Atomic features: small details that make a BIG difference (Part 4)
Help people track their status – and you may create a product they can’t imagine being without
How do you get 1 million website visitors in three days back in 2006?
That was what Zillow.com, today the leading real estate marketplace in the U.S., accomplished. And they did it mainly thanks to one feature:
The feature was called the “Zestimate” – letting homeowners get an estimated value of nearly any property in the U.S., including their own home.
It was the first time ever that people had a specific number on what their home was worth. Not only that – you could “secretly spy” on what your neighbors’ homes were worth too. 1
What made this particular feature so popular?
Getting a number on your home’s worth enabled people to track their financial and social status down to the dollar – and compare their status to others.
Zillow could have made the Zestimate a range, but the founders decided (wisely) to display a single number, since: “points are more provocative than ranges”. 2
If there’s anything we humans care about, it’s knowing our status.
And the more precise the status information is – the better.
This is the fourth and final article in the series about “atomic features” – small details of your product or distribution that have an outsized impact to customers.
In my previous posts, I covered:
Taste atomic features – how features such as product demos and free samples can 2-3X sales.
Fear-relief features – how finding and reliving points of fear for your customers can turn failure into rocketship success.
Routine features – how you can massively increase demand by making your product part of a widespread routine.
In this article, I’ll cover a fourth kind of atomic feature: the “status” feature.
The status feature – Help people track their exact status
Status features are those details that help people track their current standing – and ideally, compare their standing to others.
Such features can be highly addictive because they eliminate uncertainty and help us improve. We humans love seeing progress. But if we can’t measure it – we won’t know if we are going backward or forward.
It’s the classical “what gets measured gets done”.
There are many different status features, but they typically fall into one of three categories:
Let’s dive into each of them!
1. Self status – “How well am I doing?”
Before we care about social status, we want to know how well we are doing ourselves.
In particular, we want to know our status in health and performance.
Entire companies have been built on health monitoring. Fitbit launched its first fitness tracker in 2009. It was a rudimentary tech – a plain LED screen showing just the number of steps taken, distance traveled, and calories burned. 3
But after presenting at the Tech Crunch 50 conference in 2008, they were swamped with 2,000 orders on the first day – despite a hefty price of $99 per tracker. 4
Status can also make existing products more valuable.
The Apple health app has become one of my most opened apps on the iPhone. I check the step counter many times a day to make sure I reach at least 10,000 steps.
Showing my health status made the iPhone and Apple Watch more valuable to me than ever. Even when I know I won’t use them, I bring them just to track my health. 5
Health also doesn’t just need to be physical. Many companies, such as Boeing, now use sensors and AI for predictive maintenance – i.e. to track the current health status of their airplanes and service them proactively to keep them flying constantly.
Similarly, the startup Arboair helps foresters track the health status of their trees – specifically to detect infestations from bark beetles, so they can remove those trees proactively before the infestation spreads to the whole forest.
The economic damage caused by beetles and termites is many tens of billions of USD per year. 6
Another self-status area is performance. Whenever we produce work or strive toward something, we almost always want feedback to know:
Am I making progress?
Is my work appreciated?
When Ron White, USA Memory Champion, launched his memory course, he used a bit of gamification to give his customers a constant sense of progress:
“I do martial arts, I am a purple belt in jujitsu… So I gamified memory training. And I call it ‘becoming a black belt in memory.’
So they take the first couple of lessons, the most basic stuff, it’s the white-belt level.
And then when they learn a little bit more, I tell them, ‘Hey, this is yellow-belt-level stuff. Hey, this is orange-belt-level stuff. This is purple belt. This is brown belt. Ah, you are now a black belt in memory!’” 7
Feedback is also key for motivating employees.
In the fantastic book The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, author Patrick Lencioni lists three factors that make any job feel like a graveyard.
Two of these Top 3 demotivators are:
Immeasurability – not knowing how you are performing.
Irrelevance – not feeling that your work matters.
One entrepreneur who struggled with employee demotivation was Kristen Hadeed, founder of the cleaning company Student Maid. After reading Lencioni’s book, she realized an important truth:
Her employees weren’t demoralized because they had an unglamorous job.
Her employees were demoralized because they couldn’t measure their performance – nor know why the work mattered.
So Kristen sent out a survey to all their customers asking for feedback. Some were critical. But many replies glowed with appreciation!
One customer said how refreshing it was to arrive to a clean home after a stressful day at work. Another customer told how having Student Maid take care of the cleaning had saved their marriage.
When Kristen showed these responses to her employees, she solved both the Immeasurability and Irrelevance problems of the job – and morale shot up!
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2. Social status – “How well are others doing?”
Once we know our own status, we want to compare it to others. Four areas where social status matters are money, popularity, performance, and social norms.
Money is the ultimate status number, which the Zillow story illustrates. Show people how much their neighbors’ house is worth, and they can browse your website for hours.
Another company that used money-status to drive user growth is Patreon – the platform that helps creators earn money by building a paying follower base.
Patreon’s atomic feature was to transparently display how much money each creator was making.
When users saw a creator page saying “Jack Conte: $2,287 per video”, it created a powerful motivation to sign up for Patreon and become creators themselves. 8
When LinkedIn wanted to encourage users to make more connections, they displayed your total number of connections at the top of your profile in a very noticeable way.
This created a “popularity status game” that successfully spurred users to connect more. However, some users went crazy and accumulated 25,000 connections in an attempt to “win” the connections game.
Since LinkedIn wanted to be about quality connections, they created a ceiling that just displayed “500+” once you went above 500 connections.
Status numbers drive behavior – but comparison games also need limits to not drive things to a senseless extreme. 9
Adding a leaderboard can be all you need to make users addicted to your product in a desire to win. (Or rather, in a desire to not lose).
When Duolingo wanted to motivate their users to use the app, they created “leagues”. Users were paired with 50 other users in the bronze league. After one week, the top 10 people went on to the silver league. And if you were in the top 10 there, you get to the next league, etc.
Just adding this leaderboard increased the average time spent by 20%, which is huge considering the millions of people who use Duolingo daily. 10
Influencer researcher Bob Cialdini made a study to test how one can best motivate households to save electricity.
They split the subjects into four groups, and presented each group with one of four arguments for saving power:
Group 1: “Because it’s better for the planet.”
Group 2: “For the sake of future generations.”
Group 3: “Because it saves you money.”
Group 4: “Because your neighbors do it.”
Guess which group reduced their power consumption the most?
That’s right – Group 4. The most powerful motivation was to not be worse than one’s neighbors.
If you want people to take a certain action – just let them know that everyone else is doing it. 11
3. Completion status – “How much left to go?”
Whenever we are striving towards a goal, we want to know how much we have left to go. How many more steps must I take? How much longer must I wait?
One of Uber’s most atomic features is the Car Map – showing you exactly where your car is. In the old days of taxis, not knowing when your car would arrive was a huge point of anxiety. The Uber Map, giving you second-by-second status on your car, relieves that anxiety.
If you need people to achieve a more difficult goal, I know of no better book than The 4 Disciplines of Execution. In it, the authors argue that you should first establish a single Wildly Important Goal (WIG), and then create a visual scoreboard that shows three things:
What your WIG is
Where you are right now
Where you should be right now
If your users or employees see such a scoreboard every day they open your app or arrive at your office – it’s nearly impossible for them not to achieve the Wildly Important Goal.
Nothing motivates as the feeling you are lagging behind on a goal that matters.
If you do use status bars – never start your users on square zero.
A local car wash gave their customers loyalty stamp cards to encourage repeat business. Every time a customer bought a car wash, they got a stamp. And when the card was full, they got a free car wash.
However, the car wash issued two different kinds of cards:
The first card had 8 stamps, but customers started with 0 stamps.
The second card had 10 stamps, but customers started with 2 stamps already filled.
In both cases, you still need 8 stamps to fill up the card.
But with the second card, you are already 20% on your way to fulfilling the goal.
A few months later, only 19% of the customers with 0/8 stamps had filled their card, versus 34% of the group with 2/10 stamps.
The second card gave users a head-start. It gave them momentum.
And it’s much easier to sustain momentum than starting from scratch. 12
We humans have an insatiable thirst to know our status because we 1) despise uncertainty and 2) crave a sense of progress. Knowing our status helps us with both.
I’ve found that the best status features all fulfill 3 criteria. They are:
Specific – specific numbers are better than ranges, and one important number is better than two half-important ones.
Meaningful – will your users care if the number increases or decreases?
Real-time – the more frequently the number gets updated, the more often users will check in with your product to see their progress.
If your product can give users such status information – you may just create something that they later can’t imagine being without.
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