Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Keep it simple

Sometimes it pays to keep things simple. Literally.

Watching a great presentation from David Heinemeier Hansson, the genius behind Ruby on Rails and partner in 37signals, on creating a profitable startup, one of the key themes is around realising that an idea can be very simple. You don’t need to shoot to be the next Facebook, but by finding gaps and meeting the needs the thousands of small businesses that require solutions to their everyday tasks, the odds are a whole lot better you can be very successful. Innovation doesn’t always have to be radical, and the value in the business model and execution can turn a simple idea into a very popular and profitable business.

A piece of Tupperware that holds cupcakes? Who would have thought it. Such a simple concept addressing a need to be able to transport cupcakes, making Jennifer Gunn a fortune.

The same applies to the user experience. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest functionality, the latest website, a new Adobe Air application, or Silverlight microsite, but forgetting the technology, it’s got to meet the objectives of it’s users. Myhome.com.au packs a punch in AJAX functionality, but it’s slow and unfamiliar, given the same volume of listings as realestate.com.au, my bet is 99% would still choose the realestate functionaility. The search is simple, fast and again familiar (see SEEK, CarSales). This isn’t to say the technology behind it needs to be simple, it can be quite the opposite if you’re trying to produce the most relevant results possible, but the user doesn’t need to know this.

These vertical leaders need to continue to adapt to meet user demands and expectations, continue to innovate in technology to be simpler, more powerful, but they’re not about to introduce radical change to their core functionality anytime soon. The search & listings structure has been upheld in the various forms on these sites for 5+ years, and we need to remember this is how a majority of people are finding jobs, cars and property every day.

It's a useful reminder for myself in production of an upcoming site Big Electric, focus on meeting user's objectives and keep it simple.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Distraction Economy - A little more conversation, a little less lurking

There are too many distractions. I commented in the post Social Networking - a story.. that there are too many distractions out there, too many opportunities to express your status (Facebook, IM, Twitter), multimedia (Facebook, Flickr, Youtube), the latest link (email, Twitter, Pownce), your thoughts and opinions (blog, article comments, forums).

And even more distraction in ingesting this very content – friends status, comments, articles, blogs from my social networks, bookmarks, RSS readers and now via mobile when I’m not in front of the PC.

It’s the attention economy and another economy - the distraction economy - which I believe is the next phase in ‘surfing the net’. It’s sitting on your Facebook profile watching the news feed update on refresh, it’s browsing through your friends myspace photos of some party you never went to, it’s hitting ‘Inbox’ on your Gmail account, waiting for the next mail to arrive, and it’s one of the reason click through rates on banner ads are still up around 0.25% - people are distracted, and people build successful businesses out of distraction.

And what is also happing is participation inequality, in online communities, 95% of people lurk, 9% contribute occasionally and 1% participate a lot, as Mr Nielson’s studies uncovers. Down to 0.1% if we’re talking blogs. Like a game of AFL, there’s only a small fraction of players, and a whole lot in the stands, however you don’t need Jimmy Hird prowess to get a game online. Which is precisely why I’m getting back to more time contributing, less time lurking.

On a side note it’s good to see Facebook pulling back on the less-useful distractions, removing a few features, most recently the Friends Timeline and Facebook Gifts (I want to meet someone who actually bought one of these). I don’t think enough sites are willing to be critical of their existing features, and take a hard line on retiring those that aren’t performing. Every feature is a distraction, the more features, the more you dilute the focus. You don’t want users to get distracted and lose focus on the features that are important.

OK, to practice what’s preached, I just retired Flickr photostream from my blog, since Facebook I haven’t updated it enough to justify it sitting there anyway. That felt good.