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“All human beings are entrepreneurs. When we were in the caves, we were all self employed … finding our food, feeding ourselves. That’s where human history began. As civilization came, we suppressed it. We became “labor” because they stamped us, “You are labor.” We forgot that we are entrepreneurs.”

– Muhammad Yunnus,

Nobel Peace Prize Winner and micro-finance pioneer


Responsive Design: Why and how we ditched the good old select element

How rethinking the way users make complex selections across devices completely changed our design.

We’ve all seen this and know what it does:

The standard select element as rendered in Chrome/OSX

It’s the HTML select element. The invention of select dates back to 1995 with the introduction of the HTML 2.0 specification. So most of us have never experienced designing for web without select as an option. But it can be a really, really frustrating component to let into your designs. Let me tell you why.

Good things first

By using the select element it’s a no-brainer to create a list of selectable options. It’s easy and it’s cheap. It’s supported by all new and old browsers in use, and it comes with a lot of nice features, such as grouping options, keyboard navigation, single and multi select and reliable rendering across platforms without me having to put on my thinking hat. It just works!

So why not just use it?

At Tradeshift we’ve been working a few months on some soon-to-be-released updates for our user interface. Some of our core features include creation of invoices, quotes and purchase orders. It’s business documents with substantial amounts of data. Most often a human is involved in creating these business documents. Luckily, this human user has access to a lot of already existing data from various sources, which potentially makes document creation faster. All this data is predominantly represented as lists that the UI must enable the user to select from – efficiently and effectively – no matter the device.

Presenting option lists to users is most easily done by using checkboxes, radio buttons and by using select. However, some limitations in these components made the design team hit a wall for a number of reasons. Here’s an excerpt from a longer list of drawbacks of using select. The drawbacks would to some extent also apply to radio buttons and checkboxes:

  • The number of selectable options we have is often counted in hundreds which makes the standard select element hard to navigate.
    Example: When specifying the unit type on an invoice line, the complete list contains hundreds of possible units. It’s not just hours, meters, liters, kilos, pounds and pieces – but also crazy units such as hogshead, syphon, ‘theoretical ton’ and ‘super bulk bag’. Tradeshift deals with global trade and compliance and we must be able to provide all these options. Standard option selectors would turn into haystacks.
    A more common example is country selectors. I often find myself struggling to select United States in most selectors, no matter how smart the sorting of options has been done. For ‘popularity reasons’ United States is often found at the top of country list. Other times Afghanistan tops the list due to alphabetical sorting. Sometimes United States is far down the list, just after United Arab Emirates. Sigh! In addition to this, keyboard search is not available on most mobile devices. This forces the user to flick through the options manually. Searching is slightly better on desktop though, but it’s still limited to searching from the first letter onwards, so typing Emirates on your keyboard is not going to give you United Arab Emirates. You get it… and we’ve not even started talking synonyms yet.
  • The user often has to modify the options in the lists provided.
    Example: We provide a set of default taxes that the user can apply to each invoice line item. Often, however, legislation and taxes change and we must provide the flexibility for the user to add and change the default options. We don’t want the user to go to the engine room (aka settings pages) while creating an invoice. For a fluent workflow, users should update properties like these in context, else we risk the product becomes harder to use than say a word processor template. Unfortunately, the select list cannot technically be extended with inline interface for mingling with taxes. We could of course show a modal dialogue with an interface to modify the taxes list. We’d then return the user to the updated select element when editing options is done. It’s an option, but quite a UX derailment that we’ve seen cause confusion to less experienced users.
  • The same input value can be generated from different selection paradigms.
    Example: Payment terms can be expressed as a relative measure (e.g. Net 30 days), or an absolute value (e.g. Dec. 10th, 2013). One could imagine many solutions combining radio buttons, calendars and selects. None of them seems to provide the kind of simplicity we were aiming for. We don’t want two distinct inputs to select one value.
  • Select element UI interaction makes bad use of screen estate on mobile devices.
    Example: On an iPhone 4 the select element takes up 54% of the screen space (520pt of 960pt vertically). This allows barely five options to be visible in the list. This simultaneously limits gesture space to the same 54% of the screen (Android does a slightly better job in many cases, though).

More than half the space is taken up by barely five options in the select element. Flicking through many options is a pain.
  • Hierarchical data can be a real pain to deal with using the standard select element.
    Option groups which is a part of the select element’s features, have limited usage when you deal with complex hierarchies. Country selection offering sub-selection of states is an obvious example. Standard solutions typically involve lining up multiple select elements. So interaction goes like this: first the user picks one option in one list, then closes that list, interprets the UI adding or unlocking another select element, which must then be clicked, etc. Not totally insane on a desktop browser, but on mobile the pain grows and the visual/contextual relations are easily blurred. I recently heard the previous Principal Designer at Twitter, Josh Brewer, quote someone that Mobile is a magnifying glass for your usability problems which seems right, and in this case it definitely corresponds with Tradeshift’s own usability studies.
  • Styling the select element is poorly supported.
    There’s a whole bunch of reasons for the historically limited options for styling the select element – and even more scripts/hacks exist to overcome these limitations. Bottom line is that if you want your selectable options to fit nicely into your design in various browsers you’re pretty far into Hackland. And even if you go with one of these very nice styling scripts, you’ve not solved any of the interaction issues listed above – you may actually have added a few issues if your hack has changed the scroll wheel or touch behaviours or eliminated the standard “search feature”.

So in spite of the advantages mentioned initially, the many shortcomings we experienced in more complex scenarios simply left us frustrated with the standard select element.

So what can we do now that the cookie cutter solution does not make the cut?

We looked at many existing solutions, also the scripts that re-style the select element. We figured out we had to dig deeper. Please note: I don’t claim we’ve made big inventions in the following or that we invented the solution we ended up choosing. Variants of our final solution have been seen in many places. Also the solution we picked definitely has new shortcomings that we’re working on solving now – but most importantly, it allowed us much more freedom in working with user input and we can provide a consistent experience to our users across a number of scenarios and platforms. I only claim that we had a good critical process where we evaluated the most obvious options, found them insufficient and came up with a solution through a solid RITE process. A process of describing our needs (some listed above), ideating, prototyping and end-user/acceptance testing over and over. We wanted a new UI component that provided richer interaction options while completely replacing the select element, since we didn’t want a mixed user experience depending on what the user is selecting.

The solution

I’ll skip the process and describe what we ultimately ended up deciding on. Mostly by using screenshots – please be aware that these are somewhat early screenshots where copy is not final. To explain, I’ll use a few simple examples from the invoice creation feature, which requires a lot of selections by the user.

Basically the concept is to stack layers with the appropriate options providing ample space for rich interactions:

Phone size view of invoice creation: Stacking rich content layers allows the freedom in designing that we need

In the UI a subtle triangle indicates that there’s a list available for the field (full keyboard navigation is of course supported):

The indicator, here on the invoice due date field, tells the user, that the field must be populated via a picker.

Upon clicking a field with the triangle indicator, a panel sides in smoothly (in most browsers) and the page is darkened with an opaque overlay, which focuses attention on the panel; we call this panel a picker. In this example the user clicks the invoice due field and a list of standard payment terms are presented:

User clicked the invoice due field and gets default options with current one highlighted.

If none of the standard options satisfy the user there’s also the option to specify an absolute date by clicking the last option, specify date:

The second layer presents more fine grained options for specifying an exact due date.

This second layer presents more fine-grained options and is visually layered on top of the first layer, providing context to the user, keeping the user’s mouse and eyes in same position while also allowing back-navigation by closing the picker (escape key or clicking/tapping ‘x’). The visual layering provides an almost breadcrumb-style sense of navigational depth. What’s missing here on the screenshots is unfortunately the smooth horizontal animations further strengthening the sense of context.

Picking a date value closes all picker layers and sets focus back to the initial field activated, invoice due, and the user can tab on:

Focus is back, user can click or tab on…

Another example is clicking the unit type selector in an invoice line (the one that says PCS in screenshot above). Here the current value is highlighted in the picker:

Only four out of hundreds of possible options are listed. Search allows the user to select from the remaining hundreds.

As aforementioned the full list of unit types is counted in hundreds. Meanwhile many smaller companies only use a very limited set of unit types, so instead of presenting the full list we only show the most recently used ones and a search field. Searching, in this case for kilowatt, returns the options from the full set:

Searching quickly brings up options from the huge list.

Picking a value, here Kilowatt (KWT), closes the picker and returns the focus to the target field:

User picked a value and is now back at the initiating field.

Clicking a unit type field again now has Kilowatt hour (KWH) available as an option. Users who use a unit type once are very likely to use that unit type again, so this approach provides a settings free way of defining custom/individual lists:

Reopening the unit picker provides the newly used unit as an option in the short list.

There’s a ton of other examples with more complex dialogues – not least configuration of taxes – which keep the user in the context and don’t abstract away into who-knows-where settings pages. Our studies show that the user usually knows where to find, and how to use the values added, when it all happens in the same context.

Pickers first came up during discussions about dealing with complex selections on smaller devices. (Phone illustration:

The concept of pickers first appeared when we started designing the new Tradeshift from a mobile first perspective. I.e. not trying to squeeze the desktop experience into mobile, but more the other way around. On phone size devices we now also have entire invoice lines in pickers instead of presented in the “page body” as on tablet.

It adds some extra layers of pickers, but we’ve found out, that the visual clues provided for the user to establish a mental model of where things are going on, are sufficient to go at least three layers deep. Example of a three layer deep scenario could be: Invoice line (picker on mobile) > List of applicable taxes > Add new tax to list.

Obviously, we wouldn’t believe this could also be the the solution on desktop if we’d not tested it. But out of the different scenarios setup for complex selection of field values in the cases we have, this one won hands down, also on desktop. We’ve found out, that compared to using a series of select elements and modal dialogues, this solution decreases the cognitive load on the user significantly. This, by the way, reminds me of a comment Rebekah Cox (Quora’s first employee and designer) once made: “Design is what we don’t ask the user to do”. I couldn’t agree more. We should free up the users’ mind to work on their business not our tools.

This doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement. For instance we’ve figured out we need some way to not stick the picker to the right edge of the browser on larger resolutions and keep it closer to the field.

Extended use

An extension made a bit later during the redesign process was using pickers to manipulate and navigate using objects (such as invoices) as “hubs” for navigation:

The invoice is here a hub for navigating and interaction/manipulation.

This allows us to reuse a small-screen friendly design pattern already known by the user while not forcing the user reload another page to get the options.

Implications for the overall design

We’ve come to love the concept of pickers. We use them every time the user needs to populate a field from a set of options. We’ve done enough testing that we’re also confident that our users understand and prefer the pickers over complex select element combinations.

Using the pickers as navigation hubs allowed us to further simplify navigation and present options in-context without forcing the user into subpages or even worse, cluttering the UI into a non-decodable mess. Our lists are now cleaner, it’s easier prioritize the screens for end-user consumption and decision making, and synergies in desktop/mobile seem to pay off as users need to learn fewer patterns. Another benefit is that we technically have less different UI components to maintain.

If you had to start from scratch and the standard form elements didn’t exist, would you end up designing your “multiple options selector for any platform” as it’s implemented with the select element today? Maybe not, and for us this was reason enough to reconsider.

Further Reading

Responsive Design: Getting Advanced Filtering Right

 — A practical example

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Obamacare Spurring A New Generation Of Healthcare Startups

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Editor’s note: Beth Seidenberg, M.D., is a general partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, focused on life science and digital health investing. Before joining the firm in 2005, she worked at a number of pharmaceutical businesses, mostly recently as chief medical officer at Amgen.

Spurred by the Affordable Care Act, the American healthcare system in 2014 has entered a period of titanic change. The process will be messy and disruptive – it already is. While challenging for consumers of healthcare services, the shifting landscape provides tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs, setting up the potential for an accelerated shift in healthcare delivery in the U.S.

This inflection point for healthcare in part reflects the way the Millennial generation – those born between 1980-2000 – manages information. It is a tech-savvy group, connected and collaborative. They want instant gratification and recognition. And they want – and expect – to have a different kind of interaction with physicians and the healthcare system than their older brethren have historically experienced.

Millennials have at their disposal a new wave of technological tools that track, analyze and respond to their physical condition in real time. Can physicians and the healthcare system deliver this generation what they want from the healthcare system? I believe the answer clearly is “no.” Instead, they will build it themselves.

My theory is that this population segment will drive huge changes in the practice of medicine. I’d expect relatively few to sign up for insurance coverage under the ACA, for instance. But I do think this generation’s entrepreneurs will reimagine and rebuild the country’s sclerotic healthcare system.

Entrepreneurs in this area must start by navigating around some core issues.

Medicine is hyper-local, with providers protected from outsiders by state law. And it is hyper-personal, with strong regulations governing information privacy.

On the other hand, Millennials tend to believe that data access should be ubiquitous and free. They have fewer privacy concerns than the Baby Boomers, living their lives publicly on Facebook and Twitter. Millennials want to hold e-visits with their doctors; they want to text medical providers for quick advice; they want portable insurance, transferable between jobs and across state lines; and they want clear visibility about what they are personally paying for and why. Today, in short, there is a massive divide between what Millennials expect and what the current healthcare system can deliver.

The opportunity here is gargantuan. The U.S. health-care sector generates annual revenue of close to $2.1 trillion a year, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report. It’s an industry that employs nearly 17 million Americans (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). And neither of those figures includes the health insurance industry, which has more than 450,000 employees (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan 2014), and annual revenue of more than $850 billion (Annual Report on the Insurance Industry, 2013). In short, this is an industry practically begging for revolutionary change. And the ACA has lit the fuse.

Let’s take a look at five big entrepreneurial ideas on changing the healthcare landscape. Some of these areas – touching on insurance and patient care – offer the potential to build big businesses. While they may be lacking in some of the pizzazz of social networking or cloud-based software or other buzzy areas, no industry offers a richer environment for disruption.

Information wants to be free – especially when the government has it

Under the leadership of Todd Park, chief technology officer of the U.S., the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) has released vast amounts of de-identified Medicare performance data. Dabo Health, a San Francisco-based startup, is taking a big-data approach to mining that information, saving lives in the process. In a recent talk, Park drew a connection between the release of aggregate health information and the approach the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took a decade ago in liberating weather and GPS data. That move sparked an avalanche of innovation from companies like Garmin, Wave, Google Maps and many others.

Rethinking The Insurance Business

While most of the discussion around Obamacare has focused on the role of the large legacy insurers, there’s a need for new players. For instance, there’s Oscar Health, a company that has launched a next-generation health plan that intends to leverage the public exchange market in New York City.

Unencumbered by traditional health plan thinking and structures, Oscar launched a plan that leverages recent advances in big data analytics, alternative site options including telemedicine, and the best in mobile and web user experiences. From the Oscar website, for instance, you can click on a link and receive a call from a board-certified doctor within an hour, 24 hours a day. Everything on the site reflects a kinder, friendlier and more engaging consumer experience. If they can provide competitive pricing, Oscar has a chance to take business from the incumbents.

Building New Primary Care Physician Groups

Just as Obamacare opens the door to new insurers, so does the law create incentive for the creation of new ways to deliver medical care. Case in point: Village Family Practice, an independent primary care physician group based in Houston. The group’s goal is to provide the best possible care at the lowest total cost. The idea is to change medical practice in the U.S. so that consumers will feel good about their experiences – and physicians will be empowered to deliver quality, cost-efficient services.

The ACA, for instance, has provisions covering annual wellness visits and obesity counseling. Diabetes education has been around for years, but few have figured out now to cost effectively provide that service. Village Family Practice has figured it out, and is helping physicians deliver better care to their patients.

Make It Easier To Find The Right Coverage

Several new companies are focused on helping consumers find the right insurer – and the right physician.

Covered*, based in San Francisco, is the first data-driven consumer recommendation engine for health coverage. Likewise, Fuse Insurance, of Cambridge, Mass., has built sophisticated calculators to help consumers find health plans that meet their specific needs.

Help Employers Focus On Prevention And Wellness

The ACA allows large employers to offer workers rewards of up to 50 percent of the cost of coverage for participating in a wellness program and meeting certain health standards. That’s good news for Redbrick Health*, a health engagement and behavior change company. RedBrick combines financial accountability, clinical insight, behavior design, social and game mechanics and powerful data analytics to create a personalized and persuasive experience delivered through web, mobile and live interactions.

Redbrick’s open consumer engagement hub integrates apps, devices and services, and creates a cornerstone for more effective wellness and population health management initiatives delivered through employers as well as employee benefit exchanges.

This is the beginning of the revolution. Tech-savvy entrepreneurs are moving quickly to fix our troubled system, empower people with elegant and engaging tools and disrupt healthcare as we know it today.

* Covered and Redbrick are KPCB portfolio companies.

WhatsApp Is Down, Facebook’s New Acquisition Confirms Server Issues

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WhatsApp is currently experiencing an outage. Users around the world are reporting that they haven’t been able to send messages for about two hours, and WhatsApp just confirmed this problems with a tweet stating “sorry we currently experiencing server issues. we hope to be back up and recovered shortly.”

WhatsApp users are flocking to Twitter asking “Is WhatsApp down?”. They’re being met with memes joking that Facebook is shutting WhatsApp down or that its founders are now on vacation. In reality, it’s more likely that its $19 billion acquisition by Facebook announced Wednesday led to a surge of signups and usage that has overloaded its servers. We’ve contacted Facebook and are awaiting a response.


WhatsApp Vacation

WhatsApp ConnectingWhen users (including me) try to send messages or check their existing chat conversations, WhatsApp gets stuck, showing an endless loading asterisk and the alert “Connecting…”

The “WhatsDown” reports started flooding in around 11am PST, but there were some troubles last night as well. We’ve received tips from frustrated users in the US, India, Israel, and many places around the world. The outage could stoke fears that Facebook will screw up WhatsApp if the acquisition gets regulatory approval.

The down time may be pushing users to other chat apps, as Telegram just tweeted:

In a testament to the global popularity of WhatsApp amongst its 450 million users, condom brand Durex’s Kenyan branch is capitalizing on the outage to do some marketing:

As I wrote Thursday, being acquired by Facebook could give WhatsApp the engineering backup to be able to fight outages in the future. But for now, being the biggest venture-backed acquisition in history is working against the messaging startup.

WhatsApp has suffered short downtimes every month or two for the last half-year. Stumbles like this are somewhat common for fast-growing apps, and users aren’t likely to permanently switch away as long as this is fixed relatively soon.Facebook bought the startup for the astronomical sum in part because it is many people in the developing world’s first taste of the Internet. Now, their first taste of the Facebook-owned WhatsApp has been soured.’

Talking to Customers Is Killing Your Company

The purpose of customer interviews is to extract insights from the minds of your customers. Talking can’t achieve this; only listening can.

It may sound like a trivial case of semantics, but it is a widely overlooked concept: people often seem to equate “talking with customers” with “telling them all about the product”.

Telling customers about your product is not customer development, it is marketing. Customer development is listening to customers so you can better understand and serve them.

When you speak, you’re not listening. If your conversations with your customers are only about getting your message across, you’ve stopped listening. When you stop listening to customers, your company starts dying.

A wise old owl sat in an oak

The more he saw, the less he spoke

The less he spoke, the more he heard

Why can’t we all be like that bird?

When I’m interviewing customers, I challenge myself to speak as little as possible, so I can listen as much as possible.

In fact, I even substitute the phrase “talk to” with “listen to” for all of my customer interview calendar items (e.g. “Listen to David of CompanyX”) – it’s a small but persistent reminder of what I should really be focusing on in the meeting.

In order to understand what causes customers to buy, I need to hear how they articulate things themselves. How they rate their issues. The sequence in which they remember things. The connections they make between things that I never would have thought of.

If it’s in person, I leave dead air to the point of awkwardness – people will often blurt out any old thing to break the silence, and this sort of blurting is usually unfiltered and straight from their subconsciousness. That is gold.

I listen carefully to the words they use to describe their situation, so I can use those words to communicate at scale to other people just like them.

Most importantly, I avoid the temptation to insert my thoughts into the mix at all costs. I’m there to have my mind shaped, not to shape theirs.

This is not to say you should never open your mouth. Go out of your way to make them comfortable and put them at ease, and by all means poke, prod, backtrack, summarize and ask for clarification.

Just be vigilant in remembering which way the intellectual value should be flowing: play the role of the psychiatrist, not the politician.

Give the customer freedom to wander intellectually. They will inevitably go off in directions you hadn’t considered before. This is a good thing. Follow them – they’re showing you the path to success.


I hope you enjoyed the article!
You can follow me on Twitter at @SamuelHulick to find out whenever others just like it come out.
I'm also writing a book on User Onboarding!

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How Statistics Get Abused in the Media

Televised sport has gone stats-crazy; now we have to learn which we can trust

When Google’s chief economist Hal Varian remarked that ‘the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians’, the producers of sports shows sat up and paid attention.

Nowadays, you can’t go five minutes of couch-dwelling without a slick graph or pie chart telling you what you simply need to know about Team X and Team Y — with the intention of guiding the viewer towards forming a conclusion. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, these statistics don’t paint the full picture. We’re going to take a little look at why and how the media mislead the general public with statistics.

Picture this (made-up) scenario:

FULHAM 9th in table after 34 games

ASTON VILLA 17th in table after 34 games

I am a big believer in utilising statistics when considering potential bets. They are a vital component of decision making. So when John Motson tells you that Fulham are unlikely to lose to Villa at their home ground because they have gone five games unbeaten there, it’s a lock that they’ll avoid defeat. Right?

In a Word…

No. It’s not a lock by any stretch. In this hypothetical example, what Mr Motson has stated is a fact. But then, there are facts and there are facts. He has entertained us with a catchy little nugget, whose relevance lies somewhere along a scale that ranges from so what? to great tip!

What if…?

For example, what if their previous five home games were three draws with other mid-table sides like Swansea, West Ham and WBA, plus two narrow wins against lower-league Bolton and Barnsley in the cups? And what if the two home matches prior to this sequence were defeats to Sunderland and Cardiff? Technically, they are five unbeaten at home, but we cannot infer that they are on a formidable run of form. The commentator has implied a conclusion that is as flimsy as a rag-doll in a rain-storm.

Statistics can be dressed up in a number of ways to suit all kinds of objectives. After all, Motty could just as easily have said ‘Fulham have lost two and drawn three of their last five league games at home’, including the Wigan and Sunderland fixtures while discounting as irrelevant the cup victories against lower-league opposition. No wins in five, versus unbeaten in five, depending on the evidence that the commentator chooses to impart. The facts are the same, however, their context and delivery can be manipulated to encourage the viewer to make a certain inference.

Statistically Speaking, a Lot is Irrelevant

The stats shared by commentators and pundits tend to be deemed worthy of broadcast precisely because of their unusual nature. Facts that are prosaic are not engaging and, simply, don’t get the public’s attention. As such, certain stats that make for snappy soundbites are proffered, with context being manufactured out of largely innocuous, unrelated facts. Despite the fact that they have been framed in a seemingly-meaningful manner, it is important that the viewer understands that not all statistics are relevant.

Which Statistics Can I Trust?

There is no hard-and-fast rule, but I tend to deem as more reliable the stats that are not conjured out of the air. If a number of facts and figures are displayed, rather than a solitary, attention-grabbing one, then it is logical to infer that the statisticians are more interested in trying to give the viewer the full picture, rather than cherry-picking those that will make a lightweight hypothesis appear robust (called selection bias).

When only one is stated, with no context or supporting evidence, then my default stance is one of scepticism until I have delved beneath the surface for more information. After all, ‘Fulham have no home league wins in five’ and ‘Fulham are undefeated at home in five’ are engaging and suggest meaningful patterns. ‘Fulham, a mid-table side, have no real significant run of home form, and anybody trying to splice together a pattern is probably selecting their evidence craftily’ is more accurate, but would probably get Motty into trouble with the BBC. Match of the Day loves a novel statistic, and so should the viewers. However, gamblers should be vigilant against rogue stats: don’t fall into the trap of believing that, because it’s stated on air, it must be significant!

So we have established that plenty of stats are meaningless at worst, and flimsy at best. Do us a favour and help us get our Medium stats up by recommending this article, following us, and spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook ;)

The Sportsrated team write extensively about the psychology of sport, competition, and gambling. Follow them on Twitter, and download their e-book for free.

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WhatsApp and Facebook’s Try-Before-You-Buy M&A Strategy

Why Facebook Chooses to Compete with Companies They Plan to Acquire

Facebook just acquired WhatsApp in what could be one of the most massive exits in history, not to mention the most beautiful rags-to-riches story the Silicon Valley has ever seen. While we’re all kicking ourselves over missing out on the $19B in cash and stock that the 55 WhatsApp employees are now enjoying, our minds naturally wander to “who’s next.”

WhatsApp’s acquisition could be evidence for a unique M&A tactic that Facebook has been using recently for its mobile app acquisitions: try before you buy. If it’s correct, Flipboard could be next up to the cash in.

Facebook has been vocal in its efforts to modularize its platform on mobile. Instead of there being a single Facebook app, it is being separated out into stand-alone applications relevant to different feature sets and user behaviors such as communication and photo sharing.

Since Facebook was not originally built as a modular platform, the question naturally arises, “How should Facebook approach splitting itself up? Build anew or buy?”

Looking back on recent M&A activity aimed at building out Facebook’s mobile app ecosystem, the answer seems to be… “yes.” Facebook has been simultaneously building its own standalone applications and acquiring existing ones. What is interesting is that what they build often competes directly with what they buy:

  • Facebook Camera was released right around the time that Faceook acquired Instagram, but was under development before the offer was made. Zuckerberg said that Camera, whose features are almost identical to Instagram’s, should give Instagram some “healthy compeition.”
  • Facebook Messenger has a similar value prop as WhatsApp — you can message anyone from anywhere in the world over a data network or internet. While Zuckerberg claims that Messenger and WhatsApp will serve different purposes post acquisition, they will still inevitably continue to cannibalize each other in some form or another.
  • Facebook Poke, a blatant ripoff of Snapchat, was build in part by Zuckerberg himself to compete with the company that had just turned down a massive acquisition offer. After a dramatic series of funding rounds and higher acquisition offers, Snapchat still remains independent today.
  • Facebook Paper is a social news aggregation application that was released fairly recently. With its beautiful interface, it has been hailed as a Flipboard-killer by many. But if we follow the pattern, its existence could suggest Facebook is actually interested in acquiring Flipboard, which shares many of the same features and even UI intricacies.

So, why would Facebook battle it out with companies they are planning to buy anyway?


The Benefits of Try-Before-You-Buy M&A

The act of competing with a prospective M&A has a number of benefits both in evaluating and negotiating the M&A as well as preparing for the M&A integration itself.

  • Kicking the Tires: Competition can help evaluate whether or not a startup is actually a significant threat. If users easily move away from a startup to the incumbent’s competing platform, then an M&A isn’t necessary. Facebook built Poke in a dramatic move to try to test just that for Snapchat. Unfortunately, Snapchat passed the test and turned down subsequent acquisition offers.
  • Driving Down Price: While the ethical implications here are questionable, threatening a startup with competition can drive the buy price down if executed successfully. An exit opportunity is a whole lot more enticing when a major incumbent with plentiful resources is building your direct competitor.
  • Understanding the Space: Building an application similar to one being considered for acquisition can help designers and business people understand how their users’ behaviors could change and how strategically aligned that technology is to the product roadmap.
  • Building the Piping: It also allows engineers to get a better sense of how the technology is built and how it can be integrated into current systems. This helps with the technical analysis pre-M&A as well as setting up integration infrastructure to hit the ground running post-M&A.

The M&A strategy for a corporation as large and influential as Facebook is obviously not as simple as the heuristic outlined here. Try-Before-You-Buy M&A mostly applies to consumer-facing applications in line with Facebook’s modular product strategy. Acquisitions of back-end products like analytics and advertising tools and acquisitions for talent follow their own patterns.

On a related note, companies like Microsoft and Zynga have gotten into a lot of trouble and received a lot of bad press for using this M&A tactic, but without actually executing an M&A. They used their might to blatantly rip off startups and force them out of existence. Fortunately, the volatility of the social space, prevents Facebook from committing such a deed — the failure of Facebook Poke comes to mind as an example.

So, for the good folks at Flipboard who have worked tirelessly to create a fantastic mobile reading experience: don’t let Facebook’s bullying get you down, it’s just their way of saying they like you…

Follow me on Twitter. I’ve got a lot more to say.

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