Products and problem solving

When secondary uses cases become primary

Before writing this post, I was on Twitter. Not tweeting, re-tweeting or liking. Instead, checking out if I was following an organization who sent me a newsletter.

Products have a dominant use case. Google is predicated around search, Twitter around micro-communication, LinkedIn around connections etc. However, given the diverse functionality of products and especially popular websites like the above, there is plenty of scope for alternative use-cases.

I reflect on recent experiences with popular websites to understand why we find ourselves using products in rather peculiar ways.


“gray and brown lizard climbing on purple tree trunk” by sanjiv nayak on Unsplash

Non standard use cases

Twitter

I’m not a big Twitter user. In fact, my account was dormant until I started my Medium blog.

For me Twitter was never about tweeting or building followers. My primary use case is that of a bookmarking service. For me, following on Twitter is an attractive alternative to:

  • Newsletters. Not all newsletters are equal. Some you want to read. Others are nice to have for occasional reference. We don’t want to read the content but at the same time, we also don’t want to “forget” the publisher in case something relevant turns up. Following on Twitter allows me to keep a person/organization in mind, in a dormant manner.
  • Bookmarks. While bookmarks are becoming easier to manage with logged in browsers that sync data, what happens when this luxury is not available? Twitter is a great way to bookmark that special article achievement or quiz result which we want to access quickly when needed or share easily with others.

Twitter for me is about communication but of a different kind. It’s a bookmarking service for things that are of longer term interest but not relevant immediately. It’s like a long term memory-jogger.

LinkedIn

The apparent value proposition of LinkedIn is connecting people in a professional context.

But how do we define connection?

  • What is connection etiquette?
  • Do we only connect with people we know or is it a place to build new contacts?

For me, the best value of LinkedIn is being able to connect with people I don’t know. Our core network is often a phone call away. There’s little added benefit of connecting via LinkedIn also. Networking for me is about broadening horizons. That is my motivation for being on LinkedIn. It’s not to just have a static profile. It’s the chance to connect with people whom I would not expect to ever meet in person.

Based on my motivation, my fundamental view of LinkedIn also starts to shift. This leads to another question — how do we define LinkedIn as a platform?

  • Is LinkedIn a professional networking platform with a social flavour? Or is it fundamentally a social networking platform with a professional touch?
  • Is it mainly a profile database where “do no disturb” is the unwritten etiquette? Or is marketing and cold-contacting acceptable, and perhaps even a core part of being on LinkedIn?

Answers will span a spectrum depending on how people feel LinkedIn should be used, can be used and indeed cannot be used.

For me, the latter interpretations of the above questions seem more intuitive, based on my motivation and my sense of value obtained from the platform. For me it’s a platform to discover unfamiliar connections based on common interests. “Marketing type” activities are therefore par for the course.

Facebook

Facebook for me played out it’s primary use case to perfection. It helped me find, connect and share information with personal friends. Over time however, my use of has Facebook declined. The primary use case of Facebook — remaining in touch with friends and knowing their contact details, is now under the care of WhatsApp.

But, FB has a fantastic alternative use case for me — as a log-in credential. I often avail Twitter/Google based login facilities because it’s simpler than entering an email and avoids having to remember yet another password. But many sites offer Facebook as the only option to an email based account. This is particularly true for games and apps where “logging in using Facebook” syncs data across devices and also backs up progress in case a reset is required.

So from being a means to connect with friends, FB now offers most value to me by being a means to log-in seamlessly with websites.


Use cases are not fixed

The above examples also extend to other sites (e.g. Amazon, Outlook etc.) where my main use deviates from the expected primary use case. We all have such examples. In the physical world, this phenomenon is even more common. How many times do we find “creative” uses for household items and appliances well beyond their primary scope of application?

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole — Theodore Levitt (Economist, Professor)

Products exist to solve problems. They are a means to an end. That end might result in a functional, social or emotional outcome (or satisfy all of them). This is the core premise of value proposition design.

Design is a deliberate activity. However, once designed, actual product use gradually escapes the realm of design. Products are dynamic. Ultimately, they create their own growth trajectory because users have different motivations.

The relationship of product to problem is not 1:1 but M:M (many to many).

A product may be designed to solve a particular problem. However, in the real world of the user, a given product exists among a range of products that collectively and interchangeably solve a range of problems, to varying extents.

A product may solve an unrelated problem better than the product whose primary use-case that problem is supposed to be. To add complexity, user motivations can differ considerably. Users want to solve problems but in a parsimonious way — with known tools and minimal cognitive overload.

  • Take bookmarking. There are many great bookmarking services. But why do I use Twitter? Twitter is popular site (has other uses also), I’m on it (i.e. one less site to remember) and can do an acceptable job of saving a link in an easily retrievable way. Close enough is good enough.
  • Take Excel. It’s a spreadsheet but people use it for everything imaginable — from formatting tables (does better job than Word whose primary use case should include table formatting), filtering, planning and even games!
  • Take smartphones. Aided by very capable software (Android at least) and portable form factor, they are now being used to solve all sorts of problems. A smart phone is the new swiss-knife. In fact, the more flexible and pervasive the product, the more we can expect it to be used in solving unrelated problems.

It’s not new to see products being used in diverse ways. User motivations differ, the tools they have on hand differ, their cognitive capacity is finite, time is limited and the level of quality they require a job to be completed to will differ. The end user is complex. Users employ multiple products to solve multiple problems simultaneously. As a consequence, the end-use of a product can often be quite different to its primary use-case.

So, do products have an identity? Yes, they do but it is fluid. It can, and often does, change shape depending on user capability, context and situation.

Satisfying primary use cases is the minimum requirement for a product.

However, when we add secondary to the primary, the true color of a product starts to emerge.

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