I recently caught up with Kevin Fox, who was the first designer on Gmail. We remembered that when Gmail first launched, it had just three value propositions for users: search, storage, and conversations. And with just those three, it was wildly successful.

Kevin reminded me that one of the keys to that success was how the different value propositions worked together. The extra storage space was easy to understand — I was certainly running out of space in my inbox all the time. But the other two, search and conversations, they didn’t mean a lot to me at first.

Sure, everyone understands search. But it just doesn’t seem that useful with only a few dozen messages in your inbox. Conversation view is a great way to read emails, but it requires a habit change. It takes getting used to. Both of these are features that you grow to love — not a reason you sign up for the product.

Gmail offered two very different kinds of value to users, and I believe that combination was key to its success.

  • Apparent value — This kind of value is easy to explain and gets users to sign up. It fixes a pain-point customers already experience. It’s typically better, faster, cheaper. In Gmail’s case, it was storage space.
  • Discoverable value — This kind of value appears when benefits are delayed or when a product requires users to develop new habits (which takes time). It also appears when many slight improvements combine to make a big difference in the experience. This kind of value is powerful because it keeps people around. For Gmail, this was search and conversation view.

Twitter also has both kinds of value. At this year’s UX Week conference, Mark Trammell talked about the gap between people who have heard of Twitter, and those who understand the value of Twitter. They found that users were signing up for the apparent value, like connecting with celebrities. But it was difficult for users to make the transition to more discoverable value, such as connecting with others over like interests. Check out the video of the talk — it’s great.

Plenty of successful products have only one type of value. TiVO was notoriously hard to describe, yet it built a base of fanatical supporters because the discoverable value was great. OpenTable is easy to describe — it has apparent value — but there’s nothing much to discover after using it once. The experience just falls flat.

When I design a product, I try to make sure it has a pairing of apparent and discoverable value. It’s not always possible to get both, but it’s always helpful to know what kind of value a product offers.

Marketing apparent and discoverable value

For products with a wealth of discoverable value, a great way to acquire customers is to make a product incredibly easy to try. Give it away for free if you can. And then be prepared for when customers fall in love with all the discoverable value — make it easy for them to recommend the product to their friends. Zynga does this extremely well with products like FarmVille.

On the flip side, if a product has mostly apparent value, advertising and upfront payment tend to work well. Groupon rocks here. Customers can easily understand the value of “$50 at the Gap”. So advertising is effective, and people pay!

What should we build first?

I learned this approach from Apple. I noticed that when the iPhone appeared, it was packed with apparent value: a music player, web browser, and maps. The TV ads were focused right on these features and worked great.

Over time the iPhone grew to include a huge ecosystem of apps. So users wanting anything from games to finance could dive in and discover value targeted right at their interests. You can’t advertise that long tail of discoverable value very well, but it’s a huge part of what makes the phone great.

I think Apple was right to focus on apparent value first, then discoverable value next. So when I’m working on a product, and we don’t have time to build all the features we want before the first release, I tend to focus on apparent value. Once we’ve proven the ability to get people in the door effectively, then there’s time to build more discoverable value.

Putting it simply

The easiest way I’ve found to think about this concept it to use the marketing catchphrase: Come for the X, stay for the Y. Here are some of my favorite examples:

  • Gmail: Come for the free space, stay for the search, conversation, and spam filter.
  • Dropbox: Come for the shared folder, stay for the painless sync, backup, and mobile access.
  • Facebook: Come for the college friends, stay for the photo sharing and funny links.
  • Portal: Come for the brilliant puzzles, stay for the dark humor and the cake.

How do you think about different types of product value? What do your users come for, and why do they stay? Jump into the comments below.