Recently, while reading a section of the book Designing Interactions, I was intrigued by the description that technology goes through three stages, each of which serves a specific purpose and is fueled by different factors. The kernel of a good idea is brought into reality, evangelized by early adopters and eventually refined and monetized for the general public. This part of the book described the three stages a little like this:
- Enthusiast: Propelled by researchers and hobbyists. May be difficult or awkward to use.
- Professional: Monetized and adopted by companies who saw its value. May still be klunky, but performs a desired task.
- Consumer: Now it’s not about the technology, but what it can do
As interesting as it is to consider how products such as cell phones or computers moved out of geek circles and into everyday use, I find it even more fascinating to see how this spawned a similar but different process for online applications and property. What’s similar is that there are still three stages, and they occupy a similar space. What’s different and interesting, is how the online medium has swapped the 2nd and 3rd steps creating a process that’s optimized for updated consumers and businesses.
The Enthusiast Stage
A website in the Enthusiast Stage may be difficult to use, poorly designed or slow to respond, having been constructed by someone who had a good idea but isn’t an interactive designer. That’s OK, because usability and design problems don’t matter to the inspired group of early adopters who value, above all else, what this new toy can do or how it’s done. What’s more is that this five percent nation comprised of tech zealots and netophiles becomes an evangelizing force that’s often instrumental in propelling a good idea out of the basement and into the blue skies of great solutions.
You’ll notice that adept marketers such as Apple really lean on the Enthusiasts, encouraging and utilizing them to give their demographic a creative energy that draws even more people. As business owners refine their Enthusiast Site or application, the Enthusiast Army provides frequent and often times brutally honest feedback – all while spreading viral awareness that eCommerce markets covet much.
Many sites, like many small businesses, never make it out of this stage. Walled in by steep growth requirements, the good idea cannot get out. But some do …
The Consumer Stage
The Consumer Stage is like the Enthusiast Stage, in that it is a means to an end. Many sites are now monetizing their service at this time, but still list the ever present “beta!” mark near their logo. Websites in this stage have started to take off, and are drawing a much larger audience, perhaps getting coverage on popular sites that don’t cater to purely geek circles. In some cases, the site or application might still be awkward, but if the accounts are free, users are generally willing to put up with it.
This is a critical time when things begin to snowball rapidly. Brought under the unforgiving glare of consumers with varied tech-comfort levels and hardware capabilities, some good ideas are weeded out at this stage. Often times the team doesn’t respond quickly to fix technical blocks such as server speed issues, glaring website UI roadblocks or unwelcome product features. Too often, product managers and business owners become emotionally invested in some future vision of their product, refusing to change even when overwhelming customer data is begging for attention.
The Consumer Stage is a time of naked honesty, pushing for success at all cost. The added users, larger net presence and likely revenue stream are not just requirements to move on, they are the very tools used to do so. The number of truly successful sites is pared down yet again, in a way that would warm Charles Darwin’s heart.
The Professional Stage
This is it. This is money. This is the big leagues. Websites in the Professional Stage have been cleaned up and successfully marketed to the world at large. Ideally, they have also developed B2B relationships, capturing customers from related markets and platforms. Data garnered from an endless tide of users and customers can be used to drive truly effective change, and sales volume can soar into truly astonishing numbers.
Now, the path narrows again, and a few more websites slip off the precarious edge. With all this success, you also get a slew of extra problems. The easiest ones to deal with are hardware, software and UI concerns. The solutions for them are quantified, and in all honesty, easily implemented. Out of disk space from storing images? Archive what you can and buy more space. Legacy site architecture can’t handle a trillion users? Hire a team and get it upgraded.
Like WW2 U-boats, the less tangible dangers are the true killers. Often times they lurk around until you’ve crossed some kind of boundary, a theoretical point of no return. Oops, you just alienated your enthusiast crowd with some random product feature change. For every fiscal quarter henceforth, your sales will soften. Oops, you designed a product that is a one-time sale to a diminishing market. Where’s your parachute? Uh oh, some business process or application architecture is going to cost so much to change that it might as well literally bet set in stone, taunting you from your manager’s office.
But What’s The Point?
The point is easy to understand, difficult to master. For a website to be successful on an undeniable level – for it to permeate the forebrain of global pop culture – it has to evolve away from any vestigial trappings that the creators may have envisioned. Like evolved technology, websites become successful because of what they can do for you. A customer or user might enjoy some animations, but what they want is your product. A person’s experience can be enhanced by design, fun can be increased by process, but ultimately a successful website has two qualities that can be summed up in one sentence.
“It’s easy to get what I want”