Simplicity. A word to live by. An unending quest. The holy grail of software. As software makers our raison dâ€™Ãªtre is making complex tasks easy. We’re back to that elusive word–simplicity. In a beautiful twist of irony it turns out that even thinking about simplicity involves a great deal of complexity. Enter John Maeda’s Ten Laws. I’ve read Maeda’s laws in the past, but as I’ve matured as a software developer they resonate more and more with each passing day. Here are a few of my favorites:
This rings all too true. Companies that get real value from social media put forward informal / conversational narratives from subject matter experts. Granted sometimes its hard to find geeks with the requisite communication skills, but when you do find them they should be out front. Once you get to multiple author blogging it feels like a news service and if there’s something on par with the lack of trust a politician inspires, its a reporter on the payroll.
It’s weird that companies make so little effort to understand the psychology. It’s as if they just want some mechanical lever they can pull. I’m guessing the anonymity of advertising buys, whether web, radio or tv has created this disconnect. You pay an outside firm to think about your brand, then yet another to think about how to connect your brand / products / services with an audience and then hire a mass distributor to crop dust your freshly commissioned message. When pressed to communicate internally you hide behind a PowerPoint and commission “white papers” to be handed out to customers who want to look deeper than your tag line. On second thought its crystal clear why these companies are failing. The only thing protecting them from the consumer apathy they inspire is monopoly money (corporate Amex) and strategic spending (use it or lose budgeting).
Hank, one of my favorite dev reads, hits the nail on the head on manpower issues. The problem is that folks still think they can scale and grind. Get enough developers and, though less efficient, the scale moves operations forward. This strategy doesn’t work when individuals and small teams can dance circles around you and have access to the same type of messaging channel that was once reserved for those with deep enough pockets to make media buys.
Whether its actually harder to raise awareness is an intriguing question. Sure there are more startups than ever and therefore a lot more noise, but the audience is also much bigger–a lot more people are online and engaged. Better development and communication tooling in conjunction with self-broadcasting at scale contribute to the noise, but also make it easier to find and collaborate with people of like mind and distribute your message.
I’d argue that consumers are increasingly sophisticated and impatient which means you have to be very skilled at building both your products and your message. It’s not enough to just make a great product–you need web style WOM business / marketing savvy and a bit of old school polish to boot. Get one side of the equation wrong and people will blow right by–they’ve got too many choices and too little time otherwise (maybe that’s all Hank was really saying).
It feels like some aspects of the industry are simply maturing. I believe Danah Boyd and others have pointed out that the tech industry has a long way to go before its branding / marketing reaches the level of sophistication found in the brick and mortar world. Pure utility isn’t enough, you have to start selling lifestyle which we sometimes call “experience” in the software world. As the lifestyle + utility play matures consumers will inevitably become ever more bored until eventually businesses will spend more time entertaining their audience in an effort to overcome consumer skepticism (Super Bowl commercials come to mind).
Of course while the tech world is in some ways an infant it also represents an evolution. This translates to the often surreal experience of advergaming (interactive, entertaining advertising), funded, for the most part, by slick sophisticated old world brands (old world being brick and mortar in this context) and delivered side-by-side with the redneck desktop shareware and terrible 2.0 web markets. Sort of makes you smile when you think about it. It’s still the Wild West and that makes it the place to be if you’ve got a round or two in the chamber and the taste for adventure.
I’ve long been a fan of Gary Vaynerchuck. He’s innovative and in many ways represents much of what is good about the new media / user generated content revolution. That’s why I was stoked to stumble on to Cork’d. I signed up for the service and immediately started kicking out my first wine review.
However, during the process I started to have that sinking feeling; “this takes too much time, I don’t think I’ll do it more than once or twice.” This sucks because I really like wine (full bodied reds) and want to learn, share and interact with others who know a hell of a lot more than I do. I’d like to bookmark and rate what was good, get reviews from others and have shopping / wish lists filled. Turns out I’m not alone and someone in the same shoes had already expressed a better idea.
I think it’s pretty clear that Cork’d has transaction costs which are too high for many, if not most, enthusiasts to bear. The reward of “bottle bookmarking”, or getting a review isn’t enough to outweigh the pain of taking notes, writing reviews and tagging. Ultimately some form of these features is probably part of a potential success story, but too often we just assume that a great idea and a web presence with social features (tagging, ratings, comments, friends, api, media) is all that it takes. Services have to do more than fill a void, they have to find the pain and then assuage it. Bring the service to the customer rather than forcing them to come to you.
The ideal social site for wine looks an awful lot like Cork’d except it has a mobile, rich media twist (phone pics as Justin notes). Combine that with a catalog of vintners / vintages and OCR technology capable of extracting label and vintage information from the bottle and you’re well on your way to having transaction costs low enough to inspire repeated, consistent use. Then you bring in tagging and ratings that are proactively suggestive and wine enthusiasts will eagerly provide the body of knowledge and social networking needed to make the service thrive.
Oh and did I mention there are business models here? I’m sure Google and the other search brats would love to place targeted ads for the thousands of wine retailers and wholesalers out there. A retailer with web presence like Wine Library or a consortium of wine retailers / wholesalers would be perfectly happy to have an active social network on their property with the ability to fire off an order with a single button press. Hell, bring Amazon into the mix and pass them the shopping lists generated on the social site. Amazon takes a small fee, passes some back to the social network operators and lets local distributors actually fill the orders–it’s a win, win for everyone.
In short, we need to be better at connecting the cloud to people. Find their passions and bring the service to them. It’s that simple.