Make a Worse Product (to Save It)

You’ve got a product in mind. Something big, something small, something physical, something digital. Maybe it’s an informational product like a book or a course. Maybe it’s software (if you’re here, it’s probably software). Maybe it’s a packaged freelancing service.

And you’re fretting. Fretting because there’s a lot of stuff to make better, to optimize.

But you’re constrained. You can’t do it all.

  • You can’t make that really great user experience;
  • You can’t add those extra features you’d like to add;
  • You can’t optimize the back-end, all the things the customer doesn’t see but contributes to a good experience;
  • You can’t learn everything you need to build something great in every aspect, quickly enough;
  • You can’t get enough attention;
  • You can’t make the marketing page, the landing page, at the level of those other companies in your space.

Yes, because there are other companies in your space. You’ve got competition. Maybe not actual competitors, but you’ve definitely got competition for the customer’s attention and dedication.

So many things to optimize for. And constraints too. Should you quit your idea or push to save it?

Story of a Worse Product, the Portable Radio

In the history of electronics, the vacuum tube had a good run. This technology powered floor-standing TV sets, tabletop radios, and industrial-grade electronics sold to big corporations. The manufacturing process and distribution chains for vacuum tubes were well established. Good business.

The vacuum tube could handle the energy demands of big honking appliances, unlike the feeble transistor. When the transistor came out of AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in 1947, it wasn’t a threat to the vacuum tube business just yet. Transistors couldn’t handle the power needs of the devices which used vacuum tubes, and the race was on to find a way to get transistors to handle those power demands. Companies like RCA poured hundreds of millions of dollars into R&D to solve that tricky technical problem.

When Sony came out with the portable radio, people thought it was going to be a dud. Compared to the tabletop radios, the sound and the reception were awful. The portable radio, because it used the low-powered transistor, was a worse product. But Sony built it for cheap and sold a ton of them. Teenagers loved them. For a few bucks, they could listen on the go to the music they liked. Done deal.

Sony used the low-powered (but rugged) transistor to build those radios. They became good at manufacturing these transistors, used the money from the sale of the portable radios to fund the development of the next transistors, and the rest is history.

The Forces in the Mind of the Buyer

What was it about the portable radio that made it sell so well?

  • ←⚬ It had a worse sound. That should have pushed people away, right?
  • →⚬ But it was cheap. That should have increased the appeal, right?

We’re missing the context. We don’t have the full story of what’s going on in the mind of the buyer.

Popularized by Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek from the Re-wired Group, the Four Forces of Progress detail the forces in the mind of the buyer.

Forces Diagram

If the top two forces outweigh the bottom two forces, you’ve got a sale. There’s enough momentum toward the purchase. There was a job-to-be-done, and the product does the job.

  • If the ⚬→ Struggle is strong, the buyer says “enough is enough” and sets out to find something to move away from the old, and toward the new. There’s momentum. There’s urgency. There’s a push from the back to go forward. It’s time to “hire” something else.
  • If the product has magnetism, and there’s →⚬ Attraction , attractive properties that will help with the job-to-be-done, there’s pull toward purchase.
  • But inevitably, the buyer will feel some ←⚬ Anxieties . You think as the product maker you can just lower the price, but the price is not always the main anxiety. Maybe there are too many features (“I don’t want to learn all this”). Anxieties put the brakes on the momentum.
  • And the strongest force of all: ⚬← Habits of the present are the product’s real competition. The buyer’s current mish-mash of good-enough solutions, of “I’ll just” statements, pulls them back to “not this, not now”.

The Portable Radio: its Forces of Progress

  • ⚬→ Struggle: When I want to listen to music and I want to listen to the music I like, I’m stuck at home, and everybody in my house has to suffer through the radio channels I want to listen to.
  • ⚬→ Struggle: If I crank the music I like on the radio in the living room, my parents are going to bite my head off.
  • →⚬ Attraction: This portable radio thing is nice. It’ll let me listen to music when I’m outside of the home.
  • →⚬ Attraction: I can lower the volume to listen to music in my room. Sit right next to it.
  • →⚬ Attraction: It’s not that expensive.
  • ←⚬ Anxieties: The sound is worse than the radio in the living room.
  • →⚬ Attraction: But it does the job.
  • ←⚬ Anxieties: It’s still a chunk of money for me to buy this. And the batteries I’ll need to keep buying.
  • ⚬← Habits: I’ll just continue sneaking into the living room and listen to my music at low volume when no one’s around.
  • ⚬→ Struggle: But the radio shows I like are on when the family’s in the living room listening to something else.

Sale! The ⚬→ Struggle and the →⚬ Attraction were stronger than the ←⚬ Anxieties and the ⚬← Habits .

Making a Worse Product

Back to your idea and your constraints.

Is there a way to build something different, worse than what most people are expecting, but that does the job it’s hired to do, and clears the Forces of Progress?

  • Instead of a book, which takes a long time to read, can you make an audio-only book?
  • Instead of a software, which will take a long time to build and get right, can you sell a pre-populated spreadsheet?
  • Instead of a physical product that will cost a lot to run for its numerous parts, can you build a small run that uses fewer components and still does the job well?
  • Instead of a course, which takes a while to watch through and even more effort to change my life from the teachings, can you build a very small learning delivery system that’s meant to be replayed often, but always say the same basic, reinforced idea?
  • Instead of building a nice, spiffy landing page like everybody else is doing, can you build a mostly-text landing page that pushes away everyone that doesn’t experience the struggle your product is there to serve, but gets “I feel understood!” reactions from visitors who are experiencing the struggle?

Making a Worse Sub-Product

A sub-product is the part of your product that gets “hired” for a secondary job. Your product gets hired for a few main jobs, but there are other features, or parts of your product that get hired for sub-jobs.

For example, Overcast is a podcast player that I like. The app’s main job is to help me listen to podcasts in the way I like: not waste any of my time, and support independent app-making. The developer of the app, Marco Arment, did a product that does that job super well.

And there are a few secondary jobs I experience when I use Overcast. Sometimes I want to share a URL to the podcast. Well Marco created a web player for every podcast, and it saves my listening progress in a web account.

So I can have a web account with Overcast. One secondary job is to sometimes change my email, change my password, stuff like that. The web UI for those operations is pretty basic. It’s worse that other web UIs from other web accounts for other prodcuts I use. But it doesn’t matter, the web UI does the job.

So make a hierachy of jobs-to-be-done, and map out the Forces of Progress for those sub-jobs, and make sure there’s a hit.

Making Worse Marketing

Normal marketing is about getting attention, publicizing, getting influencers to talk about your thing. There’s a push, there’s a rush, there’s timing. It’s a gamble.

Worse marketing is about figuring out the minimum that will clear the Forces of Progress of the job (your buyers will feel the need to get done) of “I gotta tell other people about this”.

  • Maybe by building a worse product, you’ll be making a splash just by the nature of your odd, unusual choices. “Weird color choices, but this is neat! I gotta tell people about this”. A “purple cow”, as Seth Godin calls them.
  • Maybe by building in a win-win way to encourage word of mouth, you’ll be making a way to earn attention naturally, without spending any money.
  • Maybe by not building your product, and just having a pre-sale period, you’ll get your visitors to partner up on spreading the word.
  • Maybe by seeing your worse product as just a bet you’re making (your ego isn’t bound to its success), that confidence will show in the way you present it, and people will find that remark-worthy.

There’s bound to be at least one way, one through-line to go through that will make that product idea shippable, marketable, welcomed by those people you want to help make progress. Maybe there’s a combination of choices that will make it work.

And maybe that combination will seem like it’ll make a worse product. But if the Forces of Progress clear out, you’ll know you might be onto something.

Stay sharp!


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