Putting the Del.icio.us Lesson into Practice, Part I: The Cold-Start Problem

One of the emerging principles of social design is what I call The Del.icio.us Lesson, which can be summarized as “personal value precedes network value”. Since I wrote about the Del.icio.us Lesson last year, it has become one of my most read and cited posts.

Other evidence would suggest that there’s something to it as well, that it is indeed a strong principle that helps us build better social software. Several of the social design folks that I regularly read, including Thomas Vander Wal and Rashmi Sinha, have observed similar phenomena. In a talk she gave about social design at Wordcamp, Rashmi’s first principle was “Make the system personally useful”. You can see her slides here.

Now, it’s one thing to talk about the importance of personal value and how that personal value precedes network value, but just what does the Del.icio.us Lesson mean in practice? That’s what this series of posts is about…

One of the emerging principles of social design is what I call The Del.icio.us Lesson, which can be summarized as “personal value precedes network value”. Since I wrote about the Del.icio.us Lesson last year, it has become one of my most read and cited posts.

Other evidence would suggest that there’s something to it as well, that it is indeed a strong principle that helps us build better social software. Several of the social design folks that I regularly read, including Thomas Vander Wal and Rashmi Sinha, have observed similar phenomena. In a talk she gave about social design at Wordcamp, Rashmi’s first principle was “Make the system personally useful”. You can see her slides here.

Now, it’s one thing to talk about the importance of personal value and how that personal value precedes network value, but just what does the Del.icio.us Lesson mean in practice? That’s what this series of posts is about.

The first step to putting the Del.icio.us Lesson into practice is asking a simple question that serves as the litmus test.

Is your system useful to someone even if nobody else uses it?

When the answer to this question is NO, then you’re ripe to suffer from the Cold-Start Problem.

The Cold-Start Problem

The Cold-Start Problem is when you launch your site and nobody uses it. When this happens, you’re probably focusing too much on the social value and not enough on personal value. You’ve made a bet that you can convince the masses to all sign up for your service at once, so that there is suddenly lots of value for everyone, sharing, commenting, and generally supplying user-generated content by the bucketful. I’ve talked to many folks who imagine this state of nirvana, and it rarely, if ever, actually happens.

Looking at sites like YouTube and Digg might make the Cold-Start Problem seem less dangerous than it really is. We look at YouTube, for example, and it seems like a self-perpetuating system. People upload videos for sharing and then other people come and find the best ones. But, really, at its core YouTube focuses on personal value first. They do this by providing an excellent service for uploading and saving videos…for free. As I mentioned in my series on common pitfalls of building social web applications, YouTube is first a great, free service for storing videos, and second a great place to find those videos shared socially.

Groupware

Now, we must distinguish between groupware and software that isn’t built for groups. Groupware is software built for multiple people to use: it isn’t useful unless there is a group using it. This includes social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, messaging systems such as Twitter, bulletin boards, help systems, collaboration applications, project management software, etc. This software is kind of a middle ground, where the value is communication…the personal value is that you are connected to others. The important thing to notice is that most software isn’t groupware! Most sites aren’t like MySpace and Facebook or even email, even though they might like to be as successful. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of communication-oriented start-ups…there are. But they are still a very small portion of the total web application universe.

Tools for Use

Most web applications are tools to get work done. And as such, they serve to get work done for an individual before a group. So, returning to the original question: is your service valuable if only one person uses it? We know something is valuable if it satisfies one of several conditions: Does it make something possible? Does it make something easier? Does it make something faster? If it makes something possible, easier, or faster then you probably provide personal value. If it doesn’t, then you might consider going back and trying to provide at least one of these benefits.

The best tools do one thing very well. It nails a certain activity to the wall and really makes it simple and easy. Hammers drive in nails. Del.icio.us saves bookmarks. Netflix sends you movies. Photoshop enables image editing. iTunes plays music, etc. All of these tools actually have other uses, but that’s the 1%. We naturally gravitate toward software with a single purpose because its easier to remember and we know exactly what we’re doing when we’re using it.

Apps with Cold-Start Problem Lack a Clear Personal Activity

The Cold-Start Problem usually happens when there is not a clear personal activity supported in the software. In other words, the software is not succeeding as a personal tool for use. Getting over this hurdle is one of the major challenges facing many web applications out there…in a networked world you have to provide immediate, personal value in order to grow from a seed to a tree.

Continue to Putting the Del.icio.us Lesson into Practice, Part II: Feature Creep

Published: July 24th, 2007

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