What makes a product “successful”?

By now, we all know the “right” approach for building a product:

  1. Build: Launch a focused, early version of the product
  2. Measure: Gather feedback from the market
  3. Learn: Make iterative, incremental changes based on feedback
  4. Scale: Achieve product-market fit and scale up

Once we hit step 4, we’ve officially achieved product nirvana — after all, if the product is used by a large number of customers, then we’ve been successful. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable, right?

The problem is illustrated by the following Zen Koan:

A horse suddenly came galloping quickly down the road. It seemed as though the man had somewhere important to go.

Another man, who was standing alongside the road, shouted, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse replied,

“I don’t know! Ask the horse!”


Product is just a tool for achieving impact

When we define the product before we define the impact we’re seeking, how do we know where our galloping product is heading? How do we know if this “successful” product is making the world a little more like the one we want to live in?

As creators, we tend to focus on the details of the product — optimizing to maximize the number of customers, usage, engagement, or revenue. Success in our usage metrics such as product usage is thus conflated with success of the product. Instead, the success of the product should be defined by whether you achieved what you set out to achieve in the first place.

When we define the product before we define the impact we’re seeking, how do we know if this product is making the world a little more like the one we want to live in?

Let’s use a tangible example to demonstrate what happens when the focus is on the usage of the product, rather than on the quality of the product’s impact on the world.

The runaway Like button

Facebook is a very successful product by any quantitative measure. At 2.2 billion users, Facebook’s reach is more extensive than the world’s biggest religions. Facebook usage borders on the religious too: on average, users spent over 20 minutes on Facebook every day. The product has an impact at a massive scale.

But recently, ex-employees have criticized Facebook’s priorities, accusing it of putting more value on continued growth than on the interests of their users.

When designers at Facebook came up with the initial idea of the Like button, the idea was repeatedly proposed and shot down for two years, never passing Mark Zuckerberg’s review. Ironically, his concern was that it would replace high-value interactions such as sharing and commenting with a simple click of the Like button.

When they tested it on real users, however, Facebook learned that the Like button actually increased newsfeed engagement and stickiness, which led to its eventual launch in 2009.

Going by the numbers, the Like button was a huge win.

But recently, the co-creators of the Like button, Leah Pearlman and Justin Rosenstein (who are no longer at Facebook), spoke to the press about the downsides of their iconic thumbs-up button.

Pearlman spoke about her realization that she was addicted to the validation from social media. Rosenstein, too, had regretsThe main intention I had was to make positivity the path of least resistance, and I think it succeeded in its goals, but it also created large unintended negative side effects. In a way, it was too successful.

Taking the reins of your product

The inventors of the Like button didn’t intend for it to create spirals of distressing, addictive behavior. And even if you consciously design a product to achieve your desired impact, it doesn’t mean that you’ll get it right the first time.

But when you view your product as an improvable tool to achieve the impact you want to have, you grab hold of the reins. When you find that real-world results don’t match your desired impact, you can make course corrections.

The success or failure of a product is defined by whether it has achieved the impact that its creators intended.

For Facebook’s part, they are starting to make a few changes in response to the criticism they’ve faced. The company has begun to change its content-recommendation software to prioritize posts from friends, trusted media companies and local news. Facebook is also working on an app that shows you how much time you’ve spent on Facebook.

In announcing the changes, Zuckerberg wrote:

“We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being… I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.”

Zuckerberg’s change of strategy reflects the fact that, ultimately, products can’t justify their own existence — even when they’re used by almost a third of humanity.

Instead, the success or failure of a product is defined by whether it has achieved the impact that its creators intended. If your product is helping bring about the kind of world you want to live in, you can consider it a success.


Product is a way of thinking. Radical Product is a movement that’s applying the best insights and techniques of product thinking throughout life and work. You can use the free and open source Radical Product Toolkit if you’d like a step-by-step guide to help you start applying Radical Product thinking today.