The natural tendency to gravitate towards your best customers handicaps your ability to build and sustain increasingly inclusive products.
If you want to build a product that millions (or hundreds of millions) of people can use, you must defy this tendency to prioritize the core product at the expense of the “first mile.”
In a world of moving fast and pushing out a “minimum viable product,” thefirst mile of a product’s user experience is almost always an afterthought. The welcome/tour, the onboarding, the explanatory copy, the empty states, and the defaults of your product make up the first mile. Ironically, these crucial components of initial engagement that make up the “top of your funnel” for engaging new users are typically addressed in haste as a product is launched. In some teams, I have even seen these pieces outsourced or delegated to a single engineer or designer to figure out on her own.
To make matters worse, the first mile of a product experience is increasingly neglected over time despite becoming more important over time. As your product reaches beyond early adopters, the first mile will need to be even simpler and account for vastly different groups of “newest users.” For example, products built before the mobile-first era need to evolve for a generation of people that are mobile-only. Products built before the advent of Facebook Connect and now the “address book graph” must account for the new standard for finding your friends.
And products built for a tech-savvy group of early adopters must simplify to go mainstream and accommodate a broader population. It’s an important reminder: New users are not the same over time. Successful products span across demographics, generations, and nationalities. Consider Snapchat, over four years after initial launch, is now growing fast in the “Age 35+” demographic. Whatever your first mile is now, it must not only get consistently better but also must consistently change.
A failed first mile cripples a new product right out of the gate. Your product may get lots of downloads or sign-ups, but very few customers get on-boarded and primed to the point where they know three things: (1) why they’re there, (2) what they can accomplish, (3) and what to do next (note: users don’t need to know how to use your product at the beginning, they just need to know what to do next!). Once a new user knows these three things, they have reached “The Zone.” Fantastic businesses are built when the majority of users that express interest in a product are able to get on-boarded and into The Zone.
Big and established products are not immune to this problem. Consider Twitter — a product that engaged millions of people but struggled to optimize the first mile over time. As the core product improved, the first mile failed to get enough new users into The Zone — and growth stalled. Recent simplifications, an emphasis on accessible formats like live video, and a renewed focus on those who have yet to engage with Twitter make me optimistic.