Whatsapp has successfully capitalized on the messaging market by changing some old habits around SMS and chat applications. Slack now is attempting to do the same with email. In a way, we could look at Facebook and say it is just one giant mailing list after all! And yet, when we talk to the users, they find their experiences with Facebook or Whatsapp to be “different”. One of my friends the other day argued that sending something on Whatsapp is a lot easier than sending something over SMS. When we parse this step for step, it only saves steps when the messages are to a group, since Whatsapp has a persistent notion of groups. When pushed to explain, my friend was unable to really say why. I’m sure all of us have found that sharing a photo to Facebook is a lot easier than sharing it over email. Once again, quantifying this is hard.
I have recently become a Slack user and I find it significantly easier than email threads. It’s still early days to draw conclusions on this, but so far, it seems to be simplifying my collaborations. One could argue that conceptually, it is not really all that different from discussion boards or forums or even email threads at the core of it.
So, why are these new world apps doing so fantastically well on age old problems? It is really important to understand the difference between creating products that have “differences” from existing products and creating those that are just…, well, “different“! In fact, you need the perception of being different!
In his book, “Hooked”, Nir Eyal states that one way of creating successful products and changing people’s old habits is by taking a problem, creating a solution and then taking away steps from it until you are left with just the bare minimum steps to solve the problem. Let’s take the case of sharing a status over Facebook, for example. You are able to write something and post it – there is no need to select a mailing list or a group to share stuff with, let alone handle the creation and management of such aspects. A select few will whine about how they don’t want the entire world (which seems to be roughly equivalent to the set of friends we have on Facebook these days) to know about their status. In reality though, algorithms and the users have been getting smarter at this – algorithms figure out how to bring you the key updates of relevance to you and the users are getting better at tuning out what they don’t really want to see. It is really the same thing that Whatsapp has done with messaging.
The lesson here is very simple and yet hard to do – revolutionary products do not always need green field problems. Revolution in products can simply be about taking an existing problem and approaching it from a user centric perspective. Building products with incremental differences, especially in a field where some habits have been established, is not going to be useful. However, showing that your product is different (in a simpler way!), even if it were only in a single (but important) dimension, could make all the difference!