It’s likely you didn’t stumble upon this piece by accident. That unsettling feeling when you just can’t comprehend something can keep you up at night, just like the sleepless nights I spent trying to get the grasp of these two concepts. I have seen so many people getting confused with PMF and Usability, thinking they are one and the same. As a developer, when I started my voyage into the field of product management and understanding basic concepts in Product Management, I scoured the internet for a plethora of articles, courses, blogs to understand what these two terms meant for a product, how to use the terms for making better product decisions, etc. I have collected all of the pieces of my understanding around these two concepts to help others struggling to wrap their heads around these.
Both the terms are used in the context of a product, be it a physical product or SaaS. They exist(and are critical to understanding) because products exist and product exist because ___________ *fill in the blanks*
Every product has target users/customers and (SHOULD) solves their needs/pain point. That’s why we build products, right? The solution (in the form of your product) you offer to your user/customers will provide VALUE to them only if it really solves their problem. Every product will have at least three basic offerings around it, for the underserved and unmet needs of its target audience:
1) Value Proposition
2) Set of Features/Functionalities
3) User Experience
As humans, we’re never really satisfied (like Simon’s cat! Do you agree?) and there is always an ocean of unexplored user problems that would make life easier and better for us when solved ( We ALWAYS have unmet and/or underserved needs). A product’s value proposition is targetted towards these unmet/underserved needs of the target audience. The product will have several functions/features, through which, you will create your value proposition. So, when you’re building a product to solve a need, you’re building and offering 1)SET OF FEATURES, 2)VALUE, for example, higher efficiency, simplicity, faster processing time, cost-effectiveness, etc., to the target audience, and 3)EXPERIENCE around the product. With all these offerings, your product will likely generate revenue only if your customers buy it. The term PMF is mostly used in the world of Start-ups, but it is still a widely known concept.
For starters (I will get into the details in a bit), PMF relates more to the ‘problem space’ to answer questions like ‘Am I solving the right problem for the right people?’. Usability relates more to the ‘Solution space’ to determine how well your solution solves the user’s problems and offers a ‘user experience’ that is satisfying or even delightful.
You can always have products that solve a problem but cannot be monetised because nobody would pay for it since the problem you’re solving for them isn’t that big of a deal for them to justify the spending. We all have problems and each problem ranges differently on a “needs to be solved” scale. We pay for a product/solution only if it solves a problem that ranges high on this scale (whether a product is solving such a problem for us will determine how well the product “fits” with its target user needs). But companies build products that not just solve these problems but are also viable for the business. Keeping this in mind, PMF is when you know for sure that there is a real problem your product is solving and the problem is so critical for your target audience that they would absolutely pay for it. How well you listen to and observe your users and understand their pain points will help you build a product with a PMF. PMF will always begin with your thirst to understand customer needs as deeply and as accurately as possible. It’s a journey of many iterations to develop a product that will fit serve the right needs of the right target user group.
Let’s say I have 1 million users for my product and my sales are growing by 20% month-on-month. Even though my product is a bit expensive, there is growth and my customers are paying for it. I have achieved PMF, Right?
Not really! Yes, you have customers who are paying for your product but you need to look at many different metrics to evaluate whether you have a PMF. What if you are also having a high churn rate? This could be a sign that your product is not really solving a problem for them and they realised this only after they purchased your product. They may likely churn at the end of the subscription/contract and won’t come back to you because the problem your product is trying to solve for them is not justified and significant enough for them to pay for it. What observations could you draw from this situation?
You could be solving the wrong problem for the right people. Maybe you need to get more intimate with your customers and listen deeply to find out problems that matter to them even more. It’s like you have the piece of the puzzle but a little smaller in size.
Alternatively, you could be targeting the wrong market segment (maybe you’re targeting youths but the real people who need your product’s value proposition are elderly). This could look like there is a mismatch in your offerings and customer’s needs and your product feels like a misfit. This feels like the right person in the wrong job!
How will I know what PMF feel like?
You will know your product has a PMF when the product has become an indispensable part of your users’ lives (like my mocha pot); when they care deeply about solving that problem and they will pay for it; when they come to you voluntarily and express how grateful they are for your product; when more and more target users are using your product and the growth is killing it; when users are recommending your product to others who might benefit from using it; when your product is solving a set/sub-set of user problems that would be underserved if not for the solution you are offering.
When you achieve PMF, it will feel like your product has achieved enlightenment (like Buddha) and finally found a purpose for existence.
Having spent some time on PMF, let’s move to understand “Usability”.
Usability is related to the user-friendliness aspect of a product. Let’s assume that your product has achieved a PMF. However, your solution takes long processing time, consumes high battery power, your UI is crappy/cluttered and the customers often feel lost while trying to accomplish a task, they get frustrated navigating your website, you have too many steps for sign-up, every other app offers logging in with face unlock feature on their iPhone (and this has become intuitive to them) but your app does not, etc. You’re offering the right solution to the right audience but the WAY YOU ARE OFFERING IT will determine the user’s experience of interaction with your product. How well you solve their needs and what experiences you leave them with is what usability is about.
The ISO 9241–11 standard defines usability as “the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use”.
Effectiveness: Were the users able to achieve the goal they were pursuing? Example: Were they able to login successfully?
Efficiency: How effectively were the goals achieved? Did they spend several hours to figure out where the checkout page was or was it very visible and placed intuitively?
Satisfaction: After having performed the action, how satisfied were they? Was it an enjoyable journey for them in accomplishing this task? Did they like it? Did they hate it? Was it frustrating for them?
So, your usability will be determined based on the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction, in a certain context. The focus here is on ‘context’ because there will always be a context in which your users interact with your product, that determines the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction the user receives around your product. A product with high usability will be more intuitive for the user and allow the user to accomplish their goals with as little steps and as higher satisfaction/pleasure as possible. Your users will always want to make their lives easier and will always go for products that are more user-friendly.
Example 1: Before the iPhone was launched, Nokia and other phones could also accomplish the task of sending messages with clunky keypads. iPhone offered to solve the same problem for the same target users with more effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction for the users. In this analogy, the iPhone wins in terms of usability.
Example 2: Website A and B, both sell organic farm produce. While website A has complicated navigation through the screens, unconventional (in a bad way) and weird scroll bars, buttons, time-consuming login in process, etc., website B has a simple and clean UI with standard features/buttons/scroll bars. A user is able to checkout faster, with fewer navigation errors on website B as compared to website A. Who do you think has higher usability here? (Did you just answer this? That was rhetoric!)*Eye rolls*
Does this mean we should always go for standard UI, fonts, images, layout, material, etc., to improve usability? Not really.
It’s good to have a mixture/balance of novelty and surprise in your product’s UI along with standard elements that feel intuitive to the user. The novelty elements will help spark excitement in your users and the standard elements will fulfil their expectations at the same time (most of us always expect the checkout CTA button to be located on the right side). The standard elements of your product will bring in ease of use for your users, fulfil their expectations, bring efficiency to complete a certain task, etc., and the novel elements will bring in satisfaction, engagement, and delight. Example: When I host a party for my friends, I always keep whisky as the base (since I know my friends like whisky and they expect it to be there at every party and therefore that’s the least I need to do to meet their expectations, and not unfriend me *chuckles*) and I spice things up with some fresh fruits and bitters (for their delight and excitement to try something new and like me even more) to provide them with a drink experience that they won’t forget.
Now that you understand (I really hope you do) PMF and Usability a bit better, which one should you focus on?
Well, it depends. For early start-ups, your first focus should be on finding a PMF and then eventually moving towards better usability. If customers/users don’t care deeply about the problem you are solving for them, they won’t buy your product, or worse, buy and churn later. You won’t have a business. If you don't have a business, you will have to spend the rest of your day inside the box of shame (remember the box of shame from ‘Despicable Me’?).
Always focus on achieving PMF first and then go on to build better usability. If you don't have PMF, your business will die. If you have PMF but terrible product usability, you won’t stay for long either. Sometimes, if you have a strong PMF, your customers will ignore small usability issues here and there. In fact, with a strong PMF, your customers will help you with their feedback in achieving better usability because they care deeply about the problem and are equally invested as you. But without PMF, you will join the club of extinction with the Dodo.
If you have limited resources and time and need to prioritize between achieving PMF and Usability, my suggestion to you would be to ADDRESS PMF FIRST. THEN MOVE TO USABILITY. PMF will give you the reason to exist, in the first place, while Usabiltiy will focus more on creating a lasting user experience which will help build loyaty of customers.
To take a different perspective, PMF will help you acquire potential customers (remember the AARRR framework?) and thereby generate more revenue while Usability will help you with retention of those customers, get referrals from them (and acquire more new customers), and finally even more revenue.
Keep in mind, at the end of the day, PMF and Usability(BOTH), are important for a successful product. You will need to prioritize your efforts based on which areas you need to improve in and what hurdles you are trying to solve for your product to become successful.
Have more questions? Have some feedback on the post? Was the post helpful? Let me know in the comments below :)