Products with benefits

The first in an occasional series about product design heuristics. The second part is about what "social" should really mean.

I generally work with startups, which means I'm working with companies that are still trying to figure out what they're building. I'm not a product manager, but over time I've assembled some heuristics that help figure out if a product is on track.

When you're building a user-driven product or adding a feature, the user must benefit and the company must benefit.

This sounds obvious but it's surprising how many companies put their own wishes above their customers'. It's an approach that can pay off in the short term, but at best you're growing an indifferent, surly customer base. At worst, you're driving people away. Human beings have very little patience. If you're not putting them first, they'll go somewhere else.

It's a heuristic – not a cast-iron rule – so it's not a disaster if you take a different path. But you are swimming against the tide, and you're going to have an uphill battle1. You're going to have to explain to your users why they should do what you want, or create something so compelling they'll jump through your hoops. Equally, if users benefit but the business doesn't, make sure you have a plausible plan for the long run. Your business isn't going to implode, but it might limp along, struggle to attract users, or fail to evoke the passionate response you want.

An example

A startup is building a Foursquare-like service, but instead of checking in to places users will write a short review. The startup thinks they'll gather deeper knowledge about the places you visit, and that they can monetise that database. But they're missing a key step: why will a user write a review? What does the user get out of it?

Writing a review is a lot of effort. Even if it's just a sentence or two, the user still has to figure out:

  • What's good about this place?
  • What's bad about it?
  • Am I broadly for or against?
  • How am I going to express that in words?

And don't forget the user's out in the world, probably with friends. Will they really ignore the people with them and tap out a review on their phone? This is starting to sound like a rather anti-social product. Users won't complain about it; they just won't use it. Check-ins are already an unnatural behaviour – something a user's persuaded into trying, rather than demanding – and the mandatory review step makes that even harder.

Carrot and stick

People use your features for two broad reasons:

  1. Good things happen if they do.
  2. Bad things happen if they don't.

The first motivation is infinitely more preferable: the carrot is better than the stick. If you're lucky you can sometimes force things on your user, but everything flows more smoothly if the users want it themselves.

People shop on Amazon because they want cheap products conveniently delivered to them. They post statuses on Facebook so their friends click 'Like'. They sign up to Groupon to get big discounts in their inbox. Users actively want these things: they would complain if you took them away. But there's a benefit to the companies too: profit for Amazon, and engaged users for Facebook & Groupon2.

The second option puts your company's needs first. It's a mild form of blackmail. You're putting an obstacle in front of your user, and hoping that they want your offering enough to put up with your bullshit3. You can spot these by looking for double obstacles: something you've added to make the first obstacle work4. YouTube's first obstacle was "Watch this advert before you see a video", but nobody wants to watch an ad. So they added a second obstacle that makes you wait 5 seconds before you can skip it. Groupon really wants to email you every day5, so as soon as you land on a Groupon page they show you an undismissable box demanding you sign up.

A screenshot of the undismissable Groupon popup.

Nobody on the internet thinks to themselves "I really wish this web page would demand my email address the instant I visit it." Groupon's betting that the people it turns off – the people who say "Stuff this" and close the tab – are worth less to them than the email addresses from casual visitors who want to see the offer. You could argue that users benefit from this too, as they get offers in their inbox every day, but it's an arm-twisty way of getting users. The user didn't get the chance to see some Groupon deals and decide to sign up because they liked the look of them: they signed up because that's the only way to see the offer in the first place.

Streaming music is another example. Companies like Rdio, Pandora, and Their streaming radio products generally limit how many times per hour you can skip a track. It's because of licensing laws, and the costs of licensing music: labels charge less for "radio" plays than "on-demand" plays, and it's easier to convince the labels that you're in the former category if you have limitations. Users hate it, but the businesses think it's the only way they can survive6.

Magical sticks that turn into carrots

There are occasional circumstances where you obstruct your user for a good reason: for the good of the community. A real life example is airport security: nobody wants to have to queue for ages and get searched, but most people don't want bombs on planes. So we mildly inconvenience everybody so society avoids hostage situations. A tech example is Dattch, a lesbian dating app. There's a bunch of people on the internet who love to spam & harass lesbians. So Dattch insists you sign in with Facebook, and every profile is screened by a human to ensure it's real. It's not that they think their users want to wait for several hours as soon as they sign up – it's that it's better for the rest of the community if the company has a chance to screen out the weirdos.

Who's getting it right?

It's hard to give examples of companies that get it right, because it looks so damn obvious. Consider any online shop, pretty much: people want to buy things, and the company wants to sell things. As long as the customers are happy with the product and the business is making a profit, everybody's happy. Or consider Dropbox: users benefit from having their files available everywhere, and Dropbox benefits from power users who buy premium accounts (and from being the de facto way of syncing files across devices).

Marketplace leaders are good examples, too – the eBays & AirBNBs of the world. Their users are both buyers & sellers: buyers win by having easier access to more products/accommodation, and the sellers can reach a bigger audience or even sell something they couldn't before. The business wins by taking a commission.

And despite the way they haemorrhage money, music streaming services would argue that they benefit from data when users listen. It can use that data to improve its personalisation services, and also sell aggregate information back to the music labels. It's still a cut-throat business, which demonstrates that even if you think you've ticked both boxes you're not guaranteed success.

The takeaway

When creating a product or adding a new feature, make sure that both the user and your company will benefit. Users are fickle; they won't do things solely because you want them to. There's got to be something in it for them. And likewise, you won't last long as a business if you give the users everything: there's got to be something in it for the company too. It might be a long-term payoff. It might not be direct. It's OK if it's not always there, but have a clear reason in your mind to forego it.

  1. I enjoyed this mixed metaphor so I left it in.  ↩

  2. "Engaged users" means "People use your product", which means "We can sell things to them." Groupon sells to people directly. Facebook sells advertising space, which is an opportunity for someone else to sell to their users.  ↩

  3. This isn't the same as a dark pattern – dark patterns are actively trying to trick people. These examples are trying to work around human nature.  ↩

  4. Another way of spotting this is asking, "Did this request come from the advertising department?"  ↩

  5. If they email you every day, they can sell to you every day. If they sell to you every day, you're more likely to buy something.  ↩

  6. Spotify is taking a different approach: they're trying to get a huge audience before they run out of money. They have higher licensing costs, but if they can get enough users then economies of scale kick in and they'll be profitable.  ↩