Architecting Shock And Awe Into Product Experience

Every once in a while, we come across some aspect of a new product that makes us act like Elaine in TV’s Seinfeld, violently exclaiming, “GET OUT! with disbelief accompanied
by a hearty push-off.

Elaine “Get Out!”Elaine aptly demonstrated many of these ‘shock and awe’ moments throughout Seinfeld episodes which product developers would do well to use as inspiration. Shock and awe during user experience can be powerful. Think of it as an amped up version of the ‘surprise and delight’ often talked about by developers and reviewers of products. But how can we overtly design for shock and awe, and should we even attempt to?

The legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously penned: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This has long been a belief of many technologists, that their work rises to the level of being magical. And magic is at the root of shock and awe. It’s such a common trope in Silicon Valley, I’ve worked at two different startups that each separately named their conference room ‘Houdini,’ and a third which named their SaaS service “Magic.” Whether this bit of arrogance (i.e. that our code is more magical than theirs) is deserved or not isn’t the point. The tech ‘magic’ which foments shock and awe is extremely useful as a business tool if architected properly and embraced by the designers, engineers, product managers and marketers who are creating a new product or service. If the entire development team is tasked with making shock and awe an imperative, then it is much more likely to be a fundamental part of the user experience, and ultimately part of the brand essence of the company. Done well, shock and awe can be worth hundreds of press articles, millions of free prospect impressions, and can kick start product launch momentum putting your company on the map.

The extent to which a development team is able to shock and awe their users in a beneficial way depends greatly on the type of product or service they have created. It’s important to understand that ‘shock and awe’ exists on a continuum with ‘boredom and disdain’ at the other end and ‘surprise and delight’ somewhere in the middle. It’s not always possible to architect shock and awe into a product experience, but at the very least there should be some surprise and delight, and hopefully never boredom and disdain.


A great example of surprise and delight was delivered with my order of iPhone accessory camera lenses from In the box along with my lenses was a small plastic toy dinosaur. This made me grin, mainly because of what a non sequitur it was. But what tipped me over into ‘surprise and delight’ was that they listed the toy on the invoice as “Rawwwwwr!…$0.00 for 1.”

The Photojojo Experience

That made me smile and embrace the playfulness that this e-tailer was trying to imbue into their brand. I would suggest that their ten cent dinosaur lagniappe achieved its goal of driving engagement since I have purchased from many times since. In a world full of dour corporations, a ten cent dinosaur can go a long way.

However, throwing a cheap toy into a shipping carton is far from the beneficial shock and awe that can help a product a) get noticed, b) make people care, and c) create product love (see my article “Startup Product Success: A Framework for Entrepreneurs”). A great example of shock and awe I came upon recently is Lily. Lily Flying CameraAt first glance the four propellers make you think Lily is a radio controlled quadcopter. But with Lily’s website URL ‘,’ their tagline ‘Camera. Reinvented.’ and ‘world’s first throw and shoot camera’ messaging, they are going out of their way to position and differentiate Lily as a ‘flying camera’ and not one of the dozens of camera-toting drones now available. But the ‘shock and awe’ moments Lily architected into their user experience are best seen in their crowdfunding video, which has over 10 million views. FOTO-Lily-BridgeIn the video, the Lily user merely tosses the machine into the air and it starts flying, then autonomously following the user while capturing video. If that wasn’t shocking enough, the next shot ups the ante and has the user throwing his $800 flying camera over the railing of a bridge, whereupon Lily flies up and starts filming. FOTO-Lily-KayakAnd if this still wasn’t shocking enough, the next user casually tosses Lily into a river, which triggers it to fly up out of the water and follow a kayaker downstream.

Lily is a veritable tour-de-force of shock and awe for anyone interested in selfie videos. Their crowdfunding video leaves the audience screaming “GET OUT!” and has created 60,000 pre-orders worth $34 million dollars. This proved that Lily also got their fans to say “Shut up, and take my money!” the gold standard of shock and awe results. Lily employed killer design, a compelling story, and most of all an epic user experience to create shock and awe in their product. This in turn got Lily noticed, made people care, and created product love—all before the product had even shipped or been reviewed.

There is no one perfect method for creating shock and awe. It is probably best described as ‘You’ll know it when you see it.’ Here are seven steps that can help structure your team’s efforts to create shock and awe in their product.

1. Make ‘Shock and Awe’ A Core Product Requirement
The most important step in creating shock and awe for a product is to communicate executive sponsorship for this effort and get everyone associated with its development to understand that this is a core product requirement. The team will likely need to spend significant time coming up with how to fulfill this requirement and you may need to include people not normally involved in writing product requirements. Demonstrating top-level commitment is vital to getting this done.

2. Gain Outside Advice
Who better to involve in this effort than your marketers and salespeople who will need to actually wow and sell their audiences? Some of the best ideas may come from people outside the development group but still inside the company. You may also get excellent shock and awe ideas from company advisors or consultants, people who aren’t tainted by internal company-think or burdened with the task of actually developing the hardware or software that will deliver the shock and awe. It is very easy for inside people to say, “That would be too hard and expensive,” summarily shooting down an idea based on their belief of cost structure. You need to find people who are passionate about your product category and ask them, “What would make this kind of product the coolest thing ever?”

3. Ensure That The Shock and Awe Is In Lockstep With Product Positioning
In many companies, the marketing people don’t integrate well with the product people. So the ‘story’ told by the marketers is just a compilation and regurgitation of features and benefits that resulted from the original product requirements they had no hand in creating. Product development isn’t supposed to be like this, but all too often it is. What if both teams started with delivering shock and awe as the prime product requirement, even before product positioning is considered? In the case of the Lily flying camera, being able to throw it into the air and start flying itself must have been one of the primary product goals. From that highly unique product requirement, other requirements must have followed: e.g. 1) no landing skids, 2) must land gently on an upturned palm, 3) auto on/off video, 4) smooth surfaces, 5) small enough for the rotors not to hit the operator when landing, and so on. When marketing and product people work together seamlessly, better products result, and shock and awe becomes possible.

Startup Product Success

I was speaking to a friend who is an executive at a large drone manufacturer. From his viewpoint, what Lily is trying to do with the “throw and shoot” feature was not easy to accomplish technically and probably was not worth the time and effort. I couldn’t disagree more, at least for Lily. Adopting ‘toss and go’ as a prime product requirement not only created shock and awe that differentiated Lily from the myriad of other drone manufacturers, it allowed them to position themselves as the world’s only flying camera. That is a significantly different product position and user experience than a hobbyist drone, which is more like a flying R/C car. Of course it only makes sense to do this if the market segment of people who want flying selfie cameras is large enough to support a business. I think $34M in pre-orders has answered that question.

Startup Product Success

4. Look At The Competition
Are your competitors shocking and awe-ing the world? If not, why not? What would you suggest for your competitor to bring shock and awe to their offering? Or if you have no direct competition, look at an analogous product. What single thing can you envision that might change the way their product is perceived? How is their product presented or demonstrated? What is one core feature that would differentiate it from other companies? Get curious and practice applying shock and awe think to other products before applying it on your own.

5. Delivering Shock And Awe
Many products don’t lend themselves to the type of in-person demo that will create shock and awe. Julia Child may have created a fantastic meal on her 1960s TV show, but the onlyFOTO-Julia-Child-behind-the-scenes way she could deliver on her ‘demo’ was to have the final product already baked and ready for presentation the instant her prep work was done: “Et voilà and bon appetite!” Fine for a cooking show, but much more difficult to communicate for a tech product company. On the other hand, TiVo was almost the perfect shock and awe technology of the late 1990s, allowing users to: TiVo Pauses Live TV

Pause. Live. TV.     GET OUT!
TiVo’s promise was so shocking at the time that it had the problem of communicating a value proposition that was almost unbelievable in a whole new product category. A great problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

One critical element you will need to know is what communication vehicle you will use to communicate shock and awe. Will you be advertising on television? Will demos be given by your salespeople in front of business buyers? Will a YouTube video get across the shock and awe? Could there be an interactive online experience that creates a “GET OUT!” moment? Remember that it’s not enough to architect shock and awe without carefully thinking through how your organization will deliver it to your customers.

6. Testing Shock and Awe
You’ll also need to decide whether you’ve successfully created the “GET OUT!” moment you intended. How will you determine that? Will it be internal decision-making, friends and family, or outside consultants? Will you use structured focus groups or an online beta? Whichever method you choose, size the testing effort so it is commensurate with the importance of your product launch.

7. Funding Shock and Awe
Here is the ugly truth, accomplishing shock and awe will cost more than most entrepreneurs are willing to allocate to a development budget. And it will take significant vision and people management to make it happen. That doesn’t mean you can’t still make it a core product requirement. It just means you may need to shift your thinking and understand that investment in shock and awe needs to be shared between the engineering, product management, marketing, advertising, public relations, and sales budgets. Done well, each of these functions in the company will benefit significantly from product shock and awe.

The problem with creating shock and awe through a ‘sufficiently advanced technology that is indistinguishable from magic’ is that with it comes an implied promise. These days, crowdfunding sites raise millions of dollars from regular people for products that don’t yet exist, and there is a clear danger of overpromising and under delivering on user experiences demonstrated by slick marketing videos. It’s vital for product developers to internalize that the only sin worse than eliciting boredom and disdain is failing to deliver on promised shock and awe. Consumers can be a fickle bunch, so be precise about the magic you promise. [Update on the Lily flying camera that never was, from Recode Jan. 2017]

Learning how to create shock and awe takes thoughtful consideration, collaborative discussion, and practice. And achieving it isn’t always possible to the degree you might desire. But you should also understand there are other ways to shock and awe as a company. Here are just a few very effective examples:
– Have a human answer the company’s main telephone line without a menu tree
– Empower customer service agents to solve customer problems without an escalation
– Have the CEO respond to customers on the company’s Facebook page or Twitter feed
– Include a toy dinosaur in your product cartons…oops, that one’s already been done. ; )

Here are some of my favorite shock and awe demo videos. I’ve thrown in some old school product demos as well just to remind you that ‘GET OUT!’ moments have been around for a long time.
Lily: ‘throw and shoot’ flying camera
TiVo: ‘pause’ live TV
Tesla: disappearing door handles
Tesla: ‘insane mode’ acceleration
Jawbone: ‘noise is nothing’ demo
ShamWow: unbelievable absorbance
OxiClean: shocking cleaning power

One final thought. If a company doesn’t consider shock and awe when designing their product they either don’t understand marketing or are just being plain lazy. It may not always be possible to accomplish shock and awe in a product, but NOT trying to achieve it comes at the cost of paying people to take notice of, and care about, what you are selling. Instead, what if you architected shock and awe into your product and the world spread your story for you, and made it easy to drive awareness and sales conversion? “GET OUT! :: 

© 2016 Peter Radsliff – All Rights Reserved – All third-party images, trademarks and copyrighted works are the property of their respective owners and mention here does not imply any endorsement unless specifically stated as such. 

If you have a favorite product that demonstrated shock and awe, please name it in the comments below:


Startup Product Success: A Framework for Entrepreneurs

“Startup Product Success” is a framework for entrepreneurs I developed over my
20+ year career to help reduce risk and accelerate adoption for consumer tech products. — Peter Radsliff, Posted January 16, 2016

Startup Product Success Framework

Developing plans for a new product is fundamentally different for a startup than for an established company. I know this because I’ve worked as a marketing and product executive at five startup companies in addition to two medium-sized and one Fortune 100. Almost all were selling consumer technology hardware products, some which were connected via the Internet, and a few that incorporated an ongoing subscription. In all, my teams have launched thousands of new products and from this vantage point, I’ve seen what has separated successful startup products from those at established companies.

With existing businesses, their brand and product category have usually already been established. With the vast majority of startups, their initial product launch will be the first time they put forth their brand, vision, position, category and value proposition to an intended market. Suffice it to say a lot is riding on a startup’s first product launch.

A common problem I’ve seen is how many startup founders place a strong emphasis on one particular aspect of their company’s first product launch, usually to the detriment of other areas. It’s not uncommon that tech entrepreneurs revert to their core expertise when developing product development plans. Founders who are coders focus on code. Founders who are marketers obsess over story. And founders who are designers lose sleep over ID/UI/UX. It’s like seeking medical opinions for an injured knee: physical therapists prescribe PT, and orthopedic surgeons want to cut; i.e. to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But for a startup that may only have one turn at bat, planning based on personal bias can induce additional risk and limit potential success. Yet even though tech CEOs may know that, they may still feel it an unnatural act to devote a disproportionate investment to areas outside their domain expertise. Although startup CEOs may understand the theory behind a multi-disciplined approach to product design, technology development, and marketing, all too often their budget and organizational decisions belie a deeply-held bias towards one versus the others. The goal of this article is to propose a framework to help inform organizational and budgetary decision-making to reduce risk and provide the best outcome towards Startup Product Success.

Before I explain the Startup Product Success framework it’s important to understand what it’s designed to accomplish: to get noticed, to make people care, and to create product love.Why three critical factors for Startup Product Success

Those goals may seem pretty obvious, but they can be incredibly difficult to achieve. Some of the problems startups encounter trying to achieve these are because: 1) they don’t understand what efforts are necessary to accomplish each goal, 2) they don’t invest in building their organization to have the skills necessary to accomplish each goal, and/or 3) the people they hire don’t know how to, or aren’t motivated to work together to, accomplish all three. To address each goal, here is a framework consisting of the tasks necessary to achieve them.


Startup Product Success

Very simply, startup product success stems from having a product with three well-executed elements: Killer Design, a Compelling Story, and an Epic User Experience. ‘Killer’ design is industrial or user-interface design done so well that it cuts through the noise of the market and competing products plus it supports long term interest from the user. A ‘compelling’ story is one that draws people in and causes them to want to spread the news on their own. An ‘epic’ experience drives customer satisfaction, stellar reviews, and post-sale word-of-mouth marketing. The combination of design, story, and experience defines a startup’s brand essence and can significantly accelerate market adoption while lowering costs of PR, advertising and customer support.

When each of these three startup product success factors are executed well, they amount to more than the sum of their parts. When only two factors are strong and one is lacking, startups may find specific deficiencies as noted in the space between each Venn bubble pair above. For example, killer design with a compelling story, but lacking a commensurate epic user experience, may produce good initial uptake followed by mediocre user reviews and a stall of adoption after launch. Likewise, an epic experience and compelling story that lacks killer design can produce a lackluster product launch because the press and blogosphere may not even take notice of what looks like a ho-hum product. And without a compelling story, you better be prepared to fund a lot of PR and advertising, because even with killer design and an epic experience you’ll be pushing your new product news to a world that doesn’t much care to talk about it on its own.

Although well-executed design, story, and experience efforts can produce higher value than each individual effort on its own, it’s the interplay between the three that can produce a true product gestalt. For example, it doesn’t help to have ‘killer design’ that does not help bring physical form to a compelling story or somehow embody an epic experience.

My favorite example of this is the 2000 Nissan Xterra, a youth-focused, small 4×4 SUV with very specific features for its target demographic, such as a roof rack to dry wetsuits, inside mountain bike mounts, rear theater seating and my favorite, the integral first aid kit.

2000 Nissan Xterra

What makes the first aid kit worthy of mention is that it was a perfect example of killer design in support of a compelling story that provides an epic experience. Notice how there is a bump on the rear hatch. Inside this bump is the Xterra first-aid kit (see inset photo). Also note how the bump pushes up into the rear window glass to make it very evident that it is there. I guarantee you that: a) it was not necessary to have that outward bump in order to accommodate a first aid kit inside the vehicle, and b) the odd-shaped glass that was necessitated because of the bump’s upward intrusion caused a significant increase in cost versus a more plain straight-across design. So why would the Xterra’s designers go to the cost and effort of having that bump be expressed so prominently on the car’s exterior?

The answer is because of the people they were selling the Xterra to, as evidenced by their original TV commercials: kayakers, mountain bikers, scuba divers and other Gen-Xers searching for adventure outdoors (hence the “X” in “Xterra”). For that audience OF COURSE you would prominently display a first aid kit, because that demographic lives their lives ‘on the edge’ and so fully they would presumably need one. And wouldn’t those target customers be more inclined to buy a car that understood their lifestyle and needs so well? They would, and they did. Design, story, experience, all wrapped up together to get across the concept of the product to its intended audience, in a way that was believable, powerful, and that drove viral spread of the new product. When done well, as with the Xterra, this is how design, story and experience add up to produce more value than each element by itself.

And although the Nissan design team does not reflect the typical resources available to every startup, it was their belief in the power of design, story and experience that made the Xterra a product gestalt. And this can be done at every level of product development investment.

There are many ways to build an organization to achieve Startup Product Success, but there are as many ways to create obstacles that will prevent a startup from achieving it. Belief in the power of industrial design is one thing, but how does one achieve ‘killer’ design for the product? Do you hire a design consultancy? Do you devote an internal headcount to be your design director? Or will you reserve a co-founder seat and equity stake for a partnership with a leading designer and use his or her resources? Answering the question of how you will accomplish ‘killer design’ says a lot about how much you really believe design will be a game-changer for your business. The same questions apply to creating a compelling story and epic user experience. These things don’t happen by themselves, and they won’t be created by people who are talented in different disciplines.

Startup Product Success

Eric Ries’ seminal book, The Lean Startup, relies on a methodology of “validated learning,” i.e. rapid scientific experimentation, as well as a number of practices aimed at shortening product development cycles. The Lean Startup method measures actual progress to learn what customers really want and allows startups to change directions rapidly. Nothing in the Startup Product Success framework necessarily contradicts the lean startup methodology. It just challenges entrepreneurs to develop their minimum viable products taking design, story, and user-experience into consideration as key elements to be validated. Still, some companies don’t rely on validated learning to gauge development direction. Apple’s Steve Jobs famously said: “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want. It’s hard for [consumers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.” Whether a startup chooses the “give ‘em what they want” or “build it and they will come” methodology, ignoring design, story or experience may be a fatal error which could lead a startup to crash & burn. 

So let’s say you’ve bought in to the Startup Product Success framework and have hired an outside firm to produce the industrial design of your product and the user-interface screens associated with a connected mobile app. When the design firm presents three different versions of the proposed designs, who gets to choose the final design direction? Will it be the CEO, the product manager, a committee, the outside design firm themselves? What will the decision-making process be when determining if a design is ‘killer,’ or whether an experience is ‘epic’ enough? The time to determine how decisions will be made is at the outset of the process, and should not be dependent on what the design proposals are. It is critical to ensure everyone knows which person or group is responsible for making the final call, or you will encounter serious problems at the most critical time in the project. Many great designs have been scuttled because of a lack of managerial courage or because a group didn’t know how to evaluate a design proposal against the company’s goals. This is such an important topic, I will devote an entire post to decision-making in the future.

I’ve been lucky to have been an executive at multiple companies that have successfully combined design, story and experience to make truly groundbreaking products. These companies were able to invest money in product development and spend less in post-launch marketing costs because the story was so compelling, the design so provocative, and the experience so surprising and delightful. I intend to profile some of those products in future posts and focus on how to we addressed each critical factor. But for now I encourage entrepreneurs to let me know what you think about this Startup Product Success framework by sending me a private comment in the form that immediately follows, or by posting in the public comments section at the bottom of this page. :: 

I’ve received some comments on this framework and wish to add this clarification. I have characterized “Killer Design” as the task necessary for a startup product to “Get Noticed.” This implies that design is all about the aesthetic and may lead some to think that the design process is separate from creating an epic user experience. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The essence of the industrial design process is to carefully understand the user’s problem and to define a solution which manifests itself through user experience. During that process, designers also attend to the aesthetic of the work they produce, and this can aid a company greatly in having their product stand out from the crowd. But the design process itself can contribute greatly to the development of a compelling story and an epic user experience as well. In truth, a well-executed product development process is one that is holistic in its application, tending to all aspects of business needs. But since many entrepreneurs I have met don’t have experience with a holistic design process, I have found it helpful to separate the critical factors that support startup product success into three discrete efforts: design, story and experience.

© 2016 Peter Radsliff – All Rights Reserved – All third-party trademarks or copyrighted works are the property of their respective owners and mention here does not imply any endorsement unless specifically stated as such.