Chief Product Officer at Adobe, Scott Belsky, discusses his beliefs on creating the first mile of your product. His immediate suggestion is to focus on your newest customers. Why? You can learn the most about what problem your product solves or value it provides. Once you understand the core value of your product, you can factor in ego analytics within your product to make it stick. He also suggests other product features to implement during the first mile. Take a listen to the video below on your daily commute. Really useful for anyone in your product teams needing a sense of direction.
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Scott Belsky – Chief Product Officer @ Adobe
Hey good morning. Pick up a random person to interview today. Anyone want to be interviewed? I don’t know why…I will make you do. So Jason’s team asked me to come and talk a little bit about an obsession of mine for a long time which has been the the first mile of product experience. And I just think it’s one of those woefully neglected yet super important aspects of of our products. And it’s just the ultimate irony that we that we spend so much time in the development cycle to build the most incredible product we can imagine. And then oftentimes it’s only the last mile of our team’s experience building a product that considers the first mile of our customer’s experience of our product. And then we start to wonder why the funnel is so inefficient and why so few people are kind of getting to the zone where where they actually know what they need to do next and why they’re there and how to really engage deeply and stay and retain over time. So this is over the years I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I tried to put together some thoughts today maybe I thought I’d start just like a quick intro in some product realizations that I’ve had over the course of a few just different chapters of my own career. The phase one of my world in tech started with in around 2005 with this idea to organize and empower the creative world. And so this was an effort to bring together a small group of folks.
None of us had any idea what we were doing. And the idea was let’s try to organize creative people because everyone sort of seems to where disorganization as a badge of honor. And yet we felt like organization was a competitive advantage in the creative world. And so this actually this team and business started as a paper products business of all things to sort of bootstrap our efforts over the years we were bootstrapped for about five years doing things like paper products a couple of books hosting a conference and an online think tank around organization in the creative world. This conference is now actually in its tenth year this year called 99 U which gathers leaders in the creative world in New York once a year. And then of course eventually the network which is now over 12 million people creatives showcasing their work across all creative fields. And it’s become in some ways like a way of people getting attribution for the work that they’ve done. And in a lot of companies use this network to hire creative talent and creatives use this network to also host their own personal portfolio sites in their own domain name kind of connected with a central network. And I would say that the product philosophy that I took away or one of them from this chapter of getting my hands off the ground was this idea of being mission centric yet medium agnostic I do think it’s important to have a singular mission and a team.
But these days where you can actually spin up other aspects other mediums of a business and outsource a lot of it whether it’s paper products or a conference or whatever else and give your customers a very holistic experience of what your mission is. In our case to organize the creative world I think that that’s actually a best practice in building a brand and something that teams don’t think of enough. So the next chapter was helping think about creativity and creative tools in a mobile world. And this started with our acquisition by Adobe in 2012 and coming in and then being absorbed by the company and then thinking OK you know “What do I want to do here besides just integrate Behance?” And there is this opportunity to think about the future of products like Photoshop and others and how they can mobile be used as a first class citizen and creative professional workflow. And so there were a bunch of products some of which work some of which didn’t that we launched over the first three years that I was at Adobe and I think one of the product philosophies of that experience was that products can in fact be powerful enough for professionals yet accessible to everyone. And I think there’s also during this period of time that I kind of fell in love with that first mile of a customer’s experience of a product because that’s a huge part of it.
It’s one of the fascinating insights actually that I’ve now learned in my new role at Adobe being Chief Product Officer is literally millions of people every year open Photoshop look at it once and then close it and never come back because they’re like What the hell am I supposed to do here. It’s a verb right. They they know they want to Photoshop like an ex-boyfriend out of a photo or whatever and they win and they’re like I don’t know what to do next. So this is it’s an interesting dilemma. And it’s something that you know that I hope to help the teams figure out. The third chapter you know now and over the last few years in some ways has been to help make products for creativity more accessible and connected. And so this is where we’re thinking like gosh you know these creative products that are flagship products on the desktop how do they work across all devices. How do we make them more simple. You know the before and after of illustrator and just how much more simple can it become and I think there’s a long ways to go in terms of simplifying product experience across different different different different products. How do you have cloud first experiences in Adobe products versus these static desktop files that everyone’s used to.
How do you organize assets for a team to work around all these sorts. And again like how do you mix them like Photoshop a lot simpler. While I’ve been in this new role at Adobe and even before that I’ve also been focused on working with a lot of startups and small teams both both as an investor and an individual investor and also a venture partner with Benchmark and continue to be working with them to just work with a lot of teams. Again focus on some of these product things. A few teams that I had a deeper role in. I mean one was Periscope which which was ultimately acquired by Twitter but thinking about again from a true mass social consumer product. How do you make this simple and accessible enough for everyone and also introduce some new concepts that could be distinctive in that world. Another team prefer that I’m on the board of is helping build a referral network for independent professionals and we deal with a lot of the same questions. So the product philosophy from all of that period that I’m still in actually is this again and this obsession over this first mile of the customer’s experience that is woefully neglected and I think this is true for startups as well as for big companies. It’s true for consumer as well as enterprise and regardless of your business model it’s something you need to think about.
Does it make sense? We know we’re right we’re here. So let’s let’s jump in here and I’ll just share a few thoughts some of them are you know maybe off the beaten path a little bit of a typical product presentation but these are things that I think about quite often. And it’s really generally asking this question What must we do to keep our products accessible. But let’s just start with a different question which is why is it so hard? And I like to kind of talk about this myth of making building anything that we are all very familiar with this notion that it’s an incredible conception of an idea get super hard and then we hopefully have a linear path to the finish line. But in truth it’s a lot more like this where you just it’s like it’s a series of highly volatile peaks and troughs and every trough you’re like shit and then every peak it’s like OK something’s working something to learn here something to do again and then you go down again and then you go up again and I think the best you can possibly hope for is to have this kind of positive slope. Now there are other implications of this like for example in the beginning we think we have a plan and then we realized throughout the real journey that we really can’t plan.
And then it’s also just real time of course testing iteration and and questioning our plan is actually the best practice of the journey itself. Another implication is that we’re very self-reliant in the beginning and then we realize that we have to rely on our team and we simply can’t do this alone. And if we try to we will fail. I think one of the third the third major implication is that in the beginning we have very simple solutions that inspire us to start our businesses in the first place and actually help us hit the market with some level of excitement among customer customers that are currently working with our incumbents. And then of course in the reality of things as we’re starting to actually help these products be industrial grade and scale and be something that people are willing to pay for we start adding complexity. And the easiest way by the way to get out of one of these troughs in the journey of building a product is to just add complexity to the product.
Any problem that comes up at a solution without maybe taking into account the full experience and boiling it down to the most simple solution and as a result these these products become kind of complex monsters. And and this is one of those. So this is what I’m thinking about today is really about grounding the product decisions we make with some consistent convictions along the way to keep them accessible and keep our customers engaged. And so what is what are these convictions? Well there are a lot of them.
But one of them that I keep going back to over and over is just this simple conviction that life is really just time and how you use it and that the majority of products in the world whether they’re enterprise or consumer either spend time or save time and in just a few examples. Obviously the media and games and all this stuff this is intended to spend time and they’re trying to get us to spend more and more of our time and that’s kind of how they’re constantly optimized. And then there are products that are arguably there to help us save time. You know soccer is supposed to help us save time in terms of dealing with e-mail and constant noise by having more organization around it evernote remembering things postmate saving us the time from going out and getting something uber getting somewhere faster all these sorts of things and of course there are some products that you could argue both spend and save time in some ways like labor and we’ll make us cook our meal instead of ordering it in but actually prepare the ingredients so the cooking of the meal is faster. I mean there’s some sort of companies that fall in the middle but the bottom line here is is this realization that in some ways we’re constantly fighting to save time and we’re constantly seduced to spend time at all times.
And and this is true in your customers lives right within the work world or in a consumer mindset. They’re constantly fighting this battle. And and the only way to sort of trick this battle to make customers almost forget you know all of these the realities of this fight and be engaged with the fight is to tap these natural human tendencies that all of us have that sort of supersede our tracking of time. And for example things like taking care of ourselves and loved ones we love avoiding difficult decisions we all want to be recognized. We all have egos. We want to preserve our options. We all want to look good. Vanity is important to us in some ways our natural human tendencies are the twilight zone for time. It’s where people just start to forget. And again I think this is true across all kinds of products. And so and so if you can accommodate these natural human tendencies and consider them in the process of crafting your product you actually start to really engage and retain your customers because you know again you’re tapping into something especially in the early stages of their engaging with your product when they don’t care about your long term value proposition and anything else they just want to. They just want to basically judge you very quickly whether it’s worth it or not. And they get out you have to kind of hook them in and explain this more with some examples of what are these natural human tendencies or what are some of them that we should really think about these natural human tendencies of our customers that we need to take into account as we are crafting especially the first mile of their product experience for the first the first one is this realization that in the first 15 seconds of all of our experiences with any product or service we are lazy we are vain and we are selfish
We are lazy in the sense that we don’t have time to read or to learn something new and we have no interest in going through that on boardings with too many examples of these instructional videos that we’re presumably going to watch even though we have no idea what this product is or are more than one line of copy. We just have no patience for it and we’re lazy. We want this to be done for us. Now some products instead of explaining something through a video or whatever they show with like tool tips or whatever they show kind of how to use the product and walk someone through it. I would say even better than showing is actually doing it for the customer. And some of the most successful products that I’ve seen especially in the creative space but in any sort of productivity space they give you templates. The smart selection versus manual entry presumptuous defaults just kind of guessing what the press customer probably wants and doing it for them. One of my favorite quotes in product is from my friend Dave Morin who always likes to say that the devil is in the defaults. Right. Whatever your team decides the customer should have as a default experience is actually likely what 90 percent of your customers will have and continue to have forever. Even. I’ve seen studies on the sort of those dismissal problems that show up and like the top of LinkedIn when you first join or whatever and the majority of customers never even close them.
So anything you put in this default experience will literally just stay forever. And again ironically we kind of make these decisions haphazardly when we’re launching our products. We’re just like oh you know I don’t know what should we land them into. And then that stuff stays forever. I mean those should be some of the most critical decisions you will ever make in your product experience for customers. So we’re lazy. We’re vague we’re vain in the sense that it’s better make us look good and quickly because again life is short and we work hard. One of the terms I always work with teams on and I think about with them whether it’s a team like Pinterest when they were starting Periscope and we thought a lot about with Behance this term of ego analytics and how are we showing the customer that they are actually accruing value and looking good as a result of using this product in this in this period where they’re still carelessly engaging they’re not convinced that it’s valuable for them. With Periscope, one of the challenges I remember was it was a lot it’s live streaming right of video and a lot of it is boring. And even if you’re watching a friend at a parade somewhere or doing something there’s a lot of footage that is just kind of hard to get through to get through to get to the point that’s interesting and and so the the incessant harding that happens in the product that now a lot of other products have as well.
In some ways there’s like a dopamine stream to carry you through the boring parts both as the viewer as well as the broadcaster in some ways it’s kind of like the laugh track or the clap track and some old school TV shows it just kind of carries the viewer through the experience and fills these voids and you start to actually forget that you’re watching boring footage at periods of time. In some ways it’s this ego analytic stream that gets everyone know that everyone’s kind of getting something out of this. If you look at a product like Instagram which is this is always about when you log in seeing how many people liked something left a comment on something tagged you on something. It’s a perfect example. And I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that these products when you look at the analytics of consumer time and engagement in the product it’s typically like a static sort of lower line of people going in to see their friends posts and see whatever is going on and Instagram and and as soon as you post something you’re logging activity after you post a piece of content goes up a lot because you want to see what people said about the thing that you posted until it goes back to you know a neutral state.
And then when you post something again the ego analytics drive you back that vanity is what is engaging you in the product. And so maybe one of those dirty little secrets in social consumer products is that they’re more about seeing who saw your content as they are about sharing and seeing others people’s content which is maybe a sad state of human behavior but it’s totally true. And so we have to think about any product that is geared around network effects or anything else like what are the ego analytics. What’s your form of ego analytics that will keep people engaged in the products solely out of their own at least an initial use cases out of their own vanity. We’re also in the first 15 seconds selfish or the first few uses of our product. We’re very selfish in the sense that we need to benefit quickly from spending any time on this thing. We are busy. We’ve got more things in our inbox and we know we could do it in a day. The gravitational force of operations is extraordinarily strong and hard to escape. And so we are very selfish as we should be with our time developers designers you name it especially in the workplace.
We’re very skeptical of these long term promises that products make and the product that we engage with as a new user really needs to deliver value right now. And that notion of right now that immediacy is really what this selfishness is all about. Remember Pinterest launching before it had any network effect. It was really a utility to manage your catalog of stuff. It’s interesting to you. That was in the initial emails to customers and everything. They were always saying like build your catalog. It was more about your immediate utility of organizing your life. Before we could actually offer any kind of long term promise of what you could achieve over time with this product by discovering other people’s stuff. And you almost had to do that in order to get any customer engagement. I remember the early days of slack. My team was using hip chat and that was our workplace tool. But suddenly people started using Slack because of the animated gifts and the sort of fun nature of a coffee room where everyone would sort of talk about where they’re gonna go to coffee and where they’re going to get a coffee and in some ways this product back to the selfishness thing was amusing people in order to teach and engage them how to use the product they were using.
Some more selfish kind of personal gratification ideas like humor and stuff. In order to get people sort of through that first mile and and to discover like kind of a long term utility and value proposition of this product and then you see some of these developer tools out there the end the language the marketing copy that’s been endlessly tested that actually drives adoption and it’s really geared towards the selfishness of the developer. In this case or the or the company or in this case actually the business owner like the small business owner so get paid faster you know. Probably I wouldn’t know for fact but probably converted more than a lot of other slogans. Again the two lines of code concept that stripe and so many other API type companies use to appeal to two developers as customers was really geared towards that selfishness of this is like the fastest damn thing you can possibly do to solve this problem you’re being given by your product manager and and we’re gonna make you look good fast. So they’re actually appealing to both the vanity and the selfishness of our decision making process at the top of the funnel of a product like this. So I think the a couple of points here you know the first somewhat controversial is that I have always believed that marketing and copy should ultimately be borne by the product team because it’s part of the product experience.
I mean that first mile the product team is ultimately responsible for and yet all too often especially in large organizations we just like kick it over to another team or a person or even outside agency that is supposed to kind of develop the approach to appealing to someone’s selfishness that is actually the ultimate determinant of the top of the funnel right that first mile experience. So it doesn’t have to be executed by the product team but the concept the concept the zen of it I think needs to be born from the product team is it’s part of that product experience. All right. So that was the longest one to two other human tendency is to think about. The first is this tendency that we all have again in that twilight zone where we don’t want to make the wrong choice in fact we don’t want choices and we are this almost unconscious bias towards simplicity and fewer choices and there’s so many going to cite all the studies around you know people go into a store with hundreds of candles and they buy nothing but they go into a store with two two sets of candles and they buy something. I mean there’s so much data to support the issues around choices but suffice to say in our products the more options we have for customers the more problems we’re going to have in terms of getting those customers engaged and retained.
And it’s one of those principles. And again like great product managers are always fighting that tendency to add complexity in the middle of the journey when things get crazy right. The product lifecycle is probably every type of industry is quite simple. Users flock to a simple product. The old incumbent that’s been in the industry forever that has a complicated noisy whatever. A new product emerges that’s so simple users flock to it. That product takes the users for granted. It starts really listening to power users and really wants to satisfy those people that become the most zealots like Angeles type users of the product. And so they throw in more and more features and what happens. Users flock to simple product again. This can happen in a very short cycle of a few years. This can happen in certain industries over a long period of time. But this is that product lifecycle that we all want to escape the fate of. So obviously you know making simple is freaking complicated and it requires a tremendous amount of empathy with the customer and a lot of insight. But even harder is staying simple. How do you just preserve this over time. I believe that the shortcut to staying simple for all users is to have an obsession with new users
With the newest users of your product like constantly leveraging them to ground you in all of the other strange stuff. You start to believe over the course of managing a product and becoming a little drunk on it over time. And I think a big part of this is prioritizing the problems for new users over the problems for your power users. Now this sounds obvious but it’s not. In fact it’s really tricky because you will figure out the needs if you’re a great team you’ll figure out the needs of your newest users when you launch the product and what you will fail sometimes to remember is that new cohorts of new users are entirely different.
I mean take take for a case in point is Twitter. I would argue that for the first hundred and fifty million users of Twitter the new users were really taken into account. These are people that wanted to follow individual people or brands and build their timeline that was highly customized to them and they became incredible power users of the product. But then at some point the newest cohort of users of Twitter changed the after I guess one hundred or 150 million or whatever people they became a different type of new user that was coming simply for news. And then they were bombarded with this idea of following individuals and creating and cultivating and curating a timeline over time that mattered to them like that was totally not even interesting to them and the product I think continues to kind of back into this realization that they might be a media company and and it’s a totally different type of new user that in some ways you know I imagine like you nailed the new year’s experience Chi conversion and success you kind of just move on to the rest of the product and sometimes you take your eye off of the changing needs of new cohorts of new users. So I think that the the tricky part here then is the solution is to really take a percentage of your time potentially even half of your time consistently focused on the experience of the newest users through the first mile.
It’s not just to keep your product growing and to be able to accommodate those new cohorts of new users. It’s also a way of grounding yourself of almost counterbalancing all of the things you start to believe by listening to power users all day especially becoming power users yourself. It’s almost like the antidote. You know it’s like the it’s the it’s it’s becoming sober for 50 percent of the time and your company to think about the path to growth as opposed to constantly being inebriated by everything else you’re hearing and observing with your power customers so the third tendency was we’re talking about is this tendency that we have as humans to favor novelty yet cling to familiarity. We love things that are new and we certainly say we do and sometimes we do but also we have this like you know we have this lure towards whatever makes us feel comfortable. Seth Godin the the prolific author and thinker calls us the lizard brain and talks about the biology behind the ancestral part of our brain that is similar to lizards where we actually have a quick kind of subconscious recourse away from anything that is uncomfortable or unfamiliar. And that you know in wherever even when we’re walking down the street or whatever wheel will subconsciously kind of like edge our way towards things that are familiar in a way from things that aren’t.
And the implications of this you know in so many other parts of our life I learned this the hard way with my team a number of times. But the first time is when we launch begins a network for creative people. We figured hey let’s be creative with the taxonomy of the product. And so we figured hey you know everyone’s going to join hands they’re going to join and they’re going to pick a creative realm that they’re in like illustration or photography or graphic design or motion graphics. And then when they’re when they are it is even before Google’s group circles thing you’re not going to. If you want to join a like minded group of creatives you’re going to join a circle. And so I remember my co-founder was was from Barcelona. He couldn’t even pronounce real. He always was like rhythm and I should’ve been assigned to me that this was not the right term for this. You know for the taxonomy of the of the network people for a couple of years just hesitated at the point of on-boarding to pick their creative realm. People were like What the hell are they talking about. And there were a lot of these terms and decisions that we made that we wanted to do to be innovative and to be different and to appeal to our base.
And when in fact we ended up just reverting back to the common familiar language creative fields and groups and engagement went up. And it sounds kind of obvious but we just you are always trying to be innovative and overthinking kind of what can differentiate you from say Facebook or anything else. And sometimes the familiarity is literally what breeds utilization right. So I think familiarity is the friend of utilization. Anything that’s familiar any common language any common ways of filling out forms like all of this stuff is really what can help our customers get through the first mile yet the rest of our product however and I think that there’s a good bunch of examples I was looking through my apartment just recently and I found like a bunch of examples like my remote has a party button and you know it’s such a it’s such a you know what happens when you push that button right. It just like puts all the rooms on and I could have been like called you know all active or whatever else it was just like no party. It’s a familiar term that breeds utilization. My toaster has a bit more. And I just I was like that’s such a great leverage you know leveraging of a term concept that is familiar that can then breed utilization.
So there are lots of examples of this in our life. So familiarity is great. It’s but but here’s the thing. It’s was the friend of utilization. It’s also the enemy of innovation. If you are only using what’s familiar you’re unlikely to find those few instances where you really need to advance your field to differentiate yourself from the pack. And. A perfect example is focus groups. I mean if any of you have ever run focus groups you’ll know that would focus groups are really testing is what’s familiar so you put something in front of people and you say what should we call this. What should we do here. What would you think we should be creating where you think we should do it. And it’s just if you’re basically just testing whatever people people’s lizard brain goes to. And so it’s actually a great way of keeping you safe. But it will actually fight you from adopting the few things on the few occasions where you have to really think of something different differently. So I think that the message I take away from this always with with my teams is that we should adopt familiar patterns whenever possible but we should force new behaviors that power a unique value. So there is something that we are doing that again is like a unique value that differentiates our product.
And it requires forcing a new behavior. A perfect example of this. Back to periscope was when they launch in the age of selfies like everything every new video app was a selfie app. And I remember some of the early folks who were playing with this product were like Guys your camera opens the wrong way like everyone’s camera opens facing you because this is the selfie generation and everyone wants to start by sharing themselves with their friends that’s like everyone knows that whereas the team really felt like the inside by periscope was experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes. That notion of teleportation where like the video should be by default facing out so you’re actually dropping somewhere in the world you know that’s foreign to you. And just as an example you know the team decided to kind of take the the unfamiliar experience of people downloading this app and the selfie craze feel like wait you know I should be seeing myself what’s going on here. That was something that power the unique value of the product and what they were trying to achieve. And so they really pushed out and said behind it. So I would actually argue that transformational products across all industries are 90 percent really accommodating of what customers would expect and are familiar with and are 10 percent retraining like what are the few things you want to train people to do differently to think differently.
What’s the what are the key terms you do want to invent that are unique and then make sure though that the balance right is like the 90 10 type of approach is to keep yourself in check. Don’t fall into the trap that I did where I just was like naming all these things my own way and had to revert back to what was actually familiar to people so. So. So those are the three kind of sets of human tendencies that I figured I’d share with you today and I guess to kind of recap a few key takeaways. How do we keep our products accessible. Right. So the first thing is we have to have faith in our customers. We yes like we. It’s great to have a vision and a mission for your business and a long term promise for what you’re trying to do in the world and for your customer how you’re trying to transform their lives. It’s wonderful to have this noble sense of why you’re there but not in the first 15 seconds in the first 15 seconds round yourself with the reality that your customers are lazy they’re vain and they’re selfish and keep that in mind as you develop the first mile of the on-boarding the default states the empty state of your product the copy the market everything needs to also be grounded by that humbling and somewhat.
Unfortunate realization stay grounded by that newest customers experience you know try to devise an effort in your in your business and your product team around the first mile and obsess over it and make sure you catch when a new cohort of new users means you have to kind of reconsider your assumptions and decisions you made to satisfy your newest users because they may change faster sometimes than you realize they’re are early adopters and then they’re not early adopters and then they’re followers etc. And then finally innovate. By all means innovate but keep the core mechanics and the language that you’re using familiar. Leverage familiarity as a shortcut to utilization rather than than get too caught in innovating too fast human tendencies. You know these all these human tendencies and these are a few that I shared. They defy our ideals whatever we think we can do with our product and achieve the human tendency is sometimes overpower those ideals. And so we have to remember that and of course as we’re building you have to remember we’re creating for people and we just need to be in that process as human as we possibly can. Thank you for having me.