99U and Behance cofounder Scott Belsky believes the earliest days of a product are its most critical. In this talk, Belsky outlines the key qualities that lead to a product’s early adoption and longterm success.
Scott Belsky is an entrepreneur, author, and investor. Belsky is the co-founder of Behance, the leading online platform for the creative industry to showcase and discover creative world, and served as CEO until Adobe acquired Behance in 2012. After the acquisition, Belsky served as Adobe’s Vice President of Products, rebooting Adobe’s mobile product and marketplace strategies and leading Behance until 2016.
Belsky actively advises and invests in businesses that cross the intersection of technology and design, and help empower people. He is a Venture Partner with Benchmark, and is an early advisor and investor in Pinterest, Uber, sweetgreen, and Periscope as well as several others in the early stages. He is also co-founder and Chairman of a new marketplace product under development.
Through his work as a founder and investor, Belsky has become an advocate for technology and community initiatives that empower creative people and help businesses leverage the creative potential of their people. He is the author of Making Ideas Happen, and helped found 99U, a publication and annual conference devoted to productivity in the creative world.
You know, 99U is sort of a part of phase one of my career, which was really around helping organize and empower the creative world to make ideas happen. That was kind of the idea back in 2005 behind Behance. And, as some of you know, we started as a paper products company trying to help teams be more organized and productive, you know, in their creative process. And, that evolved into a book, after interviewing a lot of the most productive, creative teams in the world, and, of course, 99U and all of you beautiful people. This community and Behance as a network really made us into a technology company in some ways, where we were building portfolio site tools for millions of creatives to showcase their work and get discovered and get the attribution for their work that they deserve.
And so, I would say that from this first stage of my journey, as I think back to like one of the things I really learned about product—which is one of the things that I’m going to talk to you about today, and what I was asked to think about for this presentation—is just that these days you can be a mission-centric and medium-agnostic business, or person, or team. You really don’t have to define yourselves anymore as a paper products company, or a conference, or a technology company, especially with all of these kind of SasS services, and billing, and location, all these other things that are now just a few lines of code or twelve dollars a month. You can actually really think about your mission more than anything else and be medium-agnostic in how you accomplish it.
So, then I was thinking about phase two of my career, which started in late 2012. We became part of this Adobe family and I realized, “Okay, I have a few years now to continue working with my team, but what can I do to challenge myself to learn more and make more of an impact now in a larger company and serving a larger number of people around the world?” And so, Creative Cloud at the time was a way of getting all of your desktop tools, like Photoshop and Illustrator and that sort of thing. And then the mobile apps, were kind of, you know, a collection of apps that didn’t connect to the desktop software, didn’t connect to each other, really had no role in like the professional creative process. And so, that was one of those challenges I raised up my hand and said, “I’d love to tackle this.” And so, over the years, I worked with a number of people including some that are here, building a whole suite, you know, of mobile products that actually connect with the desktop tools and can be part of a real professional, creative process. And I think, over that period of three years, if I think about the product philosophy I took away from that experience, it’s really the challenge about making products powerful enough for professionals, or for your power users, but accessible to everyone.
And I think by the way, like let me just quickly ask, like who’s building some form of digital product right now? So, a lot of people. But even if you’re not, even if you’re building an experience or some other product, you know it’s always tempting to focus on the folks that love it the most. And sometimes you fail to make it accessible to everyone, and so that was one of those challenges at Adobe that we reconciled.
Phase three, which I think I’m still in right now, is supporting mission-driven teams that want to lead something worth changing. And this started as working with some other entrepreneurs I knew when they were starting their companies and learning about the, you know, the early product experience that they were trying to develop and trying to solve a lot of the problems as they found Product/market fit. One of those examples is Periscope, you know, which is a team that I met when they were still doing drop a pin and get a photo, you know, and thinking about how this could be a live video network and what that might look like. And then now, I’m working with a team in New York and San Francisco called Prefer, which is a way for you to kind of see all the service professionals your friends use.
And so, with these teams, now again, in the beginning, and mostly in the beginning stages of their journey, what I have become really fascinated with and a real product philosophy for me has been to make sure that this “first mile” of the customer’s experience is not neglected. It’s the ultimate irony I think (especially for those of us that are creating digital products) that oftentimes the last mile of our experience building the product, is spent on the first mile of the customer’s experience using the product. And if you think about how crazy that is, because everyone talks about getting people through the funnel, you know, someone signs up or checks out a website or whatever, and it’s all about getting them to actually figure out what they need your product for and to get into it and sign up and whatever, that first mile is sort of oftentimes an afterthought. You know, when we’re putting together the tour and the splash pages before lunch. When, in fact, that may be the most important thing.
So, this is the question that I was asked to think about today which is: what must we do to keep our products accessible? Because at the end of the day, you know, that’s how we reach our full potential, our product’s full potential, and make the greatest impact. And I think to start thinking about this we have to actually start by understanding the journey that many of us are actually in right now. I mean, this is kind of the myth of making, which is: you have this incredible, you know, energetic moment with a team or whatever, and Rick had a number of them, that he shared, where it’s like “Awesome let’s do this!” And then you have a lot of work and then gradually reach to this point of accomplishment. But actually, I think it’s more of a myth. The reality probably looks a little bit more like this: [LAUGHTER] where you know, it’s like “Okay, awesome let’s do this,” and then you kind of getting into the like crazy, crazy period where you have these incessant kind of moments of “Oh like shit, this is not going to work” Oh, a little bit of recovery. And it kind of goes like up and down, up and down. And I think that, really you know, surviving this, and somehow getting, you know, a positive slope is maybe the best you can possibly do.
But, when you’re in this, think about the implications of it. You know, in the beginning of this, you think you have a plan, right? And then you realize, “Oh shit, I actually can’t really plan. This is just not going as I expected.” I like to always tell teams that a labor of love tends to pay off just never as you expect and this is why. In the beginning, you’re so self-reliant you are like “I can do this by myself, and maybe I need this other person to do this and this other person to do this, and then you realize, “Wait a second, this is actually entirely about my team.” And, it’s a very humbling, I think, realization as shit gets real, and you start to focus on that. And then, very relevant to today, is that a lot of great products are launched because you can have a lot of simplicity and insight in the beginning, when you have that awesome “Let’s do this” phase and you’re not distracted by all of the realities, and then of course over the course of the journey, every time that you have one of those bumps, you tend to solve it by adding complexity. And I think this is why so many products become inaccessible to so many people.
So how do we defy the whims of this journey? I think the best thing we can possibly do is to ground all of the product decisions we make as we’re designing with consistent convictions. A few consistent convictions that you always come back to and try to, you know, see through all of the noise. For me, one of those simple convictions is this reality that life is basically just time and how you use it. And so, bear with me here, I would argue that the majority of the products we use, either spend your time or save time. Now there are some that clearly spend time like just news and games and you know, and reading, and Facebook, and social media; these are products that actually measure their performance on how much time of yours they are taking. So they are all about spending your time. Then, there are products that we use to save time. You know whether it’s to get from A to B more quickly, to remember something more quickly, to get something delivered so you don’t have to go out and do it yourself, to communicate more efficiently. You know, these are arguably products that help you save time. And then there are some companies that, I don’t know, like they kind of help us save time and spend time. Blue Apron is getting us to cook, so it’s spending our time cooking rather than getting delivery, but it’s also cutting up our vegetables or preparing the food for us in some ways. So it’s saving time in doing that. And I think Twitter, you know, the headlines, kind of oftentimes save you from actually having to read the articles and stuff, so maybe it saves time, but it probably actually spends time (at least for me). But in this context, it’s as if we’re fighting to save time and are seduced to spend time at all times. And that’s kind of life.
And I think that the only exception to this is when our natural human tendencies kick in. What are these human tendencies? These are just things that are like basic and primal and instinctual. Like: I always want to accomplish more with minimal effort. There’s just like a default we have about avoiding difficult decisions. Wanting to be recognized. Preserving options; we love optionality. We don’t want to get pigeonholed. We all want to look good. You know, these are some of the natural human tendencies that we will behave out of despite the time implications. In some ways, you could argue that our natural human tendencies are the Twilight Zone for time. And while they are so native to us, they are sometimes unknown to us when we’re designing products and building them for others. And so it’s worth thinking about some of these human tendencies and realizing that, if we can accommodate them in products that we are making, we can actually engage and retain, you know, customers.
So, with that, I thought, “Okay, so what are big, major human tendencies that are relevant here?” And I would say the first one is that: in the first fifteen seconds in any experience with any sort of new product, we are lazy, we are vain, and we are selfish. Let me explain. And, of course, I should just say that once we get deeply engaged with something it becomes more than that to us, right? But in the initial experience, we’re all lazy, vain, and selfish. We’re lazy in the sense that we don’t have time to read or learn something new. These bad on-boardings that we’ve all seen, where it’s like too many examples or videos that we have to watch or all this copy that we just can’t bear to read. And so, as a result of that, as people make products, we try to oftentimes, show something rather than explain it. So, rather than watch a video or read something with instructions, we’re going to kind of show you maybe with tool tips or that kind of thing. But even better than that, if we just do it for the user, for the customer, you know, doing is even better. That’s through things like templates and smart selections versus having to have manual entries, presumptuous defaults. One of my favorite quotes is from a friend, Dave Morin, who you know always likes to say you know “The devil is in the defaults.” Whatever you present to the person you are designing for like they will most often just take that. So don’t make that decision without enough thought.
We’re lazy. We’re vain. We’re vain in the sense that whatever this random thing is that got me on Facebook, or a friend told me about, or whatever, like this better make me look good and quickly because I don’t have a lot of time, right? And so, in order to think about that reality, that human tendency, I always like to come back to this notion of ‘ego Analytics’. I always talk about this with teams: what are you doing to show your users, especially in the early stages of their experience that this is kind of making them look good? And you know, a Periscope example, one of the things we realized early on with Periscope is, is that broadcasts are kind of boring. And also the broadcaster is always kind of wondering “Are people watching this? We have two random people watching this; this feels kind of dead to me. I don’t know if this is making me look good.” And so, the incessant heart UI that was put in there actually really helped retain the experience and make people feel like they were, even if it was just one or two people watching, but you got a stream of hearts, it gave you this sense of “Oh this is making me look good! I can actually engage with this longer to have a deeper experience with the product.” Instagram, I mean what a great example you know when you are going to Instagram, you’re always pinged with how many people liked your stuff. And what’s really interesting is that when you post something new in social media your likelihood to go back to that product goes up tremendously for some period of time after you added content, and then it goes back down again. And so, the whole idea of these content sharing products is that we’re using them to see what our friends are discovering, to see our friends’ experiences, to see great design and whatever, when in fact, I think the dirty little secret here, is that social consumer products are as much about seeing who saw your content as they are about sharing and seeing other peoples’ content. And so, that ‘ego analytics’ actually really drives, especially initially, the engagement you need to get people in and to have them mine it for more value.
And then in the first fifteen seconds, I think everyone’s selfish. You know? We need to benefit quickly from something, spending any time on this. Everyone has family and work and all these other things, and all these other products that are trying to spend their time. And so, we’re all appropriately so I think, very selfish with like the expectations, you know, when we start to use something new. We’re very skeptical of long-term promises. They’re not enough to keep us engaged. The product really needs to deliver value to you now. And if you think about some examples, I mean over the years, Pinterest really did start with this big vision of being a discovery network. But, Ben and his team, when they were just getting started, it was really all about making a personal collection for you. You know, they realized just that vision of discovery of other people’s stuff or whatever, it just wouldn’t, it wasn’t appealing to the selfish need of the user when they first signed up back then which was: “I want a collection of stuff”. I mean they were basically competing with Delicious at the time, other bookmarking services that weren’t visual. And that was sort of their initial value proposition, to offer this immediate utility, and don’t rely on this like long-term vision. Let it happen over time. I mean Slack! I remember, you know, our team at Behance used HipChat for years and then someone installed Slack and it became like a way to share fun gifs and jokes and whatever, and that novelty preceded utility. It’s as if Slacks’ initial value preposition was fun, and then once you got the use of it, then you started to realize that there was sort of a network effect utility in your team as well. So, sometimes you can lead through that selfishness by just having a fun aspect of your product or service.
And then there are these products like these developer tools, where the value proposition, or sorry, in this case it’s a payment tool, is you get paid faster. It’s like an immediate selfish value proposition. Or, two lines of code, you know, for Stripe, which is really appealing to the developer’s desire to just get something done quickly and not waste any time. And so, this all begs to question: why are different teams always responsible for different copy, and product? I mean if these things that we just talked about are so core to the end-to-end product experience, maybe marketing and copy should be actually borne by the product team. You know, it’s part of the product experience. And I think so few teams actually realize that. But especially in that first mile of the customer’s experience, it’s absolutely crucial.
So second human tendency here, is we don’t want to make the wrong choice. In fact, it turns out that, you know, obviously with too many choices we even get more scared of making the wrong choice. I would argue that the more options we’ve got, the more problems we’ve got. And I think this is true for all of us and for the products we create for our customers. This is why, I think, that this, you know, the whole product life-cycle of especially every digital product is quite simple. Right? You know, users flock to a simple product. This new messaging system comes out; this new tool for payment; this new whatever; this new social media tool. Users love the simplicity. And then, that product starts to take its users for granted. It starts to really focus on those power users, and really starts to think about their strategy and the business model. And they start to just kind of layer in complication, complication, especially as that journey becomes more difficult. And then what happens? Users flock to simple product. And this is kind of that product life-cycle that happens over and over. And I see so many pitches from teams that are basically—they don’t say this, but I’m looking at their deck and I’m thinking “Oh so they’re basically taking Twitter, or whatever it is, and they’re just simplifying it again.” And that is their product plan. And the funny thing is, is it’s not a bad one. Because this is actually how customers behave.
So it’s super hard to make something simple. And back to that graphic we saw, in the beginning, but that graphic also made it very clear that it’s especially hard to really stay simple. And to, make sure that we keep grounding those decisions we’re making with the right convictions. I think the trick here, is to continue to prioritize problems for new users over problems for power users. And I think one of the biggest mistakes that we tend to make is that when you have that first mile experience down for new users, to assume that that’s actually going to work forever, because actually different cohorts of new users happen over time. The people who use a product three years later or five years later for the first time are more pragmatist oftentimes than the visionaries who adopted it early on. And I think, great examples like Twitter and others where their on-boarding had to completely change to reach beyond that like sort of cap of their potential customer or user market. And so, maybe we need to spend and preserve 50% of our focus consistently on the new user’s experience, rather than kicking it to the end or having it be something that we always just come back to randomly. To preserve that focus is something to think about.
So, the third human tendency here, that I’ve been thinking a lot about these days, is that we have this natural tendency to long for the good ‘ol days. Especially as technology makes everything around us, you know, more efficient and more automated. There’s all these notifications and things that we get telling us what to do and whatever and we use these devices, we use these services, and yet, we kind of just long for just having what we need when we need it. We love the idea of automation, and things happening more efficiently, and yet we long to work with people and build relationships. We want access to everything out there at our fingertips, and yet we kind of long for just knowing what the best thing is and not worrying about everything else. And so, amidst our desire for like faster, and better, and cheaper, there is this unique human tendency to just have a soft spot for small town life. Like everyone talks about you know, when they go to Vermont and how nice it was and you know, and, “Why don’t I just live there?” you know? There’s something about this small-town life that we long for.
I’ve been thinking a lot about it because as these online marketplaces evolve and become disintermediate industries and have a part of our everyday life, if you look at the underlying mechanics of these marketplaces that we use, they’re all around getting the best price, you know, proximity, the closest delivery person, the closest driver, the closest this, the closest that, or ratings, you know? Three point five stars on Yelp or whatever else. Whereas in small town life, everything’s driven by different forces. It’s driven by trust, you know, who your neighbor says you should use, or relationships. It’s referrals, right? And so, you know, I think about all these different companies that have evolved around these traditional, these new, you know, very rational desires for a marketplace to have a faster, better, cheaper experience. But word of mouth is oftentimes how new relationships spawn. And you know, that’s something that I’m also thinking about with this new mission Prefer: how can you capitalize on trust, relationships, referrals, that sort of thing? Why is it that we would take one trusted referral from a friend over a million anonymous reviews? And even if I don’t know you, it I tell you there’s this amazing Italian restaurant in the West Village that you absolutely must go to, you might actually listen to me, despite, whatever Yelp says. It’s not really rational because of the all the science and math, yet we still have this like longing to just kind of trust a person.
So I think that’s the insight, is that we’re more likely to rely on relationships and trust, even though we want efficiency and savings and speed and that sort of stuff. Maybe natural, you know, actually is more powerful than rational. And so, as we try to design and build products and start businesses that are all based on this rational sense of how people should, you know, want to behave, sometimes we have to tap into those natural tendencies on how they really behave. And always try to go with the natural grain. So, if you’re thinking about a new product or service, you know, question: does this go against or with kind of what people would do naturally? I think is a great way of capturing the benefits of human tendencies, rather than fighting them.
The fourth tendency, I’ve been thinking a lot these days about, is that we favor novelty yet we cling to familiarity. It’s this natural tendency where, I think it comes from the notion of “The Lizard Brain”, which was actually first introduced to me when Seth Godin spoke at our conference maybe eight years ago. He talked about this ancestral part of our brain that makes us very comfortable with familiarity but really run away and recoil from anything that is new. And even if we know that new thing is interesting or good for us, we still tend to trend towards what is actually, you know, what is familiar, and innate. I think back to an example in Behance; we launched this network for creative professionals around the world in 2006 and 2007 and what did we call the fields that all of you are in? We called them ‘realms’ because we thought that was more unique, so we called them ‘creative realms’. My cofounder Matias, who is here, whenever we would talk about it he would always say like “realms”. And I was like, “If your cofounder can’t pronounce the language your using, [LAUGHTER] it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t be using it.”
We also called the groups that people that assembled in Behance “circles” well before Google used that term. And people didn’t know what the heck we were talking about. It’s like “I join a circle and I’m in a realm, like what the hell is this?” [LAUGHTER] And it kind of took some years of being like, “All right, let’s not try to be innovative here. Let’s just be very familiar. Let’s just call them fields, and groups.” Creative fields and groups. And of course, usage went up as a result of that decision. Familiarity is the friend of utilization, right? When you’re familiar with something, you utilize it more readily. I looked around my apartment, before coming here, and you know, I noticed that, like, my music control, you know, has this button on it called “party” you know? And it’s like such a familiar notion. Now it could have all these like bells and whistles for like a different room, and all this other stuff, but no, ‘party’ just puts it all on. “A bit more” on my toaster [LAUGHTER] you know? It’s such like a familiar notion, you know? And it’s very effective. So while familiarity is the friend of utilization, I would also argue that it is the enemy of innovation. And any of us who have ever held or hosted a focus group know all too well that what you’re essentially doing, in a focus group, is you are testing what is familiar. And by doing so, you will stay safe, but it will prevent you from innovating. Because naturally, just based on people’s lizard brains, right, when you show them something that they don’t recognize, they will recoil to what is familiar. And you’ll end up always regressing to the mean.
And so then that begs the question: like when should we be doing what is familiar and when should we be trying to push the line and innovate? Because I’m not suggesting that we all just basically go with what is familiar to breed utilization. We should adopt familiar patterns though, whenever possible. We should use creative fields and groups when they’re readily available and they just explicitly say what we’re trying to accomplish. But we force a new behavior when it powers a unique value in our product and service, something that we think, you know, will make the big difference, will make the impact.
I mean an example from Periscope experience was when the team was launching their product, it was at a time when all the new apps were selfie apps: video selfies and photo selfies. And every app opened with the default facing you because selfie was like the whole thing. You know the morning shows were always talking about selfies. Like selfie was even probably like even bigger than it is now, because it just crazy at that time. And so, when Periscope came out, a lot of the initial feedback in our data was “Wait, why is the default wrong?” like “it should be me” like everyone always wants to show themselves when they broadcast, not something else. And the team was like, “No, no, no, like our vision, is, is really about teleporting and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.” And so while that might throw people off at first, that’s like one of those new behaviors we’re trying to force, because it actually defines what makes this product different than all of these other selfie apps that people are downloading. And so, that’s just one example. I really think that transformational products are 90% accommodating of what’s familiar and 10% retraining. And so, whatever you’re doing, you know: find the thing; find the unique value for which you need a new behavior that needs to be forced upon the user, and then try to be familiar, in everything else that you do in order to breed utilization.
So, what must we do to keep our products accessible? You know, we need to have faith in our customers, but not in the first 15 seconds. In the first 15 seconds we need to remember that they are in fact lazy, vain, and selfish, and we have to meet them where they are to get them through. We have to stay grounded by the newest customer’s experience and not succumb to making our power users, or our greatest customers, always more happy at the expense of always optimizing that first mile. We need to favor a lot of the natural forces over what we think is rational because natural is very, very powerful in how people use products. And remember, like innovation is great, you know, so long as the core mechanics and the language that you are using is familiar. These human tendencies you know that we just discussed, you know, they defy our ideals for our products. We really always conceive this broad vision of what people will ultimately discover about themselves or accomplish or use and what it will become. But we have to be, you know, grounded and kind of humbled by the fact that these natural human tendencies actually prevail and are more powerful even than our ideals. You’re creating for people, and as a result just as you’re doing that be as human as you possibly can. Thank you for having me.