Today was the launch of Path, a photo-sharing app that has received a good deal of hype in the weeks leading up to the launch. The product principles that the Path team used are genius, and the tech press is completely missing it.
The tech blogs seem aghast that Path would dare to put out a product without standard social features. What they are missing is that Path is an app built for the mass market and not for tech early adopters. They omitted these features because normal people don't need them.
Normal people do not have hundreds of friends that they want to share things with. According to Dr Marlow, the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook, the average number of Facebook friends is 120 and the average number of people that one user actively interacts with on the service is between 7 and 10. I think this correlates very closely with the real world. At any given time you only have close relationships with 7-10 people. Dave McClure wrote an excellent post on the need for intimacy in social networks and Path is a great example of how it can be done.
I want to break down three important pieces of Path’s product strategy for appealing to the mass market by keeping things small and intimate.
On Path, users can't search through their Gmail/Facebook contacts for existing friends:
On most social apps, the service will check a user’s Facebook and Gmail contacts to see if any of their existing friends already use the service.
The problem is that Gmail and Facebook are filled with contacts that you are not close with. As a social app becomes more popular, there is an increase in the number of inbound friend requests from people that fall outside of a users inner social circle. There is considerable social pressure to accept these friend requests, even if doing so ruins the intimacy of the network. Path gets around this issue by removing this type of search capability.
On Path, you can only have 50 friends:
Path could let users have as many friends as they want, and let them decide how intimate or open they want their experience to be. However, the normal mass-market user is not yet equipped for this type of calculated approach to friending. They have not thought about their social graph like those in the tech industry have, segmenting it in multiple ways an
d assigning various groups to appropriate levels of online sharing. That's a concept that we have been working over for the last 2 years, and is a mental construct that is mostly foreign to them, at least in the online sense.
Normal users will not carefully preen their friend list. Instead, they will accept everyone they feel socially obligated to accept, and the service will ceases to feel intimate. The 50-person limit makes each additional friend mean something. This constraint gives it value, and makes the user think for a moment before adding someone new. It gently leads the user to the understanding that not every person you know should be your 'friend' on every service.
On Path, users can't share photos on Twitter and Facebook:
Of all the social media fallacies this is the biggest one. Normal people do not NEED the ability share things from one app to Twitter and Facebook. It does not address a real pain point. The feature is added because it’s a good marketing channel for the company, and not because it provides a better user experience.
Great software puts user experience first, and the proliferation of Share This buttons isn’t part of a good user experience. They are confusing, error prone, and they clutter up the UI with something that is usually unrelated to the purpose of the app.
When I bring this up I’m always told , “you can't possibly scale a user base without viral components like this”. That's sort of true.
When an app achieves quick adoption numbers, those users are all tech early adopters. They are people who track this industry for fun and jump on a new hot service to test it out. There is little evidence that capturing that group will translate into mainstream adoption. I would be willing to say that because an app is designed to appeal to tech adopters, it won’t achieve mainstream adoption.
Why? Why can’t we just add the features the tech crowd expects and let the mass market ignore them? That's not the way the mass market works and that’s not how you build great software. When a normal user sees something they don't understand they stay away from it. They don't just use parts of a service, they use the entire thing because it makes sense, or they back off because something is confusing and it scares them off. They don’t first understand a service and then figure out how to hack it to make it work for them. They use it for the base case or not at all.
Path has recognized this and built a product that will make the mass market feel at home, even if it means taking a little longer to build an audience. I give a lot of credit to Dave Morin and his team.