The Two Ways of Building

The micro and the macro approach

The macro way of building looks at characteristics and trends in the broader market. The private messaging space is blowing up. Anonymous and/or ephemeral content is huge. The free-to-play model is far more effective for monetization than a pay-to-play model.

The micro way of building looks at characteristics and trends of individuals. My little cousin and all her classmates are obsessed over how many positive counts their photos get. My friends love Airbnb because they get to stay in cheaper and more unique places than what traditional hotels offer. It’s so fun to guess which Secrets are from which of your friends.

The macro approach loves data at scale. Macroers gravitate towards graphs and charts, especially ones that show year-over-year trends (stat sig or it didn’t happen!). They love nothing better than to satiate their curiosity with rich dashboards and complex queries.

The micro approach loves human research. Microers gravitate individual stories and personal accounts. They love nothing better than to experience for themselves how something works and feels, or watch somebody else do the same behind a one-way screen (of a research lab, obviously).

Take the problem of predicting how much time people will spend using your product one year from now.

A macro approach is to break down all the product areas your company is investing in. Using some combination of projecting existing behavior forward and estimating the percent efficacy of each new feature in development upon usage, the numbers for each area are then summed up to get a prediction of how much time will be spent on your product.

A micro approach is to look at the different segments of individuals (perhaps someone who barely uses your product, someone who is an average user, and someone who is particularly active) and understand how your product fits into these people’s lives. Would the new features you are developing (or whatever other changes may be happening externally in the next year, whether it’s phone upgrades, more competition in your product space, etc) shift any of these individuals into the next bucket up and cause them to use your product more in their day-to-day? Could you see them giving up some of their time spent on something else in their life to your product?

The macro view prepares for the future by extrapolating from the past.

The micro view prepares the future by imagining what’s missing today.

Take the problem of figuring out how to allocate a group of people towards a project.

A macro approach is to examine the market and look for fast-growing spaces or segments ripe for improvement. Maybe it’s payments on feature phones in developing countries. Maybe it’s social networking in China. Let’s have our team work on the biggest opportunity.

A micro approach is to look at what this group of people is uniquely positioned to do, and what specific problems they have good ideas about. Maybe it’s diving into an already crowded market with a fun, new twist on photo sharing. Maybe it’s the app the team wishes they had on Saturday nights. Let’s have our team work on the thing they’re the most passionate about tackling.

The macro view wins wars with strategically fought battles. Armies are masterfully deployed. Environments are used to their upmost advantage. Macroers are planners, and they are careful. They rarely make a single, huge, devastating blunder. When they fall, it tends to be death by a thousand cuts.

The micro view wins wars with sudden coups. Like revolutionaries, microers fight for a new establishment. Failure is common because the scope of their ambitions are often not matched by the cold, hard reality. But when they succeed, suddenly the world changes overnight.

The weakness of the macro view is that you can get caught sprinting on a treadmill, keeping busy but going nowhere, building things that have no vision or soul and don’t resonate with real people.

The weakness of the micro view is that you end up building for an audience of just yourself or a few other likeminded individuals, solving the exact same problem a dozen other apps have already solved and missing out on vastly bigger ways to have impact.

The macro approach is how you end up with Chrome. The macro approach is also how you end up with Ping, the music social network.

The micro approach is how you end up with Nest. The micro approach is also how you end up with Google Reader.

PMs and analysts tend to build with an eye towards the macro view.

Designers and researchers tend to build with an eye towards the micro view.

There is power in both. Neither is more right or wrong.

If you can see both the micro and the macro simultaneously, you’ll have a significant advantage in building products.

If you tend to view things from one lens, it’s time to don a new pair of shades.

Go out and see what the other side sees.