It is so unbelievably rare these days for a business to be meaningfully differentiated through its technology, or even its UX, alone.Emily Hayward
Context switching is the enemy # 1 to high-quality work. And I've observed that most of it happens in the browser. For the last couple of years I've been trying to make my browsing experience more efficient by reducing context switching.
To begin with I tried different browsers for different use cases - Safari for personal, Chrome for client work, etc. But that didn't work because I had to remember (heuristic principle #6 'recognition rather than recall') which browser I need to go to. Then I tried different user profiles in Chrome, but that led to multiple windows and tab overwhelm. In the summer of 2022 I discovered Shift. Shift did solve the issue to a large extent. I felt their product was built around my JTBD but their support was disappointing (esp. for a paid subscriber).
And then in late 2022, I heard about Arc.
Arc isn't just the greatest browser ever, it could well be one of the most thoughtful digital product in the recent past. Inverse says - Arc the best web browser to come out in the last decade.
Arc's feature set is a gift to today's knowledge worker. It makes browsing fun by reducing cognitive overload and context switching. There have been several new browsers launched recently, and chances are more will follow. I'll be rooting for Arc though, because I feel (surprisingly) invested in the product already.
I love it because Arc isn’t just a great product with a pretty logo on top—it’s a powerful brand with a story that weaves through every single pixel. Because what is a brand, but a story?
When you hear the words "Google Chrome" or "Safari", what comes to mind? Most likely their logos or, in my case, the feeling of 'tab overwhelm'. Moreover, I don't know anything about the teams working on these browsers. But when I say "Arc", I immediately think of these amazing humans on a mission to solve my problem.
I feel I know the team working on Arc. They call themselves 'The Browser Company of New York' (BCNY) (love that name :)). These people are exceptionally talented, fun, and creative. Their YouTube videos are awesome and I went back on Twitter (after a gap of two years) just to follow them.
As an Arc evangelist I want the product to succeed. And I am not the only one, Arc has a rapidly growing fanbase. The fact that they've created such a large community of loyal users already, speaks volumes. How did they do it? That's the question that fascinates me. Here is what makes Arc so special:
BCNY's vision from their homepage - "At the Browser Company, we're building a better way to use the internet". While the Arc website says ''Arc is your space to breathe on the internet". Please note they didn't say reinventing the browser or making 'the Chrome killer'.
Their content has the flavour of both the 'Creator' and 'Outlaw' brand archetypes, which aligns well with their vision. They've managed to find a way to make even the most mundane 'product updates' video engaging through carefully crafted stories..
Our brains process stories differently than straight facts. It's why positioning and messaging is best done through stories—an employee's, a customer's, the product's, or the company's—and product marketing must be good at telling stories that bring it all together.Martina Lauchengco
Arc is a 'build in public' case-study. Josh Miller, the CEO of BCNY, shared a video talking about the company's 2023 plans and highlights from their board meeting. As a user, it's incredible to be able to have a front row seat to the future of browsers, and it makes me feel deeply connected to the team.
How your brand operates on the inside is more important than how it looks on the outside. Your internal culture—how your employees communicate and behave—defines your brand more than your logo or website. Your culture is your brand strategy.Culture Built my Brand
If you've made it so far, I'm sure you're someone who's heard the epic tales of SouthWest Airlines and Zappos customer centric culture. The playful and friendly company culture can be experienced both through the product and communication.
This is a remarkable accomplishment and an even rarer feat for a digital product – crafting an experience that is brand led and thoughtful. The distinct brand personality is embodied in the tweets, culture, emailers, and merchandise.
The trick is to maintain a consistent voice as you move from medium to medium. Your business card should feel like your signage. Your website should feel like your newspaper ad. The tone you strike on Twitter should feel like your website posts.Terry O'Reilly
Arc has many such details that bring a smile in the mind. Everything is fun, clever, and smart - onboarding, UX copy, and even the invite. I'm not surprised that "Make them feel something" is one of BCNY's values.
Before you move to your next read, request you to pause and let it sync for a moment - I'm talking about a product in private beta. George Bernard Shaw's advice applies to products as well as people - "take care to get born well".
"Love your crooked neighbour, with your crooked heart"- W.H. Auden
I first heard the word 'metta' during my first ten day Vipassana course in India. On the tenth day the teacher asked us to 'project our lovingkindness to the world' - I'm sorry what? Do I even have loving kindness to share it with others? And how does it even work? It all sounded very 'manifesty', something I stay away from.
As my practice grew my suspicions weakened. Some of them still remain, but that's a feature of the rational mind, and I'm sure the practice will take care of them. Five years after that first course in India,I've personally experienced the power of metta. It is far from wishful thinking. In fact, it is the force that can unite and heal us. So what is metta?
Metta is a pali word and the most common translation is "Loving Kindness". Joseph Goldstein, a Vipassana teacher from the USA, explains metta as follows:
This kind of love has many qualities that distinguishes it from other more usual experiences of love mixed with a desire or attachment. Born of great generosity, metta is caring and kindness that does not seek self-benefit. It does not look for anything in return or by way of exchange: "I will love you if you love me," or "I will love you if you behave in a certain way." Because loving-kindness is never associated with anything harmful, it always arises from a purity of heart.
Metta practice is an important part of mindfulness meditation. It is recommended that after every sit, when the mind is tranquil, one practices metta meditation. Sharing their peace and happiness with all beings of the world - “May I be happy; may all beings be happy,”
The metta practice needs to be intentional and deeply felt. Reciting the metta phrases such as "May I be happy," and "May all being be happy" must come from a calm and generous mind. It starts with sending loving energy inward, then outward to all beings. The goal of the practice is to help establish the intention for our happiness and for the happiness of others.
As one continues to practice, their metta starts to shine. The face radiates with joy and the aura becomes magnetic. I've been fortunate to have met some 'mettaful' beings. They are the kindest, joyful, and most compassionate human beings. They inspire me, and I'm perpetually smiling in their company. If you've not met them, you might've seen them, Dalai Lama would be one such person.
That's metta, to treat everyone like an old friend. Imagine if we all can love and listen to everyone, as if they're old friends. Metta can help us get there, to have a mind filled with loving-kindness for all beings.
Metta is this force of love that unites all beings. It brings us together with ourselves and with others.Sharon Salzberg
Meta (NASDAQ: META), is the tech corporation behind successful social media products like Facebook and Instagram. But when I say Meta in this post, I'm referring to all social media products - Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, etc.
Meta is often credited with bringing humankind together, but nothing could be further from the truth. The rise of Brexit, Trump, and Covid 19 conspiracy theories have exposed the dark side of social media. Meta is divisive, it fans the flames of anger, and profits from our fears.
The term 'doomscrolling', became popular during the pandemic. It is the act of compulsively browsing through social media filled with apocalyptic news.
"Because when we are enraged, we are engaged, and the longer we are engaged the more money the platform can make from us.”- Radical Attention by Julia Bell
The business models of these sites are jacking up our anger every day. Remember the words their algorithms promote – attack, bad, blame.- Stolen Focus by Johann Hari
Metta on the other hand is an antidote to fear - the Buddha first taught the metta meditation to overcome fear. While meta's algorithms intensify our fears, hatred, and greed, meta helps us nurture compassion and loving kindness for all beings.
Loving-friendliness is a natural faculty concealed beneath our greed, hatred, and delusion.Bhante Gunaratana
It isn't easy to fight the 'meta machinery', and it isn’t possible for most of us to quit social media. That said, we can be more mindful of our manners on Meta, and aware of how the content we're consuming is making us feel and react. Hand in hand with this, we can intentionally work towards nurturing and radiating metta for a joyful and love-filled 2023.
May peace and bliss flow through you, and shine all around you in the years to come.
I've worked with several founders over the years as a product/marketing strategist. Though these projects were spread across different industries and geographies, most of them had a common problem - the founder's fear of branding. From my experience, most founders are intimidated by branding. They'll keep branding for the end - mostly reduced to a checklist item before GTM, often resulting in a half-ass brand which doesn't get any love. Branding doesn't have to be complicated, and in this article we'll see how three SMBs are doing a great job at it.
The Gelato stores of Corso Italia, Toronto.
I live on St. Clair West, in an Italian neighbourhood. Yes, the pizza is great, but the gelato is truly exceptional. Within a few minutes walk, I have some of the most iconic gelato shops of the city. In this post, we'll focus our attention on the following stores:
We'll see how these stores have created distinct brand identities, and what can we learn from them.
Though all three stores sell gelato, they've created very distinct brand identities. I find it quite remarkable, and wish other founders learn from them. Here's how I'll define these brand personalities:
If you're wondering what is 'brand identity' and 'what's the big deal about it', please read on.
Believe it or not, brands are built just like humans. Therefore, we need to take a step 'inside' to explore brand identities. The way a human behaves could be linked to his purpose and motivations - i.e. the inside. Similarly for brands their identities emerge from their core, their essence, their reason for being. You can't fake a brand identity, even with all the ad-spend in the world. Therefore, for founder led businesses, the brand and founder's personality need to sync.
This sync brings clarity to unlock growth. The founders can align their product offerings and team around the brand identity. In today's cluttered marketplace, a distinct brand identity, could be a huge differentiator for any business. That's the reason we're talking about these three gelato stores, and not the countless others that claim to offer "the best gelato in town". Let me introduce you to these three one by one, and see what we can learn from them.
Bar Ape: I find everything about Bar Ape to be quite badass - the store, the brand communication, the two founders, menu, everything. The storefront is quite humble, but with a lot of personality. 'Ape' in the name is an Italian scooter, which is mostly parked on the street, next to the store, and serves as a popular Instagram prop.
I believe the badass brand identity is inspired from the founders. It drives their brand communication as well as the menu. Don't miss the videos on their Instagram handle, they always make me smile 🙂
The Bar Ape menu changes every week, creating a sense of scarcity, and drawing crowds from far and near. The menu is unique - a lot of Ontario fruits and high quality nuts. The bestseller is 'twist of both' - a curated combo of two flavours in one cup (see image below). These two flavours in 'twist of both' are always bold and complimentary, never predictable and boring.
I would never expect to see Peanut Butter and Jelly (PBJ), Oreo, London Fog, or even Stracciatella at Bar Ape. That's not what they are about, Bar Ape is all about fruits and nuts, especially the 'in season' fruits. And I love how 'on-brand' their menu has always been.
Key learnings from Bar Ape:
Futura: This store is closest to my place, hence, I am a regular. If you're planning to visit this place on a weekend, let me warn you - the line moves really slow here. It used to annoy me initially. But now I know better - it isn't a bug, its a feature. The couple (Lois and Carlo) running the store love to chit-chat, learn about your weekend plans, and talk about the flavours on the menu (if you're curious).
They have weekly menu as well, but it isn't as dynamic as Bar Ape. They are very 'classic' gelato and you'll always find Fior Di Panna, Stracciatella, and Nocciola in the menu. That being said, they do offer excellent choice of 'in-season' local fruit flavours during the summer. The gelato is undoubtedly excellent, and the behind the scenes story makes it even more special. When I learnt how they procured the Ethiopian white sesame for my favourite gelato, I loved the gelato even more!
Some keywords I'd associate Futura would be - community, kindness, and creativity. Futura often promotes other local businesses on their Instagram, including Bar Ape, which is a direct competitor. This is quite heartwarming, and I love this abundance mindset.
Key learnings from Futura:
Tre Mari Bakery: Though not a standalone gelato store, Tre Mari's gelato section is quite popular, and the store has been a neighbourhood institution for decades. While Bar Ape and Futura are small businesses, Tre Mari has scale.
I've seen this happen countless times in my career - as the business grows, the brand identity starts to fall apart. Because no one asks - how might we scale brand identity? As the operations increase, so does customer touch points and staying aligned with brand identity gets challenging. Let's see if we can learn a thing or two from Tre Mari.
The Tre Mari gelato flavours are family friendly and they don't change as often. This is the place for both PBJ, mint chocolate chips and strawberry, along with classics like hazelnuts and strawberry.
Tre Mari is a classic Italian immigrant story, and the story is quite evident in the store and brand communication. Vintage pictures (from the 1960s and 70s) showcasing the early days of Tre Mari by the founding family are prominently displayed in the store. The tagline 'Don't forget the bread' evokes so many family images. This bakery is literally 'Italian family values' manifested. Every time I visit Tre Mari (which is quite a lot), I love seeing so many families having a lovely time.
The founders of Tre Mari have done an excellent job at training the staff. Every staff member treats customers like family, I've not experienced this anywhere else. To create a differentiated brand position the brand experience has to be consistent, and everyone at the bakery seems to understand it. Many businesses have vintage photos of their founders from yesteryears in store or on 'about' section. That's definitely a nice to have, but when you're really living the brand identity it shows. See below some artifacts displayed in the store, and the story behind one of them:
Also, check out their Instagram handle here:
Key learnings from Tre Mari Bakery:
I hope this post helps reduce the branding overwhelm for founders. To summarize:
The first part of the book was mostly about realizing the importance of time. I agree we need to be aware of the limited time we've got and protect it. Be mindful of how we're spending our time, who we are hanging out with, and delegate whenever possible. I loved the one hundred year old plan for decision making idea - using your one hundred year old self to make decisions. Essentially, what will you care about when you are in your deathbed? This could be a powerful tool to avoid frivolous activities like binge watching TV shows or doom-scrolling social media sites. "Asking your future self to make decisions allows you to play the long game." and of course Mathew plays the long game.
He continues, "The one-hundred-year-old version of yourself will tell you that a decade goes by in the blink of an eye. It’s nothing". However, later in the book he criticizes five year plans. In fact, there is a chapter titled 'Five-Year Plans are Inviting the Universe to Drop a Piano on You'. In this chapter he suggests "Instead of a five year plan, how about a six-month plan? Or a three-month plan?"
There were a few more contradicting points in the book. This is when I realized this book by master storyteller, lacks storytelling (and humility). Though Matthew admits he hates to brag, this book felt like an endless brag trip. I'm sure he is amazing at everything he does, including meditation, as he claims in the book.
Someday Is Today started like a productivity book. Inspiring content enhanced by Matthew's phenomenal anecdotes. You got to love his stories! The productivity tactics however, became hardcore with stuff like taking shower in 100 seconds, and always be multitasking while in the shower. Eating Oatmeal for lunch everyday for years. Emptying dishwasher in a specific order to save precious seconds. And finishing weekly grocery shopping at the supermarket in 23 minutes.
For some reason, the extreme productivity didn't sit well with me. You can be mindful of time without living by a stopwatch. I've lived with most of Matthew's rules (without reading the book) over the years. Factoring time in decision making, minimizing commute time, delegating tasks, and hiring virtual assistants for the 'ten-cent tasks' has been my modus operandi. But my life never felt like a navy-seal bootcamp. My day isn't defined by a chronograph, in fact my watch doesn't have a seconds hand (sorry Matthew)
After the 'how to get more done in your day like me', Matthew does a Steven Pressfield. He suggests producing large volume of work for getting better at the craft. Perseverance and accountability are crucial for creative pursuits, so there are chapters on that. Talking about his creative pursuits, he says "But the truth is that I’m a chicken. Rather than single-mindedly focusing on one subject, I am enormously interested in an enormous number of things. Like the number of projects I am working on, I am also constantly expanding my horizons in terms of subject matter, always looking for the next interesting thing." Once again this doesn't align with his life mantra shared earlier in the book "Curiosity Kills Productivity: Cultivate Deliberate Incuriosity".
I don't think I'll be finishing this book. The first few chapters in Part 1 were good, but it started to go downhill after that. For a more balanced take on productivity I'll recommend Four Thousand Weeks. It provides a more conceivable framework on time and productivity. Check out my summary of Four Thousand Weeks here, along with a correspondence with the author.
I recently led a customer discovery bootcamp to validate the product hypothesis, identify the ideal customer profile (ICP), and get closer to the product-market fit. Through this bootcamp, we:
Project Introduction: This bootcamp was conduced for Wandr, a UX Design agency where I’ve been consulting full-time since the beginning of 2022. As a product strategist at Wandr, I was responsible for the project’s end to end execution. The client had a beta product, and the brief to the agency was to “improve the product’s buying flow”. We needed customer discovery to begin with and I've always enjoyed such projects.
Team: Although I was the primary lead on the project, I collaborated with Wandr’s product designer for this bootcamp. When I mention 'we' in this document, it refers to our collaborative efforts.
About the product: A sustainable art marketplace offering proof of purchase for digital art, without using the blockchain technology. The platform’s proprietary digital signature, along with a carbon offsetting certificate with every purchase, is the product’s key differentiator.
Problem/issue they are trying to solve: NFTs are the only way to securely buy digital art at the moment. But they come with high energy consumption. And since most NFTs are bought for speculative purposes, it leads to trust issues. The product addresses these two concerns, and enables purchasing digital art responsibly.
Guiding design question for the bootcamp: How might we identify the user group 1(early adopters) and design a user centered solution that delivers both business and customer value.
Timeline: 5 weeks
Process Overview: Design Thinking Workshop > UX Audit > User Research > JTBD > Wireframes > Testing > Hi-fi design delivery
Proposed solution: Customer discovery guided the product strategy we delivered. The strategy defined the ideal customer’s persona, user flows, and designs for the version 1.
Time: The biggest constraint for a bootcamp is time. In this case, the original project timeline was four weeks, but a week was added after the project kicked-off. The extra week was added because recruitment from the client’s user database was taking longer than expected.
Brand colours: Though the detailed brand guidelines didn’t exist, we worked with the brand colours for the UI design.
Competitive Research: The client shared the extensive research on the digital art landscape done by their team. This helped us understand the business of digital art, and the product’s positioning.
Industry white papers: We got access to some NFT white papers which analyzed NFTs, their audience, and the future outlook. These white papers were helpful when arriving at the product’s primary audience.
During the design thinking workshop, the product team shared the following potential personas.
These personas will be validated through user research.
Since this was a customer discovery bootcamp
Through user interviews, we confirmed the primary target audience for the product, as well as the primary job (JTBD) they’ll hire the product for. These discoveries shaped the product’s design ideation going forward.
The persona we arrived at was ‘Digital Art Collectors’ - they are interested in digital art, but despise NFTs. This persona and their motivations were quite different from what the client envisioned in proto personas.
Feedback and iterations: Two versions of the homepage and the buyer’s journey were tested with ‘Digital Art Collectors’. Based on the feedback from users, the following iterations were made to the high fidelity designs:
Embrace uncertainty: Having worked with startups and founders over the years, I’m quite comfortable with ambiguity. But I saw my product designer struggle with uncertainty, it led to a lot more alignment calls than I envisioned.
The bootcamp was quite abstract to begin with, but I was able to continuously define the scope, while keeping the project moving forward, and aligning the stakeholders.
Focus on the user problem: Time for another UX cliché - people don’t buy your product, they buy solution(s) to their problems. We unlocked the JTBD for the product through user research, enabling us to make informed design decisions. The users certainly noticed these features during the testing and left great feedback. That’s design thinking in one paragraph 🙂
The ‘how’ matters: Most product marketing is focused on the ‘what’ but misses out on the ‘how’. For example, 'What does the product do?’ or ‘What are the use-cases?’ is mostly covered in communication, but ‘How does the product do it?’ is equally important.
In the context of this project, ‘how will the digital signature work without blockchain? And ‘how will the carbon offsets allocation work?’ were questions that came up consistently during the user testing.