Jonas Downey

February 23, 2021

How money dictates design decisions

Since we launched HEY, I've been thinking a lot about how products get started.

As a designer, there's one important choice you have to make at the beginning of a project, which sets the stage for every other decision you'll ever make…

💰💰💰
How you'll make money.
💰💰💰

That's it. That's the only thing that matters. Your entire future, and every single one of your design choices, will be forever defined by this one decision.

Let's say you're making a new email service. You could charge your users directly, and build a business from that revenue. Since your users are your customers, everything you design is for them—you have to convince them this product is worth paying for, so you'll focus on solving their problems and improving their lives. (This is what we did for HEY.)

Or, you might decide to make an email service like Gmail: free for everyone to use, but backed by ad revenue. In this case, your users are merely a trojan horse for making money. You need them to use the product constantly, in order for the advertising and growth numbers to pay back.

These two approaches completely change how you tackle the same design problems.

The first approach is about empowering people.
The second approach is about capturing people.

In HEY, we tackled one of the worst problems with email: everyone gets way too damn much of it! So we created The Screener. You decide who's allowed to email you, so your email volume is dramatically reduced by design. You end up checking your email less often than you did before.

But in Gmail, Google's financial incentives are all about MORE email. Because…

More email =
More clicks =
More views =
More time spent =
More ad revenue. 💸

So, although Gmail could add a Screener feature (and maybe they eventually will due to social pressures), it would be in direct opposition to their business incentives.

This is also how you get a whole cottage industry of email marketers tracking your interactions. When the most popular email platforms are already tracking you themselves, what's a little more tracking on top of that? It's tracking all the way down. Everyone gets a slice of the sweet sweet data pie.

This may all seem dead obvious by now, but to reiterate: the only products that have your back are the ones you pay for.

If you're currently using a service that either...

  1. Doesn't have a business model yet, or
  2. Has an ad-based business model

...your attention and data are being abused in some way.

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Think we've all already learned that lesson, after more than a decade of destruction by the likes of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter?

We absolutely have not! Right now, the new darling of social media, Clubhouse, is financially backed by the same old venture capital gang at Andreessen Horowitz. It's experiencing fast growth, and it currently has no declared business model at all. (Though there's some chatter about some sort of Patreon-style payment system.)

Also not too surprisingly, Clubhouse is already doing problematic things with your contacts and data. Sound familiar?

Any company that "doesn't have a business model yet" actually has a business model—they just haven't said it out loud. They're gambling that they can give away a service for free, grow it to absurd usage numbers, and then turn on the money faucet later, through ads, acquisitions, or some other approach.

It's the same story every time. Facebook did this. Twitter did it. Medium did it. And we all keep falling for it.

As a designer, ignoring that early decision about making money leads you to make harmful product choices, like casually abusing everyone's contact data. Because you don't have to think too much about protecting your customers. You prioritize growth first.

As the famous Sinclair quote goes, it's difficult to get a person to understand something, when their salary depends on not understanding it.

If you want to know the underlying truth about a product, just look at how it's funded. That's all you need to know.