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Can Your Startup Succeed Like Pinterest? Only If You Understand People

I’ve been talking with startups in Austin (and a few who made the trip here for SxSW) about how they incorporate the customer into their business. The conversation usually begins at a high-level, where I learn they have someone covering customer support. Then they mention they’re monitoring social media and eventually they realize they think about the customer in their UX design. This is good. It’s the baseline any company – startup or mature – should bake into their operations. But is it enough to differentiate a startup from the competition?

In an interview at SxSWi, Pinterest’s Ben Silbermann explained how his startup is organized:

Pinterest’s small team of 20 people is not driven by engineering. The company is split into three divisions: Engineering, design and social — with “social” a combination of quantitative people and community people, who try to understand how and why people use Pinterest, how social groups form and how social norms propagate (emphasis added).

I added that emphasis for a reason. Pinterest doesn’t just want to build apps for customers…it wants to create experiences with them. You can’t do that by sitting in a cube imagining how a customer might use your product. You have to get out of the workspace and observe all the different ways your product is being used in the wild. You need to understand how people are interacting with it in relationship to their everyday world. Take a page from the Pinterest playbook and figure out deeper questions such as:

Why are people really using your product?
Are new social groups forming around your product?
Are unique social norms developing around these new groups?
How can these groups help your business grow…or destroy you if treated poorly?

To be honest, I have no idea if Pinterest is employing fellow anthropologists or social scientists. Based on the mission of their social division, it sure looks like it. But what about your startup? What do you know beyond the usual customer stuff? Do you know why and how your product is being used? If not, we should really have a chat soon…before your competition realizes this is their pathway to true business advantage.

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