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vol.33: 15 Mindful Product Principles from Allen Zhang, Father of WeChat
what tech builders can learn from the East
Welcome to Wellness Wisdom - A newsletter for the thoughtful. A medley of resources and thoughts on wellness start-ups, personal development, spiritual growth and philosophy.
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Hello thoughtful humans! ❄️
I’m still in Utah, but recently moved to a new group house with friends on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. I’ll be here for 1 more week before flying back to California and joining another group house in Napa.
The constant change of physical spaces keeps my perception of time elongated and fuller. The passage of time and the ability to maximize it has been top of my mind lately, thanks to this book recommendation from my friend Inga Chen.
Time is the most precious resource we have, and I’ve developed an increasing appreciation for products that help humans spend it better.
In today’s issue, I’ll be sharing the surprising mindful and time-saving product philosophies of Allen Zhang, founder of WeChat.
Many believe that WeChat - with 1 billion users and $250B in annual transactions - is arguably the best consumer Internet product in the world.
Although WeChat’s been around for 10 years, there is still much to be known about the elusive Allen Zhang - the mastermind and creator behind the Chinese super app.
Though he has a Godfather-like status in China’s tech community, he rarely appears in public or gives interviews. Instead, he prefers to have “the product speak for itself.”
Naturally, this wasn’t good enough of an explanation for me.
Determined to understand this man deeply, I read dozens of articles and transcripts in order to distill his core product philosophies.
What I uncovered was not so much a cunning businessman, but a deeply philosophical digital anthropologist and empathetic first-principles thinker. The kind of product thinker that is a rarity in today’s attention and commerce driven tech ecosystem.
Allen Zhang is my new product hero, and I hope he can inspire you too.
First a little background on Allen,
Born in 1969, Allen hails from a peasant background. He is a bookworm, and from childhood felt very stifled.
At a college reunion, many of his classmates struggled to place him. Upon going through that experience, Zhang joked that “most of the founders across the world are driven by the despair they get when looking at the mirror. I am a social loser, so to everyone’s surprise, I made social software.”
Allen Zhang sold his first company, Foxmail (an email platform), to Tencent in 2000, bought a car, drove to Tibet, and fell off the map for the next five years. He then returned to Tencent, cleaned up QQ’s email system, and realized in 2010 that the rapid growth of messaging platform Kik presaged the future of communication.
Zhang attributes many of his product epiphanies to Sigmund Freud. Specifically that sex is a driving force for human nature.
He insists that product managers should be “literary and artistic youth”, not just “logic driven.”
Without further ado, here are Allen Zhang’s 15 Mindful Product Philosophies
01. Product Management is art, not commerce 🎨
Allen is known in China to be more of a “humanistic philosopher-creator” as opposed to a business mercenary. At the start of WeChat's creation Allen’s mission statement for the company was to not perceive WeChat as a commercial product, but rather as an impressive “work of art”.
His product philosophy focuses on combining intuitive design, human psychology, and what’s technologically feasible. After these are melded, economic viability naturally comes afterwards.
A philosopher first, product management just happens to be the vessel by which he share’s his views:
For me, I’m very grateful, and I feel I’m very lucky. As a product manager I can lead this team that has created a product used by one billion users. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.
But, I feel even more lucky that over this process, I’ve been able to imbue my perspective of the world into the product, making it a part of the product’s value. This is even more rare.
Being a product creator is like being in a relationship with the users. Otherwise, it’s only a business transaction. Product managers must have big hearts.
02. WeChat follows the “Grand Design” approach to innovation vs. “Design Thinking” 🌏
Popularized by the design firm IDEO in the 1990s, design-thinking is defined as a non-linear process which seeks to iteratively understand users, challenge assumptions, and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. In other words, it is an incredibly user-focused and democratic approach.
Grand Design, on the other hand, is an approach where the new product emerges fully-formed in the mind’s eye before it is commercialized. It gives a small number of people decision-making power and operates through top-down stewardship.
WeChat has integrated both approaches in the product development process. However, it leans more heavily on the Grand Design approach given Allen’s top-down management style. All features have to go through Allen for approval. As a result, WeChat has benefited enormously from having a singular and coherent identity.
I’m very happy that I can accompany a product for eight years. Moreover, I’ve always seen myself as a product manager, not a business manager.
I believe this is necessary, because a good product requires a certain degree of ‘dictatorship’, otherwise it will embody all sorts of different, conflicting opinions and its personality will become fragmented.” - Allen Zhang
03. Allen models WeChat’s design process after Dieter Rams 👩💻
Dieter Rams, who came up with the 10 principles of good tool design, is also highly regarded by Apple. Allen believes that both hardware and software products are essentially tools, so principles for tool design are applicable to both.
A good product is:
Innovative; it must have creativity
Easy to use
Timeless; it won’t become outdated
Doesn’t skip over any small details
Environmentally friendly and doesn’t waste resources
Not overly designed, “less is more”
Allen believes that many products in the industry do not emphasize product design - instead, design is only used to pad out a feature or squeeze profits from users.
04. Make the best tool and get users out of the app as fast as possible 🔧
Allen believes that the primary goal for technology should be helping humankind increase efficiency. WeChat’s foundation is to be an excellent tool. A friend that accompanies a user throughout their life.
“Everyone only has 24 hours in a day. The mission of developers shouldn’t be to make users spend all their time on their phones aside from when they eat and sleep.
We are more concerned with when our users communicate, post a picture, read an article, make a payment, or find a Mini Program, that they can do it as quickly and efficiently as possible – this is what makes the best tool.”
Some concrete examples:
WeChat doesn’t have a “message read” status - there are no indicators of when a message is sent or read — because the goal is for the user to send messages and then exit the conversation.
WeChat encourages users to put down their phones - In 2018, WeChat ran a campaign encouraging users to put down their phones and meet their friends more in-person.
A simple 4 icon bar - Despite hundreds of features, the navigation bar at the bottom of the WeChat screen is four icons: Chat, Contacts, Discover, Me. Zhang: “I told the team to establish a rule that WeChat shall always have a four-icon bar, and never add anything to it.”
Avoiding app bloat - There is a conception that WeChat is an all-in-one app. However, Allen knows there is a limit to how much a single app or tool can hold. To avoid an over-bloated app, he recently announced that WeChat is expanding to revolve around different standalone apps.
05. Products should serve delight and human connection ✨
Allen wants WeChat to be a place for self-expression and connection for everyone. Here’s some delightful product examples:
Tickling - You can tickle someone right now on WeChat by tapping on their profile photo.
Statuses - You can set your profile status to reflect your state.
Send a Drifting Bottle to meet new friends - this early feature enabled users to send drifting bottles with voice and text messages that get virtually picked up by another random user.
Shake to add friends - In order to add new friends on WeChat, you simply need to take out your cell phone and wave in order to exchange WeChat IDs.
06. The Golden Principle: The User is Your Friend 👯♀️
5 centuries before Christ, Confucius set forth his own Golden Rule: "Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself."
Allen brings this philosophy into product development at WeChat. The backbone of his philosophy is to think about users as his friends. This means designing products with the sincerest best intentions for its users. It means putting their needs above even company stakeholders.
He believes that only when one treats users with genuine empathy, will products be used for a longer time.
If WeChat was a person, it would be your best friend based on the amount of time you spend on it. So, how could we put an advertisement on the face of your best friend? Every time you see them, you would have to watch an advertisement before you could talk to them.
This is not just a PR tactic. Allen has prioritized avoiding all monetization that might negatively impact daily platform usage, despite facing pressures of being a publicly-traded company.
Despite all the advertising revenue potential with an app that has over one billion daily active users, WeChat limits ads in its social feed to just 2 per day. In contrast, westerners tend to see 10,000 ads/day.
These are just a few ways in which this philosophy has informed the product:
It’s disrespectful to touch people’s hearts on purpose - During the holiday season, many Chinese apps tweak their logos to include festive elements, and introduced a “looking back at the year” feature in an effort to touch users’ hearts. But this is not something WeChat does.
I think it’s a little disrespectful to try to touch someone on purpose. I think our product must maintain a very high level of professionalism, and treat users as friends, not as people that we can boss around.
Just as you wouldn’t recommend random products to a friend, a platform shouldn’t recommend merchants without the users best interests at heart
We don’t want to curate or interfere with various services provided on WeChat. Our goal is to allow good services to surface themselves and be found by users – not through our curation. This is also driven by our respect for users.
User privacy is a priority - A lot of people think WeChat sell’s user data via the chat history. However, WeChat remains firm on not analyzing users’ chat data.
Users have told us their need for certain features, such as syncing conversation history to the cloud. It’s not that we can’t realize the sync technically. But from a security point of view, it’s best not to retain chat history, so that has always been our default mode.”
WeChat caps the max amount of friends you can have - Because nobody has 5,000 close friends, Allen wants to ensure posts in Moments (WeChat’s life post feature) are authentic rather than promotional. New WeChat adds beyond 5,000 are restricted to chat only, without access to Moments.
07. Letting value creators cultivate value 💪
Allen often talks about WeChat as a place where creators / merchants can cultivate their value.
This is demonstrated through a few key product decisions:
Refusing to pay creators for content - Allen believes that a platform that is well designed enough should empower creators to make money off of authentic and quality content themselves.
Official Accounts is a product where everyone, no matter how small, can have their own brand.
Decentralizing discovery - Though WeChat can be used for a wide range of activities, each user has to actively search for and discover all of these 3rd-party services themselves. WeChat has built a many-sided system, where it resides as the “caretaker” of the overall environment. In this decentralized ecosystem, creators are forced to earn their own growth ideally by providing the most value they can to end users.
Enabling tipping to creators directly - You can directly receive money for your goods through WeChats payment QR code system. In the new version of WeChat, users will be able to “tip” the authors themselves directly, and not through the official accounts that the authors publish from.
Live-streaming feature - WeChat launched this feature recently to enable merchants to build trust with their customers when selling wares.
08. Quality, not openness, is the greatest good that a platform can deliver 🧠
In the West, we believe that openness is the greatest good that a platform can deliver: Facebook opened us to a new world of possible connections, YouTube helped us discover talent from far-flung continents, and Twitter gave us a buffet of digital conversations to chime into at any time.
The values these products index on are those of:
On the other hand, Allen believes the greatest good a platform can offer are:
Breadth and diversity
Quality of the content
These lay at the heart of a platform’s core responsibilities. It is within these parameters, that individuals can then freely choose the content they want to consume.
A person’s world used to be how far they can walk, but now it is the breadth (and the quality) of information they acquire,” because “what you see & read determines what kind of person you are and the thoughts you’ll have.
- Allen Zhang
P.S. This ultimately begs another question - who gets to define diversity and quality if it is all relative to the person? These are all challenging questions to answer, and ones that American companies predominately have shied away from. Keep in mind, Allen’s view here also reflects the regulatory reality of China’s internet which holds platforms responsible for the content it contributes.
09. Social products should be authentic and alleviate stress, not engender it 👀
Back in prehistoric times, socialization came to be when humans started forming groups in order to survive. The most important objective for an individual was to not be excluded from the group. The way to meet this objective was to demonstrate their value to the group through boasting.
Allen believes that “communication is the process of inculcating one’s self-image into another person’s mind” and socialization is a core human need that WeChat strives to solve through Moments - a place to post photos of your life.
However, very early on he realized that this tool could cause social stress and pressure due to the pressure to impress others.
Thus, WeChat made a series of improvements:
He launched a short-video status feature called “Time Capsule” - the feature encourages users to portray their days truthfully.
Timed content - He also gave users the ability to set their Moments posts to only be visible to friends for 3 days, so they could communicate good and bad moments bravely, at the lowest stress level possible.
10. Products shouldn’t rely on “Growth Hacking”. If a new product can’t grow naturally, don’t market it 📈
Allen has proclaimed many times that WeChat’s style is to improve product and not get better at operations/growth.
In the first 5 months of WeChat, the team didn’t promote it themselves. Instead, they waited to see if users would be attracted to WeChat and then promote it themselves.
If users weren’t willing to do this, whatever marketing they did would be meaningless. Although it took more time, it meant that the product was healthy when it really started to grow.
Our number of users grows organically. In my view, what we should consider is what kind of services we want to provide to our users – this is a more important question. The number of users is always limited, service is unlimited.”
11. PMs shouldn’t be solely evaluated on monetary KPIs 💰
It seems that these days every websites’ goal is to capture as much attention as possible.
Allen believes that because many company objectives are to increase traffic and make money, everyone’s KPI then becomes to increase traffic and make money.
PMs in many industries are misled by their companies. Because the purpose of companies is to increase traffic, everyone’s KPIs are based around producing traffic. Thus, everyone’s job is not to create the best products, but to use all means possible to acquire traffic.
Product design should not be reduced to “processes” that can be continuously optimized by data-driven teams.
Instead, PMs at WeChat think about the meaning behind every detail of everything they do and focus on organic customer acquisition and adoption of new features:
At WeChat, every PM ensures that each feature or service has a meaning or a dream behind it. If a feature is made for just gaining traffic, and it doesn’t provide value to users, then it’ll have problems, it won’t last.”
12. User Research is a requirement for all PMs via the 10/100/1000 Principle 💯
Allen asks developers and PMs to put themselves in the shoes of their least sophisticated users – people who might be technologically illiterate, or trying WeChat for the first time.
From his early days in the company, he pushed his team to develop this ‘dumb user’ perspective through what he called the 10/100/1000 principle. Every month, PMs are expected to do:
10 end-user interviews
read 100 user blogs
collect feedback from 1,000 user experiences
13. However, one must be selective with the user research you act on and make decisions from good principles first 🌱
Despite the mandate of developing deep user empathy, Zhang is extremely selective with which user requests go into the product.
Why? If one does everything users ask, the result is increased complexity and a loss of coherence.
He has two general rules of thumb for any new feature request:
Coherence - is it consistent with the existing design?
Simplicity - can I still do the basics well if I add this feature?
Any major updates will always cause user dissatisfaction because people are used to whatever they are familiar with, and whatever they are familiar with is the best.
It’s unrealistic to poll a billion users to decide what is good, so one must always make decisions that follow good principles.
14. Challenges come from users not competitors 💥
Allen doesn’t think much about competitors. Instead, he sees the competitor as WeChat itself - and whether his organization will be able to keep up with users whose tastes and needs change every year.
Previously, a technology ‘era’ was 10 years long, but since the coming of the internet and mobile, an era is now 3-5 years. This means that as the change of eras is happening faster than ever, so are new demands.
With these constant and rapid changes, WeChat doesn’t really need to be concerned about how many more users they can get. Instead, they are focused on meeting future needs.
15. The best KPI is hope 🤍
In Allen’s 2019 product philosophy speech, he concluded his speech with:
Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
I often think if WeChat can’t give our users even a little bit of hope, then we can’t judge whether what we’re doing is right or wrong. So, this is also how we measure ourselves.
When a platform only focuses on pursuing its own benefits, it’s short sighted, it won’t last. When a platform can benefit the people, then it’ll take on a life of its own.
In conclusion, here are Allen Zhang’s 15 Mindful Product Principles:
Product Management is art, not commerce 🎨
Follow the “Grand Design” approach to innovation vs. “Design Thinking” 🌏
A good product should be innovative, useful, beautiful, easy to use, unobtrusive, honest, timeless, environmentally friendly, and not overly designed 👩💻
The goal is to make the best tool and get users out of the app as fast as possible🔧
Products should facilitate delight and human connection ✨
The Golden Principle: The user is your friend 👯♀️
Empower value creators to cultivate value 💪
Quality, not openness, is the greatest good that a platform can deliver 🧠
Social products should be authentic and alleviate stress, not engender it 👀
Products shouldn’t rely on “Growth Hacking”. If a new product can’t grow naturally, don’t market it 📈
PMs shouldn’t be solely evaluated on monetary KPIs, if at all 💰
User Research is a requirement for all PMs via the 10/100/100 Principle 💯
However, one must be selective when listening to users and make decisions from good principles first 🌱
Your biggest competitors are your users 💥
The best product KPI is hope 🤍
That’s all for today’s issue. I hope we can take some of these learnings to heart and go onto building more products that operate from a human-first philosophy, like Allen.
Thank you for being part of The Wellness Wisdom newsletter today.
I’m Patricia and have a full-time job but curate this newsletter in my free time as a labor of love.
This newsletter is free because I believe everyone deserves to have access to wellness resources.
If you want to support this publication, join me down the rabbit hole🔮🐇.
I also curate bi-weekly at AmorFati - a newsletter where I share whats been inspiring me in art, photography, architecture, and literature.