For the resource-constrained early-stage startup, copying isn't a dirty word if it's about looking to existing products for validation and as sources of data to inform your own product. By Sandi MacPherson (Founder, Quibb)
Working on a social news product for tech and startup professionals called Quibb, being a non-technical and non-designer solo founder has been challenging at times.
When I first started creating mockups and thinking about how the product would look and feel, I took an approach that's not often talked about. Some call it 'best practices', or 'drawing influence' - I prefer the more direct term, 'copying'. I don't mean directly copying the entire product, or even exact features. What I have realized is there are ways to look at and leverage the time and resources put into existing products to inform your thinking and learn how to create and improve your own product.
Here is how I looked to other products for guidelines to create Quibb.
#1 - Confirm the Product Category
You need to place your product within an existing product category so you can understand what the standard feature set is within that category. This immediately constrains potential 'feature creep', and will help to align your limited time and resources with features that actually matter and have been 'proven' to be required by existing products within your category.
This is important for many reasons, and should be something that you sort out pretty early on.
Let's use the example of a social product - most social products have a 'profile page', right? When you're thinking about what your profile page should look like, look to other social products that have great profiles, and get a grasp on what the minimum requirements are. This is a quick method to make your profiles as usable as possible. You're able to leverage user understanding and established, common behaviours that exist associated with that feature. Look for potential ways that comparable products within your category have already spent time and resources to establish a knowledge base that you can take advantage of with your own product.
#2 - No Traffic = No A/B Testing
When you're first starting out, it's impossible to create an internal dashboard running lots of A/B tests - mainly because you won't have significant traffic that will lead to valid decisions. My advice here would be to look at the specific feature you're considering testing.
Starting with what you perceive to be the most common page for new users to enter your product. For Yelp, this would be a restaurant review page, for Gmail this would be the homepage, etc. - as this is where an A/B test would have the biggest impact.
Let's use an example where your homepage is the most visited page within the product. What should that landing page look like? You can assume that large, established companies have put significant resources into testing what their homepage looks like, right? They have growth teams working on conversion optimization, backed by lengthy cohort analyses, etc.
If you look at Twitter, Quora, and Gmail, you'll notice that their homepages are basically all the same - there are no actions you can take except to sign up. I took this to heart with Quibb, and also have a pretty sparse landing page with minimal interactions available beyond signing up.
#3 - Unanswered Questions
I ran into some trouble when I tried to apply my 'copying' method to the Quibb iPhone app.
Quibb is a way for professionals to share and discuss what they're reading for work - there's a bookmarklet as well as a Chrome extension so members can quickly share links. I spent hours racking my brain, trying to imagine a feature that would allow this action on mobile.
I then started looking at other iOS apps that included user-submitted links to see how they handled this feature. I saw that most products had built the feature so that any link copied on the mobile clipboard was immediately pulled when the 'post link' button was tapped - a clever workaround that I wouldn't have thought of on my own! It turns out that submitting links on mobile is basically an unsolved design problem.
This was quite reassuring, and saved me many more hours of banging my head against the wall, trying to solve the yet unsolved.
Bottom Line: Copying Isn't a Dirty Word
'Copying' can be a very powerful approach to thinking about and designing a product and its features. I'm not suggesting that you simply build your product based wholly on how someone else has built their product. Never do that! Copying isn't a dirty word if it's about looking to existing products for validation and as sources of data to inform your own product - especially if you're resource constrained and not able to collect enough data yourself.
One final tip related to this approach - only copy successful products. Don't look to other startups with minimal traction, an unproven or new product category, or one with constantly shifting features. The whole purpose of this approach is to leverage the resources others have put into their own product to identify what has 'won-out' over time, and extract what learnings you can - looking to others to answer critical product questions and to test important hypotheses about your own path forward.
Women 2.0 readers: What startups or products do you look at to "copy"? Let us know in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Sandi MacPherson is the founder of Quibb, a social news product for professionals. She works on Quibb from random coffee shops around Palo Alto, and is working to make industry news social without being overwhelming. In a previous life, Sandi worked as a climate change and geochemistry professional. She holds an MBA from Toronto's Schulich School of Business. Follow her on Twitter at @sandimac.