The strange joy of getting not quite what you wanted

Recently, a friend was in town with his new girlfriend and she was particularly interested in locally-sourced, organic, vegan food.  Since I care about none of those three things, I didn’t readily know of any options and so hopped on Yelp to guide me.

Alas, the best option near us didn’t take reservations and so when we got there, it would have been an hour wait.  Across the street was some sort of vegan cafe, so rather than sit around in the heat for an hour, we just crossed and went with it, even though we knew nothing about it.  And it was great food, perfect for the group we were with, and an all around happy accident.

A great deal has been written lately about how all the filtering and guidance may make it such that we end up with products that are mostly designed to replicate a combination of our previous experiences and our expressed wants.  The implication for news, for example, is that the NYT website surfaces stories it thinks we will like, exposing us to a worldview that is increasingly monotone.

I get it.  The tyranny of choice has made decisions rather difficult and regretful, so we’ve created products that remove that issue.  And that isn’t an all bad thing.  But I’m starting to think that the shift we actually need is moving from endpoint to opportunity.

What I mean by that is that data models (and therefore products) tend to treat experiences as a commodity.  Just like in The Sims, you are feeling hungry, the model analyzes your hunger and comes up with a remedy, and then gives you that remedy with the full expectation that you will then be not hungry.  It doesn’t think of going to a restaurant as an opportunity for a larger experience (additive) but rather as a solution to a problem, an elimination of a deficit.

Lest that sound entirely philosophical, let me try to put that into a product design.  Most of the work being done right now on these types of engines is around products and services. You want to go to a movie?  We will pick the right movie for you and buy you some nice tickets.  Yum yum, tasty lead gen.

But imagine moving farther back up the funnel to the need behind the need.  What if the true guidance wasn’t “here’s a movie” but rather understanding that you have Friday night free, looking around and saying, “Hey, you haven’t seen Joe in awhile and he also has Friday night free, why don’t you guys go get a beer at this place?”  You still get the lead-gen, but it isn’t about satisfying a deficit.  Instead, you create an opportunity.  Rather than waiting to scratch an itch that you can consciously articulate, products can start with a base understanding of what is good for people, monitoring how much of it they have, and then introducing more.

Aerosmith screams “life’s a journey, not a destination.”  So why do all products seem to assume the opposite?  (And yes, that is a clumsy ending, but come on, can you blame me for wanting to work in Steven Tyler?)