Tech’s version of the Butterfly Effect: little tweaks that can drastically change a product

Butterfly effect?

Butterfly effect?

Among the discussion going on about Facebook Messenger, its myriad of invasive permissions and forced installation (forced if you want to continue using Messenger via an app that is) and the response from users with an overwhelming amount of 1-star ratings for the standalone app was this analysis by PandoDaily about what this move says about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s product decisions. I particularly liked this observation on how product decisions can drastically alter the product’s audience and usage patterns:

“Like time travelers accidentally stepping on a moth and changing the fate of humanity, small tweaks are dramatically impacting what demographic uses these messaging apps and how. Consider Twitter. It wasn’t intended to be the go-to app for breaking news and television reality shows. But a thousand little decisions at forks in the road lead it there. It’s the same reason that Snapchat, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so many other apps that essentially kinda do the same thing can all co-exist, compete, and grow with slightly different audiences, demographics and usage patterns.”

Tweets from Ferguson and Obama's response, this morning.

Tweets from Ferguson and Obama’s response, this morning.

This difference in products was abundantly clear last night and this morning when my Twitter feed was all about what was happening in Ferguson: tweets from reporters, people on the street, retweeted by people I follow. It was fascinating up-to-the-minute news none of the broadcast news channels were providing. In comparison, Facebook was crickets. All my feed showed aside from ads were updates from my friends’ summer vacation. Sure, some of them posted links to articles talking about some newsworthy item but none were timely news updates. To be fair, I opened up Google+ to see a mix of beautiful photographs, some links to articles elsewhere and a few pets. Oh, and food.

These are pretty major differences. Yes, on the surface it seems like all three are feeds of status updates from people that you follow but that similarity is only skin deep. The differences have to do with some historical and major product choices. For Facebook I’d say their mission, “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life” is the major driving force, urging connectivity with friends. The second is the newsfeed algorithm, that shows users only a part of all possible updates. For Twitter it was the original limitation of 140 characters per update that defined the product, along with the ability to follow anyone. But while those are the historical product decisions it is really the tweaks along the way that have made them so different. Also, it’s clear that there is still room for even more variations on messaging. Secret and Whisper are about anonymity, Instagram for images, Snapchat for ephemeral messaging, Yo for simplicity and the list goes on.

It is amazing, yet scary, as a product manager to realize this. So often the process for new mobile/internet products is to come up with a new idea, a/b test a few implementations, see what works, and optimize. But when a product hopes to attract billions of users, each of these new decisions has far-reaching consequences, which depend on and determine demographics and usage patterns. Some results are predictable and maybe even controllable. Others seem almost random. All should be considered as options though I doubt many of them are even foreseeable.

Definitely food for thought.

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2 thoughts on “Tech’s version of the Butterfly Effect: little tweaks that can drastically change a product

  1. Pingback: Facebook and Twitter this week: a further study in contrasts | What it all boils down to

  2. Pingback: Yik Yak: yet another social network flavor | What it all boils down to

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