Expect the worst of people

I’ve been doing freelance web development for four years, I was a product manager at a major Internet company before that, and I’ve been building products of my own for the last five years. I’ve also spent a ton of time exploring products and ideas that fellow entrepreneurs have launched. So I’ve spent a lot of time working and looking at technology product ideas, whether they belonged to friends, employers, clients, or myself. And the sad truth is that most of these products, mine included, suck. Big time. They have no hope of any real traction or success. I thought I’d share a piece of advice that I think would be helpful to solve 95% of the product problems that I see.

When thinking about user behavior, expect the worst of people. Expect them to be stupid, lazy, greedy, cynical, and impatient. Because for the most part, they will be. Not in general, but when compared against the idealistic “User” that many would-be entrepreneurs seem to picture in their mind. In general, people are busy and overwhelmed, and have very little time or energy to check out something new. And even when they do, they’re constantly being bombarded by new things from entrepreneurs. Why are they going to check out yours?

The problem is that most entrepreneurs are optimistic people by nature. You have to be to invest the time and money that it takes to start a company. But optimism can be really dangerous to a fledgling business. It can subtly convince you that the unlikely is likely. It can convince you that people will go out of their way to buy what you’re selling.

Fundamentally, virtually every new startup is asking people to change their behavior in some way, whether large or small. As a general rule, people do not like change, so you must make this change as compelling and painless as possible if you have any hope of success. And optimism will lead an entrepreneur to believe that the pain of the changes they’re asking users to make isn’t really that bad.

The optimistic entrepreneur believes that users will fill out their 15-field registration page to check out the amazing new product. The pessimistic entrepreneur knows that 99% of users will leave and won’t ever come back, so she works really hard to make it easy to try the product and get hooked.

The optimistic entrepreneur puts share buttons all over the page, thinking that users can’t wait to share their new discovery with their friends. The pessimistic entrepreneur knows that he has to appeal to the user’s self-interests, and offers a bonus or other benefit for users who share the site with a friend.

The optimistic entrepreneur thinks that what they’ve created is so compelling that people will return. The pessimistic entrepreneur knows that the average person remembers 7 URLs, plus or minus 2. The pessimistic entrepreneur knows they can’t expect people to remember to return to their site.

I’ll give you an example of that last one: woot.com is a daily deal site that offers a great deal on a particular item every day. They sold last year to Amazon for $110 million. Huge win, right? From 2009 to 2011, another daily deal site (Groupon) went from $0 to a $6 billion offer from Google. There are tons of differences between the two models, but I am absolutely convinced that Woot could have been bigger if they had taken a page from Groupon’s book and focused on building a mailing list to offer their deals to. I first saw Woot years ago, but I’ve been back maybe twice. I just don’t remember to go check it out every day. But I never forget to check my email, so I always see what Groupon has on offer. And yet the Woot.com homepage still has no place to sign up for an email notification of their deals.

You get the idea. The challenge is that you have to be an overall optimist, and you definitely don’t want to grow to hate people, but you kind of do need to expect the worst from them when actually designing your product.

Of course, creating a great product is only half the battle; you also have to market it well. But that’s a post for another day.