Browsing articles from "August, 2010"

The Elusive Great User Experience

More than 45 years after Douglas Engelbart prototyped the mouse, designing a truly great User Experience remains incredibly difficult. Yet that experience means the difference between hundreds and millions of users.

Last week I spoke with a former Apple executive who commented on what it takes:

  • Simplicity
  • Attention to detail
  • Fun / Sexy / Cool

Simple. As Oxford alum, ultra-smart product designer, and algorithms expert Ash Rust pointed out to me, the Add Minute button on any modern microwave is as simple yet useful as it gets.

The goal of every design should be to be elegant simplicity. You know you’ve achieved that when the feature or product is reduced to an interface that’s completely intuitive: no instructions are needed. That may not be possible in all cases, of course, but that’s the goal.

Attention to detail. The case in point during the discussion was the use of double-stitching in the interface of an app designed to look like a leather notebook. Sure, the developer could have skipped this, but it makes the app feel the part – useful yet high-end.

Needless to say, I didn’t ask about the recent antenna issues. But the point still stands – attention to detail is about the elements of design that make an app seamless, frictionless to use, and give a user the feel of a great experience.

Fun / Sexy / Cool. There’s a reason Apple uses Star Walk as a showcase app. While Star Walk doesn’t help me claim that my iPad is a business-critical board room device, it’s a wonder of fun and coolness. From the background music to the planetarium-like rotating effects, I’m by no means the first to say that it’s one cool app.

But coolness isn’t just for consumers. Business productivity apps can be cool too. It’s not just about functionality, although that’s important. It’s about including at least one feature that makes an app ultra-cool. For example, a built-in social globe that shows where all the users are of a particular app. Is that particularly relevant to a business productivity app? It may or may not be – but it’s cool. That draws attention, which draws more users, which draws more attention…

With those three points in mind, here are a few changes I’d make to some popular consumer Internet services:

Pandora. One click to buy. Menu and search free. You know the song I mean. The one that’s playing right now! (Perhaps this can’t be done due to integration issues, but…)

Gmail. I don’t just want – I need a new paradigm for e-mail.

eBay. One click to sell. When I want to buy something, I enter it in the search box. Why is listing an item for sale still complicated?

Many of the items I sell are standard – in the sense that they have a UPC code, serial number, or other clear identifying info. Yet eBay often can’t find the item no matter how I try to identify it. If I type in Cannon 970, or at least Canon SD970, you can be pretty sure I want to sell a used Canon SD970. If I were selling a whole bunch of new items, I’d probably be using the pro tools… plus I don’t have a history of selling lots of one item.

Use your best guess, choose the most likely category, and, based on analyzing the selling history for that item, give me the suggested pricing, duration, and other parameters that are likely to… you guessed it! Get me the highest total price.

Opentable and Yelp. Join forces. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see the reviews in Yelp and one-click book the place in Opentable. (As an aside, I love these network effect, category dominating businesses:  OPEN is valued at a $1.2B with < $100M in revenue.)

Update: Proving yet again the rule that the best things are often right in front of us: Thank you Sam for pointing out that Yelp has already built this in!

Conclusion
Ash was right when he pointed out the Add Minute button. It’s the epitome of a great user experience. I’d like to write more about those network effect businesses. But I have to go. The popcorn’s ready.

Aug 31, 2010

Rethinking Online Dating

Evaluating a potential mate through a list of criteria is like trying to describe why you like a work of art through its characteristics. And as Malcolm Gladwell once pointed out, you either like the painting or you don’t. Online dating suffers from the same problem.

If you’re one of the 92M singles in the US (thank you Census Bureau), or are recently-coupled, and are technology-savvy, more likely than not, you’ve tried an online dating service. In fact, some 40M singles in the US have ever gotten a date online. Yet online dating hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years.

All of which begs the question that my friend and savvy consumer Internet investor Larry Marcus at Walden Venture Capital posed to me last week: what would you do if you could completely rethink online dating?

Ask nearly any technically savvy young bay area couple where they’ve met and there’s a good chance you’ll get a pause, a smile and the answer that they met online.

If they say they met some other way, you’re going to wonder, of course. Because in an age where we check in, tweet, and post our photos online, there’s still a sense of embarrassment associated with meeting your mate on the Internet. One reason is that finding true love on the Internet seems more than a little unromantic.

The Market
The two big paid sites take different approaches to online dating. Match shows you a whole lot of pictures along with profiles for you to read. eHarmony presents the user with an ultra-long questionnaire, which is then used as input to the site’s matching algorithms.

There’s big money in online dating. Match.com claims some $350M in revenue, some 20M total members, 1.35M paying subscribers, and 20,000 new members a day. eHarmony did some $250M in revenue in 2009. There are also, of course, the two big free sites, PlentyofFish and OKCupid.

Then there’s Zoosk, which launched in December, 2007 and leveraged Facebook and innovations around virtual goods to grow its user base.

Of course, for investors, one major question is: what’s the exit strategy? But I digress…

Rethinking Online Dating
Much of the existing online dating world revolves around two primary factors: your photo and whether you are compatible with your potential match.

According to Match, “Comparing your profiles side by side is a quick way to calculate chemistry.”

Here are some items that Match.com puts on the list: Age, Height, Eye color, Hair color, Body type, Smoking, Drinking, Job, Income, Ethnicity, Religion, Education, Languages, Marital, Want kids, Children, Exercise…  you get the idea.

Evaluating a potential mate through criteria like these is much like evaluating a work of art by breaking it down into its characteristics rather than just deciding whether – as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in blink – you like the piece of art or not. What looks good on paper may not make for a great real world relationship.

So what are other ways we could match people up?

We could send them out into the offline world! OK, OK back to online.

It’s been said that opposites attract. How about a site for opposites? Unfortunately, OppositeMatch.com is already taken and doesn’t look too active.

We could go with friends’ recommendations. One problem with this approach is that even though your friends probably know you better than you know yourself, try as they might they are unlikely to accurately describe you in an online dating profile.

The challenge is that a bunch of characteristics don’t tell us the one thing we really need to know: when put together, is there going to be a spark? Context can help too. Some situations are more conducive than others to people having a first impression of each other that will lead to the desire for a second and third impression.

What about:

Music – Larry’s original suggestion. Imagine a service where you listen and get matched with others who like the same music you do (think using Pandora thumbs up and bookmarking patterns).

Food – This one’s a little harder to do online. But perhaps there’s some way that Yelp or Opentable could match similar reviewers.

Art and Photos – With so much art and digital photography available online, users could indicate whether they like or dislike a series of images. That data could then be used to match up potential mates.

Finally, what about making online dating more fun? Online dating is very Web 1.0 – text, photos, and email. Adding music, art, and photos to the mix could make online dating a whole lot more fun. Leveraging an existing community, rather than building from scratch, would also be key.

It’s hard to say for sure whether such an approach would work. But two things are certain: first, dating is a growing market. Second, I’ll be more than happy to try out such a service if you build it. Whether that will give you the launchpad you need to get to 100M users, is, of course, another question.

Aug 17, 2010