Lessons in Building Digital Identity Products from a 4x Founder

I’ve been building Identity Products for more than a decade now and I’ve learned that a unique set of challenges pertains to this industry.

June 5, 2018
Image of Spencer Fry
Spencer Fry
Founder & CEO, Podia
Lessons in Building Digital Identity Products from a 4x Founder

Some products live behind the scenes. They power the essential and unspoken functions that we do every day like reading and responding to email, or tracking our to-do lists, for example. But with behind-the-scenes products, the world doesn’t know or really care which product it is as long as the task gets done.

Other products, meanwhile, live front and center. They showcase our online selves, our personal brands—our digital identities.

Website builders, portfolio sites, online storefronts, social media platforms, meeting scheduling software, video chat apps and countless other examples are products people use to showcase themselves and their selves. I call these types of products that live on the outside, “Identity Products.”

And deliberately or not, we all judge others based on the Identity Products they use.

  • WordPress or Squarespace?
  • YouTube or Vimeo?
  • Carbonmade or Behance?
  • Shopify or Etsy?
  • MySpace or Facebook?
  • Kickstarter or Indiegogo?
  • Coursera or Udacity?

The choice says a lot about you: These choices become signals about users’ goals, priorities and beliefs. The entire world can see which product you chose to showcase your online identity…and users think carefully about what that choice says about them.

Whether they like it or not, a knitter who chooses to sell on Etsy tells the world that they want to be a part of this marketplace of like-minded crafters, while another knitter who chooses Shopify is signaling that their personal brand is one of an entrepreneur making a go at building something on their own.

On the flipside, a user is not going to be judged by the world for the RSS reader they choose.

I’ve been building Identity Products for more than a decade now. In 2005 I launched Carbonmade, the internet’s first online portfolio, and in 2014 I co-founded Podia, the Internet’s first digital storefront for selling online courses, memberships and downloads.

And I’ve learned that few things are more important to users than how they choose to show themselves to the world.

This creates some unique challenges for those of us building Identity Products, and today I want to share some lessons I’ve learned tackling those challenges.

Customer feedback for Digital Identity Products is a completely different beast

Successful product development is, at its core, an exercise in translation. Customers speak in the language of wants, needs and problems. The ability to effectively translate those wants, needs and problems into usable features is what separates products that get used from ones that get ignored.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Identity Products.

For most other types of products, you’ll get feedback on ease-of-use and specific feature choices — and we get those too — but Identity Products also get a completely different flavor of feedback:

  • How do I look?
  • How do I make this mine?
  • How do I accurately represent my “brand”?
  • What does using Podia say about me?

These are questions you might not expect. Most products won’t ever have to worry about them.

Never are customers more opinionated than when they’re discussing their personal brand, their identity. This means you can talk to 10 users and get 10 different answers about what they want and what’s best for them. You walk away with a lot of data points but few useful trends. That’s why asking the right questions is critical.

Getting feedback about your features doesn’t matter, but getting to know your customer does

Unlike with most other product types, Identity Product builders shouldn’t spend their time getting feedback about features.

A website, an online portfolio and a storefront will all follow a similar path of required functionality. You’ll innovate along that path, but every online course platform will need to offer a way to create and sell courses. Every CMS needs a way to get in touch. Every photo sharing app needs a way to upload and share photos.

Identity Product builders shouldn’t spend their time getting feedback about features

Besides, you’ll get feature feedback whether you ask for it or not.

But when it comes to asking for feedback, the only thing that matters is your customer and how they think about these three questions:

  1. “Why now?” — Why are your customers looking for your product…today? Something has happened in your customer’s life or business that’s extremely meaningful that has caused them to seek you out. You need to find out what it is.
  2. “What do you want to get out of it?” — Everyone has different goals.
  3. “What do you want it to say about you?” — What does your customer want to portray to the world with their product choice?

When I talk to customers, I focus almost exclusively on finding the answers to these three questions.

“Why now?”

By knowing “why now?” you can understand the trigger that’s gotten them to this point. By asking this question, we learn:

  1. What they were doing before they found us
  2. If they’ve used other products
  3. How committed they are to achieving the goal your product can help them achieve

“What do you want to get out of it?”

By knowing what results they want, we can tailor our product to get them there as fast as possible. We learn:

  1. What specific results they’re looking to get out of the product
  2. If the product is a good fit for them (i.e., can our product even do what they’re looking for? And if not…should it?)
  3. How we can build the product to help them achieve their results faster

“What do you want it to say about you?”

This is the trickiest question to translate into actionable insights…but it’s also the one that can have the biggest impact on people choosing your product over others.

What people say here isn’t always what they’d actually want. Take the desire for “full customization” as an example.

Most Identity Products need some form of customization to help their customers feel ownership of their brand. The key is to find the minimal amount of customization to evoke that emotion of “I’ve made this mine” and to go no further. But customers are not product developers, and if you ask them what it means to make your product theirs, they’ll tell you that they want the ability to slice and dice and change everything.

What I’ve found, however, is that there is a massive gap between what customers think they need to feel unique and in control of their identity and what they actually need to achieve that feeling.

So rather than ask them what they’d like to customize, I ask “what do you want your storefront to say about you?”

By finding out the answer to this question, I learn:

  1. Do customizations actually matter to this person? If so, why?
  2. What is non-negotiable in terms of being customizable?
  3. What’s the identity of the people our product is catering to?

From there, we can plot the shortest path to building a product that accurately displays what our customers want it to say about them.

Protecting your customers from themselves

Just as most customers are not product developers, most customers are not product designers either. Knowing this, designing your product to protect your customers from themselves when it comes to making a good impression is a serious challenge.

Just as most customers are not product developers, most customers are not product designers either

Whenever you build a customization option, you need to worry about the potential fallout. You need to be conscious about building tools that might make it too easy for your customers to make themselves look bad: allowing poor design, bad images, clunky layouts, descriptions that are too long, options that toggle elements on/off and so on.

This means that some customers will never be satisfied with your “lack of options” and it’s up to you to decide which direction you want to take the product and the target audince.

Personally, I’ve always chosen to protect the 95% of customers happy with our design choices rather than give the remaining 5% every option possible.

Come up with a clear set of guidelines as to what your product will and won’t do for people and stick to that. Otherwise, you’ll agonize over every piece of feedback you get.

It’s a numbers game

While some product developers can get away with talking to customers only every so often, as an Identity Product builder you’ll need to make it a point to do user research every single day, multiple times a day, for the life of your product.

Since you’re less concerned about features and more concerned about the “why,” the results and the identity of your customers, you’re going to need to talk to a lot — and I mean a lot — of customers to find patterns.

In 2017, I did online chats with over 4,000 customers and prospects of Podia. I also had more than 350 video meetings and a handful of phone calls.

A survey or the occasional email will not get you there.

Gaining the trust of your customers is a humbling and incredibly rewarding experience. When someone’s personal brand is in your hands, you realize how important trust is.

It’s a hard trust to earn, but you can do it if you:

  • Understand how important online identity is to people.
  • Ask the right questions to get valuable feedback.
  • Build and design a product that protects your customers from themselves.

…and talk to your customers more than anyone else.

About the Author
Image of Spencer Fry
Spencer Fry
Founder & CEO, Podia
Spencer has been building SaaS startup for 15 years. He specializes in building consumer products and understanding people. As ad revenue started to dry up for individual content creators, he founded Podia in 2014 to help creators earn a living online through selling online courses, memberships, and downloads on their own digital storefront.