chris blogs

March 2006

04mar2006 · How to lose ardent customers

Damien Katz picks up an article by Andreas Pfeiffer and comments on Why Features Don’t Matter Anymore.

I’d recommend to read both posts before reading on.

From a real user perspective, both certainly are right. Users don’t want to learn, they want stuff to work. However, one thing that they are likely to not ever understand is that learning is not self-purposed, by learning you improve your knowledge to be able to work more efficient and get your job done faster.

Katz now claims that “People just want to get a very specific thing done, and then MOVE ON”. Let’s say that is true for 80% of your users—it’s likely to be even more. Good. These 80% will be very happy your software works for them. These 80% also probably will use it in the one specific way it was made for them. These 80% also easily can switch to a different product, the features they need are not special.

I can understand and respect that not everyone wants to learn, program and extend software. That does not mean, however, that noone wants to learn, program and extend software. And these 20% of users probably will hate your software very soon, because it was not made for them. These 20% would love to read and hack three hours to write a macro that will save them manyears of work—or they could hire someone to do it for them. Often, their needs are not very special and could be added easily, but their needs are unique, and that’s why the features they need don’t yet exist.

If there is no way for them to make their work easier, they will switch to a product that can. I hope for them the software they want exists, because there is no better way of making people unhappy than not listening to their needs.

If your software is easy to extend and customize, you don’t need to implement all the features you can imagine—just implement what you think 80% of your users regularily need. But don’t lock the other 20% out, especially if there is no reason for that. Most software is scripted internally, publish the interfaces and allow users to write their own tools—most wont, but the ones that do will be thankful eternally for that.

Pfeiffer says the iPod is an success because it was self-explanatory, and of course he is right. But let’s say some other big company now makes an MP3 player that is even easier to use while being compatible with the iPod (and it’s not like that is impossible, clever people and good designers outside Apple exist too, it’s just a matter of time), what will make users keep their iPod? What will make users buy the next iPod generation when there are better products around?

Other than Apple and iPod cult behavior, I don’t see a reason—and this cultish behavior unlikely will affect people that move on after they are done.

Now, for comparision, why do many professional writers still use XyWrite or Emacs, even when there are “more modern” and, you could say, “easier” to use word processors exist? It’s because they have invested time into learning their editor and maybe even written a few extensions they needed. They don’t want to repeat that work, but if the next version of their editor adds new things they’d want while still being able to use what they learned, they’ll stick to your products as long as they exist. Even if the other products are easier to use and have more features.

So please, if you are writing software and think you would be better off if you software was easier and less-featureful, do think of the people that have special needs: Is there an extension language they can use with reasonable work? Is the system flexible enough to add features you wouldn’t have thought of? (It generally is a good idea to implement parts of the included features using the extension language. If it doesn’t work out, you did something wrong.)

Given these properties, your software will be easy to use for 80% while being flexible and extensible enough for the 20% that are not served by other software these days. Given these properties, you can create ardent users that will stick to your products because your product is able to provide something no other product easily can.

If you think you don’t need this kind of customer, no-one forces you to suit them—but your competitors would be dumb if they didn’t.

NP: The Rolling Stones—Wish I’d Never Met You

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