How can we collect and use data to build better products?

Better data, product design, and everything in between
Better data, product design, and everything in between

“How do we collect better data to build better products? “

This may seem like a simple enough question, because data in itself is a base form. Data is either valid or invalid, but how do we then optimise to collect, and make use of data?

My idea of better data in the context of product design and marketing is based on experience trying to build a technology business in Nigeria. In developed markets, data has been collected for decades at least, which allows creators build better products. Where data doesn’t exist, it’s arguably easier to collect than in Nigeria.

An example is something as simple street/house numbers. These are things taken for granted in the developed world, and even in parts of the developing world. But in Nigeria, house numbering is pure chaos. Yet, this is an integral part of the logistics and fulfilment system. While Amazon is trying to launch drone deliveries in America, depending largely on existing numbering and GPS systems, Konga literally had to build their own postal service. (What would be interesting is Konga’s data on how many times it takes their delivery guys to identify a home to deliver to, and how they do that.)

This inherent chaos is our system is not an accident. If I may borrow the word, anyhowness is a real thing. But we need to build products and services, irrespective of this chaos. And we need data to make these products/services work well, because without data, our products and services cannot operate optimally. So how do we get better data?

I was recently speaking with a technology team at a top 4 bank, helping redo their service design for Internet banking, and we were stuck on whether certain fields on their interface should be displayed at all. Bankers are fun people to work with – they had filled their software with fine banking language, like ‘liens’, ‘facility’ etc, and we’re unwilling to make changes.

So I asked: why are we making these changes?

They answered: because we want our online banking services to appeal to younger customers.

Me: How many young customers understand these big words?

Banker: They do!

Me: I don’t. And I’m not very stupid.

Banker: Well…you should.

Me: Ok, but more importantly, how many of your users, statistically click on those sections of your website, or use the service?

It emerged that it was less than 5 percent, maybe 2%. Less than 5% of users accessed a feature, yet we were fighting over it being front centre.

This is the problem. It’s a bigger problem than not having data. Understanding the place of data in the design process is the bigger problem.

The era of assuming when you build, customers will use it just because you have built it never existed. Only Apple gets away with that, and that’s because Apple understands great design better than all of us combined. Since we’re not Apple, we must behave like we’re not Apple.

A website design for example, is more than just wireframe and new CSS tricks. It’s not carousels and new HTML5 widgets. Designers must see themselves as the forerunners of intelligent service design. This means they can’t work alone.

Design is a destination which describes the entire customer journey in one location. Hence, if the design doesn’t not understand and properly capture the customer journey, and how the customer interacts with the brand, then the design product is a failure.

We must remember though, that collecting data for product design is not rocket science. Especially for people who already own their platforms, the data is there already. You probably have already collected enough, or could with minor adjustments. The challenge is in asking the right questions, and being honest to self. “What am I currently doing right? Where am I failing, and how can I improve?”

Over the last couple of months, we’ve designed various data collection models. The most successful ones have been those disguised as products.

It is very interesting that if we look at things differently, we could completely change the way we see data collection (and their applications to design), mostly from sources which are not very obvious to the user. How do viewing patterns on iRokoTV help Nollywood create better films (which score in the market)? This was an unstated, but critical observation, casually dropped in a recent blog by Jason Njoku.

The gaming industry is an example of where data is currently being harvested, with meaningful real life applications. The new Kim Kardashian game could deliver valuable user behaviour data to hotels, TV and entertainment producers, Candy Crush could help study addiction and compulsive behaviour, and law enforcement could do very interesting things with Grand Theft Auto data. It could be argued in gaming that building a great product is not an end in itself, but the beginning.

This is indeed the experience we have had over the last couple of years at Anakle, but the last 15 months have been the most interesting. While I was out being notorious for building the Bride Price app (again, I didn’t build it, Ofure’s team did), our servers were quietly collecting various kinds of data (which was one of the reasons the app was designed in the first place). We were lucky to have a few million interactions to play with, and when the various data points were reviewed, the emerging patterns provided very interesting feedback.

For example, returning female users tended to score higher marks in the quiz. Does that tell anything? Imagine that a user had scored N200,000 in the first taking of the quiz, then returned to take it – the pattern was that most returning users ended up with higher scores. What were the most popular skin tones in a given location? What image of themselves did users see in their minds? But these are the more obvious pieces of information users left behind, without filling any forms.

Most of the data we collected is currently helping our team design a more serious, real life services, and we’re approaching the product design with a lot more confidence than we did months before.

For our advertising team servicing clients in various industries, it is an advantage that we are able to predict user behaviour. While hypotheses are good, real data allows us to walk into battle with a more significant amount of confidence.

Users don’t have the time to fill our surveys, and most times, when people actively fill surveys, they are more inclined to put their best foot forward. I believe we would find more valuable data by hacking passive user activity to collect real life data. Of course nothing I am saying here is new. Silicon Valley perfected this model decades ago. But in Africa, we need to get started too, as a mainstream model.

The World Needs Her Autobots

autobot_transformers_1440x900An emerging trend I’ve noticed over the last year and half is that entrepreneurs and startup owners are sneering at people seeking paid employment. It’s rather ironic, this turn of events, considering that a few years back, parents and family usually sneered at kids who thought to start businesses, or threatened to disown children who turned down paid employment for the improbable ‘attraction’ of being a business owner.

Entrepreneurship fundamentally is embracing uncertainty, and the average entrepreneur may sneer at the endless routine  of paid employment. The average banker, for example, represents a human bot, doing the same thing over and over again, day after day, week on week, year on year! It is that endless routine that helped make my mind up about going into business – and I was one of the lucky ones who had a pretty interesting job.

Then there’s CCHUB. I remember once going to CCHub to find a developer – my thinking before then was that if there was a  place to find good developers, it would be the hub. Maybe I misunderstood what the hub stood for, or what the hub people thought about paid employment, but after my visit, I felt a little pity for the concept of paid employment and it’s adherents – the bots. The guys at the hub all seemed to mentally spit at the thought of working 9-5 (and more) jobs.

So what’s really wrong about having an autobot job, especially considering the most common flaws of startup entrepreneurs?

  • If we all became entrepreneurs, who will work for our companies?
  • The average entrepreneur often lacks true brick-and-mortar business skills, and needs to be guided or supported by trained managers – where would the managers come from if everyone became a startup owner.
  • Often, the glamorous stories of entrepreneurship conveniently skip those months where there’s no revenue, the zero account balances and the debts to family and friends. Because the market is very volatile, and support systems are lacking, the average entrepreneur needs a family structured in a way which has that support of a regular pay check, when one partner is running a startup.

One of the things I’m very sure about is that the fours years I spent in and out of paid employment help build a foundation for how I currently run my business. If I didn’t learn anything positive in my last job, I did learn how not to run a business, and how not to treat the people who work for me. My last job taught me management, at no cost to myself, and there was no way I would run a team where people are happy (most of the time) to work with me. There are clear differences in the way I run my team, and the way my close friends run theirs, and this is clearly down to our experiences in jobs we had or did not have.

I’m currently sitting here, typing out a blog, deliberately giving the silent treatment to a logistic staff I called up to talk to. I learned that from my former job – say 10 words, and let it sink in with silence, only broken by the sounds of a keyboard.

Steve Jobs was one of the greatest CEOs ever, but he was one of the worst managers who ever lived. It needed autobot managers to keep his team moving and working, because working with Steve made “working in a living hell” the kindergarten of horrible job experience. But he was smart – for the most part of his second coming at Apple, he hired great managers. The best CEOs are probably the ones who are smart enough to hire great staff and managers or who have had experience in autobot jobs.

Recently, I was reviewing the career of Sim Shagaya, founder of Konga.com and DealDey. He’s one of Nigeria’s leading start founders, and one of the few guys Nigeria’s smaller startup CEO would close up shop to go work for. He also has a very impressive CV, don’t let me tell you, check out his LinkedIn. We love SIM because we think he’s cool. But once in his life, the cool Sim was an autobot!

The world is defined by CEOs, but run by managers. A world without it’s autobot managers will be a world full of really angry or depressed people. This is because most startup CEOs are really shitty managers of people. Managing people is a skill that rarely comes naturally, and one of the best ways to gain management is through traditional employment.

It is great that we are beginning to build a startup culture in Nigeria, and young people are aspiring to start and grow businesses, with less protestations by their families. It is also important to note however, that not becoming an entrepreneur is also a very valid career path. I also think every entrepreneur should try working for someone else – the experience is invaluable.

Being an entrepreneur is cool. Very cool. Nothing beats that feeling of seeing something one started from nothing grow into something. That feeling is rather difficult to top. But nothing tops (negatively) that sinking feeling at the end of a month which had no revenue, knowing not where money is going to come from. Startup culture is often a swing between heady highs, and hopeless lows. In the midst of so much uncertainty, of emotional extremes, the world needs her autobots to keep things going smooth and calm like.

And hey, the Autobots, if you really think it through, are the good guys. Life could be much worse, in a world where we also have Decepticons.

So Jason Njoku got $8m. Now you want to make yours too?


Jason Njoku
Yep, that's him. Copyright http://faraitoday.com/

A few days ago, we got news the Jason Njoku and the Iroko Partners team for $8m in funding. First question a close friend asked was “What are we building? In fact what are you going to build?” I have heard this same question in different forms over the last couple of days. Now I have a question of my own.  Actually, I have questions?

  1. Must you build?
  2. Why are you building?
  3. What are you bulding?

To put these questions in perspective, I’m mostly asking: now that you want to do your own startup because Jason Njoku got $8m in funding (and you want to go get yours too), what exactly are you thinking?

I’m not going to go into the whole argument of what to or not to build, there’s EContent and Afrinnovator for that for that.

I’ll want to point out that Njoku/Iroko did not begin in one day. You just don’t get up to build something because of Iroko – it’s great to feel inspired, and indeed we all are, but there’s a name for jumping in that excited, inspired state to build ‘that app’ just because – it’s called suicide. Maybe there’s a softer name. Maybe it’s knocking your head in with a wooden mallet, which is sure to put out your lights for at least week and half, but it’s just not the thing you’d like to do.

There’s at least a million things to think about in order to build a successful app or startup. You won’t and can’t figure them all out in a day. You will need to put a decent, emotionless amount of work into the thinking process. You’ll need the equivalent of a ballistics resistance test on your idea before you even begin building – you take the idea out to the shed, setup a firing range, unload a few magazines of lead into it. If it survives, take it out again, do same with a business hat on. If it survives, then maybe you can start building.

Why is the business idea so important? In all of this hoopla, it should not be forgotten that Njoku didn’t sell an app or a complex, built up product. What he sold was an idea, a business plan! If your app or idea does not cut the business mustard, you are not going to see a dime. Because the funding is NOT free, funders will need to know that they will make money from their investment – I’m going to emphasize this, funding is AN INVESTMENT. This is why Njoku isn’t closing down his street for a major owambe anytime soon.

Here’s a few thoughts if you’re sure you are ready for that startup.

Be ready to not make money – yet. In fact, be ready to lose money. It’s important to not think your startup will magically start making money from Day 1.

Recognize the local environment. A tip on this is that the biggest impediment to monetization of apps and startups in Nigeria is payment systems. Ask any business minded developer, or startup owners. Until a mainstream payment solution is available for those little payments you need to collect from your app, most apps will not be profitable. Unsurprisingly, the big problem the Iroko team is still trying to nail is the “monetization problem”. The monetization problem has NOT been solved yet!

What to build? You could begin from where you know, where you have strong background knowledge. If you grew up in Alaba, think Alaba. If you know SMS, think SMS. You could then work it backwards, from the known to unknown. Of course this is not the Law of Moses, but it’s a bit of common sense.

Read. It is possible someone may have thought about that bright idea you have and walked away. Do you research. You just may find why the person walked away, or crack the kink that drove the previous idea owner off the land.

What this blog isn’t saying is for you not to build your app or startup – that’ll make me an effing idiot, you see. What it is saying is, think through it before you begin. Don’t do it just because someone else did, or you want to make money like Iroko Partners. Do something ridiculous, that actually makes sense, and maybe then, you can ask Jason how to get funding.