Please prescribe a best path for your product

Please tell me: What is the best way to use your product?

This seems like a simple question, yet there are so many great companies and well-respected entrepreneurs that absolutely fail to make it clear what the best path through their product is. These products continue to thrive because of strong brands, ad budgets, and momentum. But there is so much lost opportunity: the opportunity to create sticky customers, create new markets, and get anyone to pay attention.

How do you fix this problem? Establish a best path.

What’s a best path?
A best path is the way of using the product that is going to provide the maximum amount of value, least amount of stress, and most upside from investment (whether that investment is in dollars or time). It’s the way you’d use your own product if you were trying to solve the most fundamental problem that your product solves.

Why is this even an issue?
A best path is necessary for any product in an industry where there are different approaches to solving the same problem. This flexibility is an upside when taking on customers who already have an established way they want to solve a problem, but it’s a downside for those who don’t know how they want to solve a problem.

Here’s the secret: The reason most people use products is not to do exactly what they were doing before, it’s to take a current process and make it better, more efficient, or more fun. They’re looking for a new way of doing things. Enter the best path.

How do you establish a best path?
There are three basic ways to establish best paths through a product.

Wizards - The vintage approach
This is the most classic example. Long ago in the dawn of Duke Nukem, it became clear that simplifying options when possible would result in less errors and more value. Advanced options were always available, but your new user could easily progress through a wizard without screwing anything up.

Checklists (or gamification) - The vogue approach
LinkedIn popularized this simple and effective approach. Let people do whatever they want, but make it obvious what a successful use of a product looks like. The LinkedIn profile completion percentage provides the expectation that reaching 100 percent maximizes your chance of getting value out of LinkedIn. In their case, they let you do things in any order you like but you always know what the best path looks like.
Design - The hidden approach
Incorporating best paths into the design of a product is the most effective and powerful approach. By putting effort into the structure of your product you can force a best path by default. The iPhone is the most elegant example of a best path being built directly into the design of a product. Almost every single task on the iPhone encourages a best path first and advanced options second.

The best path as competitive advantage
Providing a best path is about taking away guesswork. It’s about encouraging your users to use your product in a particular way so they automatically reap more benefits from their time. Do that, and you and your users will be all set.

Please incorporate a best path into your product, so we can both solve our problems and I can give you some money or time.