Everyone on the web (read: that tiny subclass of "everyone" that gets paid to care about social networking apps) was shooting their mouth off last week about the latest'n'greatest app on the block, a $41-million funded doohickey called "Color." The brainchild of Bill Nguyen (a tech entrepreneur so adept at playing venture-capital roulette that he's successfully launched eight previous startups), Color lets you snap photos and share them in an "elastic social network" with people geographically close to you, with no checking-in necessary.
I avoid Color like the plague and use Stellar daily. Why?
If that raises an obvious question to you — namely, "why the $*#@ would I want to do that in the first place?" — you're not alone. Aside from all the sour-grapes snarking about that fat $41 million funding round, the big reaction to Color seems to be: "huh?" Meanwhile, another buzzy social-web app called Stellar has also recently come on the scene. Like Color, it was created by a boldface name in tech circles (namely, designer/developer/O.G.-of-blogging Jason Kottke), and like Color, aims to fill a vaguely expressed, vaporous sounding "need" (in Stellar's case, aggregating "favorites" from other social networks like Twitter, Vimeo, and Flickr). And as with Color, my first reaction to Stellar was a resounding "WTF?"
But here's the thing. I came to both apps with a mixture of curiosity and jaded contempt, but after using them both, I find myself avoiding Color like the plague (again, I'm not alone) and clicking over to Stellar daily. They're both still pretty inessential in terms of functionality. The difference lies in the user experience — or more importantly, the "first run" user experience. First impressions, in other words.
For a vivid dissection of Color's epic UX fail for first-time users, read this post by designer Mike Rundle. After reading Rundle's post, it dawned on me: Stellar did everything right that Color did horribly wrong — and somehow converted me into a repeat user (despite my still not quite knowing what it's good for), instead of another very vocal hater. Here's how.1. Greet your first-time users like actual human beings.
Fact: your social app is pointless. The only reason anyone is showing up is out of sheer curiosity, so you might as well admit it, address it right away and defuse any a priori snark. To wit: both Stellar and Color have simple, visually appealing landing sites, but Stellar cuts right to the chase, asking the same question you are — "What Is Stellar?" — and then providing a disarmingly human answer. Color, on the other hand, opens with a meaningless, cliched buzzphrase ("Think fast!") followed by a stream of word-salad seemingly generated by a chatbot on Twitter. Guess which one made me want to know more?
[Stellar greets you like a person...]
[...while Color "pitches" you like a robot.]
New users tend to have exactly two questions when presented with a new social-web thingie: Why should I care, and who else is using it? Features — the what and the how — don't matter until those two primary x-factors are addressed. Kottke's pitch for Stellar barely mentions features at all, but it does say why someone might be interested: "If you like dorking around on Twitter or blogs or whatever, you'll probably enjoy Stellar." He also provides a short-but-sweet list of some other folks who are "in" already, whom you would presumably want to dork around with.
Why should I care, and who else is using it?
Meanwhile, Color squanders its precious first seconds of my attention by yapping about "simultaneously us[ing] multiple iPhones and Androids" and "group albums," which might as well sound like the "wawk wawk wawk" noise that adults make in Peanuts cartoons. In fact, Linus in this clip sounds like the "ideal user" Color had in mind, while Sally's reaction is closer to what they actually got from real people.3. The user experience IS the interface. Design accordingly.
Color and Stellar both have very pretty UIs. Color's luscious, phyllotaxis-like logo also serves as a "main button" in its interface, just begging to be touched and paid attention to; Stellar's hip plaid accents and large, friendly typefaces feel like Twitter redesigned by Wes Anderson. But Color's beauty is skin-deep. In practice, its lovely icons become maddening: After 15 minutes of randomly stabbing at the three bottom symbols (not to mention the different-sized photos that sometimes became buttons), I still couldn't predict what any of them would do, or how they would change from screen to screen. With its unintelligible icons and flat, affordance-less UI in general, Color quickly became a frustrating puzzle I had no interest in solving.
Color quickly became a puzzle I had no interest in solving.
It didn't have to be this way. Stellar's interface avoids arcane symbology altogether, mapping familiar terms (even slang) to familiar functions in a layout that explicitly references other popular apps. Granted, Color's functionality is much more ambitious than Stellar's, but the basic gist is still built around ideas about photos and location-based sharing that have plenty of useful antecedent by now; Color could have easily been as grokkable-at-glance as Stellar, despite its unfamiliar features, if it had just given first-time users something easy to grab onto. And Stellar, (if Kottke had wanted it to) could have easily offered stranger, newer features and gotten away with it, thanks to its invitingly familiar interface.
[Ahh... I get it.]
And that's the point. It may seem like I'm comparing apples and oranges here — two vastly different apps, audiences, technologies, and product launches. But to most first-time users of social media, none of that matters. To them, all apps are the same: equally unfamiliar. When you meet someone for the first time, do you scrutinize the buttons on their jeans and the part in their hair? No: You take in the whole package at once, in a big emotional-affective glob — and it's almost always enough to decide whether you like or dislike the person. Apps like Stellar and Color, with non-obvious utility and nothing to trade on except buzz, make their first impressions in the same way: as quick-but-smeary emotional experiences, not as cognitively parsed interfaces. Indeed, for first-time users encountering these kinds of apps, there is no UI — only UX. And once you screw that up, there's no explaining your way out of it — no matter how many venture capitalists are in your pocket. Even Color's attempt at damage control was utterly tone-deaf from a UX perspective. (Issuing 1984-esque commands in the App Store — "DO NOT USE COLOR ALONE" — is offputting enough, but it's also nonsensical: How the f*ck am I supposed to control what other total strangers who might be near me are doing or not doing with this app?)
Innovation often looks pointless at first, which makes first impressions crucial.
All of which is very important for maintaining the pace of innovation in social media, or any kind of app. After all, the very definition of "innovative" means giving users something new, something they didn't know they wanted. Consider Twitter: the ne plus ultra of "pointlessness" that became world-changing. Innovation often looks pointless at first, which makes those first impressions even more crucial to clinch, so that what seems silly today has a chance to prove amazing tomorrow. The irony is that on paper, Color sounds fascinating and exciting (an auto-updating visual social network without logins, checkins, or usernames? Sounds cool!), while Stellar sounds inessential at best and idiotic at worst (is it supposed to be "Twitter on top of Twitter," or what?). But the proof isn't on paper, it's in those well- or crappily designed user experiences — and nowhere else.
Who knows, maybe Color's underlying technology is amazing and world-changing. But those hundreds of thousands of alienated users will never find out. Meanwhile, the mere hundreds (if that) who are quietly exploring Stellar will all spread the word about their (inexplicably?) pleasant experiences, and may in time discover uses for it that they never knew they needed. I'm one of them. After all, if someone made a really good first impression on you at a party, wouldn't you tell your friends — and hang out with that person again?