Battling User Inertia

Everybody loves Google Maps. It’s just…cool. The way you can drag and zoom and see satellite imagery and such. Yahoo! Maps Beta also kicks ass, with its overlays of all sorts of mapping data (restaurants, theaters, events, traffic).
But guess what the most popular mapping application is? Good Ol’ Mapquest. Mapquest is nowhere near as impressive as Yahoo’s or Google’s offerings. So why is it still #1?

A recent BusinessWeek article explored why Google is having such a hard time getting any of their other initiatives to gain real traction. Google FInance, with its nifty Flash integration, is a wickedly impressive application. So how does it fare against the other finance portals? It’s 40th. 40th.
What is Google doing wrong? Or better yet, is Google doing anything wrong? I think there are few lessons here not only for Google but for all these Web 2.0 startups that are trying to make headway:

  • Users get good at something and stick to it. It may not be the best way to do something, but users that invest the time (mainly because there were no other options at the time) optimize their brains around these tasks. The result? They work faster at a less efficient application. Even though a newcomer may have more features and be easier to use, it’s not enough. With their existing apps or tools, they know where everything is. They know what all the buttons and levers do. They are experts.
  • New features aren’t enough. This is a tough pill to swallow. The technical wizardry that went into Google Maps is impressive by any measure. But the hard reality is this: Mapquest does the job just fine. Directions. Finding a location. Maybe make some printouts. 99% of the typical use cases for mapping are covered.
  • The rest of the world could care less about technology. As technologists, its so easy to confuse great technology with a great product. A truly great product in fact hides the technical gymnastics and unveils itself as a simple yet beguilingly powerful experience. Amidst all the Web 2.0 buzz, we often lose sight of how little the rest of the world cares about our own little acronyms and buzzwords.

When it’s all said and done, I think you can overcome all that and get there one of two ways, or ideally, some combination of the two:
Invention. True invention captivates the masses so much so that “wants” become “needs.” The Netscape browser. The Google search engine. These are true inventions because they delivered experiences that were so compelling and unique that they overwhelmed people. People were willing to take the plunge and commit to these products. The interface didn’t have to be seamless and easy because the value returned is so strong.
Simplicity. This one is much harder to pull off. Even if you make your offering much easier to use, there’s an excellent chance that the existing offerings have already gathered mindshare and recruited “experts.” Nevertheless, it does happen. The iPod was not an invention, but it simplified and hid away the nuts and bolts of portable music. Thus opening it up to the masses. Others had previously delivered more technically impressive products, but when iPod came along – it was all over.
You can build good product but when you release it into the wild, it is going to be subjected to the elements. The “elements” aren’t only comprised of the typical challenges of a business climate. They also include the raw inertia of existing habits and routines. Overcoming that inertia in both product definition and interaction design will always be a challenging.

9 Comments Battling User Inertia

  1. Aran

    While I definately hop onto Google to scout out a location — it is great when apartment hunting, because it is so easy to see if an apartment is close to things like parks, tennis courts, and swimming pools — I will almost always end up at Yahoo! or Mapquest when it comes time to printout directions, because Google’s printouts are terrible. I have to think this has something to do with it not catching on as much as it should have.
    I agree with your general setiment, however. Most people absolutely HATE learning new things, and will stubbornly stick with old technology until they absolutely HAVE to change.

  2. JesterXL

    One of Google Map’s problems is that they do no frikin’ marketing at ALL! No one gives a flip because no one knows about it. Their biggest problem is that they don’t integrate.
    All the sites that use MapQuest as an API like Evite, and smaller corp sites & restaruent sites that utilize MapQuest should be using GoogleMaps instead. They need an effort to get those sites to start using their technology. Whether that’s best for the user is up for debate, but if you want to succeed, you need to get the funk in front of users, and tech bloggers ranting about how pimp it is doesn’t work.
    Anyway, always love your blog, Rich!

  3. Richard Ziade

    Thanks for the kind words Jesse.
    I agree about Google’s reluctance to market. I seriously wonder if they’re going to change their tune if and when they really start to realize they have to start moving on this stuff or abandon it.
    A 30 second ad does wonders for the rest of the world (i.e. the world outside of techno-blogs and your typical technology circles).

  4. tiffany

    I agree with Jester about Google’s lack of publicity and integration. Google’s non-web-search features are hidden behind a “more” link that does nothing to compel anyone to look there.
    Plus Google’s directions often suck. Example: I had Google tell me to take I-285 to I-85 to Ga. 316 north, get off 316 at Boggs Rd, get back on 316 south-bound and get back on I-85 (this is near Atlanta), when there was absolutely no need to go anywhere near 316. Mapquest’s route, on the other hand, was far more direct.
    Ultimately fancy draggable interfaces and slick scripting mean nothing if the goal — accurate, uncomplicated directions — isn’t reached.

  5. felix

    I agree w the above comments. Mapquest creates better directions. Google will give you lots of unnecessary details.
    The mapquest interface makes a lot more sense for getting directions, Google tries to hide the interface inside the search text box. Mapquest adds the little route signs to your directions which helps while driving.
    Plus why does everything Google makes have to be so ugly? I guess they were succesful with the ugly logo so they vowed never to hire a graphic designer. It’s programmer art run amok!

  6. Amy Hoy

    I’ll second what tiffany said. We use Google Maps for looking at maps and MapQuest for directions. Put plainly, Google’s directions algorithms don’t work at all in cities. Try using it to get around Baltimore or DC and it will tell you to go ways that even someone new to the city will realize are *impossible*. Not just missing a turn or something like that, or not knowing a street is one way, but going the absolute opposite direction where you will never intersect with the next instruction.
    Admittedly DC is really confusing, but MapQuest gets it right… and Baltimore is not that bad.
    Also, I don’t think Google really understands non-geeks. How many of their PhD’s deal with actual customers on a monthly basis? Most of the users of finance and map apps are not rocket scientists (nor should they have to be). For people other than us, their products (other than search) just aren’t that appealing.
    I also love your blog, dude! Keep up the good work :)

  7. Amy Hoy

    Sorry, meant to say: You hit the nail on the head about simplicity. Unfortunately, their products are quite simple. The thing is that they can be simple and still not meet the needs of those annoying non-geek customers. :)

  8. Bryan C

    I use Yahoo or Google to find places I’m curious about, but I use MapQuest when I actually need to go somewhere. MapWuests’s printed maps and directions are more consistent with the screen display and easier to read (esp in B&W, and if you’re travelling you often don’t have a color printer available). And they offer more options for directions. I prefer to avoid highways, for example, even if it adds a few minutes to my travel time.


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