The benefits of “social”

If you work on a consumer-facing app, you may have had a thought like “We should make it more social.” But then you probably didn’t do anything about it, because making successful social features is hard.

If you want to really think it through, the first step is to get clear on what benefits you expect to get from making your app more social. You should consider benefits to the business, and benefits to the user — and you must keep these separate.

Benefits to the business

What benefits might your business get if you make your product more social? What are you after?

Possible benefits of a more social product:

  • More viral acquisition
  • More engagement
  • Better retention
  • Better reactivation
  • Better defensibility
  • Better monetization

You might expect to see benefits in a number of these categories. But you really should be able to pick just one as your clear primary target. That will allow you to evaluate possible solutions for expected value.

Benefits to the user

The next category of value that you have to consider, and this one is considerably more difficult, is user value. Don’t be like Google with Google+, which famously solved a company problem but not a user problem.

What problem, need, desire do your users have that would be solved if your product was more social? Would this really be a good solution? Would it really be valuable for them?


  • Make new relationships
  • Sustain or strengthen existing relationships
  • Be challenged
  • Understand myself
  • Have fun
  • Feel like I have high status
  • Get help that I need

Before you get too excited about making your app “social”, find out if there’s some solution you can envision which would score highly on both business value and user value.

Why people break up and get back together

You’re in a relationship. Your happiness is a 6 out of 10. You think that you could be in another relationship which would get you to an 8 out of 10. So you end your current relationship.

But now you’re alone and lonely, and dating is hard. Your happiness is a 3 out of 10. The relationship you were in looks much better than this, and you were never firmly committed to getting to 8 anyway. So you get back together.

A three-step process to manage worrying

A Jewish mother sends her son a telegram. “Start worrying,” it says, “details to follow.”

Sometimes it can be productive to worry. Maybe there’s some danger you haven’t fully considered. Maybe there’s some action you should be taking that you’re not taking. Maybe you really are doing something wrong.

But very often, it’s not productive to worry. There’s no danger. There’s no action you should be taking. Yet some part of you, on some level, believes that it’s important to be doing this worry. You believe that the worry is telling you something important.

And this belief is what keeps you doing the worrying.

So how do you stop? Here’s a three-step technique.

Step 1: Notice that you are worrying. Once you’ve done that, go to Step 2.

Step 2: Checking: is this worry productive?

Know that whatever you do in your mind, you are strengthening the habit of doing that. So if you’re going to spend this moment worrying, you’re also consigning your future self to more worrying. And if you’ve been spending a lot of time worrying recently, it’s no wonder that you’re worrying right now. But there may not be anything worth worrying about. It may simply be the force of habit.

If you decide that it’s not productive to worry right now, then there’s good news. You can cash in on life right now. Go to Step 3.

Step 3: Look around you and find something to take pleasure in right now. It may be a warm sweater that you’re wearing. It may be a cool breeze on your face. It may be a beautifully vibrant color on a nearby billboard. It doesn’t matter. Just find something to take physical pleasure in right now, and do it. And know that not only are you getting to take pleasure right now, but you’re also gifting future you with a mind more prone to feeling pleasure.

Repeat this three-step process ad infinitum.

Three things you need to know to be happy

The first thing you need to know if you want to be happy is that your happiness is largely within your power to control. This is enormously good news.

The second thing you need to know is that the type of control you have over your happiness is indirect, rather than direct. To understand the difference, imagine you’re taking a bath. Imagine that you’ve been laying in the tub relaxing for a while, with no water running. After some time, you begin to notice that the temperature has dropped off, and you want to heat it up. So you turn on the hot water tap to cause hot water to flow into the tub. But the water doesn’t heat up immediately — it takes time for the temperature of the tub to get hot again. Your action — turning the tap — will cause the tub water to get hot, but the connection is somewhat indirect. Let’s say that this is what we mean by indirect voluntary control.

To understand direct control, consider the state of mind you’re in when you want to heat up the bath, and you know that the way to accomplish this is to turn on the hot water. So your goal is to turn on the hot water. To do so, you can directly reach out your hand and turn the water on. Turning the hot water tap is something that you can simply do, and doing so immediately results in hot water flowing into the tub. Let’s say that in this case, you have direct voluntary control over whether hot water flows into the tub.

The type of control you have over your level of happiness is the indirect. You can’t simply do something which will directly cause you to be happy. But what you can do is start taking actions that will indirectly lead to a rise in your happiness level — just like slowly raising the temperature of the tub water.

This is because everything about your mental life is a habit. If you’ve been worrying a lot, you’ve been habitualizing worry, and you’ll tend to worry more. Whatever you do reinforces the habit of doing that. If you’re unhappy, chances are you’ve been reinforcing all kinds of unhappiness-inducing habits. To replace those habits with habits that lead to happiness is a matter of indirect voluntary control. You can control what you say and do, like you can control whether to turn the tap or not, but it is the cumulative effect of many such actions that changes the habits of your mind.

The third thing you need to know is the skill that lets you cause hot water to flow into the tub. To do that, you must fight a moment-to-moment battle of mindfulness versus mindlessness. You must intend to notice your negative, worrying, ruminating thoughts, and replace them with thoughts that promote the habits that make you happy. In each moment, once you’ve remembered your intention, you can directly choose where to redirect your thoughts. By repeatedly directing your thoughts in a certain direction, you are indirectly causing your thoughts to tend to flow in that direction more readily.

So try this: decide that you’re going to find beauty in anything that happens in your life.

The universe is friendly

It may be apocryphal, but Einstein is often quoted as saying that the most important question humans have to answer is whether the universe is a friendly place. Apocryphal or not, it’s a useful question.

When a person is friendly, what that means to me is that if I treat him with friendliness, I will receive friendliness in return.

If I choose to look at the universe in that way, I will tend to meet the people and contexts of my life with openness, curiosity, and the benefit of the doubt. In my experience, this really does lead to good results.

One reason is that the universe — at least, the part of it that I interact with, is full of people — and people are, by and large, friendly.

The other reason is that my brain is constantly constructing my reality as I live my life. If my brain is in a state of expecting the universe to be friendly, it will tend to see the parts and patterns of the world that fit this expectation. From my perspective, the universe will be experientially a more friendly place.

Worth it.

What is “product strategy”?

One answer comes from Michael McGrath, author of Product Strategy for High Technology Companies, a book recently named in FirstRound’s round-up of recommended reading.

McGrath uses a travel metaphor to explain what he means by “product strategy”:

There are two approaches to travel. Pick a destination and proceed toward it, or wander off in any direction at all. Both approaches will take you someplace. If your motive is to travel for the sake of travel, then any direction will do. But if you have someplace specific in mind, you will need to plan your route. No technology organization exists for the sake of existing. Each is created with some intention in mind: to offer some product, service, or combination of the two. But an intention isn’t a strategy any more than a chosen destination is a map to that destination.

Product strategy is like a roadmap, and like a roadmap it’s only useful when you know where you are and where you want to go.

For McGrath, a company’s product strategy, if they have one, is the description of the series of steps they think they’ll take, in the context of other steps they could take, to get from where they believe they are to where they imagine they want to be.

Paragliding feels like being a bird

A hawk patrolling an ocean bluff is a beautiful scene to watch. You can see from the movement of his body through the air, and the movement of his feathers and wingtips, and the fact that he almost never flaps his wings, that the air moving invisibly in from the ocean and up the cliff must be, to the bird, a lush pillow on which to rest. The bird is feeling and sensing the air in just the same way that a human running on a dirt path feels the earth beneath her feet.

My paragliding instructor used to fly Cessna 182s. Then he switched to ultralights. Then he realized that the lighter the plane, the closer he comes to the feeling he’s sought since he was a child: the feeling of being one of the birds, sensing and moving the though the air as if it was home.

Paragliding is the closest I’ve come to the feeling of being a bird. The invisible movements of the air are the paraglider’s world. His job is to sense, predict, and leverage that flowing ether to, as if by magic, lift himself to soar along the cliffs and float among the clouds.

I just may be hooked.

Why do people do things?

Two reasons.

  1. Because they have a goal, and they see this action as instrumental to accomplishing that goal. Philosophers call this “intentional action”; psychologists call it “goal-directed” behavior.
  2. Because an automatic response was triggered. An example is the knee-jerk response to a tap below the kneecap. A special type of automatic behavior is habitual behavior. Habits are defined as automatic responses that are insensitive to changes in the contingency between response and reward.

Goal-directed behaviors are easy to start, but just as easy to extinguish. Habit-driven behaviors are hard to start, but also hard to extinguish.

Some behaviors are goal-directed and habit-driven — for example, brushing your teeth. These types of behaviors will be the most stable.