Exit the Orbit of Application Obscurity

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Between the “experience economy” and “software eating the world,” all successful companies of the future will be communication/software companies. Fortunately, I’m a communication strategist that works for a software company. #futureproofed

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In the past four years, Stackify has been a productive company. We’ve built applications that help developers keep their code on a tight leash (i.e. make their code visible no matter where it runs). We know the technology is awesome, but does the business of Stackify work? Will enough people pay for this powerful stuff?

Business success happens when a solution escapes obscurity and solves real problems for real humans. It’s not easy for a new application to escape the orbit of obscurity. Human-centered design is an important part of the equation because people are bad computers (even those that work with them most). We are not as logical as we’d like to believe, thus user insights should be top of mind for any development team. I like to think of three such criteria in terms of questions humans ask when making decisions:

1. Do I need this?

2. Do I enjoy this?

3. Do I like what this says about me?

 

1_Milkshake

Do I need this?

A psychologist friend told me there are only two things that motivate people to act: (1) getting something we want, or (2) avoiding something we don’t want. Real wants are easy to justify as needs. Are people really motivated to buy, set-up, and faithfully use our software? Of course we think it’s awesome, but how much do potential users care?

I’m not a developer, but I’m sure it feels great to write code that does something cool and impresses other developers. Musicians and mad scientists feel the same way about their work. However, we don’t have a business until people use our stuff to do something they think is important; something specific they couldn’t get done (or done well) otherwise.

According to innovation guru Clayton Christensen, we can avoid issues like application obscurity with “milkshake marketing,” or by understanding and applying for a specific job a user needs to get done. In other words, we “hire” things to do a job for us. This is the opposite of the hammer-in-search-of-a-nail methodology (in other words, no one really cares about all those extra features). It’s more like a handyman-in-search-of-a-hammer scenario. So, if our app is lucky enough to be considered for a job opening, will it get the offer?

If we like creating apps people pay for and use, we should be very clear about the “jobs” that are on the market, and which job our app is the perfect, or only candidate for. Take this framework into your next roadmap planning or product development meeting. I guarantee it will offer a new perspective on your priorities.

 

2_Ding-DongDo I enjoy this?

The stuff that kills us is always the most fun. This is one of life’s great dilemmas. Along with donuts and Ding Dongs, I love to feel productive and in control. I also love downloading new apps on my phone. Consequently, I have downloaded no less than a dozen list-making apps over the years. The problem is, I hate keeping up with lists. I am no good at it. The pattern goes something like this:

 

1. Find a list app that looks cool

2. Download the app

3. Immediately make some kind of list

4. Forget the list exists (almost immediately)

5. Return to business as usual

6. Forget the app exists

7. Stumble onto a new list app

8. Repeat

 

I once saw a documentary about Woody Allen. He writes ideas on sticky notes and keeps them loose in his night stand. That’s kinda my style, and it doesn’t seem very app friendly.

Clearly our application should be intuitive. Certainly our software should “just work.” It always helps if our product looks great. But, does our app gel? Does it conform to the way a user naturally behaves? Have we designed it after “crawling into the skin of our customer as she goes about her day, always asking the question as she does something: why did she do it that way” (Christensen)?

If we want a loyal user base, relevant + functional + cool + seamlessly integrating with a user’s process/habits/workstyle = home run.

 

3-Pulp-Dark-SideDo I like what this says about me?

We all have an identity we aspire to (or have at least resigned ourselves to). Side note: Remember when a small number of people were just resigned to being geeks? Now isn’t that something we all aspire to, even just a bit?

There’s a cool body of research around social identity theory. It’s a huge part of the human experience. Basically, this theory says it’s human nature to seek affiliation with groups we feel (or want to feel) connected to. This can mean being identified with stuff like a certain race, religion, or profession. It can also be less fundamental stuff like people that drive a Prius, or guys that love My Little Pony. The buzz word for this is “tribe.”

What about our software? Does a user think it helps them impress their boss? Maybe come off like an expert to their peers? Identity concerns may not be everything, but they are always lurking just below the surface.

Case in point: I have a thing for stand-up comedy. When it’s good it’s not just funny, it’s really smart; it both entertains and impresses me. I also like sharing that stuff with other people. “I’m just spreading happiness,” I may think to myself. But, what if I secretly hope people will respond like I had something to do with it—“LOL! Boy, you said it Max”?

Anyway, if we want users to tie their identity to our product, let’s make sure it sets them up to look like a hero or rockstar or something. Or, let’s at least avoid risking the perception that our product could make them look like an idiot.

 

It’s not easy to get insightful answers to these questions, not to mention execute well against them. It certainly takes time, trial, error, etc. At the very least, I’ve found it helps to not be ignorant of these types of criteria. Our new profiling tool, Prefix, is a result of this kind of thinking, and it’s trajectory is pretty awesome.

 

What success or suggestions can you share?

 

 

Max Hobbs 

CMO / Stackify