How HackerNoon uses customer-centric approach to build meaningful new features on their platform

Editor’s Note: This article as first published on August 31, 2020.

Apart from social media sharing, having a comments box at the end of an article is one of the most common features to be found on various online media platforms. However, despite its popularity, the comments box is not perfect.

In fact, American tech publishing platform HackerNoon listed down three points why it has “fallen short”: There is a high barrier for readers to leave a thoughtful comment with only the most popular stories getting meaningful feedback; readers are forced to comment on the story as a whole, leading to generalised comments such as “nice story”; and finally, only readers that read the story to the finish are able to react –and many just do not go that far.

This is why HackerNoon introduced its newest feature: Inline emoji reactions.

The new feature enables readers to respond to individual sections of content with an emoji reaction. There are light grey bars next to each section; if readers hover over the bar, they will see a range of emojis to pick from, to express their thoughts and feelings about that particular section.

If a section is popular –meaning having a high number of reactions– there will be more bars and its colours will change from yellow to green to red as the activity increases. The reaction then gets aggregated and the total number will be visible at the top of the story.

“Readers now have a low-friction tool to give writers specific feedback on their words. This creates a feedback loop that writers can learn from and improve their content over time,” HackerNoon CPO Dane Lyons comments on the feature.

In this third episode of our deep dive series, Lyons and CEO David Smooke explain to e27 the process behind developing features such as this one.

Also Read: 3 mistakes early stage startups in Singapore make in product development

Topics covered in this episode:

– Product Development 101: Principles and process
– Customer matters, but they are not your product manager
– The next steps
– The mission for a better internet

Product Development 101: Principles and process

As in many tech companies, the product development process at HackerNoon begins with understanding customers’ pain points. To achieve this, every member of the team need to have a unified mindset.

“Everyone on the Hacker Noon product team is a writer in addition to their usual duties as a designer of infrastructure and product. This is a concept we borrowed from the Marine Corps where ‘every Marine is a rifleman’,” explains Lyons.

Calling this concept a “huge advantage”, Lyons further elaborates that this concept enables team members to identify problems as a user. Yet, on the other hand, they have the ability to create the solutions, being a developer of the platform itself.

In the context of the inline emoji reaction feature, the development stems from the team members frustration in getting the feedback they need to improve their writings.

“What writers and readers really need is a very low friction tool for giving better feedback. Giving an emoji next to a paragraph is meaningful. If nothing else, it gives writers much more targeted agreement or disagreement signals,” Lyons stresses.

Also Read: A multi-disciplinary approach to product development requires collaboration

Adding to this explanation, Smooke gives insight into how the team starts working on the development of a new feature.

“Everything we put time and resources into has to tie back to our three core metrics: time reading, words published, and money made. For the most part, we don’t assign projects or set deadlines. I trust our team to pick projects that they think will move our core metrics,” he says.

“Also in every weekly product meeting, we end with an advocacy session. Anyone in the company can attend and spend a few minutes advocating for a function that should be moved up the product funnel. We talk out the expected input and potential output,” he continues.

For this feature, Smooke says that the metrics that they are focussing on are the number of people who give an emoji, aggregate emojis given, and average site session time.

“Usage determines a product’s value. Every function has its own purpose. New functions should have a predetermined metric that you are trying to move. But you should also keep an eye on what other metrics change,” he elaborates.

He adds, “Logistically, we have a #product-results channel to foster discussion. We gather and monitor data, mostly from Google Analytics, Firebase, Vercel, Algolia, Sentry and internal tools. We A/B test a good bit. But also, it is timely (and a nice rush) to just ship it straight to production. At Hacker Noon, we also invested in a sound dev environment, so it’s really easy to rollback changes if break something significant.”

Customer matters, but they are not your product manager

But even this process possesses its own challenges. Lyons says that one of them is dealing with consensus; while the team members might agree about the problem that they want to solve, there are often different ways to approach.

“I think we’ve done a great job of not allowing that friction to get in the way of progress. One strategy is to not get too caught up delivering the ‘perfect solution.’ It’s much better to deliver a ‘viable solution,’ then learn and iterate. At each step, the solution typically gets a little better and the final implementation sort of works itself out,” Lyon says.

Also Read: How a Japanese initiative backed by local government is accelerating product development in Southeast Asia

He gives the example of deciding how granular to get with emoji reactions.

“There is an ongoing debate whether to allow readers to react at the paragraph-level or at the word-level. We decided to start by allowing reactions at the paragraph-level because it was a far easier implementation. But this debate inspired us to build a flexible data schema that will allow us to explore word-level reactions in the near future,” he explains.

Now, what is the role of customer feedback in this process?

Lyons admits this one can be tricky, as it can trap product developers into developing just whatever the customers want, without any further consideration.

“Running around like a madman chasing competing interests is just not an effective strategy for building a product. You’ve really got to take in customer feedback as a whole and really internalise what people are asking for before taking action,” he says.

“Users often ask for band-aid solutions to product frictions. When a user asks for a feature, don’t immediately jump to thinking about how to go about implementing it. Instead, really invest time thinking about the underlying problem. This often leads to very different and much more effective solutions,” he continues.

Left to right: CEO David Smooke, COO Linh Dao Smooke, CPO Dane Lyons

The next steps

When being asked about the lessons learned from the process of developing the inline emoji reactions feature, Smooke says that it is still too early to tell.

But even as they launched the early version of the features, the team already prepares the next updates in the pipeline. For example, they want to be able to go as far as enabling word-level reactions and adding comments in addition to emojis.

There will also be greater ties to inline emoji reactions to an article’s performance.

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“As we get stories with more reactions, we’ll start using reactions as a quality signal to sort stories. This could happen anywhere you see a list of stories,” Lyons begins.

“Some writers might want to configure which emojis are available for reader reactions. Maybe some writers feel cyberbullied on social media and just don’t want to deal with negative reaction options. Other writers might want to lean in and embrace critical feedback,” he continues.

“A few months ago, we prototyped a Hacker Noon leaderboard based on comments. We’d like to iterate on the design sort stories by the number of reactions received over the last seven days … When a story hits a reaction milestone, we want to celebrate that achievement with an email and/or a tweet. When readers give a story an emoji, it’s an implicit endorsement. We think those endorsements should display on the reader profile,” Lyons closes.

The mission for a better internet

Founded in 2016 by David Smooke and Linh Dao Smooke, HackerNoon is a platform that is built for technologists to read, write, and publish content. It has an “open and international community” of more 12,000 contributing writers and more than four million monthly readers.

In introducing the inline emoji reaction feature, the company has received a grant from Mozilla’s Fix the Internet incubator programme. Starting in July, the eight-week programme began in July with the new feature being launched just last Friday.

Image Credit: Hacker Noon on Unsplash

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