Four Key Product Principles from WeChat’s Creator 

Throughout China, Allen Zhang is known as the “father of WeChat”. Zhang’s public persona has much the same cultural importance and weight as the American legacy of Steve Jobs. He is renowned in China’s tech scene as an artist and philosopher, as well as for his fierce mission against anything that degrades user experience. Product managers throughout China have flocked to work at WeChat to learn from Zhang’s product acumen and learn from the product-driven (versus engineering or design-driven) environment he has built.

Zhang’s English Wikipedia article, on the other hand, is three sentences long.

While we often discuss the very different product approaches that Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel have adopted when it comes to building social networks, the conversation feels incomplete without the Allen Zhang approach. For the last eight years WeChat has been at the forefront of social innovation: popularizing money as a means of communication via Red Packets; pioneering Mini Programs (free-standing services that don’t require an app download); and overall becoming the world’s most popular super app, directly connecting netizens with brands and businesses.

Part of the silence around Zhang has to do with the fact that he tends to shy away from the media, only speaking publicly once a year, at the WeChat annual developer conference.  Zhang recently delivered a four-hour speech at the 2019 conference, where he shared his philosophy on product to the world. This post highlights four key principles of Zhang’s 2019 speech and sheds light on his novel way of approaching product.

#1 The Golden Principle: The user is your friend

The backbone of Allen’s product philosophy is thinking about users as his friends. This means designing products with sincere best intentions for the users and putting their interests above all others — even company stakeholders. For Zhang, the importance of always putting the user first is very simple: “Only when we treat users with genuine empathy will our products be used for a longer time.” What this means to Zhang is that product design should not be reduced to “processes” that can be continuously optimized by data-driven teams. He believes there is an amount of whimsical inspiration that process optimization cannot solve for.

Another consequence of Zhang’s prioritization of the user experience is a tendency to avoid all monetization that might negatively impact daily platform use. Allen’s take on whether or not to maximize monetization potential is black and white: “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.” Unlike many other Chinese apps, WeChat has no VIP subscription that provides an enhanced user experience, nor a full screen ad upon launching the app. 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 two per day.

#2 Technology is for efficiency

Allen takes an extreme view of the purpose of technology and its role in our lives: “People only have 24 hours in each day. The internet’s goal should not be to reduce our lives to spending all time outside of eating, drinking, sleeping, and digesting (吃喝拉撒) on our mobile phones.” He believes that the mission of technology should be solely to improve a user’s efficiency, and that the greater industry’s focus on time spent in app is flawed. Technology’s ability to increase our efficiency should be paramount: “As a tool, WeChat must help users get the most useful information in the shortest possible time.” Zhang admits there are plenty of ways to increase use time, “but this would not sit well with users because it lowers their social media efficiency… We care about the question, ‘Are we the most fast and efficient?’ This alone is the best tool.” This mindset has a number of parallels to Steve Jobs’ original minimalist vision for the role of smartphones in our day-to-day lives.

One example of how this is incorporated into product design in WeChat is how read receipts or message delivery notifications are handled. WeChat does not give any indicators of when a message is sent or read — because Zhang’s goal is for the user to send messages, and then exit the conversation. In his view, this principle is the only path to long term viability.

It may seem counterintuitive that a man who has created China’s most popular social network is focused on efficiency, seeing his product as a tool rather than a social destination. But for Zhang, WeChat’s core use case is to simplify how its users maintain relationships, which in turn should give users more time away from their phones. He justifies the role of technology here as increasing social efficiency: “If there was no Internet in the real world, everyone would socialize [in person], maybe go to dinners, attend parties, and meet up with friends. But this kind of offline social efficiency is relatively low because it must cut across space and time.”

#3 KPIs are secondary

One of the most shocking management ideas that Zhang holds dear is that over-incenting teams with KPIs (key performance indicators) — a widely held practice in the US — is in fact counterproductive. Zhang’s team does track key metrics, but they are mostly observed and used as evidence in a supporting role rather than driving product strategy. Importantly, product strategy and performance evaluations are never defined in terms of key metrics. One could call it a “data informed” versus a “data driven” approach.

So if KPIs are not the primary target for product, what is? Again, Zhang’s teams are driven by user needs above all, and in their world, good metrics are the by-product of understanding users and never the primary goal. “Our teams have developed the habit of thinking about the deeper meaning behind each function and service,” said Zhang. “If a function is done purely for traffic, and we can’t think of what value it brings to the user, this feature is problematic or not long-term.”

Too many, Zhang feels, are distracted and misled by this focus on traffic — including many great product managers. “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.” So rather than over orient on hitting particular traffic metrics, Allen pushes his team to focus on organic customer acquisition and organic adoption of new features. This means even though WeChat’s audience of over 1B MAU’s could easily be leveraged to promote new features, Zhang believes it is critical to step back and first observe natural growth: “During the first five months of WeChat, we didn’t promote any new features. If a user is not willing to share items naturally, it is meaningless how much we promote products.”

The best products, in Zhang’s opinion, not only have organic adoption but also require no explanation. During his four-hour speech, Zhang spent 45 minutes describing WeChat’s latest feature: Time Capsule (WeChat’s take on the stories format). When he concluded that portion of his speech, he paused and observed, “I think a good product doesn’t need to be explained. I explained so much that it’s a clear indication we didn’t do well enough.”

In short, for Zhang and the WeChat team, KPIs are secondary only; intuitive, user-friendly product is the north star at the core of every decision.

#4 Decentralized ecosystem

WeChat’s bottom navigation bar has only four tabs: ‘chats’, ‘contacts’, ‘discover’, and ‘me’. This is deceptively simple; as we’ve written in the past, this super app is used for far more than messaging. Much more akin to an operating system, WeChat can be used for a wide range of activities — playing games, booking hotels, shopping, browsing news, even using Microsoft Office. The catch however, is that each user has to actively search for and discover all of these 3rd-party services themselves.

Using WeChat is like setting up a brand new iPhone in 2019 and not having an AppStore to search for apps. In order for a WeChat user to add an official account or Mini Program (3rd party software), he/she needs to know the exact name to search for, have a specific QR code to scan, or be linked to the developer’s page via a friend. At first glance, this seems like an extremely poor discovery experience (and business model) — so what would drive Zhang and his team to design the ecosystem this way? Most platforms have a three-sided product with a triangular relationship between the user, a developer/publisher and the platform operator. In this scenario, the platform may encourage users to trust certain developers — either as a result of paid advertising or by presenting a list of the top trending products. The result is often that the big developers usually get bigger.

Zhang pushes WeChat instead to build a many-sided system, where WeChat resides as the “caretaker” of the overall environment. In this decentralized ecosystem, developers are forced to earn their own growth ideally by providing the most value they can to end users. As Zhang said in his 2018 speech, “Our job is more to let the good services emerge, which is showing respect towards our users.” To Zhang, decentralization, in this case leaving all Mini Programs and official accounts on an even playing field is integral to creating a long-lasting ecosystem: “If we didn’t decentralize, Tencent would have monopolize Mini Programs but we wouldn’t have the external developers. It seems as though Tencent would obtain short-term profit, but lose the ecology.”

To this day WeChat does not provide users with a list of trending official accounts or Mini Programs to follow. Users are left entirely on their own to find developers, and vice versa. Yet less than two years post launch, there are over one million Mini Programs and over 200M DAU’s of these Mini Programs. Zhang believes the ecosystem’s early success is a result of his stark deemphasis on metrics. “If we had created Mini Programs based around meeting KPIs,” Zhang said, “we wouldn’t even have known how to formulate the KPIs. If you surround yourself with metrics, you probably will never meet them.”

Zhang’s idealism has manifested itself in what at times looks like a blunt stubbornness to focus on product and product alone. But on the other hand, it is perhaps precisely this product stubbornness that has also have made Zhang a great businessman. Over 1B users log into WeChat each day; the product is so trusted by its users that WeChat Pay has over 800 million MAUs who have linked their payment credentials and regularly use the product for mobile payment. And stubbornness aside, Zhang remains open-minded and willing to re-evaluate his own views. In 2012, Zhang gave his first speech on product (unofficial translated slides here). That particular speech lasted 8 hours and 20 minutes, and part of his conclusion was, “Everything that I just said is incorrect.” His ending is a call for critical thinking — to constantly challenge your beliefs, deny your own conclusions, and reassess your decision-making process.

A strongly product-led philosophy driven by principles like these is not without its challenges. Critics say Zhang’s approach to thinking about product may not always be realistic in terms of company viability. User-first product philosophy is integral for long-term survival, but in the short term, it can be at odds with maximizing shareholder value. Studying Zhang’s product philosophy raises a few questions: Are these principles generalizable? If WeChat had been a standalone private company versus part of Tencent, would it have been able to postpone monetization for so long? What lessons can be learned about investor patience and looking at the big-picture? And finally, how does a creator that is so opinionated on product not become a bottleneck for his or her team? As Zhang also stated in his speech: “Good products require a certain level of dictatorship, otherwise it will contain a lot of different opinions and fragment product character.”

But just the act of considering such product-led principled thinking can push us to new ideas, frameworks and innovations, such as — in what ways can these principles be adapted for different business models? And how might thinking of product as a tool be applied or adapted to other sectors that traditionally focus on daily-use time? Only time will tell whether Allen’s principles are correct or incorrect. Nevertheless, discussing them and creating a mindset to challenge ourselves is critical to creating our own product philosophy.

Zhang’s speech was delivered in Chinese; English translations and this grouping into principles are our own.

Thanks to Avery Segal for his research help.

Happy Lunar New Year! Check out our other pieces on tech trends in China — and innovation beyond — in this roundup.