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.