Sunday, April 20, 2008

Limiting Options

The 1990's was the golden age of computer AI's for the board game Othello. OK, it was pretty much the only age.

Programmers love the thought of computers beating humans at "intellectual games." For me it's the "mad inventor" idea of creating something more intelligent than myself (whatever that means).

At the time, Checkers had been solved and even Chess was close. It was Othello's turn to fall.

What's interesting is how the winning strategy worked.

The typical computer board game strategy is to look many moves ahead and rate each resulting board position. Then you pick the next move that maximizes the ultimate board position you can achieve. The trick is in rating the "goodness" of a particular board position.

In Othello you win by having more tiles of your color than your opponent once there are no more possible moves. Therefore, typical metrics for Othello included things like "How many tiles of my own color do I have" (more is better), and "Tiles of my color at the edge of the board are more valuable than in the middle" (the edge is a better strategic position).

What's neat is that the winning strategy used a completely different "goodness" metric. Specifically the metric was: How many valid moves does my opponent have? Fewer is better.

The flip was that it's not primarily about how many tiles you have or even the positions of your pieces. Instead it's about limiting how many choices your opponent has. Limiting choice is more important than what the choices are.

This principle is common in defensive theories of sports. The defense can never cover all contingencies so instead it forces the offense into higher-risk, lower-percentage moves. In basketball you can't simultaneously cover the long shot and the charge, so you elect to give up the low-percentage three-point shot. In football you can't cover both in-routes and out-routes, so you force a throw into as much traffic as possible.

In business your competitors always have options. How can you limit their choices to things that are low-percentage or expensive? Make them have to spend more money, get more lucky, or be more creative.

An example is honoring a competitor's coupons. This eliminates the coupon as a way for your competitor to "beat" you; coupons are no longer a "choice" to develop a competitive edge.

You can think of patents as a way of limiting choice. If no one else can use your method, they'll have to think of another way. That means research time and money, and maybe it won't be as good or it will be more expensive to manufacture or support. (That is, if you believe in patents...)

We've done a few things at Smart Bear to limit options. For example, we're so strongly established as "the experts in code review," it would take an expensive, time-consuming effort for someone else to claim par, much less surpass what we've done. We literally wrote the book, we did the largest-ever study on code review, we have years of history, we have the most popular tool. It's possible, but very hard, for someone else to compete on that particular basis.

This matters because in my opinion, being "the expert" is the best qualifier for our particular market. Our customers would be less interested in "lowest cost" or "simplest installation" (even though our installation is simple). If my opinion is true, I've removed the single best choice from competition, and they'll have to find a less desirable, lower-percentage path.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Agile marketing interview at

I just got interviewed about "agile marketing" over at It was fun to show how we apply principles from agile software development to business and marketing efforts.

If you're involved software or marketing in Austin, you should meet Lynn Bender, the founder and organizer at GeekAustin. Maybe come to the Agile Happy Hour in two weeks! They're always a blast.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Anti-Bullet Test

I'm sick of generic feature/benefit bullet points. They're just too easy to make fun of. Here's a sampling from a website that will remain nameless to protect the guilty:

  • Easy to use
  • Robust features
  • Innovative systems
Really, it's easy to use? As opposed to what, difficult and temperamental? Robust, huh? Great, because it looks tenuously held together, the slightest breeze threatening to crumble its delicate construction, so it's good to know that, actually, it's robust. Oh I'm sorry, its features are robust, whatever that means.

If you want to not stand out from the crowd, use generic statements. The ones everyone claim. Would anyone claim to be non-innovative?

So here's Jason's Anti-Bullet Test: For each feature/benefit bullet point, construct its negative and see if that statement is ridiculous. If it is, it means the bullet is obvious, or at least unoriginal. It's not strong, it isn't adding excitement, it's not differentiating you from your competition.

Let's apply the test. The negative of "Easy to use" is "Difficult to use." That would be a pretty funny statement! No one would ever claim that, so throw it out.

The negative of "Enables communication" is "Blocks communication." Crazy; no one would admit their tool does that.

The negative of "Stores files as big as 100 gigabytes" is "Cannot handle very large files." Not ridiculous, in fact this is sadly true of most computer systems of any kind. It passes the test.

Here's a good one from our own product: "Integrates with seven version control tools." Negative: "Not integrated with seven version control tools." Not particularly funny; in fact this statement is true of all our competitors. So this statement differentiates ourselves in a specific way.

If you're using generic bullets now, you'll find that replacing them isn't easy! You have to really think about what's strongest about your product, about how specifically it beats the alternatives, and how make it pithy. This is a useful exercise in itself.

One exception to the Anti-Bullet Test: You can use a generic if it's your single biggest differentiator, and if you're willing to put lots of energy behind it.

A good example here is "Fastest." The negative is funny ("Slow operation means lots of time staring into stagnant progress bars"). But if you make it your highest priority, it can work. Make your bi-line "The fastest ____." Prove it with benchmarks. Explain how speed is not only about saving operator time (the obvious benefit) but how it enables entirely new features. For example, perhaps operation X is typically so slow that people can't take advantage of it. But since your system can complete operation X in two seconds, suddenly it becomes a feature. Even if a competitor technically has the feature, you make it practical.

All this is just another way of saying: Be specific, be fully committed, and tell the truth.