Friday, October 25, 2013

How Bad Can I Make My Product?

Imagine that I have a product that cures cancer. Sadly, the side effect is that you may lose a few toes. I’ll bet that I would still have a huge line of customers who want to use my product.

Now, instead of curing cancer, imagine that the product tells you where you should eat lunch. Unfortunately, the toe-loss thing still applies. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’ll probably have far fewer customers.

This seems obvious. Sacrificing a toe or three doesn’t seem like a big deal when weighed against your life, but it’s a different story when it’s just lunch. Even a really good lunch.

If you are asking your users to put up with a lot of pain, you need to do so in the context of giving them something extraordinary. I get asked all the time how to tell when something is good enough. Does it have enough features? Is the visual design pretty? What if it has a couple of bugs?  The answer to all of these questions is that it depends on whether the users are getting enough in return.

Every startup has a slightly different calculus for deciding what product to put out into the world, but I’m going to give you a piece of advice that will make this all a little easier: if you’re solving a really big problem that nobody else is solving, your early adopters will be quite tolerant.

This is one of the reasons why B2B applications often get away with being so awful and hard to use. If a product helps me do my job better and makes me more money, it’s solving a big problem for me. I’ll put up with a few missing features or a less than stellar experience. (There are lots of other reasons B2B applications are terrible, of course, but that’s not what this blog post is about.)

Of course, there is a minimum standard for anything you put out in the world. People have to understand what it does, for example, and be able to use it to solve their really serious problem. In other words, it needs to be both usable and useful. But the more useful it is, the more of a pass you get on a lot of the nice-to-haves.

To be clear, this is not a pass to make your product awful. Think of this as an encouragement to build something important that solves serious problems for people and to get it into their hands as quickly as possible.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Stop Making Users Explore

Often, entrepreneurs ask me something to the effect of, “What’s the best way to let new users explore my product?”

My answer is almost always a variation of, “Stop it.” In order to be slightly more helpful, let’s look at why this is a terrible question.

Users Don’t Care About Exploring Your Product

Nobody cares about your product. Fundamentally, what users care about is themselves. They are using your product as a means to an end. We knew this back in 1960 when Theodore Levitt explained that when customers buy quarter inch drills, they really are buying quarter inch holes.

Think about the last time you bought a drill. Did you sit down with the drill in order to spend time exploring it? Not unless you’re some sort of drill fetishist. What you almost certainly did was try to figure out the fastest way that you could set about completing the project for which you had bought the drill.

The same is true of whatever product you’re building. I know that you care deeply about the user interface of your product and all of the delightful features you have so lovingly handcrafted. Sadly, nobody else does. At least, not in the same way that you do.

People want whatever your product promises to do for them, and they want it to happen as quickly and easily as possible. They don’t want to explore your tax preparation software. They want their taxes done. They don’t want to delve deeply into the mysteries of your To Do List software. They want to not miss deadlines.

But What About B2B Products?

I know, I know. B2B products are different! They’re more complex! They have so many features! They require training and exploration!


All of those incredibly complicated, feature-dense pieces of B2B software that require weeks of training are getting disrupted by things that humans actually understand. I worked with a company that required all documents be shared by filing a ticket with IT to create a personal folder on a shared server which then required mounting a new drive onto the desktop and...blah blah blah. Everybody just used Dropbox, even though it was officially forbidden by the company.

The fact is, people in big companies are forced to work with dozens of complicated products every single day. The introduction of a new, complicated product does not instill in them the desire to spend a lot of their day exploring it. It tends to make them sigh resignedly and figure out if there is some way to avoid learning the new system until it goes away and is replaced by something else.

The only way to make a product that people at work want to use is to make a product that is so obvious and easy to operate that they don’t feel like they have to explore it. They can just jump in, share a document, send an email, or do whatever task it is that they wanted to do originally. They shouldn’t have to explore anything to do their jobs.


Nope. Sorry. Still very little open exploration for new users.

I mean, sure, you can wander all over GTAV and steal as many cars as you want. But have you ever noticed how many quests and tasks and hints you’re given along the way as a new player? Actually, you probably haven’t. Really successful games are fabulous at getting you onboarded without making you feel like you’re going through a tedious training session but also without just dumping you directly into the deep end.

In fact, in good games, the real exploration doesn’t come until users are pretty comfortable with all the basic actions they need to be successful. Often, advanced features are hidden from users until they are unlocked. This not only provides the user with an incentive to keep playing, but it effectively hides complexity until the user is ready for it.

Think about hiding a rocket launcher from a new FPS player. Now think about hiding quarterly estimates from a tax preparer until you know that she needs to file quarterly estimates. There’s a surprising similarity. Note: hiding rocket launchers from people doing their taxes is also not a terrible idea.


Again, not really. While online stores do encourage you to explore and browse, you’ll notice that they don’t have you exploring and browsing the store itself. They have you exploring and browsing the products they want you to buy.

When you’re selling widgets, it’s all about showing off the widgets as quickly as possible. Even while you’re looking at a widget, the site or app is immediately offering you more widgets that you might be interested in.

It’s not about exploration of the product itself. It’s about getting you involved with the things the product is selling.

What Should You Do Instead?

Stop thinking about letting users explore your product. In fact, stop thinking about letting them do anything at all.

When a new user comes to your product, give them a task. Have them do the most obvious, low-friction thing that they will need to do in order to become a slightly more experienced user of the product.

Twitter is an excellent example. When you first join, they don’t just tell you to explore Twitter. They have you immediately start following people. This not only introduces you to the concept of following people, but it gives you a nice, low-friction way to start using the product in the manner it’s meant to be used.

Of course, figuring out what that most obvious first task is can be tricky. In order to do it well, you need to truly understand why your user might want to use your product. What problem are they trying to solve? What task do they want to accomplish? How do they want to change their lives? What sort of hole are they trying to drill?

Once you understand that, you’ll know how to create an onboarding experience that won’t force people to explore your product before using it. In fact, they’ll never have to explore it. They’ll just be able to accomplish their task and get on with their now-improved lives. And that, after all, is exactly why they wanted to use your product in the first place.

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