Playing Hard to Get With Users

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By most accounts, StackExchange has become very successful. It started out as an easy-to-use community for programmers to get together - StackOverflow - and has since expanded to multiple "Exchanges" for everything from systems administration to home Do-It-Yourself jobs. StackOverflow (the biggest site) has close to 2MM users as of last summer.

Sites like the various StackExchange live and die by the engagement of their user community. The more often people visit the site and post quality questions and valuable answers, the greater the value of the network. It is a positive feedback effect.

Given how crucial user engagement is, I have always found it odd that StackExchange has such a poor user experience unless you are actively on the site at this very moment. For example:

  • There are no mobile apps, although the Website adapts to mobile browsers.
  • The email preferences are hard to find and set.
  • Email notifications can happen from once a day to several times, but there is no real-time, "send me email when I have an update," as Google Groups, GitHub and just about every other modern discussion interface offers.

Why does a site that lives by engagement make it so hard to engage?

One possibility, of course, is that the team that builds, product manages and maintains StackExchange spends all day (and night) on the site from their laptops, and thus cannot relate to users, many of whom do not.

A second possibility is that because they started on a programmer site - StackExchange is an offshoot of Joel Spolsky's Fogcreek Software - their entire mindset, and that of their initial customers, was to do the majority of their work from laptops, and thus keeping a browser window on StackOverflow wasn't a big deal.

A third possibility is that they want to push users to the Web site. This is a delicate balance that any site must manage between making life easy for its users and encouraging them to behave in a desired fashion.

Let's say you are managing a Website like StackExchange, which depends wholly on user engagement. If you do not make it easy for users to get updates, they will either break right or left:

  • Break right: Users still want to be on your site, and thus will visit more often.
  • Break left: Users find it bothersome to visit your site, and thus will visit less often.

The two considerations are:

  1. How crucial is it to your business that your customers be consistently engaged - on the Website or app on an ongoing basis - as opposed to intermittently engaged, e.g. when notified by email?
  2. How badly will customers want to be on your site if you make it harder for them to use notification paths? In other words, will they break right or break left?

Understanding how much engagement you need from customers and how much the customers need you is crucial to determining how you let them engage.