Don’t Build for Users. Build for Emotions.

Value proposition, product market fit, pain point, ROI….

Starting off as an entrepreneur right out of my teenage years and now as a Product Manager in a fairly successful startup I’ve had these terms thrown at me and have probably gone on to throw them at other people.

I have gone on to realise that these terms mean little. Pain points and product fits are not necessities for product success.

How does one articulate the value proposition of knowing an unimportant acquaintance checking into a restaurant in Australia? Or the pain point that was addressed by 6-second looping videos of random strangers?

If we were to approach all products from our perspective of what fits the market, the Foursquares and Vines of the world would not exist.

So, if not these terms, what really defines successful products?

The ‘user’ bias

The moment someone gets a product idea or even before that, they start thinking of their potential users — the people who are going to use this product that they will build.

However, the moment you think users, you think needs, you think pain points, you think benefits to give. You start trying to address gaps that exist and are inconveniencing people — gaps that you can fulfil.
Sounds just about right, right?

At this point, let’s take a step back and stop calling them Users. Let’s call them Humans.

What just changed? Users are driven by need. Humans are driven by emotion.


Emotion trumps need and logic. Every single time. Think of the irrationality that takes over making us want to check Facebook 32 times a day on average and bombarding our contact list for that extra GB of Dropbox storage.

A human is a bundle of emotions potentially waiting to go unleash his crazy obsession on your product and making it the center of his digital universe — but just a slightly bigger sign-up button or even just a highly functioning feature will not help you get there.

When we deal with people, we deal with real emotions, feelings, and traits that are impossible to fully comprehend. Pick any one of these emotions, flame the fire there and you may be onto something.

Products that ‘own’ emotions to get you hooked in

Companies have long invested millions of dollars in understanding what drives their customers. Some of the most successful tech products are no different. They have used the psychology of emotions to heavily engage their users and build highly successful businesses.

Pocket built a business that exploited our urge to procrastinate. Dropbox is built on the same principle insurance companies exist — fear. Snapchat capitalises on FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Instagram is based on the need for social validation. Crowdfire used curiosity (to showcase who unfollowed the user) and anticipation of reward (growth in your target audience)

If you’d imagine why would anyone ever end up paying their hard earned cash for someone else’s dream. Think again. Kickstarter gets you inspiring projects that move humanity forward and then lets you contribute. Being part of something so groundbreaking in tech or concepts that advance industries like photography or music, elicits a feeling of pride and Kickstarter is simply a pathway to that feeling and expression.

Successful products fuel reactions we generate in response to things or situations…

When we see anything online, it’s our natural tendency to either like or dislike it. It’s how our brains are wired. Facebook picked this tenet of humans and manifested it onto posts in the form of a like button. The decision of liking a post or a picture seems so intuitive that it takes minimal or zero cognitive load. Hence, making “Like”, one of Facebook’s most liked features.

Even product launches have been gamified in the past to create a massive impact. Mailbox created an incredibly compelling demo video before it launched. The video received 100,000 views in less than four hours after it was released. This one-minute video was accompanied by a counter on their site showing how many other users were in line in front of you on the waiting list for Mailbox.

This is commonplace on beta pages now, of course, but it was novel then and created the kind of social proof that said, “Get on this list — and fast. Or else, lose out”

The Mailbox access queue

To ‘get ahead’ in the queue one had to share to social networks. One might argue that these tactics are phony (Mailbox claimed they had to limit access to make sure their server intensive app doesn’t go out due to the colossal demand) as it is simply feeding their growth machine. But hey, it worked. This experiment in human behaviour got them to be bought out by Dropbox for a solid $100 million. Hmmm…not bad for an app not even available to the general public at that time.

Using emotional traits to retain your users or even generate revenue

Did you know that the Tinder algorithm works to show you a match the first time you use the app? A smart aspect of mentalism is at play here. We as humans love revisiting things or people when they leave us on a high. When we are incentivised by such a positive stimulus we’re more likely to put in the time and energy to get what we want — in this case, matches. Throw in a bit of unpredictability in the matches and this gamified version has you hooked.

Scarcity is another emotion great products love to exploit.

While much literature is dedicated to engaging users by making everything easy, usable, valuable, and accessible, there is a whole other Black Hat world of creating obsessive and habit-like behaviour through inconveniencing users or limiting their access to what they want.

For instance, Tinder charges for highly scarce yet effective super likes, Elevate only lets you do few brain exercises per day while charging a fee for unlimited access, and Candy Crush limits your gameplay after you’ve exhausted a few lives — while again making you pay for more.

Building something impactful and then limiting its availability is a great recipe for turning indifferent users into paying customers or even fanatic evangelists.

What you must do to tie your product to an emotion

Above is a 3-step process you must follow to make sure users strongly correlate your feature/product to their emotions on a consistent basis.

For example, Likes have become such an integral part of our lives that they have slowly replaced the approval zone in our head. That’s what Elan Morgan did in a 2-week experiment she wrote about on Medium. Here’s what she found out,

“The Like is the wordless nod of support in a loud room. It’s the easiest of yesses, I-agrees, and me-toos. I actually felt pangs of guilt over not liking some updates, as though the absence of my particular Like would translate as a disapproval or a withholding of affection. I felt as though my ability to communicate had been somehow hobbled. The Like function has saved me so much comment-typing over the years that I likely could have written a very quippy, War-and-Peace-length novel by now.”

Such is the impact of Likes, that we tend to evaluate real life situations with a thumb of support in our head! All this may seem second nature to us today, but talk about the strong brand recall it has generated for Facebook all these years!

Once you have a fair idea of the emotional trait you want the user to tap into through your product, next comes the tough part — you HAVE to optimise and focus on getting them to achieve their emotional rewards in the quickest and best way possible — not once or twice, but over and over again.

Why do so many users impulsively turn to Snapchat more often than Facebook? For many people, Snapchat is more rewarding and is pretty fast at it. Whereas using Facebook involves scrolling through a cluttered newsfeed of ads, views on social/political debates, wedding/birthday posts of distant acquaintances, and religious updates from relatives, Snapchat delivers short snippets of uncut thrill in a single tap.

Embrace human emotions when you’re putting together the pieces of your product puzzle, and you’re well on your path to building something user’s won’t put down.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. If you liked what you read, hit the heart button below :)

I’m Harsh Prabhu. Sr. Product Manager Crowdfire. Let’s cut the faff and focus on aspects of Product building that truly matter. Big fan of Slack.

Connect with me on Twitter @harshprabhu16. More posts coming up!

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