Pocket's new tab recommendations: A question in core

Imagine you created a tool to help people save time. Along the way you go ahead and add some form of gamification and a social layer to allow people to challenge their friends in productivity. Engagement is through the roof! As you pull out the analytics to decide what move comes next, you realise that people are on average checking your app every 30 minutes to see where they stand in the challenge with your friends. And you know how much of an impact continued context change can have on productivity. You realise your app isn't actually helping people be more productive. It's breaking their productivity. Suddenly you are faced with a difficult set of choices. Do you remove the social layer and gamification to help people be more productive? Do you add some kind of blocker to stop them from checking in so often? Do you penalise them for checking in? Whichever way you go, you are going to need to do something that will kill the engagement you are seeing. Or you could decide to ignore this and move along, thrilled by the numbers.

I recently ran into a feature of the popular product Pocket that felt like it belonged in the category the scenario above falls into. Here's what happened:

I've been a long time Firefox user. Due to their breaking changes for plugins though I've temporarily moved over to Chrome. In the time since I last used Chrome, Pocket has added a new feature to their extension that lets you see "Recommendations" or "Trending stories" on opening a new tab. It's basically three stories under the Google search bar and it looks like this

You can click on these stories or save them to Pocket.

I disabled this feature today. When I did, Pocket asked if I'd like to fill out a survey and since I genuinely like Pocket's product I went ahead and filled it up. Given below are the questions asked and answers I gave:

1. Why did you hide the Pocket Recommended Stories?

It's distracting to me. The content is useful but at the end of the day, as someone who works on the web, when I switch on my browser, seeing that content switches my context for a moment. As someone who has some form of, even mild, attention disorder issues, seeing that content can be pretty harmful to my productivity. Don't get me wrong. I like pocket (even though I'm an instapaper user but that's just because I adopted and paid for Instapaper from the early days). Pocket is actually supposed to be good for productivity. It embraces the idea of read later. Which is why I also find the fact that pocket being the first thing I see when I open the browser is pretty ironic. It's like "here. read now!".

All that to say, my productivity comes first. You've made an amazing product but your recommended stories doesn't feel like it belongs on the first list of things I see when I open the browser.

2. Is there anything we can do to make Pocket's new tab experience useful for you?

Like I said above. It feels like it's against what Pocket is supposed to do. I get that saving is a one click option on the viewing bar. But at the end of the day it takes up some of my attention on what I want to do now. Basically, I open up a tab thinking "I want to search google for x now". And pocket which is supposed to be about "When you find something you want to view later, put it in Pocket.", jumps up and says, "hey do you want to look at something now? You know so you can think of reading it later?"

But if I could think of anything at all to improve it, I'd probably make it so that you can't actually visit the link. You can look at the title and when you hove over it, it'd give an overlay that says "Save to pocket". That at least is a first step in the right direction :).

I felt like these two answers combined make for a more interesting question.

When building a company and/or a product, what does it mean to design to your core?

Pocket's core purpose as per the copy on their website is: When you find something you want to view later, put it in Pocket. What I see on Chrome is "Recommended reads". For me this feels like a call to my attention. Someone asking me to think about the articles. And it comes up in the middle of me wanting to do something completely different. And this feels like it runs against the core message of what Pocket is supposed to be about.

It might be easy to dismiss this as overthinking but finding the right balance between engagement and staying true to the experience you want to deliver is hard!! It's one of those things that we need to agonize over. Sometimes the answer means walking away from a feature if the feature ends up taking away from the core mission you set out to complete. That takes a lot of courage.

Going back to the problem at the beginning of this post. What would you do? The answer is never straight forward. Staying true to your core never is.

Posted on January 24 2017 by Adnan Issadeen