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.

Confronting entrepreneurial fears

Being an entrepreneur is all about fear: fear of failing, fear of missing out, fear of making the wrong decision, and even fear of success. The difference between succeeding and failing is how you choose to confront your fears.

The day you quit your job is going to be scary. The day you make your first cold call is going to be scary. The day you pick a price is going to be scary. The day you have to fire someone is going to be scary.

The secret is: It’s okay to be scared. You just have to be more scared of missing an opportunity than you are of actually failing at it. How do you think Obama felt before giving this speech in 2004? I’m sure he was terrified but how could he have passed up the opportunity to speak to the entire nation?

You have to embrace the fear. You have to try. And eventually, just trying matters. And suddenly you’re not afraid anymore.

You can be an expert at anything

I like to think about learning new skills as a pursuit of happiness. Some skills are easy to learn and can provide a lot of joy, like playing ping pong.  Others seem impossible to learn but if only you could learn them then you’d be happy, like being a successful entrepreneur.
Here’s how I’d graph out the fun generated by playing ping pong over time:

For the most part it’s a linear progression. It’s easy to make improvements when you first start playing. You learn to keep the ball on the table more often, you learn hit the ball with spin, the ball actually starts going where you want it to.

Every one of those moments is a rush. A rush that brings you back to the table. A rush that keeps the fun going. A rush that makes you want to practice. Over time the rushes come from more advanced shots.The cycle continues as more practice begets more fun, and now you’re a great ping pong player.

Great! But why are some skills so much harder to learn? Well, let’s go to the graph:

Learning to play the piano is hard. Most people never get past the valley of despair. That’s because to truly have fun playing the piano you want to be able to improvise, make up your own songs, pick up a tune by ear, and entertain yourself with your creativity. Just imagine how much fun it would be to create great music at any moment.

Here’s the secret: You can change the graph of happiness to skill learning if you can measure improvement in smaller increments, deriving joy from each achievement along the way.

You need to make the graph of learning those difficult skills look like this:

You have to measure smaller elements of skill learning that will generate joy for you, so that you can forge right through the valley of despair.

Instead of starting off trying to write a bestseller, start measuring how many daily visitors you can get to a blog. Can you get five people to read your next blog post? As traffic begins to grow, move onto weekly and monthly visitors. Instead of going into a startup thinking you’re going to sell the business for $50MM, measure how many new people you tell about the company in a month. Then move on to measuring the number of leads you get. Evolve the measurement so that you have attainable goals that bring you joy, but so that you’re also marching forward.

Life is nothing but skills waiting to be mastered. You just need to pick the ones you want to master and start finding ways to get joy out of the journey.

What new skills are you trying to master? What do you want to be the best at?