Product Critique Of Public, The Social Investing App
A closer look at the Public’s onboarding, user experience, strategy, and features
Foreword: The purpose of a product critique is to observe and evaluate what makes a successful or not-so-successful product. The goal is not to criticize but rather reverse engineer the thinking underlying the product. My focus on most of these critiques will be to address user problems and go-to-market strategies through a lens of design, strategy, and growth.
Public is a free investing app that offers fractional investing with no commission fees or account minimums, but with an added twist — a social and community-driven approach to investing. It’s the new kid on the ever-growing commission-free brokerage block and differentiates itself through its unique approach to investing.
I came across this app via an Instagram Ad. At a first glance, it looked like it is a cross between Robinhood and Twitter — taking the best of both products to provide a community-driven social investing experience. I was immediately drawn to this idea because of the social aspect of investing. I thought I could probably follow some successful investors on the app and emulate them to be a successful investor. I was hopeful that the app would help me form an investing community, get reliable advice, and have interactions with popular investors. I was also digging the vibrant blue they used for branding. It’s a striking color and creates a memorable brand identity.
The Onboarding Experience
Overall the onboarding experience is quite straightforward and immediately explained the difference between Public and other investing apps. The number of steps needed was moderately high, but the process was still easy, concise, allowed customization, and made me feel secure about the app.
What I liked about the onboarding process
- Getting rewarded for the sign-up: I was offered free stock worth $5 just to sign up! I could choose which stock I wanted. With that kind of reward, I am definitely coming back to the app for another such dopamine hit.
- Customizing investment goals: Customizing investment goals seemed like a crucial step for a beginner like me because it made me feel like I am keeping track of where I am and where I was going as an investor.
- Customizing Social Feed: Public lets you create a completely customizable social feed that aligns with your interests, and helps you discover companies that align with your beliefs.
- Reliability and Trust: I loved that Public showed how Plaid is used to securely and privately link the bank account. Although this screen might seem irrelevant, it is actually very assuring for the customer and builds trust early on.
What I did not like about the onboarding process
- Password and Security: The sign-up process didn’t support external password managers like Dashlane or 1Password. I feel this is a must for a fintech product like Public. Typing in a 12-digit complex password is puts the burden on the user and there’s no confirmation that they got it right.
Understanding Product Strategy
What is the value proposition of the product?
- Social Network-Driven Investing: The main value proposition seems to be investing while learning, exchanging, and discussing ideas with their own personal network and Public’s larger investing community.
- Beginner-Friendly Investing: Investing can be scary for beginners, but a social community experience while investing can reduce the friction/fear of investing. I think it makes investing seem less risky and creates a friendly environment, especially for beginners.
- Efficient Investing Tools: Users can invest commission-free, buy slices of stock, invest with any amount of cash, discover interesting companies, and earn interest on unapplied cash — which gives it an edge over other investing apps.
What goals is the product trying to achieve?
- Customer Goals: So far it seems like Public is providing a platform for investor influencers to build a community. The goal seems to be to help newbie investors overcome the fear of investing, get more informed about investing, have intellectual discussions with the community, and learn and grow collaboratively with the community.
- Business Goals: With commission-free investing and providing interest on unapplied cash, it looks like Public runs mostly on investor funding at the moment. They make money through share lending and order flow payments and will probably launch premium features for a small subscription fee in the future.
- Goals Summary: The immediate goal seems to be releasing features that maintain high growth and retention while attracting as many mobile-first investors as possible. In the longer term, it makes sense to release premium product features that are worth paying for.
Who will use the product and why?
- Gen-Z/Millenials: The audience of the app today would be millennials and Gen-Z who want to learn about investing while having a frictionless investing experience. These younger investors would love the fact that with Public’s features, investing is so easy to get started with. They also might love the fact that they can invest in the companies they believe in!
What gives the product a competitive edge?
- Frictionless Investing: Public’s features like buying stock commission-free and in slices allow anyone to start investing and with any amount of money. It also provides interest on uninvested cash, thus making the investing experience almost frictionless for the user.
- Personalized Information: It also takes into account the users’ preferences about the companies and suggests influencers to follow. They do this by allowing you to discover companies that align with your interest and by suggesting featured investor profiles to follow.
- Community-Driven Learning: Its social feed allows investors to learn from each other and grow collaboratively. Like any social app, on Public one can brag about selling at a profit, influence investments in certain companies, or even teach about investing through their own experience.
How could the product’s success be measured?
- Growth: The most important metric would be the number of users that are onboarding per month, and how many quit during onboarding.
- Engagement: Posts, comments, reactions on the social feed could measure the engagement. Some users may not be as socially active so maybe the average length of visit might be important to track.
- Retention: The churn rate would also be important to track along with the “repeat investing ratio” so as to figure out how many users are incrementally investing.
Impact of Product Features
What are the top features of the product?
- Buy/Sell Stock: This can be done in slices, commission-free, during off-market hours, and with instant cash unlocks so that the user doesn’t have to wait for the cash transfer to Public.
- Efficient Stock Tracking: The ability to create a list of long-term investments and a watchlist of various stocks in one’s investment portfolio helps investors uncover opportunities missed by others.
- Smart Feed: Allows investors to browse through the feed, create posts, and comment/react on other’s posts. The feed also has the ability to sort posts by “top” and “most recent”.
- Stock Themes: I also enjoyed browsing different types of stocks through various themes like Public Top 20, Green Power, Saas Companies, etc. I found companies that align with my beliefs and further researched them to then add to my portfolio.
- Discussion Groups: One can easily create an open/closed group chat on Public to discuss stocks and investment strategies. After adding specific stocks to the group’s “topics and conversation starters” list, information like earnings calls and top news stories about that stock is automatically sent to the group.
What features does the product lack?
- Automated Investments: Users can automate dividend reinvestments, but can’t set up monthly investments into a specific stock. Would love to see that someday.
- Web App Version: The only way to access my portfolio is through my phone, there is no web app yet. I find it easier to track my investments on a bigger screen, so I hope they launch the web app soon!
Both these features are something, its competitor: Robinhood, has implemented.
Do these features meet their users’ desires?
- Unintuitive Post Reactions: As the feed is the primary screen, it engages people a lot. BUT it has a crucial design drawback — reacting to a post is mildly annoying. You can’t just like a post. You have to choose a reaction, and the reaction icons are very vague and unintuitive — This creates a lot of cognitive load on the user. There is also no way to unlike/unreact to a post in case a user mistakenly likes something.
- Lacks Industry Categorization: As I previously mentioned, the themes are a great way to explore new companies that align with one’s beliefs, BUT it does have a drawback: It lacks industry categorization. This makes it hard for people to browse stock by actual industries like automotive, pharma, energy, etc. The search feature is excellent and handles queries quite well, but it does take longer to find stocks by industry.
How do different types of users react to these features?
- Influencer/Creator: Takes full advantage of all the social features and wants to build a following. Most of the time he/she is already an investment guru and loves to educate and inspire young investors.
- Active Consumer: Engages with various posts, and actively consumes content on the feed. Doesn’t post as much, but uses groups to share his thoughts and investment strategies.
- Passive Consumer: Opens the app from time to time for checking on investments. Probably once or twice a week to invest his paycheck/extra cash. Doesn’t consume a lot of content, maybe just scrolls through a few posts to see what’s happening.
What features get users to open the app from time to time
- Notifications: Notifications from groups about news stories, earnings calls, and top movers from my portfolio also prompt me to open the app.
- Widgets: For me, it has to be the widget. It is well designed and prompts me to check the top movers and my portfolio growth.
Why do these features provide an excellent User Experience?
- Personalization: The personalized feed provides each customer with an individual user experience.
- Contextual Information: Users can choose individually from a range of different profiles and themes to follow.
- Unobtrusive Design: Public is a tool that helps creates a community & network while investing. It is such a tool that allows users to express themselves.
How might we engage Public users with more valuable content?
Recommendation 1 — Public Podcast
- Content is King: This feature focuses on the immediate goal I mentioned above — releasing features that maintain high growth. To keep onboarded users engaged, a daily podcast could become the center of discussions on the social feed. Public has a lot of user-generated content, but for maintaining growth, some authentic content like podcasts could be the solution.
How might we help Public users to have more intimate conversations?
Recommendation 2 — Audio Chat Groups
- Audio is Inevitable: This feature focuses on the longer-term goal I mentioned above — release premium product features that are worth paying for. As seen in Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, audio-chats have seen a recent rise in popularity. Although this feature seems like a stretch, an audio chat would centralize creation and consumption into a tight feedback loop, thus being great for advancing Public’s mission of community-driven investing. Since this feature would require significant engineering power, it would make sense to include it only with premium.
Will the product be successful?
- In my opinion, yes. They have a unique product whichis innovative, useful, and more importantly something that people want. Moreover, as Gen-Z starts onboarding, investing, and building their portfolio, they would likely stick with Public because of friction costs.
What did I like about the product?
- The fact that it makes investing fun, and something I can do with my friends. It is also a great way to understand how others approach investing, and it definitely broadened my perspective.
What did I dislike about the app?
- The only thing I did not like about the product was the inability to create my own lists, like in Robinhood, and as I mentioned above — the inconvenience of reacting to a post.
What questions and doubts do I have?
- Why should someone migrate over to Public if they do options trading (Robinhood’s pro users)? Is social investing helpful if one is not afraid of investing? Is social investing really fun for everyone? These were some of the questions I had.
Broader implications derived from the observations
- Public has potential, but its features are not that hard to replicate (at least its basic features — like stock slicing which Robinhood has already caught up with). The product needs some solid features to further differentiate itself from Stash and Robinhood and it would also need premium features to monetize. They have pulled off the Product-Market fit well because they have made something people want. But to be successful in the long run they will need to deeply understand their users and cater to the social investing niche to the fullest so that they can get users interested in social investing, and get those who are interested to then pay for premium features.
Afterword: I tried to do this all in one evening so pretty sure I have some grammar mistakes here and there, will fix those soon. Would have loved to devote more time to brainstorm recommendations for the Public app, but I only have so much time. Enjoyed my first product teardown, and looking forward to explore a product from a different industry next!