Designing for Stupid Users

I just demonstrated how stupid users can affect the success of a software rollout because I was a stupid user.

We recently had to install a new VPN client. And being a know-it-all, I quickly scanned the directions and launched into the installation. Which immediately failed.I didn’t read the instructions. 

No surprise—I’m a guy and it’s our job to NOT read directions, right?

The VPN client install was actually the installation of two programs, the VPN client and then a patch. We all got two emails that looked very similar, with the installer file name in large font in each (that had the same name followed by a letter & number identifier), and then the instruction email with the instructions attached.
I looked through the instructions in the attached file, said, “Oh yeah, simple InstallShield Wizard,” then opened the most recent email and double-clicked the file name in very large font and launched the installer. And promptly got an error message.

After being referred to the directions annoyingly by IT and told to enter a ticket as specified in the directions, I scanned through the whole set of instructions. I discovered that there was a sequence of the two installers. Ohhhhh!!!!! 

Then when I failed the install again I read the descriptions and discovered there was a screen where I entered the wrong info.

What did I learn? In today’s world, computer users don’t read details. Us users visually scan titles, look at pictures, look for key words, look at large or cool text/fonts and notice steps that are simply and clearly laid out.

Looking at this from a product planning standpoint, what were the failures?

First and foremost, and this is a no-brainer, a two-step installation process is a recipe for disaster. Why does a program require two installers??? The remedy: Instead of a patch after installing, make an up-to-date installer.

Second, while the detailed instructions went through both installers in sequence, the two-step installation process wasn’t identified in the installer emails nor in the beginning of the directions. The remedy:

  1. Clearly state in the beginning of the directions in large font that there are two installations and they must be done in sequence.
  2. Each installer email says clearly, “Install this file FIRST” or “Install this file SECOND.”

Even I would have a hard time screwing that up.

Third: Instead of a paragraph describing what to enter, use a bullet list or numbered list. For example:

“You must enter:

  1. Organization name: <Company name>
  2. User name: your email prefix (example: johnj, omitting “”)
  3. Password: your computer login password”

That was the paragraph I didn’t read completely because the content was written in one long paragraph.

Also on this third point, the directions had the screen described above displayed, which is a very good thing. Even better would be red arrows pointing to each field with the appropriate number at the arrow tail (1, 2, 3), with the numbers corresponding to the numbered list. It is obvious at a glance that specific info needs to be entered where the arrow is pointing and I have to look at the list to find out what I need to enter.

The short story is that directions need to be visual. Think IKEA furniture instructions. Pretty much anybody can assemble IKEA furniture by scanning the directions. Can you imagine trying to assemble IKEA furniture with written directions?

How does this impact viral growth? The harder it is to install and use the software, the more likely the user will give up and not use it. The easier to install and use, the more likely it will be used, the more likely the user will mention it to others, the more likely lots and lots of people will install and use it.

You’ve got to design the UI for stupid users. Even the smartest of us can become a stupid user and get fed up. If a genius like me who is computer-literate (more or less!) can become a stupid user, how likely is the average Joe or Jane going to act like a stupid user?

It is a lot harder to make software and directions dirt simple. But it’s effort well invested, as the ease of use has a big impact on viral growth.


Not Invented Here Syndrome

This phenomenon is not restricted to the software world. It’s prevalent throughout every industry, every facet of our lives. So why mention it regarding going viral?

Going viral is hard work. It’s made harder when there are barriers or obstacles to overcome, and there are always barriers and obstacles. Because going viral is hard, you need to do the right things and not waste time on useless or unnecessary things. Common sense, right?

The problem with the “Not Invented Here Syndrome” is that people think they have the best widget/gadget/software in the world for their planned conquest—but they really don’t. The result is a product and go to market strategy that falls flat on its face.

When a company falls prey to this condition, they stop looking. They stop looking at the competition, they stop looking at the market, they stop looking objectively at their own product(s), they stop looking at what the customers need and want. Their own opinions and beliefs outweigh the realities of what they are striving to achieve.

It’s a tough slog going to market when your product is not the best and your marketing misses the mark. Yes, I have done this. But I also knew my shortcomings, had realistic expectations and used that first foray to generate revenue so that I could build a better mousetrap and compete effectively.

This condition can happen to small start-ups, but it’s most common in large companies that have enjoyed market dominance and they start believing their own press. Meanwhile some young turks out there are focused on doing the impossible and building a better product while the mega-company is convinced they are the be-all and end-all, only coming out with incremental improvements or cosmetic enhancements while the new guys are changing the world.

And what about the company that was the only player in a space, the product is actually mediocre, but their dominant position prevented competition? And then a young upstart comes along with a much better product and starts eating away at market share? How does the goliath respond? What is their mindset when facing an adversary for the first time?

If you think your product is the best, so what? It’s only the best until consumer tastes or expectations change or another whipper-snapper comes along and beats your pants off.

If your market research conclusively proves you have the better mouse trap, congratulations! But remember: sports teams don’t automatically win the championship the following year. Other teams get better, your stars age or get hurt, and the next thing you know you’re playing .500 ball.

Business is the same. Markets change, new products come and go. Just because you’re #1 now doesn’t entitle you to remain #1 forever. Take the rose-colored glasses off and look. Keep the market research going to identify what’s changing, identify the competition, identify what you need to provide to stay competitive and especially better.

Constantly find out what your customers need and are going to need, build it, market it and sell it to them.

The moral of the story is, the moment you think you’re the best is (often) the moment you stop striving to be the best. It’s the moment when you stop paying attention and arrogance and complacency sets in.

Sometimes I think a company needs the threat of extinction to maintain focus, to stay sharp and constantly strive to be better. A little fear can be a great motivator that spurs folks into action.

If you want to become the best, if you want to remain the best, keep your eyes peeled at the market and your competition, and keep driving to create great products that customers want.

“Jack be Nimble, Jack be Quick”

I would hazard a guess that most people have heard the old poem:

Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over the candlestick

A search on Google traces the origin to one of two possibilities: The tendency for “Calico Jack” Rackham, the notorious pirate, to narrowly evade capture for many years, or the popular past-time (there was no internet in those days) of jumping over candlesticks as a game, and having good luck or your fortune come true if you didn’t extinguish the flame.

Whatever the source is, the mantra of “Jack be Nimble, Jack be Quick” certainly applies when going viral.

Speed of software development is very important, as taking too long to bring a product to market means someone else will beat you to it. Being able to change mid-stream is also critical, as you may have the “perfect app” only to see someone else bring a competitive product to market and you have to figure out a “more better” solution fast.

There are enough examples of companies taking too long to bring a product to market, or not updating fast enough to keep up with the competition. Can you say Blackberry? They had the market cornered on mobile phones with email capabilities—only to see the iPhone and Android phones obliterate them. Failing to be nimble and quick when faced with a superior product resulted in them becoming practically irrelevant in the smartphone revolution.

I’m a firm believer in Agile/Scrum software development because its main focus is on fast and nimble software development. Whether you believe in Agile or Scrum is not the point of this post—whatever your software development method, you need to get the project done and out the door fast, and you need to respond to market challenges quickly without laborious and lengthy discourses on what the changes need to be.

I recommend a third line to this nursery rhyme:

Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack be right

Your organization needs to adapt to changing market conditions, your organization needs to bring new products to market before that target market expires or is otherwise fulfilled, and the new products have to do what the customer needs and wants.

Build an organization that does all three and you’ll become the entrenched market leader. Stop doing those three as an organization and you will become irrelevant.

Going viral is one hell of a ride. To achieve viral growth and keep it going, be nimble, be quick and get the products right.

Passion for Excellence: The Viral Crusade

When you really, truly, want your product to go viral, there’s nothing that beats passion and dedication.

Some people want to go viral because they seek fortune and glory. They want it for the rewards of the good life—relaxing on the balcony overlooking Malibu Beach, skiing the slopes at Vail, driving the Ferrari in Miami Beach. Those skills aren’t the type of character qualities that result in obtaining fortune and glory.

Other people want to go viral because they’re seeking to change the world. Some people want to create a product that revolutionizes a market or changes the way people play, do business, or otherwise conduct their affairs.

The hard work required to go viral is not for the faint of heart. It is more than a 40-hour a week proposition—it’s late nights and weekends and constantly striving to make the best possible product and constantly marketing and tweaking the marketing campaign.

It’s the hard work and the nose for the chase that drives someone. It’s having that passion for excellence, the drive for perfection, that causes one to burn the midnight oil in search of the killer software program, that next utility, the code breakthrough that sets the competition on its ear.

It’s not just a job, it’s not just an adventure, it’s a crusade. You have to be driven to succeed—it doesn’t happen by accident. That drive comes from within.

Those who have changed the software world have had that extra quality, that magic Q factor to go above and beyond, to wake up in the middle of the night and instead of watching You Tube videos or playing video games sit down at the computer and work out that unsolvable problem, figure out the next brilliant marketing campaign, go that extra mile to determine exactly what resonates with customers.

Perhaps the single most important quality in going viral is the drive to succeed.

Do you have that drive? Will you go that extra mile in search of excellence, in search of viral perfection?