Where Reddit’s gone wrong: 3rd party apps are invaluable user research and a competitive moat, not parasites

By supporting the ability of anyone to build on top of Reddit’s platform, Reddit created an invaluable user research arm that also provides a long-term competitive advantage by keeping potential competitors and their customers contributing to Reddit. This an incredibly difficult thing to do, and they seem suddenly blind to why it was worth it.

In a recent Verge interview with the CEO Steve Huffman:

PETERS: I want to stop you for a second there. So you’re saying that Apollo, RIF, Sync, they don’t add value to Reddit?

HUFFMAN: Not as much as they take. No way.

(and I’m going to ignore for the moment questions on how they’ve handled this, monetization, and so on, focusing only on this core value they’ve created and are destroying)

A vast community of people all working on new designs, development innovations, and approaches, responding immediately to user feedback to try new things – compare this to what you have to do internally. 

Every company I’ve been at has a limited user research budget to discover their customers and their needs, and as limited room to get feedback on possible solutions by building prototypes or even showing paper drawings. To entirely focus on new ideas? You might be lucky to get a Hack Day once a quarter.

If you have a thriving third party development community, you have an almost unlimited budget for all of these things, happening immediately, and on a hundred, a thousand different ideas at any one time, and those ideas are beyond what you might be able to brainstorm.

It’s a dream, and once you’ve done the hard work of getting the ecosystem healthy, it does it on its own. Anything you want to think about you’ll find someone has already broken the trail for you to follow, and sometimes they’ve built a whole highway.

You can think small, like “how can we make commenting easier?” There will be a half-dozen different interpretations of what comment threading should look like, and you have the data to see if those changes help people comment more, and if that in turn makes them more engaged in conversation.

And it goes far beyond that, to entirely new visions of how your product might work for entirely new customers.

If you’re sitting around the virtual break room and someone says “what if we leaned into the photo sharing aspect, and made Reddit a totally visual, photo-first experience?” in even the best company you’re going to need to make a case to spend the time on it, then build it, figure out how to get it cleared with the gatekeepers of experimentation… 

Or if you have a 3rd party ecosystem as strong as Reddit’s, you can type “multireddit photo browser” or something into a search engine and tada, there you go, a whole set of them, fully functional, taking different approaches, different customer groups. I just did that search and there’s a dozen interesting takes on this.

Every different take on the UX, and every successful third-party application is a set of customer insights any reasonable company would pay millions for. Having a complete set of APIs publicly available lets other people show you things you might not have dreamed possible (this is also a hidden reason why holding back features or content from your APIs is more harmful that it initially seems).

Successful third party applications give you insight into:

  • A customer group
  • What they’re trying to do
  • By comparison, how you’re failing to give it to them
  • A minimum number to what they’re willing to pay to solve that problem

Even when these applications don’t discover something that’s useful – say someone builds a tool that’s perfect for 0.1% of the user base, but that tool requires a lot of client-side code, so it’s just not worth it to bring that into the main application. It’s still a huge win, because those users are still on the platform, participating in the core activities that make the system run, building the network effects (and, because you’re a business, making money in total).

And if those developers of these niche apps ever hit gold and start to grow explosively, you’ll see it, and be able to respond, far earlier than you would if they weren’t on your platform.

That’s great!

The biggest barrier for any challenger app isn’t the idea, or even the design and execution, it’s attracting enough users to be viable, and surviving the scale problems if it does start to grow. By supporting a strong third party application ecosystem, you’re ensuring that they never solve those problems – their user growth is your user growth. They don’t have to solve the problem of solving the scaling infrastructure because you did. It will always make short-term sense to stay with you.

Instead of building competitors, you’re building collaborators, who will be pulling you to make your own APIs ever-better, who are working with you and contributing to the virtuous cycle at the heart of a successful user-based product like Reddit.

I know, from the outside we just don’t get it. Reddit’s under huge pressure to IPO, and the easy MBA-approved path to a successful IPO is ad revenue, which means getting all those users on the first-party apps, seeing the ads, harvesting their data, all that gross stuff. And we can imagine that the people pushing this path to riches look at all of these third party apps and say “there’s a million people on Apollo, if they were on our app, we’d make $5m more in ad revenue next year.”

This zero-sum short-sighted thinking may not be the doom of Reddit – they may well shut down all the third-party apps and survive the current rebellion of moderators and users (and the long-term effects of their response to it).

It was and could have been such a beautiful partnership, where Reddit thrived learning, cooperating with, and improving itself along with its outside partners. As this developer community now looks to rebuild around free and decentralized platforms like Mastodon, it’s easy to see how Reddit’s lost ecosystem might eventually return to topple them.

How human brains drive anti-customer design decisions on shopping sites

Or, “The reason no one strictly obeys your shopping filters (the reason is money)”

Why do sites sometimes disobey filters? Often only a little bit, but noticeably, enough that it feels like an obstinate toddler testing your boundaries?

“You said you wanted a phone that was in stock and blue, huh? Got so many of those!”

“I’ll lead off by showing you some white phones that are really cheap… and hey if you want to narrow it down further, try narrowing it down –“

“Then I’ll show you phones that are blue. Mostly. More than this result set at least.”

I have cracked from frustration yelled “I told you morning departures!” while searching for flights at a travel site that employed me to work on those shopping paths.

So why? Why does everyone do this when it annoys us, the shopper?

Because our brains don’t work right, and we’re not rational beings, it ends up forcing everyone to cater to irrational cognitive biases to compete. I’ll focus here on availability and price, and in travel, because that’s where I have the most experience, but you’ll see this play out everywhere.

The worst thing from a website’s view is for you to think they don’t have what you want, or that you do and it’s too expensive, and this drives almost all the usability compromises you see that cause you to grind your teeth. And from the perspective of the people who run the website, they know — and they have to keep doing it.

Let’s start with availability. Few sites brag about the raw number of items they stock any more, but the moment you start shopping, they want you to know they have everything you could possibly be looking for. They want you to not bother shopping elsewhere.

Even when a site wants to present a focused selection, that they might not have a million things, they want you to think they have all of that specific niche.

Tablet Hotels focuses on expert-selected, boutique hotels. And here’s them walking you through their selection:

Do you believe there are 161 hip golf hotels? I didn’t. 161 hip golf hotels seems like it’s all the hip golf hotels that might be curated by hotel experts at the MICHELIN Guide(tm).

The desire to seem like they have all the available things makes sites compromise to make the store shelves seem full:

  • You search for dates and you get places that have partial availability
  • You search on VRBO for a place and get 243 results, all “unavailable”
  • You search for a location and get 3 in the city and then results from increasingly far away until it gets to a couple hundred results

As long as they can keep you from thinking “ugh, they don’t have anything” they’re winning — because the next time you’re shopping, you will shop where you think there’s the most selection.

They must also appear the cheapest. Our brains are terrible about this (see: the anchoring effect), and it creates a huge incentive to do whatever you have to in order to have the cheapest price even if it is irrelevant.

This sounds crazy, but I’m here to tell you having spent a wild amount of time and money doing user studies in my shopping site career, if someone’s shopping for non-stop flights between Los Angeles and Boston, and

  • Site A leads with a $100 14-hour flight that stops in Newark, Philadelphia, then La Guardia to give you the highest possible chance at further delays, followed by ten non-stop results for $200
  • Site B shows the same ten non-stop results for the same $200

Shoppers will rate Site A as being less expensive.

I have sat in on sessions where I wanted to scream “but you wrote down the same prices for the flight you ended up picking!” I have asked people why they thought that, and they’ll say “they had the lower prices” even though that lower price was junk. They will buy from that site, and return to shop there first next time.

It’s incredibly frustrating, and it happens that session, and the next, it’s not 50% of people in sessions — it’s 75, 90%. We all think we’re savvy customers, but our brains… our brains want to take those shortcuts so badly.

This drives even worse behavior, like “basic economy” — if an airline can get a price displayed that makes it look like it’s the cheapest, even if after adding seat selection, a checked bag, free access to the lavatory the person will pay far more than a normal ticket on a different airline, they’re going to be perceived as the better value, and the less expensive airline, in addition to having a better chance to make that sale because fewer people will go to the trouble of making all the add-ons and then comparing the two.

(And even then, and I swear this is true, once a shopper’s brain has “Airline A is cheaper” there is a very good chance even if they price out the whole thing, taking notes on a pad of paper next to their computer, when they do the math that shows Airline B is cheaper for what they need, they will get all consternated, scrunch their face, and say “well that can’t be right”, at which point there’s a crash in the distance as a product manager throws a chair in frustration.)

All of this combines to put anyone working on the user experience of a site in an uncomfortable situation:

  • Do we show a junk result up top that shows that we could get the lowest price possible, even though it’s not at all what the customer asked for, or
  • Do we lose the customer’s sale to the competitor who does show that result, and also risk them not shopping with us in the future?

The noble, user-advocate choice means the business fails over the long-term, and so eventually, the business puts junk in there.

So what do we do, as people who care about users and want to minimize this, do?

We can start by trying. It’s easy to sigh, give in, make the results set “get result set for filters, then throw the cheapest option at #1 no matter if it ranks or should appear” and then move on to something that’s seemingly more interesting. But this seemingly intractable conflict is where we should be dissatisfied, and where we have a chance to be creative.

We can approach with empathy: how can you be as open or helpful as possible when we’re forced to compete in this way. Instead of presenting a flight result in the same way as the others, we can say “$200 if you’re willing to compromise on stops, see more options…. $300 without your airline restrictions…”

Let customers know there’s another option, and don’t pass it off as part of the result set they asked for, call it out as a different approach.

Or, for example, the common “we have 200 hotels that aren’t available” — don’t show me 200 listings of places I can’t go, that doesn’t help anyone. If you have to tell me there are at maximum 200, tell me 50 of your normal 200 have availability if I move my dates, or here are 75 but a ways off.

Or think about this in terms of a problem you’re having — even if you write a sigh-and-an-eye-roll of a user story like “as a business, I want to build trust with users, so I can survive” that’s a starting point. What’s trust? What builds and undermines trust with your customers? Can you show your math? Can you explain what you’re trying to do to them?

It’s unrealistic to expect that you can start a conversation with a random shopper about how anchoring works and how to combat it, but what would you want to say? Are there tools you would arm them with so that they don’t fall prey to CheaperCoolerStuffwithFeesFeesFees?

Because if nothing else, knowing that this is all true, we can at least apply this to ourselves. The more time I spent in user studies watching smart people lose their way and come to entirely reasonable but incorrect conclusions because they’d been misled by having their brain trip up, the more I was able to not only ask questions like “which of these sites has the best prices for the thing I want?” but also questions like “which of these sites helps me find the thing I need?”

Concede what you must, but in seeking to help customers get what they want, instead of annoying them or seeming untrustworthy, and feeling like you’re only doing it because you’re forced to, you should be able to compete, help them succeed, and build a better and more durable relationship.

Unchecked AB Testing Destroys Everything it Touches

Every infuriating thing on the web was once a successful experiment. Some smart person saw

  • Normal site: 1% sign up for our newsletter
  • Throw a huge modal offering 10% off first order: +100% sign ups for our newsletter

…and they congratulated themselves on a job well done before shipping it.

As an experiment, I went through a list of holiday weekend sales, and opened all the sites. They all — all, 100% — interrupted my attempt to give them some money.

It’s like those Flash mini-game ads except instead of a virus-infested site it’s a discount on something always totally unlike what you were shopping for!

As an industry, we are blessed with the ability to do fast, lightweight AB testing, and we are cursing ourselves by misusing that to juice metrics in the short term.

I was there for an important, very early version of this, and it has haunted me: urgency messages.

I worked at Expedia during good and bad times, and during some of the worst days, when Booking.com was an up and comer and we just could not seem to get our act together to compete. We began to realize what it must have felt like to be at an established travel player when Expedia was ascendant and they were unable to react fast enough. We were scared, and Booking.com tested something like this:

Next to some hotels, a message that supply was limited.

Why? It could be either to inform customers to make better decisions. Orrrrrr it could instill a sense of fear and urgency to buy now, rather than shop around and possibly buy from somewhere else. If that’s the last room, what are the chances it’ll be there if I go shop elsewhere?

There’s a ton of consumer behavioral research on how scarcity increases chances of getting someone to buy, so it’s mostly the second one. If a study came out that said deafening high-pitched noises increased conversion rates, we would all be bleeding from our ears by end of business tomorrow, right?

So we stopped work on other, interesting things to get a version of this up. Then Booking took it down, our executives figured it had failed A/B and thus wasn’t worth pursuing, so we returned to work. Naturally Booking then rolled it out to everyone all the time, and we took up a crash effort to get it live.

(Expedia was great to me, by the way. This just a grim time there.)

You know what happened because you see it everywhere: urgency messaging worked to get customers to buy, and buy then. Expedia today, along with almost every e-commerce site that can, still does this —

It wasn’t just urgency messages, either. We ran other experiments and if they made money and didn’t affect conversion numbers (or if the balance was in favor of making money), out they rolled. It just felt bad to watch things like junky ads show up in search results, and look at the slate of work and see more of the same coming.

I and others argued, to the more practical side, that each of those things might increase conversion and revenue immediately and in isolation but in total they made shopping on our site unpleasant. In the same way you don’t want to walk onto a used car lot where you know you’ll somehow drive off with a cracked-odometer Chevrolet Cavalier that coughs its entire drivetrain up the first time you come to a stop, no one wants to go back to a site that twists their arm and makes them feel bad.

Right? Who recommends the cable company based on how quick it was to cancel?

And yet, if you show your executives the results

  • Control group: 3% purchased
  • Pop-up modals with pictures of spiders test group: 5% purchased
  • 95% confidence

How many of them pause to ask more questions? (And if they have a question, it’s “is this life yet why isn’t this live yet?”)

And the justifications for each of the compromises are myriad, from the apathetic to outright cynical: they have to shop somewhere, everyone’s doing it, so we have to do it, people shop for travel so infrequently they’ll forget, no one’s complaining.

There’s two big problems with this:
1) if you’re not looking at the long-term, you may be doing serious long-term damage and not know it, and you’ll spiral out of control
2) you’ll open the door to disruptive competition that you almost certainly will be unable to respond to as a practical matter

Let’s walk through those email signups as an example case.

Yes, J. Crew is still here. Presumably their email list is just “still here” every couple weeks, until they’re not.

What this tells me as a customer is they want me sign up for their email more than they want me to have an uninterrupted experience at the very least. It’s like having a polite salesperson at the store ask if you need help, except it’s every couple seconds of browsing, and the more seriously you look the more of your information they want.

They’re willing for me to not buy whatever it was I wanted, or at least they are so hungry to grow their list they’ll pay me to join, which in turn should make anyone suspect they’re going to spam the sweet bejeezus out of their list in order to make back whatever discount they’re giving out.

As a product manager, it means that company has an equation somewhere that looks like

(Average cart purchase) * (discount percentage) + (cost of increased abandon rate) > ($ lifetime value of a mailing list customer)


It may also be that the Marketing team’s OKRs include “increase purchases from mailing list subscribers by 30% year over year”

So there’s some balance you’re drawing between cost of getting these emails — and if you’re putting one or two of these shopping-interrupting messages on each page, it’s going to be a substantial cost — in exchange for those emails. Now you have to get value out of those emails you mined.

You may think your communications team is so amazing, your message so good, that you’re going to be able to build an engaged customer base that eagerly opens every email you send, gets hyped for every sale, and forwards your hilarious memes to all their friends.

Maybe! Love the confidence. But everyone else also thinks that, soooooo… good luck?

As a customer, I quickly get signed up for way too many email lists, so my eyes glaze over. I’m not opening any of them. Maybe I mark them as spam because some people make it real hard to unsubscribe and it’s not worth it to see if you made opt-out easy…

Now your mailing list is starting to have trouble getting filed directly to spam by automated filters, so by percentage fewer and fewer people are purchasing based on emails. Once your regular customers have all signed up for email, subscription growth even with that incentive is slowing. And if you’re sharp, you’ve noticed the math on

(Average cart purchase) * (discount percentage) + (cost of increased abandon rate) > ($ lifetime value of a mailing list customer)

Is rapidly deteriorating, and now you’re really in trouble.

What do you do?

  • Drive new customers to the site with paid marketing! It’s expensive even if you manage to target only good target customers. These new customers want that coupon, so you juice subscriptions and sales. And hey, that marketing spend doesn’t affect the equation… for a while.
  • Send more emails to the people who are seeing your emails! They’re overwhelmed with emails so you need to be up in their face every day! You see increased overall purchase numbers, and way more unsubscribes/marked as spam, and people are turned off to your brand. Which also doesn’t affect that equation… for a while.
  • Increase the discount offered!
  • Well everyone, it’s been a good run here, I’ve loved working with you all, but this other company’s approached me with this opportunity I just can’t pass up…

This is true of so many of these: if you think through the possible longer-term consequences of the thing you’re testing, you’ll see that your short-term gains often create loops that quickly undo even the short-term gain and leave you in a worse position than when you started.

But no one tests for that. The kind of immediate, hey why not, slather Optimizely on the site and start seeing what happens testing will inevitably reveal that some of the worst ideas juice those metrics.

Also, can we talk about how AB testing got us to this kind of passive-aggressive not-letting-people-say-no wording and design?

How many executive groups will, when shown an AB test for something like “ask users if we can turn on notifications” showing positive results that will juice revenue short-term, ask “can we test how this plays out long-term?”

As product managers, as designers, as humans who care, it is our responsibility to never, ever present something like that. We need to be careful and think through the long-term implications of changes as part of the initial experiment design and include them in planning the tests.

If we present results of early testing, we need to clearly elucidate both what we do and don’t know:

“Our AB test on offering free toffee to shoppers showed a 2% increase in purchase rate, so next up we’re going to test if it’s a one-time effect or if it works on repeat shoppers, whether our customers might prefer Laffy Taffy, and also what the rate of filling loss is, because we might be subject to legal risk as well as take a huge PR hit…”

Show how making the decision based on preliminary data carries huge risks. Executives hate huge risks almost as much as they like renovating their decks or being shown experiment results suggesting there’s a quick path to juicing purchase rates. At the very least, if they insist on shipping now, you can get them to agree to continue AB testing from there, and set parameters on what you’d need to see to continue, or pull, the thing you’re rolling out.

It’s not just the short-term versus the long-term consequences of that one thing, though. It’s the whole thing, all of them, together. When you make the experience of your customers unpleasant or even just more burdensome, you open the door for competition you will not be able to respond to.

I’ll return to travel. You make the experience of shopping at any of the major sites unpleasant, and someone will come along with a niche, easy-to-use, friendly site, probably with some cute mascot, and people will flock to it.

Take Hotel Tonight — started off small, slick, very focused, mobile only, and they did one thing, and you could do it faster and with less hassle than any of the big sites.

AirBNB ended up buying Hotel Tonight out for ~$400 milion. $400 million US dollars.

You’re paying for customer acquisition, they’re growing like crazy as everyone spreads their word for free. It’s so easy and so much more pleasant than your site! They raise money and get better, offer more things, you wonder where your lunch went…

If you’re a billion-dollar company, unwinding your garbage UX is going to be next to impossible. The company has growth targets, and that means every group has growth targets, and now you’re going to argue they should give up something known to increase purchase rates? Because some tiny company of idiots raised $100m on a total customer base that is within the daily variance of yours?

I’ve made that argument. You do not win. If you are lucky, the people in that room will sigh and give you sympathetic looks.

They’re trying to make a 30% year-over-year revenue growth target. They’re not turning off features that increase conversion. Plus they’ll be somewhere else in the 3-5 years it takes for it to be truly a threat, and that’s a whole other discussion. And if they are around when they have to buy this contender out, that’s M&A over in the other building, whole other budget, and we’ll still be trying to increase revenue 10% YoY after that deal closes.

There are things we can try though. In the same way good companies measure their success against objectives while also monitoring health metrics (if you increase revenue by 10% and costs by 500%, you know you’re going the wrong way), we should as product managers propose that any test have at least two measurable and opposed metrics we’re looking at.

To return to the example of juicing sales by increasing pressure on customers — we can monitor conversion and how often customers return.

This does require us to start taking a longer view, like we’re testing a new drug, as well — are there long-term side-effects? Are there negative things happening because we’re layering 100 short-term slam-dunk wins on top of each other?

I’m less sure then of how to deal with this.

I’d propose maintaining a control experiment of the cleanest, fastest, most-friendly UX, to use as a baseline for how far the experiment-laden ones drift, and monitor whether the clean version starts to win on long-term customer value, and NPS, as a start.

From there, we have other options, but all start from being passionate and persistent advocates for the customer as actual people who actually shop, and try to design our experiments to measure for their goals as well as our own.

We can’t undo all of this ourselves, but we can make it better in each of our corners by having empathy for the customer and looking out for our businesses as a whole. And over the long term, we start turning AB testing back into a force for long-term


Hinge’s Standout stands out as a new low in dating monetization

Hinge’s new Standout feature pushes them further into a crappy microtransaction business model and also manages to turn their best users as bait, and if you’re a user like me, you should be looking for a way out.

I understand why they’re looking for new ways to make money. First, they’re a part of the Match.com empire, and if they don’t show up with a bag of money that contains 20% more money every year, heads roll.

Second, though, every dating app struggles to find a profit model that’s aligned with their users. If you’re there to find a match and stop using the app, the ideal model would be “you only pay when you find your match and delete the app” but no one’s figured out how to make that work.

(Tinder-as-a-hookup-enabler aligns reasonably well with a subscription model: “we’ll help you scratch that regular itch you have”)

Generally, monetization comes in two forms:

  • ads, to show free users while they’re browsing, and selling your data

  • functionality to make the whole experience less terrible

Which, again, presents a dating business with mixed incentives. Every feature that makes the experience less painful offers an incentive to make not paying even more painful.

For example: if you’re a guy, you know it’s going to be hard to stand out given how many other men are competing for a potential match’s attention. So sites offer you a way to have your match shown ahead of users not spending money. If a customer notices that their “likes” are getting way more responses when they pay for that extra thing, they’re going to be more likely to buy them… so why not make the normal experience even more harrowing?

Dating apps increasingly borrow from free-to-play games — for instance, setting time limits on activities. You can only like so many people… unless you payyyyy. Hinge’s “Preferred” is in on that:

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They also love to introduce different currencies, which they charge money for. Partly because they can sell you 500 of their currency in a block and then charge in different increments, so you always need more or have some left over that will nag at you to spend, which requires more real money. Mostly because once it’s in that other currency, they know that we stop thinking about it in real money terms, which encourages spending it.

One of the scummiest things is to reach back into the lizard brain to exploit people’s fear of loss. Locked loot boxes are possibly the most famous example: you give them a chest that holds random prizes, and if they don’t pay for the key, they lose the chest. It’s such a shitty thing to do that Valve, having made seemingly infinite money from it, gave up the practice.

Hinge likes the sound of all this. Introducing:

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Wait, won’t see elsewhere? Yup.

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This is a huge shift.

Hinge goes from “we’re going to work to present you with the best matches with paid features make that experience better” to “we’re taking the best away and into new place, and you need this new currency to act on them or you’ll lose them.”

If you believed before that you could use the app’s central feature to find the best match, well, now there’s doubt. They’re taking people out of that feed. You’ll never see them again! That person with the prompt that makes you laugh will never show up in your normal feed! And maybe they’ll never show up on Discover!

Keep in mind too that even from their description, they’re picking out people and their extremely successful prompts. They’ve used data to find the most-successful bait, and they’re about to charge you to bite.

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$4. Four bucks! Let’s just pause and think about how outrageous this is. Figure 90% of conversations don’t get to a first date — that’s $36 per first date this gets you. And what percentage of first dates are successful? What would you end up paying to — as Hinge claims to want to do — delete the app because you’ve found your match?

Or, think about it the other way: if Hinge said “$500, all our features, use us until you find a match” that would be a better value. But they don’t because no one would buy that, and likely they’ve run the math and think that people are more likely to buy that $20 pack, use the roses, recharge, and they’ve got a steady income, or the purchaser will give up after getting frustrated, and that person wasn’t going to spend $500. More money overall from more people spending.

If you’re featured on this — and they don’t tell you if you are — you’re the bait to get people to spend on micro transactions. This just… imagine you’ve written a good joke or a nice thing about yourself, and people dig it.

Now you’re not going to appear normally to potential matches. Now people have to pay $4 for a chance to talk to you.

Do you, as the person whose prompt generated that rose, receive one to use yourself?

You do not.

Do you have the option to not be paraded about in this way?

You do not.

This rankles me, as a user, and also professionally. As a good Product Manager, I want to figure out how to help your customers achieve their goals. You try to set goals and objectives around this — “help people’s small businesses thrive by reducing the time they spend managing their money and making it less stressful” and then try to find ways you can offer something that delivers.

Sometimes this results in some uncomfortable compromises. Like price differentiation — offering some features that are used by big businesses with big budgets at a much higher price, while you offer a cheaper, limited version for, say, students. The big business is happy to pay to get the value you’re offering them, but they’d certainly like to pay the student price.

Or subscription models generally — I want to read The Washington Post, and I would love not to pay for it.

This, though… this is gross. It’s actively hostile to the user, and you want to at least feel the people you’re trusting to help find you a partner are on your side.

I can only imagine that if this goes well — as measured by profit growth, clearly — there’s a whole roadmap of future changes to make it ever-more-expensive to look for people, and to be seen by others, and it’ll be done in similarly exploitative, gross ways.

I don’t want to be on Hinge any more.

Chemistry.com fizzles: a product manager attempts online dating, pt 3

So far: match.com was not fun, then EliteSingles looked at Match.com’s heterosexual bias, said “hold my privilege,” and set out to make the experience even more coercive, white, and hetero-normative. I did not have a good time. Then I took a couple-month break there because I got an insane flu and then met someone delightful I dated for a couple months, and I didn’t want to revisit this.

Still, we

Next up I went to Chemistry.com. Chemistry, like OkCupid used to, claims to do matching based on a huge number of questions and science. It’s got Dr. Helen Fisher, who I’ve heard on podcasts and seems great! 

Chemistry claims their test is “fun, engaging, and provides an in-depth look at who you are and what you want in a relationship.”

I’ll spoil it for you: it is none of those things, and Chemistry offers some clear signs that you shouldn’t trust them.

Anyway, let’s get started? Sure match and EliteSingles were white and heteronormative, but a science-based site like this is going to have a more diverse and — 

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(And I am again using VPNs to test these things from cities with wildly different demographics, that’s not just them guessing I’m straight and in Portland)

I’m sure Chemistry will have a more nuanced set of who can look for what, right?

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Nope. You’re straight or you’re gay.


So let’s get into the meat of this. Let’s kick off this personality test.

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I kinda gave up immediately. Was the next question going to ask me to feel the lumps on my head and pick the diagram closest to it? What could this possibly indicate about one’s personality?

That critical question answered, you’re introduced to the bulk of the test. It’s 45 minutes of questions, often in succession asking for almost the same thing:

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Occasionally with a curve ball like this:

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These moments were welcome breaks from the world of bubbles. Eventually you’re granted questions with different numbers of answers:

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When you’re through that ordeal, you get to describe yourself.

Again, I’m really hoping for some better options than we’ve seen in our last two adventures.

Eye color… hair… build… 

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…also an interesting set of choices…

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Again, hate this question, hate the “marriage is the most important thing” and you’re either not in one, you’re on your way out, out, or you were involuntarily taken out of one. In a loving long-term partnership? Nope! Doesn’t matter… ughhhh.

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It takes the “forced choice” approach to getting you to pick some interests. You have to have three, and only three count.

Now to upload your photo. You have two choices. Facebook, or upload.

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Wait, what’s that tiny small grey text there? “Skip this step.”

Look, it’s voluntary to sign up for a site like this. If it’s that important to their success, and to the success of everyone else, that there be a photo there, make it mandatory. Maybe don’t spring it on them this late in the process — which is another thing, Chemistry does not tell you it’s going to take so long to sign up.

Then you get the sell on subscribing —

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Okay, well, thanks for telling me. I’m curious what those features are — it’s pretty vague what “enhanced search” means, and having the two communication features makes it seem like you might not be able to contact people. It’s an odd choice — I’d really think they’d want to do a better job expressing what the value is here before they make you the pitch.

BUT THIS IS THE PITCH! Continue is actually sign up — now you’re asked for payment. Did you want to skip? Hidden grey text again. Note that here it’s not next to the continue button, but all the way over on the left. This is… intentionally deceptive.

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This page is so jarringly different from the design you’ve seen to that point I thought for a moment that I’d clicked on an ad or gone awry somehow. Clearly this is some vestigial code owned by a troll under a bridge, or something.

However I want to focus on a huge breach of trust here.

Let’s say you want that “special profile highlight offer” they’re pushing. $38.94, right?



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There is an extra $4 added for no reason. “All new upgrade orders” — is this an upgrade? It’s a new account. What are they talking about? Why does that say “upgrade now?” Am I even in the right place?

What are the chances you realize you’re moving forward with a different amount, given this confusing presentation? This like a hidden fee on your hotel bill where if you look up at the person at the desk they immediately remove it out of embarrassment?

You’re prompted to set up some things that people can ask you, what you’re looking for… I was out by this point, though. However, I’d been sent 

The results of my personality test!


What, all those questions about whether I’m into new experiences told you whether I’m into new experiences? THAT IS AMAZING.

Truly a marvel of science. Who knows what the future might bring us?

Yeah, this very much rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like a particularly sophisticated “What Zootopia character are you?” Where all the questions are “do you like carrots?” “Are you good at multiplication?” “Do you have over 1,000 people at your family reunions?” “OMG YOU’RE JUDY HOPPS”

Still, this was — as personality tests can be — an interesting break before I had to face:

The cancellation test!

One of the best ways to learn about a company is by how they act when you cancel. Do they make it difficult? Do you have to call someone? Do they make you go out under a full moon and hold up a solved Rubik’s Cube with both hands and turn three times counter-clockwise, so that you end facing South-by-South-East?

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Probably an account status, right?

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“Other account status changes” is cryptic… 

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Oh there it is, the last option.

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Why is Date capitalized here? Why is the distinction between casual/serious made here? Why would you stop if you made a friend — isn’t Chemistry about serious people here to meet their partners? 

Why aren’t you allowed to tell them you don’t like their site? That’s not a “Technical issue”

Anyway, so pick a reason…

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We’re into bad breakup territory here, where everything you say requires more explanation. So you type something in — 

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You have by my count gone through at least six (and probably a lot more, possibly including looking up a help article on how to remove your profile). You’ve just told them more about why want to remove your profile. And you get this last “wait” modal. It’s just.. 

I will say it’s nice that they clearly tell you what each of those do, but it’s probably deliberately confusing if someone’s going through this thinking “cancel my account” at each step, gets to the end, and — because Chemistry’s been trying to divert them the whole time — sees “cancel” as the option they want, and “Remove Profile” as a different, non-deletion step. This is not helped by how many other sites — see Match for one example — very much want to keep your zombie self up and boosting their numbers, and try to dance around what profile and account mean.

The end

I’m disappointed. I thought given the association with Dr. Fisher that Chemistry might actually be more… on the up-and-up? More inclusive? By the time I got through the questions, though, I had no desire to see what the rest of the experience was like, and getting out of it only reinforced my impression that I didn’t want to do business with Chemistry. I continue on.

EliteSingles: a Product Manager attempts to date online, pt 2

Fresh off our Match adventure, let’s check out EliteSingles. First, scan the page, who do we think their target market is?

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Even the stock image of the customer support person — I’m presuming, yes — 

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Moving on. They make some bold claims:


High success rate? Compared to what? What’s the rate? Weird they won’t tell me.


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It’s a little odd they claim elsewhere that EliteSingles is all about serious dating, then here it lists out some dating phrases (for SEO, presumably) followed by “or find love, idk 🤷‍♀️ ”

I’m on board with the approach conceptually — if they can intelligently select the people, only showing a few could be a huge win. It would let you consistently put effort into it, keep from being sucked in (on a site like Tinder or OkCupid or wherever, you can put in regular, incredible amounts of effort). You would hopefully be able to know that you did your best, that it went to the right places, and feel good about having put the time and energy into it.

I’m hyped! Let’s run through some warning signs!

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Disappointing, in exactly the same way Match was. However, this is even more aggressively coercive than Match: once you pick what you’re looking for, you’re auto-taken to sign up:

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Please note the creepy results of fading between pictures. I didn’t even notice this until pasted the picture in here.

If you’re, for instance, bisexual, and wanted to click both check boxes, nope. You gotta go. EliteSingles, I know you want to get people through the process and make it quick and easy, but this is gross.

Do Match and Elite do usability testing with a diverse set of testers? At this point I’m willing to bet that Elite’s decided their target customers are heterosexuals, predominantly white heterosexuals, and maybe — maybe — they think about homosexual people occasionally. And if not, they seemingly made a conscious decision to keep same-sex couples off their home page. Why would you do that? Do you think that there are enough heterosexual customers who’ll leave if they see a gay couple? Why?

Anyway. I’m writing a blog, I persist.

Screen Shot 2019 11 18 at 9 49 18 PM 1  dragged

It’s weird they ask you for email and password and then take you to this page, which is asking you the same things, including getting you to agree to the T&C. Why would you duplicate this step, especially knowing this kind of early gate is going to have a huge impact on conversion?

Despite having said you’re new — or at least, having passed up the chance to say you’re a returning customer and login — the “already a registered user?” is the most prominent box, the first thing people are going to see on this page. Do that many people enter their email and password on the first page as if they’re new? Regardless, this feels like something you could clarify in one step, rather than have two confusing duplicative pages.

There is also at the top a duplicate “email/password” path to login. This page feels like it might be a vestigial page that’s still in the path after a redesign because it’s load-bearing.

A big point about a small thing: note it would not let me use a + in my email address, which is a cool way to do cool things with your gmail address. It claims it is not valid. It is! It’s in the spec for email addresses! Sure, many sites don’t let you use some special characters, but they are lying that it is not valid. This is not a great way to go for a site you’re going to trust with incredibly intimate information.

I know, it’s an email validation thing, and maybe they have problems with people using valid special characters and it bouncing (I would wager this justification is not backed by good data). 

How you act in the small things is how you act in the big things. I don’t like this. 

Sigh, let’s go.


Please note that one hand has painted nails and a smooth, seemingly hairless arm, and the other — it’s another white heterosexual couple is my point. Do you see this if you’ve said you’re homosexual? Place your bets…

It does. Of course it does.

Anyway, I too am excited to be provided with exciting matches.


What a pointless, offensive screen. One, you’ve already identified yourself as “man” or “woman” in the first screen — a question asked without making it about gender.

But here you go! You have to confirm your gender. Your gender has to be one of those two things. What a crock of shit. I can’t even imagine what it feels like to have dealt with gender identity discrimination and come across a gate like this… when you’re trying to meet people.

Why would you do this?

Anyway, I was mad enough about this that I emailed their support address and said

The first question in the registration process is to pick a “gender” of
male/female. It’s 2019, gender’s a spectrum and biological sex is kinda
irrelevant. Why are you asking this as if it’s a binary? What happens
to people who don’t identify with either binary?

A little glib, maybe. Anyway, they got back to me:

Dear Derek,

Thank you for your message.

I appreciate what you are saying and that opinions differ around this
subject currently. We currently don’t have any plans to change this part
of the process however I will be sure to pass your comments along to
the relevant department.

Let me know if you have any further questions.

Please note that the question is not answered. But it’s the “opinions vary” that infuriates me. To have this page, to have this page like this, is a clear choice on which opinion you’re lining up with, and it’s the most regressive and hurtful one. This is such a crazy, dismissive, bullshit response. I want nothing to do with them. I abandoned the first time I hit that screen, and now… I’m writing this. Afterwards I’ll go into one of those sci-fi decontamination chambers where a burst of radiation destroys the outer layer of my skin entirely, hopefully before this seeps in.

How bad does this get? It gets pretty bad doesn’t it? Some highlights!


I’m supposed to confirm their gender? Look, you’re the ones asking intrusive questions so I don’t have to. 


Why, EliteSingles. Why. Are you doing this because Match does it?


Beliefs. Okay, that’s better than asking what your religion is and forcing everything under that label. I’m at least grateful —




Is this the touch screen kiosk at a checkpoint in a fevered sequel to the Turner Diaries? What… whyyyyy… ugh.

Can you pick more than one? Guess. No, go ahead. You’ll be surprised at this answer.

I lied, you’re not going to be surprised: one. You’re auto-advanced to the next screen after you pick one. This is yet another point I wanted to throw in the towel.

After answering enough questions to get to about the one-third mark on the progress meter, it’s time for an intermission slide!


Is it a picture of what is almost certainly a heterosexual couple?

What do you think?

What are the odds that it is not? What would I have to offer you if you were going to pay me $1 if it was not a heterosexual couple?




You’re still not taking $1,000.

Because of course it’s a heterosexual couple. Of course it is. Are they white? Your call, but… yes? It seems like a safe assumption.


Many questions later…


Why not one line that says “Choose as many terms as apply to you” or another single sentence, rather than two?

Then… aren’t many of these terms everyone wants to ascribe to themselves? And who is going to check “unsuccessful” besides people who meant to click other bubbles and missed?

“Yeah, I’m good looking and attractive, but I also want to click honest, soooo distant, cold, argumentative, both dominant and dominating, irritable…”

You’re free to click as many as you want, but then they make you focus:


This is an interesting approach and I’d love to see the data of what people initially pick to what they narrow to. I’d also be interested in how they’re using each of those: are they put to different purposes? Are (as I’d suspect) the second set used strongly in weighing potential matches while the first is not?

Hey there’s another intermission!

Quick, is it a white heterosexual couple looking towards the future?

Don’t roll your eyes at me. 


There’s a ton of multiple choice questions in the process like this:


Interspersed with free text answers like:

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It’s unfortunate that these are so late. At this point you’ve been in the process for at least 30 minutes from the start. Who’s going to answer these well?

Their distance question is interesting to me:


Even if you want 200, you have to move the slider before ‘OK’ is usable, which I don’t understand.

But my point: defaulting to 200 allows them to mitigate a huge problem for non-Tinder sites. If you join a site like this, especially if you’re paying — and do note that at no point in this process has there been a glimpse of “there are actually people on the other side, see?” as Match.com did — you need to come out of the gate with something. So it’s framed as “are you willing to travel in your search for a partner” and it’s anchored cleverly: the top option is infinite! Are you a true romantic or do you have blinders on in your search?

I’m a little surprised the language isn’t stronger: “How far would you travel to meet your partner?” Any direct suggestion that not traveling farther might mean you’re not going to meet your match. And the “I don’t mind” for infinite distance seems tepid. “I’ll travel anywhere” or “We’ll figure it out” would be stronger language.

I will now reveal what happens when I’m tired, have spent 45 minutes on this process, and come across some baffling UX. It’s…. It’s not flattering.


First, they make it seem like you’re just doing this for funsies, while they’re lining up matches for you. But there’s no progress meter, no updates that they’ve got 1, 20, -4 matches in the queue. So why hang around indefinitely? And why take these seriously, if they’re already able to go find your matches?

I don’t have answers.

Second, let’s talk about how confusing this is. 

There is a “Next Question” button. What do you think “Next Question” does? You type your answer, you hit next question, right?

Because there’s a button there that says “Save & Continue” that, presumably, saves how far you’ve gotten and you come back to it. That’s a reasonable assumption. It’s even labeled “Later.”

No. “Later” is a link, it bails you out entirely. It is a third, different action, which does something larger than those buttons, but is in smaller text. 

If you enter an answer and then hit “Next Question” you are not given a “Discard answer and go to the next question?” warning or anything. You just get the next question, as if everything’s fine. 

Why would you do this? You have three actions:

  • move to the next question, discarding any answer the person’s entered

  • move to the next question, saving the entered answer

  • quit answering questions entirely

I’m baffled why you’d choose the UI they did, where the first button… argghhh.

As you can probably guess by now, I spent minutes answering questions and hitting “Next Question” until — 

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I bailed on questions, and as a reward received this screen!


I found this page incomprehensible.

“Member Favorite” like it’s a mobile game asking you to purchase qDollaz or something.

First, the tiers make no sense to me (and I will not be typing them in all-caps). Premium can’t be Light. Premium Classic, sure, and Premium Comfort. But the distinction is Light to Classic? Light to Comfort? Light has fewer features, but there’s seemingly no difference other than length of contract between the other two. But they have different color schemes! Classic is in italics!

Comfort has that gold sparkle on the name! And is otherwise shown in a drab color scheme that isn’t like what we see elsewhere in the site. Why is that one not done in the EliteSingles green? Why is even the “Continue” in a different color — one that hasn’t meant ‘go’ in the process so far? ! Whyyyyy?

Classic is also the only one with a discount! It gets a red badge! And a red price!

Second, this pricing is just wild. As far as I could decipher:

  • Light has fewer features, but you’re only on the hook for 3 months, so it’s $174

  • Classic has all the features, for six months, so $210

  • Comfort runs for twice that at a slightly lower price, so $384


I don’t get why it’s framed this way either. The worst quality product is presented as if it’s the most expensive. Maybe they’re trying to anchor people with that higher price, but that’s confusing as hell. “Wait this one is terrible… and expensive?” And then the one they’re pushing, which has the “just right” middle price and middle term, shares the color scheme with the crappy one, features with the Comfort, is discounted, but is still more expensive…

It’s like they wanted the reaction to be “Ugh, what? Oh hey, Goldilocks option before it gets all drab over there, I can’t be seen buying something where the buy button isn’t even enabled…”

This isn’t how anchoring works, though. If you do anchoring well, it’s more like…

  • Luxury! Our platinum toothpicks… $50,000 for a set of two. Monograms available, inquire.

  • Good! These reusable toothpicks are made of stylish graphite! $10.

  • Enh! Toothpicks, like you get in the store. Box you’ll spill on the floor before you get through it, $2

  • Awful! Made of the worst, most splinter-prone Ash we could source, you’ll hate using this only a little less than your dentist hates you for using them! Crate of millions, $1


Right? You can experiment with pricing, number of options, and features, but this is what you want. You want the customer to say “Can I afford the better version I want?”

Here, the worst version as presented is also presented as 

I can only think that they’re doing this because they want everyone to pick that option. If that’s the case, why present options? Or, why not just present one product, one price? Or perhaps just show different term/rate combinations as the way to offer choice?

I don’t get this screen.

I also didn’t get EliteSingles Premium Classic, or any of their options.


I feel like I need to offer some kind of conclusion, some neat summary of the experience and recommendations from a Product Manager-y perspective.

I can’t. I’m going through this both as someone who has lived in this world, and who would so much like to find one of these services that is not terrible. When I go through something like EliteSingles’ onboarding, I’m just sad. Why not pay attention to things like diversity of appearances? Or whether you’re enforcing beliefs that — even if you truly, fervently believe that there are only two genders, why be a jerk about it to people who think they’re not? What’s the point? Also, gender’s not binary, it’s hugely complicated, I’ll acknowledge we as a society haven’t figured out how to work with that complexity. We can try, though. We can at least do that.

I also always feel like when you notice something like that — and I’m a privileged heterosexual cis white man, I am not nearly as good at seeing things like this as I could be, but I’m trying, and if I see it — it’s a huge red flag that the people and/or the company as a whole are lacking in empathy.

Dating is incredibly difficult and stressful. You don’t want to go into that with someone you don’t trust, and don’t trust to be honest and understanding.

I don’t, anyway.

A Product Manager attempts to date: Match.com onboarding

I’ve been in and out of online dating for ages, sometimes paying, often not. After hearing I should be on a pay site for years, a friend joined one, met their partner, and moved in. Since that’s what I want, it seems worth a try. As a Product Manager by trade who has worked on onboarding before, I’m finding the experience fascinating.

Let’s talk about Match.com


Okay, that’s a ton of white people, and all the women have long hair and all the guys have short hair and… I wondered if they were IP sniffing and know I’m somewhere that’s been gentrified to hell, but I VPNed in from other locations (Atlanta was one where I figured it’d have to be different) and it’s the same picture.

That’s a great sign.

So what are our options?

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Sigh. That’s not… great. So if you’re bisexual, you have to pick one? If it’s even more complicated than that, you’re entirely screwed? This seems so immediately exclusionary, and to what end?

I’ll continue on because I’m curious if this is going to stick and I enjoy torturing myself with hope. It’s worth noting that the prompt to go forward is “View Photos” which isn’t the user’s goal when they come to the page. They want to find a match at Match, not view photos. If they wanted to make themselves feel awful by looking at beautiful people they’re not going to get with, they’re not going to come here.

Match free

Nowwwww they’re putting the carrot in front of you. Here’s the interface you’ll see, there are 1,596 matches if only you’ll give them your Facebook or email.

Once you do that, though, the carrot is removed. There’s work to be done!

Match so marriage huh

That this is not “Relationship Status” but “past relationship status” always pisses me off. I’m divorced. Why does that matter? Why is that different than someone who lived with someone for a decade? Why is this question framed around marriage?

Further, this entirely neglects that there are a ton of other possibilities just within the boundaries of marriage. I don’t like this one at allllllll.

But I really want to talk about something in the background. 

That background image of the (seemingly) hetero couple? Shows on all the paths. If you’re looking for a same-sex relationship and signing up for Match, you get to stare at those two while you’re answering all the signup questions. There will be many questions.

I wonder if the non-hetero abandon rate is higher than it should be just on this. I hope so.

This is so low-effort, too! You need two more pictures so gay men and women see couples that reflect them. Is this just… no one who works on Match is gay? That can’t be true.


This isn’t a potentially painful question or anything, thanks. Also, another question where you’re forced into an answer and maybe you don’t know, or maybe the answer doesn’t fit into these. This whole thing feels… vaguely coercive.

Interestingly, and we can chalk this up to progress or Match just having one path — the questions appear identical between paths. I admit I was afraid I wouldn’t be asked this when I tried those paths.

“Of course they’re asking gay people if they want kids,” you might say. “It’s 2019!”

And again, you have to identify in step one as a man or a woman, seeking a man or a woman. 

Anyway check out this progress bar:


You’ve made progress, for sure, but how much longer? We have no idea. If it was soon they’d tell us, though.

What about only showing dots?

It must be deliberate to not reveal the icons as you go — if you know there are more steps, you forge ahead, but if you knew you were about to get asked about babies and smoking, that’s a look into a future that requires energy and is likely to be unpleasant. I would love to see their A/B results if they tried this.


I hate that ethnicity is always a thing. Why? Because people are searching for or to avoid other ethnicity? Oh right, that’s exactly it.


Framing here is also interesting: you must have a religion. Athiest? Agnostic? That’s a religion. I know, I’m being crotchety now.

They only show the top six options initially, and you have to expand to get to more. Why six? 

Your thought process to even get to those six has to be something like

“Protestants, of course, they’re nearly half the population, and Catholics, another quarter or so. Then it’s people who say no religion, but we can’t just put that, because we’re making them choose a religion. Ugh. Let’s break that down into “non-believers” “don’t care” and “New Age hippy-dippy people” and what’s that leave us? Non-christian religions and Judaism as a whole? Ugh, just… put it behind a more options bonus and call it a day.”

And that “Christian/Other” is first, when that wording makes it seem like a thrift store red tag item. Demographically, you’d think “Christian/Protestant” would be first — it’s almost half the US population. 

This interests screen intrigues me:


One, you’re forced to pick five and only five. There’s a lot of implications in this approach. If you’re like me, you look at this and start to trade off what you’re going to put in there if you only have five. You have to pick the things that you see as most-defining, because you can’t do a laundry list like OkCupid. But also, what if nothing I like is on here? Do I just look at my overfull glass of Pinot and click “Wine Tasting” while sighing?

Also, Pinterest is its own thing? Facebook isn’t. Instagram isn’t. I’m curious how they got to that list.

Now we get to the search.


Nah, I’m not looking for anything specific. I’ll just root through your dumpster or whatever. Don’t mind me.

Derek, how would you word it then?

I’d try something more goal-oriented, like “What do you want in a match?” 

Also, yes, this exercise is wearing on me.


Again, their “marital status” one makes me want to scream:


“Hey how are you doing?”

“I used to be bad.”

“Okay, but now?”

“I can only tell you what happened in the past.”



What proportion of people seriously want only widowed or currently separated matches? Is it really enough that adding this to both the profile and the search flow are worth the cost? That seems so unlikely.

And again, I hate that they let you search by ethnicity. It’s just gross.


Now that you’ve picked the kind of flesh you’re interested in, time to flesh out your profile ha ha ha ha ha I’m dying inside, help, please, help.



You’re forced to add one topic, and then you have the option to do two more… and wait! Now there’s only one dot remaining at the bottom? We’re ALMOST DONEEEE.

Now! Upload that image!



I dig this, actually. It’s clear about why you should upload a picture, it’s clear what the next step is — but again, do people come to Match to view and be viewed, or to find a partner? If it’s a partner, then how much do my chances improve there?

The actual experience fell down for me, too: when you upload, nothing happens for a long time, so you might upload the same image repeatedly, and then it only complains on the next page… anyway.

full member

Hey wait, I’m not a full member? I just did all that work! Continue…



This concludes my examination of Match.com’s onboarding process.

Of course it doesn’t.

I will also note that if you have an adblocker on, throughout the process you’ll see you’re avoiding a staggering amount of crap. Disabling the ad blocking does not get that page to load though.

I’ll do them the solid of heading back to the base site. Oh sweet, CAPTCHA in order to log back in.


Kinda feeling like that fire hydrant actually. Fiiiine —



Ha. This concludes my look at Match.com’s onboarding.

Learning from uncooperative A/B testers

One of the joys of working at a tiny startup packed into an ill-equipped, too-small space was running an account at Khaladi Brothers, the coffee shop across the street, because all small meetings had to be done outside the office. As the top coffee nerd, I took on running fresh vacuum pots over (and yelling “Fresh pot!” as I entered) and exchanging the empty ones. When we moved to a newer, spacious, swanky, and quite expensive office space (hot tip to startups: don’t do this) with an actual kitchen and drip coffee maker, I was put in charge of deciding which coffee beans we’d order. We had many options and an office of high-volume consumers with strong opinions on everything, and needed to get down to one or two for the recurring bulk order.

Naturally, as a Product Manager, I decided to do selection through a series of A/B tests.

Must-have for the tests:

  • end up with a winner
  • clear methodology, publicly exposed
  • easy to participate — or not
  • takes as little as my time as possible, because this was amusing but everything’s on fire all the time
  • keep momentum out of it (so the first voter didn’t disproportionately determine the day’s winner)

I discarded forced-choice, so coffee drinkers didn’t have to vote if they didn’t feel like trying both or didn’t find a winner, I decided against setting up a dedicated “today’s test” table or doing “three-sample can you tell if one’s different” type advanced testing, I didn’t try to timestamp votes to determine if one did well fresh and one did well through the day… nope!

I went straight single-bracket, winner-advances, random seeding at each round. Every day I tried to get to the office before everyone, and made two giant pots of coffee labelled “A” and “B”. If someone wanted to vote for a winner, they could write it down and drop it in a tin, which I tallied at the end of the day. I will admit that having come out of Expedia, where our A/B tests were at colossal scale with live customers, this whole thing seemed trivial and I didn’t spend as much time as I might have.

You may already see where some of this is going. “I know! I too am from the future,” as Mike Birbiglia says.

It was not trivial, and I ended up learning from the experience.

Test assumptions, set baselines: I didn’t have 32 coffees, which was good, because some days I did an A/A test to see what the difference would be. I was surprised, on those days voting for winners was down, and results were remarkably close to 50%/50% — and the highest split was 58% (10/17), which was a vote off a straight split. 

Know that blind tests mean subjects may reject results or: Starbucks did really well. I don’t know what to say. I figured they’d barely beat out the clearly awful generic ones and Tully’s, but some of their whole beans did well got all the way to the semi-finals. Participants were not happy to learn this, came by to ask questions, and generally were reluctant to accept that they’d preferred it. If a Starbucks bean had won but it had made people unhappy, would I have gone through with ordering it? I’m glad I didn’t have to confront that.

Also… yeah, Seattleites have issues with Starbucks.

Consider the potential cost of testing itself. The relatively small amount of time I thought it would take each day turned into way more effort than I’d hoped. Doing testing in public is a colossal hassle. Even having told everyone how I was doing it, during the month this went on, there were those offering constant feedback:

  • it should be double-blind so I don’t know which pot is which
  • it should have three pots, and they might all be the same, or different
  • no, they’re wrong…
  • it’s easy to come in early and see which one I’m making

…and so on. By week two, getting up early to make two pots of coffee as someone offered methodological criticism was an A/B trial of my patience.

If testers can tamper, they will — how will you deal with it? For one example, I came into the kitchen one day to get a refill and a developer was telling everyone he knew what pot was which because he’d seen me brewing and had poured an early cup off that, and so knew the pot with the lower level indicator was that batch. He was clearly delighted to tell everyone drinking coffee which one they’d picked. I honored the day’s results anyway.

This kind of thing happened all the time. At one point I was making the coffee in a conference room to keep the day’s coffees concealed. In a conference room! Like a barbarian!

I was reminded of the perils of pricing A/B experiments, which Amazon was being called out for at the time — if customers know they might be part of a test and start clearing their browser cookies and trying to get into the right bucket, how does that skew the results? “People who reloaded the page over four times converted at a much higher rate… we should encourage refreshing!”

Think through potential “margin of error” decisions when structuring tests. There was a coffee I liked that dominated early rounds and then in the semi-finals lost by two votes to a coffee that had squeaked by in previous rounds by 1-2 votes each time. What should I have done in cases where the vote was so close? I’d decided the winner by any margin would advance, but was that the way it should have been? Should I have had a loser bracket?

In the end, we had a winner, and it was quite good — and far better than what the default choice would have been — but I was left unsatisfied. I’d met the requirements for the test, it’d been a pain in the ass for me but not taken that much time. I couldn’t help but think though that if I’d just set up a giant tasting session for anyone who cared, and let them vote all at once, I’d have saved everyone a lot of trouble and possibly had a better result.

But more importantly, like every other time I’ve done A/B testing in my product management career, the time I spent on the test and in thinking through its implications and the process helped me in every subsequent test, and was well worth it. I encourage everyone to find places to do this kind of lightweight learning. Surely there are dog owners out there wondering what treats are best, and dogs who would be happy to participate (and cheat, if you’re not wary).

Go forth!

Two dual-track agile attempts, and lessons for future generations

I’ve been through two tries at implementing dual-track agile, and I’d like to offer some perspective on the travails, the pros, the cons, and offer some advice to those who might attempt it.

What’s dual-track agile?

In short — you pull a product manager, a designer, and a developer with broad knowledge of the area you’re working in forward in the process, taking on scouting and evaluating work, which then drops into the backlog of whatever agile methodology you’re using.

This is intended to solve the problems of how you develop the stories that a team will work on — the design sprint, the reset sprint, the investigation card, or in carving capacity for those tasks out of the team’s capacity — which in themselves often provoke both a set of methodology challenges and a level of bikeshed argumentation about methodology that can be immensely draining.

Here’s Marty Cagan on this in 2012
And here’s this good Mind the Product article

Which includes this good gif:

Implementation one: everyone jump into the pool at once

At Simple, we’d been through a couple of massive crash re-platformings that hadn’t delivered new features to customers. We two product teams (one, mine, working on what would become Shared Accounts, and another working on long-neglected customer service features, so we were going after things that would create value for our customers, but we were still not shipping.

We brought in Silicon Valley Product Group to do an assessment and recommendation. One of their number came in, did interviews with key stakeholders, and then in a day-long session in which almost everyone was present (we had our recruiters there!), told us what they’d seen as problems and offered a set of prescriptions. The biggest and most systemic one was to go to dual track agile.

Our leadership then declared we’d adopt dual-track agile, and so it was.

It didn’t take. We adopted dual track in name, but in practice, we couldn’t get the developers with the required knowledge to participate, and so discovery withered. Ours could not move into doing that work, being continually pulled into on-call, supporting retiring the deep technical debt, and doing the architecture work that would keep a team working.

Without developer participation, the discovery track could evaluate whether work was valuable to the end user, and whether that value could be realized by customers, but it still meant that items about to go to the team did not have a ROI, because we still needed to figure out the I. And in turn, that meant that there still needed to be an additional step in what should be the “delivery” track to do even high level development investigation.

What could we have done?

  • no methodology exists in a vacuum — consider the people and teams that will be doing the work. The people may be willing, but if circumstance can’t permit, you’re set up to fail
  • if there are changes you can make that would allow you to use a methodology, you have to make the changes or wait — don’t do the reorg or change your approach and just hope
  • a top-down mass implementation wasn’t the way to go — ever the pragmatist, I’d have rather found a team where it was a particularly good fit, done it there, and then learned lessons that could spread. When we started doing Scrum on teams at Expedia, we got approval to try it in three teams with good conditions and very different problems (flight search, hotels, and packages) and were able to learn from each other and measure our success against other teams and spread the good word.

Two: easing into it

As Lead Product Manager at Manifold, I was able to drive methodology. I decided to follow my own advice and do it real subtle-like. We started to use Product Pad, doing more and more discovery activities… and my intention was to use more and more of the process until we’d be using dual-track across the teams without having to talk about it.

During this time, my boss, the VP of Eng, encouraged me to just do it! We’re small, you can do a lunch-and-learn and just go!

I, having been burned by the previous experience, and encouraged by success at gradual adoption of Scrum at Expedia, declined and decided to go ahead with moving forward. Let this be a lesson to us all:

  • If you have the opportunity to jump ahead, and the support to do so, maybe just do it

Dual-track took… kind of. Unfortunately for dual-track, the company made a hard business pivot and organized around long-term contractual obligations (so product teams organized around delivering promised functionality, rather than pursuing objectives of their own). There’s a little bit of work to be done within that, but you’re not going out to do basic user research, address problems, etc.

Fundamentally, dual-track exists to support testing ideas, learning, and exploration. If you’re not doing that as a business, don’t adopt a framework that supports it. It’s like the difference between the road-trip and doing a regular commute. One requires research, planning, friends, snacks, a good dog to hang out the window if you’re lucky, and the other requires you to figure out the vehicle and route once and then pay attention.

I also encountered more resistance in the form of nearly-endless tool and process questioning than I’d expected or was prepared for. I found myself answering questions like “What we do when robosaurs attack local food distribution centers is a good question, and we’d have to talk about what that would mean for ticket handling…””

Now, what was going on? There were two culture clashes with Manifold’s stated values of transparency and autonomy, where anyone should be able to do anything as long as there was an audit log and the action was reversible.

1: dual-track itself seemed to clash with culture: that there would be three people who, outside of a product team’s normal activities, would be making decisions on the direction of the team and what work there was to be done.
2: tooling: first, introducing another tool for people to use raised the “why not just do all this in (JIRA/github/___)?” and in particular, the tool I’d introduced, Product Pad, is great for a lot of things but has a ton of restrictions on roles (for instance, a normal user can’t go add stories to an idea filed by someone else) that rankled people. I had not done enough to consider this.

What happened?

We started, ideas and feedback go into the hopper, there are processes to do discovery, and it’s being used on some more-nebulous pieces to create a roadmap.

I feel like I should have abandoned it when we made our pivot — I should have considered that a change in direction and how we work as a company was worth wiping the white board clean and evaluating the process challenges against what the kind of work we’d be doing over the next 12-18 months.

Questions to ask and things to do as you weigh dual-track.

First, think about this:

  • What’s your elevator pitch for why the change is worth it — what will you gain, or what known harms would it have prevented?
  • What’s that pitch for each of the stakeholders in the process? What’s your pitch to your Marketing partners, for instance?
  • Who’s your champion at the exec level?
  • Consider the culture: will people react poorly to the appearance of a trio of people taking over the direction of the team where once it seemed open to all? What can you do in designing the process and communication to address those concerns?

And then, block out your calendar for a long time so you can concentrate, and

  • Map out the process from end-to-end before any public rollout or discussion.

How will an idea or customer request go through the process? What tools will be used? Consider the maximally complex cases —

  • A developer has an idea
  • We write up the idea — where? How is it tracked?
  • How do you decide that that idea is worth investigating out of all the other ideas? Who makes that decision? Where?
  • We need to do some user research on the idea — who does it? Where is that request tracked? How does the result get tracked?
  • We need to show a prototype to users, and it requires both design and a little bit of dev. How do you start and track that work? How do you record the work?
  • You now know that the idea has merit and can be made usable. How do you track that?
  • How do you cost out the work? How is that work assigned, and tracked?
  • How do you choose what goes onto the roadmap from all of the ideas that have cost/benefit ratings? How?
  • If you’re doing regular user research or usability testing, how will that fit? Where will those results go?
  • How will you communicate each decision out to everyone who is interested in the results?

Then for each person in the process, list how many tools they must use including any new ones, and how they’ll track their work at each stage. If they live in a world of GH issues and you now require them to put their head into Product Pad regularly, or participate in discussions there, you’re adding complexity into their life and they’ll have to see a lot of value come out of this extra effort — which may fall to you as a product manager.

Now you’ve got a rollout plan, of sorts, with an idea of the cost and what will need to happen for the process to be a success, and you can make an informed decision.

In summary, dual-track agile is a methodology of contrasts

Having been through two attempts to implement it, I’m much more likely to look at existing processes and find ways to build in things like regular user testing and fast feedback loops, and see if they improve things — or start to create the need for dedicated discovery process and activities.

I would love to hear other people’s success or failure stories implementing dual-track agile (or any of the latest hot methodologies) — please, drop me a line if you’ve got them.

Obsess over teams to drive organizational change

In “Stop Obsessing Over ‘The Teams
John Cutler argues “we shouldn’t focus on “The Teams”, until the conditions for effective teams are in place.”

Cutler begins:

Most Agile methodologies/frameworks focus myopically on “the teams” (front-line teams of individual contributors). Meanwhile, organizational dysfunctions (those causing 80% of the drag) persist.

And that you have to solve organizational problems first.

In a tweet, Melissa Perri adds

Companies usually ask me to “transform teams” but many of the problems they need fix stem from the org level. Local optimization over global rarely works. You have to work on both.

Everyone’s right — the trick is, sometimes it’s agile methodologies are what let you find the global problems, and make wide organizational change necessary.

Cutler continues:

The dreamland utopia of “The Business” and “The Developers / The Teams” just working it out over mugs of coffee … is ultimately unfeasible in any org — with >1 teams — that simply tries to graft something like Scrum on to their existing structures, dependencies, and project culture.


When faced with something that seems intractable, you start with what you can control, improve what you can, and force the organizational change that seems unfeasible.

I worked at Expedia way back during a rough patch for the company, and if you’d asked “what’s going on here?” you’d get a litany of entirely different and well-supported answers from different organizations. Or teams. Or people at adjacent desks on the same team with different roles. Top-down “let’s unlock transformation” attempts went nowhere. The business deteriorated and everyone knew why, but no one could agree on the reasons, much less what to do.

Three of us Program Managers (Adam Cohn, Yarek Kowalik, me) got permission to turn our teams to Scrum from the Microsoft process Expedia kept after spin-off, which went:

1) Strategy comes from somewhere
2) Business crunches numbers, hands a direction to team in Business Requirements Document
3) Program Manager turns that into a full specification down to a really deep technical level
4) Spec is reviewed and iterated on until it gets stage-gate approvals
5) Development goes until it hits “Dev complete”
6) QA until it hits “QA complete”

…the whole thing.

There were all kinds of organizational and business problems, all the stuff Cutler points out. The teams weren’t really autonomous, the Program Managers were effectively Product Owners, Project Managers, and deputized Product Managers, it took forever to ship, what did ship didn’t do well — all of it.

We had to hand-lobby leadership and make ourselves pests until we got permission to try Scrum just on the team level, just on those teams. Adopting was rough, and there was a time where transparency and the ability to produce stats meant we were the only teams admitting we weren’t making progress.

But it worked. It transformed everything.

It started with the immediate team and radiated out:

  • showing the teams’ work created a sense of increasing success where there’d been frustration
  • seeing the effect of gates on productivity let us remove the “toss over the wall” steps and get everyone closer
  • reporting how having design do one set of “red-lines” in the spec and then only respond to critical issues delayed iteration got us more and better collaboration throughout
  • documenting the problems with releasing code helped drive efforts towards continual delivery

With the “engineering can’t ship” out as an excuse, it kicked off organizational change. Once, no one could agree on why things weren’t working in our organization. Now we could prove them, and when people agreed on the causes, we could solve them.

For instance, tracking the work done and the cost of it meant we could show executives the productivity-draining effect of business-level randomization. I could go and say “as the business, you told us to prioritize quick-wins in response to this metric, nothing happened and we made no progress on what you want for four weeks” and the leadership of that organization had to grapple with what that meant.

That started a conversation first about how much time we put into tech debt, and on-call, and soon it was a business-level reckoning of “are we doing the right things at all?”

Solving that drove change through the once removed business organizations: it required Product Managers who could act quickly, pragmatically, who were available and collaborative (I wrote about what I learned from working with one of them ). And for the first time, you could tell who was an effective Product Manager, and that organization transformed.

All of those changes were painful and it took way longer than anyone wanted. And if you’d started omniscent, knowing what all the barriers were going to be, sure, it’d have been way easier to make a list. But we’re not. Instead agile methodologies let you see and prove the barriers to the team’s work and force action, and then you get to see the next one.

When large organizations are faced with holistic questions, you don’t get progress. At best you get a weighty consultant-produced report on how you’re deviating from best practices, and each of the groups tasked with work finds some way to argue their bit of the findings don’t apply, or feet are dragged and no progress is ever made.

Agile methodologies allow you to flip that: to not have to solve the whole thing at once. To find the things that are small, and fixable, and get better as you build clear and incontrovertible cases for the next implementable organizational change. You don’t know what the effect of a set of wide-ranging best practice announcements will be, but you know having a designer embedded on product teams will make everyone more effective.

Obsess over teams. Not only is it the often the best way to create change, in large organizations beginning with with the team is the only place it can originate.