You’re Overthinking It

You comb Hacker News daily, marveling at the neatly packaged startup tales, uber-effective best practices, super clever engineering solutions, and lots and lots of links to websites filled with Helvetica, minimalism, and pastel colors. You’ve attended Lean Startup workshops, read Four Steps to the Epiphany, and subscribe to the Silicon Valley Product Group blog.

Honestly, it’s all very intimidating.

My product advice, from one overthinker to another overthinker – throw it all away. I mean, read the articles, enjoy the stories, and try to form your own opinions, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously.

A year into my first startup, my first major product epiphany was to never, never, ever try to build a product you couldn’t be a user for. That may be obvious, but I still read people discussing strategies for building products that they don’t use. There is no better user study, no more accurate persona than asking yourself what is good. There are probably product people out there that can do it, but, no offense, it’s probably not you, and it’s certainly not me.

There are many pros to building a product that you would use. Actually using a product (and I mean really using it), allows you to access the powers of intuition, an infinitely more valuable product tool than reason. Your intuition explains to you in a moment what it takes your reason an hour to break down. Your reason will lead you down a dozen wrong roads.

Another way of saying that is: if you think it’s cool, it’s probably cool. If you think it sucks, it probably sucks.

However, building a product for yourself doesn’t give you a free pass from user research, personas, and all the other things that product gurus tell you to do. Spend a year having the same product discussions with the same group of people, and the discussions will lose all meaning. Talking to five people outside of the company will bring you back to earth real fast.

One last thing…whatever you build, make sure it looks good and is the highest quality possible.

But wait, you say, look at eBay, Amazon, and Craiglist – they look like crap. Implement an MVP with product/market fit, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like. That’s true sometimes, but it also depends on where you are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The lower on the pyramid your product is, the crappier it can look. If your product is core to helping people make money, pirate movies, or sell your useless couch, you don’t need a designer. But if you’re high on the pyramid, ugly/clunky UI makes it impossible to for people to see your vision.

If you read Steve Jobs biography, it talks about one of the three original Apple philosophies: an odd word called impute. It’s basically a philosophy around impressions. On product, they said, “If we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod”.

Speaking of the biography, I’ll wrap up with my impression of that book. It’s a story about a product genius, but it’s a story with as many missteps as triumphs. I take the moral of the story to be: forget the experts, the know-it-alls, and the doubters. Trust yourself and your vision, and go build something.

39 thoughts on “You’re Overthinking It

  1. Nice post. I always have to remind myself that a developer’s MVP is quite different from the user’s MVP where in their case is the user interface/design of their software. Trying to bridge between the two is a tremendously difficult task not just because it required cross functional skills (code and design) but rather shifting your mindset from that of a developer to a user 24/7.

  2. Thank you for the post.

    IMHO just reading and learning from experts makes us dumb. There should be a good mix of experimentation too. ie. learning from your mistakes.

  3. Like your writing style, casual, clear. Probably doesn’t hurt that I agreed with everything you said :) Nice one.

  4. There are so many posts on HN that talk about what a product needs to look like when you launch.
    Honestly if you listened to everyone you would never launch. I agree, sometimes you need to go with your gut feel. Sometimes you need to iterate and sometimes it happens after you launch

  5. “A year into my first startup, my first major product epiphany was to never, never, ever try to build a product you couldn’t be a user for”.

    What do you mean with “build”? Are you pointing at the developer? Or a business?

    First, being a developer and being a UI/UX-specialist are two different professions. In general, developers should leave designing interfaces to other people. There are only a few developers who could design a good interface. And when the interface is defined, why should it matter wether you’re an user or not? Second, most software users aren’t developers, so many times it’s unavoidable to develop software you wouldn’t use yourself. Who should develop software for pilots?

    Also, what do you mean with MVP? Most Valuable Player? Most Valuable Professional? Model View Presenter? Most Valuable Product? Looking at Wikipedia, I can’t find a good match. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mvp

    • I’m really talking about the people who are leading product at the company, which is different from both development and UI/UX.

      The audience I really have in mind is those three friends that are thinking about starting a company. They probably come from various disciplines (engineering, design, business development, sales). For their new venture, they’re going to have to wear a lot of new hats, including product. If none of them are actually customers, they’re going to lack some intuition about what the product should be.

  6. “my first major product epiphany was to never, never, ever try to build a product you couldn’t be a user for”
    question 1: Do you think Mark Zuckerberg wastes 6 hours a day playing Farmwille on Facebook?
    question2: Do you think the CEO of Blizzard play World of Warcraft?
    The answer to both of these is no. Building something for someone else is what 95% of software companies do.
    Catchy title…

    • First Mark Zuckerberg did not build Farmville. Second the quote is “never,never,ever try to build a product you COULDN’T be a user for”. I think this is very good advice. If you think your product sucks and you would never use it, in the long run your product will suck for everyone (case in point Myspace). Granted there are people who succeed at products they wouldn’t use (I don’t imagine the CEO of burger king regularly dines at Burger King) but in the long term they are better off making products they COULD use. Its about having intuition and gut instinct to rely on rather than (or in addition to) market studies and focus groups. Your product will be better for it.

    • Similar answer as the one I gave above. Talking about people who are leading product in the company.

      Mark was a user of Facebook from the beginning. The CEO of Blizzard may or may not play WOW, but it’s not likely that he has a major role in product either, that depends on the CEO. The CEO has a lot of other jobs including the overall company trajectory/identity, deal making, and evangelizing.

  7. Good points. Over thinking can also be a symptom of fear, anxiety and procrastination. You can make yourself feel like you’re accomplishing something meaningful because you’re thinking about it, rather than actually doing it.

  8. @Tonio I can’t say whether the CEO of Blizzard plays WoW. Although I wouldn’t be surprised it’s pretty addictive. But I’m pretty sure there are plenty of people at Blizzard who are far more involved in building the game than the CEO is, who also play it like fiends.

    I think you’re probably right that Zuckerberg doesn’t play Farmville 6 hours a day. But then, he doesn’t work for Zynga either. Zynga makes Farmville. Does anyone at Zynga play it? Probably not, and it shows.

  9. There is a core point here that I want to call out a little more and see if you have more thoughts on it – the idea of intuition being more valuable than thinking.

    Almost a year and a half into my startup, I find that while I’ve learned a ton of things I can explain in well-thought-out words, the most valuable things I can’t. They’re things at the intuitive level, the gut check level, just a sense about what is going to go well and what isn’t.

    All of the reading and thinking helps you get some interesting mental models, but the actual doing is where that starts translating into an intuition that can react to incoming data. Before that, it is nice in theory but when real stuff happens it is hard to react quickly.

    Do you have thoughts on better ways to train your intuition? Or the right balance between the thinking and building of explicit mental models, and the ‘just-do-it’ building of gut-check intuition?

    • The way I think about it, intuition is based on your built-in pattern matcher. The same magic part of your brain that allows you to learn a language as a child by just listening to it. Or the thing that allows you to improve at chess just by playing it.

      Pattern matchers improve when you give it a lot of data. I trust my intuition, but I believe that my intuition is powered by my experience. Limited experience in something = limited intuition in that area.

      Basically, learn by doing, and expect your intuition to get better the more you do.

  10. Absolutely love your reference to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when determining the importance of good design for a startup. Great way of thinking about it.

  11. Nice post Tim.

    Agree with your thoughts on MVPs. Too many people think that design at an early stage is waste, but I’ve always thought that the aim of these is to learn as much as possible. If your design sucks, then you won’t know whether your test has failed because of the product or the implementation. There needs to be a base level of design & usability across all features in my opinion. I set up an MVP landing page for a product idea 3 days ago and have already have 200 sign ups. I don’t think I’d have had the same response if the design was shoddy.

    I can feel a Steve Jobs v Eric Ries blog post coming on…

  12. Analysis, paralysis can kill the development of any product or business. I’ve killed off several viable business ideas over the years, but saved myself from wasting time on some bad ones too. Unfortunately, there’s no one right way to get a product/business going. It’s a combination of gut and hard thinking, as you say in the article. The challenge is knowing when and where and how much to evoke each when it comes to making decisions.

  13. ‘talking to five people outside of the company will bring you back to earth real fast.’

    I think this advice is golden – thx !

  14. Very nice post, Timothy.
    I agree with your last sentence, “Trust yourself and your vision, and go build something.”

    Sometimes, what is holding us back from trying to build something is the overwhelming amount of information that can kill creativity. I once wrote an article titled “Forgetfulness is a property of all actions” that demonstrates how too much information, when not properly managed, can kill creativity.

    I would like to conclude by quoting Nietzche and his “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”:

    “If the man of action, in Goethe’s phrase, is without conscience, he is also without knowledge: he forgets most things in order to do one, he is unjust to what is behind him, and only recognises one law, the law of that which is to be. So he loves his work infinitely more, than it deserves to be loved; and the best works are produced in such an ecstasy of love that they must always be unworthy of it, however great their worth otherwise.”

  15. Thank you for your post! I also think that it is better to do something according to your vision and intuition. Sometimes we think logically too much and as a result don’t produce anything. Great post!

  16. great reminder.
    i have been learning a different language so i could have a program
    i can use myself and that can be of interest to others. my over thinking is that i only need ten features but I could program a million on the subject. Guess I better get the first ten right :-)

    in my expertise, the experts have only proven that everything they espouse over the past 100 years is not what works. Hopefully I’ll get the time to fix that :-)

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