Laptop bag 4.0, backlogs, and story form

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4354 days ago

Laptop bag 2.0

Somewhere out there is a laptop bag just waiting for me to find it. But first, I have to spec it out.

Like Rands, I recently got laptop bag religion and I spent an excessive amount of time cogitating about features, price, tradeoffs, where to buy, and features again.

Then I got serious about it.

I haven’t yet found the bag, but in the meantime, I’ve written this blog post, because it provided the excuse I needed to really go batshit insane do a thorough job of my analysis. Not only does this post include a detailed list of requirements for my perfect laptop bag, but it also includes a glance into what I do in my life as a Product Manager. Hopefully one or the other of those is interesting enough to keep your attention :)


Green Man Gaming

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4643 days ago

A month ago or so, I spotted a slickdeal for a pre-order of a game we really want, from a company I hadn’t heard of called Green Man Gaming. The comments under the deal indicated that Green Man Gaming was reputable, and the deal would provide a Steam download code, which is my preferred way to buy games, so it seemed like a no-brainer to buy it that way and save $30.

Until I tried to actually buy it, and the purchase process was terrible – but this post isn’t about that. It’s about the nasty-gram I sent to them, and their response – which was fantastic.

Let me back up for a moment… I used to be a Product Manager for a software company, so I care a lot about software user experience. I get really angry when I see someone who did a piss-poor job of it. As a product manager, I also crave feedback from my users, so when I see bad work, I usually take the time to tell the company about it.

My experience with that has been frustrating. Usually the feedback process goes like this:

  1. Try to figure out how to provide feedback, discover that you have to enter it into a tiny field on a webpage.
  2. Type a thoughtful / angry letter into that field. Re-reread it, improve it, etc.
  3. Hit Submit, and have the web page lose everything I just typed because it has some secret field-length limit or time-based timeout that they didn’t warn me about.
  4. Paste the letter back into the field (because I’ve learned to copy it by now!), shorten it to whatever limit they are using, and hit Submit again.
  5. A few days later, get a generic form response saying “we are sorry for your troubles and we hope you understand that we serve lots of customers and sometimes these things just happen” – even though my feedback is nearly always about design flaws, not about incidental things.

I expected nothing better from Green Man Gaming, but I sent them a letter anyway. (And I’m sorry to say, re-reading it now, that it’s way more rude than it should have been, and now I feel shame about that.) I’m going to quote the part of it that describes what I had just gone through, and leave the rest out:

  • Register (ok, fine)
  • Fill out one of those stupid captcha things (ok, fine)
  • Re-enter my date of birth because you wanted it in the UK format, rather than US (but that wasn’t obvious at all)
  • Go back to the buy page and re-click ‘buy’ because your site lost track of where I was in the process
  • NOT use my American Express card that I use for everything, because you don’t take it
  • Have to skip past a bunch of fields on your site because apparently you can’t take the time to hide them / show them per card-type
  • Do another captcha, even though I’d done one just moments before
  • Have my card declined twice, and have to re-enter my details each time (!!!), even though there is money in the (debit!) account
  • Try another debit card, have it send me through the “verified by visa” process – and then STILL be declined!
  • Finally go back and change my email address on my account to the one that matches my paypal account (but that I don’t usually give out to websites), just so I could go through paypal.
  • Re-start the whole purchase process for some reason
  • Re-enter the captcha!!!
  • Pay via paypal
  • Oh my god, that actually worked!

You might have thought that I should have just given up, but hey, anything for a deal, right? ;)

So I sent that in, and expected a crappy form letter back. But instead, I got the exact opposite:

Hi Nathan,

I apologise for the problems encountered when purchasing from us; I’ll do my best to answer the problems raised.

- Captcha is a requirement and is used to reduce fraudulent transactions via ‘bots’. I agree, being asked again to repeat it is a pain; I’ll speak to the tech team regarding this.

- DOB, under the DOB field it does clearly state ‘Please enter the date in dd/mm/YYYY format’

- American Express. We are currently evaluating our current payment processing service and hope to offer American Express in the near future.

- Credit card declined; over the weekend we did see an increase in cards being declined; we believe this to be an isolated issue and are actively looking at how/why this happened and stopping it from happening again.

- PayPal email – This requirement is to reduce fraudulent transactions. It is possible to set up additional email addresses through PayPal and assign any of those as the primary email address instead of changing your GMG email to match your PayPal.

- Having to go through the purchase process again – your basket should not have been emptied. If this is happening, it is something that our technical team needs to address and I will certainly raise this as an issue.

We appreciate the feedback and we take all your criticisms on board and will actively address those issues to improve our service. I can only apologise again for the problems encountered and the inconvenience to you.

Martin – HCO Green Man Gaming

Wow! A reply from a real human who thoughtfully addressed my concerns! And more than that, he said they’d actually do something about them!

Here’s what I sent back:

That’s a GREAT reply – thank you :)

Just a few suggestions in return:

  • Once I’ve done one captcha (to get an account), it seems pointless to keep making me do more of them. You really need to not require captchas for account-holders, when checking out.
  • DOB: perhaps use geolocation to see if the user is in the US, and reverse the expectation? I know that’s probably not worth implementing, but if you do end up having a lot of US sales, this will be a constant problem for US buyers.
  • AmEx: I understand that not all retailers take AmEx, and I’m usually quite forgiving about it. It just seems strange for a website to not take it.
  • Paypal email: (a long paragraph explaining why I didn’t want to use my paypal email, which isn’t really relevant here)

Thanks again for the thoughtful reply!

An in return, they upped the ante again:

Hi Nathan,
Thanks for your response; just wanted to follow up on it.

Captcha; we’ve removed this from the payment page now – so you will only see this the once.

AmEx: The reason we don’t accept it is because I believe our payment processing company SagePay, doesn’t – we are looking at alternatives to this so hopefully, we’ll be able to offer AmEx soon.

DOB: – Great suggestion, but may take longer to implement than simply putting: DD/MM/YY in the text box – that should hopefully make it a bit clearer for people.

PayPal – thanks for your insight and obvious concerns with that. As I briefly stated in my earlier mail, this ‘hoops’ are there to reduce fraud. However, we are continually looking at ways of improving both our customer experience while maintaining a good level of anti-fraud measures and so I will pass this feedback on to the team.

Thanks again for your reply.


So, wow. My letter made it through to a real human who both replied thoughtfully and was able to actually implement changes to make things better the next time. Just, wow.

My hat’s off to you, Green Man Gaming – thank you very much! I’ll certainly be buying from you again.

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Pivotal Tracker

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4919 days ago

I just sent this note to Pivotal Labs:

Thanks, guys.

In a world where everybody talks about “agile” but hardly anybody knows what they are talking about, and where it is very rare to see an agile team (by which I mean a group of people who are actually a “team” and are actually “agile”), and where product managers usually struggle to even maintain control over prioritization, let alone actually manage it well – it seems very unlikely that any software would exist that is designed to work in well-functioning agile teams.

And it seems impossible that that such software, produced for such a tiny market, would be brilliantly designed, brilliantly executed, and just always there when you need it. For free.

So I don’t know how or why you do it, or what the world did to deserve it, or why I was lucky enough to find it. But THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, for Pivotal Tracker.

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Why I switched from Menalto Gallery to SmugMug

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5161 days ago

Two posts ago, I described my struggle to figure out how to fit my Menalto Gallery album structure into SmugMug. In a comment to that post, one of the Gallery developers asked why I switched from Gallery to SmugMug. I started to reply in the comments on that post, but the reply got to be long enough that I thought it deserved its own post instead; this is that post.

Note that it’s fairly mind-boggling (even to me) that saw my post and responded to it in a single day; I wonder how he did that?



Most of my experience is with Gallery 1, although I do have a site using Gallery 2. Back when I first started using Gallery 1, it was really the only choice (this was before Flickr, even!) that had the ability to handle a large gallery like mine, had the key features I wanted, and would preserve all my images in original form. So it was really my only choice.

For a long time it did what I needed, and I was grateful for that. I told people about it, and about why I chose it. I know one or two people who ended up using it because of me, but most of my friends and acquaintances ended up using Flickr or similar sites.

But even though I chose it, and was able to use it, I didn’t like it very much. It was clumsy, hard to modify, and too complex. It was just my only real option, so I stuck with it. About once a year, I would try to find something else, and I never could.

So when Gallery 2 was announced, I liked the redesign philosophy, but I thought you all were nuts to try to rewrite a product from the ground up. I was certain that it would be a year or more before Gallery 2 was even close to ready, and in the meantime Gallery 1 support would wane, so I was pretty sure I’d be forced to choose another product. That didn’t quite happen – you folks kept supporting Gallery 1 – but it took a very long time to get Gallery 2 out.

So when it was actually released, I was pleasantly surprised… but then it took an even longer time for Gallery 2 to catch up to some of the basic features from Gallery 1 that I needed. (I forget what they were, now.) So I still didn’t have the replacement for Gallery 1 that I was hoping for.

But eventually Gallery 2 did have the necessary features, so I gave it a try… and it was confusing. Sure, maybe the code was much better this time around, and it was certainly more themeable… but it wasn’t easily themeable, and it was confusing as heck to administer and to teach my users about. So I gave up on Gallery 2, decided to live with Gallery 1, and to search more earnestly for a replacement.

Back then, I had my hopes set on ZenPhoto, but it didn’t quite have everything I needed, either. I certainly liked their “simplicity first” approach, though. It did eventually get to the point where it had all the features I needed, and that was enough for me to install it and start working in earnest to switch over to it.

And then I had a system failure that suddenly forced me to host my gallery on my own local machine, which had me terrified – if my house burned down, with it would go all my pictures. So I had to figure out a better hosting option. I considered renting a virtual server somewhere, but it’s hard to find a low-cost NetBSD host, and I didn’t really want to host on Linux. So I looked around at other gallery options, and found SmugMug.

SmugMug isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty great, and I like that they care (a lot!) about usability, and that they have humans on their support staff, and that they’ll take good care of my pictures. I like that I don’t have to administer the site myself. I like that they are a commercial venture, and are therefore forced to prioritize customer needs first, or fail as a business. I like that the features I find lacking, now, are features that I never even dreamed up, back on Gallery.

So now that Gallery 3 is coming out… it seems somewhat surreal. I first heard about it in an April Fool’s post on ZenPhoto, and when I followed the link to the real announcement of Gallery 3, I really thought it was an elaborate April Fools joke from you folks. I couldn’t believe you’d have the gall to say “when we went back to do it right, we did it wrong, so now we’re going to do it right again!” But it turns out that that’s really what you were saying, and that you really are giving it a third go-round.

Sure, maybe Gallery 3 will be better, and maybe someday I will find a reason to move off SmugMug. If so, I’m sure I’ll look at Gallery 3 (or 5, or 9?) and see if it fits the bill. But my default stance will be wariness – I don’t trust that you’ll ever get it right, or feel that you have gotten it “good enough” to just keep supporting (or evolving) the platform you are already on.

Of course, it now seems ironic that you posted your comment in a post titled Perfectionism, pragmatism, and progress. It looks like we all struggle with the balance between those issues! Perhaps we should both take the lesson from this – that our customers won’t give us many chances to find our balance.

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What I do

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5535 days ago

Wow, I think I just found two great articles that finally explain clearly what a Product Manager does. If you ever wonder what I do, see these:

  1. Product Management & Product Marketing – A Definition
  2. Seven Traits of Successful Product Managers

..both from Michael Shrivathsan – thanks, Michael!

Updated 4/30/14: Also this is even better. Much better.

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