Wednesday, 14 July 2004

Behind the (Mircosoft) Curtain

As in 'pay no attention to the Man...'. File this one under 'Software'.

Here is a another sad and sorry tale, this time one of Feeping Creaturism, and inapropriate metrics (as I've blogged on before).

For anyone intersted in the Software Development Business, it also lifts the curtain a little on what the Good Folks at Microsoft were actually doing a few years ago... and possibly still are.
Fact of the matter is that we knew from years of usability studies that what users most wanted was a simple system that helped them do the most basic of things. Track a monthly budget. Get out of debt. Figure out what's left in the checking account.
How many readers can identify with that?...
Try as we might to improve these things, we couldn't invest seriously in fixing these basic user experiences. What if Quicken were to come out with support for calls and puts? Indeed, that too came to pass, and reviewers latched on to the fact that the new Quicken supported call and put options. What followed was a Reagan-esque Features Arms Race(TM). It was all you could do to close your eyes, hang on, and add yet another feature.

There was simply neither interest nor leeway to improve the usability of the core features of Money. For the business to survive, we had to match Quicken move for needless move, feature for futile feature. It's little surprise that users flocked to online bank websites in preference to using Money or Quicken. What? My current bank balance, without entering any transactions manually? Single-click bill payment? Simple budget categories? Sign me up!
So there you have it: the reason for yet another version, with two zillion additional features that you'll never need obscuring the half-dozen you do. And of course, with so many features, it runs slower, and less reliably. But that's not a Bug, that's a Feature: Read on...
Money's success or failure was judged using the same metrics as MSN's websites.

Metrics like minutes viewed per month. Like ad revenue. Like click-through. Stickiness. I am not making this up.

I sat through meetings where we were asked to research ways in which to increase the amount of time that users spent in Money. Increase the amount of time! Users always ask for the exact opposite. Users want a Navy Seal relationship with Money -- get in quietly, do the job quickly, leave no comrade behind, maybe smoke a little afterwards. We got busy making Money into a needy girlfriend. “Let's make it so fun and engaging people won't want to leave!” Users would rather be scheduled for a root canal than to spend another minute trying to balance a checkbook.

A goal was set to increase ad revenue by 600%. At this point in time, during the heady dot-com days, Money was already filled with banner ads. It even installed several icons on the desktop hawking E*Trade and other bygones. How were we supposed to increase the revenue another sixfold? Someone suggested showing the banner ads even faster -- essentially increasing the “frame rate,” if you will. Click-through infected the product similarly. Push MSN websites! Get 'em to click through! We get referrals!

It was 1999. Twenty-year-olds were millionaires. Anything was possible. Money was judged as a portal, so a portal it became. Thing is, no one wanted a sticky, ad-serving, time-consuming personal finance application.
Yet while consumers based their purchasing decisions on performance tables in PC magazines - ones whowing that the only difference between competing products was the number of features - then it made commercial sense.

Yet another example of how the 'Free Market' is a useful approximation to an optimal resource allocation strategy, and not Holy Writ.


html-guide said...
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sub said...

Just been playing a game of acronyms...
I've book marked this entry, and I'm going to save Features Arms Race(TM) (i.e. FART) for the finals.