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Building Products With Soul

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. Steve Jobs, Wired, Feb 1995

Creatives are able to see these glitches in our world time and again through their experiences. The question is what do we do when we spot these glitches that spark ideas. We build! It’s quite easy as makers to jump in, design, code and launch. While this is great attitude, I urge creatives to stop and think about the soul of what you’re creating.

By soul, I mean thinking about your product on a deeper, more meaningful level. It means thinking about the value it creates and how it can possibly change something — people, experiences or dare I say the world. For example, when I was conceptualizing Hunie I spent days, nights and weeks thinking about the value I’m trying to create for the design community. In doing so, I spoke to many designers, a process known as customer development. Sure I saw a problem but I needed to understand if solving it would be invaluable to others as it would be to me. In this process you come to understand how important your product could be.

Many approach customer development from a standpoint of product market fit. Is there a big enough fit that proves 140M people would use it? For me, I wanted to understand the impact it could have.

Here are five reason that explain why it’s important to discover the soul of your product.

1. Keeps Focus

It’s important to find and understand the soul of your product because it will, for the rest of that product’s life, be your north star. When distractions popup (and they do), it will keep you focused. When your bank account drains and you’re living out of your car, it will steer you on the right path. It will allow you to stay true to your product because you understand the impact it can have because you understand its soul. To lose that is to suddenly be lost on high seas on a stormy night.

2. Emotionally Connects

Discovering the soul of a product allows a digital and inanimate landscape to connect with its audience. For instance, Instagram is an app that merely allows us to add filters to a photo. However, the soul of it is its ability to capture emotions and allow users to share those emotions. Facebook’s soul is that it enables us to connect with old friends and stay connected with new ones. Medium’s is allowing users to publish meaningful content around experiences. At their core is a soul that connects with its audience on a very human level.

3. Differentiates

Ideas are dime a dozen and execution is what matters — we hear that a lot. Often in executing it requires understanding what the soul of your product is. Let’s analyze further using Medium, my new favorite product.

There are many blogging platforms out there like Ghost, Roon or Svtle which are amazing products. What differentiates Medium as another blogging platform is its focus on creating a system that allows people to share experiences that would help others learn — its soul. It’s not about the technology nor is it about design. The founders understand these things are a means to an end.

Svtle has a similar soul but the founders of Medium understood and framed it better. They knew that would be the soul of Medium and thus it’s biggest differentiator. Since they understand it they were able to frame it in a simple way that allows Medium to emotionally connect with its audience.

Svtle: A new kind of magazine.
Medium: A better place to read and write things that matter.
Roon: The easiest way to blog.
Ghost: Just a blogging platform.

Now, in all the statements used to describe these products, which one sounds more meaningful?

4. Informs Design

Every single decision made about your product should be questioned —how does x,y,z connect with the soul of what we’re building?” Nothing should get past it because in building a product, design decisions can get distracted with what’s cool or new. In the beginning feature creep happens so I find understanding the soul of a product is tremendously helpful in informing product and design decisions.

5. Rallies the Right People

Creating a successful company is largely about finding not just talented people but the ones whose thinking aligns with the soul of the product. If for example your product’s focus is to empower humans to do great things then it will attract individuals who are passionate about that. That passion will in turn be reflected onto the product.

In Closing

It’s one thing to discover the soul of your product. It’s another to see it manifest itself through a user’s experience. The best part is when the soul is embodied in the experience of your users. Take for example, an email I received:

…today I am emailing you for two things. First, I want to say how much I love hunie. The site not only has improved the way I design and see design, but it also helped me grow as a designer through other means. Giving critique is surprisingly a great exercise for new designers like myself. It helped me realize the why’s in design, and why they are important. It helped me to discover the thought behind a design, and how that can transform into something so much more. Mike Moloney

Mike articulated through his experience what Hunie’s soul is. While not the first to articulate this, I feel a greater sense of authenticity in his email that was moving. Mike also said…

As big or as little as you think your impact on the world is, just remember you are changing people’s lives all around the world with the things you are doing and creating.

As a product designer, I think that’s the highest form of compliment.

The final point to be made for building products with a soul is that life is short, build products that you will be proud of. So, are you building a product? Great! For a second forget the visual effects, the pretty icons, the userflow and go back, way, way back and ask yourself, what is the soul of my product? It doesn’t matter how simple, how basic your product is because it’s my belief that in discovering its soul you’re increasing the chances of success for that product.

Now go and build a product with soul.