If you assembled a team of the best and brightest engineers to build your product, you’d probably feel like you had a slam dunk on your hands. After all, what could go wrong if you have a dream team executing your vision? Google certainly seemed to think they had a home run with Wave. After all, they had superstar sibling developers Lars and Jen Rasmussen, the co-creators of Maps, at the helm. Indeed, by all accounts the Wave platform was a technical wonder, at least on the backend. But there was a huge problem with Wave, and no amount of engineering bravado could make up for it: Most people had no idea what they were supposed to do with it, and it turned out to be a huge flop.
Alas, no amount of talent could redeem Wave's many impediments to customer adoption and engagement. It turns out, no matter how much talent you throw at a product or how technically brilliant it may be, if you don’t maintain a laser focus on the Job To Be Done there’s no way you’re going to own the market. If your product isn’t consistently providing clear value and helping to ease the frustrations your users face every day, then no one is going to adopt your product. Period.
It's not that Google Wave lacked purpose. It did — in theory, anyway — aim to do a job and provide value for consumers. In a 2009 blog post talking about the launch, Lars Rasmussen said that Wave’s purpose “was to take existing methods of digital communication and collaboration such as instant messaging, chat, email and wikis and blend them all into a single product.” In 2009, technology writer Farhad Manjoo acknowledged the value of this ostensible purpose in an article in Slate, and wrote that “Improving e-mail is a worthy goal: There's too much of it, a lot of the mail we get is useless (even the stuff that's not spam), and threads involving more than two or three people can get wildly, incomprehensibly out of hand.” Unfortunately, though, the article goes on to say, Google’s product was “too complicated for its own good.”
If Google’s purpose — to create a single platform for email, messaging, and collaboration -- sounds familiar, it should. It’s essentially the raison d’etre of Slack, the popular messaging app for teams. But where Google failed, Slack has seen wild success. Since its launch in February 2014, usage grew from 16,000 daily active users to 2.7 million as of April 2016.
Such a stark contrast between the success of these two products — both of which purported to do the exact same job —- raises some obvious questions. Why would Google, with so many resources at its disposal, fail in their efforts, while Slack, a relatively small start up, managed to enjoy such widespread adoption and rapid growth? Clearly Slack has made it easier and more attractive for users to engage with their product than Google did with Wave, but how did they do it? And where did Google fail in its efforts to attract users?
Simply put, Google failed to remove early hurdles to adoption in two crucial stages: set up and onboarding. Users experienced too much friction and simply weren't able to understand or extract the value that Wave wanted to provide. Slack, on the other hand, created a hassle-free experience that allowed users to extract value early and often.
Wave crashed and burned because Google neglected to do something very important: By all appearances, they didn't monitor or manage any of the leading indicators that their users were ready to churn. These indicators are called SLOW, and they represent the forces that can pull users into a state of disengagement. They cause behaviors that tell you your users are experiencing serious frustrations in adopting your product. But these behaviors represent opportunities to intervene ans ease frustrations, and, by so doing, increase adoption. SLOW breaks down like this:
- Struggles are caused by consistent roadblocks and frustrations your users experience when trying to accomplish tasks and make progress with the job they’re trying to do.
- Lapses are the most insidious form of disengagement. They are subtly disguised as mere forgetfulness or confusion about what to do next, and often stem from an incomplete understanding of the benefits of your product, and a resulting inability to extract the intended value.
- Obstacles: Unlike struggles, which recur often, obstacles are one-time frustrations or barriers to success experienced by your users when they’re trying to make progress with your product. They usually occur during setup or onboarding, so pay special attention when users are walking you through this part of their interaction.
- Workarounds: In the face of mounting struggles, users construct an elaborate workaround that cuts the app out of their workflow
To compound the issue, Wave intensified users' perceptions of the struggles and obstacles they faced by decreasing their ability to engage with the product. In order to increase a behavior — in this case user adoption — Stanford behavioral scientist BJ Fogg has identified certain conditions that must be in place. For a desired behavior to take place, three main factors need to be present: motivation, ability, and a trigger (something to remind you to either perform, or not perform, a behavior). If we want someone to increase a behavior, then we must, among other things, increase their ability to perform the behavior in question. He identifies areas -- called ability factors -- that on balance, should conspire to make a given behavior easier or more desirable to perform with increasing frequency.
- Time: Does the behavior take a long time?
- Money: Does the behavior require a lot of money?
- Cognitive Load: Does the behavior require significant mental effort?
- Repulsion: Is the behavior strange, out of the norm?
- Convention: Is the behavior something the person is not used to doing?
While Wave threw up impediment after impediment to users during setup and onboarding, Slack, on the other hand, optimized these ability factors. Slack users perceived very little, if any, struggles or obstacles, and as a result Slack enjoyed increased adoption and increasing levels of engagement. .
Let’s look at how this played out. (For our purposes, we’ll focus on four ability factors: Time, Cognitive Load, Repulsion, and Convention.)
Time: Does the behavior take a long time?
While users don’t extract value in the setup stage of adoption, it should be quick and easy and prepare the user for a successful onboarding. But it’s hard to make setup painless or customized when users aren’t even sure what job your product is meant to do. In Slate, Farhad Manjoo opined that:
Wave is so packed with features of marginal utility it's easy to forget it was invented by Google. Here was a company that once prided itself on simplicity; Wave is so bloated it could have come from Microsoft. Even worse, it's not immediately clear why you should take the time to learn all this stuff.
Such a high obstacle to entry proved to be too much for many potential users.
Slack’s do-it-yourself set up, on the other hand, takes about 5 - 10 minutes. Enter your team’s name, the type of team (work/personal, type of business where applicable) and email addresses of team members you’d like to invite and you’re ready for onboarding.
Cognitive Load: Does the behavior require significant mental effort?
By all accounts -- even for its relatively small number of devotees who did find value in the platform -- Google Wave was very difficult to figure out. Even a seasoned tech writer like Farhad Manjoo had trouble with the onboarding. He wrote in Slate that, “You pretty much have to watch one of the Wave team's instructional videos in order to learn how to do the simplest things—send a message, reply to a message, add more people to your message, etc.” Rather than creating quick wins that would compel users to increase their usage, trying to figure out Google Wave meant hitting one roadblock after another. The constant struggle of having to watch a video to perform even the simplest task, a situation left unremedied by Google, caused users to abandon the product in droves.
And in a Techcrunch post mortem, MG Sigler, a partner at Google Ventures, says that “It was a service with a confusing UI. It was a service with about twenty too many buttons to hit. It was the opposite of Keep It Simple, Stupid. It was just weird.”
Once again Slack, in contrast, sets users up for success in this crucial stage of the adoption cycle. Growth Hacker has noted that “Slack is simple to set up, pleasant to use, compatible with a wide range of other services, and as reliable as email.” And Slack has received kudos all around for its simple and intuitive onboarding process. The Slackbot is an especially helpful aspect of the onboarding. Users are able to ask Slackbot a question, such as, “How do I create a new channel for chat?” or “How can I search older messages?”
The perceived struggles or obstacles on the part of the user are low to nil. The early delivery of successes — in the form of “ah-ha” moments — means users can clearly see the value of moving on to increased levels of usage.
Repulsion: Is the behavior strange, or out of the norm?
It may not seem obvious at first how this might have played a role in the failure of Wave. But one element of the confusing interface that made many users feel uncomfortable was the fact that everything a user typed into the chat/messaging component was relayed live. That meant mistakes, hesitations, typos -- it could all be seen as it happened. Farhad Manjoo compared the experience to “talking to an over curious mind reader.” The resulting struggle was a feeling of self-conscious unease. Rather than offer an alternative, Google left the feature unchanged throughout Wave’s short life
Slack, on the other hand, employs a more standard format: While you can see that someone is typing, message are only seen after they’re sent. There’s no constant struggle of unease involved.
Convention: Is the behavior something the person is not used to doing?
Despite the fact that Wave’s intention was to replace the familiar -- email, messaging, etc -- the obstacles and struggles in setup and onboarding meant that for many users, it never felt routine. It’s hard to get used to something if you have to watch an entire instructional video in order to figure out how to do a simple task, after all. Even Gina Trapani, who authored a book about how to use Wave, admitted in a 2010 Lifehacker article that “ [having to read] 102 pages just to ‘get’ a product is ridiculous.”
Once again, Slack’s seamless onboarding and early value delivery make the product feel familiar and routine right off the bat. And if a user wants to figure out how to do a new task, instead of watching a long video or reading a 200+ page book, they simply have to type a question, and the Slackbot will deliver a straightforward answer.
The lesson in all this? Never think that your sparkling execution is enough for success. To drive adoption, make sure that you monitor and manage struggles and obstacles, while increasing your customer's ability to engage with your product.