Unarticulated needs and Skype 4.0
Today, Skype’s President Josh Silverman picks a lesson from Communist-era dissident communication that is equally relevant to companies that seek to become – or remain — innovative. In fact, there’s even an connection to the recently-introduced beta version of Skype 4.0 for Windows as well (which, for the traditionalists among us, will also have a compact mode).
When a Polish dissident read a letter from his East German friend, he didn’t take those handwritten lines at face value. He knew that to make it past eagle-eyed officials, the letter had to appear innocuous. The how’s-your-father-doing-oh-he’s-fine kind. But using his finely-tuned antenna, he decoded and amplified the subtle hints judiciously sprinkled here and there. By drilling into the subtext and picking up on the unsaid, he used a skill we’ve largely forgotten in the West. He read between the lines.
Now think of your customer. He doesn’t need to worry about a Stasi agent in the mailroom or a recorder in the vase. If you’re lucky, he’ll tell you exactly what he thinks of your product. Or you read it in a customer-feedback form. Or he blogs about how it could be improved. Which is fabulous. The only problem: you’re scratching at the surface.
]]>Customers are good at telling you about explicit, or articulated, problems. There may be call-quality issues. Or they can’t figure out how to use Skype to send an SMS. It’s not the customer’s job to fix these things, obviously. That’s our job. By tweaking the audio engine or improving usability, these problems can be solved.
But this is hardly genius. Yes, it can take embarrassingly long to even get the sub-genius thing right. But that’s no excuse. Genius is realizing customers’ unarticulated problems, needs and desires. Stuff that remains invisible to most of us, because we’re too used to the way things are. But think of books, typewriters, mp3 players, umbrellas, teabags, and free calls; all of these disrupted one market or another. But I suspect it took people who didn’t feel like tinkering at the edges. Who then proceeded to shatter the status quo.
Sometimes such innovation explosions happen (semi)accidentally – penicillin and vulcanized rubber come to mind. But you can’t count on happy accidents. When I was at Evite, the fundamental innovation was not to make invitations look prettier, take them online and help people save on postage. We realized that people had a much deeper, albeit unarticulated, need. They wanted to know who else was going to a party before they committed to Friday night. No one expected or asked for this kind of functionality, but when they saw it, it was an absolute aha! moment.
Today, I work at Skype, a company that grew on top of an extraordinary innovation: free worldwide calls. And let me tell you, at this very moment, we have folks twiddling with their monocles, microscopes and X-ray machines to see the invisible ink. To figure out what the world is telling us. And we have folks who try to translate the message we think we’ve read into the next innovation. Often, it leads us nowhere. It’s a tall order. But we’ll doggedly keep at it. And when we think we’re onto something, we’ll invite you to play with the thing.
You may have noticed the mid-June launch of Skype 4.0 beta 1 for Windows. While creating this revamped version of Skype was partly a practical move – not unlike moving from a tiny student flat to a more spacious home – it also belies a significant effort to analyze Skype’s evolving role in people’s lives and to see the findings reflected in how it looks, behaves and interacts. As one user put it, these days, Skype is “more than just a chat program”.
Before we began to sculpt the new face of Skype, we looked at the more obvious stuff that you told us. And then we dug deeper. We read between the lines. Drilled into the subtext of what you were saying – and doing. That’s when the concept of integrated communications began to take shape. Previously, text chat, voice, video, file transfers etc. have been separate channels organized by time. The central idea behind 4.0 is to organize conversations by person, not by channel.
At first, it may feel counterintuitive. (Although I think intuition here probably isn’t innate, but has been conditioned by the mechanics of the current channel architecture.) Millions of people depend on Skype, and have invested time in getting comfortable with how it used to work. So change naturally sparks resistance. But it’s immensely satisfying to see initial skepticism wane after a few days with 4.0.
Is the current iteration of 4.0 a fait accompli? No, which is why we’re looking at your reactions: gathering behavioral data and listening intently to what beta users are telling us. We even run a weekly Feedback War Room to keep things right – a first in our almost five-year history.
The next version of 4.0 will be much closer to its final form and best behavior. Don’t worry, it will indeed include “compact mode”, so you can reduce the real estate that Skype takes up on the screen. Among other things we’re working on, instant messages will be more visible and alerts and notifications will be improved.
As you wait, think about your own interactions with friends, colleagues, ideas and objects. Go ahead. Look beyond the obvious and the articulated. It’s worth the effort.