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If you were the Kindle product manager, what would you change?
As a part of helping our clients build digital products, I often think about validating product-market fit, testing hypotheses, and the myriad activities involved in taking a product from idea to launch.
I enjoy that, but it’s mostly focused on the early stages of the product. I have much less experience doing product management on an established, already-successful product.
So I often run little thought experiments. If I were the product manager over a product I use and love, what would I do?
- What features would I put on the roadmap?
- What big questions would I have about my user base?
- What personas do I imagine exist?
- And so on.
One of my favorite consumer products is the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite. I love its simplicity, its focus on providing a fantastic reading experience. Yet I have some pain-points, and as I walked through them in this mental exercise, I realized they have a common source.
The Kindle absolutely nails the user experience of purchasing and consuming a book, but that is only the beginning, not the end of what I want to do with knowledge.
Digital Learning Hub
While I work in technology, I’m old fashioned in many ways. For example, I still love long-form reading as my primary way to interact with knowledge. I read books to escape and experience other perspectives. I read books to understand the world and how we got to now. I read books to learn new ideas and plan for the future.
As a result, my Kindle is the hub of my digital learning. I think my frustrations all stem from the fact that the Kindle platform does not fully embrace this reality.
Yes, I can make highlights and take notes, but they are trapped deep in the bowels of Amazon. Even finding them on the Amazon website is challenging. I actually can’t figure out how to navigate to them through the account menus. After getting frustrated trying to find the page so many times, I finally bookmarked it. Yeah, I still use bookmarks; I told you I’m old fashioned.
And even from that page, when you want to see the highlights and notes in context, they push you into an app, where the UX is degraded. This page also has no visibility into Audible clips or notes, if you happen to own a book in both media.
It almost feels like Amazon considers highlights and notes as write-only data, instead of how I think about them: high-value, curated knowledge that I want to share, both with my future self and with friends and colleagues.
Without thinking about it too deeply, here are some features I’d love to see:
- I want the ability to add notes when I buy a book or even when I download a sample. Specifically, I often want to be able to record why I bought it. I download samples almost like a todo list, a list of bookmarks. I want to add a note to the book, “Heard about it on The Knowledge Project, guest had interesting take on risk management”, “Andrew recommended this for marketing”, etc.
- Highlights and notes should be collaborative, if desired. I often read books as part of professional study groups. I’d love to be able to share notes with other people, in a group, see what notes they’ve added, etc. Even in a personal setting, I often read books that friends recommend. It would be a wonderful passive way to connect with old friends, seeing what they highlighted, what notes they add.
- I love my Kindle for long-form reading, but for some more technical books with lots of color diagrams, I’ll sometimes read on the Kindle app on iPad. I should be able to annotate with the Apple pencil, draw circles and diagrams, handwrite notes, etc. Being restricted to typed-in notes feels inadequate in 2020.
- I’d also love other content to be supported as first-class, let me read PDFs together with a team of people, again sharing highlights, notes, etc. This one is definitely a stretch, hard to see the financial incentive for Amazon to support, but a guy can dream.
Personal Knowledge Management Platform
And then I start wondering, if the Kindle is the hub of my learning, why not use that as the foundation of a platform?
- Let me build knowledge graphs, hyperlinking to other books in my collection, pulling in sections, annotations, etc. Imagine a simplified Roam Research but built into the Kindle, with deep indexing into all of my Amazon-managed content.
- Quizzes. Once I invest time in reading a book, I’m often looking for ways to contextualize and solidify that knowledge. What if, when I finished reading, say, The Phoenix Project, I had the option to buy a quiz for $3? I would absolutely pay a little extra to have a structured way to spin back through the material, focused on the big ideas.
- Expert Critiques. I’d even pay extra for expert reviews. Sticking with The Phoenix Project, I would gladly pay a few bucks to see, e.g., a 5000 word critique of the book by John Allspaw. And I want to be able to highlight sentences in his essay and have them show up in my personal research notebook for the book, be shareable with anyone in my study group, etc.
This is just me spending a little time daydreaming about what could be, but I do feel strongly there’s an opportunity here. Once I invest the precious hours in reading a book, I am often willing, even eager, to be upsold on ways to leverage that investment.
This is definitely true for professional reading, and if I were product manager, I’d focus on the professional angle first. But honestly, for me, it’s true for some entertainment reading as well.
Imagine you finish reading the classic sci-fi novel Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and you see an unobtrusive button to “See Related Content”. You click on that and you see a list of essays and critiques that this novel appears in, a critique by Neil Gaiman, a scholarly list of works influenced by Asimov, a mini biography of Asimov during this period of his life, etc. Maybe each one is only a dollar or two; maybe they’re all free if you’re Prime member or have Kindle Unlimited. I don’t know. I trust Amazon to monetize it appropriately. 🙂
The point is they have my attention, they know what I like, and they are squandering that with some anemic recommendations on other books I might like. I don’t want to read another book yet; I want to wallow in the ideas I just finished reading about.
When I finish a book, I want to wallow in the ideas I just finished reading about, not immediately move to the next book.
Or Maybe Not
The thing is that it’s fun to daydream, but we have to be wary of indulging it too much.
I do think that’s part of a good product manager’s job. Talk to customers, understand their needs, desires, and constraints well enough to think of features and a product vision that no one else can see. If you can’t see a bright future for the product you’re working on, you probably won’t be successful in that role for long.
However, it’s also a good product manager’s job to say, “No.” You have to say no to features that will add weight to a product and drag it into a maintenance death spiral. You have to say no to your boss’s late-night crazy ideas. You have to say no to anything that detracts from the core focus of your product.
You have to say no – at least until you can validate the idea, develop a hypothesis and run some experiments to test it. The greatest challenge with working on a beloved, successful product is to keep innovating without destroying what made the product successful.
The greatest challenge with working on a beloved, successful product is to keep innovating without destroying what made the product successful.
Somebody Hire This Guy!
That’s why it’s so easy for me to sit around dreaming up fun ideas for places I’d take the Kindle if I managed it. Ideas are easy; executing them in the context of real-world product constraints is the challenge. In this daydream, I imagine some VP at Amazon reading this post and thinking, “This guy gets it! Let’s bring in Simple Thread!”
Of course, the reality is that Amazon is full of tremendously bright, deep-thinking product managers. If one of the Kindle product managers reads this post, I think the most likely response would be, “Duh.”
They’ve thought of these ideas and better ones, and they’ve said no. Or at least not yet. They probably have some knowledge sharing features on a roadmap somewhere, to be implemented after the higher-value ideas they’ve validated and tested.
So where does this leave us? I think we’re sitting at the intersection of exuberance and humility, a familiar crossroads for a product manager. Exuberant about our product’s future but humble about the long road to get there, forever with our head in the clouds but our feet on the ground.
I like doing these mental exercises, in part because they’re just a lot of fun but also because they help me remember what a product manager should be.
It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day routine of meetings and tasks and deliverables, digging through data, interviewing users, worrying about deadlines, and all of the many areas of responsibility that often fall to the product manager. Those are all necessary to succeed.
But it’s also a product manager’s job to dream.
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