As many of you know, creating remarkable content is a hallmark of both HubSpot as a company and the inbound marketing movement. But as a proud “geek” myself and someone who has also spent a fair amount of time writing code, I’m a strong believer that best-in-class companies need both remarkable products and promotion that their prospects, leads, and customers don’t just tolerate, but actually really love.
I’ve been fortunate to join many people who care about this very topic at the Business of Software conference here in Boston over the last five years, so to celebrate my sixth year with this esteemed group of people, I pulled together some of my favorite pieces of advice from panelists past and present on how to write code and content your customers truly love.
"Make the user awesome instead of competing to be perceived as awesome." -- Kathy Sierra, Serious Pony (Tweet This)
The first piece of advice comes from a woman I deeply admire and who has a lot of fans in and around HubSpot. Kathy notes that while trust in advertisements is down, trust in recommendations from friends and colleagues is up (inbound marketing for the win!). And yet, what this trend has created is a massive crowd of companies and brands competing to be perceived as awesome. This sounds, at face value, like a well-intentioned and successful business strategy, but as Kathy points out in her address last year, trying to achieve the perception of awesome is a fierce and bloody battle with very few winners.
Kathy advocates a different route entirely: creating applications and experiences that are so inherently valuable and simple that users extract value within the first 30 minutes. I was particularly struck by the wisdom of this insight during a recent West Coast trip: Part of the genius of companies like Dropbox and New Relic is that their user experiences are so sticky and intuitive that the time between “getting started” with Dropbox and “benefiting” from Dropbox is minutes, if not seconds. It’s that threshold, as Kathy notes, that all of us should be aiming for each day as we build our products.
"As soon as you think someone is seeing what you’re doing, you start to care more about it." -- Joel Spolsky, Stack Exchange (Tweet This)
Joel runs Stack Exchange, which has cultivated a community of 22 million users, making it one of the most popular websites on the internet. This is no small feat, but when asked about the success of Stack Exchange’s platform, Joel references not just the code, but also the culture that has engendered such excitement for an answers-driven destination.
One of the insights from his talk last year that I particularly enjoyed was the notion that first impressions send signals to your users and website visitors that indicate whether the site is relevant for “their people.” For example, if you’re seeking out high-level physics insight and the first item you see on an answers site is about where to find an apartment, chances are you will leave within seconds.
Identifying the signals you can send to visitors and prospective users that they are in the right place and that they have found a community where they can either actively participate or simply get a quick answer they need is core to Stack Exchange’s business model. As a result, the company focuses on guiding principles and governing rules that facilitate the quality of those first impressions, and their users benefit daily from these decisions. Product managers and marketers alike should take that advice to heart: What signals does your homepage send about relevance for the community you’re seeking to attract and grow?
The second relates to badges: Joel correctly points out that most people respond incredulously when asked if they would behave differently to get a seemingly meaningless internet badge. However, he references cultural anthropology and human psychology by noting that everyone, regardless of whether you are online, offline, young, old, a developer, or a doctor, behaves differently when they believe someone else sees what they are doing.
When someone is observing your behavior, shoes, work, contributions, or intellect, you take more pride in it -- this is as true of toddlers as it is for those of us who wish to be viewed as helpful or intelligent on Stack Exchange. As a result, badges and other forms of social proof and rewards aren’t for show: They reinforce the vision that Stack Exchange users aren’t just providing Q&A fodder, they are also responsible for creating “a permanent useful artifact for the internet’s benefit.” Give people a mission that matters, and the right users will care enough to contribute, collaborate, and correct clearly defined cultural norms.
"If you think creativity is expensive, you should try logic." -- Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy Group (Tweet This)
I’m a huge fan of logic and data-driven decisions. But, I’m also a huge fan of Rory’s insight that rationality goes “dangerously unpoliced” at many organizations, and that most of the world’s great businesses are rooted in a really exceptional human insight. Rory’s talk at the 2011 conference reminds each of us that it’s not just about having a product that is “better” than something that currently exists. In fact, Rory is quick to note that marginal improvements on one dimension often fail miserably.
There are always going to be thousands of alternatives to your product available, but all of our market perceptions are shaped by heuristics. To that end, entrepreneurs, developers, and marketers alike cannot lose sight of the fundamentally human component of a value proposition. It is not enough to be a bit better, different, or more expensive -- it’s about how you frame those differences in terms of their associated risks, benefits, and value that resonates with your customers.
The danger of rationality should resonate and move all of us. It’s very easy to talk yourself into or out of anything with data, including what your customers want. Often, if your product or services are not meeting the needs of your current install base, this gap will not emerge immediately, but rather show when people vote with their wallets by moving on from your company months or years later. In particular, SaaS platforms like ours rely upon long-term relationships with customers to pay back the investment of acquiring them.
It’s not good enough to think big, push creative limits, or revisit the drawing board when things are bad or customers complain. The world’s best companies combine creativity and rationality to solve real human problems, upgrade people’s lives in new and meaningful ways, and continuously evolve to meet the needs of their customers.
"Design products for who your users are, not who you want them to be." -- Don Norman, Nielsen Norman Group (Tweet This)
I can personally attest to how important a reminder this particular tenet is from Don Norman. At HubSpot, as most of you know, we sell inbound marketing software that allows companies to attract and engage with prospects, leads, and customers by leveraging an integrated system that combines blogging, SEO, social media, analytics, and email tools. We take our own medicine, so we use our tools to engage with our audience daily via blogging, social media, and email marketing.
This is all wonderful, but it sometimes leads us to believe that our users are just like us: that they know, understand, and have seen the incredible value of inbound marketing. For business owners and marketers who use our product every day, we need to be realistic about the demands on their time, energy, efforts, and wallets, and our product must be designed and delivered in a manner that reflects how customers actually engage with our product every day.
I’m a big believer that, in addition to adding remarkable features, this exercise should also include removing features that are counterintuitive or no longer add value: Simplicity matters, and walking a mile in our customers’ shoes can’t just be a poster or a vision board. Don’s advice is a great example that building for an idealistic user base can leave you playing to an empty room. Design for real people and you’ll be rewarded with real results.
This year, Kathy’s talk at the Business of Software conference will focus on “Unfinished Business,” and I think that’s a great place for me to conclude here. The reality is that outstanding product design, remarkable marketing, and exceptional user experiences rely upon an ongoing commitment to greatness. The startup and software worlds rarely reward one-hit wonders -- our user bases rely upon us for constant innovation and insight to make their lives easier, simpler, and better.