We don’t usually think of products — especially software — as having personality. But the most memorable, beloved products have an authentic charm to them, and it usually reflects the people who created the product. Think of Snapchat, whose playful personality is revealed in its ghost mascot — or Slack, which shows you cute, quirky messages while you’re waiting for accounts to load.
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These products are human. They mirror the perspectives and quirks of the people who built them. This type of personality-driven product development requires stepping back and determining the values and principles that truly matter to your team. Doing this will help you navigate decisions while brainstorming, developing, and refining the product. And these decisions should be tough. You’ll only be able to delight customers and make breakthroughs in your product when you wrestle with which features to add and leave out, and how to really go the extra mile. When that happens, your team’s enthusiasm for customers and their pain points will shine through in the products you make.
Start creating your own version of product principles by asking your team for ideas. At Gusto, we did this by going on a retreat. We got out of the office to hang out at a Bay Area lighthouse for a day of hiking, cooking, and discussing how we could codify what makes our team unique. During the trip, we kept asking ourselves: if we could say only five things to a new member of our team, what would they be?
From about a hundred ideas, we methodically boiled them down to just five. You may have your own way of developing principles — every team is different — but by trying out this approach, you’ll get several steps closer to building a product with an authentic personality that truly reflects your team’s values.
Gusto’s 5 Product Principles
1) Show users how much we love them.
How do you show someone love? You spend time with them, you listen to them, and you make them smile. Good product teams are obsessed with expressing their love to users by sweating the details, going the extra mile, thinking through every user interaction, every UI element, and every word in a toolkit.
Here’s an example: we knew that employee pay stubs before Gusto were merely transactional and didn’t do anything to connect employees to their companies or make them feel great on payday. Therefore, we created a Personal Notes feature that lets business owners add a congratulatory note to a pay stub, or simply give an employee a pat on the back. It shows our customers that we’re thinking about how to make their work days just a little bit brighter.
2) Be opinionated. Build the future you strongly believe in.
Have the courage to pick sides and encourage certain ideas or user actions that you think will make their lives better. For instance, we’re big believers in charity matching because we think it’s a powerful way to show employees that business owners support their causes. As a result, we dedicated time to building our Giving feature, which lets workers contribute money directly from their paychecks, which companies can then match to show that they care.
3) Only do things that are worth doing really, really well.
If you’re launching a new product or adding features, ask yourself: if this feature takes twice as long to build as we initially projected, would it still be worth it? If the answer is “no,” don’t build it. Truly great features are those that make an actual impact on your company’s trajectory and on your users’ lives. Your product quality will suffer immensely if you’re building features that are not worth going above and beyond for.
4) We are sherpas. Make sure the team gets to where they want to go.
This is an inward-facing principle, but it certainly has a downstream effect on customers. If you want to empower the entire cross-functional product/engineering/design team to meet goals, you need to show everyone that it’s a shared undertaking. It’s the total opposite of the “dictate and delegate” approach to management. Our collaborative product development process is based on trust and a deep partnership with the teams we work with.
5) Listen. Great ideas can come from anywhere.
Our company is not product-driven or sales-driven — it’s customer-driven. As such, everyone in the company cares about the customer in different ways, depending on the unique experiences they bring to the table. To leverage the goldmine of ideas that exist across the company, product managers spend time in other departments. What they hear from other team members may surprise you. These original ideas are what make a product stand out in people’s minds and charge it with the unique personality of your team. At Gusto, on top of our company-wide product wish list, we have a weekly open meeting to discuss our roadmap internally, learn about new ideas, and connect PMs and other teams in person.
When a passionate and talented product team is driven by shared values and principles, magic happens. With every release, your product experience becomes better and your team’s creative flow becomes stronger. Your customers’ biggest problems get solved, the product develops an authentic personality, and your users end up feeling truly loved.