Get Out Of The Way

Give Users What They Want

Feb 11, 2015 · 5 min read

“The book you wrote may not be the book people read.” — Michael Lewis

Frequently after an entrepreneur has built the first version of their product I get the question: now what?

This is usually coupled with another question: why aren’t users doing what I wanted them to do?

I usually try to answer these questions with a design philosophy I call: Get Out Of The Way. It’s the philosophy that helped Path 50X DAU in a single release.

When we started building the first version of Path, it was in the year 2010 and everyone was very excited about mobile. Similarly, there was a lot of focus in the industry around public networks leading to what seemed to be a broad shift away from privacy.

Dustin and I, both coming from small towns and being passionate about photography, were focused on the idea that too many of the best photos were imprisoned and forgotten in the Camera Roll. Often these were the best photos to be shared with close friends and family, but rarely did they find a way there.

Because the only places to share photos on the internet were becoming broadly more public, rather than less, we thought it was important to focus on privacy. Especially in the context of mobile, where your typical mobile use cases beyond taking photos were calling, texting with your close friends and family.

So, we set out to build the best way to share the photos of your life with your close friends and family.

In late 2010, we released the first product into the wild, and quickly achieved about 10,000 daily active users coming into early 2011. Whereby, the growth plateaued and we quickly started asking ourselves: now what? Followed up by: how do we unlock more growth?

I was reminded by a story from early Facebook. Early on, Facebook did not have a photo sharing feature. It was simply an “online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges”. Meaning the core functionality was profiles, the ability to connect to friends, and then browse the profiles of your friends and other people in your college. One key feature of the Facebook Profile was the Profile Picture. Which, users were passionate about. So passionate, in fact, that users were changing their profile picture multiple times per day.

Users were changing their profile picture more times
than they were changing their clothes.

Furthermore, over 70% of outbound links from the “About Me” section were to Webshots. Which, at the time was one of the favorite photo sharing apps on the web along with Flickr. The rest, as they say, is history.

Perhaps most famously, Twitter started out as “an idea to make a more ‘live’ LiveJournal. Real-time, up-to-date, from the road. Akin to updating your AIM status from wherever you are, and sharing it.”

The key constraint of the medium was 140 character status updates. But as time went on, users started to hack it in order to add things that made the experience better, first with adding the @ symbol to usernames, and then second with the #hashtag to organize tweets into topics or groups.

As time went on, Twitter took these ideas and incorporated them into the product. The rest is history.

Often times when you are building the first version of a product, you develop strong, dogmatic, thinking around what the initial use case might be. This thinking colors your interpration of what you think users think your product should be used for. Often times, users think about your product in very different ways, and indeed use it in fascinating and curious ways. Users hack your product to make it do what they want it to do. You have to search deeply for these behaviors and hacks, unlock them, and then, Get Out Of The Way.

At Path, as we went on through 2011, we spent most of the year at around 10,000 DAU. As the months went on it became harder and harder to figure out how to unlock the growth we so desired. Our fears set in: would we ever figure it out? We searched deeply for interesting user behavior, and finally struck gold while we were doing primary user research into what types of content users were posting to their Paths.

Users were posting more than just photos, they were posting screenshots of their favorite apps: music album covers, the yellow notes app, Nike+ Running maps, health apps and more.

We had the realization that users saw their “Path” as more than just photos, they saw it as a way to journal their everyday life, and to ultimately share life with close friends and family. Because of the private nature of the network, users were willing (and wanted) to share much more than we had originally intended.

This insight intimately colored our redesign for Path 2. We focused in on the core cases we saw occuring most in the research: photos, music, locations, thoughts, health. We even had the incredible luck to collaborate with some friends at Nike who believed in our vision, leading to a custom integration with Nike+ Running based on this research.

We launched Path 2 in November of 2011 at which point we had 10,000 DAU. Within 2 weeks we grew 50x to over 500,000 DAU and we were off to the races.

In times where you are wondering where next to go to unlock your vision, look to your users and be open with your thinking. Don’t let dogma stand in the way of giving the users what they want. And then, Get Out Of The Way.

Design Philosophy

Thoughts on design thinking, philosophy, and process.

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