Building Something That Your Users Will Actually Want To Buy

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Austin Gunter is a writer, blogger, and Community Architect. He manages the Content and Community marketing for WP Engine, the premiere managed WordPress … More about Austin ↬

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Before you ever start coding, it’s essential that you “pop up” from the keyboard, and learn what your customers actually want to use and will pay for. In this article, Austin Gunter shares a process you can go through to find that out!

How do you make sure all the software products you spend time building are something that your customers will actually want to buy? It’s one thing to spend a few weeks coding your next big idea. But are you sure that you have an audience of customers that want what you’ve built?

The last thing you want is to create something, invest in Adwords, only have your potential customers arrive non-plussed, and then navigate away, never to return again. Before you ever start coding, it’s essential that you “pop up” from the keyboard, and learn what your customers actually want to use and will pay for.

That’s the hard part: learning what your customers want to pay for.


The cool part: There’s actually a process you can go through to 1) target a specific customer-set, and 2) learn how to design a product that will solve their problem, and 3) become close to habit-forming.

Here’s an obvious example. When you use Instagram, there is actually a process you go through each time you take an artistic smartphone picture (an action millions of people want to take every day) and share it with your friends that is habit-forming. Instagram, as well as Facebook, are classic examples of products that fulfill a key customer need, sharing their lives with as many people possible, and are also habit-forming. Those apps have a habit-forming process based on deep insight into the needs of their users baked into their design.

The process is called the Desire Engine, dubbed thus by Nir Eyal. It’s the little thing that gets people to open Facebook over and over again throughout the day, or pull out their phones to take a photo with Instagram. If you get this engine started, you’ll see spikes in your readership, and spikes in your engagement on your websites.

You can model the habit-forming process, and problem solving qualities of those apps in order to build the most effective products possible. You might even create habit-forming products. Rather, you might create products that become a valuable part of your users’  lives.

Now, I don’t want to oversell the idea. I’m not going to write 2,000 words that show you how to suddenly go start the next Facebook. There’s only one Mark Zuckerberg.

No, what I am saying is that there is a process to evaluate how your audience or your customers are going to respond to what you create with them in mind. In fact, it’s as simple as asking your customers a handful of questions to discover if your product has the keys to start your customers’ Desire Engine.

The Desire Engine

First, I’ve got to explain the 4 Steps of the Desire Engine.

  1. The Trigger,
  2. The Action,
  3. The Commitment,
  4. Variable Rewards.

Then, I’ll go through a process of customer development you can use to evaluate how habit-forming your product is.

In plain English, the Desire Engine is a repeatable cycle of four steps that most habit-forming products send us through over and over again.

The Trigger

This is either an external trigger, a man is prompted by his wife to buy a book, or an internal trigger, the same man decides that he needs to learn mobile development, so he buys books on mobile development. Internal triggers are almost always stronger than external triggers. It’s just like in the movie Inception - an idea or action only takes root when the individual believes they came up with it independent of external influence. When you build software, your goal is to associate your product with an internal trigger that happens often (once a year isn’t usually enough).

The Action

This is a combination of motivation and ability. Increase the motivation to use your product, and you’ll increase the action you want: using your product. Additionally, when you increase users’ ability to use it, reduce the friction to use your product (think, reducing the steps to purchase, for example), and you’ll increase the desired actions.

Amazon’s “order with one click” is a brilliant way to reduce friction between potential customers and the desire action: making purchases. Less friction means less motivation is required to complete the process. Less motivation is key because the strength of motivation is tied to the strength of feelings customers have for your product, and how motivated they are to “buy.”

The stronger the motivation, the more likely they’re coming back to use the product. But motivation can be fickle. Much better to adapt your product for the quickest use possible, like Amazon has. The difference between having to re-enter credit card information each time we make a purchase, and being able to impulsively click “buy” is worth billions of dollars each year.

But motivation can also increase over time, and that is a goal. Typically, your product starts out with an extrinsic motivator, but habit-forming products find a way to move from extrinsic motivations to intrinsic ones. The first time I used Facebook, as a senior in high school, it was because a girl told me I had to get on it. Now, I’m not quite sure why I am so committed that I open Facebook several times a day. I just do. On a core level, it satisfies a need that I have to socialize with my peers.

The Commitment

How much skin does your user have in your game? With Facebook, we spend hours building our profiles, and regardless of what a vocal minority may claim, our commitment to Facebook is (often) greater than newer social networks like or Google+. We’re less invested in those networks, which we have spent little (or no) time on. But we’ve spent hundreds and thousands of hours building our Facebook profiles. We’re committed to them, simply based on how much time we’ve spent.

To earn greater commitment means you need to ask your users for something like time or personal information or to send in a photo each time they use the app. With each action, they become more invested in the product and their commitment grows. Without that investment, they won’t be committed to what you’ve built.

Variable Reward

Remember in school reading about the experiment where rats push a lever and get a food pellet? When the food pellet is distributed randomly, as opposed to being dispensed every single time the lever is pressed, the rats learn to press the lever constantly. If the lever dispenses a food pellet every time, the rats soon lose interest because they know they can always come back to the lever. It’s not variable, so it’s not habit-forming.

Humans are the same way. When the reward for a given action is constant, but the frequency varies, we come back over and over again. Have you ever said, “Just 5 more minutes…” when you were playing a game? Or have you ever watched someone spend 8 hours in front of a slot machine waiting to hit the jackpot? That was variable reward in action.

Think about the Facebook News Feed. Your friends are constantly sharing new bits of info about themselves via photos, or videos, or status updates, or “Gangam Style” parodies. You never really know what you’ll see. The content they share is the reward, and the novelty is what makes it variable. You’re not always delighted by what you see, and that’s part of the point.

That’s great Austin. Now how do I actually use this?

Right. Let’s actually lay out the process that I learned to put the Desire Engine in place to perform customer development before helping to launch products in our company. It’s a personal example on how to use the Desire Engine as a way to improve your products before you release them.

We could start by making a list of potential customers. You’re going to interview them about your product. If you can find some of them in your town, take them to coffee one by one. Otherwise, you’ll want to create an eight to ten question survey for people to answer over email. You can use around 10 questions, but beyond that you’re asking too much.

Steps To A Campaign Of Customer Development

  1. Start with defining the audience or target “user profile” for what you’ll be testing,
  2. Make a list of 30 to 50 people who fit the user profile,
  3. Send a polite email to them to see if they would like to give you feedback on a new project,
  4. Email your list of eight to ten questions to the folks who respond in the affirmative,
  5. Make a spreadsheet with the answers,
  6. Analyze for patterns of positive versus negative feedback,
  7. Decide how to implement your feedback.

Defining Your Audience

In 2012, we released a version control feature at WP Engine, where we integrated Git with WordPress hosting. Before we deployed Git to all our customers, we beta tested the feature with a significant number of customers to get feedback and test for bugs. Git is a relatively technical feature that end-users may not ever come in contact with. Based on the nature of the product, we knew our audience had to be highly technical in order to give us meaningful feedback. Previous experience using version control was also a huge factor.

Before you make your list of people, ask yourself what sort of person would make the most out of what you’re building. Are they highly technical, or not? Are they used to paying for products like yours? What is their background?

Writing Your Email

Send a short, somewhat general email to your list. You’ll get dramatically better results if you personalize each one with their name and a bit of identifying info in the first sentence.

Hi <Name>, Based on your work with , you may be interested in a new feature that we're developing. We've put together something that we believe will make you more productive and possibly save you time developing websites, and are looking for a few good beta testers. I have a short list of questions that you can answer and provide valuable feedback for our product. If you're down, let me know and I'll send them over! Thanks in advance! – Austin

Make sure you send a reminder email a few days after you’ve set your beta users up. Since it’s a new thing, they may need prompting to revisit the website.

How To Ask Your Questions

I like to ask about two questions per element of the Desire Engine, meaning eight total questions.

Trigger Questions

Effective trigger questions will reveal whether folks are driven to use your product by either an internal or an external motivation. But, to set your expectations, your users probably won’t be internally motivated to use your product immediately. It’s too new.

Instead, look for potential things that you could elicit in your users to strengthen the internal motivation. This could include timing, like when does your product fit into their schedule? How does your product help them achieve something very personal to them at the right time? Does your product alleviate a fear they have?

Your questions should discover how closely linked your product is to those triggers:

  • “When would you use a product like this?”
  • “When you used the product, when was it most useful for you?”
  • “How much of a reminder did you need in order to use the product after a few times?”

The best way for your product to become a part of someone’s life is to align the product with something that already matters to them.

Asking Action Questions

The goal here is more concrete. You want to figure out how hard it was to use your product, including number of clicks, how intuitive your product is and the results they get when they use it:

  • “How hard was it to use the product for the first time?”
  • “Did you have to search on Google for anything before it worked?”
  • “Did the product do what you expected it to?”
  • “What did you expect from the product?”
  • “How were your expectations met (or not met) by the product?”

Finding out how you met (or didn’t) meet expectations, and discovering how to exceed the expectations will help you design a product people want to come back to. If the first few uses are memorable, they’ll come back. If they weren’t memorable, the questions will help you learn why not.

Asking About Commitment

Are your users committed to your product, or will they drift away, pulled by distraction or a better execution of the same idea? Commitment means they have skin in the game and are willing to invest further. Money is one way to measure commitment. If you ask, “Would you pay $XX for this?”, your customers will tell you volumes about their commitment.

  • “Would you recommend this to your friends?”
  • “What was the part you hated the most about the product? What stood out as the biggest positives?”
  • “If this product were free would you use it? Would you pay $10 per month for it?”

Variable Reward

Variable rewards correspond to your ability to modulate your customer’s experience with your product. My favorite example of this is messages the MailChimp monkey sends you when you log in. It’s a simple little feature, an afterthought, but it’s a huge part of their branding. You never know what the monkey is going to say to you when you log in, but I always wonder what he’ll say when I log in. Users experience delight when they get a link from the monkey to a random Vimeo page. They log back in just to see what the link is on a particular day.

Discovering variable rewards is an iterative process. The goal with your questions is to discover what your customer expects and what they want to achieve with your product. With MailChimp, they expect an app to create and send newsletters. The Monkey and his messages take the dry process of writing a newsletter and inject a bit of random fun into the product.

  • “What did you expect from using the product?”
  • “How did the product live up to your expectations?”
  • “When you had finished, did you achieve what you intended to?”
  • “Was the user experience boring?”

The Spreadsheet

This is the part where you have made your survey, sent it off and now have an inbox full of answers to your questions. Stick them in a Google doc, compare them and evaluate how your product needs to evolve.

Is it too complicated to use, or is it super easy? Does your audience get why they need what you’ve built, or are they confused about the purpose behind it? Are they willing to pay for it? If they aren’t, you may not have a good business model. What did they love, and what did they hate?

From here, you take the feedback and apply it to the product evolution. You make the final call here, and once you’re done, it’s time to release it into the wild.

Good luck.

Credits of image on start page: jm3.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (cp, mrn)