From banking software to cell phones, as markets develop and grow, more user-friendly products with fewer but highly-polished features are winning the game.
In the early stages of every technology, the market is usually dominated by products built for early adopters who are typically tech savvy – this mainly consists of developers who like to have full control over a product and its features.
Think back to the very first cell phones. Early adopters tend to be the most tech savvy members of the population; the average person found the mobile phones available on the market hard to use. A “normal” person was expected to have read the manual to learn how to use a new phone.
Accessing the Internet on a phone was doable, but the experience was pretty bad. I was one of those early adopters, but most of my friends looked at me as a freak who was doing some crazy stuff.
Steve Jobs is famous for wanting to build computers for normal people, and for making technology very simple and easy to use, but his idea fell onto fertile ground only when the tech market became mainstream. By the time everyone learned to use a mouse, handle a phone, use a computer, and send email, the market had become much bigger, and less tech savvy users started to use technology in everyday life.
The key to win those new customers was simplicity and intuitiveness. The first iPhone was so intuitive that three-year-old kids could use it.
Does that apply in software world?
The answer is yes. Your potential customer base grows as tools become simpler and easier to use, even non-coders can build a professional website with minimal effort.
At the same time, tools that until yesterday were considered “less professional” or “not advanced” are replacing the more complex tools originally built for developers and geeks.
One example that I’m familiar with and am following closely is CMS space. I didn’t really expect that consumer product evolution patterns will be so similar to software products – but the facts may surprise you.
A look at how CMS evolved
1st phase (late 90s, early 00s): New Web programming languages and frameworks
In 1995, I was the only one of my friends using email and there were no cell phones. Even those of us who were in our first year of computer science in college didn’t own a computer; instead we shared computers in a lab.
Compared to today, technology was used by a very small group of people.
At that time, websites were built using a simple text editor and HTML was edited manually. You would upload files to the server as static Web pages. To modify anything, you would edit your files and then go through the whole uploading process again.
As more websites began to have dynamic content, it became necessary to develop software that could generate HTML pages on the fly and modify the static files based on content that someone (typically a journalist) had input in a backend or that had been added by a user (on a discussion board).
Then, the first languages designed for Web development began to show up. Developers used PHP, Perl and similar programming languages to build websites.
One of the most popular frameworks in those days were PHP-Nuke and Zend, that was tightly coupled with PHP programming language.
In general, at the time, you had to be an engineer to even think about creating a website. If you wanted a website, you had to pay someone a lot of money to set it up for you. For us geeks, those were happy times, but the same cannot be said for end users.
2nd decade (early 2000): The First Content Management Systems (CMS)
Once Mambo, Joomla, Drupal and similar systems entered the market, website creation sped up dramatically. You would install CMS on your server, select the template and have a site done in an hour.
However, those templates were usually ugly and limited. Tons of customization was required if you wanted to actually create something nice.
In 2003, another CMS, called WordPress, came into play, and with its plugin architecture, WordPress quickly won the hearts of the development community.
WordPress was very basic in functionality, as did most of the CMS in use at that time, but where WordPress really excelled was in enabling unlimited customizations and extensions to third party developers.
But even then, we were still talking about very tech savvy users using those tools. You didn’t need a hardcore engineer to set up a website for you, but you still could not do it on your own. WordPress was typically used by Web designers who learned to code or by self-taught developers.
3rd decade (2010): New generation of CMS targeting a wider market
A new revolution began when high-speed Internet connections became available to most of the developed world. More businesses needed a website and they needed it quickly. This demand led to the creation of a number of differently designed CMS aiming at mommy bloggers, artists and anyone who wanted to have a Web presence, which today is almost every living person.
At this time, the new kids on the block were tools like Squarespace or WIX, which were built for people who had no coding skills and had just started to use their computers. The new mantra became “simple, intuitive, easy to use.”
Even WordPress changed the marketing messages on its home page to target the more general public. WordPress’ original developer centric user base can still find all those resources on wordpress.org.
One system that currently stands out from the pack is the increasingly popular Squarespace. Squarespace’s beautiful templates require almost no customization and are very easy to use. Its very intuitive dashboard is getting lot of traction today among a wide audience.
Meanwhile, WordPress, which started as a tool for blogging and for powering small websites, is now offering a WordPress VIP package that powers some of the world’s biggest sites.
Big frameworks and enterprise CMS are starting to loose loosing the game against open source software and systems that were initially very basic tools built by visionary kids.
Similar stuff is happening in the e-commerce arena. Shopify also started as very basic but extremely easy to setup e-commerce solution. There was a point in time when, if you were to propose Shopify to a serious Web development agency, they would laugh and proudly display their Magento partner certificate.
But today more and more agencies are using Shopify because it is easier to set up and has almost everything their clients need to run an online store. Again, simplicity and ease of use wins in a long run.
So what we can learn?
Think twice about who your target audience is. Do you want to play for the long run or do you want a quick exit? Is your market going to be big or will it remain very niche oriented?
The answers to all these questions should affect your decisions about how and for whom to develop your software.
If you think the need for your software is going to be big in five or ten years, think ahead – and plan on designing user-friendly software that even your mom can use.