The trinity of product design

Yesterday, I watched as a friend of mine created an Expensify account for his startup. He was trying the product for the first time.

I took notes without saying much. The experience reminded me of the hours I spent in Google’s usability labs watching people use our AdSense Demographic Targeting beta product. In those sessions, I remember feeling a sense of excitement followed by frustration - even disillusionment. Often, the product confused users. And I had only one person to blame: myself.

The Three Customer Types

It was challenging to meet the needs of three user segments in our user base: new users, occasional users and power users.

New users need to be educated to use the product in their first visit, in a straightforward way, without being educated. Instead, it should feel like an invitation - an enticement.

Occasional users may return to the product infrequently. They remember certain functions but forget others. Sometimes, they needed to be reminded or assisted.

Power users want to maximize productivity, minimize time and use a much broader set of functionality.

Progressive UIs

We tried building an AdWords UI that would progressively reveal features as the customer evolved, showing more sophisticated features over time. After all, AdWords is a tremendously deep product offering all sorts of targeting, budgeting and other options.

But maintaining separate UIs for different customer segments is a luxury only very profitable companies can afford. And one whose tepid success ultimately questioned the worthiness of the endeavor.

A more elegant solution

Instead of treating each of these groups differently, we can view these three groups as just one segment. Ultimately, each of these user segments wants the same thing: to move the application quickly and achieve a goal.

They want the product to perform the way they expect and react thoughtlessly. They expect features to be logically grouped and located. They want the product to focus them - not distract them.

Great products are like forks. It’s hard to tell where your hand stops and the fork begins. In the same way you can look at a fork and deduce its use, great products don’t need training manuals or video guides, because they are intuitive.

Looking at your product for the first time, every time

This became my mantra: look at my product for the first time, every time. It meant spending a lot of time in the usability lab. But it was a simplifying assumption that helped solve the problem for the three user segments.

The core features had to be simple and straightforward. The power user features needed to be in places power users expected them to be. I’m not sure any product I built ever lived up to these aspirations, but I do believe they were the right goals.

Published 2012-11-09 in Product 

I'm a partner at Redpoint. I invest in Series A and B SaaS companies. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 18,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.

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