Feb 20, 2020

5 lessons from Elevate app on creating an engaging product

One of the common work-related challenges that I face in my professional responsibilities (irrespective of B2B / B2C, startup/established organization, mobile app/web product etc) is how to make a product more engaging so that the adoption and retention rates are high. 

What motivates a user to try out a software product? What's required to sustain the same motivation for a longer time? As a product manager, what do I need to do to enable both? 

Over the past 6 months, I've been using this mobile app called Elevate and I'm loving it. Except for a few days, I have been maintaining a solid streak of using this app daily. What makes me come back to this app every single day? Why am I loving it? Let me try to jot down the answers to these questions from a "user" POV and capture the key lessons from a product management perspective.

I came across this app through an Instagram Sponsored Post. I don't remember the exact phrase used in the ad, but something on the lines of being a "trainer for your brain". This was the external trigger but there was already an internal trigger running in my mind. I was grappling with these questions - Why am I becoming so dependent on the calculator on my phone/laptop for silly calculations? What happened to my mental arithmetic capabilities that helped me a great deal during school and college? I shouldn't be taking my mobile phone out for simple calculations like 18*12 ! This was the first and foremost factor that motivated me to install this app in the first place. 

Though the product is extremely engaging, there is also one more solid reason why I use this app every day. My 8-year old daughter loves the app and she sits beside me while I'm playing. She encourages me to do better and whenever I get a High score, she gives me a high-five. And she reprimands me as well when I lose all my lives 🙂 Even on days when I forget to play, she reminds me and we sit together to play.

Lesson 1: External triggers will ONLY resonate IF there is already an internal trigger/push.

Every day, the free version displays 3 different games pertaining to Reading, Writing, Speaking and Math skills. And you don't get to see the 3 games upfront. When you open the app and start your training, the three games reveal themselves one after another. No two days are the same. The app provides a wide variety of games and there is an element of surprise to find out which games are part of a day's training. The app doesn't reveal all the games available to a free user in one go. As the user crosses certain milestones, new games are unlocked slowly and steadily. Each game has different music, varied sets of elements and pictorial representations, so you don't feel a sense of monotony.

Lesson 2: Provide scope for variety and surprise the user with new content. For gaming or social media apps, this is easier to accomplish, but we can still think of ways to make the experience more engaging for mundane apps as well. Why does business software need to be static and boring?

As you play the three games in a given day's training session, the app rewards you with Good Job, Great Job and Excellent Job, depending on your performance. And the visual representation of this scoring is done with the help of a hexagon. The fact that the hexagon gets completed ONLY if you get an Excellent Job is such a fascinating trigger. The need for completion/closure pushes you to play the same game until you hit the Excellent Job, thereby completing the hexagon. The visual elements typically used in similar gamified applications are a CIRCLE or a PROGRESS BAR, but for some reason, I find the use of a hexagon to be unique in this case. I don't remember the number of points I score in a given game, but if I hit the full hexagon mark, it gives me a sense of achievement.

Lesson 3: Human need for accomplishment/achievement can be such a powerful motivating factor. When deciding on the gamification strategy, it is not about the number of badges or scoring structure. The main objective should be to think through how we can get a user to experience a sense of achievement at the end of a session/workflow.

The app provides interesting insights into your growth across varied skills. As a person who loves interpreting charts and graphs, I do spend some time going through my Performance charts every single day. It gives me interesting comparisons of my levels relative to other Elevate users. It doesn't bombard me with too many metrics but only the most relevant ones. Though I use the app every single day, I spend a max of 15 minutes per day, which includes my training session as well as the time I look through the Performance charts. I don't like playing addictive games as they consume so much time and attention. After the Farmville experience back in 2010, I consciously stay away from gaming both on my phone and my laptop 🙂

Lesson 4: Products that require high engagement needn't necessarily take up all of a user's time. Social media apps can also be better designed so that a user can spend 10-15 min per day and yet feel motivated to come back to the app every single day. Of course, that may never be prioritized by the current social media behemoths who monetize users' data and attention.

Elevate delivers on the promise of being a trainer for my brain. I do feel a sense of improvement in my writing, reading and Math skills ever since I started using the app. I'm more conscious of the choice of words I use while writing my blog posts. I'm more accurate while doing simple mental Math calculations. I'm able to grasp the meaning and context better while reading. These are in fact the desired outcomes of any user who signs up for Elevate. It is not about the badges, scores or streak days BUT more about whether the app delivers value.

Lesson 5: As Product Managers, we tend to focus more on the metrics (DAUs, MAUs, event tracking, workflows etc) but it is more important to measure whether the user feels a sense of progress. As Kathy Sierra says, "Upgrade your user, not your product. Don't build better cameras, build better photographers"

Any Elevate fans reading this? 🙂 What do you love about this app?

Feb 10, 2020

Book Review: When coffee and kale compete by Alan Klement

As a product enthusiast, I have been exploring the concept of Jobs-to-be-done framework and its applications in building products customers love. The popular milkshake example by Clayton Christensen was such an "aha" moment when I read about it a few years back. I had jotted down a few thoughts on the same topic. Intercom's e-book on Jobs-to-be-done is a fantastic resource to understand this theory in detail. A few people that I have found to be sharing interesting perspectives on JTBD are Kathy Sierra, Samuel Hulick, Ryan Singer, Des Traynor, Paul Adams and Alan Klement. Kathy Sierra's Badass: Making users awesome is such an interesting book that I read a few years back. That reminds me, I should revisit it soon.

I recently finished reading this book on JTBD / Customer Jobs theory written by Alan Klement titled "When coffee and kale compete" (available on Kindle Unlimited).

If you are unfamiliar with the Jobs concept, the author takes the time to explain the need and context of why this theory is important in today's context. So this book could be the first step for anyone stepping into the world of JTBD. He explains the concepts along with relevant case studies of how various organizations have been applying this framework to create value.

The basic shift in the way we talk about "value creation" is summed up in this sentence
"Instead of attaching value to what products are, value should attach to what products do for customers."

In today's age of Creative Destruction, where new innovations disrupt the sales of incumbent ones and go on to replace them, Customer Jobs theory helps us to understand why customers buy a product to complete a Job to be Done. It is also imperative to not just focus on customers' needs and expectations of today but also create new systems that help customers make progress.

The author emphasizes on approaching Jobs as a way towards making progress. The basic premise that Self-betterment is a core human behavior helps us to unravel this idea "jobs-as-a-measure-of-progress" in a structured way. It makes sense across all use cases, irrespective of B2C or B2B.
What's the desire every customer has to improve themselves and their life situations?
How customers imagine their lives being better when they have the right solution?
"We can't build the products of tomorrow when we limit ourselves to the needs and expectations associated with the products of today. Instead, we should focus on what never changes for customers: their desire for progress."

The author defines JTBD as
"A Job to be Done is the process a consumer goes through whenever she aims to transform her existing life-situation into a preferred one, but cannot because there are constraints that stop her."

The few key principles behind Customer Jobs theory are
  • Favor progress over outcomes and goals
  • Customers need to feel successful at every touchpoint between themselves and your business
  • Design your product to deliver customers an ongoing feeling of progress
  • Focus on delivering emotional progress and not focus solely on functionality

The case studies are quite detailed and showcase how the Jobs theory can be used across a wide set of use-cases. The chapters that talk about the four forces of progress - pushes, pulls, inertia and anxieties were quite insightful. Pushes and pulls are part of demand generation, whereas inertias and anxieties lead to demand reduction.

A few questions I had jotted down that I plan to use for my work:
What's the business situation that prompts customers to take action?
What are the struggles/aspirations that push customers to take action? => helps us to unravel the motivation for change
What are the events that influenced the customer to take action?
What does progress mean for our customers? Not just in terms of functionality, but also emotional progress.
How does his transformed life look like, after he has adopted our platform?
What other solutions have they tried? Is it a single solution or a combination of different solutions?
What did they like or don't like about these solutions tried? => helps us to unravel what they value.
From which budget will our product take money from? => competition is a zero-sum game
What are those triggering events that would push the customers move from the solution tried to a new one?

This book has loads of insights and questions that would make you stop and ponder. If you are an innovator, product manager, product marketer or startup founder, I'm sure you would have plenty of takeaways. I highly recommend that you check out this book.

Feb 9, 2020

FAQs on Millets

In 2014, I wrote an article on how to incorporate millets in your daily meals. Whenever someone asks me about millets, I point them to this article. It's been 6 years and so much has changed (for the better) with respect to millets - increased awareness, easy availability, tons of recipes online and proven effectiveness towards various health issues. I've been wanting to write a follow-up article to address a few questions that I get repeatedly on millets. I have compiled the answers below for quick reference. If you prefer a video version, I have made one (basic phone recording though). Or if you prefer the written word, continue further :-)

(1) How to buy millets?
When you buy, make sure you select the unpolished variety. Many supermarkets have polished varieties that are pristine white in colour, especially varagu(kodo millet), saamai (little millet) and kudiraivali (barnyard millet). 
Varagu is pale brown in color, saamai is pale cream-ish in color. Kudiraivali has tiny black spots on each grain. Thinai (foxtail millet) looks slightly yellowish. 

(2) How to plan and buy millets?
My suggestion would be not to overstock all varieties since I have noticed tiny black bugs infesting most of these grains after 2-3 months. For a family of 3-4, I recommend buying 2-3 varieties of 1/2 kg each.

I classify millets into two categories:
  1. Ragi (finger millet)/Kambu (pearl millet)/Solam (sorghum/jowar) - more suited for breakfast/tiffin items
  1. Thinai/saamai/kudiraivali/varagu/panivaragu - can be used for both breakfast and lunch
So I usually stock up 1 variety from the first category and 2 from the second category. This would last me for around 2 months, post which I would rotate the grains. This way, we get a variety of nutrients from these millets without any wastage.

(3) When to eat millets?
I typically include millets for breakfast and lunch. I don't prefer them for dinner as they are quite filling and take time to digest.
If you are new to millets, plan 2-3 meals per week where you use ONE variety of millet in your main meal. Take it slow. Observe how your body is able to absorb - whether you feel comfortable or not. Gradually increase the type of millets used and the frequency. After a year or so, you can plan for 1 meal a day based on a variety of millets.

(4) Can we mix 2-3 millets in a single meal?
Usually, it is recommended not to mix multiple grains in a single meal. But my answer is it depends on each individual's digestive capacity. If you find combining millets to be on the heavier side, avoid it. There are no hard and fast rules here, try and experiment with what works for you.
If millets are dry roasted and ground, it should be okay to include as a mixed millet sathumaavu kanji / porridge.

(5) Can we eat millets in all seasons?
Yes, definitely. A few points to keep in mind. Some of the millets tend to be heat-inducing IF consumed in large quantities.
Kambu/Ragi/Thinai - supposed to be heat-generating. So if you include either of them in summers, include cooling foods such as water-based vegetables, buttermilk and shallots along with your meal.
Solam - a summer grain. Can be easily consumed for breakfast in the form of idli, dosa, oothappam or paniyarams.
Ragi  - best suited during monsoon and season shifts. It helps to control mucus formation. 
Saamai - good for all seasons. Easy to digest. 
Kudiraivali - good for all seasons but since it is high in fibre, drink enough water.

I hope you find these pointers helpful. If there are any further questions, do let me know in the comments below.

Tang Orange Drink Review

Summer is nearing. And who else to remind this than a powdered flavored drink! The sponsored ad I came across this morning pushed me to write this down. Do note the tone of the message used. 

Adding Tang to water will help us in meeting the required 8 glasses to keep us hydrated. Wait a minute. Isn't this the same brand that was called out as misleading by ASCI in their May 2019 recommendations? Yet, the same tone continues. What's the point of regulations then?

Coming to the product, the first ingredient is sugar and 94% of the serving is nothing but sugar. Each recommended serving contains nearly 5 tsp of sugar (to be added to 200 ml of water). Artificial food colors are being added. And the actual orange fruit powder is only 0.8%. Where's the goodness of fruit here?

Let's look at the much highlighted Vitamin C - 24mg per serving, which pales in comparison to real natural foods.

100gm of gooseberry contains 252mg of vitamin C.
100gm of guava contains 220mg of vitamin C
100gm of green capsicum contains 123 mg of vitamin C
100gm of orange contains 43mg of vitamin C.

Water is all that we need to hydrate ourselves. Not sugar-loaded color powder.

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