[UX] The Chicken and the Egg Problem

I recently had the honor of advising a startup on their initial launch design. The biggest issue I encountered, and I’ve encountered this quite a bit with new companies, is the problem of the chicken and the egg.

Many products rely on two separate types of users in order to get off the ground. A marketplace needs sellers and buyers, a social network needs followers and people worth connecting with, big data needs sources as well as consumers.

The big issue is that you cannot cannot cannot gear a site to both effectively.

Imagine going into an electronics store with sections geared towards the supplier. Would you really want to buy there? The message it sends is that you can’t get suppliers. If you supplied to that store, would you feel confident that that store would be able to sell your wares?

This is a design problem as much as it’s a business problem.

One classic pattern that tries to straddle both is to have two big buttons: “I’m a buyer” / “I’m a seller”. In lieu of the above paragraph, does that still sound like a good idea to you?

A page split down the middle doesn’t look all that good either. It gives the message that you don’t know what you’re doing, what your company’s focus is.

To solve this you need to focus on one. If you can do that effectively, you’ll never get both. Until you get the ball rolling you probably will have to do a lot of manual marketing to the other behind the scenes, to make the site work.

There are two ways to go about doing this:

The first is to put up a shell online for a very manual process that happens in the background. The shell is minimally automated, just enough to make it look like a fully functional site. What this does is it keeps the development costs down while you build a user base and test your assumptions.

Then focus on building it into the tool you would use, while you build up the user base. As you make successful deals through your site those deals make a great foundation for your next homepage that features your successes.

Airbnb did a version of this, I am not advocating for what they did as it might have been illegal, but when they were starting out and trying to grow aggressively, they pooled potential poster from Craigslist.

The second way is to provide a service for the first user-type regardless of whether the second user-type exists.

Kickstarter is a classic example of this. Kickstarter has two user types: project creators and project supporters. But Kickstarter became a platform for the creator to sell to the supporter. If you are a creator and you don’t have a community to begin with, you probably won’t find that community on Kickstarter. Kickstarter stays away from promising that. They created a platform that provides value for the user whether or not Kickstarter is huge.

If you can focus on one type of user you’ll be doing your website’s aesthetic and your company’s business plan a huge favor.