4 Usability Lessons Startups Can Not Learn from Windows 8

Today is the official launch release for Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system, which is one of the (if not the) most significant upgrades of the company’s flagship product. I find it interesting to view such launches from big companies, and see what lessons I can learn for my own experience of designing products from much smaller startups. In this case though, they seem to be breaking a lot of common usability principles.

Despite the rise of post PC products like mobile phones and tablets, which people are increasingly using these days, Windows continues to dominate the overall market share of devices that people use to connect to the internet. All new Windows based PCs and laptops that are purchased from today on, will come with Windows 8. So needless to say, a lot of people will be using Windows 8 over the next few months.

Unlike previous upgrades of Windows however, there are some significant differences with Windows 8.

  1. The operating system has been significantly overhauled to now integrate a new modern UI view, that provides a better experience with touch enabled devices.
  2. There are actually two versions of the operating system being released – Windows RT and Windows 8. Users must decide whether they want the full version of Windows 8, or the tablet specific version, Windows RT.

1. Don’t try to Be All Things to All People

One of the taglines that Microsoft has used to compare this new version of Windows, with other operating systems like Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android was no-compromise design.

From the start, our approach has been to reimagine Windows, and to be open to revisiting even the most basic elements of the user model, the platform and APIs, and the architectures we support.  Our goal was a no compromise design.

The problem with this approach is that right from the beginning, they have set the standard and expectations too high. By trying to combine elements from tablets and mobile devices with a desktop environment, they are trying to be all things to all people, which is an impossible task.

Here is an example of what greeted me the first time I launched Windows 8 on my desktop computer. I expect others to have a similar experience.

Windows 8 Welcome ScreenIt looks great, but it’s now waiting for my input. Normally I’d expect a login screen where I enter my password, so why am I seeing this screen instead? If I click on the screen, I see a little bounce effect, suggesting there is something underneath for me to see. Using my mouse pointer, I found that I was able to drag the desktop up and out of the way to reveal a login screen underneath.

Each time I boot up my computer now, I have to go through this extra process to access the login screen. The reason for doing so makes sense if you were using a tablet or device with an exposed screen. Exposing the login screen up front may trigger spurious inputs when moving the device. I.e. I might accidentally brush up against the device, causing the tablet keyboard to show and start inputting characters that I didn’t want. By having this extra screen “protection” they make me go through the extra step of dragging the screen away (which would be harder to do by accident), to make sure I really want to login.

However, I’m not using a tablet – I’m using a desktop. So this extra step is wasted.

2. Figure Out What People Want to Do, and Make it Obvious

Next, let’s look at what screen is shown to me after I enter my login details.

Windows 8 Start Screen

This screen obviously looks a lot different than the traditional Windows desktop that people are used to. It provides a summary of different aspects of the system, such as new emails, photos, access to music, finance etc.

The problem again is that, this may look great on a tablet, but on my desktop, the first thing I usually do is launch my Chrome browser. How do I do that from this screen? (I see an icon for Internet Explorer, but no Chrome – wonder why?).

It is possible to scroll further right, which has some frequently accessed applications, but not all of them are there. In the old Windows, you had a Start menu, and you could then click on Programs to find all the programs on your computer. That option does not seem to be here. So what to do?

The answer is that you can return to the old desktop by clicking on the bottom left or top left corners. I found that out by randomly clicking on different areas of the screen. I’m not sure how a typical user would know this. You can also press Esc to… escape from this screen.

3. Don’t Remove Basic Functionality from Previous Versions

The good news for loyalists of previous versions of Windows is that the old desktop is still there, and most of it looks fairly similar to how it looked in Windows 7.

Windows 8 desktopExcept for one small thing that is missing. The start button on the bottom left. The button that was probably used the most by users to find and access programs, files and settings on their computer. It’s now gone.

I remember how much trouble Microsoft went to educate people on how to use that button. It was the only button you needed to know to use Windows!

Now though, when you press that corner… nothing happens. Fortunately, if you overreach that corner and click the bottom left corner tip of the screen you are back at the previous modern UI screen.

Windows 8 Start Screen

Oh, there’s the Start button. Let me click that (since that’s what I’ve been trained to do for the past 17 years). Oh, nothing happens again. They are just toying with me now. 🙁

4. Don’t Make Users Jump Through Hoops

So how do you find programs that are not on the opening screen? Simple, move your mouse to the bottom right corner, and wait for the new Charms menu to open on the right side. Then move your mouse pointer up to the search button. Make sure you don’t stray to the left, since the menu will disappear if you do so.

How do you shut down the computer? Open the charms menu, click on Settings, then click on Power. So previously, what took two steps (Start / Shut down) now takes 3. Similar to the extra steps required to login to the computer.

Being in the tech field, I consider myself experienced when it comes to using new technology. Heck, I like being an early adopter when it comes to using new devices. However, with so many issues that bother me here, I’m curious how laymen users (who probably make up the bulk of Windows users) would react to these changes.

How to Build a Viral Product

Viral Marketing

Having a great product is just part of the equation. Being able to market it successfully is an equal, if not more important part of the puzzle. As a new startup, you probably don’t have a very big marketing budget to begin with. Ideally, you would like your product to market it itself, by having people automatically recommend it to others. So how do you get people to talk about your product and make it go viral?

1. Have a great product.

Purple Cow

This goes without saying. No matter how much you spend on marketing, if your product isn’t very good, then people aren’t going to want to use it, leave alone recommend it to others. People only talk about remarkable products. Is your product remarkable? Is it that much better than anything else out there?

2. Don’t make users login to try out your product.

Many users (myself included) get turned off when they can’t even try a product, without first having to provide personal information. Let them try out your product first, and if they like it, then they will login. Otherwise, expect many users to close your product before they have even tried it.

3. Make it really easy for users to login.

Login with FacebookAssuming that users like your product enough to want to login to use it, make sure it’s really easy for them to do so. They should not see any of the following:

  • Unless your product involves any type of public forum where the user might not want to be identified with their real name, then don’t ask them to create a username, that they will then need to remember just to use your site or app. The days of username based accounts should be long gone.
  • Where possible, offer a one click Facebook login option. It’s easier for you, and easier for the user.
  • Don’t ask for any more information than is required. Don’t ask for birth dates, addresses, phone numbers etc. unless you have a good reason to need it.

4. Make it work well, even if you’re the only user.

The flip side of adding social networking tools to products these days is that some of them only work if your friends are also using it. Unless you have a proper launch strategy in place to fix this issue, you’ll end up with a chicken and egg problem. The product is useless without users. And users won’t be attracted to the product because it’s useless. So make sure the product has functionality in place even if you’re the only user – but make it work better if your friends are also using it.

5. Make it work better, when friends use it.

Social networking products like Facebook, Foursquare etc. are almost useless if none of your friends are using it. However when your friends come on board, then the product becomes a lot more useful. Facebooks’ developer tools make it easy to integrate Facebook login and friend lists into your product, so users can invite their friends. Create features that genuinely add functionality to your app when users’ friends are using it (as opposed to spamming your friends with no benefit to you).

6. Make it really easy for users to share / invite others.

Assuming you have a great product that users enjoyed using, and you have convinced them to share it with others, then make it easy for them to do so. There should be a one click share or invite button for them to use. Make it any more complicated than that, and you risk them losing the motivation to do so.

Facebook Share

 7. Bribe users to invite their friends

If your product doesn’t really have any social features built in, you can try bribing your users to invite their friends. Dropbox made a big success of this through their referral program. Offer users credits towards paid features for friends that they invite and start using the system.

There are many users out there who are used to not paying for things. By offering such a program, you can gain benefit from this crowd as well.

8. Sign your Product

Another way to make your product is to let users share it without realizing it. YouTube does this by letting you embed videos onto your site, with a prominent YouTube logo in the corner. Even Apple does this by inserting “Sent on my iPhone” text into emails you send. Can you piggy back on usage of your product by adding a signature somewhere?

Image Credit

4 Steps to Create a Winning Product

Lean Startup Model

Many articles have been written about why so many startups failed. Inevitably it comes down to any of the following reasons:

  • Not having the right product
  • Not being able to market the product successfully
  • Running out of money

So as a startup, what can you do to overcome these issues or at least set yourself up for the maximum potential success?

1. Focus on the MVP

Don’t worry about how you will market the product, how much you will charge for it or any of those details at this point. Just focus on the minimal viable product (MVP) that people would enjoy using (and potentially pay for). The idea should be to get this into the hands of users as quickly as possible. Leave the fancy and frill features for later on, once you have validated your product. This way you will know if you’re on the right track, without having wasted time and money by going in the wrong direction.

2. Find Early Users

Find people around you who match the audience you are planning to target. If members of your friends and family match this description, get them involved testing early versions of your product and (more importantly) get feedback from them. Is this a product they would use? Ideally, try to find people who have the very problem that your product is trying to fix.

There are other sites you can use to get beta testers to give you feedback, so use those if required.

After the initial testing, if they continue to use the product, that is a good sign that you may be on to something. If they stop using the product even after your constant prodding then assume that either they don’t match your target demographic or that your product still needs some polishing before it is ready for mass release.

3. Keep Iterating

If you find that users are not returning to your product, find out why.  Many times people who are close to you may lie to you for your own benefit, in order to give you support and not discourage you. So ask questions like:

  • What would you change about this product?
  • Are there any features you would like to see added?

Use the feedback given to improve the product and release new versions that incorporate that feedback. If the users helping out really have the problem that you’re trying to solve, then it’s in their interest for your product to succeed so that their problem can be solved. They should be more than happy to test new versions and give you genuine feedback on whether the product has improved or not. I have used this approach for many of my products.

4. Market when Ready

One mistake I’ve seen a lot of startups make is to start marketing a half baked product. The few users they do have rarely use their product, so they assume that their problem is not having enough users. In fact, the problem is that their product isn’t good enough!

On the other hand, if you do have a product that users are happy with, then now is the time to start marketing it. One way to know if you’re at this stage is if you can get testimonials or positive reviews from users with ease. After all, if they are happy with the product, then chances are good that there will be others out there who would also benefit from this product.

By using this approach, you can ensure that you’re spending money where needed. It’s very easy for startups to run out of money by spending money developing unnecessary features early on, or by trying to market half baked products. Instead if that money was spent on building the core product with a loyal base, before beginning to market it, then their chances of success would be much higher!

7 Benefits of Startup Incubation Programs

My team was fortunate enough to have been picked for Startup Labs’ inaugural Incubator program in Taipei, Taiwan from February 10 to March 2. In addition to seed funding, we were housed in a coworkspace for three weeks and encouraged to set and reach goals that honed our concept and focused on user acquisition during this short time. While there were many lows and highs during the time, we came away a lot stronger than we were going in. Here are 7 benefits that I found quite helpful from the program. If you are looking to join an incubation program, consider these benefits in addition to any funding you receive.

Team Building

In my team’s case, all four members moved to Taipei from a neighboring city for three weeks. This meant that we ended up spending a lot more time together than we normally would. In some cases, this could be a bad thing, but in our case, getting to know each other better was a positive! We got to see each other in stressful times when there was a deadline coming, when ideas weren’t coming together or after a long day when we were just tired and hungry! We also saw got to see each other in after hours settings, when it was time to unwind.

In each case, we got to see a different side of each other – one that we wouldn’t normally see, but that was good to know about. I’m now more confident going forward that we have assembled the right team of individuals who will have what it takes to perform when the going gets tough.

Vet your Idea

As part of the incubation process, mentors, investors and other visitors were constantly pouring through the building to see what we were up to. Each time, I would present our idea and the progress we were making. This was a great way to get feedback and reactions from a broad group of people. Some of their ideas were added to our own to improve the concept.

Having mentors on hand also made it easy to just shout out to the next table “Hey David, what do you think about this idea?” I realized that our regular routine of working out of  our own office kept us in a bubble of sorts, as we were not exposed to the regular feedback we were getting here.

Deadlines and Pressure

The main purpose of this incubation process was to show a delta in progress from our opening day pitch to our final demo. Goals and targets were assigned to each team early on, and pressure was applied to make sure we hit these targets. We were not used to such deadlines, but in this case, having them forced us to dig in and work 12 hour days to reach them. It also forced us to refine our plans to ones that could be tested and applied in much shorter time frames than what we would normally have. Instead of building a site and testing it out, we were forced to test mockup concepts first. This process saved us a lot of time, since it allowed us to throw away concepts that weren’t received well, rather than having to build it first to find this out.

Other Teammates

In addition to getting to know our own teammates, being housed in the coworkspace with four other teams helped us get to know others who were in the same position as we were in. While each team had their own challenges, it was very helpful to have members of other teams present to bounce ideas off of, celebrate in their achievements and provide encouragement and support where possible. It was also helpful to listen to advice being given to other teams and look for areas where that same advice could be relevant to us as well.

Other Resources

Another benefit of having 5 teams together in the same coworkspace was that we had access to great resources and presenters. At various times during the three weeks, we had visitors from a local law firm who represented startups, Google, Microsoft, Facebook’s local ad representative and local and international bloggers, all providing advice in different areas. These were people we might not have had the opportunity to meet with on our own, but now had access to in the future.

Informal Time

While most of the time was spent working out of the coworkspace, after hour events were organized to get to know the investors and mentors in more informal settings. These were great, not only for letting off steam, but also for getting to know the people we were working with better. Who knew that they were real people with their own lives, families and issues?


Honing your Pitch

At the end of the 22 days, a final demo was organized for local and international investors, media and government representatives. In the days before the pitch, we were encouraged to practice our pitches in front of mentors, who would then provide advice on how to improve them. The advice provided was very good, and applied before the final demo. After the demo, many investors commented on how much better the final presentations were than the original ones on day one.

Now that the event is over, and we are back to our regular lives, the real work begins. Can we take the advice we learned and build something real with it? Stay tuned to find out!

Generate Ideas by Solving Real Problems

Now that I’ve had the experience of attending two startup weekends – one as a participant and one as a speaker, I’ve been exposed to pitches from several other startups. Add to that, all the news on startups coming in from sites likeTechCrunch and AngelList and I’m starting to notice a disturbing trend.

People are focusing on ideas, rather than solving problems.

The focus should not be on “What startup should we create?“, it should be on “What problem should we solve?”

The good news is that we are not asking you to solve world hunger or broker peace in the middle east (although that would be nice). All you need to do is solve problems that real users have.

How do you find these problems?


Take a look at your Facebook and Twitter streams and see what people are complaining about. Join forums and discussion groups to see what kinds of problems people are having.

See if you can do any of the following:

  1. Take something that is complicated and make it simpler. Perhaps by reducing the number of steps involved.
  2. Take something inconvenient and make it more convenient.
  3. Take something that is currently expensive and find a way to do it for cheaper, or even for free!
  4. Take something that is of low quality, and create a higher quality version that you can charge more for.
  5. Take something that is currently boring, and make it more exciting.

When I listen to a startup pitch, it should be clear to me what the problem is that they are solving. Let’s take a look at some famous examples.

It’s clear what problem Evernote is trying to solve. People tend to forget a lot of things. Evernote helps them remember by making it easy to take notes.

Facebook solves the problem of us losing connection with our family and friends, as we live our busy lives.

Both these products are quite clear, and require little convincing. As a result, both companies are huge with millions of users around the world.

If you have to explain to me what my problem is, or try to convince me that I have a problem that I previously didn’t know exist, then it may be hard to get traction.

Better yet would be to find users with the problems you are solving and introduce your product to them directly. If they continue using your product, you know you’re onto something. If they don’t come back, then follow up with them and find out why.

7 Lessons Learned While Building Up My Startup

A month ago, I led a team that won Taipei’s inaugural Startup Weekend. I wrote an article on lessons learned from that weekend that to date is the most read article on my blog. So I thought I would capitalize on that by releasing a follow up article, on the 7 lessons I’ve learned in the month that has followed.

1. Know your Market

It’s hard enough trying to build a business in your own backyard. Try doing so in a different country with a different language and culture!

Our product is a website that lets you search menus of restaurants nearby to find the exact dish you are looking for. Although I was already sold on this idea, one of the requirements of startup weekend is that you first survey your market to find a pressing need that you’re trying to solve. This took a while for us – finding just the right questions to ask, and then going out and finding people to complete our survey.

Was all of this effort really necessary?

Well it turns out it was. Not only did it validate our business model – people like to search for new restaurants in Taiwan, they like to see a menu before entering a restaurant, but currently most restaurants don’t have searchable menus online – but it also pointed us in the right direction. We now knew that the quality of food was more important than the location of the restaurant. It also pointed us towards some of the current solutions that people were using, that they were finding inadequate.

Even now, a month later, I find myself constantly going back to the results of that survey, when deciding how to move our product forward.

2. Test your Assumptions

Foodjing Market Research
Performing Market Research

As you build your business forward, it is important to make sure you are on the right track at all times. You can find out by constantly testing your product with your users, and evaluating their feedback.

Since we didn’t have a product to begin with, we began by picking a small area of our city, and gathering menus from 250 restaurants in that area. We then built our website around that data and showcased it to passers by in the area. Their feedback was quite valuable. In addition to validating our model further, we were able to gather feedback on our user interface and ways to improve it.

I was quite prepared for them to tell me they hated the site and wouldn’t use it, in which case I would have wanted to know why. However that wasn’t the case this time around.

We plan to revisit this approach, each time we make new changes.

3. Share your Progress

Weekly Updates BlogThe startup culture is fairly new in Taiwan, so we have a close relationship with the community. After the success of my initial lessons learned post, I decided to release weekly updates on our startup blog. I noticed a couple of side effects to this process.

  • It forced me to organize and get on track. Every week I had to compile a list of all our accomplishments, as well as targets for the following week. I found myself working harder to make sure I had something to write about at the end of the week!
  • It put the pressure on us to follow through. Knowing that people are reading about our goals forces us to be more accountable towards reaching them.
  • It promotes you, your team and product. In the events that have followed Startup Weekend, I’ve been surprised to meet people who already knew a lot about my team, from the updates I’ve been posting. This way, if an investor or someone who can advise you comes along, they can find out all they need to know about you. If a blogger wants to do some background research on you before writing an article, you’ve provided all the research needed!

4. Make Connections.

I joined Startup Weekend to meet people who could join my team, and find potential investors. Since then however I’ve discussed that everyone you meet can help you out in some way or the other. Here are the types of people I’ve met:

  • Other team members. They have been a great source of encouragement as well as learning. Hearing about the challenges and issues that other teams are going through gets me thinking about ways to avoid the same issues on my team. Hearing about their successes inspires me to do the same with my team.
  • Media. Winning Startup Weekend brought us attention through all the media articles that were written about us. Since then, I’ve realized the value of talking to bloggers, who may be the key to getting you noticed in the future.
  • Investors. It goes without saying that you want to make sure you are on the radar of all potential investors. The best way to do that is by talking to them, and having them get to know you. Most investments are made in the team themselves, rather than the idea, so start the process by chatting with them.
  • Advisers. Even if people aren’t willing to invest direct in you, they can still provide you a lot of value through their guidance and advice. Several high quality mentors have been made available to us in the process. It would be much harder to find these people on your own, so take advantage of them by asking any questions that come along.
  • People who know people. Even if someone looks like they are not in any of the above categories, it is still in your interest to get to know them. After all, they may know someone who can be of direct help, and an introduction by them may be just what you need!

5. Practice your Pitch.

Practice your PitchDuring the initial startup weekend, I got tired of constantly having to explain my idea to each mentor or person that came along to check in on us. However I noticed an interesting side effect of the process. I began to get better at it!

In the beginning, it might have taken me 10 minutes to explain our business model. However with each additional conversation, I was able to get rid of more fluff, until I was eventually able to explain the complete model in a minute or two.

Take advantage of such opportunities to keep refining your pitch. Listen to the questions that are being asked, and practice your answers to them. This process went a long way towards helping us win Startup Weekend through our presentation and being able to answer the questions the judges later asked.

6. Don’t Scale Too Early.

Team FoodjingOnce you do have your business model going, while it is tempting to expand as quick as possible, so you can take over the world, do so in logical steps. Facebook is the biggest social network in the world today. However they began by first targeting individual universities and colleges and solving any problems that came up there, before eventually growing to new markets.

Keep getting to know your market. Keep testing your assumptions to make sure you’re on the right track. This may slow your growth initially but it will help you discover mistakes early on, before they spiral out of control.

7. Enjoy the Journey.

For many of us, this is the first time we are part of a business that has the chance to really go somewhere, with support from people with deep pockets. Take advantage of all the opportunities given to you. Even if your business doesn’t become the next Google, make those connections and learn from your experiences. The more times you do it, the better you’ll get at it.