Creating web applications that work, are well accepted, provide a useful service and spread like a wildfire are not easy to create. It takes a recipe of planning, technology creativeness, social ingredients and practical down-to-the-ground usefulness to make any social application stick.
Photo credit: Iryna Kurhan and Antonio Nunes - edited by Robin Good
Joshua Porter of Bokardo, has been attentively looking at what are the issues that bog down social web applications and has collected some interesting recommendations for those developing today web applications of some kind.
If you are serious about making your social media web application grow and find its way, you may want to consider noting down some of these great recommendations.
by Joshua Porter
Photo credit: James Steidl
Following up on my Del.icio.us Lesson post, this is a critical reason why web apps fail.
Many apps focus on being the new social killer-app when, in general, people don’t have time to worry about what other people are doing, and will only use software that benefits them personally at every step.
You could call this selfishness or laziness, but I would call it optimization. For example, we simply don’t have time to tag things for tagging sake. Instead, we might tag things if we think that it will help us in the future, but adding tags to an app does not a solution make.
Photo credit: Akhilesh
This is when the buzzwords rear their ugly head. If you’ve got a list of problems you’re solving with an application, it stands to reason that you can’t solve any one of them fully.
Instead of trying to solve more than one, focus like gangbusters on one problem and really nail it.
If you think about the successful web apps out there right now that have garnered impressive mindshare, it should be easy to line up the one problem (or activity) they really get right. Flickr: photos. Del.icio.us: bookmarks. Facebook: college. Myspace: identity. Gmail: email. Plaxo: contacts. Tailrank: news. Etc…
Photo credit: Sparkia
So much focus is on aggregation right now that it is easy to overlook the happiness of users.
Many services, such as Technorati Tags or Google Sitemaps, exist solely to make the aggregators happy, and not the user themselves.
They sell themselves on incentives that sound like what a movie agent might say to an aspiring actor: “We’ll make you famous, kid. You’ll get found!”.
First of all, this is all talk directed at the developer, who is not the user. That’s a huge tip-off right there.
Second of all, if the aggregators had their way, everyone would be using these formats, which simply dilutes the value for everyone else and only serves to lock the site into some weird relationship with the aggregator. This is not how it should be. That’s why I stopped using those two services ages ago.
Instead, focus on adding features that make the user happy, and when that happens everyone else can be happy, too.
Why do so many startups and web pundits focus on these terms when talking about a product?
To get a better frame of reference, talk about how your app empowers users to improve their life.
Think about how the long-term successful companies sell their stuff. They relate it to some bigger idea. So, for example, Nike has always embraced the hero archetype. They might talk about how great their foam arch is, but that’s always secondary to how buying their shoes makes you a hero. Their commercials are often amateur runners out running in the rain. How cool is that? Way cooler than double-density shock foam.
A good example of this in web apps is the messaging from 37signals. They’re not selling software, they’re selling rebellion.
Photo credit: Dimitry Romanchuck
If you build it, they will not come.
There is too much competition right now, so another wiki-type application isn’t going to set the world on fire.
I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about web apps that became successful only after they adapted to their user base over time (short periods of time, but over time nonetheless). Their initial effort didn’t work, or was too similar to another one, but they were in it for the long haul and they adapted to what their users wanted.
Flickr is a great example of this. Flickr started out as a game called Game Neverending. That didn’t work, but their second attempt did. Many web app makers would never make it to the point of seeing the light (or admitting the failure).
Photo credit: Marc Dietrich
One of the big promises of aggregating the wisdom of crowds is building systems that use the input from huge user populations to come up with value. However, as people get used to how the wisdom is aggregated, they figure out how it all works, and the more public the mechanism for aggregation, the easier it is to figure out.
That’s why gaming is such an issue with Digg. The voting on Digg is public, so you can see which items have the most votes before you submit your vote yourself.
This goes against one of the principles of the Wisdom of Crowds, which states that in order to successfully harness it, each member of the crowd needs to be making an independent vote.
Photo credit: Piksel
Most business strategy is about making money. However, this is a short term goal.
If you focus only on ways to make money, then you’ll make decisions that in the short term seem good for the balance sheet but in the long term actually work against it.
Take the case of LLBean. Where everyone else is trying to get away from call centers and move all of their customer interaction to a web site, LLBean actually allows you to talk to a human being almost instantaneously. Their phone number is easily found on their web site/app. This probably does cost them a lot more than if they had some contact forms or an instant chat room, but it sure does make it quick and easy to give them money. My sister worked at LLBean for a time, and I was always impressed by the way that they empowered her to handle customers. It probably cost them money in the short term, but people remember when you make their lives easier, not harder.
Many companies, unfortunately, see the Web as a way to reduce direct communication with customers, when in reality it should cause an increase in communication if you’re successful.
Photo credit: Stain Iversen
I’ve had the same conversation with many folks: good idea for web application, but not enough motivation to build it.
In fact, I fall into this category. I have several prototypes sitting on my hard drive of little applications that could be something someday, and I’ve run out of steam developing them. I get distracted, start doing something else. However, this is probably a confidence issue as much as a time issue.
We’re simply not sure if what we build would be successful and investing the time it takes to push it to completion is daunting.
An interesting story cropped up recently about this: Michael Arrington of Techcrunch wrote about how Squidoo.com seems to be failing, suggesting that it cast a dark shadow over Seth Godin’s reputation as a marketer, and that it wouldn’t be long before Seth distances himself from it. In other words, Mike was equating Seth’s reputation with the product he built.
This is precisely why it is scary to build something in the public eye. People can ridicule it, and often do. But even if Squidoo doesn’t succeed (which is uncertain) I doubt that Seth will see it as anything other than a learning experience. Now if only the rest of us could.
Photo credit: Corgarashu
This happens a lot in banking web apps.
I recently switched from my bank to one with better online features. It wasn’t that my former bank couldn’t handle the transactions, but they could only do so if I actually went to the bank and talked with a teller. This is completely frustrating.
An incompatibility between an online app and an offline store doesn’t make sense.
How many times have you tried to redeem a coupon or gift certificate only to find that you have to go to the store? Well, we’re so used to the online world now that the web app is the store, in both a physical and non-physical sense.
Photo credit: Andres Rodrigues
Why is it that now these types of sites take off when before they didn’t?
One answer to why bookmarking sites didn’t take off is provided by Ari Paparo, who started Blink.com in 1999. He had 13 million dollars in investment money, and he and his company couldn’t make it work. His post about why Blink.com failed is a fascinating chronicle of a company ahead of its time. He points out that bookmarks weren’t public by default, the site used folders instead of tags, the service wasn’t instantly useful, and that technology was too often a factor in decision making. Paparo says the company wasn’t ahead of its time, but I think it is pretty clear that these lessons are exactly the type that an unforgiving network teaches us over time. And 13 million dollars said that they didn’t have much time to play with.
Photo credit: Alvin Teo
One of the most common battle calls of web developers these days is that you have to plan for change.
One certainty is that the app you’re working on right now isn’t the one that will be there a year from now, a month from now, or even a week from now.
The software cycle is speeding up. And interestingly, it isn’t just the new, small web apps that lead this charge. It’s Amazon, Google, and eBay, who have such sophisticated backends that they’re able to manipulate, test, and retest different features on the fly to a subset of users. They didn’t get to where they are today by coming up with a fantastic initial design that “just worked”. No, they’re tweaking, tweaking, tweaking while you and I sleep.
Photo credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki
This is a more interesting problem than it first appears.
At first glance, it would seem that charging might not be all that important to a web application whose creators are going the “let’s get a huge user base” route. This is the route that Writely took. They never charged for anything, built an awesome product and a huge user base, and got bought out by Google. But more likely they’re the exception, not the rule.
At some point buying out Web 2.0 companies will slow or stop. When you charge for something, though, an interesting thing happens. You have an implicit relationship with the customer. They are literally invested in your product, will spend more time using it, and will care about whether it lives or dies.
All these things add up to better feedback for the development team going forward.
In addition, there is also the psychological bias of getting what you paid for. When you charge for something, announcing to the world that you think this is worth something, you are actually implanting the same thought in other people’s heads. They start to think it’s worth something, too.
Photo credit: Juri
The biggest problem with Myspace is identity.
There is simply no barrier to entry for the service, not even to identify who you really are.
Obviously, this helps growth because anybody can use the service. However, it also lets in anybody, and that means people who have nothing to lose and who do evil things.
If they had their identity to lose, like those who get caught in the weekly sting operations we see now on TV, then that becomes a strong barrier of entry for them. For people who are simply on there to hang with friends, this is not a problematic barrier at all. They want people to know who they are!
Having a small, but real, barrier to entry will trip up those people who really shouldn’t be using the service in the first place.
Photo credit: Tom Schmucker
The amazing thing about Flickr is that nobody uses the service to upload pictures.
Nobody says to themselves “I need to upload me some pictures”. Instead, they’re satisfying some other need in their lives, like showing off the new kid to relatives. Or showing their friends how their trip to Europe went. Or letting their co-workers in on their conference activity.
All of these things have to do with their life, their relationships, their everyday activities that aren’t centered on the Web, but are made much easier by it.
If we look closely, that’s what most successful web apps do: they make our offline lives richer.
About the author
Joshua Porter is the editor of Bokardo, a site about social web design. He is currently the Director of Web Development at User Interface Engineering, a behavioral research company based in North Andover, Massachusetts. There he conducts world-class research on how people actually use web sites and products. He also holds the annual User Interface Conference, one of the most successful design conferences in the industry.