Building for consumer web? Tap into an existing user need.

Since I’ve been building for consumer web, it has been interesting to study past products and piece together characteristics of successful products. To date, I’ve written on simplicity and unboundedness in consumer products.

A third common characteristic is that they fulfill existing user needs. This may seem obvious, but isn’t always an easy thing to realize; especially for an ex-academic who likes to think up of novel things.

I spent the first 12-13 months of entrepreneurship trying to figure out how to get people to spend more time thinking about their life purpose, goals, and values. This sounds like an awesome mission, but there is a huge problem here. At the end of the day, reflecting on one’s life purpose, goals, and values isn’t a common user behavior. It isn’t something people need during their day. Thus, building a product for this user behavior was always an uphill battle.

In consumer web, it is best to plug straight into an existing user need. Novelty is OK, but in many cases, it is unnecessary. You want a simple solution that solves the user’s problem and then gets out of the way.

Here are a few behaviors, and startups that address them:

  • Need for information: Google, Bing, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Yelp
  • Need for connection: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat
  • Need for expression: Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, Instagram
  • Need to collecting things: Pinterest (could be information too)
  • Need for entertainment: Youtube, Pandora
  • Need to purchase/sell: Amazon, eBay, Craigslist

Most of the large consumer sites tap right into an existing user need. These are all needs that many people have on a daily basis. In fact, we will pay for them. We will pay for access to information, better ways to communicate/connect, tools for expression, etc. The best products tap into this existing need, and make it easier for the user to satisfy their need.

If you are building a consumer web product, ask yourself:

  1. What specific need am I solving for the user?
  2. How important is this need?

You need to be honest with yourself with both of them, but especially question #2. I made the mistake by answering question #2 with how important I thought the need was. The user doesn’t care how important I think it is. They only care about how important they think it is. Big difference.

(Photo credit: Mark Probst/flickr)

P.S. This is post number #53 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.

Or, check out my current project: Soulmix.

Unboundedness in consumer web products

Recently, I wrote about the importance of simplicity in consumer web design. Most big consumer web apps seem to have only a few concepts at their core. This makes some sense. The simplicity focuses a product, and makes it easy for new users to understand.

Simplicity is great, but what other properties make a great consumer product?

Another interesting property could be the boundedness of the product. Looking through the Alexa Top Sites, many top consumer web products have an unbounded feeling as you use them.

Here are some examples:

  • Google/Baidu/Live/Bing: unbounded search queries
  • Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter: unbounded potential connections & messages
  • Youtube: unbounded videos to watch
  • Yahoo/QQ: unbounded portal of news
  • Wikipedia: unbounded portal of knowledge
  • Amazon/Taobao/eBay: unbounded marketplace of products and/or reviews
  • Blogger/Wordpress: unbounded content to read
  • Tumblr/Pinterest: unbounded content to explore and repost
  • Instagram/Snapchat: unbounded images to create

Obviously, having a useful/interesting/fun app is first priority. But beyond that, the feeling of unboundedness is very important. It means unbounded future engagement with the product, something any product designer strives for. Combine this will simplicity, you have a killer product: one that is simple to understand but allows for infinite possibilities.

Are you designing a web app?

Here are three good questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do users find your app useful, interesting, and/or fun?
  2. Is the app built around a small set of simple concepts? Even better, is the combinations of simple concepts new?
  3. Do these simple concepts enable unbounded engagement?

If you answer ‘yes’ to all three, you might be in good shape

I’ve love to add to this list. If anyone has any good suggestions, let me know!

P.S. This is post number #37 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.

Check out my current project Soulmix.

Consumer web: focus on two concepts

Following the last post on how life is simple, it has been starting to dawn on me that consumer web design is also simple.

I don’t mean it is simple to think of something and get traction. I just mean simple in design.

This is for good reason.

When a new user reaches a website, everything is new. If you do a good job with design, and if the user is interested, they might learn a few concepts.

Sites with one concept seem to be rare. You should hope to get across at least two concepts. The two concepts needed usually turn out to be (1) a data format, and (2) an interaction with respect to the data.

Here are some examples of early products:

  • Twitter: tweets, and follows
  • Reddit: posts, upvotes
  • WordPress: blog posts, follows
  • Tumblr: blog posts, and reblogs (follows could be a third)
  • Myspace/Facebook: profiles, and friending (the wall messages is a third)
  • Pinterest: Pins and repins (with board, and maybe follows)
  • Yelp: Places and comments
  • Instagram: Picture art, and share
  • Snapchat: Picture art, and temporary share

Pay attention to your product’s data format and main interaction. It seems that these concepts define what your product will fundamentally become. If you can’t get the site off the ground with these concepts, you may not have a good product. If you find yourself white-boarding or coding something with more concepts, you might want to reconsider.

A good number of startups in the short list above seem to have something that could be considered a third concept. If you have one, it should add a lot to your product. For example, people love to curate boards on Pinterest. Writing on Facebook walls were pretty popular back in the days.

Also, from the inconclusive list above, it seems like each combination of concepts ultimately becomes dominated by the one startup that executes it well. By dominating, I mean that this startup is usually serves the general user well and covers many (if not all) niches.

Be sure to clearly define your few concepts. If they are the same as another startup (particularly one who is winning already), be careful. You probably don’t want to clone it unless you have a good idea of how you are going to be different. It could be execution. Facebook beat Myspace because of how its execution influenced the community. It could be tweaking the product. As Andrew Chen says, it may be good to clone 80% of a startup as long as you tweak 20% of the product. One way is to tweak one of the concepts in a fundamental way so that your product changes. This would be the best. A second is to cater to a particular niche and add product features for that niche. If you do this, you can still succeed, but you most likely will never get as big as the main startup that dominates your combination of concepts.

In general, this is good news for consumer web product designers. Keep it simple, and focus on your two (or three) fundamental concepts.

How do you think about consumer web products? Simplifying consumer products has helped me begin reasoning about different products. I would love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. This is post number #34 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.

Do you like to ponder life? You might like Soulmix.