How Do Users Define Success?

This is part 4 of a series of blog posts based on a talk I prepared called Successfully Derailed Product. It’s about the ways in which we define and talk about “success” influence what – and how – we build. See part 1, part 2, part 3.

Let’s take another step back and talk about how users define success.

Because really – we’re building software to do something, right? For actual humans to use. So why wouldn’t we talk about them when we talk about success.

Working on, we talk about this a lot. It turns out people mostly don’t want to “make a website” or “choose a theme”, they might talk about wanting to “make my site look the way I want it”. But really, they want to be found by potential clients, sell things or just take payments, share their ideas and perspectives – in the hope of reaching a community or potential clients. They love their stats, because it’s a metric that shows them how they’re doing on their goals. There’s a framework for thinking about this called “jobs to be done”, which is essentially the idea that people “hire” software to do “a job”. So when they talk about the software they want, they’re talking about what they think will do the job. But we’ll design better experiences if we focus on what job they want the software to do.

A fascinating article from basecamp about people requesting a calendar view was one of the two user focused articles I found in my research on teams.

So if we think about the job to be done for an On demand app, they might be around:

  • Convenient way to get what (or where to) I need.
  • Faster than alternatives.
  • Cheaper or comparable.
  • More choice.

But on demand apps are two sided market places, so what kind of things might the providers of on demand services be thinking about?

  • Be discovered by new people.
  • Make more money.
  • Flexibility about when to work.

And then you can think about things like surge pricing as balancing that tradeoff – more money, for less flexibility for the driver. More expensive, but more convenient for the rider.

If we thought about Social networking, there are some well documented adverse effects – like depression and low self esteem. But what might be the job to be done?

  • Connecting with friends, or new people.
  • Building an online presence (in pursuit of some goal). Although someone told me the other day his kid wanted to be “a youtube star” so…. I guess that’s a job now.
  • Finding relevant, real time, information.

But! Social networks are also a two sided market place, and the other side is the advertiser. So what are they trying to achieve?

  • Selling their product, which they quantify by return on ad spend. So per dollar spent advertising in some place, what amount of sales are generated.

One thing that starts to be clearer here is how products can align their success with the user’s idea of success. So if someone can achieve the goals of their website – if they can connect with people, or sell their product or generate leads for their business, it’s doing it’s “job” and they will be happy to keep paying for it. What’s good for the user is good for the business.

You can see that with an on demand app too, if it’s a better experience for the customer, and allows the service provider to make more money, it’s a win for the platform because more business flows through it. Let’s just leave out bending employment law and potential monopolies for now.

With things like social networking though, it’s much harder to align the interests of both sides of the marketplace. I did not join Instagram thinking I wanted to be sold random shit, I joined to for the constant stream of raccoon pictures. And yet Instagram shows me as many advertisements for random shit I don’t want  – and yet so compellingly I often wonder for a minute if I do – as adorable raccoons.


There was a study recently from a company called Moment (an app to encourage you to use your phone less, oh the irony), that showed the apps we like most are the ones we spend the least time using.

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What’s also noticeable to me is how many of the apps that make people happy are ones where they are more clearly serving some kind of purpose, rather than things used to pass time. Those tend to make us unhappy.

There was a period where we talked a lot about “delighting” users, and this by and large seemed to be a conversation about aesthetics and animations. But what I take from this is the value of thinking about how we serve users. What do we make possible for them? What do we make easier? Because if we’re not building what I would term “digital crack” user success is product success, and product success is team success.

What’s next? How might we define success.

One reply on “How Do Users Define Success?”

“What’s also noticeable to me is how many of the apps that make people happy are ones where they are more clearly serving some kind of purpose, rather than things used to pass time. Those tend to make us unhappy.”

I’m curious if the apps that are used to pass time actually make us unhappy. I wonder if we use apps to pass time more _when_ we are unhappy, thus skewing the results.

When we are unhappy, theoretically, time drags on. When we are unhappy, we tend to look for a distraction so we don’t spend our time wallowing in our unhappiness. So, it could be that the apps to pass time are what we gravitate toward.

This is not a statement of fact. I have no evidence to back this up. It’s just a hypothesis.

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