Sutha Kamal

Mobile, IoT, wearables, product and more...
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It’s all about interfaces and magic.

It seems like every day there’s a new wearable that gets announced. Pebble, Samsung, maybe Apple someday soon. But this intense focus on the wrist is distracting us from the real magic that the internet of things will bring us. Instead of just listing off all the truly magical experiences we’ll have when we reframe our view, let me walk you through a day in my life, in the not too distant future.

At around 4:55 AM the smart sensor in my bed decides that now is the perfect time to wake me up. Instead of a loud noise or vibration, it instructs the smart light bulbs in my bedroom to slowly turn on, going through just the right phases of sunrise light. Once these lights are open, it instructs my blinds to slowly open. I wake up naturally, easily, and without having to look at or “interact” with anything.

When I walk into the bathroom, I step on my weigh scale, which gives me a thumbs-up for staying the same weight, and the displays today’s weather forecast. Ah, so I know what to wear today, and I didn’t need to “interact” with anything.

As I walk to my kitchen, my espresso machine has already woken up (it did when I did) and is warmed up. It knows that I slept especially well, so it recommends only two shots, instead of my usual three. Sounds like a good idea, I think, putting a mug in the machine and pressing the brew button.

As I walk to my living room coffee mug in hand, my TV turns on, and has displayed for me the weather, top news headlines, and my agenda for the day. I gesture Minority Report-style upward with my hand, and my TV’s 3D camera recognizes this gesture, and my calendar scrolls upward.

“Turn on BBC News,” I say. Ordinarily I’d have to say “okay Siri…”, but since the camera knows I’m looking right at the TV, there’s no ambiguity in my instruction and the news starts playing. As I watch the news, I see a glowing orb in the top-right of the screen. I make a swiping gesture to see it, and I realize I need to leave now to get to the office on time.

As I walk to my car, it sees that I have both my phone and my smart-bracelet. Since I’ve got both devices and the car is in my garage, it’s highly likely to be me, so the doors unlock and the engine starts. As I sit down, the camera embedded in my dash looks at me and verifies my identity. If I didn’t look like me, the engine would stop, and I’d have to biometrically authenticate to restart it.

The center display in my car has a pre-populated list of destinations. At this time of day, the office is unsurprisingly automatically at the top of my list. But this time it’s glowing amber, which it normally wouldn’t. I drive to the office every day, so it’s not like I need directions, but it’s calling for my attention because traffic is especially bad, and it wants to suggest a route more efficient than what I normally take. One tap of this display and the car begins navigation. Notably, all this navigation intelligence is coming from Waze, running on my phone. It just knows that the best place to use Waze isn’t always the phone.

When I get to the office, I jump on a conference call and place a Bluetooth headset in my ear. Once I’m off the call, I leave it in as I walk to my next meeting. As I walk, my meeting gets cancelled (got to love last minute changes). My headset listens to my environment and realizes that it’s pretty quiet and I’m not talking, so it just whispers in my ear “your meeting with Joe was just cancelled.” Great! Time for more coffee, I think, and walk to the Starbucks across the street. This time it’s a bit noisier, so instead of whispering, I hear a beeping sound. I tap the headset to acknowledge the notification and it says, “your wife’s flight from London has been delayed by 3 hours.” “Okay, I am picking her up, so please update my schedule, and see if Chris is free for an early dinner.”

Finally, at the end of the night when my wife and I get home, and I walk to the bedroom, my bed sensor recognizes that I’m in the bedroom (it uses the motion sensor built into my thermostat) and that it’s bedtime. Since I’m about to go to bed, my phone alerts me that I’ve left it on the sofa, and haven’t plugged it in. Okay, a dead phone in the morning sucks, so I take it off my sofa, and drop it on my coffee table, which has an inductive charging loop in it, and finally crawl into bed.

All through this magical day, I interacted with many different systems all around me. I didn’t once glance at a smart watch or other display-enabled wearable. I’ll be the first on my block with a Moto 360, but we need to realize that it’s just one device, and one interface. Instead we must consider how people live, communicate (sensations, sound images, gestures, expressions) and interact. We must design products and experiences that are contextually aware and use the best device right now to serve our many needs. Wearables are a part of the magic, not all of it.

I’m @suthakamal, a product entrepreneur and executive. If you’re building or thinking about something in this space, I’d love to hear from you.

If you found this interesting, you should follow me on Twitter.

Thanks to Ethan Stock (@onohoku), Christian Gammill (@gammill), Seema Kumar (@seemakumar) and Steve Garrity (@stgarrity), and Drake Martinet (@withdrake) for commenting on drafts of this.

Chris Dixon wrote a popular post about the decline of the mobile web. I don’t think that there’s actually a decline, that it will strengthen mobile gatekeepers or reduce innovation in the mobile ecosystem. Actually, I think this is something we’ve already seen from the past.

The most innovative apps are built on the platform that is itself innovating and delivering new functionality most quickly. At the beginning — when it comes to delivering rich, interactive experiences — the web was pretty crummy, and we spent most of our time in native desktop apps. Then the the desktop OS’s began to slow down their rate of innovation, and browsers got richer: JavaScript, AJAX, V8, WebGL, plugins, video, offline storage, etc. This meant the web was becoming richer and more powerful at a pace faster than desktop OS’s. So, the next wave of great products and services was built on the web.

Fast-forward to today. How much more powerful has your browser gotten recently? Faster? Yes. More capable? Not really. Compare that to the mobile operating systems. With each major release of Android and iOS, we’re seeing tremendous amounts of new functionality, all available to developers. Want to have a geofence so your app knows where it is, even when it’s not running? Boom. Talk to a wearable device nearby via Bluetooth? No problem. Find other devices on the local network and start talking to them? Sure. You just can’t do this in the browser today.

At some point, the pace of innovation in the core OS will likely slow down, and it’ll speed up again in the web, or another as-yet-unimagined platform. Then the cycle will repeat. Again and again.

There’s just one catch: Apple. If mobile web apps provide as-good or better experiences than native apps, across platforms, Apple has the most to lose. The iOS app ecosystem, more than the devices and OS-itself, is what makes iOS great. Where Google is successful when more people search the web, and Microsoft needs more apps on their platform, for iOS it’s the apps. For that reason, I expect we’ll see Google and Microsoft trying to move the web forward faster, but it’s Apple that’ll be driving the most innovation at the OS. It’ll be fun to watch.

“I’m not a product guy, and I know it. How do I hire for a skill that I don’t understand fully?”

We walked around the Mission as the CEO described where the business was, where they wanted to take it, and why they needed a “product leader” to join. It’s never easy to recruit the most talented people to your team. Product is a particularly difficult function to recruit for: it means different things to different companies and “good product” is highly subjective. Even though it’s hard, you can find great product leaders, and I’ll show you how.

What “product” is

Product solves problems important to the business and customers

At its best, product considers the business’ objectives, the available resources, and customers need. The solution is often unexpected, and creative. Let’s take a look at two similar problems, each solved differently by two companies.

Problem 1: I need a car, but don’t want to own one.
Owning a car in a city is expensive and mostly unnecessary, but occassionally you need one to get around. Also, as a trend millennials are increasingly renting things (often on-demand) instead of buying them: music, movies, cars, homes. So carsharing services like ZipCar and City CarShare popped up as a solution: pay a membership fee, and you can rent cars (conveniently located near you) by the hour.

Avis: Avis owns and manages cars and real estate. So they acquired Zipcar: the urban-Millenial version of Avis. They understand the business, and made a bet on growing demand.

BMW: They make and sell cars, and partnered with global car rental firm Sixt to built DriveNow. It’s effectively Zipcar with BMW cars, including the perfect-for-urban-Millennials MINI brand, and ActiveE electric cars. BMW makes the cars, and Sixt manages the fleet.

Problem 2: Taxis suck.
Taxis are hard to flag down, you never know which taxi company to call, you have no idea where your cab is or when it’ll show up, you hope that they take credit cards or need to remember to have cash… you get it.

Hailo: They use the infrastructure that already exists: trained, licensed taxi drivers are already in every major city. They built an app that helps people use their phones to find taxis, request a ride, see where their taxi is, and avoid any payment friction.

Lyft: A totally new entrant, with no legacy, no fleet, and (comparatively) no capital. Their insight: lots of people have cars but no job: lets turn them into drivers. Add a slick mobile app, a playful brand and you’ve got your own taxi fleet without any taxis.

To solve the problem of making transportation easier for urbanites, we’ve found 4 companies that took very different approaches:

  • M&A [Avis/Zipcar]
  • joint venture [BMW/Sixt]
  • use existing infrastructure [Hailo]
  • use idle cars and people to build something totally new [lyft]

Is it crazy for BMW compete with Zipcar? It depends on if their product theownership of a BMW, or the experience of having one when you need it? Do you think about solving customer needs this creatively?

What product isn’t

Your product isn’t your app

Or website, or gadget, or any of those things. Your product is the way you meet a customer’s need. Your conversations with the product team shouldn’t only be about user stories, tickets and wireframes. They should also include a lot of “What problem are we solving? Is that the right problem to solve? Is this the best way?”

Product isn’t an order-taker

At one company I met, the product team’s job was to take feature requests from the rest of the organization, and write up user stories and sketch wireframes. The CEO thought about the details (what to build today), and the future (“What will we need in 5 years?”). Nobody owned the vision and roadmap for the next 12 months. When sales called and said, “We really need you to build feature X for a customer, or we’ll lose the deal,” product couldn’t weigh this request against other priorities, because there was neither a roadmap nor objectives. Unless product is empowered and able to contribute, the best talent won’t stay, and the company will always be reacting to the market, instead of leading it.

Product isn’t the boss

While product is often at the center of everything, it isn’t necessarily in chargeof everything. Done well, product supports the business’ needs. Here’s a simplistic flow:

The CEO decides what the high-level objectives are (“We want more people driving our cars.”).
Product studies the business needs, customer needs, and identifies a solution.
Design takes that solution, and creates the best experience possible around it, often helping product re-imagine things.
Engineering takes design and product’s output and ultimately decides what’s posssible, how to build it, etc. In a great organisation, engineering is also deeply involved in the iterative process alongside product and design.

How do you test for product talent?

1. Talk about their favorite products

“Tell me about a few of your favorite products…” is a great open-ended question that gives you a peek into how someone thinks. Do they love their Audi because it’s fast? Great. Tell me more. They love sending an address to the car from Google Maps? Awesome. Why? What problem does that solve? How else could you solve this? What would be even better? Why did they build this feature?

Ask them to show you a few of the most-used apps on their phone. What are great design decisions the developers made, and what could be better? Do they love the Twitter app? Awesome. Why? They love the new conversation threading feature? Cool. Why is that important? What problem did it solve? How did people solve that problem before? What would you change or do differently? Is there another product where something like this might be useful?

You’re not looking for the surface-level thoughts here. You want to see three things:

  • Are they getting into the head of the customer? What are they trying to do, and is this the best way?
  • Do they understand what the developer was thinking? What were their objectives? Why might they have made the choices they did?
  • Do they have a strong, thoughtful opinion on things, and can they communicate?

2. Intellectual honesty: let’s disagree

Great product leaders and consensus-led companies don’t mix, so you need to make sure you can disagree and communicate constructively. Challenge them: “You really think sending an address to your car is slick? I think everyone will just use their phone. That feature is worthless.” What do they say?

You don’t need to believe your own objection, you just want to see how they react. Do they ask questions to clarify what you mean? Do they have a thoughtful reply? Do they just cave and agree with you (lack of spine is a bad sign). Do they build on your thought? Or — if your suggestion really is terrible — do they explain why you’re wrong?

You will always have conflicting opinions, but you need to respect their thought process. You need to feel like you can communicate, disagree, and come up with even better solutions together. If you don’t feel like they’re thinking clearly or your communication styles just don’t mesh, don’t hire.

3. Are they obsessed with solving this pain?

Why do they want to join your company? What is it about the problem and your customers that they’re excited about? What’s the opportunity? If product’s goal is really to solve big customer problems and achieve lofty company goals, a product leader needs to be passionate about both.

By the time a candidate met Steve Jobs, it was obvious that they were competent. He asked himself, “Are they going to fall in love with Apple?” Look at the last Apple keynote, and see how the leadership talks about the company, their products, and the mission. They’re in love, and that’s the goal.

4. Do they ask hard business questions?

When you interview a great product leader, you’re the customer, and they’re trying to understand your needs and goals as deeply as they can. If they join, they’ll be thinking about your customers the same way. So get ready (and excited) for some hard questions:

How much money do you have in the bank? What’s the burn? What about Competitor X? How’re you going to make money? How do you think about lifetime customer value? How are you thinking about an exit? What does the cap table look like? What do you need to do before you raise your next round or get to profitability? How close are you to your goals? How have you led product so-far? Have you considered buying Company Y? What does the rest of the company think of this role, what are they looking for?

A great product leader is someone who will think as deeply about your business as you do, so you should expect a lot of hard questions. They shouldn’t be afraid of challenges (competitors, the market, whatever), but they need to understand the terrain, where you are on the map, and what resources you can rally.

5. Can they identify what’s most important?

When you’re building a new product (and especially a new company), it’s easy to get disoriented by all the things you need to do. We get overwhelmed by all the awesome things the product could do. So we think about the 10 features it needs to have, the amazing companies we could partner with, all the awesome press we’re going to get when we ship it, etc. That’s awesome, it’s passion!

It’s critical, though, to look at that list of 10 features, priorities and objectives and select the absolutely critical ones. Sometimes what’s critical are the features that will make 10 million customers show up at your website, eager to buy. Other times you need to prove a hypothesis to investors, so you can raise more money to go from prototype to market. What is the next big step for your company? What risks do you need to mitigate: market size, technical, competitive, legal? You need to identify the most important objectives to hit the next big milestone, and focus on them.

It was more important for Tesla to prove to investors that they could build a reliable drive-train than that they could design beautiful showrooms. It was more important that the first iPod could sync all of your music wicked-fast (iTunes + small hard drive + Firewire), than it was to have a music store or Windows support. The Tesla showrooms, iTunes Store and Windows support came later: they were important but not critical.

Ask them what is critical for your business. Do they quickly find the key items? Do they ask the right questions? If they come to a different conclusion than you, what do you think about their thought process?

Great product leaders are thoughtful, ask questions, have an opinion, and communicate well.

Now you know how to find and get the most from them, so build something awesome and tell me about it!

I’m Sutha Kamal, a techy, design-y, product nerd, and the founder and former CEO at Massive Health (a consumer mobile health company, acquired by Jawbone).

If this was useful, you should follow me on Twitter (@suthakamal).

Climbing Pinnacles.

My usual bedtime routine: open the Jawbone UP app, see how active I was, and set my alarm for the morning. I asked to be woken up no later than 6 AM, and at 5:53 my UP (realizing I was in the lightest phase of sleep) began to gently vibrate to wake me up. This is a device that’s unobtrusively woven itself into my life. (Disclosure: I was the founder and CEO of Massive Health, a company acquired by Jawbone to further their digital health initiatives like the UP band.)

Everyone’s doing it, and it’s more of the same

It seems like the excitement around wearables couldn’t possibly get any higher. From startups like Misfit Wearables, Basis and Pebble, to consumer electronics giants Samsung, Sony and LG, to old-school GPS navigation companies like Magellan, everyone wants a piece. Indeed veteran Apple watchers have been discussing the “iWatch” for nearly 3 years, looking at every curved glass or small-screen patent as evidence of a device in the works.

Common wisdom #1

Glancing at your wrist is less awkward than looking at a phone

Here’s a scenario I’ve heard often: Someone calls or texts you in the middle of a meeting. It would be rude to look at your phone, but it’s fine to look at your wrist instead.

I’m not sure that’s right, since social norms change. Today, it’s totally acceptable to glance at your phone — briefly — in a meeting. Everyone knows you’re either checking the time, or have a call/text coming in and are deciding if it’s important. It’s a common behavior for all of us, and more importantly it’s obvious what you’re doing: there’s no mistaking that the thing you’re looking at is a phone. On the other hand, I have no idea whether you’ve got a Timex or a Pebble on your wrist, which makes it awkward when you’re “glancing” at it a bit too slowly. Are you eager for this meeting to end or simply reading a text?

Social norms will include glancing at your wrist to see a text message, but they’ve already changed when it comes to glancing at your phone. This isn’t a problem the smartwatch is solving.

Common wisdom #2

Devices need to have a display

So many of the devices out there have a display. Pebble touts the battery life from their e-paper display, while Samsung promotes the vivid, high-resolution display on their Galaxy Gear watch.

The holy grail of displays is one that’s:

  • in color
  • always on
  • high resolution
  • got a responsive touchscreen
  • clear in bright daylight
  • ultra-low/no power
  • flexible (resilient) and curved

Companies like eInk and Qualcomm are working on making this wishlist a reality. Right now, however, when “Retina” resolution and vivid colour is thebaseline in mobile phones, putting a crummy (by comparison), low-res display on your wrist just feels cheap. More importantly, while there are some wonderful examples of what displays on next-gen wearables might look like (some of my favorites have been designed by my friend Christian Lindholm’s company Korulab), great wearables don’t need a display.

A display-free vision

An example (I’d love for Jawbone to build this into my UP): my display-less Jawbone UP might vibrate with different patterns with notifications from my phone. One quick buzz for a text, a long buzz for a call, two quick buzzes for VIPs, etc. I get the information I need (there’s a notification), unobtrusively (I don’t even need to break eye contact), and can turn my attention to my phone to get the rest. As a guy who puts his phone in his jeans, this would be a nice-to-have. But for my wife, who’s in many meetings, and often has her phone on silent and in her purse, this would be fantastic.

Let’s take it a step further… I’m driving in my car, and my wrist vibrates to tell me there’s a text message. I press the single button that’s on the wristband (or perhaps my steering wheel), and Siri wakes up. “Read me that last text message,” I ask. My eyes never leave the road, and the devices did what they were best at: the band notified me, and the phone did the heavy lifting (processing voice, internet connectivity, in-car integration, etc.). Personally, this feels like a better experience than what today’s smartwatches provide. As a bonus, I can still wear a watch, and choose it for fashion or function, but while my watch might change every day, my Jawbone doesn’t.

Common Wisdom #3

We design to rule them all

Rarely does someone walk into a jewelry store, ask for a watch or bracelet that has a few specific features, make a shortlist of “products”, and then make a purchase from this shortlist. No, we walk in, browse for something that appeals to us, that feels right for us, that jumps out and fits our own style, and we walk out in love with this new artifact.

Three of the leading devices in the consumer wearables space have taken different paths when it comes to fashion:

  • Jawbone, Nike, and Misfit Wearables have gone the path of unobtrusive, elegant design, with a little flair (the ridges on the band and the metal cap on the Jawbone, the bright and colorful LEDs in the Nike Fuelband, the brushed surface and subtle lights on the Misfit Shine). Their closest relatives are the rubber bracelets popularized by LiveStrong: they go with anything, add a little highlight but without becoming a centerpiece.
  • Fitbit has gone the Timex route: perhaps a bit bland and more masculine, but unobtrusive and doesn’t attract a lot of attention.

As devices get larger, more visible, and more a part of your outfit, the focus will shift away from tech-style feature lists to jewelry design. That’s an opportunity for whoever figures out how to design, manufacture and merchandise beautiful devices. There may never be a Vertu line of smartwatches (if you can afford a Vertu phone, you’ll get a Patek Phillipe, etc. watch), but a Vertu-esque line of wearables? That will happen.

Common wisdom #4

The phone just isn’t the “right” place for this information

This is the MetaWatch, and while its display conjures memories of Tamagotchis, the information architecture is beautiful. I can see the time, date, weather, and next meeting at a single glance. The argument, then, goes like this: “it’s really on the wrist where we can best deliver timely information in a glancable way.”

Actually, this is a smartphone lock screen problem: While Apple and Google are making great strides in bringing timely information right to the lock screen, we’re not there yet. With biometric sensors that seamlessly authenticate us when we hold our phones (think TouchID), I expect the next generation of smartphones OS’s to have much more informative lock-screens, further raising the bar for what smart watches must provide.

So, where’s the opportunity?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here’re some places I think are ripe for innovation and exploration.

If you build hardware: Headless devices that are like jewelry.

If you build software: Building smarter lock screens (i.e. Cover, Yahoo’s Aviate acquisition, Facebook Home, Google Now, iOS Today screen).

If you own (or lease) a fab: Next-gen display technology that enables the form-factors, power consumption and interactivity needed to realize the wearable interface visions designers are dreaming up today.

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