Imagine you are on a blind date. You’ve heard great things about how funny and intelligent your date is and they are certainly very attractive. But it isn’t going well. They just sit there, staring at you with glassy eyes. Nothing you say gets more than a nod or a shake of the head. Maybe they are just shy, but you are never going to find out about their hidden depths if you climb out of the toilet window and run off into the night after twenty minutes.
Now imagine you have downloaded some new software. You have high expectations and your credit card to hand. But you just can’t figure out how to get started. It just sits there, a blank canvas. Totally inscrutable. Offering no clue as to what you should do next. How long would you click buttons and examine the menus before you gave up and downloaded a competing product. Two minutes perhaps? Competing products are only a few clicks away, after all.
As developers we spend months or years lovingly crafting our products. This makes it very hard for us to see them with the same eyes as potential customers. But those first few minutes are crucial for converting a download into a sale. Give the user some pointers on what to do first: show a set-up wizard, quick start guide or tutorial when the application first runs; populate the application with sample data; show hint text or images in the GUI (e.g. grey “start by typing your email here” text in the background of an edit field). If they feel they are making some progress within those first few minutes they are much more likely to buy. It really isn’t difficult to do, and yet it will probably have a bigger effect on your conversion rate than adding a complex feature that may take weeks or months to write.
I remember reading about usability problems with one of the early wordprocessor packages. Users weren’t used to wordprocessors and many just sat there, not knowing what to do. The solution was simple – to show a flashing cursor at the top of the page as a cue that this is where text would appear when they started typing. Usability improvements are usually simple in retrospect. But this apparently trivial change made a big difference to the initial experience.
How good a job are you doing at engaging users in those crucial first few minutes? Are they hitting the ground running, or just hitting a brick wall? Are you sure? Try comparing your download to conversion ratio to industry averages. Better still, do some testing. Find a few people in your target market that haven’t used your software before and watch them try to use it. Don’t help them, no matter how much you want to. It is often a painful experience, but I have yet to speak to anyone who has tried it and didn’t find it incredibly useful. Remember, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.
This article was also published as a guest post in the upload.com newsletter.