I'm Brett Slatkin and this is where I write about programming and related topics. You can contact me here or view my projects.

10 December 2016

The Paradox of UX

A realization I had this week:

  • Software that costs money often has terrible UX, despite the developers having the revenue and resources to improve it.
  • In contrast, free/unpaid software often has great UX, even though users are unwilling to pay for it.


Paid software is worth buying because it solves an immediate need for the user. Developers of paid software are incentivized to put all of their energy into building more features to solve more problems that are worth paying for. There's no reason to improve usability as long as customers are satisfied enough to keep paying. Each time you make the software a little more complicated, you make it more valuable, leading to more revenue. It's self-reinforcing.

With free/unpaid software, the goal is to get the largest audience you can. The developers' revenue comes from indirect sources like advertising. The bigger their audience, the more money they earn. They maximize their audience by improving usability, broadening appeal, and streamlining. Each time the software gets a little easier to use, more people can start using it, leading to a larger audience, which generates more revenue. It's similarly self-reinforcing.

The conclusions I draw from this:

1. Competition drives usability. Free apps must have great UX because they need to compete against other free apps for your attention and usage. Paid apps that don't have competition can ignore usability because there's no alternative for users.

2. If the market of customers is big enough, competing paid software will emerge. Once it does, it's just a matter of time before all software in the space reaches feature parity. (e.g., Photoshop vs. Pixelmator, Hipchat vs. Slack, AutoCAD vs. SolidWorks, GitHub vs. Bitbucket).

3. If your paid software has capable competitors, you must differentiate with the quality of your user experience. You're fooling yourself if you think that you'll be able to stay ahead by adding incremental features over time.
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