Dumb Yet Important Questions

Or, do you know the ‘real’ reason people use your product?

Hello, and welcome to a new edition of Expander. I’m Abhishek, and each week I share practical ideas on doing product, measuring what matters, working with people, and growing a business. Send me your questions and in return, I’ll humbly offer BS-free actionable advice. 🤜🤛

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Today, let’s talk about users. More precisely, why they use certain products, and how can a company use that understanding to improve user experience and distribution.

Before I begin, I must say that most companies don’t know why their users use their product. They think they know, but it’s a false positive. On the other hand, companies that know the ‘real’ reason users use their product can take the appropriate measures to get significant growth that looks like magic to an outsider. As you must have guessed, it’s got a lot to do with user psychology. But what you haven’t guessed is that it’s got a lot more to do with our psychology — the fine folks who create products and profits.

The goal of this post is to give you some context as well some direction (and push) towards finding the right answer. It starts by asking a dumb question to which the answer seems self-evident — the kind of questions that sensible people avoid asking. The fact that sensible people don’t ask questions such as this is precisely why we need to ask them. Let’s take some examples.

Why do people buy drill machines? Is it because they need to make a hole in the wall to hang something, and when they don’t see any drill machines lying around in the house, they go out to buy one?

Or, is it the opposite? Do people see a drill machine in a shop and decide they want it? Then they go home and wander around looking for things (and excuses) to drill holes in and hang things on?

The second answer sounds absurd, but trust me, it ain’t so. The first answer makes sense if we consider users to be rational human beings. But they are not. Users aren’t rational beings who behave irrationally once in a while. They are irrational beings who behave rationally once in a while. This is the most counterintuitive law of human nature which, if you keep in mind, you will be able to find the truth faster than others (such as your competitors).

Okay, next question: why do people buy ice creams in summer? If your answer is ‘to cool down during a hot day,’ you gotta think harder. Yes, it’s true that people have more ice-creams during summer than winter, but just because there is a rational answer to something, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a more interesting, irrational answer to be found underneath. Force yourself to think of a silly and unjustifiable answer. For example, we like to have ice-creams at restaurants (after dinner) and on special occasions. This ought to give you some hint of the ‘real’ reason. So, is ice-cream simply a good dessert, or do we have ice-creams when we celebrate something?

One more: why do people visit the doctor? Is it because they are ill and want to get better? Sometimes, yes, but there are many more motivations that lie beneath this rational behaviour. Some folks need a bit of paper to prove to their employer or school they were ill. And every so often, what people are seeking isn’t treatment, but reassurance. On top of that, have you ever wondered why people rarely go to see a doctor alone, especially when they are ill? Is it for moral support (in case there’s bad news), or is it more than that?

One capital mistake all businesses make is asking users. Now, people want to avoid being seen as dumb. So, even if they don’t have any particular reason (or if they have a really silly reason) for using a product, they’ll concoct a rational-sounding reason out of thin air. In other words, they lie. Trust me, all users lie. Nobody buys a Tesla because they ‘want to save the environment’.

Therefore, if we want to change user behaviour, listening to their rational explanation is always misleading because it isn’t the ‘real’ why. This means that attempting to change behaviour through rational argument is not only ineffective, it’s also counterproductive. If you have seen the Amul or Fevicol ads, you know what I’m talking about. Also, don’t forget Dollar Shave Club.

Why do people use Clubhouse? Is it because of their inherent need to speak and be heard? Is it because finding an audience is relatively easier than other social media platforms? Or, is it because it’s easier to speak (on Clubhouse) than type (on Twitter)?

Why do people use Airbnb? Is it because the user experience is near flawless? Is it because homestays have better experience than hotels? Or, is it because they want to signal that they are ‘travellers’ and not ‘tourists’?

There are many such examples of things that human beings do where reason plays a minor role. Businesses that understand this — and try to solve the underlying irrational problem instead of the superficial rational one — get an edge. This knowledge also helps them in distribution, i.e., marketing their products.

For example, why do you think people use Basecamp? Is it because it’s the best project management software? Is it because of its nice interface? Or, is it because all the users are massive fans of Jason Fried and DHH, and they identify with Basecamp’s ethos and principles?

There’s a reason the Basecamp guys are so active (and popular) on Twitter. There’s a reason they have written so many books on getting work done (remotely) and without stress. There’s a reason they have an anti-VC, anti-Silicon Valley stand. There’s a reason they pick fights with Goliaths while branding themselves as the Davids. And there’s a reason why little businesses that didn’t (or couldn’t) raise any money love them with all their hearts.

Basecamp, along with its founders, is the patron saint of all the small businesses who don’t get the limelight and have deep resentment for billion-dollar startups from Silicon Valley who don’t make any money and still get all the attention. This knowledge — this ‘real’ knowledge about why their users use their product — is what gives Basecamp such a considerable edge.

Basecamp is not just a company, it’s a symbol and a movement that happens to make a project management software (that generates millions of dollars). For us folks, Basecamp is a great case study of opinionated software design, underdog positioning, and beef as marketing to learn from.

Now, what should you do to figure out the non-conscious motivations of users? For starters, start asking pointless questions. And more importantly, create an atmosphere in which people can ask (apparently) pointless questions without fear of shame — otherwise you’ll never even come close to finding the ‘real’ motivations.

A company becomes largely valuable when they create a culture in which it is acceptable to ask ludicrous questions and make foolish suggestions, such as: why do families buy two cars when one will do? Why do people hate it when their flight gets delayed? Why do people dislike standing on buses?

All of these questions sound ridiculous — and because of this, our rationalising brain finds it dangerously easy to come up with a plausible answer. But it’s a dangerous mistake to fall for it. As a rule of thumb, one should always look for the irrational reasons, and prioritise them over the rational ones. The irrational reasons are the ones that drive the behaviour, and they are the ones that should be influenced if we want to change user behaviour.

Before I end, here’s one last question I want you to think about: why do people brush their teeth? Is it to clean plaque and prevent tooth decay? Then, why are all toothpastes mint-flavoured even though it adds no medical value? Food for thought!


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Do you agree with what I said, or do you think otherwise? Send me counters, comments, questions, and other dumb questions. 🙌

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Until next week,
Abhishek 👋