My elevator speech goes like this: “I design, develop, and ship innovative products that delight customers, create value, and do good in the world.”
Those last three components—delight customers, create value, and do good in the world—are the three most important aspects of a successful product. Here’s why I think so.
Delight Your Customers
Software users come in all shapes and sizes: they might be a millennial using your mobile chat app, a loan officer calling mortgage leads using your lead management software, or a mixed-martial-arts aficionado reading your UFC blog. As a product owner, it’s easy to get caught up in a concept being a “feature” or even a “solution.” We earn our paychecks by focusing on the details. But when a customer uses a product, they are experiencing it. Put another way, a theater’s stage manager thinks about many different aspects of a given stage show, such as the actors, lighting, and acoustics. But the audience? Ideally, all of that blends into the background and becomes the experience of living vicariously through the actors on the stage.
When we experience products, we do so through a primarily emotional lens. Here are some negative emotions that a user might experience when using a product:
- People feel angry when a goal is obstructed, as in the case of a confusing interface that makes calling leads—and thus earning a paycheck—difficult and tedious.
- People also feel anger or contempt when they perceive an injustice or witness norm violations, such as when they encounter surprise fees (I’m looking at you, Ticketmaster).
- People feel negatively surprised when an interface doesn’t behave as expected, such as when the “escape” key deletes a mailbox full of email (this actually happened to me when helping my grandmother use AOL about 15 years ago!).
- People feel fear when they sense a threat of harm to self or their well-being (including their assets), such as when Iomega Zip Drives made their infamous “click-of-death” noises, usually right before failing catastrophically. (I’ve been in this industry for a while…)
- People with “good taste” might even feel disgust at a product that has a ugly or inferior look or experience of use, such as the irritation I get when I’m forced to use some “enterprise” purchase-requisition systems.
On the flip side, users experience positive emotions, too:
- People feel happy when they reach a goal, such as when they beat a level in a game or finish their term paper in a word processor. Rarely do users find the execution of the application to be inherently rewarding: they don’t feel happy because they “successfully” used Word for a few hours, they’re happy because they’re done with the paper and Word simply enabled it.
- People also feel happy when they have a reason to feel self-satisfied, such as when they feel like they beat a game or “mastered” an product and find little difficulty in using it successfully.
- People feel happy when they experience pleasurable sensations, which could be as simple as a fun game or as complex as a beautiful, aesthetic design. For those who are able to get there, using an application while in a productive “flow” state can be quite pleasurable.
- People can feel positively surprised by “WOW” events, such as when StubHub surprises customers with free seat upgrades or even when a flow is simpler and easier to complete than expected.
These emotions are essentially swells of mental energy that often result in subsequent behaviors and shared attitudes. If I have a delicious meal at a restaurant, I’ve experienced pleasurable sensations that made me happy. This gives me the desire to tell others in a review on Yelp so that they may also be happy. If I am angry about surprise fees, I may similarly leave a negative review and choose never to do business with that company again… even if I ultimately caved in bought the concert tickets.
The goal for a product owner, then, is to make a customer fall in love with the product. We do this by reliably delighting our users with positive emotions while providing enough value to allow them to justify our premium over our competitors (if any).
We foster positive emotions by delivering a product that is beautiful, easy to use, and unexpectedly pleasant. These products “resonate” with us. A customer who has fallen in love with our product now trusts our product and distrusts others. Given enough time, a loved product becomes an embodied habit, which is even harder for a competitor to supplant (good luck beating Starbucks at their own game). A well-loved brand can even fall quite far and still recover, sometimes earning a cultish following that continues to purchase a company’s products despite every reason not to do so (Apple circa 1997 seems to fall under this category).
Create Value (and Eliminate Waste)
Be ruthless about creating value when designing products or prioritizing features.
Every product or feature costs something to build and use. Both the company and customer experience opportunity costs when investing in the creation or consumption of a product. The company and customer also suffer costs from increased complexity caused by unnecessary features, such as regression nightmares, fixing bugs, and confusing interfaces.
Similarly, not all products or features have value. While this seems like an obvious situation to avoid, it seems that many of us are easily drawn in with the allure of clever new technology looking for a problem to solve. Just because a product is innovative or even interesting does not mean that it is useful or valuable.
A company earns revenue by creating a positive net value that they share with the consumer. They can keep competition at bay if they are able to deliver a higher net value to their customers.
For instance, let’s assume it costs me $1/user/month to provide an service. My users are willing to either pay $3/month for said service, or tolerate “$3 worth of annoyance” (e.g., ads) because they recognize that my product will allow them to accomplish a goal that they find valuable. Depending on my brand premium and the nature of competition in our space, I can charge somewhere between $1 and $3 a month for the service and I’ll get customers.
According to a study conducted by Standish Group in 2002, 45% of features are never used while only 20% were used often or always. This means that—in general—software products are considerably more costly and complex than necessary for the user to accomplish their goals. Let’s suppose, then, that I build in features into my service that increase code complexity. Even with fully-automated testing, I’m likely to find that these additional features make my development more costly, thus increasing my costs to say $2/user/month. I have to make those features available somehow, so my users are also likely to encounter a more complex interface that makes my product more annoying. Thus, I might find that my users experience an incremental “$2 worth of annoyance” each month they use my product. Put another way, my users would pay $2/month more to one of my competitors who offered a similarly-capable product without an annoying interface.
In this example, I lose the customer. My solution is worth $3 to my customer, but they’re suffering $2 worth of annoyance so they’re only willing to give me a dollar in cash. It costs me $2 to provide the service, so I can’t provide the customer a service at a price they’re willing to pay.
Thus, what do I do if I release a feature and find that it isn’t as valuable as I thought it would be? Given the opportunity, I eliminate it. It is too costly to keep a feature around if people don’t use it.
“Creating value” is equally about creating an upside for my customers (that they’re willing to pay for) while eliminating waste that increase my costs. How I share that value with my customer—and whether or not I am able to beat my competition—depends on my ability to delight my customers and thus create a brand premium.
One of my mentors put it best: “Waste is anything the customer doesn’t want and isn’t willing to pay for.” Find out what customers are willing to pay for. Eliminate everything else. You might not be left with a product, but having a product isn’t what pays our mortgages.
Do Good in the World
The AK-47 is one of the most “popular” assault rifles in the world. I won’t try to speak to a user loving or feeling delighted by their assault rifle, but let’s face it: the inexpensive, rugged, reliable, and easy-to-use AK-47 was a “successful” product by many definitions. It has killed many millions of people, making it perhaps the most “successful” weapon ever invented.
But is it really a “successful” product? Mikhail Kalashnikov, its creator, publicly defended it throughout most of his life, saying: “The fact that people die because of an AK-47 is not because of the designer, but because of politics” and “I sleep soundly.” It goes with out saying that he earned financial success and prestige for his product. Mikhail passed away on December 23rd, 2013 at the age of 94.
However, his public attitude belied his private thoughts. Eight months before his passing, he wrote a letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church lamenting his magnum opus:
“My spiritual pain is unbearable. I keep asking the same insoluble question. If my rifle deprived people of life then can it be that I … a Christian and an orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths? … The longer I live, the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression.”
I would argue that—as far as Mikhail was concerned—the AK-47 was not a successful product.
Admittedly, there’s a wide spectrum between the most prolific weapon ever produced and a cure for cancer. Perhaps what is “successful” in this gradation is a largely private affair.
What are you working for? Does it do good in the world? Does it make you truly, deeply happy? Perhaps the product is relatively neutral, such as an enterprise email client. Is building that product the best ways to spend our dwindling days on this planet? I admit that the product fills a void and creates value for users and shareholders alike, but will I look back on that product and say “I’m glad I built that?”
I recognize that I come from a position of privilege and choice when I choose to say that I’d rather not spend my time building this. Though Steve Jobs loved to admonish us to “do what we love,” that’s not an option for everyone. However, through arguably little intervention of my own, I do have that privilege and choice. Thomas Merton said “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.” Thus, while a product could become a vast commercial success producing mountains of value for customers and shareholders alike, I think we’d be amiss to not consider the full externalities of what we create.
Winston Churchill is now often—but incorrectly—quoted as responding to plans to cut arts funding to support the WWII effort with “Then what are we fighting for?”
What are we living for? What are we creating for?