Archives for September 2016

September 21, 2016 - No Comments!

Our Biggest Mistake We Ever Made

A shortened version of this story was published in Forbes last month. Here’s the full story about that one time we forgot to market our app launch, as it first appeared on my newsletter two months ago.

In January 2012, we ran a Kickstarter to build a new kind of email client. After months of prep work, building an audience, getting feedback and iterating on the concept, and generating buzz, we launched the campaign. 5 weeks later, it was successfully funded with $54k. Later that year, we launched to the public, which went so well that someone from Apple’s App Store promotions team reached out and asked us if we would bring Mail Pilot to their platforms — iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

We launched our app for iPhone and iPad in April 2013. Apple featured the app on the front page of the App Store, and TechCrunch covered the launch; it was a textbook launch success story. Except for one thing: revenue.

On the App Store, you don’t know how many sales you made until the next day. We read somewhere that they get posted as early as 3 AM, so we set our alarms and kept refreshing the page. The numbers weren’t posted until 10 or 11. We pulled them up — and they were abysmal. It had to be the fewest sales ever made by a front-page featured app. It was a huge disappointment for the team.

Why? Rewind to our first public launch, 9 months prior. We announced our launch date and time a week in advance. An hour before go time, someone launched a Kickstarter campaign with a rip-off of our app. After that, we swore to keep our launches secret. We let our fear blind us to what made all our prior launches successful: engaging an audience as we iterated on the product, and months of building anticipation.

When we launched our iOS app, we emailed everyone day-of and said “here’s this thing, please buy it.” That’s the worst possible approach; no one knew to expect it, and there was no anticipation — the only thing cooler than a cool product is a cool product you can’t have yet. Our audience should have already made their decision about whether or not to purchase well before we launched the app. But most importantly we ignored the months of feedback and iteration loops we went through before previous launches that made our products far more successful.

There were a few months where our revenue was crazy low. We were getting great reviews from Macworld and others, but the sales were not there. We weren’t bringing on nearly as many customers as anyone expected us to. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the way we responded to that failure would define — make or break — us as entrepreneurs.

We didn’t feel sorry for ourselves for too long.

We wanted to launch our Mac app correctly: by sharing it with a lot of people as we were building it and building excitement (but maybe without telling everyone exactly when we would launch).

To replicate the excitement and engagement from our Kickstarter, we offered a free public preview copy of our new app— the Mac version — while still in development. It was downloaded over 10,000 times in the first 12 hours. It caused so many sales of our iOS app that we were able to run the public preview for a couple months, with weekly updates.

We were hesitant about doing the free Public Preview because our revenues were terrible, and we weren’t getting paid for a while. But we realized that what we had during Kickstarter — a highly engaged audience, helping us to perfect our ideas and solutions, and supporting the team as we build up to a big launch day — was exactly what we needed again. And the Public Preview was a great way to do that.

It was beneficial to everyone involved. It was great for us, because we got a ton of feedback as we were building it, making it a much better product before launch. It was great for our users, because they got to make suggestions for improvements one week, then download those changes the next. Plus, they got the product they wanted a little sooner. It built a huge, highly engaged fanbase.

When we launched the app officially in the Mac App Store, it became the #1 top paid app in the entire store in over 50 countries worldwide. Why? We gave away a taste of it for free, we highly engaged an audience, we built a far more empathetic product with their help, and we showed them that we were immediately responsive to what they wanted. This built a lot of trust, and out from that, a lot of anticipation.

So that’s the story of our worst launch ever. Followed by the story of our best launch ever. The morals: iterating on a concept with customers before public availability can have a huge impact the product’s success. Learn everything you can from your failures and your successes — and don’t pity yourself for too long after a misstep. It’s only a failure if it kills you.

There’s an old Japanese proverb that says “if you fall 7 times, get up 8.”

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September 20, 2016 - No Comments!

Learn Killer Product Design: My 3 Favorite Sources of Inspiration

1. Psychology

I highly recommend the book Flow to all product designers. I loved it — and since reading it, I’ve been exploring a number of topics in psychology that entirely capture my fascination. It gives me insight into the human mind, with which I endlessly draw parallels to product design. I’ve found that understanding how the human mind works is vitally important for me as a product designer. It allows me to create exactly what the user needs; something that can most successfully “click” with them, often in ways they don’t consciously identify. I think understanding psychology is the difference between a designer who says “trust me, it’s better this way” and a designer who can back up a design decision with an intentional motivation stemming from a psychological principle that they are curious to test in their own products. Though — to be clear, I’m not saying I’ll always be right on the first go, but I am saying I’ll always be intentional.

Learn more in my most recommended article: 7 Rules Driving the Psychology Behind Great Product Design »

2. Experience Design Agencies

(or “Digital Experience Agencies”). These agencies build products and experiences for companies to strengthen their brands with consumers. They are solely focused on delighting the consumer. I try to find ways of bringing elements of delight even in to the kinds of apps — productivity tools and utilities — that I really enjoy designing. If a car company can use a college game day app to strengthen their brand, how much more should an app company be able to use their own apps to strengthen their own brand? I love checking out work coming from Chiat/DayCritical MassHornbill AndersonVaynerMedia, and plenty more.

Learn more in this resource-packed article: How To Delight Your Users »

3. Conversations About Problems

One of the things I most enjoy in social gatherings is discussing problems. Macro problems, or personal problems. I enjoy hearing people’s suggested solutions, ideal solutions, and assumptions about what makes those solutions impossible. I love asking people what their biggest problem is, or what the barrier is between them and the thing they most want to achieve. I love asking what someone’s most unnecessary time drain is, or most unnecessarily expensive expense is. As a product designer, boiled down, I’m a problem solver. I feed off of problems to solve. When I identify a common problem among a number of people, I enjoy brainstorming on potential solutions. This is where products and features are born for me; after lots of conversations solely about the issue at hand, not about proposed solutions — or at least, not yet. Iterating on potential solutions is equally as important, but it only follows after finding real, valuable problems that remain unsolved.

Learn more in one of my first articles: How To Innovate: The Dummy’s Guide »

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September 15, 2016 - No Comments!

7 Lessons You Can Learn From Tesla About Product Design

I have to start this article with a disclaimer that there is no disclaimer. This post might look like sponsored content with Tesla, but it isn’t (I wish).

The fake grille over the years.

The fake grille over the years.

Carry People Into The Future

Have you noticed the slowly shrinking fake grille? Without the need for a grille, the all-electric Model S originally featured a full-size fake grille — a glossy cover where we’re used to seeing a grille. Then it was updated with a much smaller grille. And when Telsa unveiled the Model 3, it finally happened: there was no grille at all. It was never necessary, but added and slowly faded away so that the car met consumer’s expectations.

Thanks to cognitive science, we already know that how a product looks helps define what the product can do in the minds of the consumer. Knowing this, Tesla originally ensured consumers viewed their vehicles as fully capable sports cars, grille and all, as opposed to some of the uglier, less capable, grille-less all-electric vehicles of the past. Having the fake grille there helped consumers’ minds define what category a Tesla-made vehicle was in. But as the world got to know Tesla, it became less relevant, and the designers could move the car more toward the future — by removing the unnecessary and outdated fake grille.

Lesson learned: sometimes we have to help carry consumers into the future. For example, if your product is so innovative that the consumer will have a hard time knowing what it is or in what category it stands from its visual appearance alone, sometimes you could consider visual elements that, even if functionally unnecessary, guide the user’s understanding of the product.

Use Everything You Know to Require Less From the User

Approach your Tesla, key in your pocket, and the handles glide out from their flush position in the door. Map a route in your GPS, and your Tesla will warn you if you can’t make it there with your current charge and the charging stations on the route.


The lesson is simple: get creative about what your product knows, or could discern on its own, to require less from the user. I’ve never used a product that I thought was fully capitalizing on this principle; once software is involved, there’s always smarter ways of inferring things on behalf of the user.

Here’s a dead simple example that you’ll run in to almost every day: the first four digits of a person’s credit card number will tell you what type of card it is. So don’t ask for it! Stripe’s Checkout does a great job of this: the card icon changes to show the logo of your card after you type in the first four digits, never asking you to select it yourself. That’s why we use it in Throttle.

Form Begets Function

Have you heard of the GM EV1? It was GM’s mass-produced all-electric vehicle… in the mid-1990s.

In 2006, Elon Musk published a blog article exposing his “secret master plan” for Tesla. He knew the goal could not simply be to mass-produce an all-electric vehicle. With that as the goal, you’d end up with an ugly car with worse than average performance that cost more (proof, also notice: no fake grille here).

Instead, his goal was to create “an electric car without compromises,” and even starting with his first — the Roadster — his team “designed [it] to beat a gasoline sports car like a Porsche or Ferrari in a head to head showdown” (funnily enough, just a few weeks ago they introduced the P100D model which is the fastest production vehicle in the world — trumping every Porsche and Ferrari in production). And it’s working.

When we’re creating products for consumers, form matters. Unlike selling to businesses, consumers are human and emotional. Consumers care about social status and achieving life aspirations. Form matters — it can be one of the biggest drivers of repeat business and high user ratings.

Plus, the longer a new technology has been around, and the more similar competing products grow, the more form matters.

The Importance of Purpose

In his 2006 “secret master plan,” Musk shared something new to much of his audience: the sports car they made was just the start. They’d build a wide range of cars soon, in many other categories. Why? Purpose.

“The overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which I believe to be the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution.”

This is true innovation in pursuit of a larger purpose — Elon’s purpose became Tesla’s (as it did his other companies, SolarCity and SpaceX). The company’s vision and purpose are set and driven by Elon. And it’s not fake. Tesla even open sourced all of their patents — helping future competitors. And these days, many of their customers are customers for this reason — because they resonate with the purpose (besides wanting to own their own personal rollercoaster).

Pricing: Charging More Out of the Gate

Marc Andreessen was asked by Tim Ferris on his podcast what he would put on a billboard to reach the greatest number of people. Marc’s response was two words:

Raise Prices

He explains:

The №1 theme our companies have when they get really struggling is they are not charging enough for their product. It has become absolutely conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley that the way to succeed is to price your product as low as possible under the theory that if it’s low-priced everybody can buy it and that’s how you get the volume.

They don’t charge enough for their product to be able to afford the sales and marketing required to actually get anybody to buy it. And so they can’t afford to hire the sales rep to go sell the product.

Much like Tesla did, sometimes the solution in an industry is not to charge less, but to charge more. And not to charge more for the sake of more — but to create a product worth more, and to use the larger overhead to fund growth and what’s next — in Tesla’s case, a more affordable all-electric performance vehicle.


The Toilet Method

In autopilot, hit your turn signal, and the vehicle will change lanes for you. Along with dozens of other little examples, the Tesla makes great use of The Toilet Method.

It takes a really useful, but sophisticated technology — autopilot that can change lanes at the driver’s command — and allows the human user to interact with it in a way that is most natural and intuitive — flipping the turn signal, something we’ve been doing for over 70 years.

How can you employ The Toilet Method in your own products?

Disruption and Newcomers

Finally: there’s always time for disruption and newcomers, even in a stodgy old industry like the auto & oil industries.

Leaders in the email industry told me I’d fail within a month when we tried putting a new kind of email client — to compete with Gmail and Outlook — on Kickstarter. One you had to pay for. Our Kickstarter campaign raised over $50k by February, 2012. In the years that followed, besides our own successes on the App Store and beyond, dozens of third-party email clients flooded the market.


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September 6, 2016 - No Comments!

Drive After Audacious Goals Without Regard For Their Improbability

I almost titled this article “We’ve Lost Our Naivety”. Here’s why:

As a senior in college, with no experience and no network, just a love of product design, I decided to start a company. Why?

In a course I was taking senior year — Design of Information — I hadn’t kept up with my “design journal” before the first journal check. Needing to fill 10 pages in one night, I picked a topic so hairy and difficult I figured it’d easily fill the minimum page requirement. That topic? Email.

By page 3 I was in love with what I had sketched. It captured every ounce of my fascination. It made so much more sense than anything I had seen before.

After months of discussing the idea with people and iterating on it, we turned to Kickstarter. This was January 2012. My life changed entirely that month.

Knowing no one in the industry, having no prior experience, no previous work to prove my credibility, no existing audience to leverage — just Photoshop, Xcode, and a passion for thoughtful and empathetic product design, we launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $35,000. If that doesn’t sound impossible yet, it’s also worth nothing that no closed-source software project had raised that much on Kickstarter, let alone one from some no-name undergrads.

After 5 weeks, a feature in the New York Times as “Ingenious” and WIRED Insider’s Kickstarter of the Week, with praise from our idols such as Jason Fried, a “Staff Pick” listing on Kickstarter, and most importantly, with 1,623 backers, our humble Kickstarter campaign succeeded with over $54,000 in funding.

We went on to follow up the campaign with a handful of even more surprisingly successful launches.

Someone recently asked me what the key ingredient was.

Honestly, I think it was equal parts excitement for an idea that we really believed in, and thought should exist in the world, and naivety — not knowing just how impossible it was. We’ve been able to bootstrap the business for years since that Kickstarter campaign. If we had laid out what has happened the last four years as our plan back in 2012, and asked some pros in the industry what they think, they’d laugh us off.

We embarked on the journey because we didn’t know it was supposed to be impossible; we were blinded by ambition, and enabled by naivety.

The problem we have now is we aren’t naive anymore. I hear us more and more saying things like:

“No, there’s no way that’ll work”

“It takes years to build up an audience to do that”

“Big Company X invested hundreds of thousands to launch their podcast, there’s no way we could get close to their level of success”

“The best content marketing strategies are executed by teams in companies dedicated full-time to writing and publishing, we shouldn’t even try.

We’ve lost our naivety.

Our new secret to success, one I hope you’ll embrace in this new age where things that seem daunting are secretly possible, is a new focus:

Drive after audacious goals without regard for their improbability.

I write this primarily to myself, but maybe you’ll glean some value from it too.

The only people that find out impossible goals aren’t impossible are the ones who try to achieve them. If you know too much, and you’ve become cyncial — if you think of all the things you don’t have to achieve the things you want to do, if you’ve found yourself walking down more and more traditional, mediocre paths, then I’ve got a message for you:

It’s time to embrace willful naivety.

Your successes, failures, and everything else you’ve learned to get to where you are now are holding you back. Embrace the naivety that got you started. Drive after audacious goals without regard for their improbability.

If you want to follow on this journey with me, as I willfully return to the naivety that got me started — so that we can once again embark on impossible goals, then subscribe to my newsletter. I’ll send you a new article every Thursday, and soon enough, a book on product design and innovation.

Learn to make world-class products that sell themselves.

Get actionable insights on product design and product ideation each Thursday morning, so you can become a pro at creating products people will love.

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