App Autopsy: Learning From The Mistakes Of Dead Applications
Sean McGowanAugust 22nd, 20175 minute read
Sean is a technical researcher & writer at Codal, authoring blog posts on topics ranging from UX design to the Internet of Things. Working alongside developers, designers, and marketers, Sean helps support the writing team to ensure Codal produces engaging web content of the highest quality. When not writing about the latest innovations in app design, Sean can be found cooking, watching old movies, or complaining about the shortcomings of his favorite Philadelphia sports teams.
Twitter. Uber. Instagram. Essentially the entire G-Suite. The most popular mobile applications in the world have been endlessly dissected, thousands of entrepreneurs scrutinizing them at every angle, trying to replicate the formula of their success.
There are roughly 2.2 million apps in the App Store, and 2.8 million in Google Play. Few have managed to stay afloat in such a flooded marketplace, and while we certainly can try to learn from their success, it’s important to also investigate the apps that have sunk to the bottom.
After all, dead apps vastly outnumber the ones occupying the download leaderboards. Their causes of death are varied and painful: lack of marketing, a poor monetization strategy, and lopsided functionality (either too meager or overwhelming), just to name a few.
In this article, we’ll be performing some app autopsies, where we take three prominent applications and not only hone in on what led to their demise, but how we can learn from it as well.
Anyone remember Color? The proximity-based photo-sharing application had the hype and an impressive $41 million dollars in first-round funding to back it up. A year later, the app was declared dead, and Instagram would become the definitive photo-based social media platform.
Colors UI (Source)
What happened? The short answer is terrible UX design. Even with a fresh, novel premise, Color offered a user experience that was unintuitive and frustrating. To make matters worse, their shoddy UX design was at its worst in the most crucial process of the app: onboarding.
Take a look at what designers (and users) thought of it at the time, eons ago in 2011:
“When you first start up Color it asks for your name, then it prompts you to take a photo of yourself. Once you've completed these two steps it essentially feels like there's nothing else to do. The screen shows the photo you just took and… nothing else. It's all whitespace. There's nothing to browse or explore, nothing to poke around or get interested in, no indicators that there are other things to do."
Working for a UX design agency, I cannot underscore the importance of onboarding enough. It is the app’s first impression and, just like in the real world, first impressions count. The numbers back it up as well: 78% of apps are abandoned after the first use.
Color also struggled with a clunky interface and an alarming lack of privacy functions, but its real Achilles heel was abysmal onboarding. Plagued by one-star reviews in the App Store, the company shutdown in 2012.
Ah, Hailo. The perfect example of getting so, so close, only to have something crucial you forgoed return to haunt you. As the name suggests, Hailo was a ride-hailing application that pre-dated Uber; but instead of recruiting any able motorist, Hailo relied on certified cab drivers.
It garnered an insane $100 million in funding in 2013, then closed all operations in North America a year later, cementing its position in history as the app disaster parable, a horror story entrepreneurs tell their children around the campfire.
Hailo Logo (Source)
The reasons for Hailo’s failure are two-fold. First, the competition was relentless. Uber, GetTaxi, and a cabal of copycat ride-sharing apps brawled in the nascent market, until finally Uber started offering competitive pricing and outgrew it’s original upscale niche.
The second reason, the one that causes data-driven UX design agencies like Codal to facepalm, was the lack of user research.
Originating in the UK, Hailo was designed for London cabbies—a user persona that drives in a disorganized city with convoluted road layouts, and earns enough money to own the smartphone required to use Hailo.
When operations expanded to New York City, the user demo changed, and Hailo did next to nothing to account for it. Back then, most NYC cab drivers didn’t have smartphones, and didn’t see any reason to need the app. They either couldn’t use Hailo, or didn’t want to.
The result? A complete shutdown in New York, DC, Chicago, Toronto, and eventually every major city in the continent. Losing millions, Hailo retreated to London, tail between their legs.
All apps, no matter how unexplored the market space is, have competition. It’s safe to assume there is always someone trying to create what you are creating, no matter how innovative or disruptive your idea may be.
Back in 2007, the race for the dominant personal finance platform was nearing completion. After a surge of applications had sprouted in the sector, all roughly around the same time, two had risen to the forefront: Mint and Wesabe.
No spoilers here, but you probably know who comes out on top of this one. The question is why? Wesabe launched earlier, had solid revenue, and offered a selection of useful, intuitive financial features and tools.
Wesabe’s platform offered a robust suite of finance tools (Source)
Some ascribed it to branding, others to Mint’s aggressive marketing strategy. But Marc Hedlund, the founder and former CEO of Wesabe, knew better. Reflecting on his failed company in a blog post, Hedlund attributed it to two reasons (but we’ll see they can be merged into a single culprit).
First, Hedlund describes Wesabe’s decision to not partner with Yodlee, a third-party service that can easily access, read, and display personal financial records from banks. The company was failing when they approached Wesabe; for this reason and others, they passed on the offer.
Mint, however, did not. They integrated their platform with Yodlee, enabling users to automatically retrieve their bank data and import it to Mint, hassle-free. Wesabe couldn’t deliver this seamless feature until they built their own technology a few months later. But by then, it was too late.
The second reason, simply put, is that Wesabe violated the central tenant of UX design: keep it simple. Hedlund’s strategy was build quality tools that would help users improve their financial well-being by understanding their data. It sounds great on paper, right? Compare it to Mint’s.
Mint’s plan was simple: foster financial well-being by having the user doing almost no work whatsoever. Wesabe was building tools to help users manage their finances. Mint was just managing their finances. Mint had features that automatically categorized data, reduced field forms, and hammered the user with positive reinforcement every step of the way.
I think Mark Hedlund aptly summarizes it in his blog post:
“I was focused on trying to make the usability of editing data as easy and functional as it could be; Mint was focused on making it so you never had to do that at all. Their approach completely kicked our approach’s ass.”
Simply put, both of these are user experience issues. The first may be redeemable, but the second is a flaw in the greater design strategy. It is imperative to a platform’s success to hire business-minded designers that can tailor the right design strategy for an application.
Learning From These Mistakes
So, what have we learned by putting three dead applications under the microscope? Like an actual doctor, let’s start by ruling out what wasn’t the problem.
None of the apps were inherently poor ideas; on the contrary, the opposite was true.
None of the apps lacked funding. Color had $41M, Hailo over $100M. Wesabe had been leading the market, generating revenue for months before Mint came along.
The reasons these apps failed look different, but in reality they’re permutations of the same disease: poor user experience. For Color, this was an unintuitive interface, especially in the all-important onboarding process. For Hailo, a lack of user research. And for Wesabe, a disregard of what’s arguably the first item on the UX 10 commandments: simplicity.
The takeaway here is that UX must not be taken lightly. It must be carried out early, and in full, from research to deployment. If you’re trying to launch an app, you need to hire a quality UX design agency, or face the same fate as the applications we discussed today.