The Las Vegas Strip was probably designed by Product Managers

or What happens when top-of-the-funnel optimization is taken to the limit

Alex Le
Alex Le
Apr 13, 2015 · 3 min read

Zynga at the height of its success was well known for its metrics driven Product Management culture. PMs acted as mini CEOs and had a lot of power to make decisions so that they could optimize the crap out of their respective areas of focus. The autonomy to build your product was liberating. But with so many product leaders running rampant, a problem began to emerge.

PMs leading different features for a single game would sometimes launch their features in the same week with vastly different user experiences. This created competition for the limited attention of the game’s user base. “Feature Marketing,” or in other words popups, toasters and other attention grabbing calls to action for each feature were aggressively added to widen the top of the funnel. These CTAs were often built as one-off bits of code that were uncoordinated and overwhelmed users. At one point there was an infamous email that circulated criticizing one game team for allowing 18 popups to appear in rapid succession to a returning user who was inactive for a few weeks. Each popup directed the user towards a different feature they had missed or promotion that was still ongoing. Each feature was hitting the metric goals they expected, but the overall product experience was getting worse. This is a persistent problem for free to play games even today. Download any of the latest top grossing iOS games and you’ll see the same dynamic unfolding.

For the record, CityVille (the game I worked on) was NOT the 18 popup game. We just had a shitload of quest markers lining the screen. So much better M I RITE?

At Zynga, this specific Tragedy of the Commons[1] came to be known as the Las Vegas Strip Effect — so called because of the ever increasing prominence of competing calls to action, similar to how the Strip slowly evolved to become the glittering monstrosity in the desert that it is today. Of course, anyone looking at the Las Vegas strip today has no trouble imagining how this situation could have arisen, but that is the nature of a slippery slope! That first PM with a bigger and brighter sign probably didn’t foresee the fire breathing volcanoes, live-action pirate shows, and replica wonders of the world dominating the skyline.

As companies grow and empower personnel who each have their own distinct goals it’s important to keep in mind the long term plans for the product and the company overall. It’s too easy to read out the positive results of an experiment that gets a lot of user attention and suddenly start down this path. You have to see past the short term wins and double check if each decisision aligns with what is best for your users.

This is why data alone can’t make your product successful. You have to be data-informed but still have a user-centric goal as your North Star. Numbers alone will mislead you. I’m looking forward to seeing the new and improved Zynga take on their new challenges with this and all of the other lessons learned over the past two years.

[1] The Tragedy of the Commons was criticized as being propaganda in the name of private ownership over commonly controlled lands. You can categorize this post as more propaganda. The best products and services are benevolent dictatorships.

Follow me on Medium for more stories like this on Product, Design, and Startups.

Thanks to Kavin Stewart, Arya Asemanfar, and Siqi Chen for reading drafts of this post.

Alex Le

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Alex Le

Product builder, designer, investor, advisor. This is a place for me to focus my ideas.

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