Your Users: Lacking “Sophistication”, or Overwhelmed?

February 24, 2020

If you haven’t already read the first three posts in this series on “Scaling Your Startup…Through Your Best Nature,” check ‘em out now: herehere, and here.

As a recap, I shared a framework for thinking about the best and worst in our own natures -- the Primitive Mind (or ego) and the Higher Mind (or spirit) -- and why managing this duality is critical for scaling your business through the three stages of a startup journey. Then I covered two examples of how our ego can get in the way of us achieving Product-Market Fit, and how our Higher Mind can come to the rescue.

In today’s post, I’ll cover a third example of how channeling our higher nature can help us achieve Product-Market Fit in stage one of the startup journey.

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Example #3: How We View Our Users

When we think about our users, I notice we sometimes imagine them in two different lights:

The Primitive Mind“Our users are not sophisticated about technology.”

The Higher Mind“Our users are overwhelmed and need empathy.”

The first statement is a judgment (and also reeks of condescension). In the second statement, we attempt to place ourselves in the shoes of our clients, imagining them as fundamentally equal human beings. The Higher Mindset is important for scaling because unless we fully understand the struggles of our users, at a psychological level, we will fail to secure their adoption. Most companies aren’t selling technology purely to the most experienced of tech users; to scale, we typically need to sell to all kinds. 

“Users” around the world are struggling with many challenges that affect their ability and willingness to use technology. Beyond phenomena like war, censorship, and other more extreme situations, those challenges include:

  • Constant distraction by other technologies

  • Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety

  • Millennial burnout (FYI, there’s a great Ezra Klein podcast on that)

  • Efficiency gains accrue to the employer, not employees. When people become more efficient (using your technology!), they don’t get to go home early. Their employer just gets more out of them. Is your product making their life better, or just more jam-packed?

  • Privacy concerns

  • Distrust in Silicon Valley: I think we’ve witnessed rising skepticism in other parts of the U.S. about whether Silicon Valley companies truly have people’s best interests in mind.

Your product should acknowledge these concerns – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s critical to your scaling your business. Last year while at Gainsight, I put forward 5 principles for building Human-First Products, with the goal of describing how we can ensure that the new technology we build is truly in the service of humans, with minimal negative side effects, and takes into account the broader societal concerns above that influence how we adopt technology. In summary, a Human-First product should treat each human as:

  1. Growing: The product treats each human as having the raw material to improve their ways of working—but importantly, only if given time and coaching to master the new way, autonomy in how to do it, and clear alignment with a purpose (to use terms from Dan Pink’s book). Instead of expecting humans to adopt products instantaneously (“Go figure it out!”), let’s design the product’s UI itself so that it coaches people over time on how they can take advantage of it and why it helps them. 

  2. Special: The product treats each human as unique, with distinct beliefs, preferences, and motivations, not as an undifferentiated "user." The product is inclusive of that specific human. We should design ways to learn about what makes a person unique, and help create a correspondingly unique experience for them. A client “account” is not really an entity; it’s a collection of unique individuals. We need to treat each person uniquely while also respecting their choice of how to use their data, which leads us to principle #3.

  3. Vulnerable: The product recognizes that a human can be abused by others who have their data on how they’re using a product. It therefore assumes by default that any data gathered is owned by the human who generated it, and offers meaningful ways to use the product without being forced to waive rights to privacy. A product can make a user vulnerable without doing something extreme like selling their data. When products gather data on a user’s work activities and expose that data to managers, those managers could use that data to evaluate the user’s work performance. If the product doesn’t represent that performance accurately, or if the user isn’t aware of how their performance is being communicated, we may be making that user vulnerable to unfair termination. 

  4. Ends, Not Means: The product holds the humans it serves as ends in themselves (with technology as a means to their goals), taking their feedback seriously and adapting its approach accordingly. We should proactively gather input from users, no matter how junior, on how they want to see the product evolve, and ensure that their feedback is reflected in our product roadmap. The product is here for people, not vice versa.

  5. Autonomous: The product reinforces independent thinking and decision-making. Products should be a “pull,” not a “push.” That means users shouldn’t feel like they have to use a product; they should want to use it. Furthermore, products should help clients test their own hypotheses, not merely push recommendations. No one wants to be told what to do, but we normally appreciate thoughtful questions or tips that we can respond to. This is particularly important in the age of AI, where it can be tempting to say, "User! I found an insight! Take action XYZ." A normal human's response to this is, "You are not the boss of me." How about instead, "I found an interesting insight. You might consider taking action XYZ, but let me know if you think differently."

If all of us developed products that met these five criteria, we would ensure that our technology truly serves humanity. More relevant to this blog post, we would achieve Product-Market Fit faster.

Side note: Even though I've used it throughout this post, I really dislike the term user. It sounds like a machine component -- AKA a "cog in a machine", which is often how we actually treat our users when we're acting from our Primitive Mind. How about we just call our users people? Maybe that will help us actually treat them like people.

Bottom line: Honor the 5 Principles of Human-First Products, to help your users more easily and sustainably find value from your product, and thereby get to Product-Market Fit faster.

In the next couple of posts in this series, I’ll turn to the second stage in the startup journey -- the search for a repeatable go-to-market strategy. This is arguably the stage that is most often neglected, because in our haste to move from “product is working” to “scale fast!”, we forget the need to develop a set of reliable motions that we can train our growing team to execute. If we can patiently quell our ego, we can get through this stage with flying colors -- specifically, a playbook that predictably generates value and revenue. Next post here.