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CIO interview: Dan Ziv, TouchNote

We find out from Dan Ziv, CIO of TouchNote, what it takes to create a successful app and how companies should assess new technology platforms

Dan Ziv joined TouchNote as CIO a year ago, following the successful sale of his first venture.

Ziv is one of a generation of young technology entrepreneurs operating in the vicinity of London’s Silicon Roundabout.

He is a firm believer that first-mover advantage is not always the best strategy for success in business, and uses the Apple AppStore as an example.

“In the early days of Apple’s AppStore, people created really simple apps and suddenly they were getting five million downloads,” he says.

Over time, however, he says success is linked to how a startup executes its core business functions in a way that is more polished than the companies with first-mover advantage.

“Success is 99% execution. In the early days of the App Store, or with Amazon Alexa, you could build an app and get a million downloads. But today you need to have a good strategy and execute it really well,” adds Ziv.

Win users over

TouchNote was founded seven years ago, initially as a website through which holidaymakers could send postcards created from their own photos. It quickly transitioned to mobile devices.

TouchNote now enables users to turn photos into postcards and presents using their phone, desktop or tablet. While there are many postcard apps, Ziv says TouchNote has been able to differentiate its brand with a seamless user experience.

Its rationale is to create an emotional link with the moment the photograph is taken, according to Ziv. In the era of Instagram and SnapChat, the true meaning of a photograph is lost, he says.

“When we were kids, there was no point in taking a photograph with an old [film] camera without developing it because it would be lost. Now everyone takes pictures, but ask how many pictures are developed – ie printed – a year and it’s a fraction of a fraction,” he says.

“We live in the selfie age. The first thing you want to do once you’ve climbed Kilimanjaro is not just put your selfie on Facebook, but send it to your mum or kids, and it ends up on the fridge.”

Create a ‘wow’ experience

Ziv’s first app was for restaurant bookings. He co-founded Uncover, an award-winning premium restaurant reservation app, which came out of London Business School’s Deloitte Incubator Programme. The app was acquired in 2015, nine months after it launched, by payment service Velocity.

Speaking of what he learnt from creating the bookings app, Ziv says: “I learnt about user experience on mobiles, which is very different to the web.”

Ziv argues that user experience is about understanding real-life user issues, then to delight by solving and fixing a tedious or broken problem through a technical solution.

Uncover was designed to make it easy to make last-minute restaurant bookings at high-end restaurants. The idea was simple enough. “It is relatively easy to book a table for a restaurant online,” he says, “but if you want go somewhere to eat tonight, it is far more difficult. We flipped the model on its head. All these restaurants have cancellations and no-shows. We would put their last few tables on our platform.”

Similarly, he says, on TouchNote it takes just four clicks to send a postcard. In the physical world, the real-life user experience of sending a postcard can be quite challenging: “Try finding a postcard, a stamp and a post office in a place you don’t know and can’t speak the language.”

The end result is ultimately the same – the user is able to send a postcard to someone. The difference, he says, is they have a choice – they can either use the old process, or a new “wow” experience.

Fix a real-world problem

Use cases often arise from a personal experience, but there is a risk that wannabe entrepreneurs – or the output of a corporate brainstorming session – could result in something very unique, but which lacks wider appeal.

“Sometimes you can fall in love with your own solution, but the problem has moved on,” says Ziv. “You should always fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Focusing on the problem is important for technology companies, because there are so many alternative solutions and barriers to entry are so low.”

Ziv recently circulated a letter that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote to shareholders about the role of development in a company. “Is it product-centric development or user-centric development?” Bezos wrote.

“You should always fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Focusing on the problem is important for technology companies”

Dan Ziv, TouchNote

Ziv argues that product-centric development is not user-focused enough. “If you build a product that is product-centric under the assumption that someone will dedicate three hours to using it, that’s unfeasible because no one will say this product is so good that I will clear my schedule and focus on it,” he says.

Instead, he argues, a business should try to build products from a user-centric perspective. “Focus on the user’s friction points and design a product to help solve them,” says Ziv.

Find out what customers want

There are some products that come to market without a focus on solving a specific user problem, but these are more like experimental projects to see how people will use them. Ziv cites Amazon Alexa as one such example.

“I love Alexa,” he says. “I don’t think it is ready for every single use case, but it is very clear Amazon is building a network and learning what people want out of the Alexa service and how it should work.”

Having tried Uber on Alexa, Ziv says the user experience is not quite right yet, but is likely to improve over the next two to three months.

TouchNote is assessing how it might use Alexa. “Alexa is exactly the kind of nascent technology that provides a platform on which innovation can be built. But it is an audio service, not a visual service, and we are visual company. This creates a bit of an issue for us. As people move into conversational technology, we are looking at how we can create a great product that uses it,” he says.

Clearly not everyone will suddenly adopt Alexa, but Ziv is reading more about Alexa and artificial intelligence. “TouchNote is investing in AI [artificial intelligence] at the moment. I think AI is part of the user experience,” he says.

One example is the emergence of bots. Ziv is keen to explore the potential of bots to provide automation for users. “Two weeks after people started using Facebook’s bot service we saw a postcard bot,” he says. “It was an obvious implementation of our product idea as a bot. But now we are looking at how a bot can be used to solve real-life problems, as opposed to adapting the product to a new platform.”

So, for Ziv, the role of a technologist is to look at how people use new technologies and assess whether they can be used to channel real-life problems for users into technologically advanced solutions.

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