Friday, June 25, 2010

Nobody is Thinking About Your Product

When you're working at a startup it can be all-consuming. You can forget everything else in your life pretty easily when you're neck deep in valuations and minimum viable products and customer acquisition and a million other things that need your attention. You tend think about your product every waking minute.

That's why it can be such a shock to realize that nobody else is thinking about your product. Well, ok, unless you're Apple, but there's clearly some kind of weird mind control thing going on there. In general, when you have a new product, you're incredibly lucky if you're getting more than a few minutes of attention from anybody but your most passionate early adopters.

Why is it important to realize this? It's important, because it has a really big impact on how you design your product and connect with your users.

Make Everything More Discoverable

You know exactly where in the user interface to go to do every task that can be completed with your product (I hope!). Other people, especially new users, don't even know that most of your features exist. This means that it's just as important to design for discoverability as it is to design for usability. But how are they different?

Let's do a quick thought exercise. Imagine somebody hands you a featureless metal box. You might look at it for a minute or two. If it's particularly attractive, you might admire it, but you're probably not going to spend a lot of time with it. Now imagine that the box has $10,000 dollars inside of it. You will probably spend a lot more time figuring out to get it open, yes?

Your product is like that box that is hiding money. If people don't discover very quickly that it provides something valuable to them, they're not going to spend much time figuring out how to use it. You need to help people understand immediately that your product has features they really, really want. That's discoverability.
You also need to make it pretty easy to actual learn how to use those features, once they've decided to dig into the product a bit. That's usability. For bonus points, you can make the whole process interesting and engaging so that people actually enjoy discovering features and using your product. That's fun. 

Key Take Away: Users are not going to spend any time learning to use your product if they don't immediately understand what's in it for them. Make it easy for them to figure out what features exist and why they're useful.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Some Surprising Problems Caused By Using Your Own Product

We've all heard the stories of huge companies that started because the founder wanted to do something specific but didn't have the proper tools. He or she built the proper tools and quickly realized that he or she wasn't the only one who wanted those tools. Paul Graham wrote a very interesting blog post about what he calls organic startup ideas a couple of months back and why building something you need is often the best way to start a company.

There are a lot of benefits to being your own product's first and biggest user:
  • You will always have at least one person who likes and uses your product
  • Even if nobody buys it, you'll still be happy you built it, since you get to use it
  • You always have a user available to consult on which feature to build next
  • It should be easy to initially identify a target persona (hint: you may need a mirror)
  • You probably have a network of similar people who may also want the product
  • You can find a lot of bugs and corner cases by using your product on a regular basis
But there may be a few problems that you weren't expecting.

Understanding the New User Experience

Frankly, there is nobody worse at figuring out how confusing the new user experience can be than an expert. And, if anybody is an expert at the product you've built for yourself, it's YOU.

Have you ever tried to explain something "simple" to somebody and realized that it isn't, in fact, simple at all? It is extremely complicted with lots of steps. The only reason you think it's simple is because you've done it a million times. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to assess how hard it is to learn something once we know too much about it.

For example, if you already know that a feature exists somewhere in the product, it's much easier to figure out where it is than if you're brand new to the product and have no idea that the feature even exists. It's also easier to understand the logic of how different features work together if you're the one who put them together in the first place. 

The fix: Luckily, there's an easy fix for this. Watch new users with your product. Select people in your target market and just observe their struggles. Use products like to observe the first 15 minutes of their usage. Get in touch with people who have only used your product a few times and ask if you can watch them (not in a creepy way), in order to understand what slightly more experienced people are doing with your product. Whatever you do, when you see somebody making a mistake, don't correct them! It's important to see how people who aren't you are using the product.

Asking for Feedback

Remember all that stuff I recommended you do for new users? You should also be doing it for much more experienced users too. The problem is, you probably won't.

In my experience, people who are big users of their own product are less likely to think that they need to observe customers because they have one right there in the building! It's hard to admit that you don't know everything about a product that you're both building and using extensively.

The issue here is that you're not the only type of user. You may not even be the main type of user. When Twitter was first developed as an internal communications tool, do you think that the creators thought that Ashton Kutcher would one day be using it to tell his fans what he had for lunch? People are out there doing really surprising things with your product. You need to learn what they are, and you can only do that by talking to them and observing them.

The fix: This one's easy. Just make sure to keep getting feedback from other users. Preferably, search out people who are different from you or who are using your product in very different ways.