JMCQUARRIE.co.uk

James McQuarrie is a UK based Senior Product Manager who helps teams design, build and deliver digital products and services that delight their users.

Category Archive: User Experience

  1. How I approach Product Management

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    I work for the teams I lead.

    I see digital product (and service) delivery as a collaborative endeavour. It requires Product Managers, Designers, Engineers, Researchers, Data Scientists, Domain Experts and Business Leaders to all work together to apply their individual expertise and experiences to solve problems.

    My job as a Product Leader is to make sure everyone involved has everything they need to be able to do that well. Including (but not limited to):

    • a clear understanding of what customer need they are trying to address
    • what the business objectives for the product are and how the team’s goals align to the wider organisation’s vision and strategy
    • an environment where collaboration between all team members works for the team.

    How each of the above are delivered is dependent on the organisation and team makeup. All teams are different. Some naturally lean towards a customer centric approach, while others are more technology or solutions centric by nature. Some organisations are very adept at providing a clear and concise vision and strategy, others less so. Some teams are naturally better at collaborating than others.

    My job as a Product Leader is to understand the organisation and team makeup and adapt my way of working to fit with how they do their best work. Always focused on delivering measurable outcomes, not just outputs, that improve the overall experience of customers using the product or service.

    A lot of Product Managers see themselves as the people who shape the product, with their teams there to execute their vision. I don’t.

    I believe it’s the team who shapes the product, my role is to shape the team and give them what they need to shape the product.

    I can bring my experience as a UX consultant to the team, offering input on the usability, accessibility etc of the product’s design and implementation, but ultimately it’s the Designers and Engineers on the team who make the decisions about how a solution we work on is executed.

    My job is to help them focus on the right problem to solve and make sure they have the information and tools they need to solve it by working together.

    While the specifics are different for each team I work with, broadly speaking I like to follow the Inspired (Marty Cagan) approach to product management, splitting the team’s activities into two tracks:

    1. Discovery work
    2. Delivery work

    Discovery work

    Discovery work is focused on gaining insights about any problem or problems customers have and exploring different ways we could solve those issues with our product or service. This type of work calls for rapid iteration and exploration and involves a lot of prototyping, testing, trial and error, and learning.

    Delivery work

    Delivery work is focused on implementing the solutions that have been explored and tested and deemed good enough to be put out into the world. This type of work involves making sure the execution of those solutions is done to the highest standard, still as quickly as possible.

    The “we believe vs. we know” question

    It can often be hard to know which type of work a team is (or should be) doing at any one time as ideas about what to work on come thick and fast in most organisations.

    My rule of thumb for filtering new work requests into discovery or delivery streams is to frame the work in terms of whether it’s something “We believe” we should do, or whether it’s something “We know” we should do.

    If it’s something we believe we should do, we need more evidence that it’s worth pursuing before committing the time and energy to deliver it. That requires discovery work.

    If it’s something we know we should do, we should know what measurable impact making the change will have. Once we know that, we can often (but not always) put it straight into the delivery stream.

    I say not always, because sometimes there are things we know we should do, but we’re not entirely sure how to do them. In those cases there’s some discovery work to be done to determine the best way to deliver the work (answering the question: “which way of making this change will give us the biggest impact”).

    All the work that’s done in the discovery stream should be focused on turning all the “we believe” statements into “we know” statements. If we get that right, all the work done in the delivery stream is worth putting the time and effort into getting right because we, the team, already know it will have a positive impact on the end customer experience of using the product or service.

    When the solutions a team deliver are measurably better than what came before them, it’s a sign that the team are working well together and working as a unit.

    If the solutions being delivered are not improving the product or service then it’s a sign that the Product Leader is not doing their job and needs to review what more the team needs to be able to deliver their best work.

    As Marty Cagan wrote in Inspired:

    “When a product succeeds, it’s because everyone on the team did what they needed to do. But when a product fails, it’s the product manager’s fault.”

    – Cagan, Marty. INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love. Wiley.

  2. How “paving a cow path” resulted in a 10x increase in the number of people sharing content

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    It’s 2019. I’m working as the Head of Product, leading a squad of 12 at a recipe sharing website / app company in Bristol, UK.

    The squad is a multidisciplinary team consisting of: Developers (iOS, Android and web), a Product Designer, a Data Scientist, a QA person and me.

    I’m responsible for the squad hitting their goals. Goals that they have helped set in alignment with the company’s goals for the quarter that are focused on retention of users who author content on the platform.

    Our squad’s goals (set as OKRs) are all related to the features within the product that relate to communication. Commenting, sharing content, chat, etc.

    We’re The Communication Squad.

    One of the goals we’ve set ourselves for the quarter is to increase the number of users who are sharing content from our platform with their friends and family. The idea being that if we can increase the number of people sharing content, we can increase the numbers viewing the content. If we can increase the number viewing our user’s content, we can increase the numbers giving feedback to authors (likes, comments, etc) about their recipes. As a company we know (from extensive user research) that receiving feedback is one of the key drivers for author retention on the platform. We also know that while our product is similar in many ways to a social network, most of our users aren’t connected to many people they know on our platform, so when they find a recipe they want to share they have to do so outside our product.

    From user research done by our insights team at the company we know that time and time again people we interview tell us that they like to share recipes with their friends and family via WhatsApp.

    So, to increase the number of people sharing content from our platform with their friends and family we dug into the data we had about historical sharing behaviour on the platform.

    The data confirmed what our researchers were telling us. The data showed that WhatsApp was by far the most popular way for our users to share recipes from our platform (at least in the countries / regions of the World where WhatsApp is the messaging service of choice, which were also the countries / regions where we had the most activity on our service at the time).

    Based on these data we reviewed the current user journey for sharing a recipe via WhatsApp and evaluated how we could improve it.

    The journey required a user to first view a recipe, then find the UI control to reveal sharing options, then choose from sharing the recipe via our app’s built in chat feature or via the “share” controls built in to the OS their device ran. Then they had to find WhatsApp from those OS level sharing options, then go through the process of sharing the recipe as dictated by the OS’s WhatsApp sharing mechanism.

    We, as a Squad, decided to experiment with different ways of improving the overall sharing experience, and while we did that we made one small change to the user journey specifically for WhatsApp users:

    We moved the share via WhatsApp option to be the first option the user saw when they opened the recipe sharing options, before they saw the OS share sheet. Effectively promoting WhatsApp two levels up in the chain of steps users followed when sharing content.

    We deployed the change and monitored its impact.

    The results were better than we’d expected. This seemingly simple change increased the number of people sharing recipes via WhatsApp by just over 10 times.

    One small change, driven by qualitative and quantitive data that supported it, lead to a 10x increase in users doing what we wanted them to do.

    That was a win for our Squad.

    Unfortunately, we weren’t able to map the increase in sharing activity to impacts on author retention in any meaningful way, but as an isolated exercise in insight-driven design I think it’s a great example of why sometimes “paving the cow paths” really is a good approach to product design.

  3. How we learnt we needed to slow our app down from observing user behaviour

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    It’s 2015. I’m part of a small team of people working out of an attic office space in Farringdon, London.

    We’re a startup that’s just secured £2million in funding from a corporate backer to build a disruptive service that offers a new way of helping homeowners with home repair emergencies and niggles.

    Having spent months researching, reviewing and learning the ins and outs of all the existing ways people could get help from repair experts (think: plumbers, electricians, heating engineers, etc) we had convinced ourselves, our backers and a significant number of people we’d spoken with that there was a much better way of delivering home repair help: video calls.

    The startup was called “DAD” and we were building a service that allowed customers to install an app and hit a single button to start a chat or video call with a home repair expert (in seconds).

    The idea was that instead of waiting hours (in the case of emergencies), or potentially days (in the case of other repair issues), just to pay someone to come round to your house, suck air through their teeth while looking at your issue and tell you “I’ve not got the parts for that”, or “It’ll cost you to get that replaced”, we would get you expert advice within minutes of you discovering problems in your home.

    You would connect with our experts via video and show them the problem and they would give you advice about stopping it getting worse, diagnose the issue and either talk you through a fix on the call (our testing showed that about 60% of issues could be solved this way) or make arrangements for a tradesperson to come and visit you.

    In the case of us needing to send someone round to fix the issue, we were able (thanks to the video) to not only fully brief the tradesperson, but in most cases, let them know what parts, materials and tools they needed to complete the job, making our home visits more efficient than competitors in the market.

    The service worked. The tech worked. The customers we had mostly loved the experience.

    I say mostly because, as with any new product or service, we didn’t get everything 100% right from day one.

    One of the biggest mistakes we made took a few months to uncover.

    Back in 2015 making video calls over the internet was not a new concept, but the technology to make it work was not as advanced as it is today.

    At the time of writing (weeks into the UK’s 2020 covid-19 lockdown) there are several well developed API services that you can use to build video call services with, requiring very little effort. In 2015 that wasn’t the case. WebRTC was a standard and there were a couple of services offering solutions in the space, but we had to make most of the tech ourselves.

    Our CTO and his small engineering team did an amazing job and built us a really great video calling platform with a lot of custom features (the ability to record and save all calls that customers could watch back at their leisure in the app, for example).

    They did such an amazing job we accidentally introduced a big usability problem…

    People in 2015 were, on the whole, not overly used to making video calls. That’s a sweeping statement, and one that particularly feels like a massive generalisation 11 weeks into a lockdown that has made using Zoom and other video conferencing services part of the general public’s everyday vocabulary. But, back in 2015, the majority of people (at least those who were using our service at the time) didn’t make a huge number of video calls.

    If they did they were normally either on laptops / desktops in a work context, or they were via Skype or FaceTime and used for family calls or to speak with friends, socially.

    They were not used to the idea of using video calls to speak with companies as customers. And few were used to holding a phone or tablet while making the call.

    As part of our efforts to learn what was working well and what needed improvement we watched back a sample of customer calls each week.

    Seeing how they spoke, where they pointed the camera, how they held their devices allowed us to learn a huge amount about how we could improve the service.

    Thanks to these observations we introduced:

    • better scripting and support in call for our home repair experts
    • the ability for our experts to take photos (screenshots) while in the call so they could capture things like a boiler’s model number while the customer pointed their phone at it
    • the ability to turn a device’s flash on like a torch light, from within the call UI, allowing customers to easily shine a light into places like their cupboard under the sink to see what was going wrong with their pipework, etc.

    The usability issue we discovered by watching the calls was subtle.

    We noticed that a significant number of calls started with the customers looking startled and stuttering a: “Oh! Hello!”.

    It took a while to work out why so many seemed shocked at the beginning of each call.

    We did post-call user interviews, asking about their experience with our experts. We reviewed a wider sample of calls to see if we could uncover a pattern. We did our own calls, testing the process from a user’s point of view.

    Eventually we worked out what the issue was: we were connecting the customers and their home repair experts too quickly.

    The customers would hit the “call us” button and expect a delay. Our engineering team and the CTO had been too efficient in designing the connection process, making it so quick in many cases it seemed almost instantaneous, which caught our customers by surprise.

    While I’m all for building products and services that surprise their customers in delightful ways, surprising them by instantly connecting them to a live video call wasn’t delighting them.

    It was shocking. A harmless shock for most, but enough to put a significant number of our customers off at the beginning of their calls, and enough to make many of them have to take a few seconds to collect their thoughts before being able to explain why they were calling.

    To address the problem we redesigned the connection process on both the customer’s app and the home repair expert’s app.

    We built in a delay between assigning the expert who was answering the call to the customer, and when we actually connected them with picture and audio.

    In both apps we added status screens showing the process:

    • first “Calling DAD”
    • then “Connecting you to DAD”
    • then “Connected to XXX” (the Expert’s name), and a countdown “3, 2, 1”
    • then the call was live.

    During the count down we showed the customer’s own video feed on screen so they could see how they looked on camera and adjust their position / lighting etc before starting their conversation with our expert. (We did the same thing for the experts, but they were normally working from iPads that were sat stationary on a table / desk, so were less likely to need to reposition their camera, etc).

    Having put the redesign live we continued to watch a sample of recorded calls each week and I was very happy to see that we’d significantly reduced the number of customers who started their calls looking like Rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.

  4. Designing a startup’s product based on insights learnt from mapping out an end to end Customer Experience Journey

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    TL;DR

    Mapping the end to end Customer Journey for getting someone to help with a home repair issue revealed three key insights:

    • to excel in the market a company must control the full end to end experience
    • communication throughout the process is key to delivering a great customer experience
    • the experience is compound; fail to meet expectations early and it’s harder to recover the Customer’s confidence.

    Insights that informed the core design principles of our home repair startup.

    Diagram of an example User Journey Map with emotional state mapped throughout journey Example of an end to end Customer Journey map with the emotional state of a Customer mapped across each stage of the process

    The detail

    It’s 2015. I’m sitting in a small meeting room in an office in Kings Cross, London.

    I’m with Ben, a friend and ex-colleague. He’s commandeered the meeting room from the multinational company whose office this is because they’ve asked him to solve a problem they have. It’s now his project’s war room.

    We’re surrounded by post-it notes and printouts and ideas scribbled on bits of paper stuck all over the walls, windows and doors of the room.

    The problem the big corporate want to solve is how to reach a younger, “digitally-native” audience.

    They’re an insurance company who provide home repair insurance.

    Their customer base is “mature”. Younger people don’t buy insurance.

    They don’t want to be disrupted by some young startup. Or, rather, if they’re going to be disrupted by some young startup, they want to own a stake in that startup.

    That’s why Ben and I are here. He’s building the startup.

    He’s asked me to help.

    He’s been at this for a few weeks already. Hence the notes and paper on the walls.

    He’s been interviewing people and learning about their experiences of using home repair services. Finding plumbers, electricians, heating engineers, etc.

    Most are not great.

    He’s started to map out the typical process that people go through when they have a problem that needs a tradesperson to come fix it.

    The process varies by severity and type of issue but can broadly be summarised as consisting of three parts:

    • Pre fix
    • During fix
    • Post fix

    They break down roughly as:

    Pre fix

    • discover / cause the problem(s) that need fixing (eg come home to find a flooded kitchen floor)
    • source expert help (ask friends / family to recommend someone. Failing that, try the local facebook group, or yellow pages, or google)
    • arrange for someone to come over “asap”, for a fee. Then wait a lot longer than expected before they arrive.

    During fix

    • show them the issue and listen to them explain the technical reasons they can’t fix it right this minute, and why they’ll be back tomorrow or the day after
    • wait some more
    • let them in and offer them a drink while you hope they get on with the work
    • watch them come and go several times through the day to get parts / materials / etc
    • listen to them explain what they’ve done and how it’s been fixed
    • pay them
    • say goodbye.

    Post fix

    • test the fix (turn the taps on full, or turn the heating right up to see what happens)
    • cross your fingers you don’t have another problem any time soon.

    The process made sense to me and matched the experiences of others who I’d spoken with in preparation for the briefing.

    To be able to start working out where there were opportunities to improve this process and what those opportunities were we needed to delve deeper. I did some more research.

    Over the course of the following few days I drew up a number of different versions of the process based on different real life scenarios that we’d heard about via our research.

    I drew up the “best case” scenarios, of finding someone via a family recommendation or via an insurance company. The tradesperson being able to come round within a few hours and fix the issue first time.

    I drew up worst case scenarios; not having insurance that covered the issue and not being able to find someone via a recommendation. The tradesperson not turning up on time and having to make several visits before the issues were fixed.

    In total I drew up four variations of the customer experience journeys that represented the scenarios we’d heard about. I then mapped both the customer’s stress and satisfaction (or happiness) at each point within those representative journeys.

    Customer Journey maps with emotional states mapped throughout the customer experience Diagrams of the final versions of our Customer Journey maps with emotional states mapped throughout. The maps at the bottom of the diagram record our initial thoughts about how our service would work and the experience we were aiming to offer.

    These allowed Ben and I to start identifying where we could make the most impact and improve the customer experience of getting a tradesperson into your home and fixing it.

    At least that was the theory. In practise what the maps showed us was that to be able to truly deliver a great service and experience to homeowners we needed to own and redesign elements of the entire end to end experience.

    Owning the whole experience

    Our insight was that if you didn’t control any one element of the process you’d be exposing yourself to someone else in the chain letting the customer down, leaving them with a bad impression of the entire experience.

    Going through the process of mapping out the customer journey and thinking about where we could improve it also helped us uncover two other insights that became key to how we designed our improved offering:

    • communication is key
    • the experience is compound.

    Communication is key to a great experience

    Firstly; as with most things, good communication throughout the experience was key to both winning and keeping a customer’s trust.

    When we analysed the points in the existing process that were failing the customer the most, they were all related to poor communication that failed to set the right expectations. If a tradesperson didn’t explain why they needed a special part that would take hours to collect, customers got frustrated. If a tradesperson didn’t arrive on time, customers got frustrated. If the job ended up costing more than was originally quoted, customers got frustrated.

    Many of the issues people reported could be solved by improving the communication between the tradespeople doing the job and the customer, but also by setting the right expectation for the customer in the first place. Explaining the difference between diagnosing the cause of a problem and the process of fixing it. Explaining what to expect when someone arrives in your home. Explaining how prices are calculated, showing customers receipts for parts, etc.

    Experience is compound

    The final insight our mapping exercise uncovered was that the overall happiness / stress levels of customer throughout the process were compound. If you started badly, you’d make it extremely hard for yourself to recover the situation. This lead us to our most radical design decision within our own solution; getting an expert into your home as quickly as possible became key to helping our customers. To do that we would use video calls to get experts eyes on the problem within seconds or minutes of a customer needing help, instead of hours.

    The anxiety customers feel when faced with a home repair issue is often huge, especially if it’s something they’ve not encountered before.

    Having an expert reassure them it can be fixed and, where possible, help them stop it getting any worse, makes a massive difference to their stress levels. In the existing market it would be an hour at best before a tradesperson could be in your home and turning off the water, or explaining how they could fix the issue. Often that hour would turn into two or three.

    We believed that if we could get reassuring help and advice to them within minutes we’d be able to make delivering a great customer experience throughout the rest of the process much much more likely. If we could do that, we’d be able to win the customers trust. If we could gain their trust, we’d become their “go-to” service whenever they needed help or advice about their home repair issues.

    That’s the story of how we established the core design principles for a new digital product and service by first mapping out the end to end Customer Journey of existing offerings in the marketplace.

    Photos showing various Customer Journey output documents on the wall around the office Photos of various stages in the Customer Journey mapping process. Initial post-it note version on the left, and different iterations of the final maps in the middle on and on the right
  5. Following one guiding design principle lead to a big flaw in our design of NEXTFREE

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    From the first time I started thinking about NEXTFREE and trying to help Freelancers and Contractors share their availability with the world, I wanted to focus on one simple concept:

    Ruthlessly making our service as easy to use as possible for our Freelance members.

    That guiding principle has manifested itself in many different ways throughout the design of our service;

    • we only ask for details that we *need* to create a new Member’s profile, nothing extra
    • we look people up using their email address when they apply for an invite to join us. We could ask for links to their other online profiles as part of the invite request process, but we try to find them ourselves manually instead – it’s easier for them
    • we allow Members to update their availability from right within our reminder emails, rather than making them follow a link and jump through hoops to make an update.

    This last decision has made it possible for our members to be able to update their availability in under 20 seconds on average.

    It also lead to a huge design flaw that in hindsight was obviously going to cause us problems, but at the time seemed like the right thing to do.

    Our original reminder emails were sent to our Freelancer members one week before their set availability date. If they had set their NEXTFREE date to 23 March, for example, we’d email them on the 16 March with the following message:

    Hello,

    Your NEXTFREE date is set to the 16 March. Is that still correct?

    If yes, do nothing. If not let us know when you will be NEXTFREE;

    “Update now”, “snooze”

    Thank you,

    Paul & James

    If they did nothing, as the email said they could, we’d send another email on the day they’d said they were next free (24 March in our example above). It read like this:

    Hello,

    Your NEXTFREE date is set to today. Is that still correct?

    If yes, do nothing. If not let us know when you will be NEXTFREE;

    “1 week from now”, “1 month from now”, “3 months from now”, “snooze”

    Thank you,

    Paul & James

    If they ignored that email, we’d send another 3 weeks later. Another 5 weeks later, one 8 weeks later and then 6 months later, each asking if they would update their availability.

    The problem was with the first emails. Specifically the problem was in the phrase “if you’re still available, do nothing”.

    That one simple instruction is great in the context of “make things as easy as possible for our Members”.

    But, it meant that we didn’t know which of our Members were genuinely available for work, and which were just not reading (or choosing to ignore) our emails.

    That’s a big problem when the value of your entire service is predicated on having accurate, time-sensitive data, readily available for the Recruiters and Hiring Managers using it to find available candidates.

    So we fixed it. And to fix it we had to compromise slightly on our promise to keep things as simple as possible for our Members.

    The compromise is illustrated in our updated reminder email:

    Hello,

    Your NEXTFREE date is set for today. Is that still correct?

    “Yes I’m available”

    If you’re not let us know when you will be next free;

    “in a week”, “in a month”, “in 3 months”

    If you have a specific date when you’re next free that’s not covered by the options above:

    “Set a specific availability date”

    If you’re not sure when you’ll next available for new work hit the snooze button and we’ll add 12 months to your date and remind you in 6 months time that your account is snoozed.

    “Snooze”

    Thank you,

    Paul & James

    Which instructs folks who are currently available to confirm they are by pushing one button. No log in, no hoops to jump through, just one button to press.

    It’s not as simple as “do nothing”, but it really does help us make sure the overall service is delivering on it’s promise of good data.

    When a Freelancer uses that “I’m available” button we note that they are still available and refrain from sending reminders to them again for a couple of weeks.

    If they don’t respond to our reminder email (ignoring us), we send another reminder out seven days later, and continue to do this until we get a response.

    Since making the update, we are seeing much more accurate availability data across our membership. There’s still work to be done to improve it further.

    I don’t believe we’ll ever have 100% accurate data at any given time (the complexities of getting thousands of people to keep their availability accurate are too great to promise 100% coverage), but I do believe we can offer a better, more accurate picture than any other service or product on the market right now, and as we learn more about how to get and maintain that accurate data, we will extend our lead over time.

  6. Opening my eyes to the wider Twitter Universe

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    At DAD we recently set up some automated searches on Twitter (and a couple of other social media sites) to look for people tweeting about things that we think our Experts would be able to help with. Things like “broken boiler”, “no hot water”, etc.

    Our hope is that by being alerted when people are talking about and looking for help with Home Repairs we can learn a few things:

    • Firstly what type of home repair problems people talk about and share online (our search term list is much longer than the examples above)
    • Secondly we hope to find people who are in need of help and reply to them to see if our offering is relevant and of use. With a service like DAD we can learn a bit from talking to people who don’t have a current home repair problem, but our learning is limited. We really need to talk to people with a “need state” who have a real world problem that they need advice about or help fixing. Talking to folks in a need state helps us validate our offering and kick the tires of our app
    • Finally while not a definitive representation of the market, we hope that by keeping an eye on social media we can get a feel for the demand in the market. If we see 10 posts a day that suggests a different sized market to seeing 100 posts a day, etc.

    We’ve not gathered enough data yet to be able to draw too many conclusions, but I have noticed at least one thing: Based purely on our Twitter results so far (a few days) I’ve realised how blinkered my experience on Twitter really is.

    I’ve been using Twitter since 2009 and follow about 400 people. Most of them are people I either know (friends, colleagues, etc) or people I admire in the industry.

    I don’t see eye to eye with everyone I follow about everything, but as a whole they are a fairly similar group. Mainly tech aware. Almost exclusively Western. Mostly involved in design, development, tech, etc.

    I’ve always been subconsciously aware of the fact I’m viewing Twitter through a self-chosen filter bubble that means I don’t see a lot of what’s going on outside of my little echo chamber.

    Having now seen the results coming through from our DAD related searches, I’m now even more aware of my self-selected filter.

    For example; I rarely see much swearing in my feed. In our search results there is a lot.

    Most of the folks I follow and interact with (being tech savvy) “get” Twitter. A lot of the tweets we’re seeing in the search results (and just generally with the @dad account) suggest that a lot of people don’t understand how things like “@ replying” work. This isn’t a huge surprise (one of the biggest criticisms of Twitter is that it’s hard to explain and understand how to use it) but I wasn’t quite prepared for the number of folks who don’t quite get it.

    It’s early days in our data gathering, but I’m already enjoying learning more about how people outside of my bubble use Twitter and having some real data to point to when reminding myself and the team that not everyone is the same.

  7. Freelancers can update their availability in under 30 seconds with NEXTFREE

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    From the very start of NEXTFREE we’ve put a lot of effort into trying to make it as easy and as fast as possible for freelancers to update their availability.

    We’ve focused on making it easy for one simple reason: out of date information is junk.

    If a Freelancer doesn’t keep their availability up to date, it’s useless.

    In order to get Freelancers to keep their availability current, we knew we’d need to make doing so as effortless as possible.

    I’m happy to say, we’re starting to see the results of our efforts paying off.

    Our stats show that it can take less than 30 seconds for a Freelancer to update their availability. That’s from when they load our log in screen, through to a successful update. Less. Than. 30. Seconds.

    I’m happy with that. But, we’re not stopping here. We’re still working on other ways of reducing the effort needed to keep a Freelancer’s account up to date. More on that in the future…

    More about NEXTFREE

    NEXTFREE is changing the way Freelance Contractors and Consultants share their availability with the World. If you are a Freelance Contractor or Consultant and would like to try our service for free you can sign up for an invite to our Beta program at Freelancer invites.

    If you hire Freelancers and would like an early invite to our Recruiter Beta program when it starts sign up for an invite at Recruiter invites.

  8. How to make the most of your NEXTFREE Freelancer profile

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    Our mission at NEXTFREE is to make it as simple as possible for freelance Contractors and Consultants to share their availability for new work with the World.

    In order to do that, we’ve kept the sign up and set up processes for freelancers as streamlined as we could (though we’re always looking to improve them).

    Once you have set up your NEXTFREE profile and set your date we want maintaining it to be as light touch as sending a tweet or updating Facebook.

    Having said that, there are a couple of things you can do after setting up your profile that will help you make the most of it:

    • check your profile picture
    • add an external link to your profile
    • make a note of your public NEXTFREE profile for easy sharing.

    Check you profile picture

    By default we use Gravatar pictures for your NEXTFREE profile. This service allows you to associate a profile picture with your email address and then allows services like ours to use that picture when you sign up with your email address. We love gravatar because it allows you to maintain your profile picture across many sites and services all from one place (one of our aims for NEXTFREE is to help you share your availability across many sites and services from one place in the future). If you don’t have a Gravatar account they provide us with a unique pattern to use in place of a photo. You can now upload your own picture to use as your profile picture if you’d prefer. To do this: log in to your account, select “Your profile” in the top right of the screen, and tap / click on the profile picture. You’ll then be able to upload a custom image or choose the default Gravatar image.

    Add an external link to your profile

    By default we don’t ask much about your skills or experience. This is, again, deliberate. We are not building yet another job board, CV site or professionals marketplace. We simply want to be the place that helps you share your availability.

    One of our guiding principles is that NEXTFREE should not add more than is 100% necessary to what we call your “professional profile maintenance overhead”. Asking just for a simple description of what you do is enough information for the recruiters and clients who use our service to find you.

    However, once they have found you, they often need to know a little bit more about you to be able to determine if you’d be right for the role or project they are looking for help with.

    To help with that – while keeping your profile maintenance overhead as small as possible – we allow you to add links to external sites on your NEXTFREE profile.

    You can add links to your portfolio, LinkedIn, Github, or Dribbble accounts for example. In fact you can link to any site that you think represents you best. And you can add as many links as you like.

    You can do this from your profile settings page in your account (log in and select the link in the top right of the screen). Our members who have added links have seen a significant increase in the number of jobs that they are offered, so it’s worth doing.

    Note your public NEXTFREE profile’s URL for quick sharing

    As well as your private NEXTFREE profile, which can only be seen by clients and recruiters with a NEXTFREE account, when you sign up we create you a public version of your profile. This can be seen by anyone. It doesn’t share the exact date you set for when you’ll next be free, instead it shows if you are “Free now”, “Free soon” or “Not free”.

    Your public profile has a unique URL which can be found on your profile settings page or when you update your NEXTFREE date.

    Make a note of this URL and use it the next time a client or recruiter approaches you and asks when you’ll next be free for work. We use ours all the time, and it works really well as clients and recruiters who are keen to work with us will monitor it closely and know the moment our availability changes.

    If you’d prefer not to have a public profile, you can turn it off in your account settings.

    We hope this is a useful guide to how to make the most of your NEXTFREE profile. The most important thing is to keep it up to date so clients and recruiters can find you at the most appropriate time. We’ll send you reminders by email as your NEXTFREE date approaches. You can change your date right from within the reminder emails too, to make things as simple as possible for you.

    If you have any other questions about your account or what we’re doing with our service, let us know by getting in touch on twitter @nextfree or by email at support [at] nextfree.co.uk

  9. Introducing External links on NEXTFREE profiles

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    From the very start of NEXTFREE we have had a set of principles and beliefs that govern what we do and how we do it.

    We believe that there needs to be an easy way for Freelance Contractors and Consultants to share their availability. NEXTFREE aims to do that.

    We also believe that there are already too many places for professionals to maintain their online presence. We strongly believe that NEXTFREE should add as little as possible to what we call “your professional profile maintenance overhead”.

    So, when it came to thinking about what information we ask you for when setting up your NEXTFREE profile, we kept it to the minimum we needed to get you up and running;

    • an email address, so we can contact you
    • your name, so clients and recruiters know whose profile they are looking at
    • your skill-set / area of expertise, so clients and recruiters know at a high level if you’re the type of freelancer they are looking for
    • where you work, so clients and recruiters know if you’re suitable for their role (unfortunately many roles are still location dependent)
    • your NEXTFREE date, so clients and recruiters know when you’ll be available for new work

    That’s it.

    We add a profile picture to your NEXTFREE profile using gravatar. The idea being that’s one less thing for you to add and maintain. More on this in a bit…

    What we haven’t added, and are very reluctant to add, is a more detailed description of your skills and experience.

    NEXTFREE is not meant to replace your CV, or showcase your work, or become the next LinkedIn. We want to help you share your availability. Nothing more.

    The challenge is that for a client or recruiter to know if you are the right person for their role (assuming you are available) they need to know more about your skills and experience than a simple one liner can tell them. We had to find a way of not increasing your professional profile maintenance overhead too much, while providing more information to the very people your profile is designed to help.

    Our solution (as the title to this post gives away) is to let you as a freelancer share links to external sites on your NEXTFREE profile.

    You can now add a link to your portfolio, your online CV, your LinkedIn, Twitter, Dribbble or Github accounts. In fact you can link to any external resource that you think represents you best. You can link to as many of these as you like (don’t go too crazy, no one’s going to follow tens of links to look you up…).

    These links appear on both your internal NEXTFREE profile (only visible to clients and recruiters who are members of NEXTFREE) and on your public NEXTFREE profile (which you can turn on / off in your profile settings).

    You can add links to your profile right now by logging in to your NEXTFREE account and going to your profile settings screen (link in the top right once you’re logged in).

    Back to your profile picture

    As stated above, we deliberately choose to manage profile pictures using Gravatar initially to simplify the sign up and set up process for your profile.

    Gravatar is, in our opinion, a great service; set up a profile picture for an email address and then you can use that picture over and over wherever you sign up with the address. If you change your Gravatar image, it changes wherever you’ve used it.

    But, we’re learning that not everyone uses or wants to use Gravatar. In fact, many, many fewer of you use it than we’d guessed would.

    So, we need to find a better way of managing your profile picture. We’re still debating the best solution. We could use a Twitter or LinkedIn, or other service’s image.

    We could let you add, edit and save your own picture.

    We could remove the image all together.

    We’re not sure of the best solution. What do you think? What would you prefer? Let us know on Twitter @nextfree or by email at support [at] nextfree.co.uk

    More about NEXTFREE

    NEXTFREE is changing the way Freelance Contractors and Consultants share their availability with the World. If you are a Freelance Contractor or Consultant and would like to try our service for free you can sign up for an invite to our Beta program at Freelancer invites.

    If you hire Freelancers and would like an early invite to our Recruiter Beta program when it starts (in the coming months) sign up for an invite at Recruiter invites.

  10. We talk to our target audiences not to ask what they want but to understand why they want it

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    “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” Supposedly Henry Ford said this in relation to building his car. It’s a quote that has been repeated to me many times over the years as justification for not spending too much time conducting user research or usability testing.

    In many ways it’s a solid justification. If we ask people what they want, they’ll (in general) only be able to think in terms of what they already have. They’ll not show us the way to a revolutionary new product or service. At best their answers can help us deliver small, incremental improvements to existing products or services. At worst, they may ask for something that will make the product or service worse in the long run.

    But, the arguement is flawed because it misunderstands the intentions behind user research and usability testing. It assumes we want to learn what users want and will stop there. When in fact the point of both exercises is to understand why users want those things.

    “How can we improve your horse?”

    “I’d like it to be faster.”

    “Why?”

    “Because I could get from A to B quicker and spend more time with my family / working / visiting friends / etc.”

    The insight in that conversation isn’t about horses. It’s about use of and the value of time. Ford’s cars didn’t replace horses because they were faster, they replaced them (eventually) because they were more reliable and helped people spend less time travelling and more time doing things they valued.