Facebook’s Notes Update Shows What Is Wrong With Lean.

“Plenty has been said and written praising the benefits of the Lean approach. But what is lost?” — Jon Kolko

Facebook just introduced a new version of their Notes functionality. “Great”, I told myself, “finally there is native way to bring my articles to Facebook”. Some of my classmates from Babson College have always written little poems or reflections on life using Facebook’s old Notes function, and maybe the new version of Notes on Facebook would convince me to do the same.

I am already used to the routine to write articles on Medium (because their interface is just great), wait a bit until I have ironed out all the little spelling mistakes, errors, and confusing phrasing, and then just copy and paste the entire text, including formatting, to both LinkedIn and my own blog which is based on WordPress. Admittedly, this procedure is not the most fun part of writing, but it is worth the effort. All three platforms, Medium, LinkedIn, and Wordpress, all have their specific strengths when it comes to how people connect through writing, and also the kind of feedback I get from readers differs widely. So I put in the extra time to create a version that is native to the respective platform.

Customization Is a Product Manager’s Nightmare.

When I saw the update on Facebook about Facebook Notes, I postponed my original plans for today to try the new function. After searching for the button to start Facebook Notes for some time without any success, I used Google search to help me out. Google pointed me to the fact that I had apparently turned Facebook’s Notes button off, and needed to turn it on again. You can find it on your own profile page by clicking on More below your cover photo, click Manage Sections, and chose Notes.

This is part of product manager’s nightmare when it comes to customization of interfaces (I was a product manager at a Hamburg media house and a Vienna mobile operator, trust me on this). Users tend to hide entire groups of features if they think those features are boring, and there is no smooth way to inform them about any updates for these features. Either you make them search how to re-activate the whole section, or you make them angry by automatically re-activating something they had intentionally turned off.

Don’t Give Users A “Computer Says No”.

Now that I had my Notes button back, I tried to create a new note. To phrase it in the words of TV show Little Britain, my experience was “Computer says no”. In my case, Facebook told me the new interface is not supported in my browser, which was Safari on iPad. Right you are, who uses Apple products these days, who uses mobile devices? The only mobile devices a real writer uses are a pen and a sheet of paper. And although I haven’t tried it yet, I am pretty sure these are supported by the new Facebook’s Notes.

So time to bring out the big guns. The new editor for Facebook Notes seemed to need more raw computing power to perform its magic, and I hoped my laptop would be strong enough. It was. Chrome on OS X presented the new Notes editor. What I saw reminded me of Medium’s editor. Great!

Understand How Your Solution Blends in with the Larger Picture of People’s Life.

So I copied a recent piece of mine from Medium, and pasted it into Facebook’s new Notes editor. Oops. All subheadings gone. Are you kidding me? Do you expect me to go through all the formatting again? This is a computer with a piece of software. It should do simple tasks on its own.

Long time ago we had the saying about software that somehow missed the point of all software. There was software that expected you to print out stuff, and then have a human read the print-out and enter it into another piece of software manually. That’s not software supporting humans with human’s tasks, it’s humans supporting software with software’s tasks. Wrong! Today, we no longer print & enter, we copy & paste. And it should work seamlessly.

Now here is a side-by-side of this article, once published on Medium, and once published on Facebook Note, after I corrected the formatting in Facebook Note:

So from my perspective Facebook Note has most of Medium’s display features, but on Medium it looks more like a professionally layouted book, on Facebook Note it looks more like created by Microsoft Word.

Lean Culture Has Come to a Point Where It Lures Us into Building Bad Products.

So what is going on here? Let me answer this with a quote from Thomas Schranz​’s piece on the foundation for product management:

“We live in a world of ‘good enough’. People talk about diminishing returns, finding the sweet spot and 80/20.
We easily forget that in order to create something that truly stands out and delights customers it takes vision, passion and standards that are way beyond ‘standard’.”

The new Facebook Notes editor is better than the old one. Maybe it’s even ‘good enough’ for many applications. But it fails to inspire, it fails to set new standards, and most importantly, it fails to delight.

This is not a problem with Facebook’s Notes. It’s not even a problem with Facebook. It’s a problem with our culture of product management and innovation. We have taken the Lean approach too far.

Lean Is Not a Silver Bullet.

When you go all the way to the roots of what is now called Lean, you probably end up at books like The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank, originally published in 2003. At the heart of it are the problems around the year 2000 which led to the burst of the dot-com bubble. People were building large companies with a waterfall model, where you define everything in the beginning and than just execute for a very long time without any feedback, hoping that all would work out as planned. Sounds like a very risky approach, and in fact many people lost a lot of money this way.

So after the crash people looked into ways to work leaner, use smaller up-front investments, and fast-forward to the point where you get customer feedback. In essence, it was about discovering early if there is actually a real market for what you tried to build. This is what Steve Blank’s book is all about, and what many other books building on it try to explore.

Today, we have at least two competing approaches to tackle this problem. One approach is to raise a lot of venture capital, and then move as quickly as possible figuring out what kind of product you need to build so that there is actually a large enough markt for it. It’s a fail early, fail fast, fail often approach. The idea is that you have figured out what to do before all the venture capital you have raised is burned and gone. That is what we call Lean today.

“I don’t believe that startups, by definition, need to move as fast as possible.” — Jon Kolko

While Lean comes from the software development community, there is a different approach which comes from the design community. The idea is to learn a lot before you actually start building. Most of this learning can happen for free or with very limited financial investment. So instead of moving extremely fast, the approach is to move very mindful.

Putting Lean into Perspective.

Designer Jon Kolko looked at design-led product management and compared it with what the Lean movement does. He argues that Lean could be useful, but you first need to understand if Lean is the right tool for the problem you face. Some startups are build as side projects when the founders are still in college or still have a steady paycheck as employees of a larger company. Some innovations in larger companies are not needed for immediate survival of the corporation, but are strategic and essential for the long-term survival and growth. In those cases there is no need to rush. Jon Kolko’s conclusion:

“When process is a hammer, the risk is that everything becomes a nail. I support empathy as a process driver not because it’s a silver-bullet for bringing new products and services to market, but because it drives a longer, more sustained improvement in culture. Our world is littered with both physical and digital garbage, and we need to encourage anyone in a creative, innovative setting to focus their efforts on changing culture for the better.”

How Facebook Missed Design-Led Product Management.

When I reflect on my experience with the Facebook Notes today, it looks very much like something that was created in a hurry. There is nothing really new or exciting to the product beyond the fact that it is part of Facebook. Trying the new editor was surprisingly difficult given the fact that I already have a Facebook account, and I have already used the old editor in a different context (editing FAQ docs for Facebook groups). That was as good as what any startup could have done, a startup that lets you log-in into their product with your Twitter or Facebook account.

The experience was below my expectations. My point of reference wasn’t the old Facebook editor for Notes, it was the standard set by other tools to “get the job done” of jotting down my thoughts. Facebook doesn’t exist in isolation, at least not in the lives of people who write a lot. Not all interfaces need to be fully technical. Sometimes it’s even better if a copy and paste works smoothly, as this gives me more choice and freedom than a direct import from a limited set of sources. Design-led product management looks at the context products exist in, how people use them, how products and other aspects of people’s lives interacts.

Please try again Facebook, you can do better. You have a responsibility towards thousands of product managers you inspire with the way you manage products.

I wrote this article in Vienna, Austria, with love and a good cup of Viennese coffee. To continue the conversation, or discuss how I coach startups and corporate entrepreneurs, please get in touch via LinkedIn. But before you click that link, please log in to Medium and “recommend” and share this story. Thank you! I owe you coffee next time you are here.