Randy E Brown

The Other Half of Make Something People Want

September 2018

When making a new product, the goal is to make something people want. But that sounds self-evident. Of course you want to make something people want! What else would you do? It took me a long and hard time to learn what this actually meant because I could not distinguish how to recognize this.

I think this idea sharpened focus when someone said that you need to, “Make something people want, not what they need.” The logic there being that there are lots of things we need to do but we don’t necessarily do them: go to the gym, eat healthy, call their mom more often. All of these things are important. And notably, the reason we tend not to do them is because they’re hard.

People don’t want to do hard things. They want things to be easy. And making things easy means making hard things go away. If you minimize the crap at an affordable price then people who can afford it will pay you for the trouble.

As consumers, we intuitively know that we buy things we want. But inverting your thinking to be a producer who creates something people want is hard. Once I realized that what people want is distinct from what they need my whole perspective shifted. What I mistakenly thought was that want and need existed as two points along the same continuum. But that’s not right. What I’ve learned is that it’s more like a Venn Diagram: in one circle you have what people want and in the other you have what people need.

If you’re trying to be healthy, on one end is what you want, desserts, and on the other is what you need, more veggies. What people want is for food to taste good and what they need is food that’s healthy. If you can provide both, and maybe even help people seem fashionable in the process, you’ll get some room for traction. But what people need is, to the casual consumer, not the question. And even when users do care about what they need they are looking for something that minimizes the suck.

Why is this so hard to learn? Part of the problem is that the dynamic is asymmetric. When you ask yourself what you want to do, that can vary based on the time available, mood, skills, etc. But when you have a problem, until you fix it, it will continue to persist.

I think another reason is the intention behind people starting things. People who are motivated to start a thing, broadly speaking, want to either make other people better off or make themselves better off.

If you’re an expert in a particular domain, you tend to have a lot of knowledge around what’s needed to succeed. (Or, at minimum, barriers to success.) The error is to think people want to know all of those details, or to assume your model of the world maps to everyone else’s (or should). But they don’t — that’s what makes you the expert. Your job is to know the details and to present a solution that fits their needs while taking their considerations into effect.

If you focus solely on building something people want, then there are many ways to satisfy that demand. And when you just offer what people need, you’ll only get the zealots as opposed to the broader market.

Many people start with an idea that’s well-intentioned but doomed to be a business because of this mysterious thing called “sales” or “marketing”. But the sale isn’t the issue, it’s the product. If the offering does not make your user’s lives easier then who are you serving? Most likely your own interests.

That’s an odd realization, but I stand by it. There’s an unexpected degree of service required to make something people want. You have to look past your own needs and focus on those of your users. This isn’t pure selflessness. You get to choose who your target user is and you are well rewarded for your efforts. But once you choose you have to be humble enough to listen to what they tell you.

The other strange thing to notice is that making something people want is not necessarily “good”. A person brought up with the value of trying to please others could mistakenly believe “make something people want” is inherently good. But focusing just on what people want is short-sighted if it causes problems for others. The examples I used of things people “want” sound a lot closer to vices, such as greed and gluttony, than what we would consider virtues.

Many people create lucrative yet destructive products in the name of single-minded focus of creating something for the market. I think until recently the tech industry has under-considered this issue. We now know that if people want to read shocking clickbait, regardless of validity, it can cause real damage to an educated electorate.

Those two strange characteristics really solidify for me that making something people “want” is a distinct substance from something we “need”. And knowing that gives an odd power to knowing how to recognize wants and the ability to create products that satisfy them. How will you use these skills? Will you go for the blind maximization of individual wants at the expense of the broader picture? Or will you choose something that helps people and they want it? I, for one, hope that whatever I make is able to do the latter.