How five of the world’s favourite product features evolved (and what we can learn from them)

From the humble hashtag to Facebook’s Reaction emojis, it’s all too easy to take the things we use every day for granted.  

We forget that the digital products we know and love looked quite different when they first launched.

Mashable recently illustrated this brilliantly by using the Wayback Machine to grab screenshots of the (seriously dodgy) original homepage designs of the world’s most used websites.

These images just go to prove that every product naturally adapts and changes over time.

New product features often come from demands of users, but they are also driven by smart decisions of product management teams. Most often, it’s a combination of the two.

Here are just a few of our favourite examples.

1. #Hashtags

We forget that it wasn’t always possible to sift through content on social media using hashtags.

We have early Twitter user, Chris Messina, to thank for this. Almost a decade ago he came up with the idea of using the # symbol as a simple way to overcome the platform’s lack of a ‘group’ functionality.

Inspired by his IRC days, he was looking for a simple way to create ‘channels’ in which groups of people could join discussions about the things that they were into.

Ironically, Twitter co-founder, Evan Williams, wasn’t keen on the concept; even going so far as to tell Messina, These things are for nerds. They’re never going to catch on.”

2. Facebook Reactions

The ability to react to posts on Facebook in a more nuanced way than a plain ‘like’ only launched in February 2016.

The new range of animated Reaction emojis were developed in part to address long-term demand for a ‘dislike’ button; something Mark Zuckerberg has always been publically opposed to.

Users were frustrated that the only response to a sad or controversial post was a like or a comment. Reactions were introduced as a more progressive, less negative solution than a flat-out thumbs-down.

The decision was also influenced by smartphone use. As WIRED reported, in December 2015,  1.44 billion people accessed Facebook on a mobile. Reactions mean users don’t have to type out a long and cumbersome reply on their keypad, but rather are able to leave quick, easy feedback.

3. Instagram Direct

Despite having been around since 2010, Instagram lacked a messaging function until 2013, leaving users only able to contact others or draw their attention to content by tagging in comments.

This was frustrating for Instagrammers with larger followings because their messages were easily missed in the mountain of notifications.

Initially, Instagram Direct let users start threads with an image but allowed only text for replies.

However, analysis of user behaviour on Snapchat, where teens engaged in rapid fire ephemeral conversations, convinced Instagram of the need to focus on visual messaging.

4. Amazon 1-Click

Amazon are well known for continuously evolving their offerings. As Xavier Garambois, its Vice President of EU Retail, says;

Innovation is part of the Amazon DNA….we have been constantly adding and refining technology that enhances and improves the experience of all our customers.

It’s hard to imagine a world without it now, but when they came up with 1-click in 1997 it was a game-changer. So much so that it was patented in 1999,in recognition of its innovation and unique nature.

In the years that followed, 1-Click has been a major factor in Amazon’s massive mobile success, as it shortens the purchase journey to just a username and password. Cutting through the rigmarole of entering credit card details on a phone keyboard enables users to make impulse buys in seconds.

5. eBay Buy It Now

eBay (or ‘AuctionWeb’, to use its less-snappy original name) developed their fixed price feature to offer buyers a “special opportunity to get that item right away without waiting for the auction to end.”  

A note on the site explains this feature developed as result of user-feedback;  “our community indicated a strong desire to buy and sell some items at a set price.”

It was tested during the run up to Christmas 2000 to give users a way to buy last-minute gifts which they may have missed out on with the auction-only method.

This proved extremely successful and by 2010, ‘Buy it Now’ accounted for the majority of all eBay purchases, with around 59% made using the function in the second quarter of the year.

What can we learn from these stories?

While Hashtags are a great example of a purely user generated feature, product features normally evolve from the dialogue between users and product teams.

But in our experience, it’s not just as simple as inviting user feedback and listening to the answers.

The question that we’ve found to be most valuable, isn’t to ask, “What do you think needs to improve?” but to ask, “What are you struggling with right now?”

You can learn more about this process in the video guide to our Product Leadership Framework.

Whether it’s lacking a way to respond to a friend’s unhappy status or urgently needing to buy gifts ahead of Christmas, understanding and solving people’s problems will always be at the root of every successful product’s evolution.

Is your product ready to evolve?

If you want to find a method for improving and iterating an existing product, our proven Product Leadership Framework can help. It will introduce you to a reliable, repeatable process for providing long-term value with products people love. Get instant access now.