Want a killer product? Become more opinionated

I laugh at this tweet every time I remember it:

This is such a common frustration with MS Word. It is so common that I wonder whether I am too dumb to imagine the reason Word has not changed this behavior.

Beyond the laughs, there is a product lesson in this tweet. It is an example of a product design principle: “convention over configuration”, aka “make the easy things easy, the hard things possible”.

Before I unpack my thoughts, here is a quick summary of this article if you are short on time.

Summary

Product conventions create an opinionated product; configurations create a flexible one. “Convention over configuration” means that we should create opinionated products over flexible ones. An opinionated product creates user delight; user delight creates successful businesses.

There is a place for flexibility, but it is not the hammer for every product problem.

Being opinionated is especially important when competing against a successful product. Signal has carved a space against WhatsApp, a product whose name is a verb for its category. Similarly, Apache Maven killed Apache Ant by being opinionated, by preferring “convention over configuration.”

People create products. If you want an opinionated product, seek opinionated people.

Details

As an example, let’s redesign the copy-paste feature in Word. I will design it for the average user rather than the power user. I will establish a convention that every paste will match destination formatting but give power users the ability to override with a configuration. The convention makes copy-pasting easy; the configuration makes power user behavior possible.

You should pick the ideal user persona and use case for the entire product rather than a feature. Every part of MS Word should be optimized for the average user while allowing power users to configure a different experience. Otherwise, users will have a disjointed experience as they hop from feature to feature.

WhatsApp vs. Signal

WhatsApp is designed for an international user with limited technical ability who uses it for communication and entertainment. This user values ease and quality of communication over privacy. Thus, WhatsApp is designed for high reliability and quality in text, voice, and video communication, but privacy takes a back seat in WhatsApp.

For instance, here are some privacy-related conventions in WhatsApp that may be overridden by a configuration:

  • Anyone can see when you are online
  • Anyone can add you to a group without your approval
  • Anyone can see when you’ve received or read a message
  • WhatsApp will routinely upload your contacts, even those who do not use WhatsApp.

Each of these conventions adds to the ease and quality of communication. In WhatsApp, ease of communication is the convention; privacy the configuration.

On the other hand, Signal is designed for a privacy-conscious user. Its international reliability, audio, and video quality are not great. However, every feature in the product makes privacy and security the convention. By default:

  • No one can see whether you are online
  • No one can add you to a group without your permission.
  • Signal does not collect any user data except your phone number.

In Signal, privacy is the convention.

2.5 billion people use WhatsApp. It is so pervasive that it is common to use its name as a verb: “Can you WhatsApp me that link?” Signal has carved a space by being opinionated through convention over configuration.

Ant vs. Maven

Ant can do anything for you, but you have to tell it exactly what to do. As a result, Ant is a powerful build tool that requires complex and brittle XML configuration.

Maven, on the other hand, is opinionated through conventions. If you follow those conventions, you can build a Java project in a few lines of XML.

You can read a detailed comparison between Ant and Maven here, but the point is that this long Ant script:

Can be condensed in Maven to:

Maven overtook Ant as the most popular build tool in the Java ecosystem because it preferred convention over configuration.

Conventions create an opinionated product. Opinions create user delight. User delight creates successful businesses.

Opinionated People Create Opinionated Products

Most people seek safety in trying to please everyone. It is easy to say yes to this AND that. The trick is in dropping the “AND”:

We will serve this use case.

We will deliver delight to this user persona.

We will put all our resources behind this strategy.

Seek people who avoid saying “AND”.

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