Adoption = (Functionality – Cost) ^ Ease of Use

VCRs and PVRs – Small Usability Improvements Yields Huge UsageChanges

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 hassle.

The functionality to time shift was there, but few leveraged it.

This topic came up after becoming engaged in an interesting discussion about PVRs versus VCRs, and why the former is inspiring panic and 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?


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 bought out for $2.6 billion – for doing what had been done by countless competitors in a seemingly commodity market for years before.

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 everyday man. 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 with.

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 earlier, 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, 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.

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 investment.

Minimize Barriers to Entry – Make Your Software InitiallyEasy

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.