Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Innovation - The Lessons of Bob

I worked on Microsoft Bob.

Confession moment...I usually think twice before telling people that. Is there any other tech product that has generated more *unintended* laughter? In the right context, just saying the word "Bob" is a punchline. If you doubt this, take another look at the video Microsoft released on "Bill's Last Day."

I managed communications for Microsoft's consumer division during the era that produced Bob. I lived Bob in a way few people do. A few of my best friends worked on Bob. My husband was a key developer on Bob and the lead developer for the never-released Bob 2.0. Bob was part of our lives.

Some people may remember that Bob was featured on the front page of USA Today and on launch day was the opening segment for the CBS Evening News - back in an era when network news programs attracted a huge audience. I was introduced to Steven Spielberg as the person behind Bob's PR.

I was also the one who sent Bill Gates email at the height of the positive Bob-mania that said we were likely to face a horrible backlash. Tech influentials had started telling me that they were going to bury Bob. They not only didn't like it, they were somehow angry that it had even been developed. It was personal.

And that's exactly what happened. Bob got killed. But first, it was ridiculed and stomped.

For Microsoft, it was a costly mistake. For the people who worked on it, Bob taught many lessons. Lessons that came into play for subsequent products that made a big impact, both at Microsoft and beyond.

How many people know that the lead developer for Bob 2.0 was also the co-founder of Valve and the development lead for Half-Life, which became an industry phenomenon, winning more than 50 Game of the Year awards and selling more than 10 million copies? Or that Darrin Massena - development lead for Bob 1.0, most recently named Technical Innovator of the Year here in Washington State - and Valve co-founder Mike Harrington are the co-founders and partners behind Picnik - which is now the world's leading online photo editor, attracting almost 40 million visits a month and a million unique users a day.

In an innovation context, Bob had many lessons.

Here are a few:

1) Never underdeliver against expectations. Because of the initial hype around Bob, expectations were huge. The first version of Bob was a friendly product that in user tests got good reviews from the intended audience - novice users - but in order to meet expectations, Bob was going to have to be a life-changing experience - and it wasn't.

2) Consumers don't care about strategy. Corporate customers do because if they're investing big dollars over many years in a product, they want to know that it will continue to evolve in ways that are beneficial to the organization. In the corporate market, selling a vision is huge. By contrast, selling a vision to consumers is pointless. The key question they want answered is, "Does it make my life better today?" (BTW, I suspect Bob 3.0 had potential to be great.)

3) A small marketing budget can work wonders. One of the reasons people jumped on Bob was the perceived huge marketing budget. The reality is that the budget for promoting Bob was actually tiny compared to other products I worked on at Microsoft. Because it was so tiny, we felt we had to do out-of-the-box things - like supply napkins on all the flights heading into Vegas during the CES announcement of Bob. The napkins didn't cost much, but boy, people thought if we were buying napkins, it must mean we'd already spent a huge amount of money elsewhere. (We hadn't.)

4) If you start to get feedback from customers that your product is anything but great, don't forget that you only get one chance to make a first impression. The first version of Half-Life never saw the light of day because user testing showed it wasn't fun enough. And this was after that first version had already won the "Action Game of the Year" honors at E3. Making the decision to start over was hugely expensive, and something Valve's publisher completely disagreed with - which meant that all of the funding had to be done privately - which meant the Valve co-founders, including my husband but especially Gabe Newell, got to write huge personal checks.

5) Don't be afraid to take risks. Bob was a risk. People often criticize Bill Gates as someone who didn't take risks. But these people are wrong. Bill was always a risk taker. He supported Bob in part I think because he wanted to support people who were willing to take risks. The Bob team was full of innovators and risk takers, and to Bill's credit, he was very supportive of them as individuals even after Bob hit the wall. (Most famously, Bill married Melinda, who at one time managed the Bob team. At the time, Bill joked that he did so because he liked Bob so well.)

6) Place bets on smart people who push the envelope. Bob was in many ways a bet placed on people. When I worked there - 87-98, Microsoft took many risks on people in ways that were pretty wonderful. One of my favorites along this line is the developer who took charge of the Microsoft Word business without any previous business experience - because Bill Gates thought he was a smart guy who could do it. Chris Peters later led the Office business to huge success and to my mind, was Microsoft's most talented business leader of the era. If you're not willing to risk a Bob, you're probably not willing to hire a Chris Peters either.

(The same people within the consumer division who bought off on Bob - including Melinda - also bought off on Expedia, despite the fact that practically no one on that team had any travel experience. That ended up being a good decision worth more than a billion dollars.)

7) Never forget the crucial role influentials play. In the case of Bob, many of the "end users" for Bob loved it. (I saw the feedback.) But the influentials of that era - in that case, the core tech people - hated it. For whatever product you're releasing, consider the crucial role of influentials even if they're not your target audience.

In the case of Picnik, two important sets of influentials were professional designers and photographers - including the people who are willing to shell out huge amounts of money for Adobe Photoshop. Picnik reached out directly to those people - not to convince them that Picnik was for them, but to encourage them to consider that it might be the best type of product for people who didn't want to take on the learning curve or high cost of Photoshop. Picnik ended up winning many design awards - including ID Magazine's highest honor for an interactive product.

8) If it doesn't work the first time, be open to the idea that it might work down the line. I think Microsoft made the right decision in giving up on Bob during development of the second version. But I also love the fact that Billg was willing to keep trying. Microsoft could easily have funded Bob 2.0, and even a Bob 3.0. It even started down this path, but made a course correction when it became clear the obstacles to Bob's ever being a market success were too big. (Note that Microsoft had backed previous products that were not market successes at the outset- Word 5.0 on the PC was pretty ridiculous from a user interface standpoint and a market penetration standpoint- but all of the learnings that went into that product helped Word become a much bigger success years later.}

9) Don't be afraid to poke fun at yourself. I love that Bill Gates pokes fun at Bob - and that my husband Mike still enjoys wearing his Bob t-shirt. Life is too short to not have fun.


Marianne Allison said...

I'm so there with you (and WAS so there with you, literally, since I helped on this launch.) Agree with all, and it brings back memories of Melinda in the bulls-eye t-shirt at some conference (Demo, I think?) As off as Bob was from an execution standpoint, many ideas in it were ahead of their time.

MikeB said...

Monica, when I first set up a PC for my mom, it included Bob. She loved it. She used for a number of years before I had to drag her kicking and screaming into the modern age.

When I started working for Microsoft the first thing my mom told me was to get them to re-release Bob. =)

I will forward her your article, she'll get a kick out of it, even if she doesn't understand it all. =)

Matt Heinz said...

Great perspectives and advice. Sometimes the worst products give us the best learnings!