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.

Accepting Feedback

Ok, so you're talking to users who aren't like you. You have to make sure you're actually listening to them.
When you're a regular user of a product, it can be tough to be completely neutral about feedback.

Confirmation bias means that you're more likely to listen to the feedback that agrees with your experience and to discount the feedback that doesn't. 

The fix: You may need to bring in a neutral third party to help you moderate customer discussions and make sure that you're not letting yourself be biased. But just knowing that confirmation bias exists should help you to combat it.

Killing Your Favorites is Tough

The time comes in every product when you have to kill a feature. Sometimes you release something and only 5% of your users adopt it, which makes it just not worth supporting. Or maybe it's a fine idea, but it doesn't fit with the rest of the product offering and just clutters up the interface. Maybe it's just too expensive to maintain. Whatever the reason, it has to go.

But what if you are one of that 5% of users? That makes it harder to kill the feature doesn't it? It's tricky to respond completely rationally to metrics if it results in losing access to something that you like. And pivoting away from your big, pet idea? That can be nearly impossible, even when nobody's buying your product. 

The fix: You thought I was going to say, "kill it anyway," but I'm not. If you feel that the feature is truly useful to you (or to any small percentage of your user base), why not do some investigation into why the adoption rate is low? Maybe people don't know it exists, or it's too hard to use. Those are both fixable problems. If the problem is that the feature doesn't really fit in with your product offering or is cluttering up the interface, consider spinning it off as its own product or moving it into a less obvious section of the UI meant for power users. If it's expensive to maintain, maybe you should try offering it as a premium option to offset the costs. If none of these work though, you may have to kill it anyway.

So, Should You Not Build a Product You Want?

Of course you should build products you want. Waiting around for somebody else to build them is such a waste of time.

Besides, building something for yourself can give you a huge jump on customer development at the very beginning stages of your product development. The problem comes later, when you want your product to be used, enjoyed, and (hopefully) paid for by other people. That's when you have to step back and say, "This product isn't just for me any longer. I need to start treating it like something that is used by other people who also have opinions and preferences, many of which will be just as important as mine." If you don't, you may end up as your product's only user.

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