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When does an application stop belonging to its owner?

By Andrew Pollack on 02/06/2010 at 08:43 AM EST

When an application becomes truly successful and people start relying on it for things they consider important, is there a point at which the application starts to belong to the owners? Facebook's latest change brings the topic to mind, but it can happen to you with internal applications as well. There comes a time when users begin to have a personal stake in the design of a good application.

Facebook makes a great example for when your users really own your application. Its user base is both extremely large and extremely broad in terms of user skill levels and technology sophistication, and its value is intrinsically tied to its size. The same application, started over with a blank slate, couldn't compete. To be competitive it would have to entice as large a user base to join or switch. It fills a niche that is not easily filled by just switching to some other service if people don't like a change. The value of its niche comes from the size of its audience. If you don't like a change, you're torn between the desire to go somewhere else for that functionality and the consequential loss of all your connections -- the whole value of the application. The result is the strong push back any time a change is made. Facebook finds itself having to be very careful not to get between someone who finally found an application exciting enough to bother learning to use the web, and her grand children. It happens in almost any media form. Authors talk about not being able to have characters grown and change. Popular TV shows, musicians, and even consumer products manufacturers face the same problem. They're under pressure to keep their products fresh and appeal to new audiences, but beloved by their huge customer base that resists just that kind of change.

We'd like all the applications we build to be so well liked that users resist any changes --- but if it's your application, you know where the flaws are. You know about the things people want that you can't do because of an architectural limitation. You know about the things that would make the application friendlier for some, but work against the slim business model you've carved out to make the app actually pay for itself.

Do you have apps that you really want to change, but can't because users like them the way they are? I'm curious, and would love to hear about them.

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re: When does an application stop belonging to its owner?By Patrick Kwinten on 02/07/2010 at 06:39 AM EST
I am also curious since who does not want to have such apps in their product
re: When does an application stop belonging to its owner?By Theo Heselmans on 02/07/2010 at 12:01 PM EST
I got plenty of apps that fall in this 'can be improved a lot' category. But
usually it's not the fact that the customer doesn't want it improved, but
there's no budget for it even though I can sometimes prove the ROI.
I also had the opposite: Apps I wrote for a customer with functionality that
was way beyond there 'old' app, but I had to reduce the functionality (and UI)
because they liked the way their old app worked better. aaarrgghhh.

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