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The tech world was buzzing about Facebook’s redesign yesterday, but I was more interested in what was new at the “anti-Facebook,” Path. If you haven’t heard of it (and, given that it only has 6 million users, you may not have), Path is a mobile-only social network that limits you to 150 connections. The idea is that this limitation matches the limit most humans have on maintaining meaningful relationships. Path, then, is supposed to be the social network where your “real” friends are. On Wednesday Path released, um, “Path 3” (they like to issue product updates as if they’re movie sequels), which includes private messaging, “Stickers” (large emoji, basically), and a “Shop” (where you can buy the Stickers and photo filters). 

All fine and dandy. The trouble, though, is that none of these features tell me what I should hire Path to do for me.

Did I just say “hire”? Who thinks about a social network that way? You do – even though you might not know it. When you buy or use a product, you’re not looking for new features to help you solve problems. You’re hiring it to do a job for you. This “jobs to be done” framework, originally proposed by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, may sound like semantic hairsplitting. But when applied to vaporous digital products it can be ruthlessly clarifying. Jason Fried of 37signals found that his company’s successful project management software, Basecamp, wasn’t being “hired” by its users to manage projects as much as “cover their asses.” With that blunt teleological insight in hand, he knew what features mattered to his users and which ones didn’t – and it wasn’t necessarily what he and his team intended.

Path’s “anti-Facebook” founding concept – privacy-focused, small on purpose, etc. – is compelling. But a concept doesn’t do a job, a product does. And Path 3 clearly has very little idea of what job it’s actually doing. This fogginess extends down to the subtle details of how individual features, like the new private messaging, are designed and implemented. You’d think that being able to send a private message to 2nd-degree connections (friends of friends, as Path’s does) would be quite useful. So would a contacts-search interface that dynamically suggests possible recipients as you type (e.g., starting with “s” generates a list of everybody in your 2nd-degree network whose name starts with “s”, and so on). But these “user friendly” features made Path user and Wired columnist Mat Honan downright mad

Why? Because the job that Honan hired Path to do is not “make it easier for me to find and connect, or be found and connected to.” As he aptly notes, Facebook already does that job. I’m not really sure what job Honan hired Path to do, and I don’t think he is either – which is part of the problem. Something small (that fits the 150-connection scale), something private… but what? All we know, with every update, is what job Path isn’t quite cut out for. I know that I once tried to hire Path to help me share pictures of my infant daughter with my immediate family. I deleted it in short order because I discovered that Path, well-intentioned and attractively designed though it was, sucked at doing that job. 

And yet Path does have those 6 million users. They’ve all hired Path to do something for them. What is it? Path’s new video commercial has no damn idea. Honan suggests two jobs for Path, based on anecdotal evidence of what people are actually hiring it for: to keep conversations between small cliques of professional peers honest by ensuring that they’re “off the record”; and to share multimedia within families easily and without fear that it’ll end up on Google or in an ad.  

I’d certainly hire Path to do the latter job, but that’s just me; I’m sure that Dave Morin, Path’s founder, has access to much more detailed research on what job his 6 million users are hiring his app to do. He should identify it and commit to it, just like Jason Fried did with Basecamp. But if that job really, honestly has anything to do with selling me Stickers in a Store, I’ll be surprised. 

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