Being able to find stuff is valuable.

Enterprise search isn’t the highest-profile software category out there, but man is it important for a huge number of businesses – ours included. These tools make it easy for developers to add search functionality to their applications.

Want users to be able to find the right products on your e-commerce site, the article they need in your help docs, or the image they want from a digital library? You need a search solution. Buy one, or start re-building Google on your own.

The players in this space figured out that user-friendly search is critical to the user experience for many digital companies. Among the competitors to emerge as heavyweights in recent years are Elastic and Algolia. They’ve both recently been in the news thanks to Elastic’s October 2018 IPO, and it’s worth understanding their very different paths to success.

In a nutshell, Algolia search works out of the box with very little configuration, while Elastic search gives developers flexibility to customize the solution to their product’s needs. The former sacrifices customizability and power, while the latter sacrifices ease of implementation. It’s a classic dilemma that every product professional struggles with at some point.

How simple is too restrictive for the target market? If you leave lots of room for configuration decisions up to users, will it be too much wok for them to get value from the product? Product questions like that go right to the heart of whether you’ve got a viable business.

Making Simple Tools Is Complicated. Making Complicated Tools is Too.

It’s not that you need to choose the right answer — there’s room in most markets for both simple and complex solutions to succeed. Whether you want to be the WordPress or the Wix of your market, the entire business needs to understand the strategy and the product strategy needs to reflect it. The middle ground tends to be a no-man’s land of slow sales and small market size.

“Simple vs. complicated” seems like a straightforward choice until you realize product managers and designers are frequently working at the boundaries, having to decide whether some new feature or module takes the product too far in one direction or the other. For startups, it’s easier than you’d think to drift into that no-man’s land over a year or two. Customers and prospects can pull you away from your planned strategy with enhancement requests and contingent sales deals. So how do you know when you’re wisely seizing an opportunity vs. muddling the product strategy?

the 10,000-foot view of your users won’t be enough to answer your questions. Enterprise search tools, for instance, are used by software developers with moderate-to-very high technical familiarity. Yes, they need to integrate search into their apps and websites, but the teams behind Algolia and Elastic (and Solr and others) had to figure out which of the second- and third-order problems to solve to decide on a strategy.

For instance, find their target users need:

  • a cheaper search solution to own?
  • a faster solution to implement?
  • a more flexible solution for their business needs?
  • robust solution that could handle extreme concurrency?

The only way to answer these questions is talking to potential users. You have to understand their priorities, how they get work done, what their teams look like, their budgets constraints, and what their customers care about.

Work backward from the customer problems you find, understand the problem from every angle, and constantly ask whether your roadmap aligns with the product strategy.

Tips for the road

Know your killer features for “out-of-the-box” products. If you pursue a strategy of being easy to use/implement, you’ve got to (a) know what your target users want most, and (b) do those things absurdly well. Algolia’s users, for instance, love the product’s typo-tolerance, instant search, and default search results – all features that work out of the box so well that they win many customers over on that alone.

Deliver on the power you promise for customizable products. If you’re go with a flexibility/customizable strategy, you have to commit to expansivement. Maybe in your case means built-in connections with dozens or more 3rd party APIs. Maybe it means providing developer tools and SDKs. If you can’t deliver a product that meets the needs of far more of the market, you’re better off going in the other direction.

Either way, know what moves the needle and what doesn’t for your business, and be ready say “no” to some of the market.

Know Your Target Market Better! Build Your Own User Panel on UserMuse!