Hey, engineers: Don’t forget to add some personality

“Why so serious?” — The Joker in Batman Returns.

If you are fortunate enough to be building software for a living, do us this small favor: Put a little more personality into your products.

The best products pay deference to their creators. They’re functional, but they also can be fun at times, whimsical, punchy, interesting, sexy and surprising. Done well, they mimic the best parts of the personality of the teams that created them.

The classic example of adding personality to a product is Google’s homepage. Is there a more functional use of pixels than www.google.com? Yet, sitting right there in all its irrelevant glory is the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. I have never clicked on it, but I love it. I love what it stands for — we built the world’s best search engine, but that doesn’t mean we take ourselves too seriously.

My all-time favorite example of building in personality is the metrics page on Bandcamp.com.

Bandcamp is a clean and beautiful site. The simple GUI on the stats page for musicians is no different; you can look at tracks played, media buzz and sales/downloads over various time periods: all-time, 60 days, 30 days, 7 days, today and defender. Wait, what’s the “defender” option?

So you click on it, and immediately the screen turns black, a little warship appears, and you are playing a fully functioning version of the old arcade game Defender. In Bandcamp’s version, your own metrics graph serves as the mountains and terrain. If you don’t understand how insanely cool that is, please stop reading immediately.

Well-executed Easter eggs like Bandcamp’s defender option make economic sense. Customers talk about them, Facebook about them and Tweet about them. They humanize a product. Customers are more likely to rave about your company and forgive failings if your product appeals to them emotionally.

Of course, personality isn’t just about being funny or clever. The late, great Steve Jobs doesn’t strike me as a funny guy, but his personality lives in every Apple product. Every beautiful curve, every feature, and every nuance down to the packaging is Steve Jobs. Every minute detail  mattered to him because the products were an extension of him.

The story of Madrona portfolio company Haiku Deck is instructive here as well. The founders were making a pivot on their business and decided to build a product that embodied the appealing approach they took to making presentations. “People kept telling us we built the greatest slide decks — simple, beautiful and fun,” CEO Adam Tratt said. “So we decided to build a product that made sharing ideas and telling stories a joyful experience instead of a soul-sucking one.”

<embed src="http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=46386096" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="400" height="300"></embed>

Adding in personality is not just for consumer-facing products. Business people like working with products they like just as much as consumers do. That’s why there are now more iPhones at work than Blackberries.

Are you building personality into your product? If not, take a step back and give yourself license to humor, delight, and inspire your customers.

Don’t force it. You’ll know when you are doing it right.

Editor’s note: Greg Gottesman, managing director of Madrona Venture Group, recently launched a new blog at StarkRavingVC. You can follow him on Twitter @greggottesman

  • Brandon S.

    To which most engineers rolled their eyes when the Venture Capitalist/MBA with no background in computer science said that they should inject more personality into their product. The last thing an engineer should worry about is personality. I believe that comes after: getting a prototype, getting funding and getting revenue while dealing with bugs, hardware issues, updates, localization, standarizing across different OSes and browsers, testing, integrating design and revision control.

    If anything, don’t work on your personality, work on your product, get product market fit and then you can do whatever you want. “Personality” is a novelty, it will not make your product successful, it will not help you close funding, it will not attract customers, the core value proposition of your startup must be validated first.

    The best products don’t pay deference to their creators, the best products SOLVE A PROBLEM FOR THEIR CUSTOMER and they do it damn well and better than anyone else.

    I am so tired of hearing VCs see something that they think is fun and tell everyone to do it. VCs tend to follow the herd and will latch onto any trend or fad that is popular. And this is the exactly type of advice startups need to learn to filter. It will not help your startup and will distract you from the things that you should be focusing on. If you’re a well funded startup, sure, you have the freedom to do things like easter eggs, but the ROI is low and will not affect whether or not customers choose your product.

    When was Madrona’s last successful exit anyways? Maybe VCs should worry more about making better investments than giving advice on how engineers should build their products. VCs should do me a little favor, I don’t tell you how to invest your LPs money, please don’t tell me how I should code.

    • http://twitter.com/greggottesman Greg Gottesman

      Totally agree with your point about solving a customer problem first. Check out my first post: http://starkravingvc.com/2012/10/08/are-you-best-in-the-world-at-something/. That said, in a noisy marketplace, the little things like adding some personality into your product matter in terms of acquiring and keeping customers. Unfortunately (or fortunately), a lot of people like sprinkles on their donuts.

    • Adam MacBeth

      As a (very product- and user-focused) engineer, I couldn’t disagree more. Good luck getting traction (or funding or paying customers) if your product doesn’t stand out from the crowd. To me, “personality” is the differentiation that wins customers for life. Of course you need to solve your customers’ problem, but truly delight them and you will win their hearts as well as their wallets. The loyalty generated by a product that delights is pure gold.

    • http://www.danshapiro.com/blog Dan Shapiro

      Let me see if I understand your reply.

      1) The author’s college education discredits his opinion

      2) One must choose between building a product with personality and buliding a product that solves a problem; you can’t do both at the same time

      3) You are so tired of reading VC advice that you came here, read this one, and wrote a five paragraph reply

      4) You are curious enough about Madrona’s recent track record to ask the internet about it, but not enough to Google it

      5) VCs should not tell developers what to do, in the same way that you don’t tell VCs what to do

      Did I get that more or less correct?

    • http://hark.com David Aronchick

      I disagree. Regardless of what you think of VCs, they see far more deals and what works/doesn’t than you, and they have pattern recognition for the commonalities of a successful business.

      For example, Fred Wilson did an entire post on Etsy’s office culture – http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2010/09/the-office-matters.html – you think that was out of line?

      According to your philosophy, Steve Jobs shouldn’t have been obsessed with the way the headphone made a click sound or Zappos should have a maximum time limit on phone calls. These things matter – I’d encourage you to read the following blog – http://littlebigdetails.com/.

    • http://currentlyobsessed.com/ joe heitzeberg

      I’d just like to use this reply to say something to Greg:

      Thanks for raising money for your funds and for investing that into the many engineers and creatives in our community….and for starting great companies like Rover, for funding early stage programs like TechStars, for dropping in on Startup Weekends, for endless coffees with creative folks, for the support you give to the Computer Science department at UW, etc. I could go on an on. Thanks.

    • Thomas R.

      I have to disagree, small things like culture and personality resonate with consumers. It’s part of the experience that customers have when they use your website. Think about Starbucks, why is it so successful? Their coffee, really, is not that great compared to other places. But they give you a consistent experience that you can expect and rely on. It’s all the little things they do with branding like how you order your drink.

      I may use something once because I need it, but I’ll come back because I liked it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=94500172 Kyle Kesterson

      This is a joke… right?

    • http://robiganguly.com/blog Robi Ganguly

      One does not just “add personality later”. If you don’t take the time and care to bring yourself into your product early on, you’re damn well not going to be successful in adding it later.

      If you look around you, the greatest companies, the ones we love the most, all have a sense of identity. You can feel who they are. This is the result of them having had personality and conviction in the early days – not because they added it later.

      You can be vanilla or you can be great. Greg wants us to be building great :).

  • http://currentlyobsessed.com/ joe heitzeberg

    Great post, Greg, and something not a lot of people are talking enough about in my opinion. There’s plenty of advice around AB testing and other mechanics. The internet and mobile represents a renaissance happening in our lifetime. Artistry matters too. Delight your users and be playful.

  • Turtle T

    Be carefull. Null references and unknown errors give your product personality too, just not the kind customer enjoy.

  • Richard

    Good advice that products need personality. I think people might misinterpret this though. You talk about easter eggs and other silliness. In the middle you say “personality isn’t just about being funny or clever” but that’s easy to miss with the examples you give.

    More to the point, products should have personality that’s appropriate to what the product is doing and who the customers are. A product can have personality in lots of other ways like the style of its icons, the color theme or the language. It can even have personality in the way the ui is arranged and organized.

  • _Hater_

    Perhaps VCs should work on their firm’s personality (see VC websites). Why tell engineers what they should be doing? Unlike most VCs, they generally have a clue.

  • http://twitter.com/MichelleBee Michelle Broderick

    Amen. Adding personality *of any flavor* lends the underlying clue that this product was meant for you, or more powerfully, not meant for you. Take a chance at alienating people and you will have won the hearts of your most loyal fans.

    CDBaby provides an excellent example: http://searchengineland.com/how-cdbaby-built-20000-citations-with-one-e-mail-84357