App Builders Need To Remember That Obligation Isn’t A Real Use Case

After six months and a fair amount of traffic, my web app is now a ghost town--an utter failure. The upshot: It’s harder than it appears to align your own interests with those of a sustainable audience. But it’s even harder to know what you yourself really want.

Everyone who builds apps knows the axiom: If you can’t imagine yourself needing your imaginary software tool, chances are you won’t be able to create something that will attract other people, either. John Siracusa explains this principle well on the most recent episode (#24) of the ATP podcast, talking about his desire to build imaginary iOS or Mac apps. Siracusa says he rarely finds ideas that he believes in enough to sacrifice the time to build it.

Earlier this year I found an idea I thought was worth the sacrifice. So myself and friend Jared Moody decided to build a Hacker News-like site specifically for music content such as news, reviews, articles, and songs. We called it Next Big Thing and launched it at nbt.fm. What we learned after months of work was that we--the original target audience--just didn’t want this. But how could we have failed to see it in the beginning? How did we get so far before realizing our mistake?

Know Yourself To Know Your Users

After six months and a fair amount of traffic, the site is now a ghost town--an utter failure. The upshot: It’s harder than it appears to align your own interests with those of a sustainable audience. But a more subtle observation is that it’s hard to know what you, yourself, really want.

The idea for our site arose auspiciously. Certain music articles I was writing weren't fitting Hacker News' intended audience, and I began to wish there was a similar site, but for music-flavored interests. I imagined upvoting, submitting, and commenting on stories about new music. We could have done a subreddit, but at the time that seemed uninteresting: How could we build a brand off a subreddit? In hindsight we should have tested our concept there, trying out the use case and seeing where the Reddit experience fell short for music lovers before building something new.

Of the ideation process, Stanislas Coppin, cofounder of Ever, a yet to be released social iOS app, said to me, “I think the very first idea on the drawing board is something really personal that fits with a special need for yourself, and then it keeps evolving to become a tool or a platform that fits with the need of a broader audience.”

That process of beginning with a personal need and extrapolating it outward requires a lot of empathetic thinking. “Working on creating a new platform is a balance between making something you're passionate about, and being aware of the market you're working in by fulfilling needs or creating new ones based on what's happening right now,” says Coppin. But self-interest is the starting point. “I would not be able to build something I don't want to use every day.”

Knowing yourself--really knowing yourself--means mastering the one-user scenario. If an app can’t provide some value to a single, lonesome user, it’s exceedingly difficult to build a network effect. (The Reddit founders famously populated their social news site with dummy accounts, registering tons of activity for each of them to simulate a fledgling community.)

But Next Big Thing ultimately failed so quickly because, without a substantial amount of invested users, a social site ranking links becomes totally uninteresting. With the initial launch we got a few news stories mentioning the site, enough to draw some early adopters trying the new thing. After launch I felt obligated to be continually visiting and voting on links I thought were worthwhile, which meant I wasn’t using the site organically in the manner I had envisioned. Obligation isn’t a real use case.

There was also the issue of monitoring spam links and those trying to game the ranking, which also took up a fair amount of time.

After a month or so of protective and obsessive use I realized that I couldn’t sustain and decided to step back and try to be a “normal user.” But the dwindling audience slipped further away, too under-active to beat out other news sites.

The lesson here isn’t to wait for the absolute perfect idea before you build anything, but to build small, quick experiments indiscriminately, in order to test out the concept with other people in a real use-case scenario. Marco Arment recently built an app called Bugshot and said he built it just to get in the iOS app development rhythm again. Too often, we put the concept of building something before the practice, and that can lead us toward creating seemingly elegant (but technically un-tested) apps.

Everyone embraces the “lean” product development, but I’m not sure there’s enough emphasis on pragmatism. If you can’t use a prototype to solve (at least in some small way) a problem amongst yourself and a small group of like-minded people as soon as the prototype is built, then don’t expect any amount of roadmapping or new features to make it a problem solver in the future. When you create something that isn’t must-have for yourself, you’re only creating an obligation.

[Image: Flickr user Brian Holsclaw]