Building Products with a Community in Mind
Before getting into product management, I spent a lot of time thinking and working on operations, including on how to develop healthy, functional communities of users. What I’ve learned is that User Delight isn’t just about helping your users accomplish one clear action — it’s also about taking into account the self-images they’re building in the world around them. If you want to build a truly engaging product, you need to focus on understanding your core user group and how your users interact with other people.
Whether you’re a b2c or b2b company, when you build products with interpersonal dynamics of your userbase in mind, you can design better user experiences, increase retention, and drive new growth.
Most recently I worked on the product team at Sosh, a marketplace for high-quality, hand-curated events. Before Sosh, I also worked at Stripe, which is building a suite of APIs to make it super easy for people to start accepting payments online right away, and at Quora, an online platform that aims to collect as much of the world’s knowledge, especially experiential content, in one centralized place, as possible.
As a consumer-facing product with explicit user relationships (following, upvoting, commenting, etc), Quora’s need to understand human relationships is clear. Although not as obvious, both Sosh and Stripe share this same strong focus on strategic community-building.
For all three companies I worked at, hiring from their communities was in fact one of their strongest recruiting channels, one which brought in new perspectives outside of their original networks. With Quora and with Sosh, I was a super active early user. Stripe actually hired its very first user.
I’ll largely draw from my experience at these three companies to illustrate my points. My goal here is to share the two biggest lessons I learned about building empowered and engaged communities in the hopes that it helps others take a more holistic approach to building products.
Lesson 1: Make your users the heroes.
As PMs, we’re often primarily focused on individual users. Do our users understand this new feature? Does this flow make it easier or harder for them to accomplish their objectives versus the existing alternatives?
This mindset is great for getting a user from point A to point B but misses the larger context.
When you remember to think of users not as isolated individuals but rather as individuals in communities, a better mindset becomes apparent: if you position your users as heroes within their relationships, you have the chance to have positively impact them on multiple dimensions.
At Quora, like at all social media services, we had our own whale users who were providing a significant portion of what we considered to be our best content. These users were writing highly unique, intimate, and expert answers without any formal company recognition. To proactively keep them engaged, we came up with the idea of the Top Writers program, our equivalent of the Yelp Elite. By recognizing this group of users as prominent additions to the community, we sought to both celebrate them and encourage them to stay active. (As a side benefit, it was also a way of incentivizing our middle tier users who were dipping their feet to jump in and join this elite group.) To really cement this message, we even produced a physical book collecting all of the top content from the site. Many of our Top Writers had found a platform to voice their stories in Quora for the first time and having a book that they could keep out on their coffee tables to share with non-users was important.
By demonstrating our pride for our top users we were feeding the loop to keep them emotionally invested in the product as well.
In the case of Stripe, the way we made our users heroes was a bit more subtle than giving them a badge on their profile or sending them a book.
Stripe placed a high priority on maintaining and improving their APIs and documentation. By focusing so heavily on the API design, Stripe made it incredibly easy to use for people of all skill levels and backgrounds to get going.
By making an API with documentation that’s super comprehensible and intuitive, Stripe’s users could start accepting payments immediately. And we consistently saw people so pleased by how quickly they could get going that they would go so far as to tweet about it. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of pride. When a user tweets about getting setup within 30 minutes, there’s an element of pride in there. What Stripe did remarkably well is work behind the scenes to make its users feel like fantastic developers. When you’re able to get your company accepting live payments immediately, you feel like a value-adding coworker.
Given that Sosh was a marketplace, we connected two different groups of people: merchants and guests. For our merchant partners, we dug deep into understanding their business needs and biggest concerns. Because we handpicked our partners, their primary concerns were not operational but rather about getting the right butts in seats. Being able to help merchants sell out their events AND give them data on the types of guests they were hosting allowed them to focus on honing their crafts and guest experiences. For GMs and event organizers, being able to tell their bosses that they’ve got everything under control and sold every ticket in advance, was everything.
For our guests, we offered them a similar chance to go from zero to hero with our Concierge product. As the Hotel Tonight of fine dining, Concierge allowed users to get a last-minute table at some of the hottest restaurants in town, including Rich Table, Ichi Sushi, Trestle, etc. By booking through Concierge, a user skipped the lines, the staring at the menu, and the payment process at the restaurant. Instead of waiting to flag down your waiter to get the bill, receive the bill, awkwardly calculate the tip and convince your companion that there’s no need to split the check, our users could smoothly get up at the end of a fantastic meal with a thank-you card and head out. Simply through two taps on their phone, they could book a VIP experience and look like a champ in the eyes of their dining companion.
Lesson 2: Never forget your core user group.
As you can imagine, at Quora, there were lots of highly nuanced issues, and the people who’ve been around since the early days felt very emotionally invested in both the tone and content on the site.
To add a human touch to our moderation and curation done by algorithms, we created an admin moderation group, separate from the top writers. This is where many of those early and super active users would hang out, even ones who didn’t personally write a lot but wanted to contribute to the community. It proved to be a useful way of harnessing their concerns into productive and positive use rather than ending up with snarky tweets and rage quitting. These early users also set the tone and the ambiance from the beginning, making Quora the accepting and inviting environment that it is today. By giving them authority, they modeled ideal behavior for the rest of the users to learn from.
At the beginning, before it was a ticketing platform, Sosh was a collection of curated things to do in your city. The team identified the most amazing experiences across town, whether it was a secret Girl Scout cookie pairing flight at a bar or the hottest new restaurant and built its brand on offering these solid recommendations. Many of the early users (including myself!) were planners, finding fun things on Sosh to do and bookmarking them for later. Concierge, on the other hand, absolutely rewarded the procrastinators, those who forgot that a friend was in town visiting or an important anniversary. At first, you could only book a restaurant for the same day. When we looked at usage patterns and did user research, we came to see that through Concierge we were underserving our initial core audience who wanted to use Concierge but inevitably always had plans by day of. Through this realization, we came to expand Concierge to being offered for up to 7 days in advance, and then, 14 days. Although we still offered last minute users to book for same day, we also gave our planner userbase the opportunity to use Concierge in a way that fit with their lifestyles.
Stripe is known for being built for developers, by developers. Over time, the company has become known for having a really strong engineering team and culture.
As it grew, the company came to a point where it worked with larger and larger of companies and spoke to decisionmakers at them who were no longer necessarily developers themselves. This led to hiring someone to devoted to spreading the word via product marketing and also a sales team who can work with nontechnical people who want to use Stripe.
At the same time, we wanted to stay true to our initial developer audience, the people who worked with us when there was no dashboard and the ones who’ve patiently co-debugged issues with us from our early days. To stay connected, we prioritized doing things directly for the developer community at large (not just Stripe users).
For example, we would run things like our Capture the Flag contest, which invited thousands of people around the world to learn and test their engineering knowhow, and an open source retreat program which brought 4 developers to our offices to work on open source projects for 3 months. None of these projects had anything to do with Stripe — they were all ones that we genuinely believed were potentially beneficial for developers, like Urllib3 and CocoaPods.
It’s entirely possible that neither of these drove direct conversions to users but they did give us valuable touch points with the wider community.
With the rise of technologies that enable entrepreneurs to build businesses more frictionlessly, I fear we’ll lose sight of human relationships. Marketplaces and on-demand services seek to minimize human interaction in order to streamline operations and serve more people faster. It’s a fast-paced world and it’s easy to underestimate how big a role the other people in our lives play. As the people building technologies to move us into the future, let’s not lose sight of the importance of understanding interpersonal interaction. Make your users heroes in the eyes of the people who matter to them. And always think of how changes you make affect your core user group.