I didn't get the chance to attend Under the Radar's recent Office 2.0 event. But I'm a regular reader of Rafe Needleman's WebWare newsletter and posts, where he recently offered a "best of show" list. (Rafe and I go back to the days as friendly competitors when I was running Network Computing Magazine at CMP, and he ran Corporate Computing at Ziff-Davis.)
I'm a heavy user of Web apps, from Google Docs to CentralDesktop. (Disclosure: Google's a client.) I've signed up for and tested more of them than I can remember. And I have a few suggestions for developers of these applications, which would help them make happier customers.
- Have real users test your signup process. Many Web app vendors seem to be simply copying the signup process from other Web apps - including their mistakes. It's the simple things, like whether you pop up a window to show your privacy and usage policies, or simply show a new browser screen - often forcing customers to lose all the data they entered when they click back. If your programmers make these Web 0.0 mistakes, send 'em back to HTML school.
- Simplify your pricing levels. Some Web apps have five or six different levels of pricing, with very granular differences between them (500 entries per month versus 1000). Think like a customer: Do you really want to get an upgrade notice every time you have an active month? Three or four levels (including free) is about max, unless you're packaging different sets of services in suites for different users. And even then, simplify, simplify.
- Make "free" as robust as possible. Corollary to #2, give users enough breathing room to really test your application. Consider 30-day full evaluations over 0-day ratchets on services that limit capabilities so much, new customers won't truly understand why your application is great.
- Think a lot about import & export. It's easy to think of your application as the only one in the world, or that you can lock in customers by limiting their ability to move data in and out. (Outlook, anyone?) But if you're offering a database, or a forms generator, or anything where data could come from another application, make it insanely easy to import and export. And if you want to add icing on the cake, put RSS support into every page you possibly can - both out and in.
- Don't underestimate support requirements. Many of the current generation of Web apps aren't extremely complicated, but when a customer needs help doing something that pushes the boundaries, make sure you're up to the task. We've found, for example, that we've rarely needed help with our CentralDesktop site - but when we needed them, they responded rapidly, often overnight. That's how you build loyal customers: One competent response at a time.
Why do these kinds of things matter? The comparative ease of knocking out Web apps means there's no category won't have numerous competitors the moment something appears to be sticking in the marketplace. So if you don't focus on ease of use from day zero - and that means your signup process as well - new customers will rapidly click away to another application.