Build Your Product for the
Consumer, Not the Buyer
Big companies may pay for
an app, but it’s those who use
it that matter most
people who take their medications. Part of a
broader strategy called “pill plus,” this is a bet that
an app will prompt people to take their meds
and refll their prescriptions as directed. The more
reflls, the more money for the companies.
I started by asking a simple question: Who
is the customer? It wasn’t supposed to be a trick
question, but it vexed nearly everyone. Even
though people knew who used their app—
patients—they considered the company the real
user, because the company was footing the
bill. This means two things: First, their apps are
designed to address the company’s needs, not
the patients’ needs. And second, and as you would
expect, the usage rates of their apps are abysmal.
Such an approach may be a way to pay the bills
in the short run, but it’s no way to build a sustainable company. If the people actually using your
product don’t get value every time they touch it,
good luck staying in business.
I call this the PeopleSoft problem. In my last
corporate job, the HR department required all
employees to use PeopleSoft to fle expense reports,
choose benefts, and so on. You couldn’t concoct
a better way to antagonize thousands of employees
simultaneously. The software was clunky, the
design counterintuitive, and the net experience
hostile. It wasn’t built for the people using it so
much as for the people who were paying for it.
PeopleSoft benefts from its entrenched user base
and the inertia of HR folk. The chances of getting away with this today, though, are nil. No one
is more infuential than the people using your product. If they hate it, then you’re done before
you’ve started. Honor your users. All things begin and end with them.
You’ll fnd that it takes exceptional discipline to stick to this rule, especially for startups.
When you’re chasing after customers, trying to get some revenue—any revenue—in the door,
catering to the needs of the people writing the checks seems perfectly reasonable. As pragmatic
as this might be, it can also lead to insipid features that aren’t relevant to users, or require you
to ignore users’ needs altogether. If you’ve ever thought, “We’ll make it more user-friendly
later,” let me assure you that later never comes. But if you honor your users from the outset,
you will have a lodestone for your company as critical as any core metric.
One of my proudest moments came a few days after that design workshop, when I asked a
new commercial partner why it had spent nine months pushing through a contract with us.
“Because people actually use your app,” she answered. “You guys seem to actually care about
that.” That this made us somehow exceptional shows how difcult it is to get this right.
AS A STARTUP that builds consumer tools in health care, one of the biggest challenges our company, Iodine, faces is that the consumer isn’t the paying customer. This means that, though we stress user delight and simplicity in our products, we must ensure that those virtues translate into something buyers—insurers and employers—will pay for. This is a challenge for many enterprise companies. All SaaS startups have basically signed up for the do-si-do
of dancing with two partners. It’s been fascinating, if slightly
alarming, to see how easy it is to stumble and step on toes. And it’s
especially remarkable to see how often startups make the mistake
of thinking the end user doesn’t much matter. They assume if
they can get somebody to pay for their product, then certainly the
actual consumers will use it as they are supposed to.
The end-user problem was made clear to me when I led a design
workshop at a health care conference recently. Most of the people
there built mobile apps for pharmaceutical companies to give to the
Thomas Goetz is a co-founder
and the CEO of Iodine, a digital
health startup based in San
Francisco. He is also the author
of TheRemedy. Follow him on
LAUNCH 32 - INC. - FEBRUAR Y 2017