Truth Lets You Send Anonymous Texts

Truth app

With Whisper and Secret raising millions of dollars to build anonymous services, all kinds of apps are popping up that let you share things without attaching your identity.

While most of the apps emerging try to build a community by letting you scroll through streams of anonymous messages, some developers are creating apps that let you reach out directly to people in your contacts.

There seems to be some latent demand for these kinds of services. Leak, a service for anonymously emailing people, recently launched and shut down in a manner of days due to the combination of a huge influx of people trying it out and the fact that it was quickly built on platforms not intended for that use.

Over the last few days I’ve been playing with Truth, a similar app for iOS that lets you send anonymous text messages to people in your phone’s contacts.

The interface is a close facsimile of Apple’s default Messages app, so there isn’t much of a learning curve. There is a bit of friction to get started with the app, however: besides the expected popups asking for permission to access your contacts, Truth also makes you register with an email address and password.

That doesn’t seem like it should be a necessary step, considering the point is that the app in anonymous and it confirms that you’re actually using your phone number with a text verification. I asked Ali Saheli, one of the creators of the app, why it requires that step. He told me via email that credentials are being collected so that they can be used in an unannounced upcoming “part of [their] platform.”

Protip: if collecting an email address isn’t needed for the primary function of your app and you can’t tell users exactly what it will be used for, just don’t.

That quibble with the setup process aside, Truth works as advertised. You can choose any contact in your address book to send an anonymous text, and in several tests, messages arrive in about as much time as they would via a regular text. Messages begin with “The truth is” by default, which is meant to inspire compliments or hard truths that might be too awkward to express openly.

If you send a message to someone who has also installed Truth, it’ll show up in their app with an anonymized identity. If the chosen recipient hasn’t used the app — which is far more likely — they’ll get a text from a Bay Area phone number that they haven’t seen before.

My biggest concern with Truth is that, like other anonymous apps, the service seems easy to abuse. Most of the screenshots Truth uses to market the app suggest that it’ll be used for flirting, which would be fine except for the fact that receiving messages isn’t opt-in. Considering how often flirty behavior can turn into unwanted advances in situations where identities are known, I have a feeling that quite a few people who receive messages from Truth before installing the app will end up blocking its number.


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Facebook Now Tells Advertisers When Ads Lead To Purchases Across Devices

Facebook announced today that it will be giving advertisers a new report showing how often ads drive users to buy the advertised product on a different device.

The company says that to gather cross-device conversion data, it’s combining information gathered by the Facebook Conversion Pixel (which tracks desktop web conversions) and mobile apps that use the Facebook SDK. With the new report, Facebook says advertisers will now be able to see “the number of customers that clicked an ad on an iPhone but then later converted on desktop, or the number of people that saw an ad on desktop but then converted on an Android tablet.”

In fact, the company says it found that 32 percent of people who showed interest in mobile Facebook ads in the US converted on desktop within 28 days.

While Facebook’s ad business seems to be thriving, particularly on mobile, the company has also had to work to convince marketers about the value of Facebook ads — for example, it worked with Datalogix to show when its ads led to offline purchases.

You can read more about the new report in this Facebook blog post.

Read more here: Facebook Now Tells Advertisers When Ads Lead To Purchases Across Devices

Humin: A super-smart way to manage contacts on your iPhone, and it launches today

We took an early look at Humin, an impressive contacts app for the iPhone, back in January this year. Finally, it’s launching onto the App Store in the US today and it’s even better than when we first tried it.

Humin works best when it’s placed in your dock in place of the default Phone app. It organizes your contacts in a smart way, replacing the normal alphabetized list with factors like your location and the day and time. Over time, the app learns which people are most relevant in a particular context and displays them first.

The search facility is just as impressive. It’s based on a ‘connection graph’ built up of data from Gmail, Facebook, LinkedIn and other sources. Our brains don’t organize the people we know in order of their surnames, but by arbitrary connections like ‘We met at a party in Paris’, ‘She works at IBM’, or ‘He lives in New York City’. Humin gets its name from a ‘human’ approach to search. When I enter ‘Works at The Next Web’, I get a list of all my colleagues. If I search for ‘lives in San Francisco’, I get a list of everyone in my contacts list from that city.

HUMIN contacts screen 220x390 Humin: A super smart way to manage contacts on your iPhone, and it launches today     HUMIN search 220x390 Humin: A super smart way to manage contacts on your iPhone, and it launches today

In the months since we first checked Humin out, the San Francisco-based team has been busy refining the product and now many people will be able to discard their default Phone app completely. The startup has arrangements with all major US carriers so that your missed calls and voicemail can be routed to Humin.

The app works well overall, aside from the odd minor bug here and there (the app insists that the company ‘The Next Web’ is called ‘Next Web’, for example, and former employees can show up in a company search, even if their data shows they’ve moved on).

HUMIN addcontact 220x390 Humin: A super smart way to manage contacts on your iPhone, and it launches today     HUMIN profile screen 220x390 Humin: A super smart way to manage contacts on your iPhone, and it launches today

Beyond these niggles that can be ironed out by the developers over time, the quality of the experience is only as good as the quality of the contacts data on your smartphone. To that end, there’s a feature that allows users to request updated contact details from people they know.

During the app’s beta period, it would mass-mail all contacts to request updated data, without it really being clear to the user that this is what would happen. Humin briefly developed a reputation as a spammy app among some early adopters, although CEO Ankur Jain says that the company learned from this experience. Now, requests are more granular, with users being able to select exactly who they want the app to contact. I can’t help thinking that FullContact’s API would be worth the company exploring for a smoother experience, though.

Update: Since publishing this article, a couple of users from the beta program have told us that Humin is still sending contact update requests out in their name despite them having deleted the app. We’ve contacted the company for clarification about the issue and that it won’t affect new users.

Jain sees Humin as a company built around “tech that thinks about people the way you do.” He describes the core technology underpinning the app as “like PageRank for contacts.” How this could be used beyond smartphones is intriguing. Jain mentions wearable devices and cars as markets the company is exploring, although I’m sure the enterprise market could find uses related to CRM too.

Humin is currently available in the US only but will open up to new markets over time, with a UK launch coming soon.


View post: Humin: A super-smart way to manage contacts on your iPhone, and it launches today

Humin, The App That Organizes Phone Contacts By How You Know Them, Is Now In The App Store

Humin, the app that aims to replace your iPhone contacts app is now in the App Store., Richard Branson and Angry Birds creator Peter Vesterbacka were all part of the private beta launch a few months back. The app is now ready for everyone with an iPhone today.

Humin hooks into your phone, Facebook and LinkedIn contacts and combines them with your calendar, email and voicemail to provide context to all those people listed in your phone.

It’s a similar concept to LinkedIn’s recently launched stand alone Connected app in that it tells you key information about each contact such as where you first met, where they work and how you are connected. Like Connected, it also alerts you to when you will next meet up and when one of your contacts has an update or is visiting your city. Humin gets a bit deeper into your contacts than Connected does. Connected is designed to help you keep up with professional connections, whereas Humin is both personal and professional. It provides info on when you last hung out, which friends you have in common with your contacts, what city the person is currently in and even if they are available to hang.

“Think of it like page rank for people,” explains Humin’s co-founder and CEO Ankur Jain. Every set of search results is ordered to show relevant people based on the user, time of day, place, etc. Say you can’t remember someone’s name, you just type in the search bar “met today” or “met last week.” “It’s designed the way you think,” says Jain.

Jain, by the way, is the son of Intelius CEO Naveen Jain. Intelius sells lists of public records. That is, public contact information. This might have been part of Jain’s inspiration for an app that combines all of your personal phone content to give it context.

Jain established the Kairos Society, an annual conference that hooks up college age entrepreneurs with corporate executives and public figures, like Bill Clinton. Jain also plucked Mark Zuckerberg’s sister Arielle away from Google to manage product at Humin last fall.

Jain tells me the Humin team started out thinking they’d work on the clunky phone contacts system we currently deal with. It was about the contacts themselves. According to Jain, our current way of looking up phone contacts is archaic. “People forget but the entire internet used to be organized in alphabetical lists and categories on sites like Yahoo and Alta Vista and Lycos” Jain says. But new search engines like Google started putting search into context. He soon realized it wasn’t a contacts issue, but a contextual search issue. “I wanted to create a way to find your connections the way you actually think about them,” says Jain.

While hooking up your phone’s contact info is a requirement, you have to be willing to divulge info from networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook to provide more social context to your friends. Privacy will most likely be a key concern for users of the app for this reason. “The app shouldn’t send out any messages to friends unless you ask it to,” says Jain. However, the app will ask you if you want to verify contacts. If you click that you do, it will send an email to all your contacts in your phone. Jain was quick to point out that you can stop the process by going back to the verify modal and clicking “stop” should that happen. Humin says it encrypts and anonymizes all info gathered about you and your contacts.

So how well does it work? A simple search of my boyfriend’s contact info didn’t reveal much. He’s a private person and doesn’t post much. So then I typed in “bar dude.” No one. “OkCupid” search brought up two people. One of them, “Dylan from OkCupid” didn’t reveal much either. Did we even actually meet? I don’t remember this person. Other, much more social friends of mine revealed a lot more. Humin told me I last hung out with a friend at her half birthday party. All the info provided is taken from your calendar or already publicly displayed on one of the social networks the app pulls from.

Jain tells me Humin learns what’s most relevant to you over time and the more you use it. Add in a new contact via the app and it will begin to provide relevance around that new contact such as the geo-location where you met and when that was and then scour through each of your contacts to reveal who you know in common to provide a deeper connection. I added Jain into contacts in the app just by his number. His name and info, including the 17 friends we happen to have in common, immediately popped up. His name and contact info are neatly stored within the regular iPhone contacts app as well.

Humin will eventually make its way to Android and even Google Glass at some point. Jain also hints at further developments down the road such as adding Humin as an app in cars, “We would become an overlay to navigation,” he says. Jain believes Humin is fulfilling the same promise Steve Jobs made about the iPhone contacts app back in 2007, to use contacts “like never before.” “We’re building a system to put people in context of all these connected devices,” says Jain.

Continued here: Humin, The App That Organizes Phone Contacts By How You Know Them, Is Now In The App Store

Entrepreneurs Tackle Earthquake Safety, Urban Planning Tech In SF’s EIR Program

While heavily funded companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Uber capture the spotlight as companies that controversially shape city life around transportation and space, cities and their governments have a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes needs too.

That’s the premise behind San Francisco’s entrepreneur-in-residence program, which pairs tech founders with city government workers in everything from the planning department to the transit agency. This is “civic tech,” or software that aids local governments in responding to the needs of their citizens. Think of it as a form of enterprise software for governance.

In San Francisco’s EIR program, six startups voluntarily work alongside city officials for 16 weeks. (No, there isn’t some kind of equity component where the city invests in companies. Entrepreneurs get the benefit of learning first-hand alongside their prospective government customers.)

Six companies showed off prototypes or concepts in City Hall this morning:

Berkeley-based Synthicity would be a pretty cool tool for people who had childhood obsessions with Will Wright’s SimCity. It’s a software tool for urban planners that lets them test all kinds of scenarios on the fly around building heights and setbacks. It factors in existing regulations and market factors that may or may not make a project pencil in financially for developers.

“It’s a complex problem because market forces, regulations and design all interact in very complicated ways with economic, environmental and social impacts,” said Jason Oliveira, a product manager who presented Synthicity. “We ask what the impacts are if height limits are changed, whether rents go up or down, whether construction or financing costs change, whether green space is needed or whether more affordable units are needed.”

The company was founded by UC Berkeley’s current chair of the city and regional planning department Paul Waddell.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.59.18 PMMobilePD is an app for city police officers, that lets them pull up interactive crime maps or field interviewing records on the fly.

“Now officers walking around the streets of San Francisco carrying mini-police departments in their pocket,” said the startup’s vice president of business development Jamieson Johnson.”

Birdi is an Internet-of-things detector that measures air quality and poisonous fumes like carbon monoxide. It tracks temperature, humidity along with pollen and particulate counts.

Co-founder Mark Belinsky said that while people perceive outdoor air to be full of pollution like car exhaust, indoor air is usually less healthy.

“Indoor air is often two to eight times more polluted. The question is what can we do about it?” he said.

BuildingEye could be a NIMBYist’s dream (except that’s not the intent.) They’re a software startup that makes permit and noticing information about construction and development easier to discover through a mapping interface. worked with the San Francisco International Airport on enhanced navigation and location-based services. They are set to launch an app tomorrow that will help the blind and visually impaired passengers make their way through an airport terminal to their right gate.’ technology can also be used to take in real-time sensor data about flows of people and congestion through an indoor space.

Lastly, ReGroup worked on emergency group messaging that could give people up to a minute’s notice about an impending earthquake based on sensor data. They worked with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management to create something akin to those federal AMBER alerts that you see on your phone when a minor goes missing. In this case, you’d get a message about an earthquake that sensors have detected tens or hundreds of miles away before it reaches you, giving anywhere from a few seconds to two minutes to find shelter.

Read more here: Entrepreneurs Tackle Earthquake Safety, Urban Planning Tech In SF’s EIR Program

Internet.Org’s App With Free Access To Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Local Info Launches In Zambia

85% of the 5 billion people without Internet simply can’t afford data plans. So Facebook’s accessibility initiative today launches its Android and web app for the developing world with free data access to a limited set of services including Facebook, Messenger, Wikipedia, and Google Search. It also provides local health, employment, weather, and women’s rights resources.’s app is launching in Zambia before coming to other developing countries eventually, and is a partnership with local carrier Airtel who provides the free access in hopes that Zambians see the web’s value and buy pre-paid data through the app to explore the rest of the Internet. The Facebook Zero has been giving the developing world access to a stripped down version of Facebook since 2010. But this new app with other services will be available as a compact, standalone Android app, baked into the Facebook for Android app, or freely available as a mobile website that the feature phones carried by the vast majority of Zambians can access.

Weather, Facebook’s partnership with six telecom companies, is also working on drones and satellites to deliver Internet connection infrastructure to the 15% of people who are unconnected because they’re in remote areas with no cellular towers in range. The initiative to get more people on the Internet is sometimes criticized as a Facebook growth tactic masquerading as altruism. In this,’s app will in fact grow Facebook by making usage free in Zambia.

But product manager Guy Rosen defends the project’s benevolent side by reiterating Mark Zuckerberg’s white papers, telling me that Internet access can have a profound positive impact on the carrier opportunities and education for people in the developing world. “We’re here to build a program that covers more than Facebook so we can accelerate the pace at which people are connecting to the Internet which is 9% a year” says Rosen. “We really want to make that happen faster.”

Feature Phones

A Slice Of internet For Free, The Rest At A Price

Find’s app is designed to provide critical services to all Zambians for free, while also spreading awareness of why the Internet is useful and might be worth paying for. The 4.25 billion people who aren’t on the Internet but could be because traditional cellular connections are available fall into two buckets, says Rosen. Those who want the Internet but can’t afford it because data plans are too expensive. And those who don’t fully understand the web. Rosen tells me “a lot of people don’t know what the Internet is. They don’t know what it could do for their lives and livelihood. It’s a vague concept.”

Of course this perspective assumes the Internet is equivocally good for people, which may not be true for all cultures. But the app is designed for people who would want the Internet if they about it and could afford it.

To promote the app in Zambia there will be call-outs in the Facebook app, an awareness campaign, and notifications to Airtel subscribers. The country’s residents can then visit from their smartphone or browser-equipped feature phone for an entirely free entry point. Alternatively, they can pay for a little data to download the app that’s just 800 kilobytes, or the Facebook For Android app where the app is baked into a tab.

Internet Dot Org AppFrom these three identical entry points, users can use one of a selection of apps entirely for free. These include:

  • Facebook – for staying in touch with friends
  • Facebook Messenger – for direct contact with loved ones
  • Google Search – to find information, though clicking through to results will require a data plan
  • Wikipedia – to learn about anything, and all internal Wikipedia links are free to access
  • AccuWeather – to get updated weather information that’s critical for farmers
  • Airtel – to learn more about the carrier and buy data plans
  • eZeLibrary – to learn about Zambian government information
  • Facts for Life (by UNICEF) – to find heath and hygiene info including advice on pregnancy, childbirth, childhood illnesses, child development, parenting, protection, and child care
  • Go Zambia Jobs – to search for jobs
  • Kokoliko – search for jobs
    MAMA (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action) – Info on maternal health for impoverished mothers
  • WRAPP (Women’s Rights App) – learn about women’s rights and what to do if rights have been violated
  • Zambia uReport (by UNICEF) – To find HIV and AIDS health info

If Google’s inclusion seems a little odd considering it has its own Internet accessibility initiative Project Loon, know that Facebook tells me content providers in the  app don’t need to be official partners.

An On-Ramp To Paid Data Plans

Airtel pays for all this free access. Rosen tells me Facebook and don’t pay at all. Instead, the free access acts as an on-ramp to Airtel’s data plans.

Data ChargesIf users click through to links outside of these services or use other apps, will show users a roadblock screen that warns them they’ll be expending their data plan or need to buy one. Zambians would then go to a local store and top-up with pre-paid credit on Airtel if necessary. The model works because Airtel believes it can earn more money using the free limited access as a loss leader to drive data plan purchases. This works out well for locals, because those who can’t afford these plans get a ton resources at no cost because they’re effectively subsidized by those who can.

Facebook has been offering free access to a stripped down version of its service under the name Facebook Zero since 2010 when it launched with 50 operators in countries around the world. The program has been hailed for driving Facebook penetration in Africa.

In the last six months, though, own deals have come to fruition. On last week’s earnings call, Zuckerberg said that “our initial partnerships in the Philippines, Paraguay, and Tanzania have helped around 3 million people connect to the Internet who had no access before.” And back in February at Mobile World Congress, he highlighted how the deals are delivering customers to its carrier partners. Discussing a Filipino Network Globe when he said “what we’re seeing in Globe users is the number of people who are using the internet — the data — was doubled, and Globe subscribers have grown by 25%, so it’s a home run.”

Zuckerberg wrote today that “We believe that every person should have access to free basic internet services – tools for health, education, jobs and basic communication.” That’s powerful stance that could do a lot of good. Still, it is a little scary that Facebook and could decide what qualifies as a basic Internet service that should be offered free and what doesn’t. You’ll notice Twitter isn’t on the list. Facebook’s worldwide appeal makes it a valuable ally to carriers who need flagship services to point to for why people should want the Internet. So it gets to call the shots.

If the app is a success in Zambia, you can expect will roll it out in other carriers and countries in Africa, Asia, and South America where the same data affordability problem persists. And if Facebook can be one of the first ways people experience the Internet, they won’t forget it as they become full-fledged Internet users. Seems altruism can be a business model.

Originally posted here: Internet.Org’s App With Free Access To Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Local Info Launches In Zambia

Refresh Updates Its Mobile Dossier App And Adds A Web View

Refresh, the mobile app that helps make you smarter at meetings, has refined its look and feel in an effort to make its users even more efficient. It’s also launching a web app that will enable users to find out more about the people they’re meeting even when they’re not on the go.

The app officially launched in April to provide mobile dossiers of people that you plan to meet. By connecting with your social networks and email account, Refresh can quickly find publicly available information about the people that you have planned meetings with. Giving those insights into past work experience and interests can be a life-saver for those who hope to stand out from the pack.

With the latest release, Refresh simplifies the information flow that it has created, boiling that information down into sections that can be swiped through. The app analyzes data from more than 100 different sources, and attempts to surface only the most important and relevant information for any given meeting.

Earlier builds of the app provided a scrolling feed of info about a person, but the newest version breaks that down into different sections that can be perused at a glance, depending how in-depth (or not) users want to go. At a high level, though, the app serves to highlight shared contacts and interests between users and the folks they’re meeting with, and also how they got connected.

The app alerts you by push notification or email the key information you need to know ahead of the meeting, so that you’re well-prepared when you walk in. It also lets you take notes about the people that you’re meeting with, so you have them for next time.

The key upgrade in this version of the app, however, is the way in which it simplifies post-meeting action items. That includes the ability to make introductions and connections between contacts and sending emails directly within the app.

In addition to the mobile update, Refresh is launching a new web experience as a complement to the iPhone app. The web version has many of the same features for the contact dossier, enabling users to get the information they need on their smartphone or on their desktop — where, frankly, they are most of the time.

Refresh CEO and co-founder Bhavin Shah acknowledged in an interview that Refresh, like other productivity apps, needs to be available across multiple screens and platforms to be truly useful. “Mobile-first is great but it’s not the entire experience,” he told me.

In addition to web and iOS, the startup is also working on a version for Android, which it hopes to release over the coming months. To reach all those platforms, the company has raised $10 million in funding from investors that include Redpoint Ventures, Charles River Ventures, and Foundation Capital.

Continued here: Refresh Updates Its Mobile Dossier App And Adds A Web View

Microsoft Open Tech Brings Support For More Open-Source Projects To Azure

At O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention in Portland, Ore., today, Microsoft’s Open Technologies subsidiary announced two new partnerships that bring support for more open source technologies to the Microsoft Azure platform. Developers will now be able to use Azure with, for example, a service for creating machine images for multiple platforms from one source configuration. The other service the team now supports is OpenNebula, a tool for managing heterogeneous data center infrastructures.

OpenNebula now supports hybrid cloud deployments on Azure, and existing OpenNebula users — many of which are large telecom firms — can now move their applications to Microsoft’s cloud. They could, of course, use Microsoft’s own Azure tools to manage these deployments, but many of these users have made deep investments in OpenNebula already. It’s worth noting that Amazon and a number of other cloud vendors already support this service on their platforms.

“We believe in the coexistence of the private and public cloud, and all the team is excited about giving the OpenNebula users using the hybrid model the possibility of on-demand access to a leading cloud provider like Microsoft Azure,” said Rubén S. Montero, Chief Architect of the OpenNebula project in a statement today.

As for Packer, Microsoft will soon allow developers to create their customized images (including on Windows Server), save them to Azure’s blob storage and then quickly launch them from there. While this may sound like a replacement for the likes of Chef and Puppet, Microsoft notes that it actually plays together nicely with these technologies.

As Doug Mahugh, Microsoft Open Tech’s lead technical evangelist, and Robin Bender Ginn, a senior technical evangelist at Open Tech, told me earlier today, Microsoft OpenNebula’s existing users look at Azure as a virtual datacenter that they can now move to if they choose to move away from their existing solutions.

Microsoft argues that these two new partnerships complement the work Open Tech is already doing in the cloud space. As Mahugh told me, the team is constantly looking at what developers are interested in and how it can support them. Right now, that’s containers (and virtualization in general), for example, so Open Tech teamed up with Google and others to bring support for Kubernetes, Google’s technology for managing Docker containers, to Azure.

For many people, the fact that Microsoft does open source still comes as a bit of a surprise, but as Open Tech launches more of these projects, this surprise is slowly making way for acceptance. Open Tech now has a rotating group of over 200 engineers who work on a large variety of projects, and their contributions are clearly starting to make a difference in how Microsoft is perceived in the open source world.

“A few years ago, the news was that we were at these events [like OSCON],” Mahugh said. “Now, that’s not news anymore. Now people want to know what we’ve been doing lately.”


Continued here: Microsoft Open Tech Brings Support For More Open-Source Projects To Azure

National Geographic Experiments With Storehouse

Six months after its launch, award-winning iPad app Storehouse has formed a strong community of storytellers, including the likes of GQ Germany, RTÉ, and its most recent participant — National Geographic.

Storehouse is a visual storytelling app that lets you import photos and videos from your camera roll, Instagram, Dropbox or Flickr and create a free-form layout with or without text to tell a story.

Just a few hours ago, National Geographic posted its first story about its Your Shot meet up. Your Shot is a program from National Geographic that brings photographers together to share their photos and get feedback from the editors at the magazine.

While individual photographers such as Jim Richardson from National Geographic have been using the iPad app for a while, the magazine joining Storehouse shows that it sees a potential in the storytelling app.

Mark Kawano, CEO and co-founder of Storehouse, said print publications like National Geographic are inspirations for what started Storehouse.

“This story is really just the story of a meet up they had in Brooklyn … they said they’ve been experimenting with this platform for a whole bunch of different stories,” he said.

Kawano said since the launch, the most interesting aspect of seeing Storehouse kick off is seeing how people use it. Some people see it as a great business tool, while others use it to share recipes or restaurant reviews.

Last week, the company redesigned the website from a static page describing the app to actually showcase stories created by community members.

If Storehouse moves to a another platform, Kawano said it will come to the iPhone, and said that the company doesn’t have plans at the moment to move to Android.


Continue reading here: National Geographic Experiments With Storehouse

Getting beyond the use case: How to get the most out of customer interviews

Xiaochang Li is the cofounder of Somaware, an eyes-free, ears-free, hands-free wearable navigation device. This post is part of the Lessons Learned series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way.

One of the first things I noticed when my co-founder, Mike, and I began speaking to people about tactile navigation devices was how just about everyone had ideas about what (and whom) they could be useful for.

It was encouraging, of course, to see that people not only understood what we were trying to do, but also found the idea compelling enough to begin imagining their own scenarios for how it might be used. And admittedly, I was a bit taken by the thrill and novelty of that kind of immediate comprehension and enthusiasm.

As a PhD student, I’m more accustomed to polite nodding and the occasional glazed expression when I try to describe my work to people outside my field.

But, in trying to go from a cool concept to a functioning company, we needed to narrow down who our customers are and how they would use our tool. Yet, the more we talked to people, the more the use cases seemed to proliferate. Figuring out our unique use case, and by extension our customer, quickly became a top priority in our customer development research.

During our customer interviews, we began to track, differentiate and categorize various use cases, such as different kinds of cycling habits, activities, preferences, and environments, hoping to find a pattern. While we uncovered some great insights that will certainly influence design and functionality of our device, we were still failing to identify anything that resembled a clear signal.

Interest remained scattershot, and it began feeling like a whole lot of noise.

patternrecognition Getting beyond the use case: How to get the most out of customer interviews

Over time I began to realize that thinking of the customer as an extension of a use case was the problem. We had become so focused on figuring out the use case that we were reducing our customers to their activities and attributes — the surface data.

We had to get beyond the visible traits and behaviors to the social factors that shaped their key ideas, values and priorities. In other words, we didn’t need to look more closely at the customer. We needed to look from their vantage point and understand how they see themselves.

This is, of course, far easier said than done, but through our mistakes and the advice of those around us, I’ve picked up a few helpful tactics for getting into your customer’s mindset:

1. Manufacture distance

When conducting customer interviews, it’s easy to assume you know what the customer means when they say something is interesting, or frustrating, or useful and so on, particularly since many of our product ideas come from challenges we face ourselves.

Instead of assuming familiarity, imagine yourself as an alien: smart and curious enough to manage interstellar travel, but completely lacking any kind of context for what everyday life is like for your customer. Asking your customer to explain what they mean, even (or especially) when it seems obvious often leads to great insights.

For instance, one of our best discoveries about what our customers needed came out of asking cyclists what they meant when they said they looked for “pleasant” roads. Asking them to elaborate on that single word led to the understanding the detailed criteria they have for evaluating streets and how it’s underserved by most mapping apps.

2. Look for (their) surprises

Finding out things that surprise you is great, but one of the best pieces of practical interviewing advice I’ve ever received was to ask our customer what they found surprising about something they did or used.

Surprises are informative because they reveal assumptions and expectations that are, by definition, deeply ingrained and largely invisible. In the same way that we only become aware of the electrical grid when there’s a blackout, asking your customer what didn’t happen as expected can tell you about the assumptions that make up their mindset.

3. Rethink the genre

Customers are, in a way, kind of like television genres. Over time, we’ve developed a lot of standard categories for defining them, such as demographics.

But genres aren’t authoritative categories; they’re habits. There’s no reason TV shows have to be grouped as police procedurals or soap operas. You could just as easily decide to define a genre based on shows that take place in Chicago.

Similarly, with your customers, sometimes you have to step back and ask yourself if you’re defining them by the most relevant characteristics. If you thought your customers were young and urban, but discovered that interest is popping up across all kinds of age and geographic groups without any kind of pattern, maybe you’re defining the genre wrong. Maybe your customer is actually people who like small dogs.

In general, what I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that in order to get into my customer’s frame of reference, I have to step out of my own, and let go of a lot of the habits and assumptions I’ve built up over time.

Here is the original post: Getting beyond the use case: How to get the most out of customer interviews