Exploratory Products vs. Utility Products

Over this last year, the topic of exploratory products versus utility products has come up so many times. And I’ve always felt uncomfortable with products that engage users because it helps them “discover” or “explore” something.

“Discovery” and “exploration” are always so alluring terms. Throughout human history, we’ve always envied the explorer. Christopher Columbus set out to discover the New World. Lewis and Clark went looking for a way to the Pacific Ocean. Neil Armstrong sets his foot on Lunar soil and declares, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Even watching Star Trek with the Enterprise on their 5 year mission to explore new worlds, we can’t help but wish we were on the Enterprise alongside Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. It sounds so wonderful, so romantic, and speaks to our ingrained cultural tendencies that achieving, discovering, and exploring makes us feel that blazing new territory like pioneers puts us out of the comfort zone and sets our senses afire, and takes us out of our normal, boring lives.

First, I think that there is a segment of the population with a natural “gene” for exploration. I personally know people whose first inclination every morning right when they get up is to go to click randomly on news articles or websites, like StumbleUpon or Digg, or Del.icio.us. They always do this before doing anything else.

Second, I think there are differences in the manifestation of the “exploration gene” based on age. Young people seem to engage in more exploratory behavior. But once young people grow older, they get more responsibilities, their time gets occupied by a whole bunch of things, their lives get so full that there is little or no time for exploration unless you have a natural “gene” for exploration.

To me, exploration is either an activity relegated to a small population relative to the whole, or one that does not sustain itself as a person ages. Given this belief, I think there is a tremendous amount of risk associated with products that depend on “exploration” and “discovery” as the main reasons why users would want to and/or continue using a product.

What’s the difference between an exploratory product and a utility product?

Utility products are those which depend less on exploration and discovery as primary tenets. Instead, utility products work their way into our lives because they are essential and we gain continual value from our usage and interaction with the product.

Here’s an example. News sites like NYTimes.com are utility sites. We consume news every day and find value from that by being informed. But they also introduce exploration to keep things interesting with their Most Emailed Stories module. But it’s not the focus of the site; it’s secondary.

Another example: StumbleUpon. I consider StumbleUpon a classic exploration site. You go there because you don’t know what you’ll find. You have to like discovering new websites and are ok with spending your valuable time doing so. But yet traffic over the last year has been dropping.

Here are the Alexa graphs for NYTimes and StumbleUpon:

Do you want your product’s graph to look like NYTimes.com or StumbleUpon?

My basic tenet is:

If you want a chance at success, you must make your product essential from a utilitarian point of view. You can use exploration to make your product more interesting, but if you make exploration your main purpose, you’ll reach a topping out point of users and potentially decline over time.

Is it a perfect rule? No, of course not. I am sure if we thought hard enough, we could think of some sites who are successful at employing exploration as their main purpose. However, I’m talking about risk reduction of failure and increasing the probability of success dramatically in my opinion. Wouldn’t you want to reduce the risk of failure by a great amount?