IMDb: onward to 100 M unique visitors through social content, personalization and Asia

I decided to skip watching Wolverine on Friday night and thought about the business of “movies” from my vantage point (as a tech entrepreneur).

I’ve used  the Internet Movie Database (imdb) for more than ten years as my primary source for all things “movies”. Along the way, I’ve also frequented Yahoo movies, Rotten Tomatoes, my college newspaper’s movie reviews and Flixster (on faceboook) for American movies and IndiaFM for Hindi movies. As IMDb continues to grow towards Col Needham’s vision of putting a Play button on every page (the Big Hairy Audacious goal of streaming all movies and TV episodes for free), it has unique opportunities to dramatically increase traffic from 57 M unique visitors per month to 100 M. In this post, I want to share my thoughts on:

  1. The mental model of a movie viewer’s intentions around movies – as a finite state model
  2. How would I approach to grow the user-base by providing an immersive and delightful “movie” experience to users
  3. Social graph, personalization and Asian markets – why they matter!

Where do people go today to find information about movies/celebrities?

While IMDb is one of the most frequented web sites in the world and the most frequented movie destination site in the world, competitors like Yahoo Movies and Flixster (200+ % growth!) have been growing at a faster rate. Here’s a comparative snapshot of US traffic from Compete.(Alexa, Quantcast, Comscore show similar relative results)

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Mental model of a movie viewer’s intentions and actions:

Based on my personal experiences and conversations with friends, people visit an entertainment/movie website to read movie reviews, find out more information about a movie/celebrity, find showtimes for movies, watch trailers, buy a movie ticket or learn about upcoming/new movies. Being a computer scientist, I couldn’t help but create a finite state model.

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The ideal web experience would enable the user to transition from one state to another in an intuitive and delightful way, without leaving the website. To further understand the four main scenarios, let’s take an example of a fictitious persona : Shelly Jones, who has recently graduated from college and loves movies.

  • Discover: Shelly may discover a new movie or a new celebrity through multiple sources (online and offline) – by talking with friends, watching a trailer in a movie theater, seeing a poster, watching an ad on TV, reading an article in a blog/newspaper, reading the list of upcoming movies on a website, etc.
  • Learn: After discovering about a movie or a celebrity or a TV show, Shelly wants to learn about the movie by reading synopsis, reading a review, learning more about the cast, watching trailers online, listening to/reading interviews of the cast, etc. such that it helps her to decide whether or not she should watch that movie.
  • Watch: If Shelly decides to watch the movie, she may also want to find out the
    showtimes near her location and potentially buy her tickets online. If
    feasible, she may want to watch the movie online right away on her
    computer or rent it (on Netflix or Blocksuster)
  • Discuss: After watching a movie, Shelly may want to write a review, rate the movie and discuss more about the movie with others who may have watched it. She may want to learn more about the cinematographer for the movie and watch other movies by the cast members.

While most movie sites address some or all of the above listed scenarios, the successful ones focus heavily on making the transitions (represented by numbered arrows in the diagram) obvious, intuitive and delightful, thereby reducing any friction for the user to immerse herself in the world of movies. Let’s explore the transitions:

  1. Discover > Learn: Once Shelly discovers a movie, TV show or a celebrity, she should be able to easily search for more information with at most two clicks. The search process should be enjoyable and exploratory, the content should be available and trustworthy and Shelly should be able to immerse herself into a discover > learn > discover cycle.
  2. Learn > Watch: One of Shelly’s primary objective is to decide whether she should watch that movie or not. Shelly should get objective and expert guidance/reviews about a movie/celebrity to help her decide. Shelly should be able to tag or store the information and should be able to access it later.
  3. Watch > Learn: After watching a movie, Shelly would want to learn more about the movie / celebrity.Once Shelly indicates that she has watched a movie, she could be easily shown which of her other friends have seen it, what information have they accessed, how can she use her experience of watching that movie to make decisions about discovering and watching new movies.
  4. Watch > Discuss: Invariably, whenever I go to a movie with friends, the first topic of conversation after the movie is – “Did you like it?”. Shelly is likely to rate a movie, write a review or discuss the movie/celebrity in the message boards. The key would be to highlight key topics of discussion around a movie to Shelly, allow her to share/discuss/compare her review with her friends.
  5. Discuss > Learn: Through conversations, Shelly is likely to discover information about linked movies/celebrities and learn more about it.

IMDb addresses all of the above scenarios, but it has an opportunity to make these experiences more engaging, social and personalized. Based on the affordance of IMDB’s website, today it appears to focus the most on “Learn” and “Discuss” with a long term vision to emphasize on “Watch”. Although, all three experiences are superb by themselves, Shelly’s experience can be enhanced significantly by reducing friction from the transitions.

How would I grow traffic at IMDb?

IMDb has been growing at an enviable rate for its size (almost 40-50% year over year) ans as it continues to grow towards its big goal of streaming all movies and TV episodes, I see strategic opportunities to significantly grow traffic/ad revenues while satisfying the users and advertising customers.

IMDb is an established brand with a large number of loyal users. Taking an overly simplified approach, there are two ways to grow:

  1. Provide “more” services and thereby monetize the existing demographics more
  2. Attract new demographics by offering newer services

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1.1 Existing Demographics:

As shown in the tree diagram above, it would be both strategic and tactical to address the users with existing demographics, which can be further segmented as

  • 2.1 Existing Users, who already frequent the website
  • 2.2 New Users who may have similar demographics as the existing users, but do not frequent IMDb

2.1 Existing Users:

  • 3.1 Increase average time per visit:

While integrating videos is likely to increase average time spent on the site, IMDb has several assets (message boards, ratings, reviews, recommendations) which can be leveraged to have more users spend more time on the site. While most discussion on IMDb is facilitated by message boards and comments, there are tactical opportunities to make these conversations more discoverable, frequent and delightful by augmenting them with a social graph and an architecture of reputation for all user generated content. When users have an incentive to discuss movies and celebrities with their friends, they’re likely to spend more time on the site in communicating and reciprocating on the web site, in addition to the time they would spend for their personal movie-exploration.

  • 3.2 Increase frequency of visits:

Existing users typically visit a specific intent to discover/consume some information (and a relatively small percentage of users visit to just explore.) Users in the former category can be prompted to visit the site, when new content which maps directly to their preference is added to the site or when their friends have contributed some content that they may care about. Personalized and social notifications (recommendations, reviews and messages) along with an architecture of reputation could incentivise users to visit the site more frequently.

2.2 New Users:

  • 3.3 Reduce friction to discover the site

In the past three years, a certain class of web-sites and applications have become the sole way to discover, consume and access information on the web. The key in attracting new users is to reduce any friction from their current behavior/method of consuming information.While some optimization can be done through Search Engine Optimization (especially for TV-related information), the highest order bit is to make the information on the site discoverable and available through user’s existing work flow. Detailed integration with facebook and MySpace, further integration with twitter (beyond requesting information about movies) and integration with avenues where people watch movies/TV(for instance: Netflix queues, Blockbuster rental history, Tivo and fandango). This would ensure that new users will discover and use IMDb, without significantly changing their behavior.

  • 3.4 Reduce friction to use/access the site any where and on any device

Requiring a user to be using a computer (desktop/laptop) to be able to fully enjoy the movie-exploration experience may be restrictive. A new set of users could start using IMDb more frequently, if it is pervasive and accessible anywhere from any device. Investments in mobile-optimized website (for instance, trailers which work on iphone), applications on iphone/android/Windows Mobile could reduce friction to access the information. Integration with Netflix-enabled devices (for instance: XBox 360) could be another channel for a pervasive experience.

1.2 New Demographics:

Besides leveraging the users of existing demographics, it would be strategic to invest in newer markets to ensure long-term growth.

  • 2.3 New markets (both geographically and genre-wise)
  • 2.4 New content aimed at both casual users and professional users

2.3 New Markets:

  • 3.5 New geography

IMDb is the number one movie site, but caters primarily to Hollywood movies or acclaimed International movies. India boasts the world’s biggest movie industry (at least in terms of number of movies released per year) and several Indian celebrities are popular across the world (even among non-Indians). While IMDb contains title pages for several Indian movies and celebrities and syndicates news from BollywoodHungama.com, the experience for browsing an Indian movie is not as immersive or delightful as that of browsing a Hollywood movie. Through a combination of key partnerships with Indian content providers, SEO and seeding IMDb resumes of Indian celebrities, IMDb has an untapped opportunity to become the number one movie site for Indian movies. The same applies to movies made in rest of Asia (China/HongKong/Taiwan in particular, where the movie is going through a massive growth in the relatively liberal years currently.)

  • 3.6 New genre

While IMDb has successfully rolled out a dedicated section for all things – TV, there are opportunities to increase scope and grow by offering information about video games, user generated videos on YouTube, anime and music.

2.4 New Content:

  • 3.7 Content for casual users

While pro users contribute most of the content, casual users (who mainly seek information about a movie, TV show, trivia, celebrities, gossip, etc.) typically tend to account for the majority of visitors (I haven’t confirmed this for IMDb). Casual users could be interested in interactive games, trivia and polls, which is currently hidden in message boards. There is an opportunity to create a new set of content (games and applications) catered towards the casual visitors. The ideal avenue would be to empower the pro-users to create such content/games, by giving them tools to create, promote and distribute such content. Today, the pro-users already do that through message boards.

  • 3.8 Content for pro-users

Most content on IMDb is user-generated and editor-approved. Pro-users (very frequent visitors of the site, who proactively participate in discussions, write reviews, add biographies, etc.) are responsible for most of the user-generated content on IMDb. There is an opportunity to leverage this loyal base to create more and different content for the casual users to consume, by empowering the pro users with tools to create new, engaging and interesting content. Today, most of the innovation is restricted to message boards on IMDb, which restrains the creativity of the creator and discoverability of the content by a casual user. By providing tools to create games, different visualizations of content (photo albums/collages), movie guides catered towards a diverse set of users (guides for Christians, guides for immigrants, etc.), user-submitted photos, videos and fan sites – a completely new set of content can be created and offered to the users. This approach can be further optimized by adding the notion of “reputation” to incentivize pro-users to contribute more and high-quality content. Today, a user’s profile page on IMDb doesn’t distinguish a registered user who may have written 100 movie reviews from a user who may have not written any.

Decision Matrix – Which ideas to implement?

As a business owner, I would optimize the implementation on the basis of users’ satisfaction and advertisers’ satisfaction. The top left quadrant in the 2X2 matrix below indicates the changes that would add positive value to both users and advertisers while the top right quadrant indicates ideas that are positive for the users but may not be the most optimal for advertisers. Based on the opportunities described above (3.1 -3.8), I see three main themes, which would add positive value to both users and advertisers: social content, personalization, Asia.

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How?

  1. Social Content

    1. Social Graph: I’m not proposing a “me too” approach of copying “Flixster”. Instead, I’m proposing to highlight and leverage the already existing social activitiy happening through message boards on IMDb.
      1. Instead of relatively static message boards, IMDb has an opportunity to increase the reach of discussions to a larger number of users by integrating with other portable social graphs (Facebook Connect, My Space Open API, etc). It would be strategic to extend the notion of “Friends” on message boards to IMDb’s own social graph in the long run, thereby enabling scenarios for easily sharing friends’ reviews, ratings, notifications, etc. (today limited sharing is available through exchange of static links, which could be a barrier for some users)
      2. The conversation can be further extended to a conversation between celebrities and users, as opposed to amongst just users. Ashton Kutcher has proven the value of a constructive dialog between a celebrity and fans. IMDb has an opportunity to be a social interface between celebrities and fans.
      3. IMDb has an opportunity to incentivize users who add significant value to other users by implementing a notion of “reputation” based on a user’s activity
    2. More user generated Content:
      1. IMDb has an opportunity to leverage the loyal user base to create/source innovative content around movies, TV and celebrities. Empowering users to create their “fan sites” or blogs around a particular celebrity or a movie could lead to more traffic and a stronger sense of community.
      2. Enable user to comment, rate and review individual content pieces as well. For instance enable users to comment on a photo, instead of generic comments on the title page.
    3. Platform Approach:
      1. A majority of innovation could be crowdsourced to the long tail of movie fans and devlepers who would find creative ways to build new experiences around IMDb’s content. Today most content is not easily accessible (developers need to download the text files locally and pay licensing fees.) IMDb has an opportunity to selectively expose some content through a hosted API, and let movie fans innovate. There’s a minor risk of sabotaging existing licensing fees (earned from the content), but it could prove to be a strategic long term move
  2. Personalization:
    1. Instead of restricting personalization to visual appearance, IMDb has an opportunity to leverage user’s browsing habits, ratings, reviews, friends, message board participation and My Movies lists to create a very personalized movie-experience. Personalized notifications through RSS feeds about new content that may interest the user could incentivize the user to visit the site more frequently.
    2. Partnerships with Netflix, Tivo and other similar services could help automate personalization.
    3. Enable the user to fine-tune the personalized recommendations by allowing them to vote on the recommendations.
  3. Asia Readiness
    1. Focus on India: Position IMDb as the most comprehensive destination for information on Indian movies and celebrities (it is NOT today), by seeding information about Indian movies and celebrities.
    2. Raise awareness amongst the Indian audiences through SEM and partnerships with leading content providers in India.
    3. Repeat in China.

IMDB has been successful as the most comprehensive source for movie, TV and celebrity content. Fostering easily accessible and shareable conversations around this content could accelerate and nurture rapid growth.

There’s no business like show business!

-Kintan

this week, I discovered Phulki

Every day, we all find out about new and cool technologies, products, designs, people, music, art…..Some of them are pretty cool and very few of them are just WOW. Every week, I’ll take some time to share the most interesting “thing” I discovered that week as a gesture of appreciation for that “thing” and getting some “karma” points..

Mike Arrington and Scoble do a phenomenal job in sharing cool startups/technologies, engadget does the same for gadgets, mocoloco does the same for designer furniture and the list goes on…I’m a fan of all of them and don’t intend to offer an alternative…It is just my way of showing appreciation for the creators of WOW things.
phulki

I learned about a simple search engine for streaming Indian music called Phulki. I love iLike (social music experience), pandora(online radio), last.fm(online radio – social) and imeem (friend’s playlists), but none of them cater to Indian music in particular. Phulki has a very simple UI, a powerful search and a web-based music player. The search returns results from various other online music sites and enables the users to play it on phulki’s ajax-based music player. Phulki also allows users to download the music (I don’t know how legal it is), but aggregating streaming music from various websites and playing them on a simple web-based player is pretty cool.

In the vertical space for online Indian music, several providers have attempted unsuccessfully to offer this simple functionality, but have failed pathetically. Phulki seems to have solved it, and I’ve been enjoying it for four days now, hence it gets this week’s mention.

let’s rock on!

-Kintan

Technorati tags: Indian music , design

PM interview – ten design questions

In response to "How would you design a kitchen?" series, few people had asked me about typical design questions. While the questions may range from designing an object like a cup to designing an ad-serving platform, here are some practice-questions.

1.       Design a web cam

2.       Design an object model and an API for a chat client

3.       Design a photo-viewer application for mobile devices

4.       Design a paint brush (physical paint brush)

5.       Design a washing machine/dryer  for clothes

6.       Design a switch for a sun roof opener in the car

7.       Design notepad (software)

8.       Design a cellphone for a retired person

9.       Design a computer for your grandma

10.   Design the $100 laptop

the list continues…

-Kintan

Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, product manager interview

How would you design a kitchen? – cuatro(final)

Continued from tres

After spending the first 12 minutes of a design interview for a program/product manager role in learning more about the user, requirements, constraints and scenarios, as per the design template, you could spend the next 30 mintues in actually designing the prodcut/feature/object.

What design you come up with will be directly proportional to your imagination, your readings and your curiosity; but it is important to do the following at the very least:

  1. Approach the design in logical steps
  2. Ask for feedback and design iteratively
  3. Recognize key decision-points during the design and decide

Approaching logically: The easiest way to make your answer appear logical is to add a pre-determined structure to your answers. While designing, the simplest way to do so is to divide key design components in three. For instance, there could be three main components to designing a kitchen: cooking area, storing area and cleaning area – or- you may follow a workflow model and start by saying – the key persona (Leona, in our example) will do three key activities (cooking, storing and washing dishes).

Designing iteratively: Once, you’ve stated your three main points, it is critical to get them validated by the interviewer. More than validation, it always helps to involve the interviewer in the design exercise and ask for feedback on your thoughts. You may use the third column on the design template to list down key feedback points on the whiteboard.

Decisions: If someone were to ask me to answer – “What do I do the the most as a Program Manager?”, the obvious answer will be “decide.” Throughout the product cycle, the PM is required to make several decision (small and big) about the product/feature and the rest of the team looks up to the PM to make the final call. It is indispensable to demonstrate this to the interviewer. The key about making decisions is to make them on the basis of a “value system”. Decision-making becomes easier when there are no contradictions in your value system.

designtemplatevaluesystem

In the design template, the value system is represented on the top of the third column by a simple graph with three axes. I typically take three determining criteria for the product and prioritize them. For instance, for any interactive web-based software three factors (represented by each axis) could be a. interaction, b. functionality, c. robustness. After listing these three factors and validating them with the interviewer, you could mark their importance on the graph and connect the dots. For instance, if you’re likely to focus on ‘interaction’ more than performance and ‘robustness’ for that design question, then mark further on the interaction axis than you would for the ‘robustness’ axis.

If you have to choose between two design choices, it would be easier to use simple tables to list down all pros and cons of both options. See the third table in the design template.

It is very important to try to design a comprehensive wireframe/diagram on the board within the remaining 30 minutes. So I would caution you on time. The process and approach described in this series have worked for me and several other people who have used it, but only process won’t help (it would only indicate that you’ve read this blog). It is important to design WOW things. That can be done only through practice. So, I would urge you to develop a design-oriented thought process. Be cognizant about good and bad designs of objects around you. Ask yourself, why your cellphone is designed such? Why your bathroom door-knob is designed such? Why is my blog’s layout designed such?

Let’s design a kitchen!

-Kintan

Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, design a kitchen,product manager interview

How would you design a kitchen? – tres

continued from dos..

Once the requirements are gathered, constraints are taken into account and the mental model of the user is understood, you would have laid a solid foundation to start talking about key user-types and the scenarios in which the product/object is likely to be used the most.

It is important to identify key user-types, commonly known as "personas". Jonathan Grudin and John Pruit has written a detailed explanation of participatory design and personas here. My friend from User Research at Microsoft – Lada Gorlenko gave me a quick primer on various types of personas. In her words:

·         Primary personas (by definition) are users for who we are trying to optimize the interface. They are the primary user target and should be completely satisfied by the interface. 

·         Secondary personas are less important target users who can be largely (but not entirely) satisfied by the interface. They may have a few additional needs that we may or may not want or have resources to address. If we are addressing the special needs of secondary personas, we must make sure that these needs do not get in the way of the primary persona. An interface can have zero to two-three secondary personas.

·         Supplementary personas are personas who are not the primary target, but are completely satisfied by the interface anyway: they need a subset of what the interface has to offer or their needs for that particular product are similar to the needs of primary personas. They are kind of personas who are killed by the same stone as the primary ones as by-product J

·         Customer personas are those who choose and buy the product rather than use it.

·         Served personas do not use the product, but are affected by the use, they are “passengers in the car” rather than drivers, if you design a car dashboard. In our world, helpdesks are often server personas; they may not use our products as such, but they troubleshoot them.

·         Negative are personas we specifically do not design for. “Matches are not for small kids” kind of personas J

While following the design template, during PM interviews, it is a good idea to talk about at least three personas – primary, secondary and negative personas. This exercise will give you a comprehensive understanding about various potential users and will help make your design more complete.

For instance, you may say that primary persona for a kitchen on a train is Leona Nordic, who is the main chef in the kitchen and is responsible for deciding the menu as well as cooking. Mentioning full names of the personas help in adding empathy/realism to your statements. Seconday persona would be Peter Jardin, who is a server on the train and negative persona would be Tom Dickens who is a passenger and is less likely to enter the kitchen.

Personas lay a foundation for defining your scenarios, which are core to any design. The key in describing scenarios is to call out two or three most basic and frequent use cases of the product/object in question. For instance, one scenario for kitchen on a train could be – Leona prepares a sandwich and heats water for tea for a customer. High order bit here is to focus on the most basic scenario.

You may summarize the scenarios to define the core mission/vision statement for your design problem, before digging in the actual design. Defining the personas and scenarios should take about four to five minutes during the interview.

Let’s design for people!

-Kintan

Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, design a kitchen,product manager interview , personas

How would you design a kitchen? – dos

Continued from uno..

I’ll attempt to describe the notions of “mental model” and “affordances” in this quick post. Our mind constantly picks up pre-conceived notions and expectations about certain things. Mind assumes certain object to have a particular set of characteristics and if it finds out otherwise, it has a tendancy to judge the object as poorly designed.

A simplest example in digital terms could be: A button control on a web form, needs to be clickable at the very least. Our mind expects a button to be clickable and expects something to happen to the form once the button is clicked. If that basic ‘clickability’ is missing, the mind would judge the button or the form as “poorly” designed. Coming back to our example of designing a kitchen – no matter who the kitchen is for, human mind expects the kitchen to have to do something with food – ideally cooking/preparing/storing.  This set of characteristics and expectations that human mind has for every object is referred to as the mental model.

While following the design template, it is important to acknowledge the mental model for the object that is being designed and write it down. Some people also refer to it as affordance. For instance,

  • To be round is an affordance of a ball
  • To deal with food is an affordance of a kitchen
  • To be clickable is an affordnace of a button
  • To send and receive messages is an affordance of a chat/mail client
  • To add friends is an affordance of a social network

If your design lacks to acknowledge that, it may be easy to miss out on some fundamental points.

Let’s design the obvious!

-Kintan

Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, design a kitchen,product manager interview,mental models

How would you design a kitchen? – uno

I’ve received a few mails from friends asking me to explain my template for answering a design question in further detail, so let’s use one of the cliche interview questions to walk through my approach of answering design questions in Product/Program manager interviews.

“How would you design a kitchen?” is tantamount to “How would you move Mt. Fuji?”. Several PM interviewers are known to have asked this (in fact I was asked this twice – once in my campus interviews long time ago and then during a full-day interview – again several years ago.) As an interviewee, the key is to know that the “question” really does not matter. The approach does and the same approach can be successfully applied to ansewering a technical question like – “How would you design an object model for an instant messaging client?”

kitchenfromikea
Before we start answering the question, let me share as to why I believe this template and more importantly “writing/scribbling/drawing your answer on the whiteboard” works. There are three strategic advantages of using the whiteboard in answering any design questions. The whiteboard helps in:

1. Taking notes and not having to worry about remembering them: As you’ll see, the key in answering such questions to the interviewer’s satisfaction is to ensure that you ask about every requirement and constraint before starting to answer the question – more the merrier. Writing down all requirements on the whiteboard and having them available during later stage in the interview can be really helpful.

2. Keeping track of the content, structure and timeliness of your answer: I’m a visual thinker and visual cues have always helped me in communicating my ideas more succinctly as well as comprehensively. Using the whiteboard (as shown in the template) is likely to make the interviewer notice your structured approach. Having your approach and answers visually available on the whiteboard allows the interviewer to provide immediate iterative feedback to a particular section of your answer, as opposed to a comprehensive feedback at the end. Iterative approach is the key to a successful design and having all iterations available visually will help the interviewer see the progressive design.

3. Snapshot of your answer for the next interviewer: Typically most interview loops include four to six people interviewing a candidate on the same day. It is customary for an interviewer to share his/her feedback on the candidate to the next interviewer, so that the next interviewer can structure the interview accordingly. Having a visual snapshot of your entire interview/answer makes it easier for an interviewer to share it with the next interviewer and is helpful in writing interview feedback at a later point.

If the interviewer does not have a whiteboard, request to use paper, but never attempt to answer such questions just verbally. The cardinal sin in answering any design question is to start answering it without asking any questions to the interviewer. Ideally, you should spend at least five to seven minutes in understanding the question, the requirements, the primary and secondary users and the constraints. The high order bit is to ask the right questions in right order.

For instance, one way to start answering – “How would you design a kitchen?” would be as follows:

Candidate: What is a kitchen?
Interviewer: A kitchen is a place to cook, store and server food as well as to clean utensils.
Candidate: Why do we need to design a kitchen? Are we designing from scratch or re-designing an existing kitchen? What are the flaws in the existing kitchen, if we are re-designing it?
Interviewer: We are designing it from scratch.
Candidate: Where is the kitchen going to be located? In a home, in a restaurant, some place else?
Interviewer: In a train
Candidate: That’s great. Are we just redesigning the kitchen or the entire train is also being redesigned by someone else? Is this kitchen going to be designed for a particular train or is it going to be mass-produced?
Interviewer: Only the kitchen is being re-designed. The kitchen is primarily designed for one particular train, but can be re-used in other trains, if the design is successful.
Candidate: Why are we redesigning it? Is it a passenger train or a cargo train? How many passengers does the train transport? Typically which cities does the train connect. How long is the longest journey?
Interviewer: Current kitchen only allows storage of cooked meals. We now want the ability to cook snacks and make beverages. We also want more storage. The longest distance is 1200 miles from Washington to California.

You get the idea…The precision question-answers can continue, but the key is to ask as many questions as you can to get the following requirements and constraints in the first five-seven minutes of the conversation, described in the first column of the template:

  • What needs to be designed?
  • Who is it for?
  • Why are we designing it?
  • What are time and cost constraints?
  • How are we expected to build it?
  • Who else besides the primary uses are likely to use it?
  • What are the core requirements in terms of functionality?

When I was first asked this question during a campus interview, I started describing high-tech futuristic solutions, with refrigerators connected with the web with auto-ordering system (for instance, milk, eggs, etc. will be automatically ordered from an online grocery service, based on weight sensors in the refrigerator). Although the answers were creative, they would have been incorrect (if the kitchen was not to be designed for the home).

Let’s be curious and ask the right questions!

-Kintan

Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, design a kitchen,product manager interview

How to become a Program Manager (at Microsoft or anywhere) – dos

“How would you design a kitchen?” – asked the campus recruiter, during my first on-campus screen. I completely flunked that question during the interview, due to mistakes that seem obvious now, but were way beyond my understanding of the role. During interviews, the interviewer is not judging a candidate’s creativity in a 30-minute conversation about designing a kitchen. The intent is to rather observe the approach and validate certain basic things – whether the candidate cares about the customer’s/user’s requirements or just goes ballastic on designing the kitchen, is the process iterative, etc.

To us engineers, it is tempting to start designing (read drawing screenshots/diagrams on the whiteboard) right away, but I would urge to pause and spend as much time as you can on understanding the user, the user’s intent, the constraints, the affordance, etc. before even starting to design. Over the years, I’ve developed a personal template for answering any design questions during an interview for a PM position and it has worked for most of my friends. Below is a quick snapshot of what you could write on the whiteboard (typically, most interviewers will ask you to use the whiteboard in asnwering such questions).

pmdesigntemplate

Divide the board in three vertical sections and start with the first section (top -> down). Discuss the requirements and constraints, and use the white board to take notes. Follow the template (top -> down, left -> right)

Let’s design great things!

-Kintan

Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft

How to become a Program Manager (at Microsoft or anywhere) – uno

Three years ago, I asked myself and several of my mentors within and outside of Microsoft – "What’s the closest thing to entrepreneurship at Microsoft?" The unanimous answer was – "Become a Program Manager on a product that’s about to grow/explode!!" I took the leap of faith and it worked. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it and would recommend it to anyone, who’s passionate about technology, entrepreneurship and design.

Several folks have asked me a gamut of questions aboutthe role of a program manager, but the most common threads of conversations have been around "becoming a program manager at Microsoft."

While the role is called Program Manager, it is similar to the role of a product manager at most other companies including Google, Facebook, startups, etc. At Microsoft, Product Manager is a marketing role. Much has been written about the role by my mentors and people who are much more experienced, so I won’t delve into it. Three of my favorite blog posts (although some posts are dated) on the topic have been:

I’ll share some thinking points and more importantly, resources that I’ve found useful.

1. What do you look for in a PM candidate?
In an interview, we look for the following:

  • Design aptitude
  • Technical depth
  • Raw smarts
  • Customer empathy
  • Project management
  • Raw passion
  • Ability to get things done

So, if you are interviewing for a position, you’re bound to be asked the obvious question  – Why do you want to become a PM?

Ensure that your answers convey that your aspirations, motivations and experiences till date have instilled the qualities listed above.

2, Where to start?

If you’ve decided to become a PM, start by approaching your current activities like a successful PM. I’ve enjoyed reading the following books:

  • The Art of Project Management by Scott Berkun
  • About Face 2.0 (first 50 pages)
  • Design of everyday things
  • Design of things to come

Typically, I’ve seen some of my friends not focusing enough on design, as they’ve not learned it in school. If you feel the same way, then I’ll suggest focusing heavily on design (architecture design, user experience design, etc.)

I’ll follow up with a post which focuses on answering design questions during an interview.

-Kintan

Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , Microsoft