Your App That Nobody Uses Doesn’t Need a New Design

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Every so often I get approached by someone who wants me to redesign their app / website thinking that will be the solution to their problems. They’ve gotten as far as getting their idea realized, launched and it’s tumbleweeds. Nobody uses the app; nobody cares. They get frustrated and think a fresh new look will draw in the crowd. More often than not, it’s mostly a cosmetic redesign – or pretty-ing it up. I hate to break it to these people, but for most cases, a new design will not do much.

The reason it will not do much is because usually the problem doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not people think the app looks pretty or not. It’s usually a more fundamental problem than that. If you were to judge a site like craigslist, reddit or lolcats by their design, they would fare pretty poorly but they are all top sites.

When nobody uses an app, it comes down to several issues, none of which have to do with design. The number one reason is it doesn’t sufficiently solve a problem. Maybe the problem isn’t big enough or painful enough. Maybe the app doesn’t provide enough delight. Also it could be that the app isn’t that big an improvement over existing solutions. Once people get into a habit of using something, it’s really hard to dislodge that incumbent unless it’s significantly better.

Another reason is maybe not enough people know about your product. A fresh new design will not help with that either. You actually have a marketing problem, not a design problem. There are so many web and iphone apps out there now that it’s just noise to the common person. There are actually over 500,000 apps in the iPhone App store right now. That makes it really hard for your app to rise above the rest.

If you get past all this and still nobody uses your app, maybe you do have a design problem and a fresh coat of paint isn’t going to help either. Maybe using your app is too painful, meaning there are too many steps, too much friction. By that I mean maybe your app makes the user jump through hoops to derive value whether it’s to produce content or consume content. In this case, in order to solve the problem, we really need to understand user behavior first and foremost. What are users actually doing on the site or app? Where are they giving up on your app and dropping off? If we don’t understand and know this for a fact, we really don’t know what we are solving for or how to fix the problem. What you need here, is not a new “design” but data and lots of it.

One of the first things I recommend doing is gathering intel. Figure out what users are doing. You can do this several ways. Install a tool like Olark and talk to your users. You will learn so much. Pain points will crop up over and over. Observe your users. Do this by simply asking people to test your software and stand behind them watching what they do. Resist the urge to guide the users or tell them what to do. Let them figure it out or struggle. Look at the analytics. See where people are leaving your page / site. Use tools to figure out if people are performing the desired behavior on the page they are on. If people leave, figure out WHY they left. Did they find what they needed and leave? Did they give up in frustration? Did they find out that this wasn’t what they were looking for?

Let’s illustrate some concepts with an example. I’ve changed the topic of the site to protect the innocent. There’s a certain recipe site a client wants to improve. People don’t seem to be spending too much time on the site. People browse recipes, find something and leave. Looking at the recipe page itself, it’s easy to see why. They have one call to action – add recipe to My Recipes. That’s it. People look for something they want, find it, get what they need and leave. One of the first thing I suggested is to take a page off Youtube. On the right hand side, they have recommend videos or related videos. Perhaps the recipe site should include recipes that go with the recipe they are on. Or maybe show other recipes based on similar ingredients on the side. That way, when users come in, see what they want, they might see something else they might like.

Another reason why the recipe site is languishing could be because they also only have a few recipes. Maybe people come and cannot find what they want and leave. There’s just not a lot of content there. It’s like going to a party and seeing nobody there. A redesign would make it much worse – now you have a fancy party that looks dead. Look at the analytics; what happens when they search? Do they search and leave? Do they search and try to look through all the search results? In this case, their efforts would be better spent seeding the site with more recipes.

If you require your users to sign up, how many are abandoning the sign up process? Perhaps you need to rethink the sign up form. Figure out what’s the bare minimum information you need to create an account and then let the user play with your app ASAP. Maybe you can even switch it around and let the user play with your app before ever needing to create an account.

In short, when wanting a new design, it’s important to understand why you need that new design and whether or not that will actually solve your problem. The solution could be as simple as moving things around or adding some relevant content to keep the user engaged.

Popularity: 4% [?]

Pinterest + Instagram = Pinstagram

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So what do you get when you combine a billion dollar company (Instagram) with a $500 million company (Pinterest)?

I love using Instagram. The problem with Instagram however is their web experience is non-existent. I’ve been frustrated that the only way to consume Instagram is through my iPhone. Lately, Pinterest and Instagram have been getting a lot of press because of Instagram’s 1 billion dollar purchase by Facebook and Pinterest’s hypergrowth.

My cofounder Brandon and I were having a discussion on startup pitches, especially the ones that go “we’re an X for Y” and thought a hilarious VC pitch would be “we’re a Pinterest for Instagram”. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I liked Instagram, and this was a real need for me. There was nothing like it out there that I would use. So last weekend I decided I would make it a weekend project.

I spent a few hours putting something together using my design and front end skills. I was able to show the popular Instagram feed using their API in a Pinterest-like UI. I showed this to Brandon which quickly convinced him this was a good idea and together we started clobbering together the project. By the end of the weekend we had something that basically worked. You could log in with your Instagram id and view your feeds, your photos, what’s popular and search.

We found that Pinstagram was really useful. I actually consume Instagram a lot more through this. It was an easier experience and I can see a lot more photos faster. Brandon told someone the idea and they wondered why anyone would want to use such a service but as soon as they tried it, they immediately realized that it was very useful.

So without further ado, it is my pleasure to present you:


pinstagram.com

The site does integrate with Instagram and will require that you have a valid Instagram account.

For those of you interested in how it was made. It’s a very simple Ruby and Sinatra app. It doesn’t even have a database. The front end was built on Twitter Bootstrap. Haters can hate me for not building the html from scratch but I prefer to build my house using off-the-shelf tools instead of having to go and chop wood in the forest. The Pinterest style layout was built using Masonry, a very useful jQuery plugin. All this of course was also made possible using the Instagram API which was very well documented and easy to use.


Some details of the controls and what happens when you hover over a photo

Popularity: 13% [?]

Why Products Suck

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TL;DR: Compromise

In our life, we come across a lot of products that suck. As a designer of digital products, I see a lot of products so that I can make better products. I play with a lot of mobile apps and web sites so that I can see what works and what doesn’t. The products I make, some are okay but many suck.

One of the major reasons that products suck is that the makers of the product compromise. We don’t set out to make suckey products, but we make little compromises, here and there. And they add up. Eventually the sum those compromises affect the overall impression of the product. There are many forces at play. Over on the business side you have people who want to launch by a certain deadline, so they compromise on time. There may not be enough money so we compromise on quality. A designer might come up with a feature that is a little too hard for an engineer to implement so that gets compromised. Heck even the designs might be compromised because one way is easier to do than the other.

When we lose focus on why we built the product in the first place – which is to make it easier for the user or customer to solve their problem and turn it around and make it easier for us to make, design, engineer, launch or whatever, we inevitably make a subpar product.

When I think of products that have few compromises, I think of the thin Motorola Razr, the Macbook Air, and the old Palm Pilot for those of you who still remember. I’m sure the engineers bitched and moaned when they saw what they had to work with. I’m sure some even said it was impossible. But if the decision makers had budged and placated the engineers, I’m sure we would have had a much thicker Razr with more moving parts.

When I look underneath other laptops, I see a bunch of panels and screws and all sorts of stickers. When I look at the bottom of the Macbook Air it’s one smooth piece with no extraneous panels. The whole laptop was engineered to be one unit as opposed to a Frankenstein of OEM parts clobbered together.

When the Palm Pilot was designed, Jeff Hawkins would walk around with a block of wood the size of the Palm Pilot. If someone had a feature that required hardware that would make it bulkier, they found a way around it. They weren’t going to compromise on the portability of the device because otherwise people wouldn’t carry it around in their pocket much less use it.

Customers may not notice a compromise here and there, but combined together, they create a slightly worse experience that they do notice. Be mindful of what you compromise.

Popularity: 2% [?]

My First iPhone Game: Outlaw Poker

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This is the story of Outlaw Poker, an iPhone game I just launched that is equal parts Tetris and Poker. It’s a western themed puzzle falling blocks game. The object is to make 5 hand poker hands with the falling cards. The cards can be rotated just like in Tetris-style games so that you can arrange the cards into Poker hands horizontally or vertically. It is available here on the iTunes App store.

I initially had the idea almost a year ago. I wanted to make an iPhone game just to go through the process of making one as well as to have potential for some passive income. For those of you who are not familiar, developers can sell apps in the iTunes App Store and make money. The developer determines the price and whatever you make, Apple keeps 30% for facilitating the transaction and taking care of the distribution, billing, etc. Not a bad deal especially considering there are over 100 million iPhones in the world.

So how did this game come about? I was thinking about games I liked and games people liked in general. If I had to name one game that had mass appeal, it was Tetris, hands down. Another trend that has caught on in the recent years is the popularity of Poker. My thought was to combine the two popular concepts together: a falling cards game where you have to make Poker hands.

There wasn’t anything out there like this and I wanted to play it. People say one way to make a successful product is to scratch your own itch – that is, make something you want and hopefully others will want it too.

Since I wasn’t an iOS developer but designed stuff, I went about looking for a developer who would want to partner with me to develop this game. Initially I had recruited a lead Creative Designer who would lead the charge on the design direction of the game but he was quickly overwhelmed with his own work. I also managed to find an iOS developer who was initially interested but was also too busy to take the project on.

So the project never went anywhere for a good six months. I would design some screens and work out some details every now and then, always keeping an eye out for an iOS developer looking to meet a cofounder and have a game under his/her belt.

One day I went to some developer meetup and met my cofounder Ben Roesch. He was a friend of a friend and worked at Accenture Tech Labs, where I used to work. I was straight up with him. I told him about the concept, showed what screens I had to him and asked if he wanted to work on this app. I basically told him everything. If he decided to decline but run away and take my idea, he had it and I would be screwed. He was game though. Within 2 weeks he had a rough prototype of the game that basically worked but had none of the bells and whistles. It was a very good sign.

Over the next months, we would hash out the missing artwork/screens, tweak the gameplay, find the sound and music. One of the hardest things to come up with was the new company we formed. I love puns and wanted this new game studio to have a witty name. Since it was an game app company, I thought it would be cool to have the word ‘app’ in the name. Unfortunately anything that I came up with like ‘tap that app’ was already taken. I think I finally came up with Appuccino Games because I’m a big coffee drinker and it reflects the fact that coffee helped us make this game. I wanted the logo to reflect the dual nature of the word play (app and cappuccino). Once the name came together though, it was easy to come up with a concept for the logo – an iPhone that looked like a coffee cup.

I wanted to take this moment to thank everyone who had a hand in making it. A big chunk of this goes to Ben who without him, my concept would never have been realized. Thanks Ben. I also owe Matt Jensen a big thanks. He came up with the original art direction. Even though you didn’t have the bandwidth to join us on this, I still want to thank you for all the work you put in. Don, thanks for forming our new company. I look forward to more business with you. I also want to thank all the beta testers who gave us valuable feedback. I won’t remember everyone but here goes: Craig, Ulliott, Sami Rageb, Christian Arca, Joe Dwyer, Christopher Lee, Brad Flora, Ravi Singh, Tal Liron, Nick Aiello, Brandon Leonardo, and more.

I also want to take a moment to thank Steve Jobs. He’s been an inspiration to my career. Without him, this game would not be possible. The platform this game was built on would not have existed. You have enabled me to not only create this game, but to be able to distribute it to the world. Thank you.

Without further ado, our game is here on the App Store. There’s also a free ad-supported version here. The difference is that the free version has ads AND the ad takes up one whole row so you end up with less playing area.

Popularity: 6% [?]

Steve Job: More Than a Man

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Earlier this week, Steve Jobs passed away. I don’t recall the many CEO passings but it was all over the blogosphere and social media on top of being over the regular news channels. Many fans of Apple mourned him including myself. He was many things to many people. To CEOs, he was a visionary leader – able to see trends and industries well before others could. To other business leaders he was an amazing CEO, able to turn around a struggling company. To many he was an inspiration. A baby born out of wedlock, who was adopted, dropped out of college to pursue a dream, built a successful company, got fired from said successful company, start a few more (NeXT and Pixar), and went back to the original company and created wave after wave of hit products. To consumers, he was the guy who they associated with their wonderful Apple products.

What struck me was how many people mourned him. This is a man who runs a company, not a Hollywood celebrity or a rockstar. I doubt many CEOs would have this much impact when their time comes. There are so many products that are much more fundamental to our everyday lives yet we hardly think of them. For example electricity and clean water are essential necessities, but I doubt people care for say Thomas Edison or the CEO of ComEd the way they do Steve Jobs. The other CEO that I can think has this much fame would be Bill Gates who I think mostly people associated with being the richest man in the world at the time. No other person I can think of has been so closely associated with their brand. For example, I know people love their Wii or Xbox, but could they identify the creator? Probably no. People also love their cars and expensive watches, but I also highly doubt those people could identify their makers.

With every product launch Steve Jobs has been at the helm of the presentation giving every keynote until he was no longer able to physically do so. By doing that, he made him and the brand inseparable. When the products and the company became successful because of his absolute focus on quality, design and the whole user experience, he became a pop culture icon. People loved Apple products – Steve’s products, and thus they loved him.

Not only did he represent great products, he symbolized an ideal. His commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 revealed a man who believed in only doing things that mattered because life was short. In his own words, he wanted to make a dent in the universe. He believed in not living someone else’s life. I can’t imagine how this message could not resonate with most people.

Popularity: 3% [?]

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