Monday, December 7, 2009

User Interface Beyond the Web Site

I talk to a lot of founders of startups.  My initial conversations normally focus on the core of the business, important Startup Metrics, probably marketing strategy (ex. SEO for Startups and Negative Customer Acquisition Costs) and, of course, the product itself.  Normally the product is defined as a web site.  Most founders are fairly passionate about the features and functions of the web site, iPhone application, Facebook application, or whatever web application represents the product.  And in many cases, they come with a fairly robust description of what the user interface for the product.

But one of the really interesting things in these conversations is that founders often forget what I consider to be “the other user interface.”  What do I mean by the other interface?

Well think about where you spend your time on your various computing devices?  What applications and web sites have you been using?  For me, my number one application is email.  Then I spend time in all sorts of other applications and web sites.  But the number of web sites and applications that I go visit directly and use is pretty small.  And it’s fairly rare that I add to that list.

For most web products, the way that I end up going to them is that they somehow remind me that they are out there and have something of value.  How does that happen? Well likely it’s email.  It might also be through twitter, Facebook, SMS, RSS, voice, etc.  And the common thread is that all of these provide a means for a product to message the user without them having to think to go to the site.

Don’t be a Ning!

A pet peeve of mine is the way that Ning handles updates to discussions.  They send me a notification that there has been an update to the discussion thread.  It does NOT contain the contents of that update.  To see the contents you have to click a link to go to the site.  I believe they are doing that solely to get me to go back and visit the site so that maybe I’ll click on an ad.  Yuck!

Ning could easily send the contents of the message.  And they could even allow me to send an email response so that I would never have to go to the site.  They could also do this through SMS, Twitter, etc. if that was my chosen messaging platform.

In fact, if Ning cared about making a really powerful tool for distribution discussion, it would allow the discussion to range across all of the channels with each user controlling the flow of the messages.  But none of the users would be required to visit the site.  If you get an SMS, it’s often not practical to visit a site.  But a simple SMS response is quite practical.

Ning clearly is not trying to optimize for effective discussion.  Instead, they are trying to optimize for page views (and ad views) and creating a rather limited tool for discussion.

Bottom line - Don’t be a Ning!

Instead Extend Your User Interface Beyond the Web Site

As was described above, an alternative to a web site for discussion is a distributed interface available through various messaging applications that support distributed discussion.  I’m not claiming this is always appropriate, but the point is that you need to think about this other user interface that’s a critical part of the overall user experience.  In other words …

The user interface beyond the web site is the one that allows the user to interact with your product through their existing sites, devices, applications -- primarily messaging sites, devices and applications -- so that they can continue to use your product even if they are not visiting your product.

Questions to Spark Design Discussions

Some interesting questions to ask about the user interface beyond the web site:

  • What parts of your product can be effectively accomplished in the other user interface?
  • What other user interface opportunities do we have?  What sites, devices, applications are our users going to be already using?
  • How will the other user interface possibly help us with acquisition, retention and referral?

By asking these questions, almost invariably we begin to see the product design in a bit different way…. 

Many applications can push quite a bit of their functionality into these messaging layers.  If you think about email, especially HTML email with the ability of users to respond via links … a lot of the application can get put into the email.  Possibly this creates a much better user experience because the user doesn’t have to think to go to the site or leave their current context.

Limited Budgets

Of course, I’ve yet to meet a startup that had enough money and time.  Thus, you still need to make lots of choices about the functionality to arrive at effective minimums.  So, while I’m pushing a particular discussion, the reality is that often the other user interface turns back into emails.  That’s just fine.

The real point here is not that we should necessarily push for all sorts of messaging out of the gate.  Instead, it’s to think of messaging as a core part of the user experience and even as part of the user interface.

Bottom line: the user interface doesn’t stop with the web site.

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