I got asked this question last week. At first it seemed un-answerable, but then I realized that NOT optimizing their UX for a first-time user is the biggest issue early-stage companies face.
The problem is clear: there is no active or loyal user base yet. So if the product relies on having a user base to be valuable enough that users would want to return, it HAS to cater to a first-time user FIRST.
For example, when I first got into Rdio very early on, I saw music there already. I started listening immediately. I then had a lower threshold for inviting friends because the proof was in the app when I first logged in. I also already was ENJOYING the app, so returning (and becoming a paying subscriber) was also easier for me.
Now imagine if Rdio required me to upload music first because the listening library had a minimum number of songs to start. Imagine if I had to connect my Twitter or Facebook account BEFORE I had a chance to use the app.
What’s my incentive?
A first-time user is there to kick the tires. To change behavior and encourage users to come back for more, there has to be a clear strategy that caters to that first-time user’s context FIRST. That mainly means answering questions like “what the crap is this, why am I here, and is it worth my time?”
Here’s a real example of the norm. My buddy Will invited me to Biogrify. Its homepage says nothing about what it is. So I asked Will “what the crap is this?” He told me it was something like the New New Social Network with Infographics. I don’t need this in my life, but Will is awesome, so I signed up via Twitter, added profile info, then skipped the “invite friends” part of the 3-step process.
Once in, I see content created by people I don’t know.
Why didn’t I see Will’s posts? He invited me. And what’s my incentive to do a Quick Post, “Create,” or “Connect with Facebook to find more friends” at this point? I’m kicking the tires, but why would I want to create content for strangers to see? And why would I want to invite friends without seeing what this product really is all about … but wait, is that the only way this would be relevant to me on first view?
Instead of optimizing the sign-up process and UI to a first-time user like me, the product is built for the business. It’s got fun visual tools without context of why a first-time user should use them. It offers the chance to make posts without friends. Each of the features and networking aspects requires me to take actions without ever telling me why I’d want to take them. In the meantime, my inbox starts filling up with “X is now following you” messages that try to draw me back into the application.
Startups here are optimized for power users who “get it” and become evangelical. This is definitely one tactic to take, and my buddy Will is surely onboard. I’m not. Would I be if the UX was customized to creating a more oriented, powerful, and conversational first-time experience? Yes. It’s fun.
But it’s not worth my time to figure out why it matters to me. That’s the startup’s job. Taking the pitch of why it needs to exist and making it a core aspect of the UX is the best way of communicating with the first-time user, whose buy-in is essential to success.
Building a product for most of us is an attempt at building a business; it takes time. Think Jack Cheng’s “slow web” time. If startups could launch products the way they launch conversations — with an “I’m working on this app for people who love infographics” rather than “connect twitter, tell friends, create posts!” — and guide them in that first-time experience, more of us would actually stick around for the good stuff that makes us incorporate the new app into our daily lives. Which makes the business grow for realz.
With SOOOOO many other risks startups face, why risk leaving your first-time user to fend for herself and “discover” the value of the app through its features?