When there's only one

...there's only one choice
Everything here is my personal opinion. I do not speak for my employer.
October 2007
November 2007

2007-10-30 »

(This is part of a series about the UI design issues in the free Versabanq AmSchedule Express. This is not an advertisement, because if you're reading this, you have no use for my program. But download it yourself if you want to follow along. Absolutely no registration or signup is required.)

AMSE Part 6: Desktop applications can be viral too!

There are an awful lot of people starting useless Web 2.0 companies nowadays. Web 2.0 is not inherently useless, of course, just overhyped. What makes it overhyped? Well, the idea that you have to do your application on the web in order to benefit from its concepts, and that therefore native software applications are doomed.

Who knows, maybe most native software is doomed. But I prefer to hedge my bets, and one of my bets is that banking software will be some of the last to go. Is Google going to host all your private financial transactions? For every bank? For banks in Switzerland? I doubt it.

But just because we're not doomed doesn't mean we can't learn from people who do it better than we do. Some of the previous articles in this series have pointed out some web-based innovations that apply easily back to native software. But the trickiest one is the key to the whole Web 2.0 movement: viral adoption.

That is, getting people to tell their friends about your stuff so that they'll use it too, leading to exponential growth.

Barriers to viral adoption

  1. If people don't like your stuff, they won't tell their friends.
  2. If people have to pay for your program, adoption is cut dramatically.
  3. If your software isn't compatible with people's computers or operating systems, they won't try it.
  4. If people can't figure out how to install your software, they won't try it at all.
  5. If people think they have to install your software, they'll be too scared to even try.
  6. If people aren't admins on their own machines (like people at a locked-down office with a domain controller), they can't install software.
  7. If people understand how to install your software but think they'll get a virus, they'll be scared.
  8. If people don't have an easy way to tell their friends about your software, they don't bother.

Moving your app to the web solves pretty much all these problems... except for that tedious little problem #1. The problem is, it's hard to write a good web application that's useful and painless to use. It's actually much easier to write native applications that are painless; the fact that so few people do is an essay for another day. But curiously, lots and lots of mostly stupid Web 2.0 applications do quite well at the viral part, flunking only problem #1.

Viral adoption in AMSE

Respectively:

  1. AMSE has a likeable UI, using a lot of time-tested UI innovations (including ones stolen from the web): as few buttons as possible, no menu bar, online help, a status bar, tooltips, keyboard navigation, instant response times, and critically for bankers: total privacy since you're not uploading your private data to an untrusted web site. Hopefully it's also useful.
  2. AMSE is free, so there's no disincentive to using it. We'll worry about the profits later. Now there's a Web 2.0 idea :)
  3. AMSE only runs on Windows. This is sort of a problem, except that all bankers run Windows. Just look at those Apple ads on TV. Know who that guy in the suit is? He's a banker.
  4. AMSE is easy to figure out; click on the .exe file and run it.
  5. AMSE works without installing but it can install itself if you like it.
  6. AMSE can install itself in your personal settings folder even if you're not an administrator on your PC.
  7. AMSE does look more like a virus than web apps usually do; this is pretty unavoidable. You can sort of help this situation by digitally signing your app, but it's of limited use. Luckily Windows makes it look like you'll get a virus no matter what you do, so people are desensitized to this. Also, AMSE is carefully designed not to set off any scary Vista OMG OMG THE SKY IS FALLING dialogs, even during installation.
  8. AMSE offers menu options for recommending to a friend, and desktop applications make this extra easy; it just calls up your favourite mail program to do it.

So, uh, will it spread?

That's something I can't answer with hallway usability testing. It depends if AMSE actually does something people in our target market actually want. I think it does. Initial experiments seem to say so. It also depends whether our target users talk to each other, are open to new technology, and are good enough friends to recommend a useful program to others. Only time will tell.

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