Recognizing the tradeoff between a tangible benefit and an intangible cost
One of the hardest trade-offs we make as product managers — and as humans — is between a tangible benefit and an intangible cost (or vice versa).
When we’re building a feature, it’s easy to see the benefits of shipping it. People can now do something they’ve never done before with our feature, and our dashboards show us how many people adopt it and are benefiting from it daily.
What our dashboards and research rarely tell us, though, is the incremental cost of every new feature to the user experience.
For every feature we build, I try to think not only about how it feels for the people who use it, but also how it feels for the people who don’t. Does it add more cognitive load? Could they stumble upon the feature and be confused? Will they see the feature every day and never use it, and over time, start to feel like the whole app is “not meant for them”?
I also try to think about the cost of any change, even for the users who benefit directly from it. When I rearrange the furniture in my house, even if the new setup is better, there are a few weeks of adjustment where I stumble into chairs in the middle of the night and bruise my shins.
These tangible vs. intangible tradeoffs pepper our product decisions and our lives. For instance:
How should we trade off the intangible cognitive cost of a user seeing one more item on a menu vs. the tangible benefit of giving users a brand new option?
How should I weigh the intangible cost of subscribing to every interesting newsletter on the internet (and the resulting exhaustion I feel whenever I look at my email) vs. the tangible benefit of accessing the latest tech knowledge? (I recognize the irony here :) )
How should I weigh the tangible costs of a commute to the office vs. the intangible benefit of spending time in person with my colleagues?
Of course, there’s never a single answer to these questions. By their very nature, there is never an apples-to-apples comparison between tangible and intangible. And fundamentally, our job as product managers is to ship additive products for people.
So weighing these tradeoffs helps me think about the least disruptive way to ship new products. How can we make sure that the people who see a product are those who are more likely to use it? How can we smooth out changes so people don’t “bump their shins” as we change things?
Navigating this tradeoff helps us define what we should build, and is one of the most important judgments we need to make as product builders. What do the people who use any given product need, and what will best serve them?