The work never stops

The law of conservation of energy says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It just changes from one form to another.

I think work works similarly. Work is always present – it just changes from one form to another.

In our lives, we need to work hard to understand ourselves, our priorities and design a schedule that works in alignment to them.

At the office, work involves carving out time for deep thinking, staying engaged in the many meetings we attend and making every hour we spend “at work” count.

At home, we work to keep our homes clean, to cook good food, to take care of ourselves and to pay attention to each other.

There may be a few weeks of vacation every year when we don’t need to worry about doing all this work as much. But, it is the work we do the rest of the time that enables us to get those few carefree weeks.

Anything of value requires work. Thus, the work never stops.

And, that’s a beautiful thing.

Indomitable spirit

One of the most fascinating parts about observing children is their indomitable spirit.

Have you watched a child learning a new skill? They just never stop trying to learn. It is a constant cycle of try, fail, learn and repetition of that cycle again and again and again.

We were fortunate to observe a kid learning how to stand up the other day. She kept falling. But, no matter – she refused to give up. No amount of falling was going to stop her trying. Her enthusiasm to learn was contagious. I was excited to learn something, anything, after watching her.

I wonder what kills this tireless quest for new experiences and learning. Is it parents who quash the enthusiasm? Teachers? Friends?

When I see kids hurl themselves into new learning experiences, I remember the quote – “9/10ths of education is encouragement.” What if  we, as parents and teachers, sought to educate less and chose to encourage more? Would we see more instances of indomitable spirit?

I don’t know. But, it certainly seems worth a shot.

The Shinkansen story

In the 1950s, during the lingering wake of the devastation of the Second World War, Japan was intensely focused on growing the nation’s economy. A large portion of the country’s population lived in or between the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, which were separated by just 320 miles of train track.

Every day, tens of thousands of people traveled between the two cities. And in addition to the thousands of people who traveled on these trains, tons of industrial goods were transported on them, too. But, because Japan had so many mountains spread throughout and in between the two cities that it made an already old and outdated railway system even slower due to the rough and mountainous Japanese terrain the trains were forced to travel on; making the trip as long as 20 hours.

So, in 1955, the head of the Japanese railway system issued a challenge to the nation’s finest engineers: invent a faster train.

Six months later, a team unveiled a prototype locomotive capable of going 65 miles per hour—a speed that, at the time, made it among the fastest passenger trains in the world.

“Not good enough,” the head of the railway system said. He wanted 120 miles per hour.

The engineers told the head of the railway that this just wasn’t a realistic expectation—and was, in fact, a pretty dangerous undertaking because a train designed to go that fast (120 miles p/hr) along the sharp and mountainous Japanese topography would definitely derail if it turned too sharply, and end up killing everyone on board as a result. No way could they design a train to go that fast.

So, instead of 120 miles an hour, the engineers said that 70 miles an hour was a much more realistic number to shoot for, 75 if they were lucky. Any faster and the trains would just crash.

“Why do the trains need to turn?” the railway head asked.

“There are numerous mountains between the cities,” the engineers replied.

The railway head shot back—“Why not make tunnels, then?”

Tunnels, huh? The labor required to tunnel through that much territory could require just as many physical and financial resources as it did to rebuild the entire city of Tokyo after World War II.

Three months after that conversation, the engineers came back to the railway chief with an engine that could go as fast as 75 miles an hour.

You can probably already guess what the railway chief said – “75 miles an hour has absolutely no chance of transforming the nation!”

Incremental improvements would only yield incremental economic growth.

The only way to revamp the nation’s transportation system was to rebuild every element of how these trains functioned. Everything.

So they got to work, and over the next two years, the engineers experimented: they designed train cars that each had their own motors. They rebuilt gears so they meshed with less friction. They discovered that their new cars were too heavy for Japan’s existing tracks, and so they reinforced the rails, which had the added bonus of increasing the train’s stability, which added another ½ mile per hour to train’s speed.

There were hundreds of innovations, both big and small, just like these; each of which made the trains just a little bit faster than before.

And after tons of tiny tweaks and years of hard work and hustle under the Japanese railway chief’s go-big-or-go-home style of leadership, the very same team of engineers that thought it was impossible to build a 120 mile train—ended up building a 120 mile train.

In 1964, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the world’s first bullet train, left Tokyo and made its 320-mile trip towards Osaka. Except this time, instead of taking twenty hours, the trip took only four.

A fascinating story about how the Shinkansen was built from “Smarter, Faster, Better” by Charles Duhigg. Often, the prerequisite for building great things is relentlessness and a willingness to question every current norm and start anew.

Stones unturned

The surest sign of a great process is knowing you left no stone unturned. That’s when you walk away knowing you did everything in your power to make it work.

A great process doesn’t guarantee a good outcome, however. The higher stakes the outcome, the more likely a good proportion of the result isn’t in your control. So, things can and will, on occasion, go south.

But, you don’t control that.

You control effort. And, an effort that leaves no stone unturned is the kind of effort that allows you to let go and completely accept the outcome.

That’s the thing with great processes – they don’t guarantee the outcomes you seek but, in allowing you to let go, they do guarantee long term happiness.

Avoiding bad decisions

You might want to avoid bad decisions.

However, avoiding bad decisions is a poor goal because you only develop judgment over time. So, achieving it would mean making less decisions, taking less chances, and beating yourself when something inevitably goes wrong.

Decreasing experimentation in the long term is a very expensive decision.

Perhaps our goal instead should be to make sure we avoid making the same bad decision twice. This way, we keep the experimentation but ensure we take the time to learn from our experiments.

As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience. And, experience comes from bad judgment.

So, here’s to occasional bad judgment.

Onboarding – Converting new users to power users | Thinking Product

The best definition I’ve come across for the purpose of a great onboarding flow is – onboarding converts new users to power users.

Connecting aspects of great products to strategy again, the growth portion of the strategy targets users who would hire your product to get a job done. The purpose of the onboarding flow is to make it very clear how to do so.

This is the piece of the strategy where great design shines because the onboarding flow answers the two important design questions – i) does the user know what it takes to “win” in the product? and ii) how easy is it for the user to win?

I think it is critical to get onboarding right because it transitions people from interest in your product to your core value props. Fail to this and people leave without giving you a shot.

So, what are the principles behind great onboarding experiences? As I’m a fan of boiling things down to at-most 3 things, my sense would be that great onboarding experiences do the following –

  1. Structure/set expectations and show progress/celebrate success
  2. Ask them for just enough information to get them to value (the aha moment!)
  3. Show them what’s important

Let’s work through each of these with an example.

1. Structure/set expectations and show progress/celebrate success

It is incredibly annoying when you have to keep clicking yes to set things up as a user. While the simple answer is to keep sign up processes as short as possible (and we should all do that), different products have different needs. And, a great way to help users along the way is to set clear expectations.

I love how Etsy does this. You know exactly where you are in the process and what you need to do to make progress. It nails this principle.

2. Ask them for just enough information to get them to value (the aha moment!)

Onboarding doesn’t need to give you 100% of the data you need to deliver on your core value prop. The question is – how can you ask just enough to take them to value? Quora does a great job of this. When you go through the Quora onboarding process, there are 2 key steps – a quick selection of topics that you’d like to follow and also friends you’d like to follow.

Interestingly, they use a modal with what looks like a live feed to show you what success would look like. That’s smart.

They also add a touch of suspense before they deliver the “aha” moment (annotated in the image below by Samuel at

3. Show them what’s important

Most products collect a bunch of information and just leave their users on their own. Apps that do a great job with onboarding, however, do a fantastic job contextually helping users.

And, slack is a great example of the best practice via its slack bot.

One last thing – these principles focus on what happens once a user gets into your product. But, what about the connection between growth and onboarding, i.e., what happens when a user shows up?

I think good onboarding flows do a good job with the education process right when you sign up. Here’s an example of the sign up process on “Personal Capital.”

The app has 6 nice looking screens that tell you what it does. But, at the same time, you can skip it to sign in, join or ask for a demo. Again, that’s smart.

To summarize –

  • Great onboarding converts new users to power users
  • Great onboarding experiences i) set expectations and celebrate users moving through it, ii) ask for just enough information to take users to value, and iii) contextually show users what’s important as they navigate through the product for the first time
  • Finally, you can lay the groundwork for good on boarding even before a user signs up

When in doubt, paraphrase the question

A simple technique for answering questions better –

Step 1 – If you are certain you understood the question, answer it directly.

Step 2 – If you are in doubt, paraphrase what you heard in your own words to make sure you’re answering the right question.

It is tempting to shoot for efficiency and aim to just answer every question that comes at you.

But, constant attempts at efficiency often come at the cost of effectiveness.