The case of dancing bears


As an advocate for good user experiences, I try to collect examples of profitability where good UX have been implemented. I always felt I needed to focus on the monetary aspect because it is relatively easy to describe other benefits of easy to use apps, enjoyment and good learnability, but the profit can be hard to show. Companies live and die with the money they make, and if they don’t think an idea is profitable, they won’t do it – user experience included. The case for good UX becomes even more problematic to sell when the product is doing well and pulls in a lot of cash despite its bad usability. This recent article touches our problem when stating that despite an average rating of 1.5 stars out of 5 possible, the Facebook Messenger app boasts 200 million monthly users world wide. I myself have had a few fits over this app, as the user experience is equal to something coming out of the rear end of a dog, which is quite an impressive feat considering the simplicity of the tasks the app has to handle. But despite my frustration I still use it, along with 200 million other people, apparently.

So what is going on? How come everybody uses this messenger app, and no one likes it? I think that an important thing to realize here is that the hold that a company like Facebook has over its users is something out of the ordinary. If you would download a calender app for your phone, the utmost that you would invest would be a few bucks and some time figuring out how to use it. If the app doesn’t meet your fancy, you might be a a little grumpy over loosing your investments in it, but you would likely still get another calender app that suits you better. The problem with Facebook is that instead of investing time and/or money, you have invested your personal relationships. Basically Facebook is holding (maybe) all your relationships hostage. When sending a personal message to one friend, there are still a lot of other tools you can use, but reaching multiple friends at once – reaching all, or the majority of your friends – that is where Facebook excels. When considering to start using another tool to reach the majority of your friends, you have to consider how likely it is that friends who aren’t already users of that tool, will become users. And they in turn have to ask themselves if it is worth it for them and if their friends will migrate. So here we have a situation where everybody is unhappy, but nobody feels they can do anything about it. The Facebook Messenger app is an infamous dancing bear – the only tool you have for a specific purpose and it isn’t doing a good job about it.

I guess that what I’m trying to say here is that stakeholders will always find a way to spend as little money as possible and many of them haven’t realized the value that User Experience can bring to the table. These stakeholders have been pointing to things like Facebook before and said things like “Facebook is doing well. We should make our app blue, like theirs.” We have to remind them then, that we are not building Facebook. When a product is doing well despite of poor usability, it most likely fills a need that no other product is currently filling. Or there are competitors, but they are not doing it as well. When a product is in a position like that, it can be hard to turn the ship towards more UX friendly waters, but there is always the risk that a competitor will see this weakness and step up their game. And when they do, it will be hard to catch up.

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