Opinions About Opinionated Products
We recently interviewed Ryan Freitas, director of product design at Uber, for the Revelry Radio podcast. (Be sure to subscribe to hear the full interview when it goes live.) One of the best bits was about opinionated products, and Slack in particular. In light of Slack’s strong success in uptake and engagement, its move to platform, and growing Slacklash sentiment, we thought it might be fun to revisit that conversation. Here’s a transcript from our conversation about opinionated products:
I love your point about opinionated products. I wonder if you have some examples of a product or two that have good crisp opinions that say ‘this is for this, but not for this.’ And which hew that line all the way down.
Having not been party to the development of some of these, but I think Slack has a great set of opinions about how collaboration works. I think their perspective on defaults and even the way they’ve embodied some of the elements of their own company, how they want to work together. Like how notifications work. You see this narrative line from what they say externally about themselves to the way they built the product to the kind of defaults that are in place for the user when you start up.
The opposite impact can also be true. We used to complain a lot that Basecamp was designed to work the way 37Signals worked, and it didn’t always fit the way everyone else was working. And their opinion was very strong. “We think this is a better way of working.” Now, if you liked it or not, that’s what the product was, and you had the option to not use it or to conform your workflow to match theirs.
It can go one way or another, and I don’t like to think of things in terms of winning and losing. Especially by market share or capitalization or anything silly like that. I like to think about things in terms of whether or not they solve problems. And sometimes the problem evolves and the product doesn’t. The important thing about having an opinion is recognizing that anytime you form an opinion there is going to be a minority population that you have cut out. I was not a huge fan of Mailbox, and I know I’m absolutely in the minority on that. I don’t even like Inbox. I’ve developed a pretty complicated way of working with labels and filters in Gmail, and I don’t think I’ll ever abandon it. Or at least they’ll have to pry legacy Gmail out my hands.
I think strong opinions allow you to focus, because you understand exactly what it is you’re trying to do. You understand that out of the possible universe of things you could do, only some of them are important because they match up with the central thesis of your product.
Also, when you have a strong opinion and you’re being explicit as a team it makes everyone more mindful about how to render that particular vision and carry it over. Like, what’s the math? I love the discussion about Slack because you see it not only in the defaults but in the cues, “Do you really want to send that message across four time zones to forty-eight people?”
You can see them balancing the need for ambient awareness of what is going on but also interruption. And you can tell that’s the tension they are constantly dealing with. And they are super mindful about ‘we don’t want to interrupt people, we want to help them get more done’. I feel like, especially as they get more platform-y and keep adding all sorts of things where they become this hub where you meter out attention, they’re going to have to keep being mindful about what that balance is.
You’ve nailed it on one of the central tenets of my perspective. If you’re successful enough in getting your opinion into a product and enough people are willing to adopt it and build on top of it, then you will take that set of opinions so much further as a platform than you ever can as a product.
As things become the fundamental building blocks of either work or entertainment or consumer behavior, you have said “hey, this is how we think it should be, and we think you’ll dig it”. And, my gosh, what happens when other people say “yeah, that’s so good. I’m not going to try to recreate the wheel there. I’m simply going to start with that as a foundation.” One of things that we are watching, I do get to collaborate with Chris Messina at Uber. He and Chris Saad are developer partners working on the API and the rollout to work with everyone. Those guys have this fundamental ability to get people excited around the core tenets and opinions of the Uber platform. The idea of push a button, get something. The idea to treat the capability as a portal gun or a remote control for time and space. That’s beyond what we can do day to day in the app, getting food and kittens and cars to your doorstep. A lot of things shake out of that reduction in friction from launch to delivery. The power of platforms is to take those opinions and spread them far beyond what the constraints of the traditional product are.