Wordle: lessons in new product feature thinking & product design

Wordle is a web-based word game developed by Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle. Each day a five-letter word is chosen which players aim to guess within six tries. After every guess, each letter is marked as either green, yellow, or grey: green indicates that letter is correct and in the correct position, yellow means it is in the answer but not in the right position, while grey indicates it is not in the answer at all.

Simple stuff, but also incredibly compelling. Each daily game uses a word from a randomly ordered list of 2,315 words out of the 12,000 five-letter words in the English language. The game also has a high-contrast theme for colour blind accessibility, which changes the colour scheme from green and yellow to orange and blue.

Wardle initially created the game for himself and his partner, Palak Shah, to play, as they enjoyed the New York Times games Spelling Bee and daily crossword puzzle. In October 2021, he made it public after it rapidly became an obsession with relatives, naming it Wordle as a pun on his surname. He had created a similar prototype in 2013 and previously created the two online social experiments The Button and The Place when working for Reddit.

The game became a viral phenomenon on Twitter in December 2021, after Wardle added a sharing element to the game, letting users copy their results in the form of a grid of coloured square emoji.  The feature was inspired by a group of friends from New Zealand who had found the game in late November and described their results in the emoji format.

Over 300,000 people played Wordle on January 2, 2022, up from 90 players on November 1, 2021, a figure that rose to over 2 million a week later. Between January 1 and 13, 1.2 million Wordle results were shared on Twitter.

On January 31 The New York Times acquired Wordle from Wardle for an undisclosed price in the low-seven figures. They intend to add the game to its mobile app alongside its crossword puzzles and Spelling Bee, seeking to bring in 10m digital subscribers by 2025. They stated the game would initially remain free to new and existing users and that no changes would be made to its gameplay. Many users have expressed worries that the acquisition meant the game would eventually be put behind a paywall.

Following the sudden rise in popularity at the start of 2022, several clones appeared. Some of these clones revised the Wordle formula in novel methods. Absurdle is an adversarial version of Wordle where the target word changes with each guess. Other clones include one that used only four-letter swear words as its vocabulary pool, and another that let players change the word length. Plagiarised versions appeared on the app store but were removed by Apple.

I think there are four key aspects to Wordle’s positioning and product features to note for other startups:

Focus on a single user but think ‘mass market of one’ Since Wordle was built originally for just Wardle and his partner, the initial design ignored a lot of the growth-hacking features that are expected of games in the current era – while other games send notifications to your phone hoping you’ll come back throughout the day, this was a deliberate decision to offer a different experience.

When you look at a lot of tech products, there’s too much information. It’s cognitive overload. I think people appreciate that there’s this thing online that’s just fun. It’s not trying to do anything shady with your data or your eyeballs.

Focus on the user experience Wordle has a simple, clutter-free interface for providing a few moments of calm each day. Being a once-a-day game like a traditional newspaper crossword or Sudoku means it’s habit-forming, offering a routine, every single day, but it’s very reliable, it’s very dependable easy to share and it’s just three-minutes, not trying to foster addictive behaviours.

Wordle has gained traction without features designed to promote its growth such as push notifications and email sign ups. It’s a way for people to connect in a low effort, low friction way. Wordle doesn’t want an intense relationship. Simplicity is also part of its success specifically, its clean design, which is free of ads, pop-ups, sign-up forms, and other distractions. 

Be counter intuitive – and simple The game’s popularity can be put down to the dailiness of the puzzles, as having just one puzzle per day creates a sense of scarcity, leaving players wanting more. Users have grown cynical about many apps’ ethically dubious use of their data and attempts to monetise game play and get them on repeat. Wordle was deliberately built to be played once a day and spend only three minutes on the game each day.  

The rules are simple. We’ve all worked out which words are best to start with to maximise your chances of success – I start with either ‘adieu’, which has a lot of vowels, or ‘tripe’, because I don’t think many others will, followed by ;great’.

Create a user community and sharing Wordle lacked the ability to share results until mid-December when Wardle noticed players sharing their results by typing out a grid of green, yellow, and black emojis on Twitter, so he built an automated way for players to broadcast their successes in a spoiler-free way. This, and the fact that everyone is playing the same game on a given day, creates a sense of community.

It’s a game for competing against yourself. That said, the game would not be played by millions were it not for social media and I’m in two WhatsApp groups and a Slack channel everyday! If you get it by the skin of your teeth in the sixth go, that’s also a cool story, but most importantly, the puzzle itself isn’t spoiled. So Wordle isn’t just a word game, it’s a conversation starter and a chance to connect on social media. That’s why it’s going viral. 

Besides the content and process of playing, what I really like in Wordle, is the design. Design is a vital but under prioritised element of startup tech product development. Wordle’s  simplicity reminds me of Dieter Rams, who is remembered for the iconic and innovative products he designed while working for Braun, and his most notable treatise Ten Principles for Good Design. Rams trailblazed a path for design to become more than just the beautification of consumer products for the purposes of marketing, he said You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people, and I think Wordle captures this philosophy wonderfully. 

Dieter Rams’ career with Braun started in the 1950s when the Western consumer market was starting to develop, and families could afford household appliances and technology. Television and home audio equipment became hot tickets, and subsequently, marketing and advertising firms had new, widely adopted platforms to show off their wares.

Rams joined consumer electronics manufacturer Braun in 1955, initially as an architect and interior designer. By 1961, he was head of design department, where he remained until 1995. Through the innovative approaches of Rams and his peers, Braun branched out from audio equipment to become one of the world’s leading manufacturers in everything from televisions to shaving equipment. Throughout his decades as head of design, Rams developed and established a personal ethos for design that would disrupt and influence the home product market forever. His philosophy is distilled most succinctly in his landmark manifesto, The 10 Principles of Design.  

For Rams, the usage is the starting point of any design; design is a part of life permeating every human action and decision. These principles are timeless. Whether they are applied to the blueprint of a novel home coffee maker from the 1960s or the design of a new mobile gaming app like Wordle, the principles can be considered and implemented to ensure a product’s absolute functional value.

 1. Good design is innovative Good design must be as innovative as your technology.  Design and technology have a symbiotic partnership, as technology inevitably advances, so do consumers demand you to produce new, cutting-edge user experience. Simply reiterating old products is not good enough. Good design constantly seeks to chart unexplored waters and win new customers by user experience innovation.

2. Good design makes a product useful It is vital that each aspect of a design is reduced to its most essential qualities. Fairly self-explanatory. What does that button actually DO, does it achieve an actual useful purpose for the consumer, or is it superfluous? Modern design often prioritises flashiness over meat-and-potatoes utility. Simply, if you create a product that does its job, and does it well, customers will keep coming back. 

3. Good design is aesthetic Rams reminds us that the objects we use have the power to impact our general sense of well-being. Thus, his design aesthetic is fundamentally attached to the human experience: the objects in a consumers life shape and affect their happiness. These interactions need to be considered while creating a product.  An object can’t look good just for the sake of looking good, that’s just fleeting, rather, a product’s beauty should be derived from its functionality and simplicity – which I think Wordle does.

4. Good design makes a product understandable Good design tells its own story. You tell by looking at Wordle that once you know what to do, playing the game is intuitive. A user should be able to understand the construction of a product, its design narrative, without having to open the user manual themselves. 

5. Good design is unobtrusive Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product – Jony Ive, designer of the iPod and iPhone. A properly designed product should speak for itself, and it should allow consumers to interact with its functionality on their own terms, rather than the terms of the designer. A new product can be an exciting, useful, dynamic tool, but a consumer still needs to be able to use it effortlessly, without feeling bogged down by the designer’s vision.

6. Good design is honest A well-designed product should speak confidently for itself, without the need to try and convince the potential customer of its usefulness. If your product is straightforward with its features, it doesn’t need a laundry list of questionably features listed to entice potential downloads.  Again, Wordle’s design fits the bill.

7. Good design is long-lasting Whatever gets a good reaction is judged to be good – Dieter Rams. Waste not want not. This principle speaks to the sustainable nature of great startup products like Wordle, aim for long lasting impact, not just for today, but for tomorrow, and for years into the future.

8. Good design pays attention to detail Design must consider literally every detail and feature of the product – one poor feature is what people will inevitably remember.  Once again, reducing extraneous features and embellishments ensures that only the best and most important elements of a product make it into the hands of the user.

9. Good design is environmentally friendly Designers have the agency to contribute solutions and ideas to help solve the multitude of problems faced by society. For Rams, design, ethics, and the world are all intrinsically tied together and exist in the same ecosystem. Wordle simply exists to make a small difference to user’s lives, and that’s worthwhile.

10. Good design is as minimalist as possible The final principle encapsulates Rams’ perspective as a whole: Back to simplicity. Back to purity. Less, but better. Rams’ theories were created with physical consumer products in mind yet remain relevant in today’s tech dominated market: Wordle’s simplicity makes it attractive.

The message from Josh Wardle and Wordle is clear: creativity is thinking up new things, innovation is doing new things. Startup founders should focus all their energy not on fighting the old but building on the new. Don’t be afraid to take big steps when one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.

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