Hello, Product Musings readers! It’s good to be back…

I took a break from writing in March after my father passed away. It gave me a chance to relax a bit and grieve like a normal person. (I couldn’t think of anything to write about either, so it wasn’t 100% by choice). But as my thoughts gradually returned to work and mixed with everything else on my mind, I found myself reflecting on how technology connects people in ways I hadn’t before.

My dad was a lifelong computer geek and tinkerer. He never bought a new computer, instead buying new motherboards and other components for his old NEC desktop and installing them himself. As my siblings and I moved his belongings out of his apartment in the past few weeks, shutting down his RAID 0 storage array felt more personal than just about anything else we did – such was his pride in having assembled it. It felt like a tangible extension of his personality.

Other memories came back too. Years ago when my wife and I found out we were expecting a son (yes, him), I decided to announce it to my dad via a pseudo-SQL query in an e-mail. At that time, he was often sending me questions about how to write a database query to do this or that while he was analyzing data for clients. It didn’t take him long to figure out that the mock-code below meant that there would be a new member of the family.

It’s cheesey and nerdy and a little odd, but it was based on shared experience – a language we both knew that not everyone knows.

Great products, platforms and tools create positive experiences for their users. Super-great products reach a level where they create shared experiences among enough people that they define a bona fide community.

From User Experience to Shared Experiences

Listen to practitioners of any trade talk shop and you’ll hear people bonding over the nuts and bolts of what they do, including the tools they use. If you’ve ever heard older developers chuckle about writing Fortran programs or engineers reminisce amongst each other about how good they once were with MatLab, you know what I mean. Shared experiences create bonds between people. Widely adopted tools that meet users’ needs on practical and emotional levels become shared experiences among a community.

shared experiences

When most of us talk about “user experience,” we’re referring to what users do and how the product lets them do it.  Especially on the enterpeise side, we often forget that experiences are first and foremost emotional in nature. Understanding users’ motivations and emotional triggers is a worthwhile exercise, however fluffy it may seem, because it lets you design for them. Some of your colleagues may roll their eyes when you bring up user emotions — don’t worry about that.

So, how do find your users’ emotional bulls-eye, much less design for it? It takes a lot of talking to potential users and thinking abstractly about why they do what they do, and what they need from your tool at a very high level. But if you want something you can try right now, connecting the high-level vision of the company to the product roadmap is a good place to start.

Here’s an example: Airbnb (a pretty darn viral brand) wants people who book rentals on their site to feel they can “belong anywhere.” It sounds nebulous because it describes an emotional state, but you could translate that goal into product direction easily. Incorporate restaurant reviews in the vicinity of where a person has booked, plug in the bandsintown API to give concert suggesstions, allow them to have groceries delivered and waiting for them…whatever makes people feel like real travelers rather than tourists. Go through this exercise with your product, and you’ll see that not only is the “fluffy vision useful – it’s crucial to evaluating new features and designs.

In enterprise software, it’s tempting to downplay users’ emotions and focus on driving business outcomes. Just remember that there’s the literal problem your product helps people solve, and then there’s the feeling you want your product to create for users. People want to get work done, but they also want to feel confident, reduce stress, take pride in their work, and exprience lots of other positive emotional outcomes. And believe it or not, most want to express themselves too.

You have more ingredients available than you may realize to get users to genuinely love your product, share it, and talk about it. But it won’t happen if you don’t hit the right emotional notes with them. Don’t shy away from the challenge.

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