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.

 

Food and technology

We’ve made a lot of progress in meeting the world’s food needs.

We’ve done this by using more technology to increase the yield of our lands.

While the benefits have not been as evenly spread as we’d have liked, things are getting better.

But, we’ve done a poor job in some areas – especially in our treatment of animals.

I think we’re going to see tremendous progress in food in the coming decades. We’re going to see more Soylent inspired alternatives to unhealthy food. Drones and artificial intelligence are going to help us further improve land yield. But, I’m most excited about two other innovations.

The first is large scale vertical farming that start ups like Plenty and InFarm are working hard on. Vertical farming can greatly improve yield, can be done indoors and uses sensors to optimize the growth of plants.

And, the second is lab grown meats from the likes of Memphis Meats. Once we figure out how to produce this on a large scale, it won’t just be a more humane method of meat production. It will also be significantly better for the environment. Studies show that clean meat could potentially be produced with 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, 45 percent less energy, 99 percent less land use and 96 percent less water use than meat made through animal agriculture.

In a remarkably prescient note, Winston Churchill had predicted this 80+ years ago.

It has taken us a while. But, I’m optimistic we’ll get there soon.

(A longer, more detailed version of this note is on Medium or LinkedIn as part of “The Notes by Ada” project)

Mesh Wi-Fi systems

Traditional Wi-Fi set ups don’t scale well with multiple devices. You lose a lot of speed for each step you take away from the router and have to install extenders if your home happens to be longer than it is wide.

And, let’s face it – extenders really suck. You need to create a new Wi-Fi network and only get pitiful speeds even after doing so. You’re likely reminded of this every day – especially if you live far away from family and use video calls to stay in touch.

Mesh Wi-Fi technology gets rid of all these traditional set up limitations by replacing the hub and spoke router model with a mesh that blankets your home with the high speeds that you’d get using a LAN cable.

This video does a great job explaining why mesh Wi-Fi is great.

We live in times when having good internet access is way more important than having cellular access. And, a mesh Wi-Fi system is a game changer. We pay for a 100 MBPS connection and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a 110 MBPS speed outside our home (!) – where we’d never have been able to connect to our extender even.

A real game changer. I couldn’t recommend it strongly enough.

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.

How to compete with Google and Facebook

This is a really tough time if you are attempting to build a start-up that dreams of competing with Google and Facebook.

I think there 3 reasons for this

  • There’s very little white space to build an app that will get traction. The list of top 10 apps has been virtually unchanged for the past few years.
  • Even if you do — against the odds — Google and Facebook will know (Facebook tracks app activity via Onavo – a security app it owns while Google has Android and search) and either buy you out or copy you.
  • And, even if you manage to survive that, you have to compete against an incredibly sophisticated suite of advertising products.

So, I argue that there are only 2 ways to compete –

  1. Bet on the future (e.g. augmented reality)
  2. Focus on a niche

It is hard to be everything to everybody. So, the best bet is probably focusing on a niche that involves high usage or high  value. That is what most of their successful competitors do.

All in all, I don’t believe this is the time to be building a technology company that seeks to compete with Google and Facebook. As is generally the case with such dominance, it is hard to predict an end to it. It looks certain that we’re going to move toward a world with mixed reality and the existing giants seem to have a strong advantage going in.

But, then again, history reminds us that technology waves don’t play out as we expect. We are currently in an age with an incredibly centralized communications architecture and it is hard to imagine a decentralized world in the near future.

Maybe that’s why the blockchain revolution is one to keep an eye on.

More on my bi-weekly “Notes by Ada project” note on Medium or LinkedIn.

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