Every user is selfish and lazy in the first 15 seconds. They need to see a product's value right up front.
User experience — not the underlying technology — makes or breaks a product, according to Scott Belsky, partner at Benchmark Capital.
We have several driving human tendencies that shape our perception of products, said Belsky in a keynote address at CB Insights’ Innovation Summit. These include the drive to save time, to accomplish more with less effort, to get recognized, and to look good. Technology can capitalize on these drives.
Social apps, for example, keep us engaged by leveraging our desire to be recognized and look good.
“It’s ego analytics,” Belsky said. “If you actually look at the analytics of these products, you realize people aren’t going in to see their friends’ content. They’re going in to see what people are doing with the content they post. Social consumer products are as much about seeing who saw your content, as they are about sharing and seeing others’ content.”
When are users the most selfish?
In the first fifteen seconds, Belsky explained.
It’s key for product teams to make sure consumers see a clear, personal value proposition upfront, or else they risk losing interest. Therefore, understanding the user experience of a product is one of the most important things startups can do. And they need to do it continuously over time, rather than just during early product launches.
The demographics of new users change over time — for example, a product might initially attract more tech savvy users, who don’t need as much explanation about how a product works. But a year later there’s a different demographic that doesn’t necessarily understand the process.
Companies often fall into the trap of catering to their power users, rather than new users, according to Belsky. They might add new features that create complexity, try to use terminology that new users don’t understand, or market to power users rather than new users.
“Adopt familiar patterns whenever possible,” he said. “Users love flocking to simple products.” The problem is when companies then start adding features to satisfy their power users, and things get complicated.”
The best products, he said, are 90% accommodating and 10% retraining. Startups should base most of their user experience off familiar behavior patterns, and only push users to learn one or two new things that create real value for the product.
“The biggest mistake in a new product is to ignore human tendencies and take users’ time for granted.”
So I was on a team asked me if I could come and talk about product. And specifically why some products are able to engage users, and sustain engagement over time, whereas most cannot. And I always find it interesting in the technology world that we focus so much on the technology, and we forget oftentimes that products typically fail or succeed based on the user’s experience of the technology, and not the technology itself. And I’m sure we’ve all seen products that had very questionable stacks underneath. but through a great superior user experience, get away with it. And we also see the opposite. We see some great technologists build great companies that don’t have that user experience, and then suffer, can be killed over time as a result.
So I think it’s worthy of talking. and I figured I would just start with a brief summary of my own product experience a little bit, but then just jump into some insights, really making the case that the more human your approach to product, the more humans you’ll engage. And as investors I think this is something that we all have to look and question and help entrepreneurs with more often. So let’s see if the slides actually work, great. So this is the myth of a product journey, which is that it’s really exciting at the conception stage, then reality kicks in, and then it’s kind of a linear progression, hopefully up into the right. When in fact the reality is a little bit more like this. called the relative joy of building. Which is really just a series of peaks and valleys, incremental failures and successes, and you have to kind of endure those valleys and optimize the peaks. And when you think about this as the journey that a lot of entrepreneurs and teams go through, and you start to apply some of the implications of this, you realize it’s in the beginning you think you have a plan, and then of course it’s through this journey and the volatility that you realize you can’t really plan. You have to make it up as you go you. You are very self-reliant at the beginning, and then you become much more reliant on your team, as you realize how much you don’t know.
And another implication is that in the beginning, this is where you have these simple solutions to complex problems that make your product very competitive, and then over time as you start to have this volatility you start to throw in solutions that add complexity. And often times that’s where products go awry. So with that sort of concept of the journey that a lot of us either help entrepreneurs go through, or go through ourselves, that’s some of the context for this notion, of we just wanna aspire for a positive slope right. You wanna endure the valleys, optimize the peaks, and hopefully again have a positive slope as a net of it all.
So a quick intro, just to give you some sense of where some of these ideas come from. So the first phase of my career was building this company called Behance, which is really meant to organize and empower the creative world. And actually we bootstrapped our company for five years, by making paper products. I guess it was sort of the equivalent of other companies like Airbnb making cereal, or other ways to just kind of pay the bills before you have venture investment. And then over the years we became very focused in helping creative individuals, and teams get empowered and manage their industry, or manage themselves and their industry. Behance is a network that’s approaching now 10 million people around the world, showcasing their work, and the company was acquired by Adobe in 2012.
So over the course of Behance building products for creative professionals to manage their careers, to get jobs for companies, to find creative talent. The sort of the takeaway for me was that more companies than ever before are mission centric and medium agnostic. They’re actually able to whether it’s through a conference, or through content, or through technology accomplish their mission and create these sort of well rounded brands. I think we’re seeing more companies emerge like that. The second phase of my career was at Adobe for three years making creativity mobile, and that was one of the mandates that was given to me, aside from overseeing Behance. And so that was a series of mobile products that actually connect the creative process from Mobile to the desktop.
And I think that if I were to summarize the take away from that part of my product experience, was this notion of making products that are powerful enough for professionals, but accessible for anyone. And that was really all about the interface and all about the on-boarding, and the first mile of a user experience that could be relevant to all of us. But could also bring a very professional creative to the point where they can actually use us for professional purposes. The third part of my career in product has really been helping other teams. So this is as an investor and in trying to find out my overlap, where I wanna work with teams that are designed centric, I wanna help products that promote some sort of meritocracy. And value this what I like to call The Interface Layer in technology, where it’s really competing on the user experience more than anything else.
And so really fun and exciting teams I have gotten to work with over the years from the seed stage that I’ve learned a lot from. And one most recent example was the team Periscope that got acquired by Twitter. Where join them before they’re kind of pivot into a video product, and dealing with them a lot around the live video space, and how to make something that is engaging to a lot of people, and hopefully can sustain some foreign engagement over time. And I think the takeaway from this third phase so far has been you gotta be willing to toss the playbook sometimes. Especially when you’re building a product for humans and humans tendencies change.
So let’s talk product. and I wanna start with a realization that all of us know all too well, which is that the more obvious a product looks, the harder it was to create. And it’s easy to solve problems by adding complexity. back to that point in the beginning I just made where, it’s just a layer of creasing complexity over the course of a product finding, its presence in the real world. With teams dealing with problems every day and putting out fires, that is what disadvantages products from succeeding over time. And so when I think about defining the whims of this journey, and helping the teams and the products that you’re involved with sustaining engagement over time. I keep coming back to this idea grounding products with very simple convictions over the course of their lifetime, and I’ll explain this. And so like one of those examples of a simple conviction, is that life is really just time, and how you actually use it, and you could actually argue that every product that we use in life either…clicker’s not working. sorry about that. Either spend time or save time.
And I’ll give you some examples here on the spend time side. There are products that obviously just consume our time, whether they are games, or just watching news, or Facebook, or things that are just in your reading. These are things that are just competing constantly to spend our time. And then you have a series of products that certainly are designed to save time. Getting your car faster, recollecting information faster, communicating and working with a team faster, ordering something and having it delivered faster. These are all companies that are really, really there to save us time. and then of course you have some companies that you could argue either save time or spend time. Twitter is obviously giving us a shorter headline for a news, so we can digest more information more quickly and potentially save time.
Amazon, you could argue Blue Apron, you’re spending time cooking, but there are preparing the ingredients for you. But regardless of where companies land here, we’re always fighting to save time and are constantly being seduced to spend time at all times. And that’s kind of the nature of being a consumer. Except when certain natural human tendencies kick in. And what are these natural human tendencies? these are things like accomplishing more with minimal effort. We all wanna do that just by default. We wanna avoid difficult decisions and options. We always like to preserve options for later, we love being recognized, and we really like to look good. And these are things that when we’re pulled into them, we start losing track of time.
I would almost argue that are natural human tendency is are the Twilight Zone for time, and some of the greatest products…and I’m gonna give you some examples now, really take this to heart. And that’s how they engage us initially and keep us engaged over time. If you can accommodate these natural human tendency, you win your customers time. And so these are some of the things that I talk about with a lot of teams that I work with, and I just wanted to share three of them with you, all kind of new stuff so bear with me here. But the first human tendency here is I would argue that in the first 15 seconds of anything in life, we as consumers are lazy, we are vain and we are selfish. So lazy. we don’t have time to learn something new. We don’t want to go through that bad on-boarding and see examples, we hate instructional videos. Statistically they’re very seldom ever watched and very seldom finished. And we will not read more than one line of copy, regardless of how good intentioned we think our customers are.
And so the first solution to this, is let’s show people rather than explain it. Let’s give them tools and tours and tool tips and stuff like that, but even better than showing it’s actually doing it for them. And so templates. the smart selection versus manual entry, the presumptuous defaults. One of the things I tell every team when I go through the first mile of their product experience at their building, is I remind them that the devil is in the defaults. Whatever you give the customer, 90% of the time they will just take. And it’s so funny how little time teams spend on debating what the default actually should be, when that’s such a big determinant of the lifetime abuse of the product. So we’re lazy, we’re vain, we’re very vain in the sense that this better make me look good and quickly, because I’ve got so little time and energy, and ROI better be high.
Another term I go through with every team I work with, especially in the consumer products space is this notion of ego analytics. Are you showing the user how much better they look quickly, as a result of using your product? You look at a product like Instagram, where it’s constantly about the hearts and the love that you’re getting as you’re using this product, and that’s really one of those ways that you are being pulled back into the product. And Periscope, the same way with the hearts, the infusion of hearts was one of the ways that we kept people watching a broadcast, much of which was boring. But when they got that stream of love hitting them, that was what kept them engaged in the broadcast kept them using the product. And so if you actually look at the analytics of a lot of these products, what you’ll realize is that people are not going in there to see their friends’ content, as much as they’re going in to see what people are doing with the content that they’ve created. And so when you post something on Instagram, your engagement after that post goes up significantly. because you’re going in to see all of the love that you’re getting. It’s the ego analytics that is driving that behavior of engagement.
Which goes to say that social consumer products, and maybe even more, maybe even enterprise products to some extent as well, are as much about seeing who saw your content, as they are about sharing and seeing others content. Which again goes against sort of the natural inclination of the founder of who’s trying to create a network, where people can see each other’s content. Maybe it’s less about that, at least in the early stages and more about the vanity. And then selfish, at least in the first 15 seconds and early stage of a user experience, we are all selfish, we need to benefit quickly from spending any more time on this, because we’ve got so much to do. Users are very skeptical of the long term promises and the passion the companies have for the solution to the problem they’re solving. the product needs to deliver value now. and this is…I’ve seen this time and time again Pinterest is now known as Discovery Network. but in the early stages Ben and team were very focused on helping you have a collection of stuff that you wanna refer back to.
And it was all about you and your collection. it was this huge immediate utility, rather than relying on this long term promise of a discovery platform. Which really could only be realized once you initially engage building your own collections, and so they really had to formulate the promise on that level. You’ve seen companies like Slack, that are first adopted by teams more for amusement than utility. At least on my team, I saw this, I remember we were using Hip chat and then suddenly people were putting in these streams of GIFs, animated GIFs in a slide channel, and that was like the impetus for adoption, that the novelty preceded the utility of the product.
And then the value props, like getting paid faster. Really empathizing with the need of the customer rather than the logistics of the offering. This stripe and a lot of these other developer products when you talk about them in the developer community, it’s like the two lines of code. concept is what you always hear. It’s selfish, like can I just do this quickly. Can I check this off my lists and just save time. And the value prop is the selfishness, which is super important in the early stage of the adoption. Which goes to say that maybe the marketing company should actually be owned by the product team, because it’s part of the product experience. And it’s one of those things that boggles me when I meet with so many different teams, that outsource all of their marketing and copy-writing, and I’m thinking, “But that’s like a key part of your user experience. That’s the first smile of engaging with your customer is something that you’re outsourcing.” It’s like taking the top of the funnel of your entire business and saying someone else can figure that out. And in fact is your fate. So that’s human tendency number one, that we’re lazy, vain and selfish in the first 15 seconds.
Human tendency number two is that we don’t want to make the wrong choice, in fact we don’t even want choices. I always talk to teams when I see the early stages of their product, they always have like all the tabs that could cover all the different circumstances, and the products are so complicated. Typically in the early design phase, and I kind of walk them through people are gonna have the default the tab that they land on, they may click on the next one, and then less of a fraction of a percent are gonna click on the third. The more options you have the more problems you’re gonna have. And this is what explains this product life cycle, that is the reality of the industry. Which is that users love flocking to a simple product, and in the early stage of the journey when they can actually have a simple product, and teams don’t start to layer in that complexity. This is what gives companies a chance of succeeding against their incumbents. But then those companies get a lot of users, they take them for granted, and they start adding features to satisfy the power users and give more options. And then what happens? users flock to simple product. And that’s the product lifecycle that I think a lot of companies are playing, especially in the consumer products space.
So it’s really complicated to make something simple, and it’s even more complicated to keep it simple. and that’s one of those things that a very disciplined product designer and leader are always kind of debating. How do we keep things simple? and one of the best things that I have seen a lot of teams do, is keep a consistent effort. Sometimes even 50% of their effort on the product design side of focusing on the new user’s experience. Just constantly going back to it, and you think you’ve cracked it, and then you realize that the new users that join your product a year later, are wildly different than the early adopters of your product that joined when you first cracked it. And so you have to prioritize these problems of new users, or new cohorts of new users over problems for the power users. I think it’s one of the things that so few teams remember, is that new users are actually different than the new users that came before them. And I think we’re seeing coming like Twitter and others trying to figure that out now, even in this stage of the game.
The last human tendency here, is that we favor novelty. but we cling to familiarity, and this kind of goes back to basic psychology, and even you could argue biology. this notion of the lizard brain that makes us recoil from anything new and really have a lot more comfort and affinity towards things that are familiar. And it’s something that again, it’s so hard to remember when you’re in a world of innovation, and you’re trying to do things differently, and always questioning the status quo. We made this mistake a lot in the early stages of Behance, where we launched a big network for the creative world to use we called creative fields Realms. We called the groups that we had of creative people at industries, we called them Circles. This is before Google Circles and people didn’t know what the heck we were talking about. And we found over the years that we just brought these terms back to like basic familiar terminology, utilization went up. And it was just kind of wrecking all the things that were a little innovative spins on the function, and just making them so literal was just so powerful.
And so we have to remember that familiarity may be the enemy of innovation, but it’s the friend of utilization. And so you have to kind of find where you’re going to stick your neck out and do something new, versus what you’re going to engage as familiar. I looked around my house the other day to look at what are the things around me that are using familiarity to make functionality very clear. And I looked at my remote for my stereo system, and there’s like a party mode. It’s like one way of turning everything on at once, it’s so familiar. I even looked at my toaster, and there’s a button called a bit more. I was like, “Wow, there could be so many dials and… whatever.” And they were like no people just want a bit more. smart.
So we wanna adopt familiar patterns whenever possible. We really wanna look for them, and when you see teams that are trying to be too clever in bringing up their own terminology, and making something that they think will stand out in the industry. Sometimes the answer is just to focus on a familiar pattern instead. If you really wanna have utilization at the start. And then the question then becomes well, when should we force a unique behavior? We should force a unique behavior when it’s a really unique value, or new behavior, when it’s a really unique value we’re adding to the customer. I remember with Periscope team member coming out with the product, it was in a world where it was all about selfies. It still kind of is, but at the time every new video app was a selfie app. And every time we showed the product to people they would say “But it should open up with the selfie by default, like that should be the default. That’s what everyone is familiar with right now with these new video apps.” But this team really felt like it’s all about viewing the world through someone else’s eyes. and so the default in this case then would be the out down camera rather, than the inbound. just one example of where you force a unique behavior for unique value.
So I would argue that the best products in the world, are 90% accommodating, they’re using all the familiar patterns and the familiar terminology and looking so familiar, that you almost know how to use them from the first blush. And then 10% retraining. they take one or two specific things that are core unique values and they hammer them home like aggressively. And there are a lot of examples of that but we’re almost out of time. So I’ll just like summarize them. I got 15 fifteen seconds left. What did we learn? We learned that the biggest mistake in a new product is to ignore the human tendencies, and take a user’s time for granted. We just cannot do that. we have to have faith in our customers but not in the first 15 seconds of their experience. As idealistic as we may be we just can’t trust that they’re going to find the value that they need in the first 15 seconds, and we have to make sure that it accommodates that.
We have to stay grounded by the newest customer’s experience, constantly asking ourselves this latest new cohort of new customers, how are they different? And can we treat them the same as the first new cohort of customers that we accommodated so well. We also have to remember that innovation is great. so long as the core mechanics and the language that we use are really, really familiar. And keeping all of these things in mind we will learn that if customers really invest in our product, if they’re able to get through that first mile of the users experience of the product that we are going to have a better chance of retaining them.
These human tendencies really I defy ideals. And so when we’re working in a world with so many idealistic founders and products and purposes, it’s important to ground ourselves with the fact that we are still lazy, vain and selfish in the first 15 seconds. And that these human tendencies are very, very real. which is why I always tell and remind teams that you’re creating for people, so just be as human as you can in this process as you’re checking your work. and with that thanks for having me.
Want more data on startup trends? Login to CB Insights or sign up for free below.
This report was created with data from CB Insights’ emerging technology insights platform, which offers clarity into emerging tech and new business strategies through tools like:
- Earnings Transcripts Search Engine & Analytics to get an information edge on competitors’ and incumbents’ strategies
- Patent Analytics to see where innovation is happening next
- Company Mosaic Scores to evaluate startup health, based on our National Science Foundation-backed algorithm
- Business Relationships to quickly see a company’s competitors, partners, and more
- Market Sizing Tools to visualize market growth and spot the next big opportunity