Love, Fear, and Itches in Products

Tina He
Tina He
Oct 24, 2018 · 7 min read

One the best product advice I’ve ever received was from Jenny, a seasoned PM who’s built products in both the U.S. and China for the past decade. We met at Blue Bottle the other day, where she told me how three kinds of human emotions contribute most critically to a product’s success: delight, fear, and restlessness.

“The most successful products either bring people delight, mitigate their fear, or at least scratch their itch.” She made a virtual triangle with her fingers in the air.

What she said stuck with me since it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Oprah Winfrey —

“I believe that every single event in life happens in an opportunity to choose love over fear.”

I found this message having a lasting and profound impact; It’s seeped into my understanding of not just creating products, but also inform my career and personal growth.

First, let’s talk pain point.

One of the first things that people talk about when building products is finding the “pain point” in the user journey.

The biggest and most common misconception about pain point is that it’s what a lot of people want but not have.

To illustrate my point, think about this scenario:

Laura is a working mom. She wants to accomplish her career goals, but she also has two young kids to look after. Her husband doesn’t get home til later due to his job, so she also needs to go do grocery shopping and prepare dinner after work. She is really passionate about spinning and reading, but her schedule simply doesn’t allow her to do so, because she dedicates all her time to her family and doing chores.

What is her pain point? Is there a product that can be designed to solve her pain point?

Laura’s problem is extremely common and shared amongst almost all busy and exhausted working moms, and her needs for a freer schedule and her needs for pursuing her passions and hobbies aren’t met. If the pain point here is defined as such, then it simply won’t lead to a successful product. Why?

Because there is no fear involved, and deep down she probably finds fulfillment from sacrificing some of her passions. In fact, sacrificing is part of the experience of loving and being a mother. Imagine a product that takes care of her kid for her so she has more free time to pursue her interests, she probably wouldn’t use it.

What is a pain point then?

Pain point is fear.

The most engaging and successful products mitigate fear.

Think Facebook, it’s the fear of missing out on important updates. Think Uber, it’s the fear of being late to a meeting or a date and the fear of waiting endless for a cab. Think Airbnb, it’s the fear of having nowhere to stay when traveling to a new place. Think Venmo, it’s the fear of asking your friend for money or never getting your money back. Think Snapchat, the majority of user retention comes from the fear of losing streaks. Think Slack, it’s the fear of missing out on important information. Think LinkedIn, it’s the fear of recruiters to miss out on talents.

The list goes on.

Clearly, building products would be a bit depressing if all we think about is people’s fear, but I do want to argue its importance, and here’s a appropriate time to bring back Oprah’s quote:

“I believe that every single event in life happens in an opportunity to choose love over fear.”

We want to make products that create events that allow users to pick love over fear.

What do we talk about when we talk about love.

Maybe I can delve deeper into the theme of love in another post, but now I’ll focus on love in the context of creating products.

If pain point represents fear in the language of product design, then delight represents love.

What is delight? Humans are happy when they are content with their condition, otherwise they would feel frustrated, anxious, or annoyed, and they will start searching for something to restore their state of contentment.

If there is something that gives them instant gratification during this searching period so that they return to the state of contentment, that is delight.

And we fall in love with a product when it overcomes our fear and gives us this kind of delight.

I mentioned a big misconception about pain point; I’d also like to bring up a common misconception about delight. Many people think delight is looking “pretty” or being “playful”, something like this —

Yes, these could be delights if these are what help the users reach the state of contentment, but more often than not, they are not, and sometimes they might even damage the experience. For example, an overly fancy parallax animation that makes scrolling a website painful.

There are countless products that bring delights, in fact, almost all successful products achieve this. Everyone can identify reasons why they love a product, but delving deeper into the core is essential when you are creating a product. What are people searching for when they go to the product, and how exactly does it provide that instant gratification or delight?

Think Spotify, it provides delight by instantly giving you access to all the music you want to listen to. Think Instacart, it provides delight by instantly delivers grocery to your door when you need vegetables or shampoo. Think Apple Pay, it provides delights by instantly paying for what you want without searching for your wallet. Think Trivia HQ, it provides delight by giving you possibility to win cash whenever you are bored. Think Robinhood, it provides delight by allowing anyone to trade stocks instantly on their phone whenever and wherever.

Let’s revisit Laura’s case mentioned above. If our focus is on addressing the pain point of not being able to fulfill her passion — there’s neither love nor fear involved, and the product being built would be quite mediocre.

On the other hand, if we zoom in on Laura experience and map out each step of the same scenario through love and fear, we can identify opportunity areas.

One fear of Laura is that her kids are not doing well at pre-school, that’s a product opportunity, and thus a successful product Brightwheel emerged. And one way Laura can be instantly gratified is to have a workout session right at home whenever she wants, something like Peloton or MIRROR will provide such delight.

It’s not hard to observe that the best products can both provide delight and also mitigate fear, and as the product grows with more features, there will be a self-perpetuating user journey within a product that evokes both of these feelings. You get instant gratification when the health ring on your Apple Watch closes when you are searching for validation; then the fear of missing the daily streak of closing the ring would encourage you to move more. You get the idea.

Itch Scratching

“But I feel like sometimes I’d buy products not out of love or fear, but just because I want to.”

Jenny took a sip from the cappuccino in front of her; then she looked around before looking at me: “check out this cafe”.

We were sitting at the Blue Bottle in Palo Alto. It’s a beautiful open space infused with the irresistible aroma of espresso beans. People were concentrating on their MacBooks, vigorously typing something. Few were having engaging conversations.

“Why do you come to Blue Bottle?” She smiled and asked.

Actually I realized the answer to my own question the moment she looked around the cafe.

I’m here not just because Blue Bottle has good coffee, but mostly because I’d like to see myself coming here, to be at the Blue Bottle in Palo Alto, a coffee shop where people grind and dream and make ideas happen. It’s the same reasons boys hoard Yeezys, and girls wait in line for Kylie’s lip glosses.

What are itches in products? It’s when all else are held equal, we want to choose the option that represents the choice of our ideal selves.

I feel itchy because it evokes something in me, so I will prefer this over the other option. This is where a lot of brand marketing and intuitive UX come in to play their roles.

“You are scratching you own itch of wanting to feel a bit special today,” she glanced at my empty cup. “Want a croissant?”

This framework that include love, fear, and itches has served me well when trying to understand and create a product’s design and strategy.

The first question I ask myself when designing for a product is: what is the fear I can mitigate, delight I can create, and itch I can scratch?

I will be writing more about products in later posts, but I believe understanding people’s emotions and how these emotions trigger actions is essential to designing products.

By the end of the day, the best products empower us to feel as if we are the heroes of our own journey, overcoming our inner fear to fight courageously for what we love.

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Tina He

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Tina He

Making sense of the future with people & pixels