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.

Remind People You Exist

This is going to sound obvious, but people have lots of things to do every day. What with their own jobs and families and checking Facebook and standing in line at the Apple store for whatever is coming out next, their schedules are pretty full. If you're going to fit into that schedule, you can't just sit around and wait for them to come back to you.

Remember, they're not thinking about you. Ever. That's why you have to contact them regularly via email or Facebook or Twitter or post cards or sky writing or whatever you think will get the attention of the people you're targeting. Think that you can put off writing your welcome emails or your mass notification system? The longer you put it off, the more early users you're going to lose because they didn't think to come back to your product the next day. 

Key Take Away: Assume every single one of your users forgot about the existence of your product five seconds after closing it. If you want them to come back, you need to remind them.

Design for Distraction

You know what you never see in a traditional user test? The seventeen million other things that your users are doing while using your product.

See, even when people are thinking about your product, they're not thinking about only your product. They're thinking about the phone that's ringing and when they have to pick up the kids from soccer and what they're going to make for dinner and the fact that their boss wants a TPS report finished before 5.

Things like shopping carts that time out or registration forms that need to be filled out from scratch if you make a small error or login redirects that don't send you back where you wanted to go are all poisonous to the distracted user. They dramatically increase the number of people who are going to simply give up on your product halfway through.

That's why it's important to make sure that you're actually watching people use your product in their natural environments whenever possible so that you can understand the kinds of interruptions that you need to plan for. It's also critical to make sure that, if somebody were to get called away from your product in the middle of a task (which they will), that they can easily come back and finish that task without having to start over from scratch. 

Key Take Away: People have other things going on in their lives, so make sure that your product allows for interruption, inattention, and distraction.

Make It Addictive

In the way that heroin addicts always think about heroin and WoW addicts always think about Wow and Apple fans always think about new Apple products, if you can design something addictive people will think about your product more. The problem is, making things addictive is harder than just throwing in a few simple game mechanics or copying whatever WoW or Apple does.

There are a lot of good blog posts on how to make your product stickier, but some of the common themes include:
  • creating social bonds with other users (Joe wants to be your friend!)
  • having time sensitive tasks that require users to return at certain intervals (Log in in the next 15 minutes to get this great deal!)
  • providing incentives and achievements for regular use (You unlocked the Foozle Badge!)
  • providing competition with other users (You are now the mayor of the Scranton, PA Taco Bell!)
  • creating a sense of disaster if they don't return (Your fake crops will die!)
  • offering quality content that the user can't get anywhere else and that updates daily (Learn about the five things in your pantry that could KILL YOU!)
The important thing to do here is to pick styles of addiction that fit with your product. Your tax preparation software probably doesn't need a leaderboard, but a good, weekly blog on ways to save tax-free money for retirement might be a draw. 

Key Take Away: Provide reasons for your users to want to come back daily by using things like game mechanics, social pressure, or new content, but make sure that the features fit comfortably with your product.

Cultivate the People Who DO Think about Your Product

If you're lucky and you work really hard to get people's attention, everything I've said isn't going to apply to a tiny group of early adopters. These are the people who will think about your product all the time and want to be heavily involved in its growth and improvement. Use those people! Talk to them. Learn from them. Get them to evangelize your product to other people just like them. Give them jobs, or let them monitor your forums and answer questions for other users. They will love that they're contributing to something they care about, and your product will improve as a result.

Also, if you ignore them, they'll most likely stop thinking about your product, and go think about somebody else's product. 

Key Take Away: Understanding the few people who are deeply attached to your product can help you understand and improve the features that may make it appealing to other, less dedicated users.

But Most Importantly...

You need to internalize the fact that, even once they've visited your site or downloaded your app or become a registered user of your product, the vast majority of people simply aren't thinking about you or your product. At all. This means that a big part of your job is not so much about countering loathing or dislike as it is about countering total indifference.

So, get out there and make them remember you exist.

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