The Dilemma of Invisible Features

3 minute read

Working across different products over the years, I noticed there’s a useful mental model that can help thinking about their strategies — especially if we are talking about freemium. This simple mental model provides a useful perspective to have at the very beginning based on the natural visibility of the product with the user.

We can identify three categories:

  • Intrinsic touchpoints
  • Invisible touchpoints
  • Injected touchpoints

An intrinsic touchpoint happens when the users explicitly interact with the product. A simple example is video streaming: once registered and paid for, the user will always have to come back to the service every time they want to use it. The touchpoint has an intrinsic nature: there’s no service without that touchpoint — we can thus largely assimilate this with the UI itself.

On the opposite side we have the invisible touchpoint, which is a scenario where the users are actively using a service, but they never have to interact with any interface in order to use it. Good examples of this are service providers: internet, electricity, gas, etc. Once setup, the ideal scenario for the user is to never interact with them again, because that means that things are working.

You can see however how products with intrinsic touchpoints have an existing and natural way to interact with the user. This works especially well for freemium, as each one of these interactions provides a potential moment to upsell the “paid” service to the user. To be clear I’m not advising they have to — the best upsells are meaningful and add value to the user — just that potentially that interface is available right there.

The problem is with services that have invisible touchpoints: they don’t have a natural, potentially non-intrusive way to talk the the users. This is why this kind of service is usually paid upfront, and they try to lock-in users as much as possible. But what if it’s a freemium, or what if they want to upsell, or provide more services?

There are two more common options:

  1. They start providing other related products that provide intrinsic touchpoints.
  2. They start injecting touchpoints that highlight the product.

An example of the first option are internet providers: they try to offer on top of their connection other services like video on demand. This is to ensure that the product with an invisible touchpoint (the internet connection) is complemented by one or more intrinsic touchpoints (video on demand).

The second option instead threads the line between product and marketing. Again the best example are utility providers: think about the phone bill. Yes it provides a useful way to check you’re not overpaying (which, is not a great experience), but at the same time, it’s the once-a-month chance the company has to speak with you. And if they want to do more… they have to send you more letters or more emails to get your attention. These are injected touchpoints, something that isn’t really part of the product, and you could probably live without, but they are created to have a chance to talk to you.

Injected touchpoints need to be crafted carefully to not become annoying. The best ones usually provide something valuable to the user, even if tangential. In digital, they often take the form of emails, which is why they are borderline with marketing.

You might also realize at this point that for some digital services that use emails effectively, the line between an intrinsic touchpoint and an injected touchpoint can be a bit blurred.

It’s thus useful to use these “invisible touchpoints” mental model in a general sense at the beginning of assessing a product strategy, and it becomes less useful in trying to identify specifically which interaction fits each of the three categories above. Some might not be that obvious, and that’s ok.

Knowing what kind of product you’re building, and how you can interact with your users, is key. This can be a foundational element of discussion for growth strategies. And a critical aspect to resolve quickly in a freemium product.