The #1 UX Failure of New Products

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?

14 thoughts on “The #1 UX Failure of New Products

  1. I wrote the same comment on your 500 post (and where’s the Speek Party on your “up next”????

    I love this article Steph. And I’d like to share the outstanding advice you gave Speek.

    I have a great anecdote for how optimizing for the first time user works. When a guest user first used Speek (the easiest, simplest, face-melting conference call alternative there is out there) we used to have a div pop up immediately asking them for their name, email, etc as an attempt to convert them. Why wouldn’t they want to convert? Speek is AWESOME! That’s what we thought. Steph said “why the hell are you bombarding me with this pop up before I even see the virtual conference table? Why can’t I experience for myself? Let me see how awesome this is. Give me a minute”

    So we did. We waited 60 seconds to show this div during the call experience and our in call conversions jumped from 10% to 20%. Boom.

  2. I like your statement: “That mainly means answering questions like “what the crap is this, why am I here, and is it worth my time?””

    I think part of the problem is that creators might have a hard time actually answering these questions themselves.

  3. This is what I’ve been looking for on how to write up my verbiage for my event application, since I need it to be from small gatherings to large conferences.

    Thanks, greatly.

    jfc iii

  4. So true! New products are understandably still trying to find their way. Alienating some users up-front by using specific language catered to a specific user means the target audience can get in and start doing stuff faster, which means more data and learning. That makes answering the questions a clearer, faster process.

  5. Love the article.

    Although, I think comparing Biogrify with Rdio is a bit inaccurate. While Rdio does use your friends to discover songs, in the end, your relationship with Rdio is ultimately you and the music. You don’t need to see Will’s activity when there’s a play button ready for you to click.

    When did we become so overly dependent on your friends. If my friend recommends a local organic grocery, do I need to see his shopping list and go shopping with him to get the benefits of this new store? Simply inviting me and bringing it to my attention should be good enough for me to figure out what to do.

    Rdio is also an ironic choice of UI to highlight as simple and done the right way. Compared to Biogrify, Rdio is a clusterf*ck. Rdio gets way too much props for it’s cluttered UI. We’ve all heard of the saying “Do one thing and do it great”. Rdio doesn’t do anything great. Granted, it looks nice as a graphic design, everything laid out neatly with a nice blue gradient BG that constitutes the majority of its coolness, but it’s not a great utility.

    Look at this screenshot of Rdio:

    Browse Music
    Reviews (why?)
    Heavy rotation sorted between: You | Your Network | Everyone
    Top Artists
    Find People To Follow
    And More..

    All of these features are little bitty text words placed cleanly around the UI. I’d personally be more apt to stay on Biogrify than Rdio. The only probably with Biogrify, is I, like most people, don’t really care for the format of their content (text, designed well). Rdio is pushing music, something I, and all of us love, and because we love it so much, we all deal with and learn to accept overly complex UI’s simply because we’ll do anything to get a taste of some music. Spotify is uglier than Rdio, but they are both overly complicated UIs that I refuse to use. I’m just glad people call it clean, this means there’s lots of room to innovate UIs in the music sphere.

    Just my 2 pennies.

  6. Thanks for such a thought-provoking comment! I used Rdio in the example because of their FIRST UI (not the current one), though I don’t have a screenshot of how simple it was early-on. The point is just that it was optimized for the first-time user, rather than how it’s evolved (to become more feature-rich) since it’s grown from early-stage to scale. Totally agree with you that the focus on inviting friends is a symptom of trying to skip to scale too quickly (before there’s data to suggest traction or retention). Thanks again!

  7. I worked on Biogrify as a freelancer a while back, and I’d warn you guys not to draw too many conclusions regarding the UX failings of this site. The founders are non-technical in the most extreme sense, have almost a comical misunderstanding of how social networks work, and have bought into the incoherent strategy as suggested by their design team. Hopefully no-one gets suckered into investing for this company.

  8. If by “this site” you mean my blog, I’d love a screenshot and your device details. I’m using Origin, a responsive WordPress theme.

    If you’re referring to the Biogrify site, it might be that they’re optimizing for web users first. But your comment re: including mobile users is an important one.

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