One of the great things about my current gig is that we bring in smart folks from all over to share their thoughts on innovation within government. Recently, Alistair Croll (@acroll), coauthor of Lean Analytics, flew in from Canada to share some of the highlights of his book and how we could apply a metrics-driven mentality to our projects as Presidential Innovation Fellows.

My coworker Sarah Allen and I pair-captured notes on the talk and Alistair’s given his blessing to share them publicly. Having glanced through the book, there is WAY more depth than even these extensive notes cover and I plan to read the whole thing. Enjoy!

alistair croll PIF

Part 1: What is the Lean Movement?

  • Silicon Valley hates failure more than the alternative: making something nobody needs.
  • Waterfall: Building a Nuclear Reactor: the spec is not going to change months from now
  • Spec – Build – Test – Launch
  • Agile: Requirements change before you launch if you are engineering things like software applications today.
  • Unclear how to satisfy requirements
  • problem – build – test, viable? → (yes) Launch
  •        → (no) Adjust
  • Reality: There is no clear set of requirements

Most startups don’t know what they’ll be when they grow up.

  • Paypal (first built for Palm Pilots)
  • Freshbooks (invoicing for a single web design firm)
  • Wikipedia (was going to be by experts)
  • Mitel (lawnmower company)
  • HotMail was a database company, Flickr (massively multiplayer game), Autodesk (desktop automation)

Consumer demand is the biggest risk

  • Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams) was a LOUSY entrepreneur
  • Reverse the idea: if they come, you should build it
  • You should not sell the thing you can make, you should make the thing you can sell.
  • “build just enough to quantify the biggest risk.”

CASE STUDY: Rubber trees

  • social entrepreneurs want to create rubber tree marketplace, couldn’t wait 20 yrs for rubber trees to grow
  • Risk was not “can rubber trees grow?”
  • Risk WAS “can you build the marketplace if you have rubber trees”
  • Focus on where the RISK is — validate that part. Continue reading

Smart Choices a practical guide to making better life decisions cover

Note: this is an extensive set of book notes, clocking in at 1800 words. It’s a more weighty and dense post but (I think) worth the ~9 minutes to read it.

I recently read and finished taking notes on a book called: Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Life Decisions (4.5 stars, 63 reviews on Amazon, affiliate link)

Making good decisions and executing well on those decisions are basically the only things that matter in life. I recently shared my book notes on Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, which explains how organizations can develop better strategies. This book is similar but focuses on how individuals can make better decisions, especially for the important aspects of their personal life. The approach is simple and the examples are relatable: buying a house, changing careers, planning an event, etc

Starting Out

The Acronym to Remember

The authors coined this somewhat helpful acronym: PrOACT, which stands for Problem, Objectives, Alternatives, Consequences, Tradeoffs.

The Biggest Mistake

The most common (and most easily avoided) mistake people make when deciding things is that they just don’t think about it. They just go with the gut. For smaller decisions, this isn’t always a big deal, but for bigger decisions, just taking a few minutes or a few hours to carefully think through a decision can make a big difference, especially given how bad our brains sometimes are at making decisions.

Problem Definition 

It’s useful to start off by asking yourself what problem you are trying to solve exactly. Their example is of a family that’s out growing their current home. One problem definition might be “What new house should we move to?” but perhaps a better one is “How can we find a home that fits our family’s needs?” which includes the possibility of renovating the current home.

Thinking about problem definitions is a fuzzy thing but a few other tips include:

  • ask what trigger caused you to consider the problem in the first place
  • question the constraints contained in your problem statement
  • recognize what other decisions hinge on this one
  • develop a workable scope for your problem definition

Digging Deeper


Objectives are what really matter to you in your decision. Before you look at your options, you should first think about what success looks like. What would constitute a best case scenario for your decision? For example, if you’re choosing a new office, your list of objectives might be minimal commute time, low cost, lots of space and fully staffed administrative services.

Continue reading

Startup School is a fantastic event put on by Y Combinator. They bring together some of the most important and interesting people in tech startups and have them give candid, non-pitchy talks about what they’ve learned as a founder or investor.

This year, Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium was packed pretty much wall to wall on both levels. I’ve really enjoyed the talks in the past but it’s unfortunate that lots of people are unable to attend. So this year I tried to jot down some of my favorite quotes by the 2012 speakers both to save for myself and to share with others.

Note: I did my best to capture their statements as they said them but also had to patch from memory so this shouldn’t be considered a perfect transcription of the talks! Also I had to leave at 5pm so I missed the last 3 speakers: Joel Spolsky (StackExchange), David Rusenko (Weebly) and Hiroshi Mikitani (Rakuten). Darn!

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook (interviewed by Paul Graham)

Paul (pg) interviewed Mark (mz) in an entertaining and enlightening recollection of working on Facebook in the early days.


  • mz: [Looks around at the Startup School audience]
  • mz: “Getting bigger!”
  • pg: “Yeah, well I heard you are too.”
  • Audience laughs

You can’t 80/20 everything

  • mz: “We had to do a bunch of manual work to sign up every school – looking up all the course catalogs. Dustin thought we could grow faster if we didn’t have to do that. We had this big debate on this issue and what quality meant for us. It definitely set this tone early on that we had clean data and it was a college specific thing.
  • mz: “You hear a lot about the 80/20 but you can’t 80/20 everything. There are somethings that you have to go beyond that and be the best in the world at.”

Flexibility is important

mz – “I have this big fear of getting locked into doing things that are not the most impactful thing. This is the thing about entrepreneurs, is that they have this laser like focus on doing the most important thing. One of the amazing things about college is the flexibility to try a lot of projects and explore things. I think people undervalue the power of having options.”

Special kind of pivot

  • mz: “I mean Facebook went through a lot of pivots. We went from just being for college to being “not college”, then from being just a website to being a platform.”
  • pg: “There’s another word for the kinds of pivots you were doing. EXPANSIONS”

Monopoly? Us?

  • pg: “In retrospect, do you think MySpace had a chance after you got all the college students? Were they destined to get dominated by you?”
  • mz: “I don’t see it that way. there is more than one-“
  • pg: “More than one social network? Not really.”
  • Audience laughs

Everyone knew it but me

  • mz: “We raised money from Peter Thiel and told him the plan”
  • pg: [stunned] “You told him you might go back to school?”
  • mz: “Yeah, but I don’t think he really believed us.”
  • Audience laughs
  • mz: “There is a long history of people predicting I’d drop out of school before I did.” [Mark’s mom was unsurprised when he told her he was dropping out of Harvard]

Travis Kalanick, Uber

In a brash, chatty pitch, Travis talked about how Uber got started, the progress they’ve made and their battle with regulatory bodies. Continue reading

Skillshare is a collaborative consumption startup that focuses on democratizing learning through a marketplace of independently taught classes. I recently attended my first class – UX Design for Non-Designers – it was taught by Cielo De la Paz, a senior designer at Hotwire.

I cleaned up the notes I took and figured I’d post them here! In general, I like to try out all these new sharing economy services and I think as her first class, Cielo did a pretty good job. It would have been nice to get to know the other folks in the class a bit better (there were like 20 of us jammed into a conference room in an SF tower) but time was limited so she did the best she could.

If this sounds interesting, you should check out her class here. She sent us her deck + tons of great resources for further learning.

UX Design for Non Designers

Definition / roles within UX

  1.  information architecture
  2.  interaction design
  3.  user research
  4.  visual design
  5.  copy
  6.  also now web dev

Companies often leave out user research + info architecture. Often focus is on interaction + visual

This order is typically the work flow. Don’t think of them as roles, but as steps. But make sure not to skip a step!

Note: This class is about implementing an idea – as big as a startup or as small as a profile page

Step 1 – Set a clear user goal

Very important! Know what you want your users to do!

  • “I want iPhone users to take a photo and share with their friends”
  • “I want to connect people interested in teaching to people interested in learning”

Step 2 – Audit competitors

check out sites similar to you

  • be more formal about it
  • at least 6 sites
  • screen capture, side by side
  • circle what you like, what you don’t like
  • notice patterns

ex: online education site – all seem to have video. This is what a user might be expecting

Step 3 – Create a Blueprint

Map out the flow – visio, axure, omnigraffle, illustratro, whiteboard

  • ex for instagram: splash screen -> camera -> add filters -? photo feed -? photo details
  • note – this is NOT what the app/technology is doing, it’s what the user is doing / experiencing
  • why is this so important? sometimes I haven’t mapped things out b/c of time and ended up being screwed way later in the process

She’s identified 4-ish basic types of pages/screens that do specific things

  1. Landing Page
    (home page / category page)
    this is a path to other sections of the site.
    hero image, copy, tells ppl to go elsewhere
  2. Gallery / List
    it’s either a grid or a list
    in between stage, not a final stage
  3. Detail
    the goal / end page
    ex: photo detail or article
  4. Forms
    inputting information – boxes, submit

Wireframe/prototyping – she uses axure, but if you search on Quora, there are a lot of options. Apparently axure is like learning photoshop – but not as simple. Balsamic is easier. Mindmiester is easier

If you search “50 free UI and Web Design wireframing kits, resources and source files” – smashing magazine resource

Step 4 – Use Design Principles

The secret sauce – design principles. She discussed this list with various colleagues and peers. Obviously not the final word.

1 – Don’t reinvent the wheel

  • most things work a certain way for a reason
  • look for pattern libraries
  • Pattern Tap – compile screenshots of a bunch of sites
  • Yahoo Pattern Library – dated from 2009 (says why and how to use something, not just screenshots)
  • – just iPhone

2 – Know what is possible

  • you want to push your designs and push the limits
  • also, you don’t want to design something you can’t implement
  • jQuery – droppable (new feature/interaction she can use!)
  • Firefox – new things you can do with HTML 5
  • things you can do with CSS alone
  • you can tell the devs “hey i KNOW this is possible!”
  • go to techcrunch and click startups tab – startups are often pushing the envelope

3 – Design for the primary user

  • you have to pick one of several users
  • this is not referring logged in vs logged out
  • ex: Airbnb – two users, host and guest — optimized for guest
  • ex: Kickstarter – focus is on investors, not creators

4 – Less is more

  • the fewer choices, the better
  • Amazon is a/b testing – new site
    • no left nav, very clean
  • Side note: she is against focus groups – sees as bad way to get information from users

5 – Create a visual hierarchy to organize your content

  • spotify – homepage is headline + hero image + download
  • Groupon – color coded – price stuff is blue, green is motivational element – there is a sense of order
  • Tripl – grouping, categories,

6 – Make it feel effortless and efficient

  • Twitter – infinite scroll, don’t leave the screen
  • Google hotel finder – combined everything into one page – 3 colums – search form, listings, detail page
    • this is one example of “know the rules before you break them”

7 – emotionally engage your users

Other resources for design principles

Step 5 – Show 5 people

  • show five people and make them go through it
  • when you design it, hard to see straight
  • how to get users on a budget
  • Rinse and repeat
  • wireframe/design <–> get feedback

Step 6 – Refine your design

  • bells and whistles, colors
  • hire a web designer etc

Sorry the last point is a little short but I think the meat of the post is in the early stages/steps. My biggest takeaway from this class was that UX design is not some mysterious ritual performed by the priests known as interaction designers, but is more akin to scientific research. Intuition and hunches matter, but there is also a great deal of structure, feedback and iteration to the process.

Anyway, hope this was helpful! Skillshare is sweet.

I had the opportunity to attend a really cool conference over the past weekend called The Behavioral Economics Summit for Startups that is focused on helping startup founders and product designers understand and drive user behavior. There were some great speakers like Dan Ariely, Chris Anderson and Hal Varian.

Here are some notes on the talk Dan Ariely (Duke Professor & best-selling Author of Predictabyl Irrational) on the psychology of money and payment systems. Hope you guys find this valuable!

The paradox of money

  • Money is a tremendous invention – on the same level as the wheel
  • Extremely useful but because it’s so versatile, makes it hard to think about

Shadow Value of Price

  • When you buy coffee – you should ask: what else could I do with this $2.50?
  • The rational approach is to consider alternative uses / tradeoffs
  • Doing this with money is hard – it’s easier to think about what to do each day

Envelope Thought Experiment

  • Imagine you got an envelope with $1000 cash each week
  • How would you spend it?
  • You’d spend a lot early on, but then realize later the trade-off value of the money
  • We studied Intuit customers – this is the pattern we see with people’s spending their paychecks
  • Credit cards and other things make it hard to see financial horizons

Nice Speakers Thought Experiment

  • Imagine buying either $700 Sony speaker set vs $1000 Pioneer speaker set
  • Most people go for the better, pricer Pioneer speakers
  • New comparison: $700 sony + $300 only in CDs/DVDs vs $1000 Pioneer speaker set
  • Now – most people choose the speaker + CD package over the Pioneer
  • Why? It is easier to imagine the value of $300 of CDs
  • vs the diluted value of $300 spread across all kinds of things (despite the fact that you could buy CDs or anything else with the $300 saved from buying the Pioneer)

Considering Trade-Offs When Buying Cars

  • Went to a Toyota dealership and asked people:
  • What are you giving up in order to buy this car?
  • First got blank stares
  • Then people said – “Well I’m giving up buying a Honda”
  • No one said – “I’m giving up 700 lattes, 4 weeks of vacation, etc”

People Vary In Ability/Willingness to Make Trade-Off Comparisons

  • Turns out poor people are better at weighing the differences compared to wealthy people
  • When dealing just with cash – the difference is more clear/obvious that if you buy one thing (food) you can’t buy something else (shelter)
  • Also seen in the difference in Presidents: George W Bush vs Dwight Eisenhower
  • Bush said his budget increased the defense budget because the price of freedom is not too high
  • Eisenhower talked about how the cost of a single destroyer could house more that 8000 people

Continue reading