Helping Users Confront Life’s Challenges

My grandfather was a citrus farmer, and his family of german immigrants helped found the local Methodist church in Lutz, Florida. The Methodists have a tradition of rotating the lead pastor at a church every few years, so I’m sure it wasn’t an unusual thing when my grandmother and grandfather were sitting in the pew of the church learning about the latest young seminary graduate that would be up in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. It probably also wasn’t unusual that the young seminary graduate was a real go-getter and wanted to make sure his church was well organized, with a hymnal in every pew and orderly membership records for every soul in his care.

What was unusual was that he asked every congregant to fill out a form with the scripture readings and hymns that they wanted read and sung at their funeral. <organ screeches to a halt> Wait, hold on now, of course everyone wants their funeral to represent the things they value, and we certainly can’t ask you about that after you’ve passed on, so it makes total sense, right?!

Well, I know that story because my grandmother was the only person in the entire church to return that form. Her funeral, nearly 25 years ago, was beautiful and presumably included the exact readings and songs she wanted us to hear.

As product managers we’re just like that eager young minister, building well-meaning, simple ways for people to organize their music collection, build wonderfully annotated albums of their digital photos, manage every last penny of their finances, or perfectly label and process their email inboxes. And since, as product managers, we’re probably like my grandmother, focused on the outcome, and a bit blind to the emotional effort and focus we’d need to actually accomplish the tasks needed to get there (that’s how we got into this role, right?).

Working these past few years helping people become more financially secure, and be better connected to their cash flows, I have to constantly remind myself that most people simply don’t want to allow the complexity, anxiety and unknown of their financial reality to enter their head. There are absolutely people like my grandmother, one in 200, that will seek out those experiences, but the vast majority of folks just won’t.

So, how do we get users to confront difficult realities? How do we build the experiences that get people to engage even when it comes with anxiety or the unknown? Here are three things I’ve used and admire in some of my favorite product experiences.

Push before you pull

Rather than creating great experiences to organize our music libraries, the dominant players in the space are pushing the best music to you. That may be Spotify’s Discover Weekly, Google Play Music’s mood-based playlists, or Pandora’s promise to give you an unending stream of music if you can please just name one song or artist! They do the job of adding a soundtrack to your boring treadmill marathon, or make-your-own-taco night without asking for a lot of engagement. Looking at your own product challenge, find ways to bring “playlists” or simple choices to people to show them that they’re already engaged.

That early engagement can then set off a virtuous cycle. As you begin to learn more about user behavior patterns you can actually express that back and ask for deeper engagement. Netflix may push some easy options at the top of the main page, but they also crunch the data they have about you to hand you back a more engaging pull experience down screen.

Make it a game

It’s very easy to go overboard here. Difficult realities shouldn’t be trivialized with badges and leaderboards, but we can think about the game mechanics and behavioral design that are at work in the experiences we generate. Take email, an often challenging reality of participating in the modern world. Email gives us finite tasks with simple rewards: acknowledge this message and I will unbold it for you, move this to the trash and a beautiful animation will sweep it away and everything will look neater. And great email clients are trimming away more fat to focus on the most rewarding actions: Google Inbox allows you to comfortably ignore entire buckets of messages so you can get the reward of a nice clean core inbox without having to do a herculean amount of work.

Those simple moments of progress, coupled with a sense of control are what draw us to games, and can draw us into dealing with difficult realities. But beware, like email and personal finance, many of these difficult realities share a lot of ingrained behaviors that most people aren’t willing to change unless you’re adding considerably more value. Fortunately the growing link between behavioral economics and product development has really matured the thinking in this space.

Make it about people

Lastly, acknowledge that what we really care about isn’t the difficult reality, it’s the people in our lives. Finding the beautiful photo of the river valley isn’t as important as remembering that it was that last trip we took together before graduation. Apple Photos has gone as far as creating a “Memories” section in the iPhone app. And Google photos is parsing location metadata, doing the difficult job of detecting faces, and constructing stories across those details, “3 days in Los Angeles”, and maybe one day, “the bike camping trip we took last summer”, or “picking out pumpkins with the kids in 2015”. How can you reflect back your understanding of the humanity in the challenge, or even let people engage on those terms? One day soon we’ll no doubt be searching photos, music, or financial transactions based on the human and emotional connections they have to our lives.

Difficult realities are difficult because they’re often loaded with a fear of judgement and it’s so tempting to ask users to “eat your vegetables”, “buy one less coffee,” or write down their favorite hymns, but that can actually have the opposite effect, pushing people away by demanding a challenging, judgement-filled upfront engagement.

We can all look at the eager young minister, and cringe at the idea of getting up in front of the people in our care and making such a challenging ask early in the relationship, but we often do exactly the same thing in our products. Then we eagerly count the small amount of engagement we do have, people like my grandmother, and feel like we just need to market more, or streamline the experience, which does yield incremental gain, but doesn’t unlock the bigger opportunity, which is really big!

It’s big because we all want financial success, we all want inbox sanity, perfectly preserved memories, and an engaging soundtrack to our lives. Each of those challenges feels easier than the challenge that the young minister was confronting, which is perhaps the most difficult reality of them all. But I imagine he was motivated in the same way I am — helping people engage with the overwhelming aspects of their lives gives us a chance to bring feelings of confidence and control to an incredible number of people in our care —and that is easily the most rewarding part of my day.