How Color Already Blew It

Human attention is a scarce commodity in this flashy, New Thing Comes Out Every Day™ world we live in. Startups that dominate the blog headlines one day may be all but forgotten a mere 24 hours later. This is especially true for mobile apps. If you're launching a mobile app, how do you stand out from the crowd and gain traction? Here are four ways.

Making users feel comfortable, welcomed and intrigued at the possibilities your app offers are some of the most important things you can focus on. Don't just dump them into a field and expect they'll find their way to water, guide them and teach them so they'll become experts at using your app (then tell their friends!).

Here's John Gruber's take on the importance of the first-run user experience.

Another aspect of the Mac OS X user interface that I think has been tremendously influenced by Steve Jobs is the setup and first-run experience. I think Jobs is keenly aware of the importance of first impressions... I think Jobs looks at the first-run experience and thinks, it may only be 1/1000th of a user's overall experience with the machine, but it's the most important 1/1000th, because it's the first 1/1000th, and it sets their expectations and initial impression.

The tough part about focusing on the first-run user experience is that, as a developer, you never see it. You start up your app, start adding data and using it, develop, test, develop, test, debug, use it some more, then launch it. Unless you're consciously thinking about it, you'll probably never see a bunch of blank screens. This is incredibly dangerous because all your users will see a blank screen in the first 10 seconds, and you may not have seen it in weeks, months, or ever.


Color, a new photo-sharing app, just launched last night and while the major news outlets were gushing over the money they raised, the real story unfolding is that the app has a terrible first-run user experience and their app is getting decimated in the App Store with 1-star reviews.

The primary reason why users hate Color is because they completely botched the blank slate user experience. From Jason Fried:

Ignoring the blank slate stage is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. The blank slate is your app's first impression and you never get a second...well, you know. […]

Unfortunately, the customer decides if an application is worthy at this blank slate stage — the stage when there's the least amount of information, design, and content on which to judge the overall usefulness of the application. When you fail to design an adequate blank slate, people don't know what they are missing because everything is missing.

When you first start up Color it asks for your name, then it prompts you to take a photo of yourself. Once you've completed these two steps it essentially feels like there's nothing else to do. The screen shows the photo you just took and… nothing else. It's all whitespace. There's nothing to browse or explore, nothing to poke around or get interested in, no indicators that there are other things to do.

Now there are most certainly cool aspects of Color, but these are only apparent if the app is being used by a number of people all within the same vicinity of each other. Unless a dozen people all in the same room or event are using Color at the same time, there's really nothing to see. It's a photo-sharing app that only works if others near you are also using it. The problem is that since no one is currently using it, no one wants to continue using it. It's a classic chicken or the egg problem, and unfortunately for Color, the $41 million they raised didn't solve it.

What's really interesting is that Color could have actually gotten around this problem by launching at SXSW and making a big splash to get tons of people using it all in the same geographic area. This might have vaulted them past all the issues people are experiencing now as people download it around the world, but few people are using it in close proximity to one another. The idea that the executives at Color specifically chose not to launch at SXSW boggles my mind.

Solving The Color Problem

Color already blew their first impressions with hundreds of thousands of people, but there are some changes they could make right now to stop the bleeding.

  1. Check geographic regions at increasing sizes until a decent number of photos are actually available to be seen, then show those in the app. The point of Color is to show photos from people nearby, but showing photos from people in other states is at least better than showing absolutely nothing.
  2. Work hard on a well-designed interactive tutorial that is launched the first time someone starts the app. It should explain what Color is, why it's cool, why you want to use it, and get users started and interested to find out more.
  3. Acknowledge that Color is more interesting when many people in the same vicinity are using it, encourage people to tell their friends about Color. They have $41 million, if they gave away a few dozen iPad 2s, t-shirts and stickers that'd probably jumpstart users' excitement.

Is it too little too late? Time will tell. Let's hope Color doesn't turn out to be the Cuil of 2011.

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