The Angry/Happy Spectrum of Product Design

Most software sucks — here’s why

It all comes down to something I like to call it the angry/happy spectrum. It’s easy enough, just put angry on one side of the spectrum and happy on the other.

Then there’s two critical inflection points to add to the spectrum. 1) When people get angry enough to openly complain. 2) When people get excited enough to openly evangelize. It may be different from industry to industry and company to company, but these points are rarely close to the middle. In NPS for example, on a one to ten scale only nine and ten matter for a positive score — anything less is considered too apathetic to say anything nice about you.

If you’re a new company doing something unique and special, you might catch a break and people will give you the benefit of the doubt. In that case, you might get a positively lop-sided angry/happy spectrum.

If you’re in an established market and not doing anything remarkable, people will have high expectations and not be forgiving of the new kid in town. In that case, you might get the opposite weighted spectrum.

The people who complain or brag are easy to measure. They’re vocal about their feelings, easy to find, and can be interviewed and surveyed without much fuss. Unfortunately, there’s a huge area in the middle that’s quiet and mysterious. If you want to figure out how they’re doing, you’ll have to work for it. And by work for it, I mean investing time and resources into researching your audience instead of building more software.

Without intentionally investing in understanding this portion of your audience, there’s a good chance you aren’t going to learn anything about them and they’ll gradually slide down the angry/happy spectrum. Once you’ve shipped something you’ll move on to the next priority and not come back until someone complains (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). Then, as new features are shipped, previously existing features that should be retooled to accomodate new behaviors are neglected. Over a long enough period of time, this approach will land most of your product just above the angry line.

Even though people may not be openly complaining about your product, it still sucks.

So what do you do about it?

As far as I can tell, there are two approaches. 1) Learn more about your customer’s behavior through user testing and field observations to get a better sense of how your product is satisfying (or not satisfying) your audience. 2) Take a more dramatic stance with your product to create a stronger love/hate polarity with your audience. Since there’s so much great help for research and testing I’ll leave that one alone and dive into the second approach.

Of all the ways to solve a problem, there’s usually a flexibly generic way, a rigidly specific way, and everywhere in between. The rigidly specific way can feel too prescriptive and turn off a lot of your audience, but, if chosen wisely, can also excite and inspire the people who fit in. This can increase the size of the angry and happy areas of the spectrum.

If you can increase the amount of people who are vocal and decrease the amount of people who aren’t participating, then you can learn and adapt to your audience more efficiently. The goal isn’t to create a product that everyone loves or hates. The goal is to balance the opportunity of progress against the cost of understanding people who are expensive and time-consuming to research.

What’s the ideal angry/happy spectrum?

If you’re a young startup, you either learn or die — very quickly. You should max out the love/hate polority and make every single person you interact with someone to learn from. In this case, it’s fine to piss people off as long as you’re getting other people excited.

If you’re a more mature company, scaling to a larger and larger audience becomes more and more important and you can’t get away with pissing off too many people. Unfortunately, this also makes it harder to make people happy.

As you move through this spectrum it’s important not to forget that a wide spectrum (mostly apathetic audience) can be just as dangerous as a narrow spectrum (mostly critical audience). Too much time spent with an apathetic audience will create an apathetic product that will eventually be disrupted and replaced.

Sucking less is hard

How large is your audience? What’s the ratio of your audience that complains? What’s the ratio of your audience that evangelizes? If you take a good, hard look at those numbers you can begin to get a sense of how much it will cost to understand them a little bit more. If you’re not getting a noticably vocal response (good and/or bad), expect a lot of expense researching the apathetic center. Even if you lose a few customers, it might be more cost effective to take a bolder stance and let the people with strong opinions come to you.

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