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I believe we were focusing on the wrong things this quarter. Two weeks into class, our team had a basic agreement on our minimum viable product (MVP)

  • Users use real identities
  • Users can share news articles
  • Users can discuss news articles on a comment page
  • Users can invite friends into these discussions

We looked at several technologies that could be used to build the MVP

  • Ning: (-) Didn’t support our feature for sharing news articles. (-) It also didn’t allow us to customize the registration process.
  • WordPress: (+) Allowed us to easily build the features for the MVP. (-) Locked us in for future customization
  • Drupal: (+) Had significant experience using Drupal (+) More customizable (-) Takes longer to get to MVP
  • Ruby on Rails: (-) Had little experience (+) More customizable (-) Takes way too long to realize MVP

We picked Drupal, obviously with some bias due to our experiences. From a technology perspective, Drupal was a good choice. However, we were stuck on our MVP. As we agreed from the start, we wanted to provide a platform for having intelligent conversations about news. The features we picked for our MVP were just one way to accomplish these goals.

Our goal should have been to focus on testing the community, not the features we thought were needed for building a community. The features provided by WordPress, Ning, and many other systems were good enough for commenting. The real problem was that the community wasn’t.

If I were to work on this project again, I would have done the following things differently:

  • Install a base installation of WordPress and install the Facebook plugin.
  • Install analytics.
  • Brainstorm different potential niches within news consumers based on topic and persona. Examples could have included suburban parents interested in education, journalists looking to discuss current events, or bloggers who blog about global events.
  • Try to run experiments on these different niches and see which niches gain traction.
  • Talk to these users to get feedback.
  • Iterate!

To summarize what I learned.

  • Don’t obsess over features. Usually, the existing technology is good enough to get the job done.
  • Obsess over your users. Who are they? How can we keep them engaged? You can’t answer these questions with features.

 

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Our site is running Google Analytics and is integrated with CrazyEgg, our mentor’s analytics product. We know where users are coming from, where they are clicking, and generally what they are doing. We also know who is inviting who to the site.

Unfortunately, our viral loop is not working. We posted links and invited our friends to the discussion. Each time, only a couple people would join the discussion to post a comment. The conversations seemed one way. People would post a comment and leave. Furthermore, only a few people decided to invite friends into a conversation. Basically, friends joined the conversation but friends of friends didn’t. We have a few theories for why this didn’t happen:

  • Empty-room effect: Users didn’t feel compelled to come back because the conversations didn’t seem active.
  • Facebook notifications are not noticeable: Facebook notifications show up as a small red badge at the top of your Facebook page. Most users didn’t notice this and many didn’t even know notifications existed in Facebook.
  • Invite friends doesn’t target enough users: The invite friends feature allowed users to single out friends that they wanted to share an article to.

To solve the hard-to-notice Facebook notifications issue, I added a post to wall feature that lets users post their voci.us comment to their wall. To combat the empty room effect, we will try to create conversations that appear active.

Over a week ago, we had a minimum viable product. You could share articles, create discussions, and invite friends into these discussions. You could use your Facebook identity. Users stumbled through the site not sure what to do. No one invited his friends into a conversation. There were some issues with Facebook connect and not all users were able to properly login. Some people didn’t notice the comment link. Even more didn’t notice the link for replying to comments. I had put all my efforts into creating the features and no thought into the usability.

We tried to test virality but got caught on usability. In order for a website to be viral, it has to be very simple to use. It should flow from one step to the next and users should know what to do. This is why we have been focusing on usability this past week. We polished the interface and prompt users to perform the next step. Prior to this usability overhaul, some users weren’t even able to create a discussion, post a comment, or invite friends–even when asked to.

This week we will actually be able to test virality. When a user doesn’t invite friends to join a conversation, we will be more certain that it’s because he doesn’t care to, not because he doesn’t know how; or even because he doesn’t know about the feature.

-Venkat

Dan and I met over  lunch with the CEO and the IT head of the Mountain View Voice (http://mv-voice.com/). We showed them our mockups and explained the concept to them. While they were expressed interest in our social network around news, we also learned the following:

  • They take at least 3 months to make a decision for anything. This is because it requires the approval of so many stakeholders. The fastest they ever made a decision was when a competitor launched a commenting feature. They built a similar commenting features in 3 1/2 weeks.
  • The criteria the IT head uses to make a decision is (1) ease of use – how easy is it to incorporate into everything we already have? how much do I have to work to maintain it?, (2) cost – how does this affect the bottom line?, and (3) quality – is this the best product out there?
  • They don’t want to replace their existing comments. They see a link to our site as an additional feature.
  • They prefer to allow anonymous comments but don’t mind that we require identities.

They liked the following about our service:

  • Social integration: We tie in with their Facebook accounts.
  • Control: Because we don’t ask for their content (like Yahoo does), they don’t loose control over the presentation of their content.
  • Sharing: The sharing features would probably bring more page views to their site.

So the overall take away is: They are very interested and intrigued by our product but they are swamped with so many other projects that commenting isn’t on the top of their  list.

At the end of the meeting, we asked the IT head what the company’s top priority projects were. I was astonished to learn that these projects were all IT related. They needed a redesign of their site, they were replacing their ad system, and there were many other changes to the site in the pipeline. The difficulty was, like a lot of other small newspapers, they were running  a home-brew content management system built in an era before WordPress.

We also asked what the company’s largest problem was. To my surprise (sarcasm), they said the bottom line. The transition from print to the internet had crippled their revenue. Most of their print revenue used to be made from local advertising. Today, local businesses have a myriad of options to advertise. Among these is Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Ads. Newspapers are no longer the place for local business to advertise. They’re just an option.

The opportunities I see here are

  • The major IT headaches for small news publishers that can’t afford large IT departments. This seemed like a hair-on-fire problem from the way the IT head described it. There is definitely a market for tools that make their lives easier.
  • Newspapers’ competition with other local advertisement channels. The demographic information from our social network may make local newspapers more attractive to local advertisers.

After we are able to obtain evidence that our social network can improve a newspaper’s biggest problem–their bottom line–we will have a far more compelling product.

-Venkat

Want to post a comment on a site? Looks, like you have to register!  And don’t forget to provide a password that is at least 8 characters with at least one capitalized letter and some punctuation. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to check your e-mail to active your account. Didn’t get the e-mail? Be sure to check your spam folder.

Why are there so many sites that require registration? When I go to a site that asks me for my e-mail, a username, and a password, I usually get put off by the hassle and leave. Registration raises yet another barrier for an already skeptical user.

This is why, with Voci.us, we are doing away with the concept of registrations. Thanks to Facebook Connect, users can use their Facebook credentials to login to our site. We can then pull their e-mail address, full name, and profile picture automatically. Facebook provides the added benefit of providing an identity to our users.

Many sites have begun to use Facebook Connect. After clicking “Connect with Facebook” on these sites, you can provide a username , click the register button, and you are registered.

Voci.us makes it even simpler. If you have a Facebook account, you are already registered. No need to make a username or anything. The button that normally says “Connect with Facebook” instead reads “Login with Facebook”. If you don’t have a Voci.us account when you first login with Facebook, one is silently created and linked to your Facebook account.

No more thoughts like “oh man, I have to register?”

-Venkat

Last week I had the following dilemma: how much should I know about a customer before I give them a product to play with? I erred on the side of playing it safe and trying to figure out too much about our customers without building enough.

I think I see the light now. We all need to have a single vision. We need to work toward this vision as though it is correct. In the meantime, we need to keep testing our vision on the users. We need to have the agility to change our vision as we see better opportunities. The problem with new ideas is that you can’t just ask users what they want, you have to envision what they will want and see if they actually care about it.

So, this week has kept me busy with our current vision. Attached is a summary of the progress that has been made.

Most of these features won’t be present on Monday morning’s beta release but they will be gradually rolled out throughout next week. We believe multiple discussions about an article and real identities are the important features, so they will definitely be included  in this release.

The event logging system I have built combined with Google Analytics will allow us to determine what features our users are interested in. Tests on virality and user attention will be crucial. This is the next goal.

I see the following trends occuring:

Ads

  • Banner ads and click ads will be become much less profitable. There is a reason that news companies are going bankrupt: ads don’t pay enough.

Micropayments

  • Micropayments will become hugely popular. It will become effortless to buy something on the web for 25 cents. Facebook, PayPal, (and maybe Google) will become big players in this industry.
  • There will many sites that will charge for content via micropayments. What if you could subscribe to a blog or a website for 25 cents a month? That would be a solid $2.5k a month from 10,000 subscribers. At $30k/year, you could be a full time blogger. What if you could pay to view the rest of an article for 5 cents? Apple’s app store is a perfect example of effortless purchases that don’t cost a lot

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