What Makes An Application Useful

As I continue to try out web applications and work on building one, I’ve become curious as to what the main factors are that make people not only try out a web app, but that make them continue to use it and tell others about it. What really drives this curiousity is that I’ve tried out applications that I think are very well made and useful, and then I never use them or really think about them ever again.

An example of this is that I try out sites like Newsvine, Blinklist, Digg, Reddit, Wink, Ning, nd Squidoo, I find myself thinking they are nicely designed and have some real utility. But, I find myself not going back to them at all on my own. I really only go back if I see a blog post mentioning them again. On the other hand, I try out applications like del.icio.us, Last.fm, Flickr, YouTube, Voo2Do, and Memeorandum, and continue to use them constantly. What’s the difference in what I do and don’t like? Am I alone or do other people have similar reactions? I know some of the sites I’ve tried like Digg are immensely popular, so what am I missing?

Utility
I think a big key to having a useful web application is for it to have utility. It needs a purpose and to get something useful done. Applications which just provide entertainment are hard to pull off with such a busy society. It’s amazing that Myspace has taken off like it has when for many people it does nothing but waste time. I think that’s why it’s much bigger in the teenager userbase than with professional adults. Of the applications I use often, they provide useful things that help me organize, store and share digital content and information.

Focus
Applications that do too much are going to lose. People are too busy to figure out a complicated system and overwhelming feature set. It’s not just features though that need focus, I think I prefer Memeorandum over Digg in that it has a highly specific technology news focus. While Digg still has a technology focus, it drifts off into humor, astronomy, news of the weird, and other topics.

Simplicity
Focus is part of this, but I prefer del.icio.us over Blinklist just due to simplicity. And Blinklist isn’t even that complicated, it’s just that it seems to combine bookmarking with voting and rating, and that’s just too much when I just want to bookmark something.

Buzz
Applications that are continually talked about draw people’s interest. I probably read about del.icio.us ten times before I ever tried it. There’s a bit of a feeling that if other people are finding a tool valuable, I might be missing something if I don’t try it. There’s usually a reason people are talking, and the applications that generate that buzz seem to win.

Timing
The general consensus is being the first to market with your application is the best. You can gain a userbase, and sites that come after you are usually considered followers or copies. There is value in it. But it’s not really being first, it’s being the first to be successful. There was a bookmarking site or two before del.icio.us, but they were either too early, or didn’t execute well. However, del.icio.us was essentially the “first to succeed’, which means someone who comes after them is just a copycat and really must be great to take users who have already committed to an application. You don’t need to be first, just first to do it right.

What aspects are overrated?

Famous Founders
You hear buzz about startups who have famous or well-known founders. While it may help to generate some early buzz and get more users to try it out, if the application isn’t good, it won’t matter. There are also countless examples of sites built by nobodies that have gone on to huge success.

Funding
Money can help, but it also hurts and can distract from the mission. Sometimes having no money makes you leaner, hungrier, and makes it so that there is no choice but to do it right.

Technology
You hear all about AJAX, Ruby on Rails, Tagging, and all kinds of technology in new applications. You don’t need these things to succeed, and having them won’t ensure success either. While they are used for a reason, don’t get caught up in whether a site has them or not. As long as the application is truly useful and well-designed, your average user won’t give a damn what technology it uses.

The lesson is if you’re building an application to focus on what matters, which is building a lean and powerful tool that provides true use. Get to market when you can, but don’t worry about being first, worry about doing it right.

  • http://mindvalley.blinklist.com Mike

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on http://www.blinklist.com. I have to agree with you that simplicity is key and that is one of the areas we are working hard on making better and better. We heard from lots of users that when they bookmark their sites they want to leave a rating so when they go back they can quickly see which bookmarks / links they liked the most. If you have other ideas or suggestions on how to make BlinkList more useful and simpler, please let me know. Mike

  • http://www.conversionrater.com/ Pat McCarthy

    Hi Mike,

    As I said, I think Blinklist is well done and useful, and I really like that delicious bookmarks can be imported. That’s a great feature. I think in your case, you have to add some things that delicious doesn’t have like the rating of bookmarks in order to differentiate and give people a reason to use you instead of delicious. It’s just personal preference on my part that those features are considered unnecessary to me at this point. But I do like what you’ve got going, good luck!

  • http://meridiusgroup.com/blog Pete Maughan

    What ways do you think a site like myspace could be made useful? Have you hear of http://www.yub.com (buy spelled backwards…) I think that site has some potential because it combines shopping and social networking…

    I’d love to hear your thoughts… I think linkedin has become quite useful at specific times (if not all day every day of course…) but I’m wondering what are other contexts that social networking becomes useful…

    The http://www.facebook.com phenomenom has piggybacked on myspace and build a college niche of social networking that will be a huge tool for college recruiters in the future (at least that’s my opinion) and etc. Plus it will have the best foothold for doing a professor rating utility (which students EAT UP) and do other thigns, but I’m really curious to see where social networking is going…

  • http://meridiusgroup.com/blog Pete Maughan

    man how about my spelling in that last post! sorry! haha

  • http://www.conversionrater.com/ Pat McCarthy

    Hi Pete,

    I hadn’t used Yub.com before, I just checked it out. Interesting concept, but the design on the front page is not working for me. I’m overwhelmed and confused where to get going, and it’s not that immediately clear to me how I’m going to shop and benefit from this, and what it all has to do with friends. I’ll dig in more later, but I can tell you I had no desire to keep trying it at first glance.

    Regarding Myspace, I think certain groups already find use out of it. Bands promote themselves, local clubs and groups can do so as well. I’m sure a large number of people use it for dating. For the general user though, I think the best chances are for them to make their classifieds offering more prominent to compete with Craigslist, and for them to do a lot of things in the events space.

    Facebook has a lot of the same options for them, but does have some additional opportunities such as job recruitment and professor ratings.

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