How to Explode the Ticking Clock of Wow…

How to Design for Near-Instant Wow

James Buckhouse


Use design to defeat the ticking clock of Customer-Product Fit

When designing a product… ask yourself this terrifying question: How long does it take to get to WOW?

How long does it take for a potential customer to go from initial awareness to fully believing that your app or service is absolutely essential and totally worth it? Is it minutes? Hours? Days? Does it take longer? And what would it take to reduce that time to near-zero?

Hidden in this question is an even more uncomfortable question: given unlimited time, will your customers ever think of your product as essential? If not, then what would need to change in your product to get there?

Get a baseline.

To start, you need to figure out your awareness-to-worth-it baseline. Get out a stopwatch and time how long it take a person in your target group to go from seeing a link or hearing about your app from a friend to a feeling of actual satisfaction while using it. Record this time in seconds.

Using the utterly unreasonable units of seconds is not a mistake—even for long time-to-wow scores. It may make eels turn in your stomach when you start to multiply 60*60*24*30 to count up all the seconds in a month, but measuring time-to-wow in seconds is the only way to go. Any other unit of duration allows for ambiguous long-term vagueness to replace doing the difficult work of figuring out exactly what needs to happen at each second in the experience.

To reduce the time-to-wow from months to days to seconds, start at the top of the funnel. It doesn’t matter what you do later down in the funnel if customers bounce before they begin. The first hurdles matter most: your name and first impression moment.

“Instant Wow” starts with your name.

You name matters. You need a name that does specific work for you at the top of the funnel. Sure, an extraordinary product can sometimes find a way to overcome a bad name, but why give yourself this unnecessary burden?

Your name can explain what you are doing, promise a better future, paint a picture of a different world, sound cool, intrigue and entice, or evoke helpful emotions, or do whatever work you need your name to do. Your name is also the first step in NUX (new user experience). The customer can’t even get started on a product experience if she or he can’t remember your name and successfully search it.

Name checklist:

  • A name people can remember and spell
  • A name people can successfully search
  • A name that helps people know how to feel and what to believe

“Instant Wow” requires a perfect first impression moment.

After your potential customer has learned your name, successfully searched for (and actually found) your app or site, and is ready to venture further… the next few seconds will make the difference between winning over a customer or potentially losing them forever. This first-impression moment matters more than anything else you do further down the funnel.

First impression checklist:

  • A great first impression sells the problem
  • A great first impression shows your difference
  • A great first impression shows the customer how to feel

If you do all of this, your first impression moment will emotionally win over the customer while simultaneously reframing the decision logic to your advantage.

Track the costs.

In addition to tracking your baseline time-to-wow in seconds, you need to get a handle on what it all costs to have your customer feel that your product is absolutely essential and totally worth it. Does your customer hear about it once and instantly fall in love? Or does it take an army of cajoling convincers to drag the customer across the threshold of lukewarm acceptance?

How many emails, ads, billboards, TikTok videos, or TV appearances were required? How many customer success conversations? How many chats on Discord? How sales reps? How many marketers? What is the total cost (not just how much you spend on ads) in terms of effort, time, partnerships, and additional brand or awareness marketing? Once you’ve tracked all the costs, place them next to your customer touch points on your time-to-wow timeline.

This is worth digging into: once you map your “time-to-wow” touch points and costs on a timeline, what do you notice? How can you be more effective?

Imagine if your customers got to “Wow!” within seconds, not months. How much of your costs could be reduced or shifted to serve a different purpose? The sooner you can get your customer to that sense feeling your product is absolutely essential and totally worth it, then the sooner you get to stop spending money to win them over and can shift that money to deepen engagement, bolster retention, or ignite resurrection or anything else you want to do with it.

Set a goal.

Set a goal for your team to improve your time-to-wow (in seconds) and cost-of-wow (in dollars). Evaluate every new product iteration, feature, campaign and design against what is does to reduce time or costs.

Your baseline might start out uncomfortably high — example: it takes 3 months (7,890,000 Seconds) of occasional usage and 18 emails and three Discord chats and 2 customer care calls to go from awareness to “totally worth it.”

Or it might be nearly instantaneous — example: Nine seconds after tapping the link, the app was installed and I knew instantly that I was going to LOVE it — from the very first glance. And you know what? I was right.

Some products — like Google, Instagram, TikTok, and Spotify — win you over in the first few seconds. Others take months. Still others never get there.

Make a plan.

Here’s a checklist to get you started.

  • Design your name and your first impression moment.
  • Design a “Just Do It” phrase that rings like a bell of truth in the minds of your customers.
  • Reduce load time. Can your app load in under a second? If not, sadly, people will hold it against you and it will take tremendous work to win back their trust. This sounds crazy, but it actually matters. Read reports from Hubspot and Unbounce. To understand the psychology, read How to Say Hello to learn the sobering science behind first impressions.
  • Reduce onboarding frustrations. It’s fine for your onboarding to be long, thorough, or even complicated, but it is not OK for your onboarding to be frustrating, confusing, emotionally awkward, or culturally off-putting.
  • Listen to how your true believers describe your product to others.
  • Reorganize the product experience to bring the “most valuable moment” as soon as possible in the experience.
  • Get your product team, marketing team, product designers, marketing designers, and sales team all together and go over the time-to-wow & cost-to-wow timeline. Challenge everyone to workshop each moment.
  • Show the difference the product has made in the lives of others. Instead of writing case studies, write individual customer stories. Use the following template: “An ordinary person, against extra-ordinary odds, achieves something remarkable, by means of the platform.”


Science of first impressions:

We decide if we like something somewhere between 1/10th of a second and 7 seconds (Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, 2006). First impressions have been shown to last for months (Gunaydin, Selcuk, & Zayas, 2017) and can sway one’s point of view even in the presence of contradictory evidence (e.g., Rydell & McConnell, 2006), and even when you can’t recall why (McCarthy & Skowronski, 2011; Todorov & Uleman, 2002). This is why it matters that you learn how to say hello. This is why the opening shot of a film sets the tone. This is why the first few notes of a song trigger such a potent memory response. This is why a webpage needs to load in under a second. This is why the first sentence of a novel matters more than all the others. This is why Instagram and TikTok are so effective and the copy on billboards is so short. This is why we fall in love at first sight and can tell when the bad guy enters a movie even before he’s done anything wrong.



James Buckhouse

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford GSB/ & Harvard GSD