How to Build a Great Product - Lessons from Snapchat, Slack & Instagram Pt.3

How to Build a Great Product – Lessons from Snapchat, Slack & Instagram Pt.3

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Building a great product is easier when you learn from other great products. As the saying goes, success leaves clues. This mini series will reveal to you some of these clues. Learn the best practices of product development from successful products such as Snapchat, Slack, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Then, use this knowledge and build something great.

How to Build a Great Product – Lessons from Snapchat, Slack & Instagram Part 1.

How to Build a Great Product – Lessons from Snapchat, Slack & Instagram Part 2.

Always focus on users

This should be already clear, but it is still worth mentioning it as a standalone lesson. Always focus on your users. No matter what, your users have to be your no.1 priority. This is also why we put an emphasis on building a community in the second part. Passionate and dedicated users are your biggest and most precious asset. You have to take care about them. How?

One step is being active in the community, sharing updates, helping your users and just talking with users. Another step is making your great product constantly better. This means improving the usefulness, usability and friendliness of your product. This is the upside of building a great product. One way to delight your users is to do what you are already doing.

That being said, usefulness, usability and friendliness are relative and vague terms. They can mean something different for different people. This brings us back to communicating with your users and community. When you release new update of your product, share it in the community and ask for feedback. Never wait for your users to make the first step. Do it yourself. Ask.

This way, you can find out if your assumptions about usefulness, usability and friendliness are correct. Meaning, if what you think is in line with the opinions of your users. Otherwise, you may focus on things that are not as important as you think and ignore those that are. Another way to get to this point is by using the product yourself. However, this has some limits.

If I had asked people what they wanted

Does it mean that one of the keys to creating a great product is building what people want? No. People usually don’t know what they want until they see it. Imagine you could go to the past and ask people in the 1990 if they need internet or iPad. What do you think their answer would be? They would have no idea what are you talking about. They would have no idea what to do with it.

Can you build a great product following this blueprint? Yes you can. You will create something that fits people’s current wants. However, don’t expect creating anything new, anything innovative. You have to decide. You can either build something new and innovative or you can follow people’s current wants, not both. Innovation requires leaving the beaten path and taking risks.

This is also why innovators, people like Henry Ford, Thomas A. Edison, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, never ask people what they want. Instead, they ask what they need. This is different. When you need to get from A to B, the “need” is transportation. There are many ways to fulfill this “need” such as by foot, bike, horse, car, ship, plane, teleport, cloning, VR and robot avatar.

If you are willing to take that risk, and build a great product that is also innovative, focus on people’s needs, not their current wants. Then, use people’s feedback to develop and improve your product. This way, you can bridge the gap between people’s current “wants” and your product. You show them the raw future and then polish it. Which brings us to the next lesson.

Experiment relentlessly

Many of the most successful products were results of running experiments, gathering feedback, learning and iterating. This is also known as build-measure-learn Feedback Loop that comes from the lean startup methodology. Think Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Dropbox, Slack, Tesla, iPhone, Wealthfront, Paypal, Facebook and many others.

Some of these products started as purely experimental and untested idea. Others started as part of another product. However, there is one thing all of them have in common. All these products were developed, improved and perfected through relentless experimentation. People behind these products are constantly willing to take risks, try new ideas and run experiments.

If you want to follow these example to build a great product you need to have the courage to experiment. And, you must be willing to fail. You, and your team, have to constantly look for new things to try and test. Will every experiment you try be successful? No. You will probably burn yourself a lot. You may make your users angry sometimes. This is a part of the process.

These are the downsides of this approach. Angry users, complaints in emails, community channels, forums, maybe in news and haters having fun. What are the upsides? You can create really great product. Who knows, maybe even something successful on a global scale, like Instagram, Paypal, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Slack. Are you willing to take that risk?

If so, go ahead and never look back. Just remember the build-measure-learn loop. Set up an experiment, run it, gather data, learn from the data. Then, repeat.

Silent or loud?

Is it better to run experiments with dedicated groups of users, beta testers? Or, is it better to run experiments on the “production” version of your product? The first option is definitely safer. Your users will take into account that something may go wrong and will expect it. However, some of them may become overly cautious. This can be a problem.

These users will look for anything that looks like an issue. They will be very sensitive to anything unusual. This is a good thing as it will help you improve your product. It can be also bad. It can sway your attention to issues not related to the running experiment. When you run an experiment, it is important to distinguish between correlation, causation and coincidence.

When you decide to run an experiment with group of testers it can be hard to distinguish between these three things. Beta testers are not behaving like usual user. Their job is to look for issues so they will look for them. As the saying goes, when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. For this reason, test groups are better for bigger and riskier experiments.

If you want to test smaller ideas, adjustments or features, I suggest testing on “production” version of your product. The data you will get will be cleaner and less biased. What about angry users? Quick response, apology and fixing the problem fast will take care of all the majority of complaints. Just don’t lose enthusiasm. Building a great product is a bumpy road.

Dominate small pond before expanding

This is one of the lessons I learned first from Zero to One, book by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters. You have to think big, but start small. It is okay if you want to build a great product that will dominate the whole industry, or even the world. However, this is not the place where you want to start. In the beginning, you have to scale down as much as you can.

Probably the best example of a great product that followed this path is Facebook. Founders of Facebook initially allowed access only to Harvard students. You could have an account only if you studied on Harvard. This may seem like focusing on too small group of users. However, where is Facebook today? 2.20 billion monthly active Facebook users for Q1 2018.

Facebook started with very small group of people, a niche. Then, it focused on dominating it. And, only after achieving domination at this group Facebook started to expand and started accepting students from other schools. However, it wasn’t a “from Harvard to the world” type of expansion. Instead, Facebook always added just one major school, and then another one.

I suggest following the same approach. Scale down. Get very specific with the problem you are solving and your product, i.e. the solution. Figure out the smallest group of people your product can help. Then, focus on dominating this group of users. Dominate first and only then expand. And, when you decide to expand, do it slowly. Start with users that were the second “best fit”.

This way, you will slowly and steadily build community of passionate users while staying focused. This may seem slow, but don’t let it discourage you. Building a great product successful on a global scale takes time. Remember the example of Facebook. It started on Harvard. Today, it is the biggest social network, and probably also media company, in the world. Start small and dominate.

Be willing to pivot

This is the final lesson we can apply when we build a great product. Sometimes it can happen that what we thought can be a great idea for a product just doesn’t work. This is the most visible symptom of this problem. Users are not using our product as we thought. It doesn’t matter that we are doing what we can to promote our product on almost all channels. The engagement is not there.

When this situation happen, it is time to start asking these two questions. First, are we solving the right problem? Second, do we have the right solution? When users are not engaging with the product, when they are not using it, the answer on one of these questions will be no. If this is true, it might be time to stop what you are doing. It is time for pivot.

A great product that is not used, or only barely, is still a waste of time, energy and money. I assure you that there is nothing bad on making the decision to do a pivot. In a fact, pivot can be that action that can help you find the correct path and build a great product. This can be hard to believe. What if I told you that some of the most successful products were results of pivots?

Successful pivots to successful products

Have you ever heard about that social network, and now also media and news channel, Twitter? Well, Twitter started as something completely different, something very far from social network. In the beginning, Evan Williams was working on podcasting company called Odeo. It was then when Jack Dorsey proposed his idea of SMS based communication platform.

Evan decided to give the project free rein and let Jack work on it. He called this project “twttr”. Today, millions of people use this the result of this project on a daily basis. We call it “Twitter”. Another example of successful pivot is image and video hosting service Flicker. Flicker was founded by Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake but not as what it is today.

In the beginning, Flicker was a part of MMO game called “Neverending”. After sometimes, it was obvious to Stewart and Caterina that “Neverending” doesn’t work. That project was a dead end. However, there was one feature users really liked, a photo exchange. They decided to take this feature and continue with it as a standalone product. This product became what we know today as Flicker.

The last example of a pivot that led to another great product we today call a unicorn. This great product we are talking about is Slack. Chances are you probably heard about this product a well. In the beginning, started as a solution to solve a pain Stewart Butterfield (yes, Flicker) and his team had. Interesting thing. Slack’s origins are also related to game, like Flicker.

Back then, Steward was working on his next company called Tiny Speck. The project he and his team was pursuing was a Glitch, another MMO game. What was the pain Steward and his team had? They needed some tool for internal communication. After time, this tool showed a promise and Stewart decided to make a pivot. He stopped working on Glitch and focused solely on what we now know as Slack.

Two more thing. First, Stewart’s company Tiny Speck still exists. Today, it is called “Slack Technologies, Inc.” Yes, Tiny Speck became Slack. Second, for those of you interested in what the name “Slack” stands for, it “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge”.

Back to the drawing board … or napkin

As we could see on the examples above, the initial idea doesn’t always lead to a great product. Sometimes, a great product is a result of making a pivot and changing the course. Word of caution. This doesn’t mean you should pivot every time you hit an obstacle, user’s engagement or traction of your product fluctuate for a while. This can happen, happens and will happen. Get used to it.

Do you remember those two questions? Are you solving the right problem? Do you have the right solution? Sit down with your team, or just yourself if you are a one-man show, and ask these questions. Then, think about the answers. Take your time. Don’t rush it. Making a pivot is a serious decision. You have to consider if what you see is a long-term trend or just a short-term hiccup.

Fortunately, this is usually easy to distinguish. All you need is data. Watch the behavior of your users over a longer period of time. Focus rather on longer time segments such as weeks and months. Look for the same pattern, i.e. low engagement, in a number of consecutive weeks or months. If you find this pattern it is a good idea to start thinking about some intervention.

When we talk about an intervention that doesn’t mean pivot. Sometimes, there is another way to solve the root cause of the problem. Revisit your marketing strategy and the way you promote your product. Take a look at the analytics and social media reports. Finally, reach to your community and ask for feedback. Maybe you have a great product, but are not pushing it enough.

Closing thoughts on how to build a great product

This is the end of this third part. It is also end of this mini series about building a great product. I hope you enjoyed mini series and learned something from those ten lessons we discussed. Now it is up to you to take what you’ve learned and apply it. Find existing problem, come up with solution, test it and build a great product.

One last thing. Remember that every great product started small. So, yes have ambitions to build something that will dominate the world. However, start by building something small. Focus on small group of users and build the best product for them. Passionate and dedicated users are necessary for success of your product. So, take care of them as best as you can. Then, expand slowly.

Do you have any questions, recommendations, thoughts, advice or tip you would like to share with other readers of this blog, and me? Great! Please share it in a comment. Or, if you want to keep things more "private", feel free to contact me on twitter or send me a mail. I would love to hear from you.

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