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Five Building Blocks of Great Digital Products

Reposted from Hot Studio huge help from John Cantwell

Think of the digital products you love. The ones you use the most, that augment your life, your business, your hobbies, your whatever. What do they have in common?

Well, for one, they’re probably easy, or even elegant, to use. And they almost certainly boast a really nice visual design too. Those are givens.

But even more than that, the best digital products–and indeed the many of the best physical ones, too–are services. They build lasting relationships with their users by meeting real needs and solving real problems.

Odds are if you’re looking to build or improve a digital product, you’ve already identified a need: you know the service you hope to provide. The question is: How? What are the underlying mechanics that make it tick?

Here at Hot, we’ve had the privilege of helping lots of amazing clients roll up their sleeves, peel back the layers, and get down to the guts of their product. No two cases are ever quite the same. But over the years, we’ve found several key building blocks to great digital products. Here are five:

1. BYOH (Bring Your Own Hardware)

It’s a simple principle, but an important one. Millions and millions of people are carrying smartphones—really powerful, capable ones—they’ve paid good money to own them, and they want to use them. So don’t make people invest in new hardware to use your service unless they absolutely need to. Let them bring their own to the party.

A great example of this is Zipcar’s mobile app, which allows users to do some really simple-but-cool things—like unlock a car’s doors—as well as more comprehensive things, like reserve cars on-the-go. Zipcar could’ve made a separate device to handle some of these functions (think, maybe, a Zipcar key fob to honk their car’s horn) but that would’ve mostly amounted to frivolous junk. Their customers already had all the hardware they needed.

2. Keep some things free

If your product offers a truly valuable service, customers will happily pay a reasonable fee for the right to use it. But that doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy a freebie along the way. That’s why it’s a good idea to choose a spot in your product’s ecosystem and keep it free. And then let users know you’re keeping it free, that it always will be free, and that it’s free because you love them.

Spotify, for instance, does a great job of offering a huge amount of service to their users for absolutely nothing. They highlight their value for free, and show that the Premium model only makes things better. Netflix charges a flat rate for unlimited commercial-free access to its entire library of streaming content. BankSimple doesn’t charge ATM fees.

In all of these instances, the idea is to build brand loyalty first–and ask for payment later.

3. Collect data ASAP

As soon as you start building your infrastructure, start collecting data, because you never know where that data will lead. Companies leading the charge here are those producing wearable tech–like Nike+, which collects its users’ workout data–and Nest, the web-enabled thermostat. (Notice that both of these examples include their own proprietary hardware–they don’t do BYOH. But they also offer a service that really isn’t suited for a smart phone.)

4. API-first, not just mobile-first

As a means of managing your design strategy and codebase, mobile-first makes tons of sense. (In fact, it’s an approach we here at Hot are quite fond of.) But in terms of generating growth for your product, having it wind up in more places and used by more people, it’s still vital to get your API right. Massive services–think Twitter and Instagram–were all boosted by their robust APIs, which allowed them to play well with the social media universe and find a lasting place within it.

5. Make pricing transparent

People want to trust the services they use, and one the surest ways of engendering trust is price transparency. Show your customers how you’re monetizing them, what you’re charging them and when. Uber, for instance, does a great job of showing its customers the different prices they’ll be charged for requesting cars at different times of the day, and from different locations. As a result, customers are better able to judge Uber’s relative value to them, depending on the situation.

What else do you think is crucial for a digital product or app? Let us know!

Why I’m Switching

Why I’m Switching

For years Apple’s design philosophy has been that experience design makes up for any small differential in feature parity. This philosophy worked because people were fleeing from the cacophony that was the Microsoft service ecosystem, and/or the laughably horrible Palm Treo families. Apple purposefully made experiences with a focused (read: limited) feature-set because it provided a far superior experience for the vast majority of users (edge-cases would have to adjust, and they did. Happily). With the Samsung Note, things are changing. There’s now a gap in features that’s too wide to ignore. Between the stylus, huge screen and increasing powers of google (better than Apple’s siri and maps, etc.), Samsung has a compelling alternative to the iPhone.

We saw this play out in the PC space too… Remember the G4 & G5 Apple chips? They were terrible. They couldn’t run Flash! – web browsing experiences were greatly compromised on that hardware. I would argue that the same feature tripping point happened in reverse around 2007, when Apple got it together, adopted the Intel architecture and offered users everything they needed from their Windows boxes with the elegant “Apple Experience” layered on top. Point is: the “Apple Experience” only bridges feature-gaps of manageable distances. 

Samsung Note, the good:

  • Has a huge screen… Switching back to web browsing on an iPhone after using the Note for an hour is draconian.
  • Wacom Stylus: I use one at work as my sole input device (I’m a-typical as I’m a graphic designer) and I love the precision it provides.
  • Google, as a data-company that facilitates connected experiences, is second-to-none. Apple can’t touch Google Voice Search, Cloud Sync, Location-Based Services, Navigation, etc.
  • Some people put a lot of stock in build quality – and that’s important. But when I’m lost in whatever digital experience I’m consuming on the device, all other peripherals melt away. The Note’s build quality is certainly less than apple (plastic vs. metal & glass), but it’s passable. After 5 minutes on the device you no linger care if the bezel is actual aluminum or aluminum-look plastic.

Samsung Note, the bad:

  • The iPhone’s screen is still way brighter and the refresh rate is higher, which creates a “smoother” look. This is curious because I thought Samsung was the component supplier for the retina display… There should be no differences here.
  • The “Apple Experience” is still the best out there: fonts, color usage, textures, layout, UI placement and experience pacing, etc.
  • Android is like Windows ca. 1998, there are tons of 3rd party apps & plugins and no guarantee each of them won’t nuke your device.
  • No iTunes!! I went all-in and adopted the iTunes ecosystem for music purchases, storage and playback across all of my devices. Backing out of this and into another ecosystem will be a major inconvenience. (Though with Songza, Rdio and Spotify, maybe the very nature of how I consume music is forever changed?)
  • The device is packed with an Android OS with Samsung Apps on top with AT&T Carrier apps on top of that, which make for a noticeably “additive design” experience. Think Kenya Hara (Muji), Apple, Zen, etc. for why reductive is best.

So I’ll make the switch but with two huge EJECT buttons: 1) If I find i’m not using the stylus enough (maybe it’s like the Pepsi Challenge in that it seems better at first, but you have to live with it for a while to truly judge) 2) If adopting a new music ecosystem is too cumbersome.

As I write this I’m reminded of the brilliant Samsung commercials with the hipsters in line for the new Apple product release bemoaning the feature gap… If the iPhone 6 comes out and closes the gap, there’s still one thing that Apple has that no one else does… the “Apple Experience” – and that’s a competitive differentiator.