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6 Best Product Lessons from Slush Stages

Need inspiration for building great products? Here are six curated lessons from Slush stage talks across the years, ranging from topics like P/M fit, MVP, and customer onboarding to using psychology in product design.

 

Something extraordinary is just around the corner… In anticipation of those goodies, here are some of the best lessons collected from Slush stage talks on product. We’ll take you on a journey through different aspects of what makes a great product, when you should launch your MVP, when you know your product has really made it, and how to use other methods like customer onboarding and community building to ensure the continuing success of your product. 

Lesson #1: Products don’t change core human needs; they reduce the friction inherent in solving existing ones

Lesson #2: Put the human at the center of product development – use psychology to your advantage

Lesson #3: MVPs – be clear about what you’re testing and when you should test it

Lesson #4: Finding the coveted P/M fit – be a cockroach and don’t get too fixated on one idea

Lesson #5: Designing customer onboarding success

Lesson #6: How to make people fall in love with your community

Lesson #1: Products don’t change core human needs; they reduce the friction inherent in solving existing ones

“Human needs rarely change, while solutions always change.” – Des Traynor, Co-founder of Intercom

 

What human need are you responding to? Let’s get the fundamentals right. When designing any product, the starting question should be what problem the product is solving. According to Intercom‘s Des Traynor, the constant in the product equation is human needs: “For as long as people have existed, we’ve wanted to write long boring stories. In the old days, we would hire people to write them on scrolls. Today, we write them on Medium”. 

Use technology to streamline the process of responding to the need. Twitter Co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey echoes the human need-perspective: “take a human desire that has been around for a long time and use modern technology to take out steps.” If you look at the most successful tech companies – particularly in the consumer space – they are perennially taking the same human needs and solving them through emerging technologies. As Tinder’s former VP Product Ankur Jain notes, in their case, that happened to be mobile, but ten years ago, there was a different version of Tinder. 

Focus on product fluidity in solving the problem, word of mouth will follow. The core question to ask yourself is this: “Does this new technology make it cheaper, faster, or easier for our customers to make progress in their lives?” Tinder’s Chief Product Officer Brian Norgard emphasizes simplicity especially in the beginning. After identifying the need, focus on building a great, fluid, and simple product first – this will help you get word of mouth working to your advantage. Word of mouth is much higher if you reduce the friction inherent in solving a core human need than if you try to create a problem for your product to solve. The ideal situation you should get to is producing the ‘wrist twist’-effect: making a product so addictive and fun that people would quite literally twist their friend’s wrist to make them look at it.

Let your product evolve with the times – don’t fall in love with your solution. Des Traynor contends that tectonic shifts in the tech space show just why you need to fall in love with your product, not your solution. Telecoms were obsessed with the idea that they are SMS companies that exist to send SMSs. When Whatsapp came along and solved the underlying need, “help me connect with my friends” much better, the global SMS infrastructure got annihilated in the space of three years.

 

 

Lesson #2: Put the human at the center of product development – use psychology to your advantage 

Using cognitive science and psychology in UX. Ultimately, how users experience your product takes place in their minds. The important takeaway is this: human brains don’t work rationally and systematically – you need to design products for our sometimes irrational and disorderly brains. As Fortnite Game UX Consultant Celia Hodent showcased at Slush 2019, we’re guided and limited by our perception, memory, and attention; three things you should keep in mind when designing your product.

perception=subjective

attention=scarce 

memory=fallible 

  • Perception.  As a construct of the mind, our perception is by nature subjective. It depends on prior knowledge and changes depending on the context. It isn’t therefore certain that what you intend for a product, in Fortnite’s case, a game, is what people are going to see. This is why you need to test early on. 
  • Memory. Memory is fallible and ultimately an inaccurate reconstruction. We also forget a bunch of stuff – alleviating memory load is therefore an essential feature in a product.
  • Attention. Attention is scarce, so it is crucial to pace out changes so that they aren’t overwhelming. 

 

Keeping these limitations in mind, Fortnite has designed their games with the framework:

Game UX= Usability + Engage-ability. Here usability refers to people understanding the goal and what they need to be doing. On the other hand, engage-ability relates to the motivations users have to play the game and learn the things that need to be learned to play and master it. 

Harnessing intrinsic motivation

Superhuman’s CEO and Founder Rahul Vohra has been thinking along the same lines; they have deliberately employed game design principles in their product, to tap into human motivation and help business software feel like play. Roughly speaking, human motivation can be divided into two categories, intrinsic and extrinsic. The latter refers to the kind that essentially depends on earning rewards. But as it happens, creating extrinsic reward structures tends to undermine intrinsic motivation. 

The critical thing to focus on then is intrinsic motivation, which is why Vohra argues that we should focus on game design rather than gamification. He shared five key factors in game design; goals, emotions, controls, toys, and flow. From these, he drew seven lessons we should use to tap into intrinsic motivation and make truly great products. 

 

1. Goals: A defining feature of games; need to be concrete (clear inbox), achievable (onboarding and teaching shortcuts), and rewarding (inbox zero=a sense of triumph)

  • Lesson 1: Create goals that are concrete, achievable, and rewarding

 

2. Emotions: Best games create strong emotions, as they are the foundation of our memory. To do this, you need to be able to analyze emotions, and you need a vocabulary for them. One of Rahul’s examples of such tools was Plutchick’s wheel

  • Lesson 2: Design for nuanced emotions 

 

3. Controls: Controls can be the #1 reason why a game succeeds. The idea of video game controls is to make them feel seamless so that you can drive them as hard and as fast as you want to without the motion breaking.  

  • Lesson 3: Design controls that aren’t just rapid but also robust

 

4. Toys: Best games are built out of toys because then they are fun on multiple levels: both at the level of the toy as well as at the level of the game itself. With Superhuman, the toy is the time auto-completer, which is fun because it encourages playful exploration.  

  • Lesson 4: Create fun toys and then assemble them into games

 

5. Flow

“Flow is a state of mind, intense and focused concentration on the present. It is so absorbing that we don’t worry about the past or think about the future; it is so demanding that we don’t care about what others think about us; it is so easy that we always know what to do next; it is so powerful that it alters our subjective experience of time; time can either flash by in an instant or stretch out to infinity. Flow is so rewarding that our activities become intrinsically motivating – the most powerful and effective form of motivation”.

How do you create flow? Conditions: 1) users must always know what to do next 2) they must always know how to do it 3) users must be free from distractions because disruptions take away from our attention 4) users need clear and immediate feedback 5) users must feel a balance between high-perceived skill and high-perceived challenge – neither too high nor too low, which means that sometimes we have to make the goals of our products harder to achieve.

  • Lesson 5: Users must always know what to do next and how to do it 
  • Lesson 6: Users must be free from distractions and receive clear and immediate feedback 
  • Lesson 7: Balance high-perceived skill with high-perceived talent

 

 

Lesson #3: MVPs – be clear about what you’re testing and when you should test it

“It’s good to get a feel of how people react to your product – even if the feedback is negative, it will help you build a better product.” – Edith Harbaugh, CEO and Co-founder of LaunchDarkly

As the concept of minimum viable product (MVP) has been popularized with the emergence of the lean startup movement, one question often comes up: should you keep your secrets safe or build out in the open? LaunchDarkly’s Edith Harbaugh doesn’t think you should build your product in stealth mode, but to tell everyone about your product and find anyone who could be interested in trying it out. And any kind of reaction is a better reaction than indifference, according to Chad Fowler, former General Manager for Startups at Microsoft: “Creating something people hate is much better than creating something people don’t really care about.”

Varjo’s Tiina Nieminen describes building products as striking a tedious balance between perfection and time to market. Every step of the way, you should feel mildly embarrassed about what you’ve created. No one tends to be completely happy with their end product: “I’m yet to meet a product person who’s completely happy with the end product – this just means that your vision was bold enough, and along the way you managed to make tough trade-offs.”

 

….But when launching an MVP, be deliberate about what you’re testing.

Nieminen is a strong proponent of failing fast to succeed sooner. Build a prototype as fast as you can, but be very deliberate about what you’re trying to learn through a particular iteration. Whether you are building a mockup, a proof of concept (POC), or an MVP, this is important. Are you…

  • …trying to de-risk a core technology
  • …building an MVP with your customers to get rid of noise and get clarity on what you should be doing

 

How much ‘minimum’ should there be in the MVP? 

In other words, can you come out with a maximum viable product? While Harbaugh and Fowler think it’s possible to come out with a massive launch, often you need at least some iterations. The feedback you gain from the build-measure-learn cycle is the fuel to the fire of the product development process (the good kind). Big launches may be better suited for making a big marketing splash – not necessarily optimal for product development. 

 

….nevertheless, your vision as a founder is what ultimately defines what ‘level’ of MVP is right for your product.

In 2012 when Canva was making preparations for launching their product, they faced a lot of pressure from investors to put out an MVP as the lean startup movement was raging. But what is the minimal thing that you can put out that will be successful? Canva decided to take a whole year instead of the quite usual three or six months to polish their product into something that they knew was good enough for them. Whatever is MVP for you is particular to your product and market. While customer feedback is essential, you need to balance it with your vision – only you know when you’re ready to launch an MVP and whether it will actually be helpful to you.

 

Launching an MVP is an excellent way to iterate, but it is not the only one. You can also work on smaller iterations without launching the product. Canva did this with their onboarding, focusing on the onboarding experience and trying out various technical hacks to optimize the process before they launched the product in its entirety. 

 

 

Lesson #4: Finding the coveted P/M fit – be a cockroach and don’t get too fixated on one idea

 

The actual goal of the whole MVP-iteration dynamic and the ‘build-measure-learn’-cycle is to get to the holy grail of every startup: the product-market fit (P/M fit). In terms of revenue (for SaaS companies specifically), this point in the startup journey is usually associated with the ‘impossible’ stage from 0-1M in revenue – where around 80% of startups fail.  

0-1M…impossible; 0-1M  is the impossible stretch because that’s the P/M fit stage where 80% or more companies fail.

1-10M…improbable; 1-10M is a brutal grind for founders, you have real customers, but you can’t yet hire a world-class executive team.

10-100M…inevitable; By the time you get to 10M, you’ll have so much momentum behind you that you’re going to make it eventually.

The questions that startup founders constantly ask themselves are: 1) how do you reach P/M fit and 2) how do you know you’ve actually reached it? Here’s what Segment’s Peter Reinhardt had to say.

 

You need to be a cockroach when searching for P/M fit 

Being a cockroach doesn’t sound too appealing? What this means is that you need to maximize your shots on target. Be frugal to stretch your runway and have more space to test as many ideas as possible to move yet another inch closer to the iteration that paves your way to success. Build, launch, and test several product ideas – improve the odds as much as possible. Some notions: 

 

  • P/M fit is encoded in success, not failure. Here the traditional wisdom doesn’t necessarily hold – to succeed, you needn’t fail. In fact, according to Reinhardt, succeeding at finding product fit once improves your chances from 22% to 34%, whereas failing has no such impact.   
  • You need to know how to throw away failures fast enough. Segment had two major ideas before they actually discovered their holy-grail-iteration by accident.
  • Don’t get too attached to your initial idea. The product that finally carries you to success might be something completely different from what you envisioned initially. Segment’s product ended up spinning off from a tool they had developed to aggregate data from Google Analytics, Kissmetrics, and Mixpanel. 

 

How you know you’ve reached it: The P/M fit magical state

Now, what does that feel like? According to Reinhardt, every single thing in your business goes crazy. Rather than just surviving, P/M fit suddenly makes everything easier. People suddenly want to work for you; customers want to help your company; investors care; your focus as a founder shifts from P/M fit to go-to-market growth. As Reinhardt would put it, P/M fit turns you from a cockroach into a uniroach:  

“Product-market fit doesn’t feel like idle interest; it doesn’t feel like a glimmer of hope from a random conversation with a prospect. It feels like everything in your business is suddenly going haywire, it feels like a proud rush of adrenaline that people actually care, it feels like actually a little bit of a loss of control because customers are telling you what they want, and it’s no longer necessarily as much about your vision”.

 

Lesson #5: Designing customer onboarding success

“Customer onboarding might just be your most important growth strategy” — Casey Winters, Chief Product Officer at Eventbrite

 

For most products, a plurality of churn happens at the very beginning; people try your product once and never come back. Because of this, Eventbrite‘s Casey Winters contends that, for a lot of companies, improving customer onboarding is the most significant individual driver of user retention. Because those retained users are prone to bring on others, onboarding may just be your most important driver of acquisition as well. “Most scalable strategies for acquiring new users have to do with retained users bringing on others,” Casey says. “Either they tell other people, and the product goes viral, or they create content that you can distribute.”

Onboarding was similarly key to Canva’s success, according to their Co-founder Cameron Adams. Since their users weren’t designers themselves, they could be wary of making changes in the design. Effective onboarding was crucial in giving users the confidence in their abilities and the courage to use the software – after all, you can’t get your users hooked on your product if they’re too afraid to use it.

So, how do you actually design an onboarding process?

According to Casey, your users are in the onboarding phase until they’ve formed a habit out of using your product. Take an initial cohort of users and follow it over time. The point at which you stop losing people from the cohort is your ‘habit moment’. To get to it, you need to figure out three things:

    1. Key action – what is the user action that best correlates with a user realizing they’ve received value from your product?
    2. Designated frequency – how often will a user want to receive that value?
    3. Retention interval – how many times does a user need to complete the key action at the designated frequency for them to form a habit?

 

Lesson #6: How to make people fall in love with your community 

“As an entrepreneur, you should be a community-builder first” – Eros Resmini, Former CMO at Discord 

 

Onboarding alone may not be sufficient for retention and acquisition – people need to not only fall in love with your product but also the community you’re building. Creating a community and authentic relationships with your users can be a much more economical way to acquire and especially retain customers than pouring money into social media ads. Here are some keys to cracking the community building code: 

 

1. Back to MVP – start early: Community building starts before you even launch your product. You don’t want to launch your product before it’s ready, but it’s also essential to get customers’ sentiments well before you launch and start building a community from the day you have your idea. Creating your community around an MVP early on can attract your first superfans and get people talking about your product before you launch. 


This will naturally be dependent on the type of product you have – B2B companies, in general, may not have the same impetus for early community-building. There are notable exceptions, like Slack, however. 

 

2. Importance of intuition and founder-product-community fit. If you’re not already a part of the community you’re building for, maybe you’re building the wrong product. Former Discord CMO Eros Resmini emphasizes the importance of the ‘founder-product-fit’; if you’ve experienced the problem or have passion for it, you’re going to understand some nuance around solving the problem that others won’t. This is not a novel notion in itself – but can also be applied to the context of community building. Passion provides the necessary intuition for community building, and also helps you put up with the messed-up times where someone else would rather throw in the towel. 

 

Community intuition is crucial for eventually scaling community through more technical processes of defining KPIs and measuring them, hiring, and how to build teams to work on these questions. The focus is on scaling the community the founder already knows; while others can help with more technical aspects, community intuition is in the driver’s seat. In the earlier stages, it can also be useful for the founder themself to actively take part in the community, especially if this is something that comes naturally to them. 

 

3. Accelerating the growth of a small but promising budding community. The secret isn’t more spending on ads, but maintaining the health of the community in a consistent way. 

 

3.1 Make sure your users have a good experience. If someone has a bad experience they won’t come back – this will show in engagement metrics. An integral part of a good experience is community moderation.

  • You should have a set of values that you operate by both internally and externally; these values should inform your community guidelines. Guidelines should be put in place early on, and it’s good to get input from your key community members. This way you can avoid blindspots in the guidelines, and it helps you facilitate a sense of ownership that ensures you’ll have advocates within the community when problems arise. 
  • Be consistent in how you address issues, and make sure you address the behavior and not the individual. 

3.2 Reward your community, especially the members who are helping in building the community. Your super users spreading the word, moderating, or answering questions are supplementing the customer experience for everyone. 

3.3 Have fun with your users. Today’s consumer expects to have a relationship with the platform or product – get playful.

 

4. When should you use paid acquisition rather than community building to grow? The balance between these two may vary not only between types of startups but also across growth stages. Resmini maintains that early on, paid acquisition is more suited to test what works, not to scale, which is better driven by organic community-based growth. “We didn’t get into any meaningful level of paid advertising until year 5 of the company. Almost 100% of our growth was through organic community growth and influencers.”

Influencer marketing falls somewhere between traditional paid ads and community-building. For Discord, during initial growth, they observed organically that some influencers were using their product. Ultimately, they started collaborating with them. Why? It’s important you get people who are genuinely in love with your product to talk about it to others. They’ll be the ones who can give the best feedback that ‘actually makes sense’ and taps into more complex aspects of your product. This way, you can build business relations for the right reasons and with significant added value. 

 

5. How do you track the performance of your community-building online? Every company, community, platform, and team is different. Measuring performance therefore isn’t simple, but you should be looking at metrics at the community level that make sense in the context of your business. You’ll need these to build your own understanding and justify resource allocation to your investors as opposed to a simple conversation on ad spend. Then how do you determine what these metrics are?

Look at engagement: What are your key interactions? You need to determine the most valuable interactions relative to the success of your product – whether that be users talking about product features, users talking to each other, users giving feedback, or something else. Once you’ve determined what these key interactions are, you can develop a spreadsheet math problem on what number of impressions is needed to be successful and how you can reach them within a set time frame. 

 

 

For some more lessons this December 1-2, or if you’d rather not wait, sign up for Node by Slush.