Scott Hanselman

It's the transparency, stupid!

November 03, 2011 Comment on this post [34] Posted in Musings
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Sad TivoI have long said it's important to not give bile a permalink so don't take this as a post that's picking on a specific company. Nearly every company is guilty of withholding information for no apparent reason. Sometimes it's to protect shareholder value but most often it's motivated by fear, the unknown, and fear of the unknown. This is my opinion.

I really believe there's little reason to not be extremely transparent in business today. Especially when business means releasing software or hardware on a regular cadence. Apple is great about being secretive and announcing "one more thing" that  no one expected, but that's not an easy culture to maintain.

I'm a fan of clear roadmaps. It's OK if the roadmap gets blurry long term, but at least tell me where the road is! The thing is, if you don't release a public roadmap, it'll get leaked or someone will make one up for you.

Also, if you aren't transparent with your customers you take a risk that the customer use your opaqueness against you.

  • "They haven't said anything about Product X, I wonder if they themselves know what they're going to do!"
  • "We've asked for Feature Y for the last 2 years and while they say it's coming, they won't say when or what's taking so long!"

The irony is that the customers who are pounding on you the most, demanding updates and status are your best customers. They care!

I'm not saying my Mom needs to know the technology roadmap or the release notes for her Universal Remote Control. I'm saying I do. Why? Because I'm an enthusiast and I've likely sold more of these remotes just by being a fan than Best Buy.

Here's a concrete example. I've got a TiVo (Digital Video Recorder) and I like it. Except when I hate it. It works great and then stops working, and this is a known issue. The TiVo Premiere I have has a dual core processor. Except it's slow because only one of the processors is enabled. It uses Flash for its UI and much of the UI is in HiDef with a 16x9 ratio. Except a bunch of the menus are NOT in HiDef. You move in an out of the menus with a jarring leap from HiDef to Standard Def and back. It's been like this for years, plural.

If you search the web or forums where TiVo enthusiasts hang out, you'll hear them complaining. Understand that these are folks that have a TiVo, sure, but they care enough to want the new features. They care enough to participate in an online forum. For every one customer who is complaining about you online, there are like 100 just like them complaining offline.

Online discontent is just the beginning. The spark of discontent can ignite into the fires of rebellion.

So why not just be straight with them? I'll pick on TiVo VP of User Experience Margret Schmidt for a moment. First, to be clear, she's exceedingly helpful on Twitter, positive, kind and has put herself out there as a public face for her company, so kudos and respect for her. I've asked her questions like "when will the second core be enabled" and "when will Flash stop hanging" and "when will all the menus be HD." Unfortunately it's clear that her hands are tied by some higher level mandate. 

@tivodesign TiVo Margret Schmidt - @shanselman No updates I can share, but updates are coming. (Sorry, I know that isn't helpful.)

It's apparently company policy not to comment on new features or their roadmap, even when those features have been speculated about online for years. Nurture the community you have by entrusting them with your plans. They'll understand if you don't know exact dates. But don't hide the truth.

I would encourage TiVo, Microsoft (I work here and pushing for transparency is part of my job) and companies like them who release products on a regular cadence as well as existing products to just be transparent.

Think of the hundreds if not thousands of forum posts with anger that would be assuaged with a TiVo Release Notes blog post that said something like:

"We know our users have been waiting for an updated that enables the second core in your dual core TiVos. We've had some _______ problem with _____. It's been a sticky issue but our engineers tell me they've got it cracked. Look for an update in the next __ months that enables this exciting feature. Thanks for your patience and most of all, for your enthusiasm! Viva Tivo!"

It's not hard. Just say something.

Related Links

Here's some examples of some technology roadmaps that are clear and organized:

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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November 03, 2011 1:58
I'd like to see the same transparency from the Windows team. The build-up (pun intended) the //BUILD was annoying and scared customers (especially users of Silverlght and WPF). This was needless and the damage hasn't healed just because Sinofsky said Silverlight in the keynote. I agree about transparency...but while Tivo is guilty of it, so are most of the tech companies (or at least some of the divisions).
November 03, 2011 2:02
I agree Shawn, no reason to keep programming technologies a secret. These are things we need to know and learn to prepare. Definitely an area that needs a clear roadmap.
November 03, 2011 2:03
My post isn't in reference to Windows and I don't work on that team. My focus in my job is .NET on the Server Side and that's where I can influence. I don't intend this post to become a referendum on Microsoft, but rather inspire discussion on transparency in general.
November 03, 2011 2:09
1% of customers will understand that a roadmap is going to get increasingly fuzzier the further in the future you go. 99% will start whining when features get cut, or if it's going to take longer than it "should," etc. A statement like "we are working on X on timeline Y, but it might not work out like that" is simply too nuanced for most people. All they hear is a promise, and they get mad when it is "broken." Companies have evolved to be secretive because that's what their customers really want.

This is true for internal "customers" as well. I have worked for many a tech department that has to play their cards close to their vest. Most of the people in the rest of the business can't see past their own immediate needs and don't seem to understand that sometimes things change. I think this definitely hampers collaboration, and yet, it seems that they bring it on themselves.
November 03, 2011 2:24
Some of us were optimistic when TiVo relaunched their blog that they would actually use it for release notes, changelogs, and other details. Nope apparently it is more about promotion and less about communication.

TiVo won't even give you a basic breakdown of what changes or fixes are included when they do release an update. These days we have to rely on what is coming out of Virgin UK and RCN for details on what might be included in an update, or hope someone stumbles across a new feature. There isn't even a breakdown from TiVo that talks about all of the features on the Premiere compared to the TiVo HD or when using the HD UI vs the SD UI.

One can only hope one day TiVo gets the message and decides silence is no longer the answer.
November 03, 2011 3:35
I use a TiVO HD for years and it just works. It’s my third TiVo since they started. Your post has me now ask many questions. What does your TiVo is slow mean exactly? Cursor movement is slow? Video playback is slow? The menus on mine are clear and they behaves flawlessly over the TiVo boxes I used. I am not sure even aware what HD menus vs non HD menus mean? HD menus can show pimples and wrinkles? OK I was trying to be funny. How did you know your TiVO uses one core only and why do you care? Did you root it? I know it doesn’t have a “Task Manager”. What I conclude from your post about the Premiere version that it works differently than previous version?
November 03, 2011 3:37
I agree whole heartedly that transparency is important, especially when have a lot of enthusiast in your market.

For me where I find it most frustrating is in the world of Open Source. There's nothing more annoying that looking at an Open Source products backlog to find highly voted issues that are really old and wondering if/ when they are slated to be included; trawling around their documentation to find a roadmap only to see it either doesn't exist or is little more than "we have a new version coming".

Secrecy hurts, companies that fail to recognise that people who want this info are (generally) passionate and only want to know it to help build a brand.
November 03, 2011 3:41
Tony - The HD menus are full high def and include a lot more information as well as picture-in-picture while you browse the guide. Your TiVo HD, in fact, doesn't have HD menus, it has the same orange menus that my Premiere does when it's in SD mode. See this post:

The HD menus are too much work for the single core and the Premiere is known (google it) to lock up while moving fast in the HD menus.
November 03, 2011 4:35
I don't agree.

I've seen too often that customer swear on companies that have "promised" them this or that feature and could not deliver it.

But even when I think about it for myself as a customer this rule applies: A long time ago I sent an email with a feature-request to github support, asking for a feature to "archive" old repositories I don't need to maintain anymore. They immediately responded that this could be a feature that comes in a few months. I did not, and now I'm much more disappointed as if they would have said nothing.
November 03, 2011 5:34
Scott, I seem to remember you using FiOS at some point. Their multi-room DVR has gotten much better than what they previously offered 5 years ago.

I recently upgraded my hardware and the new IMG 1.9 release allows for me to add an external eSATA drive to get 1.5TB of additional storage.

Love it!
November 03, 2011 5:37
Hey Scott, I really enjoyed your post and I couldn't agree more that more information is always helpful. As a frequent contributor to TCF and an ardent follower of TiVo I think they would benefit from quite a bit more transparency. Its very refreshing seeing Jason from RCN posting frequently on DSLReports... he is a great source of TiVo information. TiVo would benefit from more transparency on TCF and other forums like their blog, twitter, and facebook. There would be nothing wrong with them explaining why we have performance problems with the current 14.8 version of the HDUI and what they are doing in the near term (14.9) and long term (16.x) to fix them. This type of information would only be of interest to the technology savvy users of their equipment. I can't see how more transparency would be harmful to their brand or reputation.
November 03, 2011 5:55
Hi Scott, I completely agree with what you said. One thing I'd like to point out is that in addition to a roadmap, I'd like to see some sort of document that indicates exactly what they have accomplished in their roadmap. I'm very much a check off the list kind of developer and I actually use Xamarin's MonoTouch. I'm glad they have this roadmap. However, I think that some of the things on the roadmap have been delivered but I'm not 100% sure because the descriptions on the update release notes phrased things differently. But, if companies would in general provide better transparency, we'd definitely be better off.
November 03, 2011 6:04
@Daniel Lang: They immediately responded that this could be a feature that comes in a few months. I did not, and now I'm much more disappointed as if they would have said nothing.

Obviously, that's not a roadmap or a plan, just an "it would be nice". Yes it's disappointing, but the disappointment isn't the roadmap, it's the fact that customer service "lied" to you.

Of course customer service "lied" to you because they didn't know the actual roadmap. So isn't this just a case for having an actual roadmap? Wouldn't you rather have heard that this feature is "in consideration for next year" or "on our wish list, but not scheduled"? At least then you know they're thinking of you.

@Steve d: Companies have evolved to be secretive because that's what their customers really want.

In your description of the situation, the company is failing to deliver the product from their roadmap. If a customer is disappointed, is that because they "don't want to know" or because "the plan fell through"?

Most of the people in the rest of the business can't see past their own immediate needs and don't seem to understand that sometimes things change.

Having people complain about not getting attention could actually just be a complaint that they're not getting attention. It hardly seems like a roadmap problem, it just sounds like an organizational problem.

When too many people want their features first isn't a roadmap the single best way to allay their fears?

Then everyone can set their expectations and understand the trade-offs they're getting (or who's turn it is to get some attention). We expect adults (and adult customers) to understand these basic trade-offs.

If your clients, especially internal clients, cannot accept that you have a resource problem, then this sounds like a problem that has little to do with transparency and more to do with poor general organization.

At the very least a real roadmap should placate these clients and let them know "your turn is in Q1 2012". If they know when they're getting their turn and they still complain, then you have serious organizational issue that's well beyond poor communications and transparency.

If your roadmap is wrong or something changes, then at least you and the stakeholders know what's changing and what to expect. Heck, at least you now know who the stakeholders actually are because they're all subscribed to the roadmap.

Yes, I openly admit that a roadmap is not a panacea. But failure to have a roadmap is a failure for everybody, while failure to meet specific customer needs is only a failure for that customer.
November 03, 2011 7:00
@Gaëtan Voyer-Perrault:
That makes sense. A public roadmap would made things clear in that case. Thanks for pointing it out.
November 03, 2011 7:33
I guess, the companies do not open their road map because of business competitiveness. I mean internally they might have build up these roadmaps to target markets and sweet it off towards them. if they open up the roadmaps, then competitors do get to know and start to change their roadmaps so your idea of sweeping the market like you wanted would be less.
November 03, 2011 8:41
I think that the issue is that it is generally relatively cheap to promise nothing and it can be very expensive to fail to live up to a promise. Failure to "live up to the hype" can devastate a product.
November 03, 2011 9:53
I completely agree about the value of transparency. It's hard to keep secrets, especially about popular or sensitive issues. Reporting information early and often can get forums and the blogosphere on your side. People will actively squish trolls and cite press releases when they have information to reference. Unfortunately those same people will often stay quiet if they don't have solid information to back up their claims.

November 03, 2011 12:13
Microsoft, and in particular Windows, Office and .NET on the client, went through a pretty transparent phase in 2003 - 2006. Now it's more opaque than ever. Even Build offered very few clues about the future of Windows beyond the new tablet and start-screen apps, and certainly no public roadmap.

Face it @Scott, the era of corporate openness has come and gone, at Microsoft and elsewhere. People have clearly learnt from Apple's success in the market - secrecy might be a tough culture to maintain, but it's very successful.
November 03, 2011 13:48
I don't necessarily agree with the fully transparent roadmap, a roadmap is always, always, always subject to change when reality hits about what can actually be achieved.

What I want to see more often is a preview of what's coming. TiVo could easily produce a blog post say features X and Y and bugs A and B are high on the list and will be in the next release, and that feature Z is of low priority and will likely be cut. But only for the next release.

Long and short of it: commit to something!
November 03, 2011 14:01
Globally things aren't that simple, i think most companies aren't that transparent because there's competition. Imagine if we knew what apple was going to release in the next version of IOS ? Android, Nokia,Windows Mobile, RIM could take advantage of that by doing something similar but better or simply copying some features.

I think that you were focusing in transparency specifically on customer product relationship, and in that point i have to agree with you.

I wish i could tell samsung , "Hey, my Galaxy S has gone to warranty three times and my GPS still sucks, just like other galaxy S phones, when will you fix it?" Since that doesn't happen my experience with my Samsung phone is simply disappointing, my next phone won't be from them for sure.
November 03, 2011 14:47
This is less about transparency and more about TiVo's inability to execute. Further, it emphasizes their deemphasis on the ever shrinking US retail customer base as they (rightly?) prioritize on partners like Virgin Media.
November 03, 2011 15:24
Dave, I look at it a bit differently. TiVo's emphasis has been on building a foundational code base to move forward with into the future. Adding new features to the current US Premiere base code didn't make sense for them. Instead they forked the code and built for the Virgin Media (VMED) platform. They are now building on the VMED code and are preparing to release 16.x software to the US Premiere platform which includes a better user experience including a new apps platform (Adobe Air?) and more importantly improved performance. No doubt TiVo has had significant software execution problems but they are starting to hit on many cylinders with their MSO deals VMED, RCN, Suddenlink, Charter and ONO. We will soon see their retail + VOD roll-outs with Comcast and Cox. I'm convinced they would benefit from a philosophy of more openness towards some of their technology plans without losing any competitive advantage.
November 03, 2011 15:53
I think Netflix tried the transparency thing and it backfired. Perhaps there were deeper problems with price changes and what not, but the letter from the CEO seemed to raise up a mob with pitchforks.
November 03, 2011 17:38
It is a bit sad that a company who had one of the most innovative user interfaces when they first came out is reduced to this. I can understand delays, but like you say the mix of HD and SD menus has been around forever. It's really unacceptable and makes the product look half-baked. In addition, I've had way more issues with stuff just not working, particularly if an internet connection is lost. I've seen the box crash, menus fail to update for hours, etc. even after the connection is restored.

Tivo is not the only game in town anymore. Most people already don't bother to move beyond whatever their cable/dish company offers. They are going to need to do better than this or they will soon be another company who started strong and burned out.
November 03, 2011 17:38
Substitute "Visual Studio" for "TiVo". I've seen many issues get closed on the connect site with words like "We're aware of the issue but don't plan to do anything about it this release. Maybe next release. Who knows." Which means the issue might not get fixed for 5 years or ever. Maybe VS is a bad example because it's such a monolithic product, but then again, maybe its monolithic nature IS the problem. Still, for me, it's the best IDE I've ever used - despite itself sometimes.
November 03, 2011 20:13
The same comments apply to other types of hardware as well. For example, my Keurig coffee maker has never worked reliably. A quick search of the internet reveals that the problems are common. Keurig's only response is "descale it". When it works correctly my Keurig makes terrific coffee, and I'd hate to have to go back to a regular coffee maker, but I would not buy another one, and I would NOT recommend it to anyone. If Keurig would admit to the problems and promise to fix them, I'd feel a lot better about recommending it.
November 03, 2011 22:25
Hmmm... this is a very interesting debate. I wonder how much of it is driven by money?

Apple is secretive because they sell a packaged deal (software + hardware) and any slip of a future feature might cost them a large amount of money.

Some companies might not be fixing the issue, but state it is coming in the future as a way to hold onto their customer base. It might not be cost effective for them to fix, but don't want to lose those customers for the future. Quite sleazy and I would much rather them be honest to me than divert the question.

The open source community becomes a lot more interesting, as they aren't driven by money. I will not go into them as I would end up writing a "book" as a response.

I do, however, have to give mad props to the MVC team for how they handled Mobile Views. They didn't just state they were going to have support for Mobile Views, they actually went into the details on how they would work (conceptually). I think a lot of people were wanting to add Mobile Vies to their project, and this gave them a direction, instead of rolling their own solution and then going back and fixing it (although going back and fixing it would have probably not happened for most projects).

Could transparency/opaqueness used be a tool of keeping customers?
November 03, 2011 23:35
Yeah I got bit in the behind by the lack of transparency with Silverlight. My company’s main program is written in Windows Forms and starting to show its age. We were looking at some viable alternatives within the MS stack. We were having a lot of very good and well researched discussions about what directions we should take and why. I swallowed the Silverlight Cool Aid hard and pushed for that. Then BUILD came and I saw the reasons that I had used to persuade my co-workers to go with Silverlight pulled out from under me. Yes I know it will still work with some "tweaks" and browser type, but when you are looking at re-writing a 100,000+ line app that is going to be around for a while, "tweaks" don't cut it. I very much like a roadmap and some transparency because it saves or costs my company time and money when our customers don't upgrade very often. Well know I have to go do some tutorials on MVC LOL what does the road map look like on that BTW :)
November 03, 2011 23:39
I'm sure that there are plenty of companies out there deliberately opaquing their product roadmaps intending to promote a culture of secrecy and surprise (a la Apple). However, I'm also pretty sure that a lot of other companies lack transparency of such roadmaps for many other (IMO) reasons, including:
• There is no roadmap. (Roadmap? What roadmap? We're making this up as we go.)
• The roadmap is a vague concept roiling around in some C-level manager's head, but no one else has a clear or stable understanding of it.
• A roadmap exists in some stable form (vague or well-defined), but is so secret that upper-management has chosen to keep it largely opaque even within the company, so that most employees are as blind (and/or confused) to it as are the customers, not only making it difficult to message to customers, but making difficult to deliver to customers at all.

Any of these, obviously, is a serious problem, of which the lack of a publicly transparent roadmap is arguably a symptom...
November 04, 2011 4:01
Spotify are a good example here.

They decided to use getsatisfaction to allow users to give feedback. Big mistake.

There has been one leading issue for nearly three years now, with almost zero response from staff, and no hope that there might ever be a fix.

With 1300+ people bothering to complain, how many are annoyed and have moved to another product, perhaps advising others to do so?

When prospective customers check out how well Spotify support users, what will their impression be?

Of course, this doesn't necessarily matter to Spotify. They have been 'successful' and likely will continue to be. Feature roadmaps, responses to public customer complaints, fixes... none of these are vital for success, it seems.
November 04, 2011 4:32
Opaque? How about:
November 04, 2011 10:20
Jeez, some of these comments are off-topic.

Anyway, I've been somewhat happy with my Premiere purchase but do run into a lot of lockups/weirdness/slowness from time to time. Had no idea that only one core was being used, I guess that explains it.

I don't know why TiVo went from being this really community-driven/etc business to what it is today. Losing Shanan ( as a spokesperson was also a pretty poor decision.
November 06, 2011 10:40
My favorite recent lack of corporate transparency is OCZ's treatment of the Octane.

October 20th, they have a press release talking about the amazing new drives that will be available November 1st:

October 31st, their CMO does an interview talking about the drives and how you can go to the OCZ site for info:

Their official twitter account mentions it as well:!/OCZTechnology/status/131114076381257729

The next day, when the drives are supposed to be available? Nothing. And nothing since, either. The most info I've gotten so far is second-hand via comments on my whiny blog post saying it'll be a couple of months.

Clearly something's gone very wrong for OCZ, but the interview and tweet being literally the day before it's supposed to be available I find the most perplexing.

At this point, I just hope it's an interesting story once there's some word from OCZ on WTF happened with the Octane. :)
November 09, 2011 11:10
I know you're not on the Windows Team. But what this was striking me, when I read your post: Almost all of this post could be translated into "Windows Media Center". Just replace "TiVo" with "Windows Media Center". Replace the list of flaws that haven't been fixed in years and feature requests from customers around the world that have been ignored for years. Same lack of transparency regarding the roadmap.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.