Grounding Product by Scott Belsky

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One of the challenges of good product management is how effortless it looks when it is done well. We all know that the more obvious a product looks, the harder it was to create. Easy solutions add complexity (just add an option, just add a feature) but the best solutions reduce the product, and are the hardest to make. This is compounded by the reality of the journey of making – the stress, self-doubt, and dire circumstances that make us pick the easy (and often complicating) solution.

the-relative-joy-of-buildingIn this awesome talk from Mind the Product San Francisco, Scott Belsky shares some of his insights gained from his journey founding and building Behance, and then running product teams at Adobe.

One of the best ways to stay focused is to ground product decisions with simple convictions, and one of Scott’s favourite simple convictions is that we all have the same currency at the end of the day: Time. Time governs how we allocate our energy and make decisions, and this also has huge implications for product. Therefore nearly all product do one of two things: help you spend time or save time.

On one side products like Facebook, BuzzFeed, Snapchat, Medium, and games help you Spend Time.

On the other side products like Uber, Evernote, Shyp, Slack, Postmates, and AI bots like Siri and Cortana help you Save Time.

Some products do both – for example Amazon helps you spend time shopping, but save time browsing.

We fight to save time and are seduced to spend time – at all times. We’re fiercely aware and protective of time as it passes, except when it comes to our natural human tendencies so if you accommodate those natural human tendencies, you win your customer’s time.

So what are these human tendencies we should focus on as we build products?

1. In the first 15 seconds, we are all lazy, vain, & selfish.

Lazy. We don’t have time to read or learn something new, so avoid bad onboarding experiences, instructional videos or more than one line of copy. And showing is better than explaining, so using templates, smart selects and presumptuous defaults helps the user start using the product more quickly.

Vain. This better make you look good, and quickly. Social consumer products are as much about 
seeing who saw your content as they are about sharing 
and seeing other’s content, so using ego metrics like likes, hearts, etc help your users get that vanity hit and keep them coming back for more.

Selfish. You need to benefit quickly from spending any time on this. Users are skeptical of company intentions so the product needs to be about users, not the company. Great networks are useful utilities on their own, and the network effects are compounded benefits but it starts with solving an immediate user problem, empathizing with their pain. Therefore marketing and copy should be born by the product team as it is part of the product experience.

2. We don’t want to make 
the wrong choice 
(we don’t want choices).

Every additional option presented to the user adds to the choices they have to make and opens a multiple of problems that could go wrong.

Every product goes through the same cycle: Users flock to simple product. Product takes users for granted and adds features to satisfy power users. Users flock to simple product. This is the paradox of product success: As you focus more on power users, you stop engaging new users. As you go beyond the basic product, the trick is to stay focused on new users and to do so with a bias towards preserving the bread and butter of your value proposition.

But making products simple, and staying simple, is complicated. A good discipline to help you stay simple is to focus at least 50% of your effort on onboarding and the first-time-user-experience.

3. We cling to familiarity.

Familiarity is bad when you’re innovating, but great when helping people use the product. Transformational products are 90% accomodating, and 10% retraining – so by all means use popular patterns, language, and analogies to help people understand your product – but make sure you’re also forcing behaviours that power a unique value.

This is why group think is dangerous in the early stages – if you avoid folks that are polarizing, you are also avoiding bold outcomes. So focus groups help you play it safe, but they are a bad way to find your next big hit. And because people are fond of what’s familiar you start measuring familiarly, and the outcome will inevitably regress to the mean.

So what have we learned?

The biggest mistake in a new product is to ignore human tendencies and take a user’s time for granted.

  1. Have faith in your customers, but not in the first 15 seconds
  2. Stay grounded by the newest customer’s experience
  3. Innovation is great, as long as the core mechanics are familiar

The product succeeds not because of the tech, but because of the user’s experience of the technology. So take human tendencies into account, and be as human as you can.

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