Designing for a better PLG interaction
"Everything Starts Out Looking Like a Toy" #92
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Hi, I’m Greg 👋! I publish this newsletter on finding data products and interesting data observations with the goal of finding patterns and future product insights. (Also, it’s fun.) If you need a background on how we got here, check out What is Data Operations?
This week’s toy: an API that returns examples of Owen Wilson saying “wow” in movies. Stupid? Yes, of course. But it helps us visualize an entirely new kind of searching where the search itself becomes a kind of content. Even content like this (a supercut of wows).
Edition 92 of this newsletter is here - it’s May 9, 2022.
The Big Idea
A short long-form essay about data things
⚙️ Designing for a better PLG interaction
Steve Blank has famously written that “no business plan survives first contact with customers.” Said another way, when prospects and customers arrive at a PLG (product-led growth) trial motion, they are going to help you validate your initial assumptions. Some of those guesses are going to be right, and some of those will be wrong.
Onboarding a PLG user can feel like controlled chaos. You start with a person expressing intent. Hi 👋, they say, “I’d like to learn more about your stuff and I’m not sure how much time or effort I want or need to spend finding out before I decide to go try something else.” If you are in the room with them, you can do all the things you do as a seller and control the situation with the best chance to achieve a good outcome. As a product manager designing an experience where they need to leave with that good outcome, you have different tools and challenges to get them along that happy path to a place where they want to learn more.
The “Goldilocks” amount of guidance
It’s a challenge. In a first-time user experience, how do you get a new prospect for a software product to the place you want them to go and have them learn something in the process? Too much of a push and it feels like you are selling them in a demo that has no exit. Not enough assistance and they may feel lost and simply abandon the trial.
There’s a middle ground to providing the right guidance for your prospect. In a very short period of time, you need to deliver context – why are they here and what do they need to do to get value; concepts – how do I orient myself; and ideally deliver understanding – a quick win that validates the context using the concepts and provides an a-ha! moment. You also need to build “guard rails” – protection from doing dangerous things; and anticipate chaos – it’s likely the prospect may deliberately or accidentally try things you haven’t asked them to do.
Tools at your disposal
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but should give you an idea of the possible when considering how to imagine the ways that customers will experience your product.
Customer Journey Map
Your first, and best tool to help a trial prospect is to create a customer journey map. In its basic form, it’s a list of the places your customer needs to visit, along with an expectation of the decisions they will need to make at each point. Customers travel along the journey and decide whether to continue along at each waypoint. Do they want to try a feature? How do they know when it’s time to ask for help?
The customer journey map gives you a blueprint for the needs of the customer and helps you point out where you will need to provide scaffolding or helpful knowledge while the prospect is using your software. What do you expect them to be able to do on the first time they are trying things out, and what is the definition of success? Understanding the point you want to get them to is a key to measuring whether first time users will become repeat users.
User Onboarding Software
Software that provides guides, or overlays, or allows you to ask questions and get answers is known as User Onboarding Software. Some of the best of these (I like Userflow) let you create guided experiences within your customer journey to assist the prospect in getting where they need to go.
When you create an action-based experience, you are showing the prospect what they need to know and then asking them to repeat that action. They might not know what they are doing on the first go-around, but they can walk through a sequence of steps designed to get them to a moment where the software shows value. (Don’t forget to create a way to ask for help when they feel frustrated.)
Don’t forget about your old friend: email. Nurture emails are an excellent way to drip content toward the prospect where they learn a series of concepts over days. During the course of a 14- or 28-day trial, you might get them to visit only a few times, but if they have a specific goal in mind their sessions will be more effective.
Email sequences are also a good place to share proof points about the outcomes you’re hoping to demonstrate for the prospect. When combined with their experience in the product, emails deliver a way for the prospect to identify which problem they may want to address with your product. If it’s like most Saas products, there might be a lot going on for them to assess in the first login.
It’s all well and good to create a Product-Led Growth motion, and some of that is always going to be explained best by people. When you have a questions, it’s invaluable to reach someone who knows what they are doing, often within a few minutes. If you’ve taken the time to try something new and can’t get help, you’ll probably feel super frustrated.
So make it easy to “pull the ripcord” and get help from a knowledgeable product advocate. If that person is a seller, focus them on understanding what the prospect is trying to do before they are asking them to buy. A product-led prospect may not be a product-qualified lead.
How do you build a better PLG onboarding?
Onboarding is a process in itself, helping the prospect to see where they are, learn and apply new concepts, and achieve a goal.
From the first moment a prospect tries out your product, you need to let them know: “here’s where you are, and here’s a map of where you are going.” The idea of a map or a waypoint gives them the context of the problem you are trying to solve, the benefit your product provides, and some hint of how they will know they have reached a goal.
Part of the task of providing this waypoint is to teach the user to navigate in the product. This means identifying first level navigation, and to tell them about deeper concepts they need to know to get value from your product. If you have a customer relationship management product, you need to let them know about your data model and the way to add a new customer. If it’s a utility that delivers an outcome like deduping contacts in a CRM, you need to show them what a unified contact looks like. If it’s a game, you need to show them how to win.
The larger task when you are introducing a prospect to your world view is to explain: “why are we here?” Clearly they arrived with a problem they need to solve, or with a curiosity for understanding your point of view on the problem you’re solving. So make sure you use the concepts you’ve introduced in the navigation and basic introduction to identify the most important things they need to know.
Once these important ideas have been introduced, a really good onboarding will explain the concept and then demonstrate how it’s used. Taking the example from above, if you are explaining the idea of contact unification, you might need to explain how multiple contacts could contain similar information; that you need to decide when you have a duplicate; and that you need to pick a winner. Walking through this process with a sample use case makes this process easier to understand.
It’s not easy to create a believable workflow that shows you how you would solve a sample problem, while actively explaining that problem and linking it to the concepts you’ve introduced previously. One good framework to follow is “show me, tell me, let me try.” Said another way, you might repeat the same use case in your onboarding multiple times. The first time, to show the outcome of the benefit (a unified contact record.) The second time, you might tell the story of how the pieces of that unified record were assembled. Finally, you might givethe prospect sample data and ask them to try the process themselves, while giving them a rubric or an outcome to measure their performance.
Because this won’t always go well. A good onboarding process also offers some protection against unintentional (or intentional) missteps. Using sample data and asking the user to do non-destructive or relatively simple things also makes it easier for the prospect to try a new thing without worrying.
Anticipate and Welcome Chaos
It’s nice to think that everything will go perfectly. And indeed, many people who try your onboarding experience will complete it successfully and follow the “happy path” toward understanding whether your product ultimately works for them or not. But there will also be prospects who are less successful, who get frustrated, or who don’t understand what you’re trying to do. This is also an expected part of the process.
Using the events built into your onboarding software, you should be able to instrument and determine the points of friction. It might be harder to determine whether the customer journey or a mismatch between your customer’s intent and the way you’ve built your onboarding is the culprit, but thinking about this process ahead of time is key. Will you offer just-in-time chat? Will you have a person contact that trialer if it’s obvious they tried something and then bailed and went away? Or will you focus on refining your onboarding interactions to get the prospect back to the right place on their own?
You’ll probably try more than one of these methods as you work on creating the better PLG mousetrap. The important thing to remember is that you are trying to build a system to interpret the patterns of prospects so that you can – on the margin – improve the initial experience to create a more delightful and insightful journey.
What’s the takeaway? Designing for a better PLG interaction does not guarantee that you will have a better experience for the customer. But by thinking about the customer journey and trying to walk in their shoes, you will make it easier to anticipate the prospects needs and will build the scaffolding they need to get help as they try to learn your product for the first time. You, and they, will both learn something.
Links for Reading and Sharing
These are links that caught my 👀
1/ Quick Question - Austen Kleon writes about a way to test your assumptions. He calls it “would I do this tomorrow”? The idea is that if think about how your future self would approach a problem (and soon), it’s a little less scary than thinking about doing something right now, but still a pretty good bellwether of whether you are on board. Would you read this tomorrow?
2/ Deep Fakes are Getting Better - Ben Dickson tells a story about a Boston law firm that doesn’t exist. It checks all the boxes: sounds like a law firm’s name, appears to have an office in a building with other law firms, and sends emails that seem like legalese emails. Except this law firm has a website that’s much newer than the time it’s been in business. And the lawyer’s photo? It looks a lot like a computer-generated one.
What to do next
Hit reply if you’ve got links to share, data stories, or want to say hello.
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The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.” - Chris Dixon