Can your product have a midlife crisis?

by Tobias van Schneider
first appeared
on my private email list.

Creating something out of nothing is hard. 
Creating something that people use is even harder.
But creating something that people love? Thats the real challenge.

In the product world we often like to talk about something called product market fit (PMF). Product market fit usually stands at the very beginning and is considered the most important thing when building a new product.

It’s an abstract definition of course. Simply put it means that you have a product that solves a specific problem while at the same time people already started throwing money at you.

Measuring PMF is hard, but usually you achieved PMF the moment you are more concerned with how to meet the demand of your product than anything else. Achieving PMF is already difficult enough when building a new product, but besides PMF there is something even more important when building a new product.

Does my product have an opinion?
If yes, what is that opinion and who is my product if it would be a person?

I know, that sounds a bit vague, but let me try to explain:

Most apps and online products are utility tools. They solve a particular problem or have one particular purpose. They are fairly neutral and make sure that you can solve the problem at hands without them getting in the way. Generally, nothing wrong with that. These products are mostly practical but rarely emotional.

For example a ToDo app that helps you to manage your tasks. A calendar app that helps you manage your calendar. There are thousands of these apps and products, and usually the differences are only price or features. On top if it, most of them are fairly easy to replace.

When we started working on Semplice (the portfolio system I work on) we knew we had to make a decision. We could build a utility product that gives you a lot of features but slightly different than anyone else, or build a product with a strong opinion, knowing not everyone will like it.

From the beginning we knew that our goal isn’t to appeal to many, but only appeal to those who shared our opinion. We had an idea for a product that could solve a problem, but we also had an opinion about who uses our product, and how people use it.

We decided against features that might help us scale faster, and decided for things we thought are the right thing to do.

For example: We think that a designers portfolio should show only the best 10 projects, and that’s why our product is optimized to do specifically that very well. If someone wants to show 50+ projects, it’s possible but you can feel the product is not made for it.

Yes, we could change the product and make it easier to showcase 50+ portfolio projects, but that would go against who we are and what we believe in.

While we always listen & value feedback from our members, we also tell everyone why we think the way we do. Sometimes we even tell some of our potential customers if we think Semplice is not a good fit for them and recommend them a competitors product. Something I believe is highly unusual and might seem counterintuitive at first, but in the long run totally worth it.

Because why would you want to promote your product if you can already foresee that this specific customer is most likely not going to be happy with it?

I believe that the product I create should have an opinion. In today’s world we have many options. There are dozen or hundreds of products that could solve your problem, but there are only few that challenge the way you think or show you how to do things differently.

Sometimes it’s enough to use a product that is dull and replaceable and just simply solves your problem. But sometimes, there is potential for more.

I always loved the way Basecamp (37Signals) created their products. It’s a prime example of a product with an opinion. There are hundreds of project management tools out there, and most of them have many more features than Basecamp.

Does that make Basecamp a bad product? Absolutely not. The team behind Basecamp has often voiced their strong opinions about why they create the way they do, even if this might go against what the average customer wants.

Basecamp is not even trying to convince you why Basecamp is better than some other product. It either is, or it is not. Basecamp knows who they are.

“When you don’t know what you believe, everything becomes an argument. Everything is debatable. But when you stand for something, decisions are obvious.”― Jason Fried

Basecamp & the team behind have a strong opinion on who should use Basecamp. They simply tell you that this is Basecamp, and if you like it, great, if not, you might use something else.

Basecamp has been around for many years and to date is still one of the most successful and especially most loved project management tools. It has stood the test of time (so far) and I believe one of the reasons is because Basecamp isn’t trying to make a product for everyone.

Basecamp isn’t trying to build a project management tool, it’s trying to help me become better at project management, but their way. These are two very different things.

I believe that the same attributes that make a good designer (having an opinion) also make a good and long lasting product with impact.

Sometimes it’s okay to go against scaling fast and simply tell it how it is. A product that has an opinion also has character, which ultimately forms a strong brand over time.

A product without opinion has no character, and can easily be replaced. I believe that many companies who focused on utility & scale first, are now the ones in a deep midlife crisis searching for their soul and fighting against their slow death to irrelevance.

For me, being a product designer, it’s part of my job to infuse a product with opinion, character and soul. A product doesn’t always have to agree, it can also disagree, with reason.

And with that, I wish you a fantastic week
Tobias


PS: I usually send out these articles via my personal email list right here. You can sign up anytime, I won’t spam, promise.

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This article was written in collaboration with Lizzy Spano based on the NTMY Show episode with Lauren Singer.

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Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify & Board of Directors AIGA New York.

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