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Your product is a joke: lessons from improv to build better product (eesel.app)
201 points by amoghs 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

This seems like a good place to recommend one of the best books I've ever read: "Impro" by Keith Johnstone https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/306940.Impro

It's a book about improv but it's also the most insightful thing I've ever read about human social behavior. Even if you have no interest in acting, it will help you understand yourself and others.

There's one concept in that book about redirecting responsibility. I think it was a tangential remark, but the idea that one could redirect responsibility by simply claiming that someone else was doing xyz as opposed to you was illuminating.

I think it had to do with making people at ease.

This book is fantastic. Keith Johnstone was at the heart of the London improv scene in the 1960s when groups like Monty Python's Flying Circus were emerging. I used to attend a lot of improv workshops and the professional actors I knew all recommended this book to me.

Is there no kindle version of it? I can't find it.

I felt it was more of an advertisment book than anything else. Author kept on praising his technique after every other paragraph or so.

So what about the other improv principles...

"Is my partner having a good time": Make your partners look good. That is usually a good idea in any team.

"Find the earliest end". That would mean don't ever maintain an old product because there's nothing interesting in it...

"Yes and" principle: you accept the ideas that your fellow players introduced and build on top of them. For example, "Backend moved their data store to a novel distributed document store they read about on Twitter -- Yes, And we'll let the frontend run in a JS-emulated Browser-in-a-Browser!". I see that being applied, but I'm not sure it's good advice.

Analogies work until they don't. They're a tool break down concepts or to help re-frame a way of thinking. When analogies stop being useful, stop using them. With that being said, I feel like there's some nuance being missed.

"Find the earliest end" is about keeping ideas flowing for creativity's sake. There is only so much mileage out of an idea before it becomes stale (exceptions withstanding [skip to about the 1 minute mark])[0]. The earliest end isn't permanent either. Troupes and groups revisit ideas all of the time.

"Yes and..." doesn't mean that every idea needs to run its course at the detriment of the group. It means to explore the idea to see if it leads anywhere fruitful. If it doesn't, bail. The Office[1] showcases this where Michael pretends to have a gun during an improv group. It ruins the flow of everyone else's idea, because his idea has a clear, expected ending. It's OK to see where a fresh-faced dev's idea might take the project. That doesn't mean they have creative control.

[0]: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/segments/16175...

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6wY9OwqJ2A

I see the "yes and" principle being about customer interaction. You never tell your customer they're wrong, you always agree with them and build on what they told you they wanted.

I can't help but think that all these frameworks are just post-hoc rationalizations of success.

I totally get where you're coming from.

The framework shown in the blog isn't meant to be a "step by step" guide to building product. In fact, this framework isn't even always followed in improv. And to be honest, the improv analogy isn't essential to communicate the lessons either (to build with focus etc.)

It's just a fun comparison, and I think you get a better appreciation of both crafts from it :)

Worse: posts like this are just poorly disguised marketing. I miss the days when ads were just a bit of text describing the product and asking you to consider buying it.

I didn't wrote this blogpost but I work on eesel myself. I think it's a bit harsh to say that this post is just poorly disguised marketing. Obviously having a blog is a way to help us getting more exposition for eesel, but we're trying to share genuine learnings on every post. I'm definitely with you, I'm also tired of marketing disguised as empty content, but I know that wasn't the intention there and I'm sorry if the post made you feel this way.

FWIW I agree you walk the line of value:exposure-for-the-product and come out on the right side here.

But I'd also say "I'm sorry if the post made you feel this way" comes off as passive-aggressive - which I don't think was your intent just an unfortunate choice of words. Ultimately readers, particularly on HN, have their guard up at all times because of the prevalence of dark-patterns in startups and so even if OPs impression was mis-applied here it was still warranted in general.

Makes sense, thanks for the feedback! That definitely wasn't meant to be passive-aggressive, I think I just tend to say "sorry" too often (I just refrained myself from writing sorry again here).

Ads != marketing. You can still have your ads. The days you're describing never existed. Everything is marketing.

As grim as that is, some of us still engage as if it weren't, ignore the self-promotion, and soldier on to the next post. If enough people do that, it counterbalances the marketing. HN is a wide but shallow audience. But it knows crappy marketing when it sees it.

There was a time when companies only used plain text ads for marketing. No brand consultants, no content marketing, no tracking. It lasted until WW1 or so.

I always loved Australia's "shouty bloke" ads, which only really died in the 90's.

Typically, they consisted of a beer-bellied "true blue" Aussie, nominally the owner/founder of the company, yelling at the camera about whatever product that his company sold. Fast cut to lots of pictures of stuff for sale. End. Genius

given the subject matter I have to think of Rick and Morty's 'Ants-In-My-Eyes Johnson' skit, itself the product of an improv session.

> given the subject matter I have to think of Rick and Morty's 'Ants-In-My-Eyes Johnson' skit, itself the product of an improv session.

> given the subject matter I have to think of Rick and Morty's 'Ants-In-My-Eyes Johnson' skit, itself the product of an improv session.

Yes, and the Interdimensional Cable bits//episodes are them getting stoned and riffing, then animating.

Source: have been high

I kinda think a product in search of a market (or worldview, or monetization strategy) is a much more beautiful thing, and a more disruptive and interesting thing, and more likely to lead to an interesting culture, than a product that has nailed down every aspect of its target audience and marketing strategy before launching. "Base Reality" as defined here is a post-facto attempt to create a "thesis" around things like Airbnb or Coinbase that evolved from startups and are still grappling with their base reality in situ as it evolves.

What these companies may have is an ability to switch from one "base reality" to another, depending on what's successful. This article leaves that out of the picture.

Surprising, for someone who's an acolyte of improv. Really, the most beautiful pieces are the ones where even the performers have no idea where it's going to end up.

NOT surprising for someone who misunderstands both comedy and business.

It's definitely not some strict linear flow. Sometimes you just have a cool idea that you want to explore. You can then work backwards to find your base reality. You do need to inevitably find a base reality to really build a business.

You also don't need some 'perfect' base reality before you find some game. An improv show would be pretty boring if the characters were going into unnecessary detail about themselves, before finally finding something funny. In fact, you want to be establishing your base reality as fast as you can, with only the needed details, to leave more time for the game.

I think you're spot on that the most beautiful pieces are unexpected. I think that's a key thing that makes improv so beautiful. This is what you get by 'exploring' and 'heightening' the game, and I touched on that in the post. By building on each other's ideas with some kind of focus, you're able to go places no one expects.

I think it depends on the product/idea. If you have gone straight to "renting out spare rooms" then you are also going straight to the sale rather than the marketing.

If you are instead thinking like "I'd love to do something with electric cars", you are more likely to pitch expertise and possibly something less specific to try and feel for where the real value might be.

Plenty of people already know a gap in the market and plenty of others think that just because they like their idea, a market will magically appear. I have worked for both.

Not sure why there's so much hate in the comments. Having done a lot of improv myself, imo these are very insightful, non-typical parallels that I hadn't considered before. Also really enjoyed the overview of Ries vs. Rabois and references. Sure it's on a company blog, but the content seems like a valuable contribution to me.

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the read.

Improv is an interesting take but it sounds maybe like an over-specific take on telling a compelling story. Most pitches I have seen (maybe 50-100) fail in a number of common areas: (edit: I mean the ones that did fail, not that all of these failed!)

1) Too long 2) Mentioning specifics that are irrelevant at this stage 3) Not targetting the pitch at the audience (e.g. investors, potential customers) 4) Complicated or attention grabbing slides (unless that is specifically what you are doing for your pitch)

I also think there are generally easy solutions to these that most people can use.

1) Video your pitch and watch it back. You will spot things that you can't see in the 1st-person 2) Get someone you trust to pretend to be a certain persona to match your target audience (the closer to that job they are, the more likely they will understand) and ask them for feedback 3) Remember that not everyone is interested in what you are selling so if you can, politely/briefly ask your audience if the pitch made sense 4) Watch other good pitches and ask yourself what it was that made it work e.g. charisma, slide design, making the point clear, contrasting with competitors etc.

I don't understand the "unusual insight" for Eesel, which also happens to be the blog's product.

Canva: Design tools are made for designers -> Non designers have design needs too. Makes sense.

Coinbase: Some people say crypto is the future -> Everyday people will want to buy crypto. Also makes sense.

Eesel: It's hard to find docs -> People often just refer back to docs. What?

Looks like a nice product though!

A tad late but I missed this before. You're spot on, we (ironically) didn't do a good job at explaining our own game haha.

I think it's roughly: "It's hard to find docs -> A filter on your browser history helps a lot"

wow what a great post! i think you totally nailed it. the KEY to a funny imorov scene is the normal base reality. there’s like one joke before matt foley comes out of the basement. you nailed this with your observation, yeah finding my docs is a pain. and it’s super important not to derail from your game. key and peele are the masters of this. substitute teacher is literally one joke over and over and it’s hilarious. they’re also masters of the unusual thing. that’s where i might challenge you with eesl. a search bar in browser extension is not unusual.

Important to building great products and improv is reading the audience, and being creative in satisfying them.

Eesel looks great. I love simple, focused tools.

https://www.learnimprov.com/ is a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to learn improv, must have taken them ages to come up with that domain name.

I'd like to try Eesel, is Firefox compatibility on the roadmap?

That's definitely on the roadmap (as well as a Safari version) but we can't really commit on a date yet.

If this was an ad then I'm sold! Using it right now - definitely gonna tell my project manage about this next week.

I'll be very curious to know how are you guys going to monetize.

Haha thanks!

If you're curious, we're keen to monetise with a 'Team' plan eventually. We intend to keep everything that's there today free.

I'd love to see a video demo of Improv.

Off-topic: This site is blocked at my work. Classified as "adult". :-/ Anyone know why? :-)

Maybe because the background color is pink ? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

No joke, there’s a nontrivial change that’s it, with an expensive instance of ‘Norton Corporate SecurityWorks DeepLearning Firewall 3.0’ prefetching the URL and running ‘hot dog or not’ classifier on it.

This is an advertisement, ask me how I know.

The guy is called Eric Ries not Eric Reis.

Ah yeah good catch! Thanks.

Yes, it's a joke, but a joke that makes me money.

Are you a comedian?

No my MVP is quite basic. But it solves the problem. And that is the only thing that matters.

Good read!

Eesel looks great :)

This advice might be more compelling if it began with an explanation of what improv is, how it works, what can kill it, and why.

It literally does start with a brief explanation of improv?

It does. And if it just included the golden rule of improv, and an explanation of why it is so powerful, we'd be all set to take this advice on board.

No, but that would ruin everything.

It's right there in the second paragraph. It would have taken you less time if you had read that instead of commenting here!

Except it isn’t in the second paragraph of TFA.


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