Creating great products isn’t just engineering them

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Last night’s episode of Silicon Valley is one of the must-watch episodes of series.

Our friends at Pied Piper have accomplished an amazing technological feat. Their friends and family (except for Monica) love the product. Downloads are going crazy. We watch along as the counter reaches 500,000 downloads. But look under the hood and there are fewer than 20,000 daily users.

Pied Piper commissions a focus group where it becomes clear that consumers don’t understand the product. Richard spends hours trying to explain it to them.

What went wrong?

If you’re designing a product for the masses, it needs to sell itself. The benefits (not the features) have to be obvious quickly. Marketing like this isn’t the answer:

(If you hire an agency — which you shouldn’t do initially– and they create something like this, fire them.)

Pied Piper’s platform was a product by engineers for engineers. It was tested by an initial beta group that was mostly engineers.

Here’s the Pied Piper user interface:

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This reminded me a lot of product I worked on. Our CTO constantly wanted to add new features to the platform. As a result, the site looked a lot like this.

Our platform had more (and better and cheaper) features than the competitors. But we were putting all of them in front of the consumer at once. People couldn’t understand what they could do with it.

We broke the product up into three products that solved different consumer needs. (Benefits instead of features.) This was mostly a design and marketing effort, but obviously the the engineers had to build it. All of the products ran on the platform we’d already built. (It was just different skins that adapted the platform to specific use cases.) We also raised prices closer to our competitors. Despite the price increase, demand went up. Once people understood what we were selling, they were willing to buy.

Real-life examples abound. Wave and Google+ are two of the highest profile examples. Googlers tell me that internal testing was off the charts. (A more detailed post on why Google+ failed coming soon.)

If you want to design great consumer products, you need to have an interdisciplinary approach. You want a designer who has worked on complex consumer-facing products. You need a marketing person who has knowledge of consumer behavior. They all need to be working together on the product. These aren’t necessarily separate people; often, one person can wear multiple hats.

One of my recommendations: send your product to someone you know is not technical, maybe a parent or sibling. Give them a task list. See how they do. (Ideally, with screen sharing.) It’s important to do it without guidance because no one will be guiding them in real life.

When I tweeted about this, I got this response:

This sounds great — solve a problem that people have. But the greatest value comes from solving problems people didn’t know they had. The iPhone and Facebook are great examples.

What existing problem did iPhone solve? It created a completely new category that people fell in love with.

Facebook is similar.

It’s easy, in retrospect, to define problems that were solved. In Facebook’s case, you can easily keep in touch with tangential contacts, such as high school and college classmates, business acquaintances, etc. Sure, there is clear demand for this now. But I don’t know that there was an unrequited need to share pictures of your lunch with your friend from 3rd grade.

Some of the key reasons for Facebook’s success:

  • Simplicity. The initial feature set was very limited and easy to understand. Even if you have engineered 4,000 features behind the scenes, the initial experiences should be easy-to-get. You can expose some of the other features later.
  • Iteration. Facebook rolled out market-by-market (Initially, Harvard and then other elite schools.) Only later did it expand to the masses. By the time it was rolled out, behaviors had been established. (Poking, status updates.) It’s easier for people to mimic behavior of others than to create their own behaviors.
  • Growth and marketing built-in. Facebook is great at this; Google sucks at this. The way products succeed today is by having growth mechanisms built into the product. See my post on how people tagging was key to Facebook’s success.

When you’re designing products for consumers, there is no such thing as too simple.