Lessons from MyFitnessPal: Building User-Centric Products in a Competitive Market

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In the realm of digital innovation, the journey from concept to creation often leads through a maze of challenges, compromises, and unexpected revelations.

It’s a journey Albert Lee, co-founder of MyFitnessPal, knows well. During Lee and his brother, Mike Lee’s, tenure, MyFitnessPal grew to 80 million active users before Under Armour acquired it in 2015 for $475 million.

We were excited to go back to the humble beginnings of this extremely successful habit-tracking app to discuss with Albert how they homed in on a user-centric product in a landscape inundated with competition and customer demands.

The Beginning of MyFitnessPal

In 2005, during the leadup to his wedding, Mike decided to improve his physique. He connected with a trainer who let him know that diet would be the most crucial part of hitting his goals. The trainer gave him a physical journal and an encyclopedia of foods to look up calories.

Mike quickly realized that this was neither practical nor sustainable. Mike pitched the idea to his brother and they knew they had an opportunity to fill a gap in the market.

At a time when smartphones were yet to dominate the market, it became clear a digital solution would enable a critical component: ease of use. Mike and Albert knew the app had to be simple and fast.

“If you put a piece of software in front of somebody that is supposedly trying to help them do this thing, but it’s frustrating to use or has lots of different problems with the way that it’s designed, that’s only going to increase their frustration rather than really assist the user in trying to achieve their goals.”

Launching (and Growing) with Users in Mind

When MyFitnessPal launched, Albert called on his previous product management experience and paid close attention to user behavior. Users saw changing their nutrition and fitness habits as an uphill battle, so the app had to unlock tangible results for users as fast and frictionless as possible to encourage returning use.

The app gained traction as users saw, and shared, their results. The company suddenly had thousands of walking success stories in the form of past and current users, resulting in an explosion of growth.

Instead of hiring more engineers as they scaled, they focused on quality assurance. Everything came down to the success of the customers and that ethos spread to their business model. They set the highest standards of product quality, knowing that a lag, bug, or confusing UI would turn off a user on their fitness journey. They ingrained product principles of simplicity and quality and how those are tied to user success in every part of their business. Those principles impacted everything from how they shipped features to the turnaround time on customer support requests.

Navigating Product Growth

However, as the app gained traction, the duo encountered a familiar challenge: navigating the cacophony of customer requests and competitive pressures. They managed to uphold their product principles amidst the clamor of demands and the allure of adding new features. Albert and Mike made it a point to counter biases and evaluate the true value of each proposed feature against the potential complexities it introduces.

“All customers pay the price of some of these design decisions, even though only some customers reap the benefits of them.”

Despite being the top-requested feature for years, the team resisted implementing time tracking in the app. Through direct conversations with users, they unearthed a startling revelation: the complexity of introducing time tracking to the UI outweighs the perceived benefit to users, and there were multiple fractional use cases based on the varied interpretations of “time tracking.”

By practicing a high level of feature-development restraint, the MyFitnessPal team was able to keep users focused on core goals, which led to longer engagement and achievement.

Discerning True Value

Understanding user needs goes beyond surface-level requests. It involves delving deeper to discern the true value proposition and weighing it against the inevitable trade-offs in user experience. This is why having a strong product strategy can give you the direction you need to keep you from veering off into a feature factory.

In a landscape where noise is abundant and user expectations are ever-evolving, maintaining clarity amidst the chaos is paramount. By anchoring decisions in a steadfast commitment to user success and simplicity, innovators can navigate the tumultuous waters of product development with purpose and precision.

It’s critical we dig into the core of user problems as we craft solutions and balance them with the effects of the design decision on the entire user base. Every decision we make (or don’t make) has a cost and a benefit to be weighed. A clear product vision and principles are crucial for this decision-making and even more so as your product begins to scale.

When it came to MFP, the true measure of success was not in the abundance of features, but in the seamlessness of the user experience and the fulfillment of their goals. The app has 200 million users, making it the most popular health and fitness app in the market. An unwavering focus on the user set it apart from any other fitness tracker and led to its success.


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