May 30th, 2012 | Published in etc
At first I built FeedDemon as though my customers were geeks like me, since that was what I was used to. Power users were happy with all the features and all the options, but the extra baggage made it harder for less technical people to use the product. It scared them away.
So with each new version I tried to simplify the user interface, and dropped features & options that complicated the product. FeedDemon became more popular as a result, but you’d never know it if you visited my online support forums.
I’d come out with new versions that I thought dramatically improved the product, only to find my forums filled with complaints from power users who wanted the return of some obscure option, or were upset that I wasn’t adding the geeky features they wanted.
Sales went up, but positive feedback went down. I had built FeedDemon with the wrong customer in mind, and I paid for it by spending a ton of time defending each release.
I have no idea what the Windows scripting world is like, so it may be Nick Bradbury had no good choices here, but in the Mac world, at least, there’s a way to give power users lots of good features in return for a bit of the gumption Power Users are always bragging they have anyhow: Build out the scripting dictionary and maybe add a few Automator hooks.
Take NetNewsWire, which has (or at least had, haven’t looked lately) a pretty robust scripting dictionary. Almost anything anyone could want to do with that app’s basic components (feeds and news items) is down in that dictionary. I was a content NNW user for years because things I wanted to do with it that were not immediately available from a menu (e.g. sending a news item to Instapaper), were easily available with a simple script. And NNW also supports Automator, which takes a lot of the programming out of problems you might want to solve with it.
One of the worst sins of the GNOME project back in the early GNOME 2 days wasn’t that they set out to simplify GNOME, it’s that in the process of simplifying, they took away the traditional places their more sophisticated users could go to extend and modify the environment. One of the relative strengths of OS X, believe it or not, is that a lot of the choices Apple makes that are bad for its more sophisticated users are still exposed for correction through the defaults interface.
In other words, it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game between “newbies” and “power users,” and probably shouldn’t be. Power users are a pain in the ass, but a lot of them are also natural helpers if they happen to be in earshot of someone who could use some help. As newbies stumble into situations where they’d like to do something the app doesn’t expose in the UI up front, making the app scriptable or configurable behind the scenes increases the chances that you get to retain a customer who’d otherwise decide they outgrew you and keep your power users happy.
A good example of this dynamic is Evernote, which has user forums full of people identifying gaps in the up-front interface and power users who have a script handy to help out with those gaps. I get a steady trickle of traffic from those forums thanks to a three-year-old post I wrote about converting Apple’s Mail.app notes to Evernote notes, which is the sort of problem no developer wants to solve right there in the menus of an app, but that plenty of people interested in a better note-taking solution will want to solve right away if they’ve been using another product for long. People have been searching for that post several times a day for the last three years. It’s an established issue a number of users have, there’s a solution available that won’t confuse or bother anybody who wasn’t looking for it, and that solution’s presence has probably encouraged people to go ahead and move to Evernote’s paid service from something that just came with their computer.