When Complexity Breeds Community

How communities enable complex products to engage new users

Two weeks ago, after watching an hour-long conversation between Kevin Rose and the founder Conor, I finally buckled and signed up for Roam.

The onboarding experience broke every rule. I signed up, had no idea what to do next, and spent the next two days on YouTube searching through tutorials learning how to get the most out of the product.

In product design, your goal is to reduce time-to-value for users. The UX should be clear and simple:

But for the new wave of horizontal software tools like Notion, Airtable and Roam, the magic is in their flexibility. By providing the “no-code” building blocks, these startups enable consumers to create their own personalised experience.

This creates a "complexity gap".

In the early days, before the team can set up templates and best practice guides, there’s a cold start problem — when someone signs up, it can be hard to understand how the product works, so it's easy to lose customers in that first mile.

But rather than dying, these products thrived.

Their early adopters overcame the barriers to adoption and adored the end result. They shared their new workflows with the world and wanted to learn how others used the product.

Leading to emergent communities of fans who congregate online and in-person to compare notes.

This Roam YouTube tutorial was published 6 days ago and already has 193k views. It’s one of dozens of videos produced in the last few months:

And Notion’s Community page shares IRL meetups in cities all over the world:

These communities provide the perfect entry point for new sign-ups, bridging the complexity gap by providing hints and tips on how to get to your aha moment quickly.

In fact, if these teams had onboarding templates and tool-tips at the start, they wouldn’t have achieved the viral growth and depth of UGC because, for the early users, that complexity turns the onboarding into a game.

You need to invest time and effort to understand how the game works and unlock new levels.

You search for tips and tricks online, trying to find cheat codes.

Those who reach boss mode are proud of their accomplishments and want to share their findings with the next cohort of users, earning social status in the process.

This makes it incrementally easier for each new cohort of users to level up, and by the time mainstream users arrive, who don’t have the patience for complexity and need a slick onboarding experience, the team has had time to create collateral for a wide range of use-cases.

And this isn't just the case for software — Deciem is a beauty brand that embraces complexity. Before their flagship brand, The Ordinary launched, brands like La Mer and SK-II charged hundreds of dollars for their products, paying celebrities like Cate Blanchett millions to endorse their lines.

The Ordinary sells the same active ingredients as the luxury brands, but with none of the marketing, sticking with simple packaging and product names like “Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5”. They expose the inflated margins of their competitors by selling these ingredients at <$20.

Early adopters in the beauty world quickly caught on, and now there are Facebook groups with 150k followers dedicated to helping new consumers understand what they should buy when everything looks like this:

So if you're building a necessarily complex product, you can bridge the time-to-value problem in the early days by leaning into your deeply engaged early adopters and helping them form a community, allowing your users to do the onboarding experience you don’t yet have the resources to create yourself.

Clearly complexity isn't enough. It needs to come alongside a product that’s miles ahead of competitors.

But if you’re able to harness the enthusiasm of your earliest adopters and foster a self-organising community to help spread the word and upskill new users, those fans will help you work out what features to build, what templates to set up for new users and become your engine for continued growth.

Data Visualisations

On the topic of tools for thought, data visualisation is a wonderful way to express complex topics simply.

This week I discovered this beauty demonstrating the impact of increased hygiene, physical distancing and contact tracing on the impact of COVID-19. Readers can play with the inputs and see the results:

Some folks at Stripe built something similar at ModelingCovid.com

They reminded me of a brilliant article by Kevin Simler last year explaining diffusion through networks. It introduces many of the epidemiological concepts we now know, like “herd immunity”, but goes further in describing why some ideas are confined to cities and never spread to rural towns, and how certain scientific discoveries are lost in research papers, while others become widely celebrated.

Nicky Case uses cute triangles and squares to describe how bias and diversity interact in our communities, and alternative balloting systems:

To learn probability and statistics, start here:

And to understand machine learning better, you’ll find everything you need here:

Articles that prompt you to read biographies

Lee Kuan Yew Reflects

I’ve been meaning to read a biography of Lee Kuan Yew for a while, this article reminded me to bump it to the top of my list:

On how America stays dominant:

You must have contention, a clash of ideas. If Galileo had not challenged the Pope, we would still believe the world is flat, right? And Christopher Columbus might never have discovered America.”

On why Singapore does not emulate America:

We also have a different culture, a different way of doing things. The individual is not the building block. It's the family, the extended family, the clan and the state. The five crucial relationships are: you and the prince or the ruler, you and your wife, you and your children, you and your parents, you and your friends. If those relationships are right, everything will work out well in society.

The Man Who Thought Too Fast

Frank Ramsey—a philosopher, economist, and mathematician—was one of the greatest minds of the last century but died too young and is just now gaining the recognition he deserves.

Let’s Connect

The best thing about an email newsletter vs a blog is the ease of starting a conversation with a reader. I’ve loved hearing everyone’s ideas so far, so please hit reply and start a conversation.