7 More Reasons Why Web Apps Fail

A second helping of reasons why web apps fail.

This is a follow-up to my post 7 Reasons Why Web Apps Fail. As will the first list, this list is by no means a complete account of every reason why a web app might fail. There are countless reasons, I’m sure, and most are part of a failing strategy and don’t do the damage all by themselves. I have focused on reasons made prominent by the current situation we find ourselves in: with extremely low barriers to creation alongside an explosion of social web applications. This combination is interesting and we’re seeing the evolution of social software in near real-time.

  1. They’re never built.
    I’ve had the same conversation with many folks: good idea for web application, but not enough motivation to build it. In fact, I fall into this category. I have several prototypes sitting on my hard drive of little applications that could be something someday, and I’ve run out of steam developing them. I get distracted, start doing something else. However, this is probably a confidence issue as much as a time issue. We’re simply not sure if what we build would be successful and investing the time it takes to push it to completion is daunting. An interesting story cropped up recently about this: Michael Arrington of Techcrunch wrote about how Squidoo.com seems to be failing, suggesting that it cast a dark shadow over Seth Godin’s reputation as a marketer, and that it wouldn’t be long before Seth distances himself from it. In other words, Mike was equating Seth’s reputation with the product he built. This is precisely why it is scary to build something in the public eye. People can ridicule it, and often do. But even if Squidoo doesn’t succeed (which is uncertain) I doubt that Seth will see it as anything other than a learning experience. Now if only the rest of us could.
  2. They’re modeling an offline activity incompletely.
    This happens a lot in banking web apps. I recently switched from my bank to one with better online features. It wasn’t that my former bank couldn’t handle the transactions, but they could only do so if I actually went to the bank and talked with a teller. This is completely frustrating. An incompatibility between an online app and an offline store doesn’t make sense. How many times have you tried to redeem a coupon or gift certificate only to find that you have to go to the store? Well, we’re so used to the online world now that the web app is the store, in both a physical and non-physical sense.
  3. They’re ahead of the curve.
    Some applications are simply ahead of their time. There were online bookmarking sites way before Del.icio.us. There were photo sharing sites way before Flickr. Why is it that now these types of sites take off when before they didn’t? One answer to why bookmarking sites didn’t take off is provided by Ari Paparo, who started Blink.com in 1999. He had 13 million dollars in investment money, and he and his company couldn’t make it work. His post about why Blink.com failed is a fascinating chronicle of a company ahead of its time. He points out that bookmarks weren’t public by default, the site used folders instead of tags, the service wasn’t instantly useful, and that technology was too often a factor in decision making. Paparo says the company wasn’t ahead of its time, but I think it is pretty clear that these lessons are exactly the type that an unforgiving network teaches us over time. And 13 million dollars said that they didn’t have much time to play with.
  4. They don’t plan for change.
    One of the most common battle calls of web developers these days is that you have to plan for change. One certainty is that the app you’re working on right now isn’t the one that will be there a year from now, a month from now, or even a week from now. The software cycle is speeding up. And interestingly, it isn’t just the new, small web apps that lead this charge. It’s Amazon, Google, and eBay, who have such sophisticated backends that they’re able to manipulate, test, and retest different features on the fly to a subset of users. They didn’t get to where they are today by coming up with a fantastic initial design that “just worked”. No, they’re tweaking, tweaking, tweaking while you and I sleep.
  5. They don’t charge money.
    This is a more interesting problem than it first appears. At first glance, it would seem that charging might not be all that important to a web application whose creators are going the “let’s get a huge user base” route. This is the route that Writely took. They never charged for anything, built an awesome product and a huge user base, and got bought out by Google. But more likely they’re the exception, not the rule. At some point buying out Web 2.0 companies will slow or stop. When you charge for something, though, an interesting thing happens. You have an implicit relationship with the customer. They are literally invested in your product, will spend more time using it, and will care about whether it lives or dies. All these things add up to better feedback for the development team going forward. In addition, there is also the psychological bias of getting what you paid for. When you charge for something, announcing to the world that you think this is worth something, you are actually implanting the same thought in other people’s heads. They start to think it’s worth something, too.
  6. They have no barrier to entry…at all.
    The biggest problem with Myspace is identity. There is simply no barrier to entry for the service, not even to identify who you really are. Obviously, this helps growth because anybody can use the service. However, it also lets in anybody, and that means people who have nothing to lose and who do evil things. If they had their identity to lose, like those who get caught in the weekly sting operations we see now on TV, then that becomes a strong barrier of entry for them. For people who are simply on there to hang with friends, this is not a problematic barrier at all. They want people to know who they are! Having a small, but real, barrier to entry will trip up those people who really shouldn’t be using the service in the first place.
  7. They don’t think holistically.
    The amazing thing about Flickr is that nobody uses the service to upload pictures. Nobody says to themselves “I need to upload me some pictures”. Instead, they’re satisfying some other need in their lives, like showing off the new kid to relatives. Or showing their friends how their trip to Europe went. Or letting their co-workers in on their conference activity. All of these things have to do with their life, their relationships, their everyday activities that aren’t centered on the Web, but are made much easier by it. If we look closely, that’s what most successful web apps do: they make our offline lives richer.
Published: May 16th, 2006