Departure: Noah Iliinsky

August 15th, 2006 by Hugh

I speak to Noah the day after it has been decided – by mutual consent it seems – that he is to leave Exbiblio in a week’s time. His view is that the parting is for the best. His primary interest is in User Experience, and he is trying to get away from his earlier career writing code (previous to his Master’s Degree in Technical Communication). Exbiblio would now like him to concentrate on coding. The split seems inevitable, although rather sudden, at least by my European standards. He leaves on what he calls “generous” terms.

Noah doesn’t believe that Exbiblio has a strongly implemented process for product development, and that as a result, his User Experience skills cannot be fully utilized. But first I ask him to explain what User Experience is all about.

“It’s partly Demographic. Who do we believe the audience is? How much money are they willing to spend? What are the comparable tools that they are using? What are the tasks the users are trying to achieve? What are the problems we are solving for them? This is at a different level from asking what features they want – they don’t know what the choices are – but they can tell you what they want to get done in life. They won’t say that they need a scanner pen – but you can watch them work and how they collect quotations from various papers and draw conclusions from those observations.”

At the next stage of development, he sees User Experience as being central to the creation of an effective product experience – its features, interface, and flow – based on the information that has been gathered.

“To do the second half well requires good research from the first phase, as well as knowledge of fields as diverse as graphic design and cognitive psychology. All of these aspects contribute to the creation of a superior product,” he says.

I press Noah a little (It should be remembered that the brief of this blog is total transparency) and he admits to some frustration with the Exbiblio approach to product development, and the way that it rapidly changes its mind about who the early adopters of its technology will be.

“It’s reached the point where if you were to ask most of the development team who is our main audience, they may or may not be able to tell you. It’s an issue if you don’t know who it’s for, because you don’t know what their needs are. It doesn’t make it impossible to make a successful product, but I think it makes it more difficult.”

He believes that if Exbiblio went through a different sort of design process – asking more questions about the users and their problems before throwing resources at product development – there would be a continuing role for him at the company.

For a different view, see the post on this blog by Claes-Fredrik Mannby For Love of Product

After completing his degree in Physics in 1995 at Reed College, Noah worked for a year at a small company in Portland, Universal Algorithms: “Actually, there were some interesting parallels between that company and Exbiblio. They had a brilliant founder with strong ideas about how to do business. In that case his direction ultimately led, in my opinion, to squandering some amazing IP and opportunities.”

He followed his intuition and left Universal Algorithms to join another local start-up, Quando, which was eventually bought by Infoseek and Disney. He moved with the company to its new headquarters in Seattle. He had spent his time at Quando – which has a highly specialised search technology – working as a coder, but he says that he had been very aware of design for a long time. This led him to take his Master’s Degree at the University of Washington, where his thesis was entitled Generation of Complex Diagrams: How to Make Lasagna Instead of Spaghetti.

He came across Exbiblio at a jobs fair earlier this year, and was attracted by the company’s vision, its technology, and its approach to business. He joined in April and is leaving with warm feelings about the company .

“It’s a remarkable work environment. People seem pleased to be here. The character of company, its way of doing business, treating employees well, treating partners well, its environmental awareness, and the sort of people it attracts – all of that is remarkable in these days when most companies focus on this quarter’s returns, short term gains and stock market price. But perhaps it’s a little too much vision- guided. Perhaps if it more focused on ensuring success, there might be a different approach to the process. ”

On another occasion, Martin King (Exbiblio’s founder), has told me that experience suggests that the average start-up will part with one in three of its hires. He says it’s the normal course of events, and that there is no shame in it for either party.

On the way to the airport, I give Martin a brief idea of what Noah has said and remind him that he has the right of reply. He has his own views on the problem that Exbiblio is trying to solve, and on how to go about creating a product. His views will surely work their way onto the blog by one route way or another, sooner or later.

5 Responses to “Departure: Noah Iliinsky”

  1. Francisco Soto Says:

    Excuse me, but after reading this post I have new doubts about the end product that ExBB is targeting.

    On one hand, it seems you are concentrating your product development towards a few areas well defined of function / users / environments. Like what backpack did for small web-pages: basic to the point of primitive, easy to understand and intuitive to use, limited functionality but over-delivering in what is promised, all of which ends up with happy users.

    If this is the case, you work with pretty concrete scenarios, deadlines, tasks, cycles, division of labour, financial forecasts, etc. A small army/cult with a small hierarchy but clear boundaries.

    On the other hand, sometimes the blog reads like what you are developing is more the technology that will cement targeted applications and uses, like developing an API that involves hard and soft ware.

    In this case, I suppose you work more like an R&D start-up, pushing boundaries through kibbles without overflowing the burn rate, output measured in IP, free association brainstorming from very different perspectives and experiences from a diverse group, and step by step clearing the fog around what the technology will be able to deliver. A flat organization of equals.

    I supposed this second scenario was closer to ExBB’s reality based on what Tommy Arens said about the product lunch: that ‘most of the anticipated uses will be greeted with “okay that’s nice”, and the one that really takes off will be thing that nobody ever thought about – that will be a surprise and it will be fun.’

    The fact that Noah thinks there is little definition of the processes and goals of product development portrays a need for a reorientation towards the first approach, and makes me wonder aloud if maybe that is the beauty of ExBB’s approach: A middle way between concretion and ‘too much vision’ as the right way to advance at this stage of development.

  2. Hugh Says:

    Francisco,

    You raise some important questions. I hope the the blog will carify some points over the next week or so. As an outside observer / blogger, I can’t answer on behalf of Exbiblio. I’ll try and russle up some answers from the Exbiblio people.

  3. Ed Says:

    Francisco, as is often the case, certain components of our product
    are more clearly defined than others. In those areas where the
    product is well defined, like our hardware device, we are operating
    in an iterative, priority-based, risk-reducing development model.
    Other aspects of the product have much less clarity. As an
    organization we’re dedicated to creating useful products. Software
    and hardware that people really use every day of their life. That is
    not an easy task, and requires that we always keep an open mind about
    what is useful and why. At this point the honest answer is that we
    have not found that magic combination of achievable functionality
    that we believe makes our complete product really useful. We call
    this critical utility. Until we reach that point, a bit of searching
    in the dark is necessary, even if it is painful at times.

  4. random Says:

    “At this point the honest answer is that we
    have not found that magic combination of achievable functionality
    that we believe makes our complete product really useful. We call
    this critical utility. Until we reach that point, a bit of searching
    in the dark is necessary, even if it is painful at times.”

    This is really really not a very hard thing to -unless- you are attempting to ‘usefulize’ (thank you g w bush) all of software and hardware.

    “As an
    organization we’re dedicated to creating useful products. Software
    and hardware that people really use every day of their life. ”

    That’s your problem. Narrow it down for goodness sakes. Focus on one or two things, and figure out how to do them well. After that, you can change the whole world. But start in your backyard.

  5. Francisco Soto Says:

    Random,

    Although I see your point of focusing, you also have to consider what Ed said behind the politically correct phrasing, which is that as long as they are taking the right steps in the right direction:

    - setting up basic functionality of hard and software
    - analyzing and discriminating potential market areas
    - etc,…

    to come up with the final recipe is not the smartest aapproach. Fist things first, and then make decisions when is necessary, not before.

    For this I recomend the best lecture I have been to, back in 1999 by Monty Python’s John Cleese:

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/pressoffice1/May06/CommenceCleese.html

    The book by Guy Claxton was also useful, but less funny.

    Regards,

    Francisco Soto