Is your product for them?

Is your product for them?
Photo by Mulyadi / Unsplash

"This is really cool!

But it isn't for me."

Tim's words sank my heart. How could he say that? Hadn't I just spent the last 3 years building the world's most powerful and advanced weather website? One with interactive maps that didn't exist anywhere else on the planet? Everything was so mindblowing! It made no sense.

"I can see why a weather geek would love this. But I'm just a regular guy!"


Suddenly, being the most advanced weather site on the planet didn't sound so great. The product was cutting edge ... but I wanted Tim, Regular Guy Tim, to use it.

It was 2007, and Tim was the Assistant Managing Editor at our local metro newspaper that had a readership of millions and an online presence of more than half a million visitors per day. I knew because I was the first and only web developer in the newsroom, and Tim was my boss's boss. Though I considered him a friend, right now he was a gatekeeper to the distribution our startup desperately needed. I had taken the job to develop my skills and pay bills, but the goal was to get the startup off the ground. If Tim liked what I had made, he had the power to promote to a massive audience.

An audience full of mainstream users — like Tim.

I had spent the last 3 years building the product of my dreams, taking advantage of that tight feedback loop in my head. A product as big and wide as a weather website required countless decisions per day. And I gladly made them, like a sculptor freeing his subject.

This feedback loop was the flux capacitor that made it all work. But it was now being injected with something new: blunt feedback from the mainstream. To summarize: this isn't for us.

Knowing we wanted to win these users, we embraced the objection, and I spent the next 3 months simplifying the interface, even stealing inspiration from paper maps: what normals still used back then to track the weather. We deleted features, removed settings, and made it painfully (oh so painfully) obvious where to click to reveal the next layer of complexity, but never too soon. As Fred Wilson once wrote:

The burden is on the designer of the system to meet a need, entertain, or inform their users. They also have to seduce those users, hiding complexity, revealing one layer at time, always enticing, never intimidating, until the user one day finds they are intimately familiar with power and the pleasures of the service.

We ultimately succeeded, and by the next hurricane season, Tim granted us the opportunity to embed our weather tech in their popular site. Traffic soared as millions of normal, everyday people found and shared a product that felt like it had been designed for them, while giving them a new sense of power and control over uncertainty.

Perhaps your users are experts; or perhaps, like Tim, they consider themselves "regular". Either way, you should assume that you, as the maker, know more about your product than they ever will, and that their primary concern is the result of using your product, not the joy of using your product for its own sake.

As you transition from the lab to the market, your product needs to evolve into a ladder that enables users to climb out of their current situation while also leveling up. If you can do this, they'll be more than transactional customers — they'll be loyal students and fans.