— 6 August 2007 —

If The User Can’t Find It, The Feature Doesn’t Exist

I’ve been using Twitter since last November. I like it. Since most of my friends are virtual (in the sense that I only see them on a regular basis via computers) it’s a way for me to feel connected. Twitter does other things too, but this isn’t another post contributing to the “twitter is the best thing ever/twitter is a waste of time” debate that is eating a whole in your feed reader.

This post is about making sure your users are aware of all the functionality at their disposal.

I just found out tonight that I can use the main field on Twitter (the one and only field I see on “my” twitter home page) to send a direct message to someone. Up to now I’ve gone to a person’s profile page, clicked on the “message” link, and entered a direct message. Since I only use the web site (not via mobile devices) for updates this is the way I’ve always done it.

The following shocking graphic (presented to you in chronological order) is how I found out.

twitter conversation about direct message functionality

Twitter made it easy so that when I had the thought wishing there was a way to do it, I made my request public. I had two reasons for that update. One, in case no one ever thought of the idea, or “they” were just waiting for one more person to ask before working on it. Two, because someone who follows me might have an answer. Once the functionality was communicated to me, it made sense.

But how many people really sit down to an interface (besides geeks) and think, “I wonder what else this can do…” If it weren’t for the Ambient Community on Twitter, I wouldn’t have known about this piece of functionality. Perhaps this is the gift of Social Computing. We can build software that suffices basic needs and allow the users to find the value, apply the use, and teach those that come after.

Everyone Do the Social Computing Hustle

No more traditional beta testing, just launch and learn. No more user research, just listen well to the community and be ready to act. No more War & Peace-like Help files, just rely on the community to answer n00b questions like mine.

The flip side is a little bleak in my mind. What if you have no community space built into your site or app? You are likely building a different kind of experience. My first question would be why no community aspect, but my second question would be what are you doing to communicate functionality?

Say your application has 500 features. Are those 500 features for everyone? Are they intuitive, learnable, or findable? What if most users don’t learn or know about half of those features? Why did you build them? I think there could be a good answer to that last question in some cases, but I suspect most of the time you won’t get a good answer. More specifically, you won’t get a good answer that meets business needs or supports user goals.

If you don’t have a good answer to why 250 features go relatively unused and have no good method of communicating the features beyond hiring Reynaldo Tolstoy (great-great-great grandson) to write doc that few people read it makes me wonder just why you’ve hired 100 developers when 50 would do.

Works On My Machine

“Well, this should be obvious!” Of course it should be obvious. Everything should be obvious, but we know it isn’t. Sentences that start with, “If the user just…” make me laugh. I’ve been responding for a few years with ish of the following: Are you going to be able to sit with each user and explain it to them like you just explained it to me? Should we just put your phone number in the Help file and nothing else? If it works on your machine, are you going to invite everyone to come and use your machine?

That’s the plus side of applications that take advantage of community space. If you have even a handful of passionate users you’ve got people who will be there to explain things and check if it works on their machine. And I think you are better off if you provide the space for them to interact rather than leaving them to make their own place.

Even if you don’t want to create a community space, or enable social computing directly into your app, why not start a blog. I’ve already got your first 501 posts lined up. One welcoming people to the blog and 500 explaining each bit of functionality. Yes, in a way you would be creating another form of doc, but you’d also be providing a space for support questions, feature enhancement requests, and an easy place for debating just how valuable those 500 features are in the first place.

The bottom line really is the title of this post. Twitter is free software and while people love to complain about it the only thing you really lose is the time you chose to invest. But if you make me buy 500 features and make it difficult for me to use them all, then you are just wasting my time and money. And you’re wasting your time and money too.

… and a Long Walk On the Beach

And for the record, anyone who thinks this is a good idea

faruk’s comment on the nikcname: matti

needs to think again, or take me out to dinner first if you think I am cute enough to be called that.

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