Building products from improvised user behaviors

For a long time, there were niche communities of “lo-fi” camera enthusiasts: people who shared photos taken on old cameras that had interesting ways of filtering shots. The iPhone app Hipstamatic popularized lo-fi filters, selling over 1M copies. Because Hipstamatic lacked sharing features, many users took pictures with Hipstamatic and then shared them using other apps. Then came Instagram, which combined lo-fi filters and easy sharing. Instagram has been downloaded 15M times and has apparently crossed over to mainstream users.

Instagram built a product devoted to a job that users were previously performing improvisationally using multiple products. This is a common pattern for popular software and services. Before Twitter, people shared interesting links through email or “link round-up” blog posts. Tumblr’s short-form blogging/re-blogging was inspired by an “unintended” use of long-form blogging platforms like WordPress. Before Foursquare, power socializers sent out mass text messages with their locations (in fact, Foursquare’s predecessor Dodgeball did exactly that).

New startup ideas are all around you, in the improvised behaviors of people you know. It takes a keen product eye, however, to notice these improvisational behaviors and recognize which ones are worthy of being developed into standalone products.

75 thoughts on “Building products from improvised user behaviors

  1. evanjacobs says:

    It was an improvised user behavior that led to the idea of Kindlegraph. Readers of e-books still want to collect inscriptions from authors but none of the improvised solutions (signing Kindles with a sharpie or passing out signed bookplates) were sufficient.

  2. we hear from lots of people that they like Shelby because they used to open up a ton of tabs in their browser with videos to watch

  3. One of the many things I love about Twitter is that it’s continued to observe and build on improvised behaviour. Hashtags, @mentions, and retweeting were all improvised behaviours that Twitter baked into the product later.

    I loved this post.

  4. Great set of examples.

    One challenge is techies who don’t understand that their improvisational use of products does not, in and of itself, constitute a similar improvisational use by normals.

    Example: a tool to “take your hundreds of RSS feeds from Google Reader and automatically put them in Read It Later” is not a normal’s problem that needs solving. Show me one normal who has a problem with hundreds of RSS feeds.

  5. Or indeed one normal who uses RSS at all.

    A direct pipe from Twitter to Read It Later on the other hand would be fantastic. Add every article person X tweets to Read It Later; add the links from every tweet I favorite… The improvisation of opening the link, waiting for it to load, and then sharing it to RIL is far from elegant.

  6. abhic says:

    Those are some great examples. I am trying to compile a bigger list for myself, just because you got me thinking.

    What’s also interesting is how some attempted improvisations (by early stage startups) were better or validated easier at scale (by mature startups).

  7. Agree, although had RSS and OPML been made simpler and more digestible to Normals you could imagine some version of them having been popular the way Twitter is.  Similar use case.

  8. abhic says:

    Worst place to do this I think but heartfelt congratulations on the eBay exit. Can’t believe they scored you + NYC in one swoop!

  9. Yeah, that has been one of the great things about the Twitter user base. I would say it’s debatable whether Twitter the company has fully understood their users’ improvised behaviors.

  10. That’s an astute observation. But the potential trap is the feature that remains a feature vs. the unmet need that mushrooms into a daily necessity. Both cases could be disguised as improvised behaviors in their early stages.

    For eg, I still can’t believe that Flickr couldn’t think or implement what Instagram did. That opportunity was starring them right in the eyes.

  11. 24pfilms says:

    I think a good example of this is Flipboard for iOS. They have taken Twitter and RSS feed links and allowed the latent url/link content to be grandly displayed in a pleasing consumer format.

  12. This always bring forth an interesting question. 

    There’s one school of thought that says – If there’s rain, customers need umbrellas. Sell them umbrellas.

    And then, another that says.. customers have no idea what they want. You should make a better gadget that they may not know they want, but do (don’t know what the analogy is)

    Of course, the 2nd was popularized by inventors such as Ford and Jobs.
    And maybe only works for genius.. 🙂

  13. NicolasVDB says:

    Chris, I think your observation is true but unfortunately it only works in hindsight. I don’t believe that you can create a product analytically from such observations. 
    The success of these products come from user experience, from what Daniel Khaneman calls our System 1 – fast, intuitive, emotional  as opposed to our effortful, attention-driven, analytical System 2 (see , that I highly recommend). They are created out of an intuition, often with a bit of luck, by talented product people. They are unlikely to come out of planning sessions – from what I know of Instagram and Twitter, they were both more serendipitous than planned.

  14. Lo-fi photos have always had a certain amount of social currency associated with them. Shooting with film, cross-processing, etc. is time consuming. But Lo-fi photographers do it BECAUSE it’s difficult. It’s a badge of honor to go through all that hassle.

    Now Instagram comes along and allows anyone to create these unique looking photos with minimal effort. To the film purists, a bit of the magic is gone. It’s less cool.

    The “job” Instagram performs is to make a photo fashionable by making it look old. The problem with this is, the uniqueness of a lomo-fied snapshot will decline over time, since anyone can create them. Once everyone’s profile photo on Facebook is an Instragram, the game is up.

    Will be interesting to see if they move beyond filters and figure out how to improve the quality of people’s photos in other ways.

  15. Over 10 years ago I backpacked through Asia with a friend. He was amazed that I kept a “travel log” on a Geocities site, begged me to teach him how,  and even managed to learn enough HTML to do it. In hindsight, it’s clear that he wanted blogging, not HTML.

    I now try to keep a keen eye to things I or other techies do that make ordinary people say “How did you do that!” 

  16. Interesting point. We used to talk about ‘transformative’ vs. ‘translational’ design: the former meaning products that actually change behavior and the latter referring to products that build off existing behavior, particularly workarounds / hacks (improvised behaviors).

    Question to you as a VC though: do you think the translational products are fundable early-on? They often seem incremental, considering they are streamlining or improving upon existing services and behaviors…

  17. Sean W. Coughlin says:

    as a faithful reader (and first time commenter), i’d say this is your best post in awhile, chris. thanks for it. I think shazaam is a good example of this (people used to google song lyrics to identify songs). steve blank talks about this in “4 steps” when he encourages entrepreneurs to focus on people who are hacking together solutions to unsolved or poorly solved problems. 

  18. Nice post! One recent example of this is Voxer, which is mobile/x-platform and mimics the feel of the old Nextel “chirp” style of communication.

  19. More broadly, Chris’s idea is similar to something Clay Christensen says in that fab Gartner presentation: “look for ways to make the thing simpler, cheaper, and more accessible”. If some people are already doing something even though it requires a certain amount of fiddling, then demand will grow if you can make it much easier to do. The fiddling is similar to the high cost and inconvenience of a valve radio relative to a transistor radio, for example.

  20. momoetomo says:

    exactly – very nice post! – sometimes I ask myself if spinning out ideas of such observations is “real innovation” since we are more iterating on existing products. it feels a bit like cheating! 😉
    and there is always the danger that the product you develop gets copied by the original company with more distribution power since they have an existing user base. 
    read the “terms of use” of the instagram api. they know this issue exactly. 

  21. momoetomo says:

    exactly – very nice post! – sometimes I ask myself if spinning out ideas of such observations is “real innovation” since we are more iterating on existing products. it feels a bit like cheating! 😉
    and there is always the danger that the product you develop gets copied by the original company with more distribution power since they have an existing user base. 
    read the “terms of use” of the instagram api. they know this issue exactly. 

  22. NicolasVDB says:

    I hope you’re both right, since, in spite of my comment, I’m exploring a start-up idea based on the very principle of simplifying cumbersome user behaviors 🙂
    Yet, on the less optimisitc side, I can’t resist a quote I just read this morning from Kahneman’s book, as he’s criticizing stock picking professionals: “And we cannot suppress the powerful intuition that what makes sense in hindsight today was predictable yesterday”.

  23. Brilliant post Chris! You’re absolutely right. Here’s an improvised behavior: porting PDF documents into sexy web documents, like so – That behavior could be a product. And on and on. I see these quircks and eccentricities all around me, and with your apt prodding, I’ll do a better job of documenting them. Per design thinking mantra, we should all be students of human behavior. 

  24. I wonder how much of Airbnb’s users’ behavior was a market risk (before they took off). Couchsurfing kinda de-risked that “behavior” of people sleeping on other people’s couches, Airbnb gave the supply-side an economic incentive and unlocked a whole lot more supply, and knew how to market it well (to drive up demand).

    I try not to fall into hindsight bias, but I really wonder about this couchsurfing + airbnb correlation.

    p.s. Wow, never heard of Hipstamatic prior to this, only knew of Instagram

  25. Georg Petschnigg says:

    Instagram has another important feature going for it: It’s free. And just like free beer, that is pretty irresistible when it comes to early adoption. 

    Certainly sharing features played an important role, but I would argue Hipstamatic identified the right job: the human need for creation and self-expression. They also aligned their revenue stream with satisfying that need (e.g. sell prints, packs, competitions, etc.).

    Today, both products have comparable sharing features. Hipstamatic has made an estimated $4-7M in sales. Instagram needed to raise $7.5M from VC and I wonder who will be left paying the bill for all that free beer. 

    This is not to disagree about the premise of improvised user behaviors — that runs really deep. Deeper than a single feature. Peel back and you’ll find a lasting human need. That is what to build your company around.

  26. kfalter says:

    I totally agree with this. Looking for patterns in user behavior is the most important thing in the product development process. Shadowing users without giving them a prompt and just watching routines is eye-opening.

    Ultimately, users may not even realize they have a problem or that they are doing something inefficiently or that their lives could be better. 

    And sometimes, when it’s pointed it out, people still say that they don’t notice a need for a better way.

    I think going back to how Jobs approached users as people who didn’t necessarily know what they wanted is an interesting take. 

    Looking at Gladwell’s discussion in Blink about rationalized decision making hints that people aren’t really able to deconstruct why they chose to act a certain way. 

    In the end, the pattern identification in sometimes disjointed user behavior results in some of the most elegant product/industrial design.

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