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The Best Products Have Low Floors and High Ceilings
Examples from Strava, Uber and Excel
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Think of your favorite products that you love using on a daily or weekly basis.
It could be running with Strava, hailing a ride with Uber or searching the world’s collective knowledge with Google.
Each of these products are world-class in providing users a low floor and a high ceiling.
What does this mean?
It means they strike a balance between offering a deceivingly simple path to value while enabling them to navigate, explore, and push the product further if they wanted to.
Let’s look at examples from each.
Strava has a big, orange "Start" button.
Uber has a "Where to?" field.
Google has a singular search box.
For new users to these products, the first step couldn't be more obvious.
But we all know that these clear first steps are barely scratching the surface of the product's capability.
You can discover new, interesting routes or do heart rate variability training with Strava.
You can split a ride with a friend or find the shortest route on public transit with Uber.
You can search by image or even ask a contextual question about what's in front of you using your phone’s camera with Google.
Though powerful, in each case the product doesn't get in its own way, offering a suggestion but enabling the user to choose their own path.
What's the problem?
Finding this balance is quite difficult because you'll often lead to feature scarcity in pursuit of simplicity or feature bloat in pursuit of optionality.
The products that fail to innovate and raise the ceiling in the name of simplicity are the products that often get overtaken by the more robust competitors (I couldn’t think of an example so… point proven 🤷♂️).
And the products that overload your senses in the name of power (eg. Adobe Creative Suite) are the products that lose market share to the simpler, niche experiences (eg. Figma).
What does balance look like?
The holy grail is to create an experience that has a low barrier to entry but high-level functionality hidden in plain sight.
Let’s look at an example.
With over 750M users worldwide, Microsoft Excel is quite possibly the most powerful piece of consumer software on the planet.
👩🏫 Wildly successful courses are taught on Excel.
🤳 Entire TikTok channels are dedicated to Excel.
💰 Multi-billion dollar companies are run on Excel.
If you knew nothing else, it would seem that Excel was a ridiculously powerful and complex piece of software that requires years of training to use well. And you would be right... but it's also taught in high school.
How is this possible?
Excel has gone through a lifetime of iteration, expansion, and refinement, but one thing has remained true. When you open a blank spreadsheet for the first time, even the most inexperienced users can get started easily by plugging plain-text information into the cells. Because the list, and its 2-D counterpart, the table, are universal concepts that need no explanation.
But of course, making perfectly formatted lists isn’t all it's good for. Simply typing the equal sign into a cell opens up an entire world of possibilities by allowing you to enter equations and let the software do the math for you. Then your head explodes when you realize that you can reference data in other cells! 🤯
The harder you push the product, the more you find it can do. Data types, pivot tables, macros... an endless menu of possibilities that allow you to do stuff like this.
So, how do we design for product extensibility?
"Clear One Thing"
Keeping the path of least resistance clear for your users is key. What is the "clear one thing" that you're asking the user to do?
You can tuck powerful features behind menus or use conditional visibility to reveal certain features as it becomes clear that it's needed.
Conditional visibility uses triggers to reveal next steps which reduces overwhelm and allows the user to focus only on what is relevant at the time.
These triggers could be a wide variety of inputs such as tapping a button, completing a certain number of actions or upgrading to a different tier.
Only when a user has expressed intent through a specific trigger do you then reveal the next steps.
Once a user feels confident in their ability to get results from the primary path to value, they'll naturally explore the product to see what other value they can find.
This is where you have an opportunity to introduce them to the rest of the product a bit at a time like an IV drip of functionality.
It's important to teach user as they go, answering questions like "What's possible?", "What's the 'clear one thing' for this new feature path?", and "What's the value?"
Familiarity breeds confidence and curiosity to discover what's next.
Stories from the trenches
My company builds business management tools for home service providers. When we were building v1.0 in the beginning, we thought that it made sense to have the user add a client and then add jobs for that client.
But after looking at the data, it was clear that users got the most value out of adding jobs. Retention jumped nearly 50% after a user added a job!
So we made some changes.
We changed the Clear One Thing to be adding a job and we put a big, blue button to do so front and center.
We used Conditional Visibility to hide less important fields until the user expressed a desire to fill them out.
We leveraged Progressive Exploration to allow the user to add a client from the “new job” workflow if they wanted to, but it wasn’t required.
This gave our new users a singular focus. A path of least resistance. If they wanted to connect that job to a client later, great! If they wanted to add services to that job later, great! If they wanted to log their time on the job later, great! But we no longer made them jump through so many hoops to get to the value moment.
Designing good products is hard. Designing great products takes years of doubt, struggle, experimentation, intuition and conversation.
I'll see you in the trenches
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