Ariel Seidman

Hi! I'm Ariel.
Founder Sidebar.com and Gigwalk.com


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Ariel Seidman

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My six rules for mobile app design

Mobile app design is hard. In fact, it’s far harder than web app design. The web is a forgiving place. If you have a couple of superfluous features on a web app they just get ignored. Mistakes on the web can be fixed in a few minutes or hours. On the other hand, one superfluous feature in your mobile app can be fatal. And even if you figure out the right feature mix they need to snap neatly together in your app.

Over the past few years I’ve developed a set of rules or more accurately a checklist of sorts. Things I mentally check for when building mobile apps. For much too long they sat in my head or were scribbled into a notepad, so it’s about time I share them. Here we go:

1. Simplifies the useful

For some people simplicity has become a religion. Like all religions it’s often taken to an extreme. You’ll see designers jettison app features in the name of simplicity. I guess you could design a house without central heating to remove the complexity of dispersing hot air throughout the house. In most parts of the world you wouldn’t want to live in that house. Simplifying does not always mean removing features.

The better way to think about this is to simplify the useful. Your app is (hopefully) really useful at one or two things - at most. Make those one or two things incredibly simple to use. Instagram obviously did this for making your photos prettier.

2. Distributes itself

Distribution is hard in the physical world where we have physical constraints. There is only so much shelf space to go around, so that means if you can secure one of the limited spots on a Whole Foods or 7-Eleven shelf you immediately have meaningful distribution. The reason Coca-Cola is so successful is not because it’s a superior flavor. Early on they figured out how to distribute the product everywhere. Distribution in the digital world is far harder. The App Store is not going to wake up one day and proclaim “each category will only have 100 apps!” When a massive supply of products exists it makes solving distribution that much more critical. Put another way, when everybody has distribution nobody has it.

Distribution has become more challenging on mobile. On the web there were multiple ways to distribute — SEO (Yelp), eBay (PayPal), Craigslist (AirBnb), Facebook (Zynga). All of these have either dried up or don’t work well on mobile.

What does it mean for a product to distribute itself? Put simply your app works best when it requires an existing user to touch a non-user. You can certainly create a profile on LinkedIn but the point of the product is to connect that profile to your professional network, each time that happens you are potentially pulling a new user into LinkedIn. Your app has to be able to do this as you cannot rely upon the good graces of Apple or Google to promote your app.

I often hear people telling themselves lies about their distribution problem. The lie usually goes like this “well my app will inspire people to tell their friends about it.” People don’t wake up wanting to tell their friends about great apps they use. They are thinking about three hundred other things that day and your product is likely at the bottom of that list.

3. Fits into people’s lives

Designing a usable app is hard. However, exceptional designers can make it work. But as my co-founder points out fitting into people’s lives is even harder, yet critical for building a sustainable business, so the layer cake model was developed:

Every app starts at the bottom of the layer cake and has to travel through each layer to become part of people’s daily lives.

In layer one you look at the app and ask yourself whether this is something I would want to use? If you pass that layer then congrats as only a small fraction of products pass through this layer. In the second layer you are using the product with your actual data or for services like Uber you are using it to hail a cab.

An example of a product that worked with my data is Gmail. It got better for me the more I used it. I stopped worrying about storage and recalling was email was fast with great search. On the other hand, once Mailbox and Basecamp had my data for a few weeks it failed this second layer. In the case of Mailbox it generated more work for me in the form of snooze notifications instead of helping me get work done.

In the third layer of the cake you ask yourself if the product has become part of your life. This doesn’t mean you use the product each and everyday but you turn to this product each time you have a job it fulfills . I don’t need OpenTable everyday, however when I need to make a reservation I always check OpenTable. For some products moving across these layers takes days or weeks, while for most it will take users months and years to reach and pass the third layer [1]. It took me a few years before I passed through the third layer of the cake with Twitter. Today, Twitter is an indispensable tool for me.

4. Uses the damn touch screen

PC web designers struggle with the shift to mobile. Deep within their design DNA is the assumption that people are sitting in a comfortable chair with a keyboard in front of them. To experience truly native mobile experiences we are going to have to wait until kids who were born post 2007 begin designing apps [2]. Their digital experiences were formed entirely by touch screens. They will instinctively understand that mobile is less about words and more about photos, videos, audio, drawings, and more generally direct manipulation.

Email was born in the desktop era and is certainly built around text. So, the Mailbox app could have used some combination of text and pull-down menu to snooze email. Instead they used a very natural touch gesture — swipe to snooze. It shows that even text centric apps can be re-imagined to incorporate touch screens. Instead of complaining about how hard it is to type use that constraint as an advantage.

5. Opens to the primary thing

Whatever your core thing is about the app should open to this screen. Snapchat is a fantastic example of nailing this. Each time you open the app, it opens to the camera. Apps that require you to setup structure around them before getting to the main thing are asking to be deleted. GroupMe requires me to setup a ton of things before I actually start a group conversation.

Quip is a useful new app that I started using yet I want it to always open to the “desktop” of documents screen. After all the app is about documents.

6. Has a ‘Got it’ screen

In the app store you have one screenshot to explain your app. App stores gives you five slots, but more realistically you have one. Open up the App Store on your phone and you’ll see why.

When we designed the Gigwalk app our ‘got it’ screen was a map with pins of jobs (aka Gigs) each paying $4 to $15. Once you saw that screen it told you what the app was about.

Once you find that one thing your app is about the ‘got it’ screen becomes self-evident. If you are struggling to find this screen it’s a clear signal that you need to keep looking for that one thing.

7. Break the rules.

Nothing interesting is built by following all the rules, so break some along the way!

———————————————

[1] Patient venture capital is designed for exactly this scenario as most products take years to realize their full opportunity as people move relatively slowly through these layers.

[2] It’s a good idea to test your app with a five year old.

Mobile is fertile ground for business model disruption

The mistake we often make is thinking technologies disrupt existing businesses.  A competent incumbent can usually copy a new entrants product. It’s far harder for them to copy a new business model.  I learned this lesson fairly early on as a newly minted product manager at Siebel Systems.

Siebel Systems (CRM category leader prior to Salesforce) was not disrupted by the web.  If it was a technology disruption then porting Siebel’s products to a web architecture should have done the trick, yet it did nothing for Siebel’s business.  

Siebel was disrupted by a new business model - subscription software - that the web enabled.  Siebel customers looked at the Salesforce’s product  - it resembled Siebel’s web based software in every possible way - and asked themselves “you mean I don’t have $1M upfront for that Salesforce.com stuff?” The web created an opportunity for an entirely new business model that disrupted Siebel. Siebel simply packaged up its existing product in a web-architecture but continued to distribute it and price it the same way. 

In a foot in mouth moment the Executive VP of Products for Siebel said to me in reference to Salesforce - “how hard is it to stick a credit card form on a product.”  He was fired about ten months later.   

Fast forward to today, as we sit here and watch the transition from PC Web to mobile you’ll find many enterprise companies suffering from the Siebel disease.  

They realize mobile is important so they create a serviceable mobile app, stick a screenshot of it on their website, and proclaim to the world they are mobile ready.  As products these apps are built for existing customers who have to use the product - the WebEx app is a great example.  

Baked into these products is the assumption that in a mobile first world customers are going to continue finding and buying your products in the same way.  Can you sign-up for their service using mobile? No.  Can you buy their product via mobile?  No. The mobile app is just an accessory (a term Justin shared with me).  Their business model and distribution remain the same.   

This is a dangerous spot for enterprise software incumbents.  Mobile provides fertile ground for business model disruption.  Why?  Everything is changing.  

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The first time I tried the Clear task app I dumped it after working my way through their tutorial. What task app requires a tutorial!

After upgrading to iOS 7 I was looking for a new task app, and decided to give Clear another try. This time around I flipped through the tutorial because I didn’t need it. Something had changed. The gestures were obvious and it fit neatly into iOS 7. What happened?

One of the core concepts in the Clear app is direct manipulation. If you want to delete a task or mark it as complete, instead of selecting Edit and marking those items as complete or deleting them all together you simply slide to the left to delete and slide to the right to mark as complete.

Clear took the concept of direct manipulation and pushed it across every part of their app. In retrospect it was too much too soon. They were forced to create a lengthy tutorial for a task app, and many of their customers were frustrated by the interactions.

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Other app developers took notice of the innovative work Clear was doing. However, instead of designing their entire app around direct manipulation they carefully picked spots for integrating the direct manipulation concepts. Let’s look at a few different examples:

After using these other apps and iOS 7 the interactions first introduced by Clear are now second nature. What was once weird is now normal. Innovation needs to be ahead of its customers otherwise it’s not innovation. Yet, it needs to be close enough that you can build them a bridge to easily get there.

Some perspective on 1 million available apps

After four years Google Play recently hit 1 million available apps and Apple’s App Store just turned five and with 900,000 available apps will reach that milestone shortly.   The one million available apps number starts a whole lot of moaning and groaning about a saturated market and challenging distribution on App Stores.

Let’s go back in time for a moment.  Netscape launched in 1994 marking the beginning of the commercial web.    Five years later we hit the height of the dot com boom - 1999.  The only web product started in this era that I still use are Amazon and PayPal.  I don’t use Hotmail, eBay, GeoCities, and a dozens that I no longer recall.  The web services I use regularly include Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr, and Dropox were created between 2004 to 2007.   That’s 10 to 13 years after the birth of the commercial web.   

There are 1 million apps available therefore everything that should be built has been built.   That’s obviously an incorrect conclusion and will be wrong when we hit 5 million available apps.  The number of available apps says nothing about the demand for apps, the target audience of these apps, or the underlying quality and usefulness of these apps.  

Perhaps one reason many are jumping into BitCoin is they see a saturated app marketplace.  With a quick history lesson you’ll see why this is nonsense.   Back in 2004-06 there were ~55 million+ websites.  Some people thought the consumer web was done and moved aggressively into clean tech.  Bad idea.  Twitter, LinkedIn, and Gmail launched in that timeframe.

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Sure, the centralized app distribution model is challenging.   Yet, distribution is always a hard problem.   YouTube didn’t just sit there waiting for people to happen upon YouTube.com.  Instead, they created simple video embeds so people could paste their YouTube videos into a MySpace wall (MySpace was a pretty big deal back then).

People forget that many apps just like websites are only built for the creator.  See, I have this problem where I miss trains.  I’ll look up a train on my handy Routesy Pro app.  Great, I am going to jump on the 6:45 train.   Before I know it’s 6:43 and there is no way I can run to my train in 3 minutes - I need at least 7 minutes!  

To solve this problem I decided to create an app.  It automatically sets an alarm for me 10 minutes before my train departs.  Pretty simple requirements:

  1. I select the train I am going to take.
  2. The app sets an alarm for me 10 minutes prior to the departure time
  3. Alarm goes off: Ariel - get your ass out of the office NOW :)

 

This is a personal convenience app.  While it sits in the App Store along with a million other apps it’s designed for an audience of one person - me. With some basic programming knowledge you can learn how to build such an app.  Each week, thousands of personal utility apps like my train alarm are built and published to the App Store, and many of them are just for the creator who published it.  

We are going to look back at WhatsApp the way we look back at ICQ or AOL.  ICQ and AOL were designed for immature web users with limited computers and networks.  Likewise WhatsApp is designed for an immature mobile user — this is the 1st messaging app you get.  It won’t be the last.  Once you graduate from WhatsApp you’ll want something richer, more expressive.  

There is a very simple reason for this.  WhatsApp was created during the limited app era.   Limited touch experience, memory, display size, and processor speeds. The iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 launch opened an era of app abundance.  Developers don’t need to spend too much time worrying about processor speed, memory, and in some markets fast wireless networks.  

Old Skool networks - who is progressing and who is decaying

A good thread broke out on Twitter that started with this…

Of the old skool networks at scale only Twitter and Tumblr feel like they are progressing.  Others are (slowly) decaying. 

As the conversation expanded I realized I omitted a few important networks that we’ll discuss below.  

Before we dive in.  This is not a data analysis of the state of these networks.  Often times networks will continue to grow for an extended period of time (see Craigslist) while their foundation begins to slowly crumble.  These small cracks are not visible as they sit well below the surface of publicly reported data.

But this all begs the obvious question who is decaying and why.  Just as importantly why are some of these networks progressing. Let’s have a look.

Who is decaying and why?

1) The primary use cases gets disaggregated

 

2) Slow to respond to shift to mobile

 

3) Shoddy execution 

 

4) Shifting norms

 

Which networks are progressing and why?

1) Maintain their original simplicity

 

2) Service gets better on mobile

 

3) Ways for people to make money

 

4) Content is king 

This one runs deep into my bones.  

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Other than Dropbox and Basecamp most enterprise SaaS is still about sales and marketing. As the chart above shows enterprise sales is expensive. Yet, it works because these companies are selling complex and high margin software.

The mobile app model has the potential to change this.

  1. Secure distribution. App stores provide a (more) secure form of distribution. Enterprises care about this. If you say “I got this on the App Store” the IT guy is not going to lose his shit. The web for better or for worse is the Wild Wild West. Everything goes. A scary world for IT guys.
  2. Disaggregation. SaaS services can do 300 things. An App can do 3 things (at most) really well. The sales cycle for a SaaS service that does 300 things requires a sales consultant to help describe the benefits and assist in the deployment. Since mobile apps are naturally feature constrained you don’t need a sales consultant explaining 3 features. This disaggregation is happening on the consumer side. Facebook is being replaced by WhatsApp for private messaging, Instagram for photos, and so forth. The disaggregation on the enterprise side won’t move as fast or go to the extreme we are seeing on the consumer world. However, the nature of the devices we now use dictates that it will happen.
  3. Everybody is a Power User. Let’s consider a business with 100 employees. Today, about 10 (or 10%) people in that business can setup a WebEx and they each pay $25 to $89 per month. What about the other 90% of the employees, why can’t they use Webex collaboration tools whenever they want. In the PC web era enterprise tools were built and priced around a power user. Mobile will vastly simplify services like WebEx and bring it to 100% of employees for $3/month. The enterprise user will decide for themselves which calendar, file syncing, email client, etc. app they want to use. At a price point of only a few dollars a month these products no longer require a significant investment that needs “buy-in” from multiple managers and a sales guy prodding everybody along.
  4. Google Apps = Enterprise Data. While not directly mobile Gmail has reached 425 million active users (June 2012) and over 5 million businesses use Google Apps. That means that mobile developers have access to critical enterprise data and the most important communication channel (email) within the enterprise. Historically, if you wanted access to enterprise data you spent lots of money hiring partnership guys to develop partnerships. Thankfully, these walls are getting torn down.

I am not suggesting that sales guys won’t exist in a mobile app world. If 4,000 people at American Express are using your app they are going to want to talk to somebody about doing an enterprise deal. Or if the Department of Education wants to consider rolling out your app to it’s tens of thousands of employees they are going to need somebody to talk about that:-)

It’s is going to be really tough to build an amazing iOS 7 app without using Quartz Composer.   Movements and animation are central to the experience of an app as Rene Ritchie sums it nicely

 iOS 7 is alive. It moves and “breathes” through dimensional layers…
iOS 7 includes physics and effects that take the gamification of user experience to a completely new level. It’s a virtual collection of objects that can be directly manipulated — played with — by a person’s finger, by acceleration and rotation, or by other elements of the system.

Throwing together a few mockups in Illustrator or Photoshop won’t do much for you anymore.    To develop a feel for how your app interacts you need motion.  To design that motion you need Quartz Composer.
While the Quartz Composer tool is incredibly powerful it also is not for the faint of heart.  It’s a full blown visual programming tool. We’ve been using Quartz Composer for the past two weeks and realized that there is an opportunity for somebody to create a far simpler app animation design tool.    Want to apply a zoom-in effect while moving from this list view to a detail view?  Creating that animation using your app’s visual assets should take 3 minutes for the initial setup and then refine the speed and other parameters till your hearts content.   
The tools we use to design apps are going to have to change, and I wouldn’t count on Adobe leading us there.  It’s just another reminder that everything is changing.

It’s is going to be really tough to build an amazing iOS 7 app without using Quartz Composer. Movements and animation are central to the experience of an app as Rene Ritchie sums it nicely

iOS 7 is alive. It moves and “breathes” through dimensional layers…

iOS 7 includes physics and effects that take the gamification of user experience to a completely new level. It’s a virtual collection of objects that can be directly manipulated — played with — by a person’s finger, by acceleration and rotation, or by other elements of the system.

Throwing together a few mockups in Illustrator or Photoshop won’t do much for you anymore. To develop a feel for how your app interacts you need motion. To design that motion you need Quartz Composer.

While the Quartz Composer tool is incredibly powerful it also is not for the faint of heart. It’s a full blown visual programming tool. We’ve been using Quartz Composer for the past two weeks and realized that there is an opportunity for somebody to create a far simpler app animation design tool. Want to apply a zoom-in effect while moving from this list view to a detail view? Creating that animation using your app’s visual assets should take 3 minutes for the initial setup and then refine the speed and other parameters till your hearts content.

The tools we use to design apps are going to have to change, and I wouldn’t count on Adobe leading us there. It’s just another reminder that everything is changing.

"I don’t trust nobody when they say something good."



- Eddie Vedder



"Every time you have a thought about the competition, replace that with a thought about your customer and you’ll do far better as a business."



- Mike McCue — Flipboard’s CEO / Co-founder



Learning by serving

As an entrepreneur you have many relationships that matter. One of those is with your board. Many smart people have written about managing your board. Most of what is written is by one side or the other — board members telling entrepreneurs what they want from a good board meeting or entrepreneurs telling you what they learned by managing their board.

As an entrepreneur I learned the most about working and managing a board by actually serving on a board. By flipping sides things that take you half a year to figure out are learned in a matter of hours. Why? I became a spectator to my own thoughts and behaviors as an entrepreneur. This vantage point clarifies things rather quickly.

I was invited to serve on the board of a startup coming out of Stanford course with Howard Hartenbaum. Howard is a Gigwalk board member and while I was at Gigwalk we worked in a CEO / board-member relationship. This was an opportunity for Howard and I to serve together on the board of a very early startup. Here is what I learned. When appropriate I will try and give real examples

Don’t waste time on little issues.

Thanks for coming to our board meetings today! First up, we are looking at a few different credit card processors. We think Stripe is simple to implement, while BrainTree is super flexible for when we scale, and then there is this other one that just launched…. blah…blah… blah…

Talking about which credit processor you are going to use is a waste of time. Instead frame big strategic issues for the board. What does that actually mean? Let’s say you run a daily deals e-commerce site. Which credit card processor you choose is not a strategic issue. One of the most critical issue you face is how do to get off the daily email crack. Spamming people with daily emails is obviously not sustainable. You need customers coming to your site each day because you have unique products to offer them at a great price. Do you start designing your own products? Do you switch to a follow model? These are all critical issues that need to be framed and discussed at the board.  Once you get out the weeds a bit and move into a non-executive role it becomes fairly obvious that spending time on issues like which credit processor to use is a waste of time.

It’s OK for the board to see the mess.

Thanks for the $2 million dollars! Oh by the way did you know we still use a single Excel spreadsheet to run our business.

Startups are messy and fragile creatures. Your natural instinct is to try and hide the messy side of your startup from the board. Don’t pretend your startup runs smoothly. Nobody expects it to run like IBM. A good board can help you clean some of this stuff up. After closing our A round and with the help of Howard we transitioned Gigwalk from Excel to QuickBooks and developed internal tools giving us a near real-time view of our marketplace and financials.

Learn how to put your board to work.

Hey! thanks for wiring me a few million dollars I have some work for you to do now. (things entrepreneurs think)

If you think of your board as a benefactor with a large checkbook asking them to do work for you feels like an awkward request. Instead, you have to think of them as what they are - co-owners of your business. As co-owners of your business they are financially motivated to work. Its the CEO’s job to give them projects to work on. Here is an example of how you could put your board to work. When I was serving on the board of the Stanford team I was pushing the team to focus on a single task type before expanding into additional tasks. The founding team was resisting - totally fine.

At this point they should have turned around and said — “OK, I hear that you guys are not big fans of horizontally focused marketplaces, send me a note detailing how you came to this conclusion with examples of four to five digital marketplaces that benefitted from a tight vertical focus, and why our situation is similiar” It’s easy to come to a board meeting and shoot off a few different examples, its another thing to sit down and compose a cogent note. By asking the board to write a note it forces them to take those pattern matching knowledge and skills and puts them to work on a relevant and important issue for you as the entrepreneur.

It’s OK to ask for help.

At first I thought asking for help is a sign of weakness. There is a difference between asking for help and asking your board to make decisions for you - i.e. run your business. If you find yourself doing the later something actually is wrong. When used properly your board and investors can save you lots of time and money.

For example, we hired somebody from a large web company (lets call this company Z). Two months later I received threatening letters and voicemails from Z’s legal teams telling me that this Gigwalk employee was violating a non-compete employment contract (in the state of Washington) and had to stop working at Gigwalk immediately. Our legal counsel advised me that if Z aggressively pursued this case it would be costly. I called one of our investors who had a relationship with Z’s CEO and we resolved the matter 36 hours later. It saved us a ton of money in legal fees and the employee continued working at Gigwalk.

Listen closely, follow your own instincts

Entrepreneurs need strong convictions and instincts. These same instincts gets in the way of listening (guilty). Just because you listened to somebody’s perspective this does not mean you need to act on what was said. It’s impossible for everybody to agree on everything. Even when you already know the answer give it five minutes and listen. It won’t hurt, you may learn something along the way, and if nothing else it will help develop a productive relationship.

As a big aviation nerd I’ve been following the Boeing 787 launch closely.  I love all forms of communication technology.  To me air travel is a form of incredibly rich communication. Sales people fly to engage with their customers face-to-face, families travel to kiss a newborn baby, and old friends travel 12+ hours to dance at their college roommates wedding.  
The 787 is the most significant plane to launch since the 747 jumbo jet’s inaugural flight in 1969.  When Twitter lit up on Friday with news of another 787 fire I started to wonder if the 747 launch would have survived the social media era.   James Surowiecki in the New Yorker tackles this exact point.

In a different time, none of this might have mattered much. As plenty of people have pointed out, “teething problems” have, historically, been common in new planes. The 747’s engines were notoriously temperamental, the DC-10’s cargo doors were a major safety issue, and a number of Lockheed L-188s had wings shear off in flight. By those standards, you might think the Dreamliner’s battery issues are minor. The problem for Boeing is that those standards don’t apply anymore.  

Something similar is happening in the consumer and enterprise web space.  Back in 2006 we were used to lots of crappy web services.   Just as airplane travel has become incredibly safe online web services rarely crash and burn.  Dropbox doesn’t drop or corrupt your files.  Gmail sends your emails without fail.  Google returns answers in milliseconds.  The Twitter fail-whale is basically dead.  These services just work and they do so fast.  A billion plus consumers have collectively reset the bar for their web services and air travel safety standards.  
This is not an excuse to wait till your product is perfect before launching. After all, people won’t die if your app crashes.   And when it does crash it will only affect a handful of users in the early days.    What has changed is that most consumers know good stuff when they see it.  My mother-in-law is not going to put up with a crappy piece of Citrix software and people are not going to pay $20 / month for text messaging.  Our world has changed for the better.
As developers, designers, and entrepreneurs our job is both harder and easier.    For the first time ever we have access to billions of potential customers, but they are a savvy and picky bunch.
 

As a big aviation nerd I’ve been following the Boeing 787 launch closely.  I love all forms of communication technology.  To me air travel is a form of incredibly rich communication. Sales people fly to engage with their customers face-to-face, families travel to kiss a newborn baby, and old friends travel 12+ hours to dance at their college roommates wedding.  

The 787 is the most significant plane to launch since the 747 jumbo jet’s inaugural flight in 1969.  When Twitter lit up on Friday with news of another 787 fire I started to wonder if the 747 launch would have survived the social media era.   James Surowiecki in the New Yorker tackles this exact point.

In a different time, none of this might have mattered much. As plenty of people have pointed out, “teething problems” have, historically, been common in new planes. The 747’s engines were notoriously temperamental, the DC-10’s cargo doors were a major safety issue, and a number of Lockheed L-188s had wings shear off in flight. By those standards, you might think the Dreamliner’s battery issues are minor. The problem for Boeing is that those standards don’t apply anymore.  

Something similar is happening in the consumer and enterprise web space.  Back in 2006 we were used to lots of crappy web services.   Just as airplane travel has become incredibly safe online web services rarely crash and burn.  Dropbox doesn’t drop or corrupt your files.  Gmail sends your emails without fail.  Google returns answers in milliseconds.  The Twitter fail-whale is basically dead.  These services just work and they do so fast.  A billion plus consumers have collectively reset the bar for their web services and air travel safety standards.  

This is not an excuse to wait till your product is perfect before launching. After all, people won’t die if your app crashes.   And when it does crash it will only affect a handful of users in the early days.    What has changed is that most consumers know good stuff when they see it.  My mother-in-law is not going to put up with a crappy piece of Citrix software and people are not going to pay $20 / month for text messaging.  Our world has changed for the better.

As developers, designers, and entrepreneurs our job is both harder and easier.    For the first time ever we have access to billions of potential customers, but they are a savvy and picky bunch.

 

Why we need to clarify the Enterprise vs. Consumer distinction

Six years ago broadly bucketing technology companies into enterprise vs. consumer would instantly tell you important things about a company like how they go-to market and acquire customers.  That’s no longer true. 

Are Basecamp, Square, and Dropbox enterprise or consumer companies?  Many people use these products to do their jobs.  While others use them for personal reasons - like settling a bet with a friend using Square or organizing a family reunion on Basecamp.  So, what defines an enterprise and consumer technology company?

When you look at the enterprise vs. consumer distinction through the product distribution lens there is actually a big difference.  Here is a simple test.  If you find yourself or people on your team calling, meeting, and emailing your 389th customer to get them to buy your product that’s an enterprise company.  Hey, hold on a second! I have a self-serve option that anybody can use. That’s a feature, not a distribution strategy.  

Using our distribution lens Basecamp, Square, and Dropbox are clearly consumer companies.  They acquire their customers via email (Ariel shared a folder with you on Dropbox), content marketing (Basecamp’s Signal v. Noise blog), and consumer marketing and distribution partnerships (Square has retail partnerships with Apple and others).

A new hybrid consumer enterprise has emerged.  Yammer is the hybrid poster child.  It acquires its customers via cheap consumer channels and turns those customers into cash with a direct sales force selling to enterprises.  This formula creates warm leads, reduces sales cycles, and as the CEO / Founder of Yammer explains…

The BYOD (bring your own device) trend will further blur the lines between enterprise and consumer.  Imagine if in 2001 all companies told their employees bring your own laptops or desktops to work with whatever operating system you want on it and load any apps you please.  This is happening right now across mobile.  Tens of millions of enterprise workers are deciding - Android, iOS, or WinPhone? 4 inch or 5 inch device? Mailbox or Gmail app?  IT or for that matter anybody at your company have zero say in any of these decisions. Having other people (IT or business operations) decide which devices and productivity service will make me the most productive is obviously wrong. As I said before smart companies are going give their employees a $250 / year budget to spend any productivity service you wish.  

The world cracked open when Basecamp, Dropbox, and Yammer showed us how to distribute products into millions of enterprise workers using consumer channels. It cracked a bit further once Android and iPhone got to scale and the market is set to explode now that 95% companies support BYOD programs.  Exciting times.

Work about work is not work.

When Mailbox launched I jumped in line. The snooze email messages feature sold me. It’s an incredibly well designed and executed product. The team behind Mailbox knows mobile products.

Yet, I recently ditched Mailbox. Why?

It became work about work. Consider this common use case. I swipe an email to snooze it. First I need to set the snooze alarm. When the alarm goes off I receive a reminder I need to process. See what I am doing here. I’ve created work for myself without actually doing any work. In fact, no communication happened at all. When doing email I want to make forward progress - discuss a product idea, provide feedback on a document, and more.

I don’t want tools to organize my email. We’ve been cramming more and more of those into email over the last fifteen plus years. Email has become a bloated mess. Mailbox’s snooze feature is yet another feature that creates more work. Instead, I want tools that actually let me get work done on my mobile device. Sadly, I got more work done on my BlackBerry in 2006 than I do on my iPhone seven years later.

Lately, I’ve noticed when work needs to get done I switch over to a messaging app. Meetings get organized faster. People share more and do so faster. The conversation flows more naturally.

Which reminds us that all mobile communication will gravitate towards an Instant Messenger like experience. No, email won’t entirely die. After all, you still need a way to get Groupon emails.

[Originally published on Medium]