Building Product for the “4 R’s”

In this media-saturated world human attention is at an all-time premium. Consumers are constantly pelted with outside stimuli. This means that an ordinary communication strategy for a product isn’t going to suffice. So, consider this: Your best plan is to partner with outside stimuli to build habits, and therefore usage, around your products.

One way to do this is to ensure when you’re building consumer products for one of the “four R’s.” Routine, ritual, reflex, or relief.

This isn’t an exhaustive or scientific product development framework. It’s just something that struck me recently, having heard a good number of product pitches, having been involved in a number of new products at various stages, and most importantly being an everyday user of things and stuff on my wireless telephonic pocket computer device.

Most of the products that I consider most interesting to build, invest in, or need/want as a human, fit into one of these conveniently “R”-named categories (I might have forced one…try to guess which). And depending on which R a product is targeting, that product’s development roadmap and product marketing should be very different. If you can’t see your product fitting one of the R’s, or if you think you fit into multiple R’s too early on, good luck.

Here are a couple of ways in which I have been thinking about the categories…


A product for “relief” is designed to answer the question when an external stimuli hits and you think; “Man, X really sucks! If only…” This is the easiest of the R’s to imagine and the easiest to recognize — but this can be deceptive. Namely, if someone hasn’t figured out a “relief” to a problem yet, you should consider that maybe seeing that there is a problem isn’t the hard part. Here’s a particularly famous example: “Man, calling taxis really sucks. If only I could just press a button on my phone.”

See? The problem statement isn’t the magic. In the taxi case, and all other obvious pain relief product scenarios, it seems that what makes one team’s company worth billions versus the many others that came before it is pairing a novel approach with operational excellence and a product that’s clean and artfully simple — at least to start.

The nice thing about relief products is that external stimuli — the continual re-encountering of the problem in need of relief — will drive future product usage. Meaning, your product won’t need a notification and communication barrage. That’s why operational excellence and ease of use win. If you made a painful experience more painful, or not sufficiently better to really solve the problem, then your product won’t keep getting use.


A product for a “routine” fits into, augments, or creates a daily action (“creating” is best, but hardest). Think alarm clocks. Morning news. Shaving. Meditating. These products work best when used every day, either because the product enhances something the user does every day already, or it can organize something that used to be scattered or nonexistent into a daily habit. I used to get my daily news from all over the place at different times, but now I get The Skimm every morning. Routine formed.

This is going to sound pretty obvious, but in building for routines, it’s nice if you can look at people’s days and batch a couple of tasks together or shorten the length of them. In doing this, you’re giving consumers their time back, and time is everyone’s most valuable and most limited resource. Sometimes you can find something that people do everyday, but they do it at different times and in bits, and it could be more efficient if they did it at the same time or in one sitting/session. Or, your product could take something they already do every day and empower them to do it better. The first is harder to identify and pull off. The second is easier to identify, but has an even higher bar for accomplishment: Think about it. You’re addressing a routine that consumers have been undertaking every day for a while now — potentially years or even decades — without your product.

But the routine itself takes care of the need for notifications or communications. I was already listening to NPR in the mornings, so it’s not too hard to remember now to just tell Alexa to turn it on for me.


There’s a lot of overlap between “routine” and “ritual.” For my purposes of organizing an unorganizable world, I just think of rituals as less frequent than routines and more likely to be happening at varying intervals — but they’re still something you try to schedule with regularity. Think Peloton. Helping people stick to rituals, especially those that are unevenly spaced or hard to schedule, will make your product win. (When I see people lapping my Peloton usage, it makes me get right back on that bike.)

Sure, rituals could be daily. I could bike daily (I wish). It is just different in my mind than a routine that I pretty much have to do, either on purpose or through osmosis, every day and at relatively the same time.


This is the one of the four R’s that has hundreds of billions of dollars just waiting to be captured through innovation. But, if you are going for this one, good luck — it’s the hardest to address properly. (But no risk, no reward, right?) Reflex to me is best defined like this: You’re waiting for the elevator and talking to other humans around you sounds like a terrible idea (I mean, who does that?), so you reflexively unlock your phone and press a button. What do you press? What fills the blank spots in your day to make sure you are never alone or bored? These to me are some products you may have heard of: Facebook, Snap, Twitter, or games of all sorts.

In order to be able to become a reflex, your product has to be entertaining at all times. So the person “self entertains” (games) or is entertained by others (social). There’s a lot more to unpack here. But…eh, I’ve been writing long enough, and these examples are pretty easy to spot.

Is the 4 R’s framework perfect? By no means. I intend it to be very basic and vague, because it’s a mode of thinking for the biggest, broadest questions — not for the minutiae of a business model.But if reading this post has changed the course of your company and makes it a surefire billion-dollar bet — you’re welcome! And if you’d like to thank me with a tiny sliver of that unicorn valuation, here are my accounts to deposit in:

Team Rubicon
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