Why User Misbehavior Is a Blessing

Product & Design Dec 9, 2019

You worked hard to build a product. You get some customers to use your product, and you are just happy that  people are using what you worked on for the last several months.  But you soon find out they are using in a way you totally did not  expect. What do you do when you find yourself in such a case? What do  you do to make sure you are on the right path to product-market-fit?

“If your customers are using your product in ways you didn’t predict, this is potentially very valuable information.” - Marty Cagan

If you are an early-stage startup, you should be a Swiss Army knife. You don’t know which set of tools would work for your problem just yet. So create as many tools that work for your users as possible and try  them out until you’ve gauged the right one. Limiting the use case for  your product to only your intentions is like volunteering to stick with  just one tool to test when you can have the whole set to try out.

It's Key to Nailing Product-Market Fit

Your path to finding product-market fit may not be so linear. In fact, many  successful founders found their initial product-market fit from an unexpected place! To find out whether you have a product-market fit in an adjacent area to your starting point, you have to pay close attention to how your customers are using your product.

Kevin Systrom and Mike Kreiger — the founders of Instagram — originally started their venture with a product called ‘Burbn.’

Burbn was a location-based social media app that allowed users to share their statuses and locations with pictures. It was basically a Foursquare clone.

Despite Kevin and Mike’s hopes in Burbn, their initial use case didn’t take off. People on Burbn weren’t necessarily using the app the way Kevin and Mike wanted them to.

What users instead really loved about Burbn was the idea of sharing their check-ins via pictures. It was the ultimate misbehavior that led Kevin and Mike to focus on a totally different use case from their original intention: sharing photos. The rest is history.

Bob Tinker, former-CEO of Mobileiron and Tae Hea Nahm, Co-founder and Managing Director of Storm Ventures, in their book ‘Survival to Thrivalsuggested that “often a slightly different customer segment, or an adjacent pain point, turns out to be a more compelling ‘hotspot’ and PMF opportunity.”

How users are using your current version of the product is the key to finding the product-market fit. Are they using it the way you expect them to? Are they finding success in the way you set up? Or are they somehow tweaking your product or using it differently to make it work for them?

Some of the biggest innovations and surprises could come from user misbehavior.

Marty Cagan, in his product management book ‘Inspired,’ wrote:

“Some product people can get upset when they find customers using their  products for unintended use cases…I’m suggesting, however, that this special case can be very strategic and well worth the investment to support. If you find your customers using your product in ways you didn’t predict, this is potentially very valuable information.”

Let customers use your product the way they want to use it! What’s more important is how much they are using it. Even if they aren’t necessarily following your intentions nor your target customers, if they are using your product day in and day out, maybe it’s a sign that you should look more into this adjacency. Monitoring the success of your customers who use your product for different reasons can give you valuable insights to build your product roadmap.

“Allow and even encourage, our customers to use our products to solve problems  other than what we planned for and officially support.” — Marty Cagan

When Marty was working at eBay as the SVP of Product & Design, eBay used  to have something called the “Everything Else” category. This category was where people could buy and sell things that eBay couldn’t anticipate people might want to trade. This category was, in fact, what Marty called “some of the biggest innovations and biggest surprises” at eBay.

While eBay was first created to accommodate a marketplace for electronics and collectibles, eBay soon started to see people trading concert tickets, fine art, and even cars. Instead of getting upset or taking actions against this misbehavior, the eBay team did “everything they could think of to encourage and nurture customers using the eBay marketplace to be able to buy and sell anything.”

As a result, eBay quickly became a marketplace for just about anything on earth. Today, eBay is one of the largest used car companies in the world.

It’s stupid not to give what customers want.

Just give them what they want! Give your users a reason to continue using your product. Don’t get upset because they are not using it the way you want them to. Don’t think too much about your increased support obligations to the unintended customer behavior. At least for now. Don’t think about how much time and resources you spent to build the perfect user flow and use case. Every planning and designing that went into your product is merely a prototype unless your customers recognize it as a viable product.

Be flexible and adaptable to your customers’ behavior. Monitor where your customers find success in your product. And let them continue to find success. You don’t have to start building extra features just for them right away, but carefully monitor their behavior and talk to them personally.

There is one caveat, though.

As  your product gets more adoption and recognition from the customers, you’ll start to see different user types and cohorts among your user base. When this happens, it’s crucial to identify which of these cohorts can/will find you the right product-market-fit.

In his podcast Masters of Scale, Reid Hoffman mentioned LinkedIn had a super-user group called LION (LinkedIn Open Networkers) during the early days. They were heavy users of LinkedIn, and obviously, their existence was core to LinkedIn’s early growth.

This group of people believed that LinkedIn should be an open network, just like Facebook or Twitter. However, what Reid and his team found out by talking to the general users was “a lot of people who are very busy, who have access to resources, who have some celebrity status — did not want LinkedIn to be an open network.” Most users wanted to be connected with people they know personally.

Reid and his team were explicitly told by the LION that they were fools not following LION’s advice. Had LinkedIn decided to follow LION’s requests and made an open business social network, we might be using a different product for our business networking today.

“It’s essential to seek out and listen to user feedback. But the caveat is: You have to figure out which users to listen to. You’re going to have different kinds of users giving you feedback — and some of it will take you in the wrong direction. So you need to exercise judgment in discerning: Will this particular user and particular feedback lead me to the mass market? Or is it an edge case?” — Reid Hoffman

So, to sum it all up:

  • It’s important to be open-minded about customer misbehavior. Especially if you’re an early-stage startup.
  • Monitor and follow closely where your customers find success through your product, even if they use it differently.
  • One crucial caveat is that you have to carefully decide whether this  misbehavior has the potential to take you on the right path.

There’s a whole book on this topic, ‘The Power of Customer Misbehavior,’ by Mike Fisher. Check it out!

This post was originally published in Medium, on November 28, 2019.


Christopher Chae

Co-founder at Hyperinbox. Loves 🍕 and ☕️.

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