In the days before Google, search engines like Excite, Hotbot, and Altavista larded themselves up with content in a desperate effort to delay users beyond the two pages of a search activity — search box and results. The goal was “stickiness,” discouraging people from leaving your domain. When Google launched, one reason it shocked the Web community was its focus on getting you to where you actually wanted to go. How could there be a successful business model in actively sending people away from your site?
Seven years and a $75 billion market capitalization later, that question has obviously been answered. The other search engines attempted to control your behavior. Google recognized that users maintain control, and to win they had to become users’ preferred choice.
Let Go, Luke
Again and again, the history of the Web shows us the value of relinquishing control. Amazon’s customer comments were originally thought foolish by those who believed negative reviews would hurt sales. Instead, they increased trust, which drove more transactions. eBay’s open marketplace eschews centralized control of buyers and sellers, instead favoring a distributed management system where individuals rate one another. Not coincidentally, Google, Amazon, and eBay have all made available their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) so that others can leverage their information in unforeseen and innovative ways.
Many designers find it remarkably difficult to relinquish control. As Jeff found out when judging an interactive design competition, designers will go to great lengths to control the user’s experience — popping up windows or resizing them, placing everything within Flash, cueing music. They get so caught up in controlling the superficial form of the product that they neglect to appreciate the context of the experience.
The Web’s lesson is that we have to let go, to exert as little control as necessary. What are the fewest necessary rules that we can provide to shape the experience? Where do people, tools, and content come together? How do we let go in a way that’s meaningful and relevant to our business?
A Flickr of Light
One guiding light is Flickr. While Ofoto, Snapfish, and Shutterfly, devolve into a photo print price war, Flickr rises above the fray, confident that you’ll find its services worth paying for (and if you don’t, that’s okay, too). Ofoto enforces such control that guests must sign up in order to view someone else’s public photos. That requirement ensures that people will flee to less-controlling services.
Because traditional photo sites have adopted the same revenue model as their offline forbears, they’ve attempted to herd users into engaging in those revenue-generating services. Flickr, by being truly Web-native, is little more than a database of pictures, people, and tags, and the connections between. Since they have no legacy model that drives them, they’re comfortable abdicating control. Anyone can see any public photo. Anyone can tag. You can make anyone your contact, and it doesn’t have to be reciprocal.
Perhaps the most brilliant thing Flickr did was to provide an API that allows developers to hook into it seamlessly. This meant someone could create a free tool that lets me move photos directly from iPhoto to Flickr. This newfound ease of upload increased my Flickr usage so much that I needed to buy a Pro account. So, get this: Someone else did the work, and Flickr got the money. All because they levy so little control.
Flickr recognized that people wanted a better way to share their photos. They also recognized that people might have myriad ways of doing that. Flickr lets people derive their own value from sharing photos — which often is not in line with the prints-and-gifts model of older services. Instead of attempting to define your experience, they simply provide a sandbox, and give you the means to create a meaningful experience within that.
Trail the Long Tail
Chris Anderson’s insightful discussion of The Long Tail (original article, continuing blog) is another example of how shifting control to the consumer provides greater returns for a business. Before the Internet, when things were sold in stores or through catalogs, display space was limited, so merchandisers controlled what you could buy. With the Internet, space is nearly infinite, so control returns to the customer. As Anderson notes, “The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles.”
Netflix is a Long Tail enterprise that benefits from shifting the control of content selection from the business to the consumer. But that wasn’t the truly disruptive power shift. Nor was it their delivery channel — there were other businesses that delivered rentals to your home. Nope, Netflix’s most important step was letting customers control how long they had a title. You could have it for as long as you’d like, with no late fees. Combining no late fees with a deep catalog and home delivery, Netflix gives customers far more control of their rental experience, and membership has increased accordingly.
Survival of the Fittest
Relinquishing control is becoming a requirement in all aspects of Internet businesses. Customers demand RSS feeds so that they can have information brought to them, on their time, and in their tool of choice. Tags and folksonomies shift organizational control to users. Customers are generating content on message boards and blogs. Craig Newmark of the shockingly popular Craigslist regularly polls his membership on core issues of his business.
Relinquishing control is a scary prospect because it diminishes certainty. With control comes predictable outcomes that you can bank on. But in this increasingly complex, messy, and option-filled world, we must acknowledge that our customers hold the reins. Attempts to control their experience will lead to abandonment for the less onerous alternative. What we can do is provide the best tools and content that they can fit into their lives, and their ways.
Peter Merholz is the Director of Practice Development and a founding partner of Adaptive Path, the world’s premier user experience consulting company. He is an experienced information architect, writer, speaker, and leader in the field of user-experience design. Clients include Cathay Pacific, Yamaha, and the California Health Care Foundation.
Join Peter and Janice Fraser this July in Minneapolis for their two-day workshop, Beyond Usability: Designing the Complete User Experience.