Monday, October 4, 2010

Mendelian Internet

Gregor Mendel would probably find interest in this.

In this article, San Francisco entrepreneur Marc Hedlund talks about the failure of his personal finance website (I never heard of it either) as it fell to the might of There’s plenty of food for thought in this article for anyone involved in an Internet startup (as I am with Uncharted) or anyone else trying to start a business in this day and age.

This is the bit that immediately popped out to me (emphasis mine):
Mint focused on making the user do almost no work at all, by automatically editing and categorizing their data, reducing the number of fields in their signup form, and giving them immediate gratification as soon as they possibly could. We completely sucked at all of that.

Instead, I prioritized trying to build tools that would eventually help people change their financial behavior for the better, which I believed required people to more closely work with and understand their data. My goals may have been (okay, were) noble, but in the end we didn't help the people I wanted to since the product failed.
I’m concerned now that at Uncharted, we’re asking our Explorers to do too much, to fill out too many little tiddly bits of information, and in the proper order, too. I’m not as worried about the tiddly bits – it’s all stuff (photos, captions, geolocations, text, and text-photo marriages) that makes what our Explorers contribute to the site more beneficial to themselves and to fellow explorers – but I do worry that there are sites out there like Flickr and Facebook that make sharing such information easier and give them the instant gratification they’re seeking.

I can publish an album of 21 photos on Facebook in about five minutes, if I go without captions. Doing the same thing on Uncharted takes twice to three times as long, and I have to keep babysitting the site, as I can only upload five photos at a time to Uncharted. Facebook, well, I haven’t found a limit yet.

Then there’s the “proper order” thing. I can upload a photoset and story, complete with captions, in about a half hour, if I keep the number of photos under 20. That’s because I know the exact order of steps that must be accomplished before I can successfully hit “publish” and have everything I need there. And even I forget sometimes, and lose 15 minutes’ worth of work because I forgot the step to save my captions.

I know of at least one Explorer who left the site due to these very issues, and it’s a pity, because he could have been influential in getting others to join the site. Because he had a bad experience, others won’t experience the site at all. Now that we’ve got a programmer on board, I’m making the suggestion that we look at streamlining our submission process. That’s going to be key in helping the people we want to help.

I mentioned Gregor Mendel in my introduction. I think it’s an apt comparison. As he studied pea plants and sowed the seeds for the science of genetics, he saw how some good attributes were passed on while attributes that inhibited growth or made it more difficult were left behind. Those of us running Internet startups ought to pore over articles like Hedlund’s as much as we can, learning what works and what doesn’t work, and, more importantly, figuring out how to capitalize on their errors so we don’t make them ourselves.

Hedlund hedges that Wesabe might have had the more helpful Internet-based financial aid product, but that helpfulness was not made evident to its potential users. He says (emphasis mine):
Everything I've mentioned -- not being dependent on a single source provider, preserving users' privacy, helping users actually make positive change in their financial lives -- all of those things are great, rational reasons to pursue what we pursued. But none of them matter if the product is harder to use, since most people simply won't care enough or get enough benefit from long-term features if a shorter-term alternative is available.
There may be many who might at this time lament our general lack of attention span and pine for a time when people actually did care about the long-term over the short-term. And there may be many who might say that, well, we’ve always been a species to focus on the short-term at the expense of a better long-term outcome if more time and effort were invested. Both may be well and true. But that debate has got to be considered in context. In social media, it’s all short-term Long-term relationships we want to develop and maintain, well, they don’t take place in cyberspace. But the short-term relationship in keeping up with a hundred or so Facebook friends or sharing stories and photos of your adventures on a website where a bunch of – let’s face it – casual acquaintances and random strangers may interact with you is the more likely scenario.

That’s how Flickr and Facebook are working. A Facebook wall post takes but a few seconds. Uploading photos to Flickr is a mere pittance of time, especially if you’re paying their $25 yearly fee. They make it easy. Uncharted ought to as well.

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