Too many choices can be bad

Every time a prospective customer needs to make a choice, you open up the possibility that the choice will be to head somewhere else.

A couple months ago, Apple offered: the iPod Shuffle, iPod mini, iPod and iPod Photo. I’m not going to count the U2 iPod, because that’s more of a niche gimmick sort of thing. Since then, Apple has introduced two new models, but reduced the number of choices: iPod Shuffle, iPod nano and iPod. These models come in at nicely spaced price points, and it should be pretty clear to a potential customer which one they should buy.

Contrast that with Creative’s lineup. Desparate to win some market share, these guys seem to want to throw a ton of products at the wall to see which stick. At first I thought they had 9 models, but then I noticed the little arrows. They 9 Zen models, 11 Muvo models and something called the “FX200”.

From some reviews I’ve read, some of these models are actually quite good. Of course, it’s impossible for me to remember which of the 21 models those are. Do stores really have shelf space for 21 models, some of which come in 10 colors? How can they profitably produce so many models?

Apple appears to understand market segmentation. They offer an entry level device, an ultra portable skip-proof device and a full-size model with good storage capacity. It’s crystal clear how Apple has segmented their market, which means the choice of product will be crystal clear to the people who are prospective Apple customers. Apple’s 75% share of the market proves that their segmentation isn’t leaving many users out.

I challenge someone to explain Creative’s market segmentation. From the photos, it would appear that the Zen is for businessmen who thought it was a cell phone. The Zen Micro is for stylish women who bought the player to show off that they’re in the 21st century. The Zen Neeon is for women who can’t make up their mind and will buy all 10 colors. The Zen Nano Plus is for the trendy (but not rugged) outdoors types.

With a product lineup like that, it’s no wonder that Creative will need to resort to lawyers to make a buck.

What I want in a Wiki for software development

There are lots of wiki programs out there. I mean lots. It seems like everyone has written one, in just about every language there is.

Wikis are used a lot for software project documentation, because they’re just so easy. The barriers to jumping into a wiki and adding a page where one seems needed are so low that people dive right in with gusto. You’d think that my issue with wikis is that you end up with a huge mass of disorganized pages. That’s not it, though… with some judicious care, that mass can be turned into something useful readily enough.

My issue with wikis for software development is a problem of unknown obsolescence. The best example of this I can highlight right now is the CherryPy wiki. There’s quite a bit of potentially useful material there, but almost all of it won’t work as written in CherryPy 2.1. You go to the wiki looking for info, and you have no idea when you see a given page whether it’s applicable for the version of the software you’re using.

TurboGears documentation is all in Subversion because of this. This allows the documentation to naturally be tied to the version of the software. This also has the advantage that I can use my favorite editor and take full advantage of HTML when I’m doing docs.

Unfortunately, though, I don’t think anyone is going to check out the project just to write up some new docs. People are a lot more likely to add documentation if it’s as easy to do as updating a wiki.

We could try to give wikis branching and merging capabilities like you find in source control systems. We could also require users to go through a root canal to view our docs and see how well that goes over. Even though tools have gotten better than they were, branching and merging still seems to be a black art for many.

Perhaps there’s a simplified user interface that will do the trick. Something like this:

  • By default, a user will be browsing at the latest released version (something that is marked by an admin). Links at the top of the page will let the user choose a different version to browse.
  • Only major versions would get their own version of the wiki. In most software projects, the difference between 2.0 and 2.0.1 doesn’t involve a whole bunch of potentially breaking changes.
  • When a new version is created, the wiki starts out empty. This is important, because it needs to be very clear to someone when they may be viewing a page that is out of date.
  • If a wiki word is referenced that exists in a previous version of the software but not the current, the user can choose to start with the previous version and work from there. This way, there is a manual review step for each page.
  • The history for the “2.0” versions of a page is a separate line than the history of the “2.1” versions of a page. Usually, the documentation for an older version is just going to languish anyhow.

To me, this seems easy to use for a browser of the wiki, editor of the wiki and even for the creator of the wiki software. Sure, a big wiki with lots of pages will have a bit of pain for a major new release, but you’re only talking about a couple clicks per page for pages that don’t require any changes. It seems like a major release is a good time to review the docs.

A decent wiki with a feature like this would definitely make me move my docs out of Subversion. Let me know if one exists.

Knock Knock and Call To Action double book review

I’ve been meaning to write up a review of Call To Action by Bryan Eisenberg and Jeffrey Eisenberg for some time. Meanwhile, in between the time that I read Call To Action and today, Seth Godin has released his KnockKnock ebook for free. I decided to review the two at the same time, because there is a lot of overlap.

I discovered Call To Action through Seth Godin’s blog, and wrote an early opinion of it back in June. At 70 pages in, I was underwhelmed. Thankfully, the book picked up after that point and I really started to get into it. I even sent a note to Ian Landsman toward the end of June saying that the book was a must read.

Call To Action is all about conversion: getting the somewhat random people that show up at your site to do whatever it is you want them to do (buy something, read something, download something). They use many real life examples to talk about good strategies for doing this. One big takeaway I got was that relying on a site search engine is a bad idea. If someone resorts to the search engine, your primary navigation has failed them. And, once they’re at the search engine, there’s a good chance they’re going to end up leaving your site.

The Eisenbergs also stress the testing of your ideas to see what actually works. This is something that comes up in many areas (including software development). If it’s fairly easy to test, why just go on a hunch about what the problem is?

Call To Action is a fine book with important ideas, but you can get the same important ideas in the free and far more succinct Knock Knock.

Godin’s ebook weighs in a 41 pages, including unobtrusive ads, colorful screenshots and pleasantly easy-on-the-eyes text.

By the time you’ve hit page 300 of Call To Action, you’re starting to think “all right, all right, I get it. Now leave me to work.” Many business books seem to have a problem with repetition. It’s like they need to fill pages so that you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.

Sure, Knock Knock doesn’t go into some of the detail that Call To Action does. There are no references to stats and studies, for example. But, in my opinion, the most important thing from both of these books is the idea that you’ve got to get the people that come to your website to do something, and all of your efforts in site building should be focused on that.

Now that I’ve given the idea away, you don’t have to read either book. I’d still recommend reading Knock Knock, however. Being told something is not the same as seeing it for yourself. Godin’s text and examples do a good job in making the point, and Knock Knock is easy to read over lunch (that’s what I did).

In case it’s not clear by now, unless you’ve got a website that’s already converting 90% of visitors, I highly recommend reading Knock Knock by Seth Godin.

Getting testimonials for your product

John Jantsch has a great tip for getting quality testimonials for your product. The key is rather than asking for a testimonial directly, have a prospective customer ask a current customer for an opinion. You’ll end up with a better-written testimonial than if you had asked for one directly. I’ve never tried this myself, but I do believe this would work wonders.

Seth Godin’s Knock Knock online marketing book now available

As promised when he released it, Seth Godin’s ebook KnockKnock is now available for free.

It’s a short take on how to use the new online marketing tools to make any website work more effectively.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve enjoyed Seth’s work in the past. All of his books have at least one powerful idea that makes the read worthwhile.