Discover more from The Wisdom Project
Products, People & Philosophy
Wisdom Letter #46 | The One about Our Opinionated Products
Do your products have opinions?
That’s such a weird thing to say. Products are inanimate non living things, they are incapable of having thoughts and ideas of their own. They don’t hold opinions.
Okay, lets make it interesting.
What comes to mind when you look at this picture?
Its a simple desk chair. We have written plenty of exams on this back in our school days. Nothing remarkable about it, right?
You would say that if you were right handed. Have you tried to use it left handed? The lefties of the world find this chair insanely difficult to use.
This product reflects the inherent bias in the creator’s mind that most students are right handed. And even though, the lefty version of this is available, we only see classroom fulls of only the right handed version.
That reflects the inherent bias of the guy who buys these chairs and sets up the classroom.
The products we use represent the biases and opinions of the people who created them. In that sense, these inanimate products are living, breathing manifestations of the ideologies and idiosyncrasies of the people behind them.
While, rectifying the biases in a humble chair is fairly simple, things start to get complicated when we think about the biases and opinions of products that interact with millions of people on a daily basis.
It becomes really important then to examine the incentives and ideologies of the products that we use on a daily basis. And more so, with digital products than analog ones. Because digital products have the power to scale infinitely and reach millions in minutes.
Today, on The Wisdom Project, we look at the incentives of the companies and products that run this world. We go from a fledgling Ed-Tech startup, to an age old social media behemoth.
We examine the ideology of a viral video app, and we take a fresh look at one of the oldest and first tech products we all use — Email.
Art of the Deal
Byju’s is an India Ed-Tech startup with a valuation north of a billion dollars. That makes it a ‘unicorn’ in startup lingo.
It started out as a simple test prep institute like hundreds of others we see in tier 1 and tier 2 towns in India. But soon they launched an education tablet, and then an app.
They were perhaps one of the early ones to realize the power of technology in the education space. Especially in terms of using software to leverage the expertise of teachers as compared to the brick and mortar coaching classes that were using the traditional methods.
Of course, with COVID-19, their business model has gone into hyper-drive, and this is their moment, the way 2016 demonetization was PayTM’s moment.
But Byju’s is not alone. Its conventional wisdom these days, that most of education post-COVID will be online. And that has given a growth spurt to almost all startups in the Ed-Tech space.
‘The Ken’ does deeply analytical digital journalism around the Indian and South-East Asian business and startup scene. They have done a number of stories on Byju’s and Indian Ed-Tech in general.
One of their stories is about how Byju’s salesmen end up selling personal loans to parents in the name of a 7 year subscription. The tactics they use to guilt trip parents into one of their ‘subscriptions’ reflects on the lengths that they are ready to go to, to acquire new customers.
Its indicative of the bottom-line driven approach that most sales people across the startup world indulge in. It is also indicative of the opinions and ideologies of the brand that they are selling.
Read the intro article and the follow up story on The Ken—
Also read this extensive reportage on the overall Indian Ed-Tech space by them— The bricks in India’s edtech wall.
How may Whatsapp groups are you a part of?
And how many of them do you check regularly and want to go back to frequently?
Whatsapp faces a problem today that Facebook faced almost 10 years ago. Before FB moved to an algorithmic feed it had a chronological feed. So posts appeared according to the time they were posted.
But as we are finding out now with Whatsapp, and as FB figured out back then, once you are past a certain threshold of number of “friends” or “groups”, a chronological feed just doesn’t make sense.
When you come onto the platform, you want some context, some meaning to the content that you are looking at. Not just what happened in the last 15 minutes.
When you click the green Whatsapp icon on your phone, you want the most important messages to surface to the top, the ones that matter to you the most. Not the most ‘recent’ ones. And the ‘pinned’ chats feature that they currently provide is just isn’t dynamic enough.
Back then, FB cracked this conundrum perfectly with the algorithmic feed, as did Instagram, but for Whatsapp, it will be tricky.
This 2018 article from Ben Evans is a fantastic analysis of this problem that all social platform face in their lifetime.
This tweet brilliantly puts things into perspective.
Checkout the article on Ben’s site —
Speaking of news feeds, the one app that has the most interesting feed algorithm is of course, TikTok.
The short video sharing app doesn’t rely on a chronological feed, and it doesn’t even rely on how many ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ you have on the platform.
Instead it runs billions of A/B tests(short experiments) per day with user generated videos, surfacing seemingly random videos to random people, testing which ones get traction, and then displaying the popular ones to more and more people.
That means you have a far greater chance of going viral on TikTok than on any other platform. Everywhere else new users are hindered by small or no following and often feel like they are “screaming into a void” so to speak.
But there is more to TikTok than its innovative feed, a lot more in fact.
A couple of weeks back, it got banned in India, and there are whispers of that happening in the US as well.
And the reasons for the ban have a lot to do with the fact that the Chinese government has a strong hold on all Chinese companies and their data.
China is a communist authoritarian state, it openly despises liberal values and uses all devices at its disposal to further its own agenda.
It has kept most non-Chinese tech companies out of China and controlled the flow of information in the country behind a massive ‘firewall’. While Chinese companies have full freedom to explore markets around the world.
In this article Stratechery’s Ben Thompson takes an all round view of the TikTok situation. Known for his meticulous analysis of tech and business strategy, with this post, Ben takes it up a notch and does brilliant commentary on the geopolitical angle of the issue as well.
The TikTok war is not as much a tech war, as its a geopolitical war. And its not even as much a geopolitical war, as its an ideological war.
Checkout the article—
Pair this with this episode of The Exponent podcast where Ben goes further into the story—Episode 187 — India, TikTok, and the U.S.
Email’s Hey Day
Email is the oldest and one of the very first digital product we all used.
It acts as kind of our identity on the internet. In its original form, its one of the most bland, less opinionated products out there. Its almost like infrastructure, like a plumbing of a house. Barely noticeable.
But over the years, its this bland nature of Email that has led to it being misused by marketers, spammers and hackers alike.
“HEY” from Basecamp is a fresh take on Email.
Like the company behind it, HEY, is a highly opinionated product. While respecting the open protocols of traditional email, it gives the concept a modern twist. Making it look and feel like a 21st century social/personal media platform.
Watch this product walk-through by Basecamp’s founder Jason Fried, not so much for the product itself but for the way Fired talks about it. This is a prime example of how a product is the expression of the founder’s beliefs and opinions.
Founders of Basecamp have a certain view of what Email should be, and they have done everything possible to bring forward their opinion through HEY.
Check it out—
Also try out the product at Hey.
Signing off for the weekend, here’s a quote worth pondering
Values are like fingerprints, nobody's are the same, but you leave them all over everything you do
This holds true for the founders, creators and CEOs of our companies. They may not realize it but their values are reflected in the kind of products that their companies make.
And your values are reflected in the kind of work that you do on a day to day basis. With everything you do, consciously or subconsciously you are projecting your own biases, opinions, idiosyncrasies and ideology on to the world.
Think about it.
If you’ve received this post from a friend, hit the subscribe button below to receive such Wisdom Letters directly in your inbox next week. It will help you spend your Sundays wisely.
Not an Email person? Subscribe to The Wisdom Project on Whatsapp to receive shots of wisdom directly on your phone.
Or ‘Like’ us on our Facebook Page. We will be in your feed and stories with byte size pieces of wisdom.
Wisdom is like love. It spreads when you share it with someone. Tell someone about this post and spread some wisdom :)
This was Wisdom Letter #46. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 45 letters, checkout our entire archive.
Tell us what you liked or disliked about today’s letter. We really appreciate all the responses that we get and are hungry for more. Hit reply or leave a comment.
Aditi & Ayush
None of the links that we share here are affiliate links. We don’t intend to make money off of your purchases of any books or products that we recommend. These are honest recommendations that have worked for us and we share them without any ulterior motives.