Adoption = (Functionality – Cost) ^ Ease of Use

VCRs and PVRs – Small Usability Improvements Yields Huge Usage

How often did you use the scheduling functionality of your VCR
to record your favourite "">television shows,
decoupling yourself from the rigorous schedule imposed by the
television networks?

The common answer, overwhelmingly, is never. Few bothered using
the scheduling functionality, even when it would be beneficial
to their quality of life.

This inspired endless jokes about the complexity of
programming the VCR“. Even the few brave “wizards” who
did bother scheduling recordings generally did so rarely: The
hassle of managing tapes, manually setting schedule times, and then
having the uncertain-quality result unavailable until completion
simply wasn’t worthwhile to most people. Many times it didn’t
work out, and they discovered that they actually recorded 8am
instead of 8pm. Whoops!

Even the introduction of Guide+ – a system that allowed you to
record a program by punching in a short code – changed the
situation little: To many it still wasn’t worth the marginal

The functionality to time shift was there, but few leveraged

This topic came up after becoming engaged in an interesting
discussion about PVRs versus VCRs, and why the former is inspiring
panic and ",1367,69775,00.html?tw=wn_tophead_3">
behaviour changes
among the television networks, while the
latter was largely ignored. Consider that virtually every household
in the West had one or more VCRs, yet only a very small
percentage have a PVR today (though obviously it’s a much greater
percentage among the net savvy). Why the concern about
functionality we’ve had for well over a decade?

""> "180" alt="DSC02727" hspace="8" src=
"" width="240"
align="left" vspace="8" />

The reason for the panic, of course, is that
the seemingly minor usability and functional
improvements of the PVR dramatically
increased the usage and utility of the technology: Instead of
rummaging for Guide+ numbers in the back of the newspaper, or worse
– configuring start and end times manually – one
simply pulls up an online listing, selects the programs they
want, and selects to record them. The quality is superlative, it
takes just a few moments, and they gain the added ability to
quickly skip past commercials. Many choose to automatically record
every new episode, saving even more time. To put the icing on the
cake, there’s no hassle dealing with the tapes.

simply reducing the complexity or number of steps marginally can
lead to market dominance

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from
this: Seemingly minor advances in usability can tremendously
alter marketplace success (the VCR was, of course, a great success
in marketplace saturation, but that was almost entirely on the
merit of playback of pre-recorded content. Few used it to actually
record content). Even when it seems like a marketplace need has
been functionally satisfied, simply reducing the complexity or
number of steps marginally – or reducing the barriers to
entry – can lead to market dominance (or market
creation). A PVR isn’t just a VCR with a hard drive –
It completely changed the equation.

Software For Every Need

Consider the software market: By all appearances it looks to be
a saturated market – with a solution for every need – but the
remarkable thing is that much of it remains completely unused and
unadopted. There are countless domains where solutions sit
collecting binary dust because the complexity or barrier to entry
is too high.

Skype, in contrast, blazed a path of glory and achieved
virtual overnight success, yet really it’s just yet-another IP
voice technology
(like we’ve had since the mid-90s. Sure it
added the distributed net, but that’s a feature that is a marginal
improvement at best). It offered a clear, usable interface,
firewall avoidance, and a simple directory for finding the other
person, and bam it is getting ",+stock/2100-1030_3-5860055.html">
bought out for $2.6 billion
– for doing what had been done by
countless competitors in a seemingly commodity market for years

FogCreek software has had success simply taking some "">open source software and
putting a pretty face on it,
offering a small value-add (avoiding configuring your firewalls) –
Making money charging money in a market that people thought was
saturated with free alternatives. The web could really be
considered a Gopher 2.0, but improved usability enough to be
embraced by the everydayman. Bam, the webolution. HTML is absurdly
trivial, yet the marginal usability advance of blogs are what made
everyone a writer. CSS and JavaScript are both highly accessible
technologies, and you can get started quickly by viewing the source
of sites you like, again vastly accelerating the transition from
initial exposure to actually doing something with it.

What About the Professionals?

Even when targetting highly-trained professionals, immediate
“usability” remains critical. Remarkably many of the successful
back-end technologies are those that were easy to get started

Extraordinary to think that multi-year projects and massive web
applications of tremendous scale were built on chosen technologies
because they offered a painless, 10-minute getting started setup
and tutorial – letting someone start pushing out code immediately
– yet in talks with peers I’ve found that this is frequently
the case. Indeed, I will admit to this irrational behaviour myself
– several times I considered implementing a project in J2ME
(targeting cell phones), but the hassle of setting up a J2ME
development platform, and then the pertinent modules for the
various phones, served as such a discouragement that I
abandoned the project rather than wasting 4 hours dealing with
that. In the longer term of a project it’s completely irrational,
yet it happens.

Of course much of the ASP development community evolved not
because ASP was the best platform that was being chosen on merit,
but rather because a lot of shops had a Windows NT box sitting
there with IIS on it, and they started dropping ASP scripts on it
(other languages, like PHP, required additional installations =
more trouble). Soon enough these were ASP shops, even though it was
almost accidental. Few of them really seriously evaluated the
various alternatives.

Of course this was by design: Microsoft, who I "">spoke about
, understands this resistance to learning well. They
have entered countless markets with seemingly inferior offerings
(at least at first), but because it’s there (Microsoft used to rely
upon “everything on” by default) and it’s easy to use, the
marketplace adopts it. SQL Server is a fantastic database
system (I personally believe it was one of the best, and is now
the best with SQL Server 2005), but a lot of its growth
came about largely because it was a trivial install with a
simple, ultra-low barrier to entry GUI: Joe Developer installs it
from the MSDN discs, prods it for a while, and soon enough he’s
building the enterprise data system on it. All because it was so
accessible and easy to use [Of course many of those database don't
use transactions (or they don't properly), and they host terrible
schemas, but it got it used]. On the Windows platform a lot of
admins did the “install everything” technique, and slowly they
sorted it all out and utilized it. This was the way that Microsoft
entrenched itself into corporate networks.

Contrast this with other areas where Microsoft hasn’t followed
this philosophy, and where the results have been much less positive
– Even for critical back-end technologies like "">Biztalk and Sharepoint (both of which yafla
provides solutions and consulting for)
, where you would think
it would be soberly analyzed by experts over
months of analysis before deployment (and thus requiring
significant upfront configuration should be a non-issue), they
often see little adoption simply because the install or initial
configuration discourages fly-by investigation. Without the initial
investigation there is no one to champion it, so it goes unused
(despite being fantastic products).

There are countless examples of products whithering because the
first install required 40 steps, and then doing the first “hello
world” type of project was an enormous hassle. On the flip side a
lot of questionable technologies and solutions have permeated
largely because it was usable immediately, with little up-front

Minimize Barriers to Entry – Make Your Software Initially

If you make software products, ensure that Getting Started is as
painless as possible, and advanced customization options are saved
until the user has some experience with the product (literally it
should install and configure everything, and start the user off
with a Hello World template solution): Even if your customers will
need to spend hundreds of man hours specializing it for their
needs, they need to see something they can poke at and interact
with almost immediately, giving them a sense of accomplishment to
motivate them to continue on. 

Once you’ve gotten the initial time investment, it’s much, much
easier to require a more involved understanding, and to demand that
the user commit themselves to some educational time by the
fireplace with the documentation.

We’re a very impatient bunch these days, and this is
critical if you want success.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking at potential markets
for software products, examine the usage patterns of PVRs versus
VCRs – While the software world might seem full of existing
solutions, really the field is wide open for usable solutions. Make
an easier to use mousetrap and much of the world will beat a path
to your door.

Tagged: [ "" rel=
"tag">Software Development
], [ "" rel="tag">Programming],
[ "tag">Software-Development], [ "" rel="tag">Usability]