Why It’s Not Only Fine But Important to Include Imperfections in Your Product — Especially if They Become User Exploits
What am I talking about? I’m talking about designing and including a loophole purposefully into your product. A mistake. A Vulnerability. Whatever you want to call it. As long as it’s not something that poses a security risk or is too big in scale, I want it to be included in the product. Something that lets users feel like they’ve discovered a product hack, would ordinarily be thought of as an edge case — but can catch fire and ramp up engagement dramatically.
Let me give a shameless example.
Coffee Meets Bagel
C&B is an app I downloaded a while back after it caught my attention on Shark Tank. The idea is an “Anti-Tinder” for serious relationship seekers, where only one potential match is given a day. If you want more, you’d have to use their premium “beans” currency.
Where their vulnerability laid was in a feature called “Photo Lab” within their Android app. Users helped each other pick which pictures would be best for their profiles. For a mere click, scrutinizing users would be granted 2 beans for each picture for a maximum of 100 a day.
Why was this a vulnerability? Originally, users could have just rapidly tapped to get their beans — with fast enough fingers, you could get all 100 before the next photo could even finish loading. Of course, this represented a dilemma. Users sincerely wanting advice would get skewed results if too many people did that, and the product risked giving too much for nothing.
I can’t say I’m completely innocent. Though by and large I’ve been an upright user, there have been occasions after work where I was just too tired, too lazy, too preoccupied to be righteous. Where all I wanted were my free beans for the day. So tap tap tap went my index finger on the phone screen.
But is that so bad? As a user, it let me gather enough beans in a reasonable pace to open up and sample the rest of the product. I would actually use the premium actions that required the premium currency — and if I ran out, I’d open my wallet. After all, the app had been so kind and free with their model. It would be crass for me to be stingy one.
But They Got Stingy Instead
The gravy train ended. C&B launched a patch, and the rewards dropped from 2 to 1 bean. In addition beans would only be rewarded once per photo — no more button mashing. My bean accumulation slowed to a crawl. But I understood their reason. I sympathized, because I was one of the very scoundrels they must have targeted the changes at. I still kept the app as something to test and study, but I could almost tangibly feel my affection for it dropping.
Then they went nuclear. My guess is that there were a lot more people like me than they expected. The trouble with their model of “one-match-a-day” was that it completely lacked engagement. With only one per day, users only had one reason the entire 24 hours to open the app— everything else required beans. With beans drying up, engagement must’ve plummeted as people tightened up their wallets.
So C&B changed Photo Lab again. It retained all of its earlier changes, but now you could no longer get a whole day’s worth of rewards in one session. Every session, the maximum gain would fluctuate around 7 beans. A day’s rewards cap was also lowered to about 50. A user would have to spend at least 5 minutes staring at a slowly loading screen multiple times throughout their busy day to earn the lowered cap. But that’s exactly what C&B wanted: a way to keep the rewards the same but still raise engagement. Too bad it also exponentially raised the effort needed.
I dropped the App
I don’t know how C&B is doing. As an entrepreneur and humanist, I honestly hope that they’re fine and that I’m but one of few outliers. As a user however, I feel betrayed, upset, and ironically — manipulated and taken advantage of. Because I know how it was before, and I saw the changes as they came. I’ve tracked my time and monetary investment into the product, both of which plummeted spectacularly with every change. Worst, I could see how each and every change was targeted at a specific point of my behavior. Rather than feeling like a committed paying user who felt good about discovering a product hack, I felt like a wild pest they thought they could prod into domestication.
Take Advantage of Being Taken Advantage of
Users who feel like they’ve found a product hack naturally think that they’ve become proficient with the product. With Photo Lab, I felt like I discovered a secret that let me use the app better than others. It made me feel more personally connected with the service and look on it more fondly. It opened up the app to me in a way that felt natural, private, but still within the means of a freemium app that expected me to eventually pay. In hindsight, I was actually incredibly surprised by myself. Because it was so out-of-character for me to give any money to a social app.
Design and engineering that focuses too much on closing these sort of edge cases reflect a mentality that looks down on users. It ignores the fact that this is real user behavior showing real user data and need, and instead takes the arrogant view that any behavior not coherent to the designer’s assumptions are wrong and in need of rectification. That is product design philosophy veered off-course, forgetting that its mission at the end is to serve the user and learn more about them.
History is rife with product mistakes and exploits that became features. MySpace soared in popularity because users exploited its HTML customization to create their own crazy profiles. Gmail utilized a unique 5 second delay bug in its own backend sending system to develop an undo button. Most famous of all, Space Invaders introduced its entire genre to the concept of a difficulty curve when its inventor decided to keep its faulty rendering that resulted in enemies speeding up as the game progressed. None of these features would have existed if the designers viewed the mechanisms as flaws that people would maliciously exploit.
This inclusion of exploits is reminiscent of the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi — beauty from imperfection. It is the imperfections which give the object a sense of individualism and personality. With the software marketplace being as cluttered as it is and dozens of apps fighting for the right in the same space, it’s more important than ever to find a way to give users a unique and lasting experience. Rather than leaving it up to chance with an actual real and serious vulnerability, designers should purposefully incorporate a workflow system that users can exploit up to a certain degree to foster a sense of user mastery and loyalty.