of the urban households in India but the food industry want you to consume 3 bottles in a month instead of one. No wonder, they advertise their products by advocating a generous spread of ketchup on a chapati to feed a fussy kid.

The West has woken up to the fact that these packaged foods are destroying their health and creating obesity related disorders. So now the food corporations are extending their wings to target consumers in developing countries like India.

Taste enhancers, preservatives, artificial flavors, loaded sugar and salt - all are awaiting yours' as well as your kids' attention in the aisles of the supermarket.

My intention of this post is that you be "aware" of your food choices. Read the nutrition labels and ingredients. Ensure moderation of processed foods.

I believe in following the 7 rules of eating by Michael Pollan. Out of these rules, the following 2 are my favorites

"Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food"
"Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce"

In the next post, I plan to share a few healthy and quick snack box ideas so we don't have to send a "Choco Pie" in our kids' snack box when we are short of time.

Jul 3, 2014

2 principles behind successful products

I had the opportunity to attend a master class on Entrepreneurship couple of days back by Scott Cook, Founder of Intuit. It was fascinating to hear about his experiences of building Intuit in the 80s. He is an amazing speaker with perfect clarity of thoughts and words. He spoke about 2 principles of creating successful products.

1) Keep looking for insights from customers
If you are building products just for yourself and for your friends/family, insights may not be that relevant. But in most of the cases, we build products for a larger community. The only way to learn is through deriving insights. Insights can be obtained using data gathered on product usage. But the most useful source of insights is "observation". During the session, Scott demonstrated the power of observation through an airplane making exercise. You tend to gather a lot more insights and surprise elements by observing how people use your product rather than asking/interviewing them about how the product experience was. Surveys or focus group discussions falter because what people say may not be what they do. He brought up an interesting point - "Trust behaviors more than words".

During "observation" process, keep yourself open to surprises and note down the actions that weren't expected.  Don't go with a "validation" mindset as it would bias your thought process and you will eventually prove right what you had set out to validate in the first place. Instead, take a "discovery" approach and be open for surprises.

2) Engage in rapid experimentation
Scott stressed about the power of iteration through experimentation. He stressed the fact that decisions shouldn't be made through powerpoint, politics and persuasion (loved this phrase!). Rather, decisions ought to be taken through experimentation with real users. Experiments help you in understanding the actual behaviors.

Jun 29, 2014

My Inspirations

A couple of days back, my husband asked me an interesting question "Who inspires you the most?". No one has ever asked me this question before. Top-of-the-mind recall led me to answering "Sachin, AR Rahman, Dr.APJ Abdul Kalam". But the question was still lingering in my mind.

While I was going for a walk around a nearby lake a few days back, the answers started flashing in front of my eyes. I saw an elderly couple, walking around the lake. They must be 60+ and looked fit and healthy. I noticed another elderly man, jogging at a brisk pace. There were several such senior citizens who were walking and I felt inspired at that very moment. I had initially planned for a single round, but I ended up finishing two rounds. I pushed myself further in the second round, with a slow paced jog.

During the jog, this phrase emerged from my cluttered thoughts. I feel inspired by "People who don't feel constrained by their age, gender or life situation and go onto accomplish amazing things for themselves and for others".
Active senior citizens are one of the interesting set of people I admire. They don't believe that they have achieved a certain state in life that they can now just plonk themselves in front of the TV all day long. They continue to strive in improving their physical wellbeing, exercising, eating right etc. They keep themselves updated with what's happening in the world and continue to keep up with their curiosity. They also contribute to the society in whatever way they could - sharing their wisdom with youngsters, participating in social causes and engaging themselves in community events. When I reach that stage in my life, I want to imbibe these qualities and stay active. I have started taking steps in the right direction by first putting an end to TV a month back.

The second set of inspirations come from people who break stereotypes and not feel constrained by their gender. Sanjeev Kapoor, my favorite chef is a classic example. There is so much love and care while he prepares a dish. When he made a choice to be a chef, I'm sure he must have faced a whole lot of questions from the society. Recently, I came across a woman Shivya who loves to travel on her own. While I was reading her blog about her various experiences, I felt so inspired. Though I love to travel, I have never traveled by myself for a leisure trip. Also, I have mostly stuck to the touristy places when traveling with my family. Her blog has expanded my view on travel.

I believe in the concept of life long learning. There's never an end to learning something new or expanding your current knowledge. It doesn't matter if you are a CEO, a super rich person or a 55+ senior citizen. Learning should never stop, even if you have completed your formal education. One of my friends' father finished a post-graduate degree in Yoga and Spirituality when he turned 60. How amazing is that! If we keep up the curiosity, learning happens automatically. Continuous learners are such interesting and inspiring people that they can talk about a multitude of topics.

The fourth set of people from whom I draw a lot of inspiration from are those who care about the environment, those who manage to implement the principles of reduce-reuse-recycle, the minimalist consumers. I'm so glad to see that this community is growing. Over the past 10 years, I have taken baby steps towards being a minimalist and avoiding unnecessary purchases, home composting wet waste, reducing paper consumption and overall, reducing my carbon footprint. I know I have a long way to go. But with such motivating people taking the right steps towards preserving our environment, I know I can emulate a lot of their best practices.

Does this list resonate with you? Do think about your inspirations. It helps you to understand yourself a bit more.

Jun 22, 2014

9 tips to make your toddlers love fruits

After posting my earlier article on 10 ways to make your toddlers love vegetables, a few of my friends suggested that I write a similar article on fruits. I was surprised, thinking, "Don't kids love fruits? They taste sweet!". While talking to my neighbor, she mentioned how her 5 year old daughter doesn't eat any fruits, except oranges. So this seems to be a problem as well, though not as big as feeding veggies.

Most of the principles from my earlier article still holds true when it comes to fruits. A few more which I would like to highlight:

1) Start early
Home made Fruit purees are one of the best weaning foods when you start introducing solids. Please avoid the ready-to-eat jars. They cost a bomb, imported ages back and tastes so artificial. It's very easy to make fruit purees at home. When D was around 6 months, I started her off with apple puree. She loved it and ate without a fuss. The recipe is very simple.
     - Wash the apples, peel them and chop them into chunks.
     - Place them in a bowl with little water. Pressure cook for 3 whistles.
     - After taking it out, puree in mixer.
     - For the initial few days, strain the pulp and give the juice.
     - Slowly introduce the mashed pulp.
Follow the same recipe for pear puree.

Around the same time, I also introduced banana purees. You don't have to cook them. Chop the banana into small pieces and puree it in mixer. I introduced the small yellow variety which is a healthier version as compared to the long ones.

2) Be consistent
Ensure you follow a routine for fruits - either as a mid-morning or an evening snack or both. Based upon how your child prefers to eat (pureed, mashed, cut up fine), serve them appropriately. You can try small pieces around 9-10 months to check if he/she is ready to chew. Try placing a small bowl with fine pieces in front of your kid. They are perfect finger foods for your child to start self-feeding. Please make sure you don't cut them into round shapes, as a safety precaution to avoid choking.

From the time D was 6 months until now, I ensure she eats some fruits every evening. It has become a routine for her that she should have fruits for her evening snack. Once she started to chew (around 9 months), I used to chop up raw apples into tiny pieces. She would pick and eat on her own. After a couple of months, she insisted she wanted bigger pieces from my bowl. She wanted to chew bigger pieces with only two tiny bottom teeth :-) I'm reiterating the point again - babies can chew with their hard gums, so try giving mashed up or finely chopped pieces. They would learn to chew eventually.

3) Introduce variety, focus on seasonal fruits
It was peak summer when D was around 8 months old. So we used to buy a lot of melons and mangoes. She loved purees of mangoes and muskmelons. After she started chewing, she went crazy over grapes. I used to chop grapes in half and give her in a bowl. She loved to pick and eat on her own. We did the same when it was strawberry season. As we have been continuing this habit for nearly 3 years, she has tasted almost all fruits available in Bangalore - guavas, custard apples, oranges, watermelon and pomegranates.

4) Stock up plenty
Before D was born, my snack section in my pantry was filled with junk, ready-to-eat foods such as chips, biscuits, cookies, packaged juice etc. As a family, we started to focus more on nutrition and eating right. We have cut down on all the junk and have increased our weekly expenditure towards fruits. There will always be 3-4 varieties of fruits at home. D observes all the fruits arranged in the fruit basket and she would ask what she wants.

5) Have no fear
Some moms might fear that fruits might cause cold and congestion. No, they don't. Make sure you don't feed them immediately after taking it out of the fridge. In case of bananas, the small yellow variety ones are perfectly fine. I have given oranges when D was having a slight cold. It didn't cause any problems.

6) Expand your horizon
Your kids might surprise you with the kind of fruits they like. D loved custard apples (though I hate it!) when they were in season. She also loves tangy oranges and grapes. Go beyond bananas and apples. Reduce the imported ones like Washington apples and kiwis which have traveled a long distance and have lost all their nutrition before it reaches your hands. Pick the local ones like guavas, grapes, papayas and chikoos (sapota).

7) Make something
If your kid loves milk, mash some bananas, chikoos or mangoes and serve a yummy milkshake. Or whip them up with some curd and offer a thick smoothie or flavored yoghurt. Bananas can be easily incorporated into cakes, muffins and pancakes. Make a delicious fruit salad with some vanilla custard. Try these options if your kid doesn't eat fruits or you want to include some variety. First preference should always be towards fresh raw fruits.

8) Carry it along
Fruits are your best friend when you are traveling with a toddler. You can easily carry some bananas, pomegranate seeds, grapes, chopped guavas or pears. Carry the chopped pieces in an airtight container, so it stays fresh during the journey.

9) Juice as a treat
If your kid prefers to drink fruit juice, make it at home. The packaged drinks are loaded with sugar and preservatives, with just a little fruit. Yes, even the ones that claim "100% fruit". You don't need an expensive juicer to make juices at home. Your regular mixer will do. A whole fruit is healthier as compared to the juice with added sugar. So try offering juice only as a treat at home.

Do share your thoughts on how you incorporate fruits into your child's diet.

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