Siri CTO Tom Gruber: Design for buildability

Bambi Francisco Roizen · July 1, 2009 · Short URL:

Startups need to avoid shiny objects, and focus on the customer and user experience

In this segment of Lessons Learned, Bambi Francisco interviewed Tom Gruber, co-founder and CTO of Siri.

BF: You have had a lot of experience as an entrepreneur.This is your third company that you've co-founded so talk about how you are bringing those experiences to your current position.

TG: One of the biggest things I've learned this year is despite the shiny objects, like the technology that gets everyone excited, it will always come back to how you are impacting someone's life. Are you actually changing the way they live or work? It seems so obvious yet so frequently forgotten over and over again. At Intraspect, we did a knowledge-management system for corporations, a brain for corporations. Everyone was excited about the search technology, and the networking and routing technology. But in fact the key piece was how we actually helped people collaborate worldwide. Simple things like sending out a message that this person said something relevant to another person. It was relatively low tech but it was key to the users experience. At Real Travel (a travel blog sharing site), the conventional wisdom was to get people to write reviews and it turned out it was inverse. The most important thing was making people feel good about their travel experiences with their friends and family. That motive drives the whole engine participation.

BF: That's interesting so it's really about how users interact with one another. So how do you understand that and not make those mistakes  by not focusing on the shiny object and going back to focusing on the user.

TG: Every entrepreneur faces this. We think about the use cases. It's good product management to think that way in the beginning of product strategy. Imagine the users as real persona, real people with personalities. Imagine them during the day and what they do during the day and how do they live through that. From the very initial touch point of their product. How do you experience it? So there is a whole adaption curve for these products that always think of it from the outside in.

BF: So avoid the shiny objects. What other lessons?

TG: The second thing is sort of related. When we think of competition, competition is good in an entrepreneurial setting. It validates the space. And being there in the competition doesn't mean having that extra feature that's a little harder to do. It has to do with exciting the usage of it. It's also exciting from a technology standpoint to say that your product is better than another product. Users almost never really care. It's rare to line up a high tech entrepreneurial kind of product against a bunch of others and say I want that. Everyone's almost in a growing space and everyone just needs to find traction in this growing space. Thinking of your competition as you're co-evolving peers in that space has always served us well.

BF: Talk about a set back or something that you did and would never do again.

TG: What I'm doing in Siri is very high tech, return to venture capital backed, deep technology,and
disruptive technology. The problem is you bite off more than you can chew. Now we get funding and get ready to deliver, the failure mode is to do something beyond the complexity of what 20 people can do in a year. So we've learned over the years to actually design for availability. Design a product that can be
built. Design for buildability.

BF: With 20 people and not 50?

TG: That's the art of it in the end. It's easily forgotten in a large company where there is high in the sky product management decisions. In a small company, you cannot do that. You have to think it through in the beginning as a company that will build a product as a user base requires design for availability.

BF: So design for your team and not a huge ship where you need a bunch of people.

TG: That's right. Design for your team. You know your strengths of your team. At Siri, we know we can do all kinds of heavy lifting in certain areas. Then in other areas we focus the effort on what we can do well extremely fast.

BF: Thanks, Tom

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Bambi Francisco Roizen

Founder and CEO of Vator, a media and research firm for entrepreneurs and investors; Managing Director of Vator Health Fund; Co-Founder of Invent Health; Author and award-winning journalist.

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Siri is a Virtual Personal Assistant - a new way to interact with the Internet on your mobile phone.  Like a real assistant, Siri helps you get things done.  You interact with Siri by just saying, in your own words, what you want to do.  You can ask Siri to find a romantic place for dinner, and get reservations for Saturday night.  You can discover things to do over the weekend, get tickets to the movies, or call a cab when you’re out on the town.  You don't have to search through a bunch of web pages, following links and hunting down facts.  Siri does all the work giving you the information you need at your fingertips.


We believe that in five years most people who use the Internet will have a Virtual Personal Assistant (VPA) to take care of the details of using online services.  We will look back at the birth of VPAs in 2009 and wonder how we ever got by without our trusted assistant.  The days of wading through links and pages from your mobile interface will seem quaint, because the natural way to interact with the rich world of information and services is to have a conversation.  As John Batelle, the author of The Search, says "The future of search is a conversation with someone we trust."


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