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What is Truly at the Heart of Your Product?
You need to figure this out & the "atomic units of engagement" to build a great product (#16)
Most software products have lots of features.
And the longer a software product exists, the more features it gets.
Features. Features. Features.
Software products are like Oreos. (Stay with me…)
The original Oreo was launched in 1912.
In 1974 they launched Double Stuf Oreos.
Then we got a few different flavours.
Then came the Mega Stuf.
Then the MOST STUF.
And now…now we have THE MOST OREO OREO. This limited edition Oreo has ‘MOST STUF’ level of creme with bits of Oreo wafer in the creme. What will they stuff in there next?!?! And why can’t they spell ‘stuff’ properly?
I’ll be surprised if anyone reads past this point—I know you’ve left to get cookies. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
While you’re eating those delicious cookies, why not subscribe?
The funny thing about Oreos is this—while they continue to make variations and stuff more ‘stuf’ into them, they’re still cookies. The core of the product is simple: a delicious snack/treat/dessert that people love.
Software products can and should be the same way. But you need to figure out what sits at the heart of your product, and what I think of as the “atomic unit of engagement”—which is the simplest, most repeatable action that people take from the core of your product.
This is often most evident in social, consumer products:
Facebook is built entirely on posts
Instagram is built entirely on pictures
Twitter is built entirely on 280 character messages
Each of these has small interactions they want people to take in order to encourage them to post more stuff; i.e. likes, comments, etc. Double tapping a photo in Instagram is so easy. Those little “atomic units of engagement” grease the wheels of more content creation and around and around we go (think: loops!)
More than just the functional aspect of things, there’s a central and very core “why”—
Facebook is built for staying connected with friends
If people didn’t want to stay in touch with friends, Facebook wouldn’t work
Instagram is built for showing off your best self
If people didn’t want to show off their best selves (and we didn’t want to live vicariously through others), Instagram wouldn’t work
Twitter is built for demonstrating (supposed) expertise or ranting about crazy things
If people didn’t want to demonstrate authority or rant about politics, Twitter wouldn’t work
Foursquare essentially invented the concept of the “check-in” (i.e. notifying others through an app that you were at a place.) You couldn’t do a lot with Foursquare, it was basically a “single feature app,” but that one feature caught people’s imagination in a big way.
The heart of the product was very clear: check-ins.
And there were a couple of atomic units of engagement that were simple, but worked:
You’d check-in and the gamification system would alert you to your progress (through points, badges and titles.) If you checked in enough times at a specific location, you’d become the ‘mayor’ (which a lot of people obsessed over.) This was in effect a single-player mode that also alerted others to your progress.
Your friends could comment on your check-in, which was very easy and fast to do.
I’m not sure there’s any way that the Foursquare founders could have really known this would work (although Dennis Crowley had already co-founded another location-based social network) but if you go back and track Foursquare’s progress you can see how focused they were on the heart of the product. They needed everyone checking in, and that’s basically it.
Granted, check-ins alone did not result in Foursquare becoming a successful business, until they pivoted to a B2B data play, but that’s a story for another time.
Here are a couple other examples:
In VarageSale, a buy-and-sell community where I was an investor and VP Product, our product heart was items for sale. Without items, we had nothing. Without items, we couldn’t build communities and drive engagement. As a result, we obsessed over how to get more items into VarageSale, how to make items engaging, and how to create as many power sellers as possible. We also focused a lot on how to make interacting with items dead simple.
In NextDoor, it seems that the primary focus for users has become posting about potential “unsavoury activity” in their neighbourhood. This has become so prevalent that a new Apple TV show, Shrinking, makes a comment about it, when Luke Tennie’s character is seen going through the garbage in a primarily white neighbourhood. (Great show, btw!)
Although I have no evidence of this, I can almost guarantee that NextDoor’s algorithms are identifying these types of posts and bubbling them up more frequently (through notifications, the feed, etc.)
Everything should be built around the heart of your product—that thing at the core that drives all the quick & easy engagement and creates powerful behaviour loops rewarding people for coming back.
This is important for B2B products too
While it’s easier to figure this out for B2C products, it’s important for B2B products too. The core of B2B products is often more complex or “bigger” but it still exists:
At the heart of Asana you have projects.
At the heart of Notion you have pages.
At the heart of Airtable you have bases (basically tables/spreadsheets)
Everything else is designed to serve these core components. And if those core components aren’t done amazingly (at least 10x better than the competitors), more features or ‘stuff’ ain’t going to matter.
What helps define the heart of your product?
To really figure out the heart of your product and the atomic unit of engagement that surrounds it, you need two things:
A clear value proposition (that actually matters to users)
A business model (even if you haven’t implemented it yet)
The importance of value propositions
If you have a clear value proposition, you should be able to figure out the simplest and purest manifestation of it in your product.
Credit Karma’s value proposition is to help consumers improve their financial wellbeing through managing their credit and finances, saving money and achieving their financial goals.
There are tons of financial & budgeting apps, but Credit Karma figured out that the heart of the product is free credit scores & reporting. It’s simple, but powerful. And the atomic unit of engagement is clear—when your credit score changes they alert you, and you open up the app to check what’s going on. That’s a simple, but powerful engagement loop that continues to provide value over time. Everything Credit Karma does is built around the heart of its product—free credit score checks.
Stripe’s original value proposition was focused on empowering developers to very quickly integrate payments online. Developers using Stripe were often able to accept credit card payments within minutes, which was a radical shift from the alternatives. The atomic unit of engagement is clear—a developer would setup Stripe for a web application to accept payments and it just worked. The API & docs for doing this had to be crystal clear and easy to work with. The developer looked like a hero (for doing something complex very quickly) and now the website they were working on could take credit cards.
This isn’t so much a loop (because the developer didn’t have to go back over and over) but it would immediately make the developer (and whoever else they were working with) super fans of Stripe. You can imagine the viral loop potential here—one developer uses Stripe and has an “aha!” experience, and then tells a friend, who has a similar experience and so on.
Ultimately your value proposition is going to strongly dictate and influence the core of your product. If the heart of your product doesn’t create the value promised in the value proposition, you’ve failed. And no extra features, widgets or even cookies, will make a difference.
The importance of a business model
Although your business model may come later, having a sense of what it is or will be is critical to defining the heart of your product.
Social apps monetize attention. It’s why infinite scroll was invented, and why their algorithms are always trying to figure out what to serve us. If you leave, they can’t make money off your eyeballs. If you don’t have an incredibly engaging, sticky experience at the core of a social app it withers away. So social apps, even before they truly monetize, obsess over features that will keep you paying attention. That’s it. That’s the job.
Marketplaces monetize transactions. Transactions require a buyer to post something (i.e. a product or service) and a seller to buy. Pretty simple. The heart of the product is the thing that exchanges hands. It’s not even a feature of your solution; the actual core of your product is the item or service that people are selling.
What this typically means for marketplaces is that they try to increase the volume of transactions, but also the value of each transaction (because earning a small % on $5 requires a lot of scale.) Knowing that you’re going to want to monetize transactions at some point (if you’re not doing it out of the gate) very clearly dictates not only the heart of the product, but your strategy and roadmap.
B2B products monetize usage. Typically this is a monthly fee with several tiers. The more usage, the higher likelihood that you have to upgrade to a higher tier, and therefore the heart of the product is what drives usage.
Often, B2B products will drive higher priced tiers through administrative controls; not specifically increased usage of the product. For example, Notion doesn’t tier the number of pages you can create; from the Free to Enterprise plan you have unlimited pages. Slack gives you unlimited messages. Asana gives you unlimited projects. But the more value a user gets, the more likely they invite more people, and as more people are added, the more serious a company has to be about security, integrations, archives, etc.—all of which these companies monetize.
Those extra features aren’t the heart of the product, but they can charge for those features because the heart of the product (i.e. pages, messages, projects) is being used heavily. And in fact, B2B products are shifting to this approach to avoid throttling what sits at the heart of their products. Limiting the core value and purpose of a product can leave users feeling cheated and frustrated—as if they’re being punished for the value they’re getting.
The core of your product (and the atomic unit of engagement) drives the value proposition and the business model and vice versa.
Your product roadmap serves the heart
Your product roadmap is driven by the heart of the product and what you believe is the atomic unit of engagement that will help users get value. Everything should be built to make the core more useful—and in the simplest way possible—to prove that you can get real engagement quickly.
As the product evolves and you’ve proven stickiness with the heart, you start to add more things around it to make it stronger. But adding too many things too early will actually hurt the heart and subsequently confuse users and kill engagement.
7 questions to ask about the core of your product
When building a new product, you need to figure out what lives at its core very quickly. Here are a handful of questions to ask yourself:
Do you truly understand what problem you’re solving? If you get this wrong, you have almost no chance of building a product heart that works. (Learn more here.)
What do you want users to do in your product that drives small but valuable engagement loops, either for them or for others? How quickly can users do what you want them to do? And are you sure those engagement loops are valuable? (Read this post by Ben Williams on engagement.)
How easy is it for users to get value from your product? And how quickly do they get that value? Could you make this easier and/or speed it up?
Why would someone use your product in the first place? Is the value proposition clear enough to motivate people to try?
What are users doing before they use your product? If you understand this, you may be able to find the right triggers to engage them, and get them to the heart of your product faster.
Does the business model (or intended business model) drive more engagement with the core of the product? If people are using your product as intended, and benefitting from the core of it, is that sufficient to allow you to monetize?
What other products (competitive or otherwise) are you modelling your core after? Have you done deep dives into other products to understand what sits at their cores? While I don’t believe in copying things for the sake of it, you should explore other people’s products to learn from them. Copying interactions and user experiences is quite common.
Figure out the heart of your product, and then what the tiniest behaviours you want people to engage in that reinforce the core value proposition you’re offering. Oh, and enjoy cookies too. 😉