How product design is similar to telling a joke

Designing and shipping a good product is just as hard as telling a knockout joke, and telling a knockout joke is really, really hard.

After writing and performing comedy, very casually, for the last five years, I’ve started to see some of the same key components of success.

There are very few good jokes

To come up with a good premise for a joke, you have to come up with 100 bad ones. Recognizing that not everything you produce is good is crucial for success. After you find your nugget of gold, you have to whittle it down to the actual value – the funny bits – cutting, refining, and tweaking as you go. A product is not perfect the first time you think of it. Iteration is integral to achieving and maintaining success. If I published the first draft of this blog post, you probably wouldn’t be reading it anymore at this point, and you may very well be done with the Intercom blog entirely. So good thing I didn’t :)

Delivery is as important as content

There is a big difference between being a good comedy writer and a good comedy performer. Two people can tell the exact same joke and get wildly different responses. For example, I find everything Louis CK says funny, but if you imagine someone else saying it (eg Katy Perry) it could fall completely flat. When you present your product, you need to think about the story you’re going to tell. If you don’t properly express what it is and why it’s great, you could lose your audience.

Think about Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo, an absolute disaster. Women love to use natural ingredients in their health and beauty regimens. Unfortunately, Clairol failed to mention the benefits of having yogurt lathered into your hair — like the numerous vitamins and minerals that exist in yogurt, the strength milk protein could give your hair etc — and instead left consumers with the image of cultured dairy on their head. In contrast, Sephora successfully launched a whole line of a greek yogurt products, noting in their product description that “Greek yogurt is an ancient healing remedy that goes back hundreds of years. In Greece, yogurt is known for its ability to instantly soothe the skin by delivering increased moisture.

Timing matters. A lot

Timing goes hand in hand with delivery. Whether it’s your punchline, your product idea, or your launch, the timing matters. Imagine telling the punchline of a joke before giving it any context. People certainly wouldn’t laugh. It’s argued that all these nine failed products, including Nintendo’s Virtual Boy 3D gaming system launched in 1995, bombed because they were ahead of their time, presented too early. That’s interesting in the wake of Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift.

In contrast, iTunes arrived at the exact right time as Napster had just been shut down and the music industry had just woken up. Secret and SnapChat, both take advantage of the reigning online paradigm of “everything public and named, for all time ever”, by offering anonymous and ephemeral messaging tools. These would have been thought pointless even a few years ago.

Late to the game can be fatal also. I’m not proud to admit I once owned an orange and white Zune, Microsoft’s competing product to Apple’s iPod. Coming late to the party the bar was much higher, meaning Microsoft had to convert people from Apple’s ecosystem, which ultimately they weren’t able to do.

Know your audience

I wouldn’t tell a joke about Monster Energy drinks to a room full of 10 year old kids. They have enough energy and are already monsters. It’s a waste of time pitching your product to the wrong people, ie the people who can’t buy it, can’t afford it, or haven’t had that problem yet.

If you’re selling enterprise software, it’s a waste of time trying to pitch your product to fledgling startups. It may sound obvious but it’s important to know what type of customer you’re selling to. Even established companies forget this sometimes.

Take for example, Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water, Coors venture into the bottled water game. Anyone who knows anything about beer knows that the quality of the water is important to the quality of the beer, and I bet their water was pretty good water (although I’m not saying Coors is good beer). However, Coors should have known their target consumer wasn’t interested in any bottled water that didn’t also have grains, barley malt and some yeast in it. In contrast, I think Venmo, an app to make and share payments easily between friends, understand their audience quite well. They target their social payment app to millennials who are obsessed with sharing everything socially.

Be careful with your reputation

If you tell a really bad joke, especially at the beginning of a set, people will tune out and remember you as “not funny”, and you’ll spend the rest of your career trying to prove them wrong, which is a lot harder than simply convincing them you’re funny in the first place. Similarly, if you release a really bad or buggy feature, especially early in your product’s life, people will remember you as “doesn’t work”.

The other side of reputation is that names/brands are important, but they are not the shortcut to success, even though it may seem that way for Apple. Take, for example, when Cosmopolitan magazine, one of the most successful women’s magazines of all time, tried to launch their own yogurt, Cosmopolitan Yogurt. Just because people love the magazine does not mean everything they create will be successful. People certainly weren’t comfortable with their sex tips and their yogurt coming from the same place. The difference between Apple’s success and Comso’s lackthereof is that Apple constantly delivers and lives up to their reputation.

Context is everything

When people find out I do standup, they often ask me to tell them a joke. It’s hard to explain that the joke will not be funny if I tell it one-to-one, and that being on the stage with the microphone actually matters. In the same vein, if you’re trying to sell someone a t-shirt and you just hand it to them, they might not be interested. But, if you put the shirt on a mannequin with a nice pair of pants, shoes, and jacket, it gives the t-shirt context, presents the person with a possible use case, and the same person might all of a sudden be interested in that same garment.

As you can see, yogurt certainly has had a roller coaster past, but it’s currently in its prime (I think maybe for both jokes and products). But, people trying to capitalize on the trend need to nail every area of their design. Misses in any one aspect can completely disregard the rest of the great things about a product design or a hilarious joke, and nobody wants a flop in either.