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Building in Public: Hotjar’s 5 product principles

If you’re in a product team (or just have a product-related hobby), we’ve got some exciting news for you. We’ve just launched the first episode of a new video series called Building in Public, where we share the secrets of how we build Hotjar—as we build Hotjar.

Watch the first episode—all about Hotjar’s product principles—right here:

Last updated

18 Aug 2022

Reading time

8 min


If you’re not somewhere you can watch a video (or are just in a reading mood) below you’ll find a lightly edited and tidied version of the transcript of the video.

Welcome to Building in Public

“Hi, I'm Megan Murphy, the VP of Product at Hotjar, where I lead our data, design, and product management teams. I must say, it's kind of meta for me to lead a product team that makes a product so that product teams can make better product experiences. But this really helps us stay close to the ground and relate to our customers.

But today I'm not here to talk to you about Hotjar's product or what we make. I'm here to talk about how we make it. This is the first in a series of videos that we're calling Building in Public.

We're really hoping that with this series we can start some conversations, contribute to the product community, and learn from you as well. So, let's talk about product principles and why we need them.

Presumably, you have company core values. You might have seniority criteria to evaluate performance, and you might have a whole bunch of other things that your company uses to guide decisions. But what about the product itself? That's where product principles come in.

They're a set of guardrails that help drive consistency, alignment, and focus in the thousands of tiny decisions within your product teams every single day. Product teams need a way to make decisions without someone in the room constantly saying yes or no because:

  1. That's not very empowering and nobody wants to work like that.

  2. In the words of Frances Frei from Harvard Business School: "The key is not to get people to thrive in the presence of a leader. It's in the absence of a leader."

And product principles are a way to do exactly that.

1. Goals, goals, goals

The first of our five principles is: ‘Goals, goals, goals’. And this is probably a reference to ‘Location, location, location’ because I’m from New York, and that doesn't leave you.

As human beings, We feel better about ourselves when we achieve our goals.

In software, the best examples of great goals-focused products largely live in the consumer space. Because let's be honest, in B2B software, people wouldn't be using a product if their role or their company didn't require it. And so it's all the more important for B2B software to understand clearly the goals of its users.

And this brings us to the way that we articulate that first principle:

“We deeply understand the goals of our users and we serve those users by making goals concrete, achievable, and rewarding. When people use Hotjar, they should always know what to do next and how to do it. They should be free from distractions and get clear and immediate feedback throughout their journey.”

I'd be lying if I said that we absolutely nail this in every way, but it's that pursuit of nailing it all the time that matters.

Let me give you a quick example: let's say that we're thinking about a checkout page where somebody is trying to complete their purchase. In this case, a way to keep somebody free from distractions is to not burden them with a survey pop-up. You want to keep them on track to achieve their goal, which consequently is also your goal: to help them achieve that checkout.

Through this principle, we can constantly check ourselves to make sure that people not only understand the goals of users when they're building products, but they actively work to help them achieve those goals.

2. Emotionally connected

The second of our five product principles is: ‘Emotionally connected’. This one’s really important because our emotions are tied to so many things; learning behavior, memory, perception, problem solving, the list goes on.

In fact, a 2016 study from Harvard Business School showed that customers who explained a sense of emotional connection with a product or a business were more than twice as valuable as customers who were "highly satisfied". So basically, the “emotionally connected” of today is the “highly satisfied” of yesteryear.

When we say twice as valuable, that's across all of the most important dimensions that any business would want:

  • People are more willing to buy your product and recommend it to friends.

  • People buy more of your product.

  • They're more likely to consume marketing materials and communications.

And all of these benefits come from this bond that basically says, "Hey, I get you. I understand you." And this takes shape in our second principle, which is that emotion is not an afterthought. It's not a nice-to-have.

“Hotjar goes beyond meeting our user's functional needs and instead satisfies their emotional needs. Likewise, the emotional experience of using Hotjar is a vital feedback loop for our own product improvements.”

So like I said with principle one, we're not perfect at this. And I couldn't in good conscience pretend that we are. There are plenty of corners in our product experience where you might not feel an emotional connection, but it's okay that we're not perfect because we're trying to improve.

We have these principles in place to guide things like placeholder copy, empty state screens, micro animations during loading experiences. All of these are small, subtle ways that really add up.

3. The sum is greater than its parts

The third of our five product principles is: ‘The sum is greater than its parts’. Hotjar has historically offered a number of core vertically organized products. Today we have Heatmaps, Recordings, Surveys, Incoming Feedback.

A mentor of mine—who I really admire—told me recently that the best products are the ones that are built in a way that means you can’t guess their organization chart. So you can't tell when X team owns this product and Y team owns that product. Because the whole experience is cohesive and there's a bunch of connective tissue that brings all of these different parts of the product together.

And I have to say, this is something that I really aspire to—and that we're trying to make happen at Hotjar. We're really focused on making the sum greater than its parts. On making it so that it's not about Heatmaps, Recordings, and Surveys, and so on. It's about the insights that our users get into their product experience and those insights just so happen to be collected through a range of products that we offer.

This is so important because when each product team is trying to move forward in its respective product area, a consequence can be local sub-optimizations at the expense of the bigger picture. At the expense of that cohesive experience.

“Hotjar's product is more than a collection of the tools offered within it. Of course, the depth of each feature functionality is powerful enough to get users to achieve their goals, but what's truly compelling about Hotjar is the richness of its collective offering.”

4. Intuitive at its core

Our fourth of five product principles is: ‘Intuitive at its core’. The days of RTFM are over. Think about the best products that you use on a daily basis. The most compelling products that we use make us feel like we want to keep using them. In the words of Benjamin Humphrey: the best onboarding is an intuitive product.

They have a clear value proposition, simple terminology, clear affordances that we know how to use—picture a doorknob, you know how to use it. And same defaults, which help us understand things like: ‘If nothing is in this space now, then it has an empty state so we know what will be there later’.

And that brings us to the wording of our fourth principle:

“Our product is immediately usable and useful. Our users are able to serve themselves relying mostly on their own intuition. They navigate without need for a map and understand how to answer questions about their users through the solutions that our product provides.”

5. Think big and start small

The final product principle that we use at Hotjar is: ‘Think big and start small’.

The sneakiest inefficiency that can creep its way into any business is waste; waste of time, waste of talent and waste of money.

And in a product-based company, the way this manifests itself is scope that's larger than necessary. We need to only invest as little as possible to learn as much as possible and keep doing that along the way, no matter the stage of company, the size, the age, the employee base, the customer reach. It doesn't matter.

The way that we articulate this final principle goes like this:

“We build with the big picture in mind and break concepts and ideas down into the smallest possible bite-sized pieces. This enables us to ship quickly and accelerates our build, measure, learn loop.

“We apply those learnings each subsequent step toward building out that bigger picture, which we can see with more clarity after each incremental release. By thinking big and starting small, we both minimize risk and reduce waste.”

Shout-out of course, to Eric Ries who kicked off The Lean Startup movement over a decade ago. You might recognize the references here to the concept of minimum viable products. some companies might prefer ‘minimum lovable product’ or ‘minimum lovable experience’ even. That nomenclature is totally up to you.

What’s important is that MVP isn’t about building a minimum thing that has poor quality—absolutely not. You should build the minimal unit of value (in an emotionally connected way) to give an experience that's mutually beneficial for the people who use the product and the people who make the product.”

Your own product principles

So there you have it, our five guiding product principles at Hotjar:

  1. Goals, goals, goals

  2. Emotionally connected

  3. The sum is greater than its parts

  4. Intuitive at its core

  5. Think big, start small

We’d love to know how these compare to your product principles. Or, if you’re in the process of creating them at the moment, if this was helpful for you. Jump into the comments section on the video, or reach out to us on LinkedIn to join in the conversation.

And make sure to check back soon for the next episode of Building in Public.

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