September 9, 2015

Lost in Your Vision

Dustin Curtis recently wrote about Fixing Twitter — most of which I can’t say I agree with — but he did touch on an idea I like to call being Lost in your Vision. This affliction affects employees and non-employees alike, and boils down to two major symptoms:

I call this Lost in your Vision because you become obsessed with the idea that if the product only had “Vision” everything would be perfect. Markets will open up, customers will cry with joy, and champagne will rain down from the heavens. And the person to deliver the Vision is clearly a Visionary. If only the company had a true Visionary, it would be saved from certain death.

I know this feeling. I was this person, and let’s be honest — I still am this person often. It’s an easy mindset to fall into.

I think Twitter badly needs to do at least five things to address imminent existential threats–things which its current team has tried and spectacularly failed to accomplish.
Dustin Curtis

Unfortunately, this is tunnel vision and serves only to blind you from seeing the most lucrative territory: small gradual improvements to existing features and cranking out good-enough ideas. Also known as boring work.

Microsoft vs. Apple

Microsoft is an example of a company that’s been focused on Big Ideas for the past decade or so. They look at existing markets and try to jump ahead as far as they can see. The Microsoft Surface was a peek into the future of tablets, much like the HoloLens is a peek into the future of VR. Microsoft is not doing well.

Apple on the other hand is an example of a company that’s been focused on small ideas for the past decade or so. Every year, iPhones have gotten a little better. Their laptops get a little better. iPads get a little better. And every few years, the Apple TV gets a little better. Today, Apple announced three new products:

These aren’t revolutionary ideas. The iPad Pro is almost exactly the same idea as the Microsoft Surface, but 3 years late. I don’t think they’re worried about it. Apple is doing extremely well.

Big companies thrive on small ideas.

The soul of a product

I once gave a presentation at GitHub titled Good Product in which I tried to distill what a good product meant. My intro was focused on the idea that Product as an idea was a connection: People ⨯ The product of the two was our Product (get it, the product?). It wasn’t just the software we delivered, it was how our customers used the software that mattered.

In order to deliver impact, you can increase the number of customers, or you can increase the usefulness of the software to existing customers.

In large customer bases, customer growth is almost entirely fueled by network effects — existing customers getting new people hooked. It is not fueled by new features or new functionality. Changing your product in dramatic ways has a higher chance of distancing existing customers than opening it up to new markets.

This means it’s almost always a better idea to focus on small improvements to existing workflows in large companies. How can you make your core feature smoother? How can you make it easier to get started for new customers? These aren’t sexy ideas, but they’re impactful.

Big companies thrive on small ideas.

Software is made by people

Twitter has over 4,000 employees. That’s a lot of people no matter how you slice it. The flow of ideas through large companies is a phenomenon we don’t entirely understand. If you haven’t ever been in the shit, you might assume that ideas flow from the Visionary (CEO) down. But much like rivers, they twist, turn, get added to, diverted, and dammed up along the way to their outlet. The more people, the harder it is to maintain the original direction.

Software is made by people, and people have opinions and emotions.

There is an art to selling an idea in a large company, and it has little to do with the merit of the idea itself. Big ideas are hard to realize. They have too many variables. Too many opportunities to change direction. Too fuzzy an outcome. Small ideas are easier to realize. They don’t require company-wide changes and can be pitched to a smaller group. They can be delegated and presented with grace. Big ideas need to be forced.

This is really important. The number of employees you have makes a huge impact on the types of ideas you can tackle.

Big companies thrive on small ideas.

I don’t mean to be too harsh on Dustin, because hidden inside his article are some really good small ideas.

When I add a link to a YouTube video, Twitter should obviously expand the video in place and let me add some commentary to it. It has only recently started to automatically expand things like this, but it does so inconsistently–sometimes and on some platforms it’s just a link and other times it’s an awesome, fully interactive module. It is unpredictable and I can’t preview it until after I publish the Tweet, which makes me wary of posting external content.

If I were to impart one piece of advice on Twitter’s product team, I’d focus on this singular aspect: make it obvious what your tweet will look like before you post it. In other words, focus all of your effort on the compose tweet flow. Twitter is made of tweets. Give your customers the opportunity to post better tweets, and Twitter will get better.

And I think they’re on their way there. The new retweet flow is phenomenal. It’s a perfect example of those small improvements. Retweets used to create anxiety — what does it do if I click this? The new flow solves that problem entirely and adds a native way to add comments to a Retweet — something people were already doing.

I think the most successful version of Twitter will look very similar to the Twitter we have today, but every interaction will be smooth, obvious, and pleasant to use. It won’t be a big idea that fuels Twitter’s growth. It’ll be the small ones.

If you'd like to keep in touch, I tweet @kneath on Twitter. You're also welcome to send a polite email to I don't always get the chance to respond, but email is always the best way to get in touch.