From Web To Desktop : Respecting The Mental Barrier

In the latest issue of Portfolio magazine, there’s an article about the rise and fall of Joost. Joost, backed by CBS, seeks to bring TV-quality programs to the Internet. I myself remember the buzz around Joost about a year ago. I badly wanted a beta invite after hearing the tech blogs praise Joost as the perfect marriage of great content and Internet convenience. When I finally got one, I’ll admit I was impressed at first. Eventually, the impetus to load it up at all faded and I uninstalled it.

Recently, Joost has been beset with tougher times. In short, Joost just hasn’t caught on and is in danger of fading out as yet another tech venture lesson-learned. The article cites numerous reasons for Joost’s hardship: the Internet TV space got suddenly crowded, Joost suffered its own internal growing pains, among other reasons. The one reason that hit me across the head when I re-visited Joost today. After seeing an attractive, content-rich landing page at Joost.com, I was directed to this:

play_nojoost

While the install is fairly trivial and requires just a few clicks, the ease-of-use bar has already been set by Youtube, and this user experience doesn’t meet it. The problem was nicely summed up by the co-founder of one of Joost’s competitors (emphasis mine) :

"The download may seem like a small barrier," says Brad Hunstable, co-founder of user-generated video site Ustream, "but it’s a huge mental barrier."

That’s right. Joost’s content is only available via a downloadable application. You can’t watch Joost videos in your web browser. Contrast this with Hulu and you quickly realize that Joost’s own user experience strategy proved to be one of its most debilitating barriers. Joost is already onto this. They’ll be delivering content via a web browser some time in 2008.

As platforms like Adobe AIR proliferate and as end-user web experiences are delivered to the desktop, there are some key concerns that any product designer or product manager must heed:

  • Users equate the browser window as access to the Internet. And just as importantly, the desktop is not the Internet. Most people have no clue about technology or Internet trends. The Internet is "the window to the rest of the world" and my desktop is…not.
  • Gauge your value and assess whether people will tolerate the "work" to get to it. This is critically important. If Flash-based click-and-play video were not available on the Internet, Joost would be competing within a completely different competitive milieu. Instead, they’re asking users to jump through hoops without the value differentiation that would make it worthwhile. If the series finale of The Sopranos premiered on Joost, I’m guessing a lot of people would’ve tolerated the experience.
  • Do not forego the social power of hyperlinks. Internet-powered desktop applications must support the equivalent convenience of URL locations. Via email or chat, we constantly hand out our exact location on the Internet for others to share. The use case is obvious but worth repeating:
    • I find a cool video on Youtube that I know my friend Chris will enjoy.
    • I copy the URL out of my browser window.
    • I paste the URL in my friend Chris’ chat window.
    • Within seconds, Chris is watching the same video.
  • It’s not just "a few more clicks"; it’s 500% more clicks. We might as well call this the "Realplayer Lesson." Does anyone remember the epic battle between Windows Media Video and Real? Flash came along and put videos one click away and the battle was over in months. Adobe AIR, for example, does an admirable job of making the install experience much less painful than usual. Still, we have to be wary of these artificial steps that a user is forced to go through.

The prospects of Internet-powered desktop applications is very exciting. Speaking to the second bullet above, I genuinely believe there is a a lot of value to be had with marrying the desktop experience with web applications. Features like offline use, file interactions (uploading, syncing etc.) and notifications would greatly enhance the experience around web applications.

Still, that "mental barrier" mentioned above is a formidable one. If we’re to successfully bring new experiences to the desktop we must tread carefully as we deliver the experience that leads to it.

3 Comments From Web To Desktop : Respecting The Mental Barrier

  1. Paul Neave

    Great article, Rich. It really taps into what I’ve always believed is the major barrier to Adobe AIR and other downloadable application like Google Earth etc. Yes, you can download and install an application, and it may be a great application, but how many people will actually bother? People who are enthusiastic about a type of application will make the effort, but the casual user won’t, and casual users are in the majority, those “one click away” links you send to a friend.
    Just because information is available to us doesn’t mean we’ll take advantage of it. Creating an experience that’s as immediate as possible is so important to overcome that effort/convenience barrier in today’s media-saturated, instant gratification age.

    Reply
  2. Calvin Fin

    I totally agree with the Ustream founder there (pretty damn insightful).
    Looking back now, it seems he was dead on.

    Reply

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