On Loser Experience Design

Designing platforms and products that aren’t just for winners, “influencers,” and “thought leaders.”

Turntable.fm, a Great Lesson in Loser Experience Design

Do you remember turntable.fm? The idea behind the product was simple and brilliant: you join a virtual “room” with friends and/or strangers, and take turns DJing for each other. Like a lot of products that experience meteoric early-stage growth, it took a real-world behavior — social listening — and created a digital proxy that could instantly connect people across geographic and cultural divides. I was super-excited when turntable.fm launched, and I was not alone.

But the more I used turntable.fm, the more I started to feel like — well, a loser. I was primarily interested in discovering new music, not in becoming a **star virtual DJ**. But the platform seemed to offer no encouragement or incentives for being a good listener, no shiny prizes for thoughtfully engaging in conversation with my virtual roommates. My avatar remained puny and plain, while others grew mighty, adorned with jewels, and outfitted with cool animal costumes. Eventually, I just gave up.

Turntable.fm suffered from bad loser experience design: making casual users feel like unwitting competitors in a game they cannot win.

In the absence of good loser experience design, products and platforms turn into ghost towns inhabited by thirsty would-be “influencers,” howling desperately into a void that was once occupied by curious, casual users. And in a world obsessed with performance metrics and status markers, bad loser experience design is all around us.

The Patterns of Bad Loser Experience Design

Here are a few signs that your product may be suffering from bad loser experience design:

Illustration by Joan LeMay
  • You have a “leaderboard” or a points system.

Yes, in the short-term, people may engage with a product for an abstract reward such as “points” or “coins.” But watch what happens as your users see themselves fall to the bottom of that “leaderboard” or fail to get any real value out of the time they’ve invested in earning those shiny trinkets. Competing for something only to realize that it’s worthless is embarrassing, frustrating, and makes you feel like a huge loser. Gratuitous “gamification” is one of the most odious and lazy patterns of bad loser experience design — and in the long term, it doesn’t work.

  • You visually distinguish the winners from the losers.

Twitter’s verification system was designed to foster trust by “verifying” that people are who they say they are. But in its early days, “verification” felt like a badge of honor for “important” people and an aspirational delineator between the haves and have-nots. Twitter took a great step towards mitigating this bad loser experience design when they bulk-verified journalists, making it clear that there was a functional purpose to this distinction and conferring it on people who are not high-status celebrities.

  • You over-index on popularity metrics.

This is perhaps the most widespread pattern of bad loser experience design. Trying to decide what content to surface? How about the most popular content! Trying to find some “interesting” users? Look for the ones who have the most followers! This is the “rich get richer” problem of bad loser experience design — by building platforms that reward the people who are already succeeding, you create a permanent and inaccessible overclass that tends to reward the people who are the most ruthless and aggressive about increasing their own status — even if it means gaming the system.

  • You treat casual users like failed power users.

Zach Holman’s “Don’t Give Your Users the Shit Work” does a great job of describing this bad loser experience pattern in action: a new user gets onboarded, and is immediately presented with a barrage of “power user” features that will help them get the most out of this product. If they neglect to use these features, they find themselves stuck in a kind of permanent limbo, nagged by reminders to use features they don’t need and unable to derive immediate value from the product. If you treat casual users like failed power users, they will start to feel like failures — and they will leave.

Tips for Good Loser Experience Design

While bad loser experience design can significantly harm a product, good loser experience design can help foster a broad, engaged, and self-sustaining user base. Here are a few tips for good loser experience design:

  • Help people find their people, not the most popular people.

When platforms focus on shared interests and social bonds over “likes” and “favorites,” they help everybody find a place where they belong. Instagram has done a great job doing this with their discovery features, consistently surfacing people who are adjacent to your people, not people with the most likes or followers. Their new discovery features have helped me find my guitar people, my cat people, and even to discover a whole new community of prairie dog people. As I’ve used these discovery features more, I’ve started to pay less attention to how many “follows” and “likes” I get, and more attention to the people with whom I interact — which is a surefire signal of great loser experience design.

  • Give “passive” users meaningful ways to engage.

Tumblr’s reblog feature is a great example of good loser experience design. If somebody sees something they like, they can share it to their entire network, rather than just leaving a comment or a “like.” This helps people engage with each other more deeply, and means that a post written by somebody with a small number of followers can find a wide audience as it makes its way through networks and communities of people. It also gives people who don’t want to “write” a post a meaningful way to contribute and engage.

  • Test your product with people who are not “power users.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, break out of the design and testing patterns that lead to equating “power users” with “good users.” Over-reliance on internal “dogfooding,” where new products and features are tested primarily with a company’s own employees, is a one-way ticket to bad loser experience design. Dismissing user testing candidates who are not over the moon for your product is another surefire road to bad loser experience design. Think through the needs and behaviors of casual users as extensively as you think through those of “power users” — and ask yourself, “if I only use this product a few times a week, will it make me feel like a loser?”

Loser Experience Design in the Wild

Has your day-to-day usage of a product or platform been affected by bad loser experience design? Leave a response and let me know your thoughts. And be sure to hit that “like” button, so that I can feel like a high-status winner right here on medium dot com.