Product Management 101: How to deal with high friction steps.

As product managers, we always strive for simplicity. The fewest steps, the least friction, the fastest process. However, sometimes there is a step our product has a step that is high friction: entering a SSN, making a phone call, writing a description, entering credit card information, or something similar.

Ultimately, a good product will reduce that friction as much as possible. How we do that and when we chose to do it is part of the art of product management.

We'll talk about the pitfalls of high-friction steps, but if you're busy here's the TLDR:

  1. Sometimes your product will have a high-friction step
  2. Beware of "silver bullet" thinking: making the process easier will not solve all your problems
  3. Always precede a high-friction step with a low-friction indicator of intent

The Parable Of The Three Astronauts

Three entrepreneurs want to build three rocket ships. They each design a capsule and the rockets, attach engines, put on their suits and climb aboard. They strap themselves into the seat.

The first entrepreneur does the countdown and flips the switches. He feels a slight rumbling. "Is this working?" he says. He feels another rumble. "Oh my god! It's working!" 
He starts shaking with the ship, bouncing around. The ship is ship is shaking so hard that he's almost broken free of his straps, he needs to press more buttons, he yells into the radio "Houston! It's working, we're flying!". 

The second entrepreneur climbs into her rocket, and presses the ignition button. She feels the rumbling, waits a second, and aborts. She climbs down.

The third entrepreneur straps themselves in, presses the ignition button, and feels the same slight rumbling. Then, immediately, they feel like a donkey kicked them in the guts. 7G's of force push them into their seat and it's hard to even move their hands to press the radio button. The solid booster kicks in and they now it feels like an elephant kicked them in the guts. Can't even radio earth, let alone move an arm. The earth is spiraling out beneath them, vomit lines the inside of the helmet.

The third entrepreneur will be fine. They are in outer space somewhere. The second entrepreneur will probably be fine too —she can try again or she can get a nice job somewhere. The first entrepreneur? His ship never moved. It stopped rumbling months ago, but for all we know he's still bouncing around the inside of his capsule, talking to Houston and mashing buttons.

So my advice to you is: don't fall in love with your own product. Don't get high off your own supply. Product-market fit is unmistakeable. If you even think you don't have it, then you don't. 

Uber & Payments

I've been thinking of payments a critical component of Uber for a while now. 

If Uber's greatest innovation is some version of "democratizing taxi cabs" or "any average Jane can drive a cab part-time now," then Uber's biggest competitor (I'm talking about UberX) is not registered taxis: it's you driving an illegal gipsy cab. The question isn't "Why did no one think of Uber before," but rather "why aren't there more gipsy cabs?"

Because driving an illegal taxi is dangerous. You can get in trouble with the law, and you can get mugged. And if you get mugged there is not much you can do, because then you'll get in trouble with the law. In other words, Uber's main value proposition (to drivers) is safety from the law, and safety from the passenger.1

The first "safety" is easy: although driving for Uber is still mostly (and used to be almost always) illegal, I'd be shocked if Uber didn't somehow reimburse drivers for tickets they receive for operating an illegal limo service or cab.  

The second one is tricker. How does Uber prevent passengers from mugging cab drivers? Because Uber drivers don't carry cash. They don't have to. Remember those bulletrpoof divisors yellow cabs used to have? They wouldn't have been there if cabbies never carried cash. 

Often I hear people say something to the effect of "Uber is an example of how regulation kills innovation" or some similar regurtitated talking point. But I think this is missing the point. The real friction in innovation is the U.S.'s midcentury payments infrastructure. 

I don't think that Uber's dispatch system is actually that important. In places with the highest density of uber pickups (outside bars at night, financial district in the morning, touristy places on the weekend), a gipsy cab driver would be able to pick up as many fares as an uber driver just by lowering their window and asking "hey, where are you going?"

It works in russia!

Cynical feedback

I talk about LendSquare a ton, either because I want to, or as a result of the all-too-common “so, what do you do?”. Usually the conversation is pleasant, but every once in a while the person I’m talking about is so cynical and frustrating that I leave a conversation in worse shape than how I started it. I call this kind of feedback defeatist feedback. It’s draining, it’s useless, and it should be avoided at all costs.

A few days ago, José, Nick, a stranger, and I had one such conversation, and it went something like this, :

Stranger: What do you guys do?
José: Through our website, small businesses borrow money from their customers and neighbors.
Stranger: I can see a few problems with that.
Nick: Like what? I want to know so we can make this product better.

Here’s what happened next:

  1. The stranger mentioned a potential problem with our business.
  2. Nick or José said that, while the problem is certainly interesting, we don’t think it will break our business because of [reason X].
  3. The stranger said “Oh, but you still might get [problem Y].
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until everyone was exhausted and annoyed.

I’ve learned that when a person’s very first comment is “that won’t work”, they don’t want to be convinced. Every argument has a counter argument and you can never win. It’s incredibly draining.

People like that don’t want to learn. They want to be right. In fact, they probably are right, because most things fail. But we already know that.

I’ve spent 2 years of my life thinking about all the reasons my company won’t work. The odds that a complete stranger will think of an original problem with my product after knowing about it for less than 30 seconds is basically zero.

There are only two instances in which I’m ok with hearing, before anything else, “that won’t work”:

  1. You have a reputation for being very smart.
  2. You are an expert in the field.

Here’s how I have handled similar conversations in a more successful way:

Stranger: I can see a few things that are problems with that.
Anyone else: Gee, that’s interesting… but is there anything you like about the idea?

I can pay attention to their word choice and incorporate it into my pitch, or learn an interesting anecdote. At the very least I have a pleasant, if unremarkable, conversation.

Avoiding defeatist feedback is not about avoiding criticism, it’s about maximizing useful criticism. Most batters strike when they swing, but that doesn’t make baseball a game of catch.

  1. Talking about feedback is difficult. The terms positive feedback and negative feedback have different meanings in engineering and in common speech. In common speech, negative feedback has a connotation of “bad” or “bad results” and “positive feedback” means “good”. By contrast, in engineering, negative feedback means “stabilizing” and “positive feedback” means “prone to spiraling out of control.” I think the term “defeatist feedback” can avoid this confusion.