7 Reasons Why Web Apps Fail

A few ideas about why some of the web apps out there fail.

Update: 7 More Reasons Why Web Apps Fail

I’m not one to believe that we’re in a Bubble 2.0 or anything like that (aren’t we always bubbular?), but here are a few ideas about why some of the web apps out there fail.

  1. Focus on social instead of personal.
    Following up on my Del.icio.us Lesson post, this is a critical reason why web apps fail. Many apps focus on being the new social killer-app when, in general, people don’t have time to worry about what other people are doing, and will only use software that benefits them personally at every step. You could call this selfishness or laziness, but I would call it optimization. For example, we simply don’t have time to tag things for tagging sake. Instead, we might tag things if we think that it will help us in the future, but adding tags to an app does not a solution make.
  2. They solve too many problems, or try to.
    This is when the buzzwords rear their ugly head. If you’ve got a list of problems you’re solving with an application, it stands to reason that you can’t solve any one of them fully. Instead of trying to solve more than one, focus like gangbusters on one problem and really nail it. If you think about the successful web apps out there right now that have garnered impressive mindshare, it should be easy to line up the one problem (or activity) they really get right. Flickr: photos. Del.icio.us: bookmarks. Facebook: college. Myspace: identity. Gmail: email. Plaxo: contacts. Tailrank: news. Etc…
  3. They’re about making someone other than the user happy.
    So much focus is on aggregation right now that it is easy to overlook the happiness of users. Many services, such as Technorati Tags or Google Sitemaps, exist solely to make the aggregators happy, and not the user themselves. They sell themselves on incentives that sound like what a movie agent might say to an aspiring actor: “We’ll make you famous, kid. You’ll get found!”. First of all, this is all talk directed at the developer, who is not the user. That’s a huge tip-off right there. Second of all, if the aggregators had their way everyone would be using these formats, which simply dilutes the value for everyone else and only serves to lock the site into some weird relationship with the aggregator. This is not how it should be. That’s why I stopped using those two services ages ago. Instead, focus on adding features that make the user happy, and when that happens everyone else can be happy, too.
  4. They sell it the wrong way.
    Web apps are not about Ajax, tags, Web 2.0, SOA, REST, or any other technology. Why do so many startups and web pundits focus on these terms when talking about a product? To get a better frame of reference, talk about how your app empowers users to improve their life. Think about how the long-term successful companies sell their stuff. They relate it to some bigger idea. So, for example, Nike has always embraced the hero archetype. They might talk about how great their foam arch is, but that’s always secondary to how buying their shoes makes you a hero. Their commercials are often amateur runners out running in the rain. How cool is that? Way cooler than double-density shock foam. A good example of this in web apps is the messaging from 37signals. They’re not selling software, they’re selling rebellion.
  5. Not in it for the long haul.
    If you build it, they will not come. There is too much competition right now, so another wiki-type application isn’t going to set the world on fire. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about web apps that became successful only after they adapted to their user base over time (short periods of time, but over time nonetheless). Their initial effort didn’t work, or was too similar to another one, but they were in it for the long haul and they adapted to what their users wanted. Flickr is a great example of this. Flickr started out as a game called Game Neverending. That didn’t work, but their second attempt did. Many web app makers would never make it to the point of seeing the light (or admitting the failure).
  6. They show too much of what’s going on, and get gamed.
    One of the big promises of aggregating the wisdom of crowds is building systems that use the input from huge user populations to come up with value. However, as people get used to how the wisdom is aggregated, they figure out how it all works, and the more public the mechanism for aggregation, the easier it is to figure out. That’s why gaming is such an issue with Digg. The voting on Digg is public, so you can see which items have the most votes before you submit your vote yourself. This goes against one of the principles of the Wisdom of Crowds, which states that in order to successfully harness it, each member of the crowd needs to be making an independent vote.
  7. They don’t have an underlying business strategy of improving people’s lives.
    Most business strategy is about making money. However, this is a short term goal. If you focus only on ways to make money, then you’ll make decisions that in the short term seem good for the balance sheet but in the long term actually work against it. Take the case of LLBean. Where everyone else is trying to get away from call centers and move all of their customer interaction to a web site, LLBean actually allows you to talk to a human being almost instantaneously. Their phone number is easily found on their web site/app. This probably does cost them a lot more than if they had some contact forms or an instant chat room, but it sure does make it quick and easy to give them money. My sister worked at LLBean for a time, and I was always impressed by the way that they empowered her to handle customers. It probably cost them money in the short term, but people remember when you make their lives easier, not harder. Many companies, unfortunately, see the Web as a way to reduce direct communication with customers, when in reality it should cause an increase in communication if you’re successful.

Update: 7 More Reasons Why Web Apps Fail

Published: May 5th, 2006