Imagine you walk into that customer meeting, or come pitch us at Bloomberg Beta, and it’s time to show off what you’ve built.
So you start, where else, at the homepage of the site, or the home screen of the app, often using a demo account of a user enjoying the product… and chances are, if you’ve done your job well, that site or app is compelling.
Problem is, we’re already lost.
Because we’re people before we’re investors, or customers. And that means we’re imagining how we would experience your product, as a real user in the wild.
You, who have thought about this service 10,000 times more than we, arrive at that homepage with all kinds of context. You know why everything is there. We, seeing it for the first time, are usually just overwhelmed.
Demoing a product by starting with the home page (or, actually, starting anywhere on the website or in the app) is like a realtor showing you a house starting in the living room. What is this place? Why am I here? What is that funky sculpture?
This way of demoing seems backward. (Maybe we should rename home pages to something more accurate — they’re for experts, not beginners.)
Consider, instead, walking through the front door — having come from somewhere, paid attention to the neighborhood, the cars on the street, the front porch.
Start with the first moment a user might learn of your product — maybe it’s an email invite, or a text from a friend, or a notification of a forced install from their IT department, or they heard about the app from someone. Then show what that first-user experience looks like.
Better yet, invite us ahead of time so we can see it for ourselves. Let me explore, and in our demo ask me questions, delight me with elements I’ve missed, or tell me about other users doing cool things.
Yes, like a cooking show, you’re entitled to can some things to save time (example: skip the sign-up mechanics or, if you like, or show off your craftsmanship of an elegant sign-up flow).
If you think about the demo this way, you’ll gradually open the eyes of your audience so that when you do arrive at the actual service, they’ll be more likely to have that ah! moment.
And this goes beyond just the demo: most of us think of the entire product as what’s really only the “interior” of the house — the features, look, and flow of your site or app. We might be better served thinking of the product as including the “exterior” of how users will encounter it in the course of their day (the recommended text for sharing on Twitter, the email invites, etc.). We often think of that exterior as merely marketing, something to be added after.
One of our portfolio companies had this realization recently, when thinking about their daily email to users summarizing the insights produced by the service — something they’d created, as many emails are, to get you to click over to their website. But users love the emails so much they may never need to visit the site at all. As the founder said, “it turns out the email is the product.” [Update: This is ThinkUp and, in their continuing openness, they had shared this themselves.] Newsle, a personal news service in which we’re investors, focused almost exclusively on email at first and is only now really tapping their web presence.
Everything a user experiences about your service, inside the walls of your app or out, is part of the product. Put differently, the product isn’t the features you’ve built or code written, but the experience the user has with it. Some people would, correctly, simply call this “good design.”
To be clear, many products suceed despite an awful first-user experience or invitation flow. League of Legends, a beloved (if difficult!) PC game, tortures you before you get to play (interminably long download, etc.). Yet gamers have heard so many good things before they start that download that they’re willing to tolerate pain. So, your reputation with potential users is part of “the product,” too.
If you come in to demo to us, I hope you’ll consider walking us through the front door. Essays like this are part of how we create a context for you before you arrive, as is Bloomberg Beta’s full internal operating manual posted in public. The person who introduced you to me did the same for you. Why not give your product the same treatment…
P.S. While I was drafting this, my wife was sitting next to me. I asked her to look it over, and handed her my laptop. Before she started reading, her first question was “where will you post this?” She knew the reader’s context would differ depending on whether this piece was hanging in the living room or the front hall.