Discovering Powerful Features

Recently, I wrote about the power of taking time off and how games can feed the imagination.

Lately, I've been playing a whole lot of Mario Kart.

I always pick Toad. I always drive something that has a good balance of speed and traction. I like the "off-road" wheels.


Learning Basics and Power Moves

At the most basic level, in order to enjoy a race of Mario Kart, one needs only to learn the basics of the handheld controller: hit A to accelerate, move the joystick to steer.

As you're rounding a course, you cannot help but discover that: boxes contain prizes and weapons and ramps give you a boost.

If you keep playing, you may learn that braking gives you more control around corners, and you need to pull back on the joystick to glide. As you make multiple laps around a course, you may notice secret paths or shortcuts to pursue.

After finishing a Grand Prix, coin counts unlock new vehicle customizations. The psychology here doesn't feel like, "Oh boy! It's a major award! Next time I must collect 100% of the coins." It feels like, "What's this? I wonder how it drives. Let's give it a go…" Rewards aren't designed to make you feel like a winner, but to encourage you to keep playing, just one more round.

When I'd been playing on 100cc for 5 rounds or so every day, I hit a plateau. I was consistently falling into 2nd or 3rd place. Then, during one race, I noticed that Donkey Kong pulled some sweet trick move on a ramp. I remembered - or rediscovered - that you can hit the top right trigger on a ramp to get an extra boost.

Teaching Power Moves to Friends

In my next 2-player match, I impressed my partner with my new tricks.

"Hey - how'd you do that?"

"Hit the trigger on the ramps!"

In exchange, my partner taught me that you can hit the down button when dropping a weapon to throw it behind you.

"Wait - what? How am I just now learning this?!"

Anyone can start playing Mario Kart and trial-and-error their way to some serious fun pretty quickly. The more you play, the more you discover. And, if you're lucky enough to have an experienced partner, they might teach you a few things.

But, imagine this: what if before you could start playing Mario Kart, you were required to play a tutorial round and read lots of instructions that explicitly taught you all of the power moves, including how to get a rocket start.

First, it would probably feel like a lot of work to learn so many new things so quickly. Second, it would totally kill the fun.

Discovery is fun. Learning with friends is fun.

Mario Kart is both discoverble and teachable. There's documentation out there if you need to master everything, but when you get started, you don't need to know everything about Mario Kart to value the game.

Discoverability and Teachability in SaaS Software

When I think about the must-have SaaS software products in my life, some are definitely more discoverable than others.

Highly discoverable apps have completely intuitive designs and functions, so you can trial-and-error your way to value extremely quickly.

On the other extreme, a highly teachable app requires that you must complete some formalized training and gain certification in order to realize value from the application.

Here's a map of where some of my must-have SaaS tools fall:

Must-have SaaS apps on a grid

All of these SaaS apps are must-have tools for me, but the ones that I enjoy using the most show up in the "Discoverable + Powerful" category.

"Simple + Discoverable" tools can sometimes represent must-haves that we love using but undervalue.

"Powerful + Teachable" tools feel difficult and confusing to use, but if we work hard to learn how to use them we may find value in our acquired skills. In fact, when powerful but difficult tools rely on human communities for teaching, the strength of those communitities can generate enough advocacy to overcome usability trade-offs. The downside is that the more value we place on learning the quirks of a tool, the riskier it is to change - even to improve - the UX.

If something is highly simple and undiscoverable, the cost of learning the tool may outweigh the benefits. Few of our must-have tools fit in this category.

Discoverability and Teachability of Features

As highly discoverable SaaS apps become more robust and powerful, it's possible that some of the more powerful features may index higher in terms of teachability.

Think about using a tool like Slack. There's a seamless registration, a super lightweight navigation tour, and then you land in a highly intuitive welcome screen. You can interact with Slackbot to learn more, and the next action in onboarding is clearly highlighted in the lefthand column:

+ Invite people


If you can invite a team of people and post a message to them, then you can see the power of Slack right away. But, over time, you may also discover more features that help Slack integrate into your workflow, so that it becomes a true must-have product for you. At some point, you may need to read some documentation or have a friend teach you some tricks to get the most out of Slack.

Features on a gride

Pacing Discovery and Teaching in Onboarding

As we consider onboarding and usability in SaaS apps, we often try to teach all the power moves upfront, because we're afraid that people won't discover that our app is a must-have tool.

It's our job to figure out:

  1. What is the most powerful feature that we can make instantly discoverable, and
  2. What easily attainable reward can we offer to entice a customer to play just one more round discover the next most valuable feature?