*SPOILER ALERT* if you watch Silicon Valley and have not seen Season 3 Episode 9 you may want to stop here.
I was watching HBO’s Silicon Valley the other day and found this latest episode very intriguing (not to mention hilarious) because it touched on the importance of usability, user testing, and user involvement. In the episode the company (Pied Piper) releases their much awaited platform onto the market where it immediately generates enormous buzz after rave reviews from the founder’s friends and acquaintances during the company’s beta test. This in turn leads to enormous downloads with the Pied Piper team exceeding 500,000 downloads in a matter of days, except there is one issue… there are less than 20,000 active users (4%). For comparison sake, Twitter has 1.3 billion registered users, 310 million (~24%) of which are active.
This is an all too common failure of many software launches, where there is a strong buzz surrounding a “revolutionary” technology, however what is often lost during the development of these applications is who their target audience is. In this episode after a focus group they begin to understand that the reason people aren’t using the tool is simply because they don’t understand it, though this runs in direct contrast with the amazing feedback provided during the company’s Beta test.
The reason for this gap? The beta was only released to their close friends and acquaintances, who also happened to be engineers or general technophiles. As a result, what might seem mundane to someone with a strong understanding of the underlying purpose behind a technology would be lost on someone first encountering it.
In the show they grapple with how to solve this problem, determining that the problem isn’t the tool, but the user. The tool is amazing; however, the user is too foolish to understand how the tool works. Again, another classic misstep, misdiagnosing the problem. Based on this idea they spend all of their available capital trying to “educate” the consumer.
“Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean, to make it simple.” -Steve Jobs
What could they have done differently?
First off, while developing the tool they should have thought of usability from the beginning. Often times the tool that is technologically “best” loses out to the tool that is the simplest. Why is that so? Because, you can have the most revolutionary technology in the world, but if no one wants to use it then your company won’t exist.
Second, they released their Beta only to other engineers and technophiles. While one of the main purposes of a Beta is to uncover bugs and ensure your application is functioning as it was intended—it also is your last opportunity before release to get honest feedback and pivot if necessary. Once a tool is released, whether internal or external facing, the costs to make modifications go up exponentially as things become ever more rigid and difficult to change.
Lastly, they could’ve taken off their blinders and realized that investing in education can often times be a futile effort if the tool is fundamentally difficult to use. Education is usually most effective when users don’t have much of a choice in using your platform, that’s why even the most hated of internal facing platforms sometimes get adopted (albeit begrudgingly).
I used to work at a company that employed Microsoft Dynamics as their CRM system, which was hated by all (including myself) and had virtually no adoption outside of management. We attempted to explain the system via tutorials, YouTube videos, webinars, and in-person trainings. Ultimately, nothing worked and we had a sales nightmare with different reps calling the same companies and causing all sorts of issues.
My colleagues and I then deployed Salesforce as an alternative tool due to its more intuitive design—low and behold user adoption within our organization went from abysmal to nearly 100%. While Microsoft Dynamics was an extremely powerful tool, far more powerful than salesforce (in my opinion) at the time, it ultimately lacked the intuitive nature needed for adoption.
Had Pied Piper designed the tool with the end user in mind, released the Beta to a more representative set of users, or simplified their platform instead of educating, then they may have succeeded. Hopefully we can all listen to this cautionary tale.