January 23, 2009

The Danger of Changing The Baseline

By Rob Diana of Regular Geek (Twitter/FriendFeed)

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the recent announcement about Twitter's API limiting. The SocialToo blog has a very good overview of the situation. Granted I am not a fan of the limitations, but that is not the reason for this post. Changing the limits is the real problem.

The baseline for any application is when it is released. Any updates or new features added to an application reset the baseline to a higher level. The user and developer community are your best friends during this cycle. It can be argued that Twitter would not be nearly as popular if there was no API or third party applications for it. However, if you decide to change something in an application, and the net effect is a decrease in functionality, it feels like you have taken something away. For example, Jesse Stay, the founder of SocialToo, realizes that these limits now change the way applications can use the API:
Many of the services you have come to love for Twitter, including those of our competitors, and many other Twitter-based services are in jeopardy. This is scary news as an entrepreneur and Twitter developer. Twitter has basically just limited how big any Twitter-based business can grow.
Changing The Baseline

The real problem is that these limits appeared long after the API was released. Twitter has consistently removed functionality during peak traffic periods as well. Things like deleting direct messages or viewing older messages often gets disabled. This does not provide a good user experience.

Twitter is not the only one doing this either. Google has also recently done this for their Google Apps product.
When Google Apps first launched up to 200 user accounts could be created for each business under the free version. But that limit was quietly reduced to just 100 user accounts. And then when the reseller program was announced earlier this month, the limit was cut in half again, to just 50 accounts.
Obviously, this is bad for the users and good for Google. However, lowering this limit is devaluing the service that Google is supplying. Sometimes a company will have a promotion when first launched where the account limit is temporarily raised, but it is also known that it is temporary. In Google's case, the Apps offering has been around as long as Twitter has. So, it is not the case of a quick change, it has been changing over the course of years.

The Danger

The real danger appears after the changes take effect. If the changes or limits are drastic enough, the popularity of the application could decrease rapidly. In some instances, your users could rebel or even start building an alternative product. The idea is that the application must always move forward. In some cases, moving forward may mean a small step back, like a little used feature that is poorly implemented gets removed until a rebuild of the feature is ready.

For startups, losing popularity or even a small decrease in users or hype could mean the end of the line. In the case of Google Apps, lowering the number of free users may actually drive small companies away from them. Many small companies may be using Google Apps because it is free, and they can grow with the service. Now, with a limit of 50 free users, companies need to make decisions on Google Apps or other online application suites shortly after hiring employees.

In reality, you want to push change for the better. You want to keep your customers as happy as possible. Enforcing new limits long after releasing features can just alienate your users. Some level of trust will be lost because it feels like they were tricked by your earlier kindness.

Read more by Rob Diana at RegularGeek.com.