Connecting aspects of great products and great product strategy | Thinking Product

I started the Thinking Product series by sharing my hypotheses for the 3 core aspects of great technology products and great product strategy.

This evolving theory, like all theories, is necessarily imperfect. There’s a ton of nuance that goes into building technology products – e.g., products for enterprises and consumers are designed very differently. But, theories are important because they end up simplifying things. And, that’s particularly important as we begin exploring a new topic. I started this series with this image.

And, over the past weeks, we’ve explored each of these pieces. We began with aspects of great products.

  1. Nail job to be done
  2. Well designed
  3. Sticky

Then, we looked at great product strategy.

  1. Growth – i.e. bringing new users
  2. Onboarding – i.e. converting them to power users
  3. Retention – i.e. making them stay (with a note about the dark side of engagement)

For each of these, we explored 1-3 key questions that should help drive our thinking.

So, today, I wanted to bring this all back in an overview image of sorts. There’s a strong parallel between the core aspects of great products and great product strategy. That is by design of course – they exist together and feed into each other. So, when we look at them together, we arrive at the following 3 core principles –

  1. Find a niche segment of users with a problem and focus on solving it. (Nailing job-to-be-done and growth)
  2. Use the onboarding period to convert new users to power users. (Delight to use and Onboarding)
  3. Continuously improve ability to surface and drive value. (Stickiness and retention)

We have many exciting topics to explore as we dig into the nuance. But, these will likely serve as the building blocks through our journey.

For the next few posts, we will take a break from products and product strategy and move to discussing my hypothesis for the building blocks of great product management and product leadership.

 

Retention – feat the tragedy of the commons | Thinking Product

There are two questions to ask when we think of retaining users  –

  1. Are we continuing to drive value for our users via continuous improvement or better surfacing of value?
  2. Are we reminding users of the value they can drive?

Both these questions are important but drive contrasting approaches. The first question focuses on improvements within the product while the second is essentially a notifications/reminders driven strategy.

1. Are we continuing to drive value for our users via continuous improvement or better surfacing of value? 

As mentioned above, there are two ways we drive value here. First, we keep making improvements within the product. For most enterprise products, this continual part of the roadmap is typically driven by customer feedback. For consumer products, it is generally driven by rapid experimentation and copying successful features from other consumer products. And, while consumer product management is arguably more gut driven than enterprise product management, great consumer products are often molded by their users. A seminal example of this is the story behind Twitter’s hashtag.

The first hashtag appeared thanks to Chris Messina, a user who suggested using # for groups. Interestingly, he got inspiration for this from another social network (perfect illustration of my point above) – Jaiku- and from tags on Flickr. In time, Messina’s idea spread and Twitter, after a period of resisting it, came around to it.

Second, most products generally do a poor job surfacing value to users. That’s because our assumptions about the most valuable aspects of our products are rarely what our users value. This is where analysis of usage data goes a long way in improving the product.

Overall, however, this question is all about continuously improving our products to drive value for our users and is the surest proxy for long term product success.

2. Are we reminding users of the value they can drive?

Any savvy mobile product manager today has a sophisticated notifications strategy. She has a point of view on when to surface a push notification versus a badge and when to use email to drive users back to the product. This isn’t limited to small companies trying to get traction. We see the largest companies use notifications a fair bit to drive usage as well. For example, Facebook gets very aggressive with email notifications if you don’t visit your profile or feed. I use Facebook primarily for my blog’s Facebook page. But, that engagement clearly doesn’t count for Facebook – so, I receive an email reminding me of what’s going on on Facebook every day.

Twitter, recently, shifted its notification strategy pretty drastically as well. This was what a notification email from Twitter looked like until the first week of July.

And, this is what happened once they shifted strategy.

Now, I have to click on “Take a look,” head to Twitter to see what happened. Twitter has been having difficulties with user growth and this is clearly a metric mover. The big question with such changes, of course, is whether it will continue to be a metric mover in the long run.

Notifications are important. When done right, they are good reminders of the value a product can drive for the user. However, too often, they are used as short term metric movers that only end up annoying users. The problem with notifications is classic “tragedy of the commons.” If a company has 5 teams who all want to drive up their numbers, how long before they all surface frequent notifications and compel the user to turn off notifications?

The bottom line – a retention strategy that is driven by notifications is a poor retention strategy. I think retention strategies work best when 80% of the effort goes into driving real value and the remaining 20% (and not any more) focuses on reminding users via notifications.

If our users aren’t listening to our many reminders of how great we are, maybe we ought to revisit our assumptions.

The dark side of engagement | Thinking Product

Today’s post, on retention, was supposed to be the final one in the “building blocks” series where we bring together the various aspects of great technology products and the questions that can guide our thinking through this process.

But, before I spent time on retention, I thought I’d take a detour and share a few notes on the dark side of engagement from the author of a book on the subject, Nir Eyal. Nir Eyal had a thought provoking post on this in which he called out the dark side of aiming for engagement – unfortunately, making things more engaging also makes them more potentially addictive. 

We’ve all experienced this with some of our favorite technology products. They are engaging to the point where we can’t really access them without experiencing that daily hit. His suggestion is to build in safeguards within our products. Here are a few examples –

For example, instead of auto-starting the next episode on Netflix or Amazon Video, the binge-inducing video streaming services could ask users if they’d like to limit the number of hours they watch in a given weekend.

Online games could offer players who cancel their accounts the option of blacklisting their credit cards to prevent future relapses.

Facebook could let users turn off their newsfeeds during certain times of the day.

And rather than making it so fiendishly difficult to figure out how to turn off notifications from particularly addictive apps, Apple and Android could proactively ask certain users if they’d like to turn off or limit these triggers.

We saw real life examples of these issues recently when a 13 year old in China jumped off a building after being denied access to the very addictive “Honor of Kings” game by Tencent. Then, a 17 year old nearly died of cerebral infraction after 40 hours of continuous playing. So, Tencent responded with time limits for anyone upto 18 years of age. Of course, one would hope that companies won’t wait for a tragedy before creating such safeguards.

These examples aside, there have been studies on the negative effects of social networks on teenagers’ self worth and body image. And, we’ve all likely experienced meals where we wished there was a sign like this.

Nir Eyal concludes his post with this –

Of course, tech companies won’t be able to “cure” addictions, nor should they attempt to do so. Nor should they act paternalistically, turning off access after arbitrarily determining that a user has had enough. Rather, tech companies owe it to their users simply to reach out and ask if they can be helpful, just as a concerned friend might do. If the user indicates they need assistance cutting back, the company should offer a helping hand.

With the data these companies collect, identifying and reaching out to potential addicts is a relatively easy step. A harder one, it seems, is caring enough to do the right thing.

For anyone part of a team or company that’s involved in building technology products, this responsibility to care is on us.

Onboarding – Converting new users to power users | Thinking Product

The best definition I’ve come across for the purpose of a great onboarding flow is – onboarding converts new users to power users.

Connecting aspects of great products to strategy again, the growth portion of the strategy targets users who would hire your product to get a job done. The purpose of the onboarding flow is to make it very clear how to do so.

This is the piece of the strategy where great design shines because the onboarding flow answers the two important design questions – i) does the user know what it takes to “win” in the product? and ii) how easy is it for the user to win?

I think it is critical to get onboarding right because it transitions people from interest in your product to your core value props. Fail to this and people leave without giving you a shot.

So, what are the principles behind great onboarding experiences? As I’m a fan of boiling things down to at-most 3 things, my sense would be that great onboarding experiences do the following –

  1. Structure/set expectations and show progress/celebrate success
  2. Ask them for just enough information to get them to value (the aha moment!)
  3. Show them what’s important

Let’s work through each of these with an example.

1. Structure/set expectations and show progress/celebrate success

It is incredibly annoying when you have to keep clicking yes to set things up as a user. While the simple answer is to keep sign up processes as short as possible (and we should all do that), different products have different needs. And, a great way to help users along the way is to set clear expectations.

I love how Etsy does this. You know exactly where you are in the process and what you need to do to make progress. It nails this principle.

2. Ask them for just enough information to get them to value (the aha moment!)

Onboarding doesn’t need to give you 100% of the data you need to deliver on your core value prop. The question is – how can you ask just enough to take them to value? Quora does a great job of this. When you go through the Quora onboarding process, there are 2 key steps – a quick selection of topics that you’d like to follow and also friends you’d like to follow.

Interestingly, they use a modal with what looks like a live feed to show you what success would look like. That’s smart.

They also add a touch of suspense before they deliver the “aha” moment (annotated in the image below by Samuel at useronboard.com).

3. Show them what’s important

Most products collect a bunch of information and just leave their users on their own. Apps that do a great job with onboarding, however, do a fantastic job contextually helping users.

And, slack is a great example of the best practice via its slack bot.

One last thing – these principles focus on what happens once a user gets into your product. But, what about the connection between growth and onboarding, i.e., what happens when a user shows up?

I think good onboarding flows do a good job with the education process right when you sign up. Here’s an example of the sign up process on “Personal Capital.”

The app has 6 nice looking screens that tell you what it does. But, at the same time, you can skip it to sign in, join or ask for a demo. Again, that’s smart.

To summarize –

  • Great onboarding converts new users to power users
  • Great onboarding experiences i) set expectations and celebrate users moving through it, ii) ask for just enough information to take users to value, and iii) contextually show users what’s important as they navigate through the product for the first time
  • Finally, you can lay the groundwork for good on boarding even before a user signs up

Growth – Getting those users | Thinking Product

It has never been easier to start a company today. This is thanks to the suite of tools that are provided by the likes of AWS/Azure/Google Cloud, Stripe and many other companies who help with getting the basic infrastructure in place.

It has also never been easier to create a product that has the potential to be used by millions of users. Just use the above services to build a mobile app and put it on the iOS or Android app stores. And, in theory, you have a shot at superstardom.

But, it is also harder than ever to generate traction. The top 10 smartphone apps of 2016 were from Google (5), Facebook (3), Apple (1) and Amazon (1).

We often think about this as a recent issue. So, let’s look at the equivalent chart from 2013.

 

Twitter and Yahoo Stocks were the only “outsiders” that made the list along with Apple Maps. But, the giants were still dominant.

What does all of this mean? If you aren’t an app born out of the family of giant tech firms, user acquisition is going to be hard. This, of course, benefits Facebook since a natural paid acquisition source is Facebook ads.

This all seems rather depressing since it looks like mass market growth isn’t really an option. What does all of this mean for you and me?

Well, if you’re building a mobile app, I think it has become more important than ever before to nail the answers to 3 questions –

  1. Who are my users?
  2. Where can I reach them? (/Where do they spend their time?)
  3. How do I attract their interest?

The good news is that these questions work wonderfully regardless of the nature of your product. And, that’s because they hit at the essence of 3 important pieces of the marketing funnel – segmentation, targeting and positioning.

And, there’s an age old story about dog food (thanks Prof Moran Cerf) that helps explain the magic of the 3 of these in action.


When Paul Iams visited a mink ranch in 1946, he noticed that the dogs at the ranch, who also ate food made for minks, seemed exceptionally healthy and beautiful. So, he developed Iams 999, a superior quality high-protein variety of dog food. But, he didn’t have a good distribution system in place to sell these and, soon, sales stagnated after the first 100,000 dollars. Iams looked in trouble.

Enter Clay Mathile, a new manager, who asked the question – what is a segment that would love what is great about Iams (superior quality => shiny coats, healthy dogs) and not mind what isn’t great about Iams (high cost, limited distribution)?

The answer? Show dog owners!

So, he went on to focus all his advertising on his segment – show dog owners. For example, this meant advertising in magazines that show dog owners read. These show dog owners, in turn, were more than happy to buy premium dog food and go through the difficult sourcing process so they had a competitive advantage.

Iams nailed the market.

Soon, they were ready to expand again and their prices were beginning to come down thanks to their scale. Next, they focused on breeders who cared about having healthy, shiny dogs to sell to future owners. Breeders also didn’t mind the extra expense. Given their excellent product, they won over breeders over time, too.

This new segment had a positive effect because breeders naturally recommended that the new dog owners continue feeding their dogs Iams.

By 1999, Iams had 900 million dollars in sales and was acquired by P&G. Iams now had a place in supermarket stores all over.


This is a classic story because it is applicable to every product. And, as far as building technology products goes, this story almost feels custom built for app builders all over.

Don’t worry about attacking that large market. Focus on a niche and nail that segment. Then, build from there.

(PS: HT Andrew Chen for shaping my perspective on growth)

Getting stickiness right | Thinking Product

My hypothesis is that great products have 3 characteristics.

1. Nail job-to-be-done: They are a great solution to a problem users care about

2. Delight to use: They are well designed

3. Sticky: Makes the customer/user want to come back

I wrote about nailing the job-to-be-done and delight to use characteristics in the last 2 weeks. Today, we’ll explore stickiness.

When I think of stickiness, the question I ask is – “Why will the user want to use the product again?” I’ve generally seen 3 ways apps do this –

  1. Feeds – Come back to see what is new. This works well with apps with network effects. E.g. Facebook or LinkedIn
  2. Notifications – If the notifications are high value (e.g. reminders that the user wants), the user will come back. E.g. Calendar or Mail
  3. A niche high value use case – Providing a use case that core users absolutely love. E.g. Waze

While examples of apps that use feeds and notifications are common, let’s spend a couple of minutes discussing Waze. Waze is a mapping app owned by Google. It was founded in Israel and acquired for over a billion dollars in 2013. Waze isn’t perfect (which product is?). I find its user interface occasionally confusing and it’s GPS capabilities aren’t the best. Google Maps does a better job with both.

But, there are a couple of things about Waze that make it special. First, Waze has built a reputation to help you find the best route using its data on which routes have more traffic. As an added bonus, Waze will also tell you if a store or restaurant is closed as you plan to head over. Both of this means you’d like to start your journey with Waze just to see what the app recommends.

Second, the use case that made Waze really popular among its users is the fact that the community notifies you if a police car or speed radar detector is coming up. As you might imagine, the police community hate this feature but the users love it. Not everyone cares about this feature but, for the ones who do, this feature is invaluable.

Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson has a post about building peer-to-peer apps with niche, high value use cases and he spoke about this feature as a great example of that. From the post –

“If you want to bootstrap a peer to peer network, you can’t start with the mainstream use case. You need to start with the highest value use case, even if it is a much smaller niche. Not everyone likes to drive 80mph in a 65mph zone. But the ones who do will take extra measures to avoid getting pulled over. They report the speed traps to everyone else in real time. Which is what the first users of Waze did.”

Oh, and the police notification works only if you are actively using the app (you need to type a destination). Switching the app on alone doesn’t help. Smart.

Waze example aside, it is really hard to build sticky products – especially mobile apps. The first version of most products aren’t generally good enough to ensure users come back every day. The most reliable way to ensure stickiness is to build a network driven feed. But, there are only so many network driven products that can thrive in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Snap, Pinterest and LinkedIn.

Building stickiness via notifications is easier said than done as notifications blindness can set in and play havoc with your plans.

That’s why going the niche, high value use case route matters for the rest of us. It is our dominant strategy on our journey to stickiness.


Over the past 3 weeks, I’ve written about the 3 aspects of great products – nailing job-to-be-done (Why does the user buy? What does the user fire/replace?), great design (Does the user know what it takes to win? How easy is it?), and stickiness (do you rely on network effects, notifications or a niche high value use case?). Most good products have one of these, great ones typically combine two and the rare exceptional product combines all three.

The next step will be to talk about how all this gets operationalized into a strategy for growth, onboarding and ongoing usage. More to follow.

Delight to use and The Economist Espresso – Thinking Product

My hypothesis is that great products have 3 characteristics.

1. Nail job-to-be-done: They are a great solution to a problem users care about

2. Delight to use: They are well designed

3. Sticky: Makes the customer/user want to come back

Last week, I wrote about nailing the job-to-be-done. Today, we’ll take a quick look at what it means to be well designed. I say “quick look” because it is impossible to do justice to an overview on great design as there’s so much to write about.

When we talk about a well designed product, most folks likely think of the iPhone. Beautiful and easy to use – what’s not to like? My primary focus when I think of great design is going to focus on the latter – usability. Everything else is a bonus.

So, what is usability? The definition from usability guru Steve Krug works well here – a person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing to accomplish something without it being more trouble than it is worth.

This sounds simple enough. But, it rarely is.

The 2 questions I love to ask with respect to usability are –
1. Does the user know what it takes to “win” in the product?
2. How easy is it for the user to win?

Users come to products to get some job done. Getting that job done is how they “win.” For example, the job you might want to get done is – “I’d like to share my notes from XYZ conference to folks who’d be interested.” You might debate between sending an email (private) or blogging (public). Assume you decide to go the public route, you’ll probably debate between a bunch of sources – let’s say Medium, LinkedIn and WordPress. Now, as a new user to Medium, LinkedIn, or WordPress, do you intuitively know what you need to do to post? And, is it easy?

Of course, you might want to get other jobs done, e.g., I want to get more social media followers or I want to learn and write more about artificial intelligence. If a large enough group of users want to use your product for a particular job, it is important for them to feel like they’re winning in the product.

The Economist Espresso

An app that does a really great job of this, in my opinion, is The Economist Espresso. Here’s are 3 screenshots of the app from today.

The first is the home screen. You can click in to an article (which can generally be read in one glance or with a minor swipe down) and keep swiping. The checks indicate you are done. And, once you get done with all 7 of them, you get a screen that says “That’s it!” with a nice quote.

This is a beautiful illustration of what it takes to make a simple app that gets the job done. The job users want to get done is to stay up-to-date. And, with this app, you can do so in 3 minutes or less. When you reach that last screen, you’ve won!

As an added bonus, the app is elegant as well. The Economist Espresso app’s native ads (they show them once every couple of days) are the best I’ve seen. They show up when you swipe between articles and look gorgeous.

The design isn’t without trade-offs. For example, none of the articles have external links to other Economist articles. They could, but they’d make the app more clunky and complicated. This is a pretty popular app and the team made a brave decision to not fill articles with links. They chose to keep it simple and beautiful and they’ve done a great job with it.

So, if there were 3 takeaways from today’s note, it would be –

  1. When designing products, consider prioritizing usability first.
  2. When thinking about usability, I find it helpful to think about – does the user know what it takes to win? Is it easy for the user to win?
  3. Building for usability is often driven more by leaving things out rather than adding things in.