Super normal product design

I like this idea by Dave Morin: Super Normal:

“When you set out to create a new product, you usually do not start by trying to think of something completely new. You think of a product or concept that is already “normal” to the world, and then try to make it better. You make it Super Normal.”

This is classic product design…but the term “super normal” helps in understanding that most innovations are just improvements to normal things. That’s what’s often lost in product design…people are so excited to make something new that they don’t base their new product on the current normal way of doing things. They don’t take the time to really research the current practice and simply jump to an ideal practice.

Here is how Morin applies product design thinking (super normal thinking) to the design of a bucket.

“To apply Super Normal thinking we start by looking at what is normal and then ask the question: What are the key problems? In the case of our basic metal bucket we can find a few. First, the metal handle cuts into your hand when carrying a bucket full of cold water. Second, when picking up a bucket of cold water the metal is freezing to the touch. Third, when pouring the water out, it’s hard to control the stream of water, causing you to lose water.

In thinking through these problems we can come up with some simple innovations that would make the bucket better. First, we can add a wood or plastic wrap to the metal handle, creating more surface area and thus a more comfortable carry. Second, we can wrap the entire bucket in a thin layer of plastic creating insulation when carrying hot or cold water. Third, we can add a spout to the side, making it easy to control the pour, causing you to lose less water.”

Again, this is pretty straight-forward product design…but is illustrative nonetheless. It echoes the same sentiment I wrote about in relation to product positioning in: How to redefine a product category. In general we spend way too much time focused on the new and not focused on the now.

Starting Small

Great piece by Joel Gascoigne: The Habits of Successful People: They Start Small

“The challenge for a lot of us is that when we go about our lives, we interact with so many “big” things and we forget or don’t even know how they originally started. It’s difficult to understand how the evolutionary process of products and brands contributes and is vital to what they are today. We also all have big aspirations and want to get there fast.”

This is an important observation. By the time most of us get to use a product it has already gone through many, many iterations. We never see it in its infancy…we rarely see it before it has achieved momentum and the product team and customers have figured out the true value of it. No, we see it after it has matured and grown up and after all the surfaces have been sanded smooth.

This also reminds me of my favorite law, Gall’s Law:

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

Jony Ive on quality

I think it’s really easy for anybody to say “we care about quality” or “quality is job #1″. In fact, I just wrote it twice…it’s very easy to do. But actually executing on quality is extremely difficult as quality takes time and care. And it’s hard to argue for something that takes time when all the other parts of the business can go faster…in many ways quality is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either your company really does mold itself around a quality-first process or it doesn’t.

An recent post by Horace Dediu, The price is right, brings up the age-old question of how Apple does it…how do they consistently produce such high quality products? Dediu’s includes a quote from Jony Ive:

We’re keenly aware that when we develop and make something and bring it to market that it really does speak to a set of values. And what preoccupies us is that sense of care, and what our products will not speak to is a schedule, what our products will not speak to is trying to respond to some corporate or competitive agenda. We’re very genuinely designing the best products that we can for people.

What, exactly, is a startup?

Two definitions of startups:

One from an excellent piece by Steve Blank on why companies are not startups:

“a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. The corollary for an enterprise is:

A company is a permanent organization designed to execute a repeatable and scalable business model. Once you understand that existing companies are designed to execute then you can see why they have a hard time with continuous and disruptive innovation.

Another is in this great piece by Paul Graham in which he suggests Startup = Growth:

“A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of “exit.” The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.”

Not sure what to make of these two definitions…but they sure are interesting when placed side-by-side.

Is your product a vitamin or drug?

An interesting framework from Grace Ng in which startups(products) are categorized along two axes: the level of pain you’re solving and the frequency of use: When should your startup focus on UX?.


I think this is an interesting way to talk about products and their real value. A lot of mobile apps I’ve tried are vitamins helping me do something trivial easily. But since the problem isn’t a big one, I quickly find myself not using them anymore. That’s not to say that they won’t be successful, but it puts an increasing focus on finding a deeper problem over time. Runkeeper, for example, started out as a way to track runs but has since grown deeper into overall fitness. Evernote seemed like just a note taking tool at first but now tries to help you organize your life. This makes sense…software shouldn’t solve simpler problems over time it should solve deeper problems.

Business and values

An insightful piece by Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti: Is History Repeating Itself? in which Peretti channels David Halberstam’s book The Powers That Be, a history of the media/publishing industry. Halberstam makes the interesting observation that the stalwart news companies we’ve come to rely on were once startups themselves…the New York Times was once a fledgling company with an uncertain future. Lots of interesting bits in Peretti’s note, the following being an important point:

“There are a bunch of other examples in Halberstam’s book that suggest history is repeating itself, and we can learn lessons from these old-school media companies’ early days. For example, I noticed that all the successful companies he describes in the book built really great businesses. The publishers who ignored the business side didn’t thrive or survive for long. This might seem obvious, but the opposite was also true: Companies that only or mostly cared about business didn’t thrive either. The organizations that went on to become multibillion-dollar juggernauts built great businesses AND had values that went beyond just business.”

How to redefine a product category

Ryan Singer has written a really thoughtful post on product categories: The Category Moat.

His thesis is that product categories, those artificial groups that products get put in (for better or worse), are troublesome for innovators. He says:

“It’s natural to identify with a product category. You think “we make product management software” or “we make candy bars” because you have to explain yourself over and over. It’s always easier to use available categories than to invent new ones. It’s just like language. We speak the lexicon instead of inventing words.

But for people who want to innovate, this is a problem. Identifying with a product category is outsourcing your strategy to the past.

Should your product be in an existing category?

The reason, Singer says, is that the world really isn’t carved up into nice durable categories. He shares a story from Bob Moesta, one of the proponents of JTBD.

“Bob tells the story of a clock maker. They sell an alarm clock for small kids who started sleeping in their own room. It’s not a normal alarm clock. It has an arrow that points to whether the kid is supposed to be in bed or whether he is allowed to get up. That way he doesn’t go running into his parents’ room until after a reasonable hour.

If you think this product is a clock then it’s in the clock category in the clock aisle with a clock price. But parents who bought the clock said they would pay $100 or more for it because it keeps the kid out of their room. It’s a sleep protector.

This is a common response to product categories…try not to get pigeon-holed by them. When designing your product you want to stand out from the crowd and align with the job to be done, not the accepted category, so don’t accept the walls created by the category. And one way to do this would be to create a new product category…in this case something called a “sleep protector”.

New product categories are hard

Here is the rub. Trying to create a new product category is insanely hard. Not only do you have to build an amazing product and figure out how to deliver it, you have to come up with an entire new way to position it in the marketplace. And the reason why this is so hard is because you want your product to be seen as an amazing thing the world has never seen before, but in doing so you make it really hard to compare with an existing product. Your instincts tell you to be completely different from everything that came before…but when you do that you burden the market with figuring out what the heck you actually are.

Instead, one should attempt to redefine an existing category by changing what value the best products in the category provide (and people’s perceptions of that value). Let’s go back to the clock example. Imagine trying to explain what that new device is without using the term “alarm clock”…without using the accepted lexicon that makes the category. It would be really hard, right? Even Singer uses the term several times when he explains it.

How to position your product

That’s the key to positioning your product within a category. It’s a two step process:

  1. Place the product in an existing category.
  2. Immediately tell how your product is different.

In this case, you start by saying “this is a new alarm clock”. This uses the existing category as a frame of reference people use to immediately grok the general nature of your product. Then, and you have to do this immediately, state exactly how your product is different from others in the category. “This isn’t a normal alarm clock, it has an arm that points to when a child can leave their room”. That’s how you first create understanding and then differentiation. It’s a two step process done in consecutive, immediate steps. And it’s the best way to get people to understand your product.

Note that this isn’t redefining a product category…yet. That happens when your product becomes successful and other products are redesigned or marketed to follow suit. When there is actual change and people start thinking about the category differently (not just your product) then you can say to have redefined the category. If you position your product powerfully and this happens as a result of your new product then you will likely grow to be the leader of the redefined category.

Comparison is key

People learn by comparison. They learn by comparing new things to the things they already know. That’s why redefining a category is much easier than creating a new one. When you position your product in an existing category you’re essentially saying “it’s like something you already know but better”. When you try to create a new product category you’re essentially saying “it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before”. That’s a provocative statement, but hard to learn by.

I think it’s risky to say “this isn’t a clock so it should be in a different part of the store”. That would only be a good idea if there was an actual separate category for sleep protectors, but there isn’t…yet. So for now you actually want the product in/near the alarm clock section because the people shopping there have the same job to be done! Of course you still want to position your product as a much better solution than all the other products nearby. (and a great way to do that is how Singer did it: “This is not a normal alarm clock”. Anybody who reads that line will now give you their full attention…especially desperate parents)

The most successful products redefine a category

Also, an aside about JTBD examples. There are some interesting examples out there but think about the really killer products of the last few years. How about the Nest thermostat? Uber? The iPod/iPhone? WhatsApp? None of these products were in new categories…they debuted as amazing improvements in existing categories. And for each of them it is much easier to explain what they are using the two step process I mentioned above. Uber is a taxi service with an awesome mobile experience. Nest is a thermostat with a brain. The iPhone is probably the most sophisticated example but was described by Apple as three products in one: a phone, a web communicator (Safari), and the best iPod yet. Talk about leveraging existing categories!

Product categories are restrictive if you use them for inclusion or exclusion only. If you instead use them as starting point to orient customers and to show differentiation you can quickly teach people why your product is different. That way you’re taking advantage of the power of existing categories and also siphoning off the existing audience who is already thinking in that way. So don’t start from scratch and try to create a new category…instead try to redefine a product category to take advantage of what people already know.

Accessing the address book: why mobile apps can grow so quickly

In his post Facebook massively overpaid for WhatsApp, Albert Wenger makes an interesting assertion: “the switching cost for users on a phone number based messaging services is at or near zero”.

Think about that for a minute. People can switch these services in the blink of an eye and basically start using another one tomorrow. Wenger points out that another messaging app got 5M downloads in one day recently: Telegram:

There is one very important reason why any of this is possible: the user’s social graph is not locked away in a proprietary format. Mobile apps have access to your address book on your phone and when they start up for the first time they ask for permission. Once they have that, you can basically start typing anybody’s name and send them a message. It’s actually a great user experience.

So that’s what’s at odds here. Wenger is saying that WhatsApp doesn’t have long-term lock-in so isn’t worth $19B. That may be true, but one of the reasons why WhatsApp grew so big so fast was because it was so easy to get started from the phone’s address book. As long as iOS and Android give apps access to the address book they can and will grow to extraordinary heights very quickly.

WhatsApp’s focus on UX

Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp turned more than a few heads last week. To help explain why Facebook thought the startup was worth $19,000,000,000, Jim Goetz of Sequoia Capital wrote Four Numbers That Explain Why Facebook Acquired WhatsApp.

It’s well worth a read, and the growth numbers are just astounding:

450. WhatsApp has more than 450 million active users, and reached that number faster than any other company in history. It was just nine months ago that WhatsApp announced 200 million active users, which was already more than Twitter. Every day, more than a million people install the app and start chatting, and they remain more engaged with WhatsApp than on any other service. Incredibly, the number of daily active users of WhatsApp (compared to those who log in every month) has climbed to 72%. In contrast the industry standard is between 10% and 20%, and only a handful of companies top 50%.

WhatsApp has about 330 million people use the app every day. (with 1 million added every day). There are a lot of interesting sub-stories to this amazing growth, but just think about how important product design is here. The uptime to keep the service running under such incredible load, the onboarding process that helps 1 million people start using it per day, and the simplicity inherent in a platform that gets such return use.

Couple those numbers with the focus on providing a great user experience evident in the now famous blog post by founder Jan Koum: Why we don’t sell ads:

“When we sat down to start our own thing together three years ago we wanted to make something that wasn’t just another ad clearinghouse. We wanted to spend our time building a service people wanted to use because it worked and saved them money and made their lives better in a small way. We knew that we could charge people directly if we could do all those things. We knew we could do what most people aim to do every day: avoid ads.

“At WhatsApp, our engineers spend all their time fixing bugs, adding new features and ironing out all the little intricacies in our task of bringing rich, affordable, reliable messaging to every phone in the world. That’s our product and that’s our passion. Your data isn’t even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it.”

That’s my favorite part of the WhatsApp story…they built their amazing product by focusing on users instead of on advertisers. I wonder if that philosophy will rub off on any other big players in the social space.

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