Where do good products go bad? This has been a question on top of my conscious for many years ever since I made a deliberate career switch to become a product manager. Through much of my career, I’ve had to study good and bad products. I’ve read every great book on product development and design you can think of. But one thing has recently bothered me about how products are designed nowadays. Let me elaborate below.
Imagine you want to become a product manager at a big tech company. You’re going to be asked questions about how you might design a product based on various metrics you’re aiming at. One of those metrics tends to be engagement or retention. In other words, how do we design a product so our users use it more or how do we design a product so a user is less likely to leave the product entirely?
Most of these metrics are financially beneficial for companies. The more engagement and less churn, the more money you’re likely to make. But this has always bothered me as a product manager. The resulting design of these products make them too usable. People cannot put them down because they become addicted to them and not in the good way.
When I think of good product design, I think of common sense mixed with non-obvious decisions made. You may think of Jonathan Ive and the iPod click-wheel design where it’s common-sense to select a playlist with some type of control, but who would have thought to use a radial clicking dial to do so?
Or what about James Dyson, who invented the world-famous AirBlade hand dryer that you see in public restrooms? It is common-sense to have an air drying mechanism through blown hot-air, but non-obvious to design that as an air squeegee.
Much of my philosophy around designing good products comes from Clayton Christensen, who was famous for developing a theory of “disruptive innovation” which is arguably the most influential business idea of the early 21st century.
Clayton believed in a concept he called “jobs to be done”. The idea is that when we buy a product, we essentially “hire” it to get a job done. For example, when we buy an iPod, we hire it to organize our playlists and play our purchased music. Or the AirBlade hand dryer, we hire it to air squeegee the excess water on our hands to accelerate drying.
Now the non-obvious part to this theory is that they are jobs to be done. These are jobs that have a finitude to them. They can actually be completed. The person who hires the product can choose to repeat that job over and over again if they wish, but the job has a completion loop each time.
This is where I start to have problems with how products are designed today. Many products built for the online and tech world are not possible to complete. They abuse this contract of hiring a product for a job. Instead, that job follows the person around in perpetuity.
Consider Instagram Reels, TikTok, or YouTube shorts for example. Each of these products are designed for engagement. The longer you are engaged in these products, the more advertisements you will see, and the more products you’ll likely participate in buying.
But wait a minute, Jon. What exactly are we hiring these products for? These products invade our lives by trying to understand our deep desires and predicting what content to show us. There’s both an obvious and non-obvious answer to the job these products do.
The obvious job is that you hire them to entertain. We spend a copious amount of time watching content and interacting with the types of content we like. This is much different than traditional entertainment. Movies have an ending. Television shows only have so much air time. But social media content is infinite, there is no end in sight. You can scroll forever.
The non-obvious job is that you hire them to learn everything about you to get recommended products and services that will improve your life. Similar to the obvious job, there is no end to this. There can be an infinite amount of products that might improve your life in insignificant ways, but marketed as if they will change your life today.
This brings me to where I’m torn on this topic entirely. Why do we allow these bad products to invade our lives? They are parasites to our time, attention, and our hard-earned money that we’d spend on good products we’d cherish for a lifetime.
That’s where I’m introducing a new idea I’d like to call “Fuck off design”. It has two components to it. The first is that a good product design is designed to “fuck off” when the job is done. The product is effective enough to the point where you can trust you do not need it anymore after you’re done using it.
The second is that a bad product design will have you saying “fuck off” when you realize the job does not get done. In fact, the job never gets done. Why did you hire this product in the first place? The product lingers around your daily life and you are finding regular ways to get the product out of your life when you become aware enough of it.
There’s an art and science to spending money on products. We all know the science behind the consumerism we engage in on a daily basis. We know the economy relies on us spending our hard earned cash. We are products of our background and upbringing. The more you were snubbed as a child, the more you might even display your wealth.
Rather than use our money to build a life, our life becomes revolved around money. Imagine if products were designed for the former. Wouldn’t you want a product that wants you to win? A gym that pays you to show up. A dating network that pays you when you get married. A doctor who pays you if you’re successfully treated.
And yet we have emotional attachment to these products that suck the life out of us. We fear that we’ll miss out on our friend’s life events on social media. We fear that we’ll miss some life changing advice by watching some guru online speak nonsense. We just can’t leave these products behind.
We look at these products with an under appreciation of the long-term cost. To us, they are free. What an amazing gift that has been given to humanity that these platforms are free! Yet, we don’t realize that over the long term we’re spending thousands and thousands of dollars on things that don’t bring us joy. They don’t help us build a life worth living. The advertisements we watch in increasing increments and frequency take mental space in our head where we know a brand because of a catchy jingle or funny premise for a commercial. We’re left with emptier pockets and junk filling our minds. We should be saying “fuck off” to more products and buying great products that “fuck off” when the time comes.