Creating Successful Product Flows

This is the second article in a three-part series on building products for critical mass. Part I discusses why every startup needs a story and can be found here. A product’s story is a short explanation for why it exists and how it achieves its goals in concrete terms.

Passive vs. active usage

Before you began creating a product flow, it’s important to understand the difference between passive and active product usage. Passive usage refers to when a user is consuming information from a product, such as a user browsing his or her Facebook newsfeed. Active usage is when someone is contributing information to a product, such as posting a status update or writing a wall comment. Every product has both active and passive usages, but the latter accounts for the majority of time spent on the Internet. Studies have shown that for a social community, 90% of users will rarely contribute, 9% will contribute moderately, and 1% will contribute almost all of the content [1]. Given this disparity, it shouldn’t surprise you that the Internet’s top websites—such as Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter—are geared toward passive browsing, while task-oriented websites rank much lower. Even though products have both active and a passive user flows, their story focuses on the one that’s most compelling to their users. Here are some examples from popular website homepages:

Instagram: It’s a fast, beautiful and fun way to share your photos with friends and family. (active)
Twitter: Find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about. (passive)
Evernote: Evernote makes it easy to remember things big and small from your everyday life using your computer, phone, tablet and the Web. (passive)

When describing your product to others, it’s tempting to describe both types of user flows and all of the extra features you’ve built. However, doing this will only overwhelm your audience, leaving them confused and wondering what you’ve built. When explaining their story, successful products focus on the flow that’s most unique and compelling to their users so it’s clear why they should sign up and how it works.

Laying out the flow

Assuming your product’s story mentions what the product does, it’s not difficult to lay it out for the primary user flow. Let’s break down how Instagram describes the product on their homepage:

Snap a picture, choose a filter to transform its look and feel, then post to Instagram. Share to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr too – it’s as easy as pie.
Active user flow

For Instagram, the primary flow is active, so the secondary is passive. If you’re familiar with Instagram, it’s pretty straightforward to lay out browsing aspects of the product:

Passive user flow

It’s important to include only the core steps of the product and avoid including anything a user wouldn’t do on their first visit. When a user signs up for a product, even the most technically savvy person begin with passive consumption. It takes time to learn how a site works and kick the tires before someone begins to contribute—so new users will go through the passive flow first, then the active flow. Let’s combine the user flows with the passive first and the active second to see the steps that a new user would take:

Instagram’s new user flow

We’ve now created the product flow and can begin to analyze the product’s strengths and weaknesses.

Finding your product’s value

When describing a product, it’s easy to assume that combining features from other websites into a single product makes for a compelling story. FourSquare combines a powerful places search and browsing engine with a check-in social layer. Although taken together these features might seem innovative, a user will wonder if Yelp has the former and Facebook has the latter, why would I need this product? I’ve noticed that new users analyze features independently and don’t view the summation of multiple features as a reason to sign up. It’s important to view your product in the same light—not in aggregate. For each step of the product flow, write down which competitors have the same feature.

Instagram competitor analysis, circa 2009

Next, write whether the feature is unique (do any of the competitors have this feature?), and compelling (is this a feature your users are excited about?). It’s easy to be biased and think your entire product is unique and compelling, but this is unlikely and isn’t very helpful. If you’re not sure which features are compelling, ask a few of your users how they describe your product, and you’ll quickly realize which are most valuable.

Instagram feature analysis, circa 2009

After you’ve analyzed each step in the flow independently, highlight the ones that are both unique and compelling—and therein lies your product’s true value proposition. Notice how photo filters is both unique and compelling, signalling where Instagram’s true value lies.

Product flow competitive analysis highlights your product’s strengths and weaknesses, providing a roadmap for prioritization. It can also save you significant time and money by realizing what to focus on before you even begin to build.

Innovate where it matters

A startup’s most valuable resource is time, trying to come up with new ways to do trivial things will only waste time and confuse your users. I’ve seen too many fancy and innovative sign-in, 404, and setting pages that might look cool but had no effect on a product’s growth or retention. Color (the notorious mobile photo app) was able to raise $41M because investors were impressed with the team and location technology they had built. Unfortunately, they tried to innovate beyond what was important, such as launching an app devoid of any labels or text in an effort to support a multilingual audience from Day One. Users were confused about what anything meant and were never able to experience what could have been a compelling product.

Color app

Spending time on innovating something that doesn’t matter will keep you from focusing on what does—which is often the difference between success and failure.

For any part of your site that isn’t unique and compelling, it’s best to borrow design or tech ideas from others. Instagram has always been an easy-to-use product because it borrowed non-core aspects of the app from others, such as the user follow model and layouts for notifications, photo feed, settings, and profiles. The product’s core component—taking a photo and applying a filter—took dozens of iterations and most of the team’s focus until it became intuitive. By combining one innovative feature with a half-dozen familiar ones, the product was able to become an instant success.

In the next article, I’ll explain how to measure a user flow, gather feedback, and iterate towards success. Interested? Be sure to follow me on Twitter here, and I’ll let you know when it’s available.

Edit: I’ve published Part III: The Startup Method: A 6-step Process for New Feature Development.