June 24, 2013

Does Your Product Have Broken Windows?

The Broken Window Theory is a criminology theory introduced in 1982 to describe the downstream effects of vandalism and urban disorder. The theory states that the deluge of broken windows, graffiti, and general decay of a neighborhood results in further de-gentrification of the aesthetics, safety, and quality of life.

Cities invest millions of dollars to combat this and for good reason. Although debatable, neglecting to fix broken windows can lead to a slippery slope in the quality of life of its inhabitants and growth of its economy as people leave the city.

The same is true for social products.

A Decrepit Warehouse


One of the leading factors in MySpace’s collapse was its ugliness and inconsistent interface. The site empowered users to customize their profile page with hideous blink text, unreadable dark-blue on black fonts, unexpected auto-playing music, and other design faux pas. Although users were asking for customization[1], it introduced several broken windows. Facebook recognized this, competing with a consistent, clean design. And we all know how the story played out from there.

Unlike MySpace, Instagram has pristine, beautiful windows. One of its key differentiators are its photo filters, turning ugly pictures into alluring, gorgeous pieces of art. Instagram knew that not everyone was capable of taking good photos, especially at a time when smartphone cameras lacked the fidelity they have today. Instagram avoided broken windows by making them bulletproof.

And we see this in less image-centric products as well. Medium’s content is mostly just text but the beauty in how it’s presented during and after its creation is what makes the experience special and engaging.

Inspire Creators

Protecting windows from users is important but inspiring them is often just as critical. Vine’s popular feed is remarkable, surfacing the best and most imaginative creations from its users. I’m often impressed by stop motion, time-lapse, and other creative videos highlighted in this feed.

This is especially important for products like Vine, that introduce new, unfamiliar mechanics. Users need guidance on how to use this new thing and motivation to express themselves at a level deserving of the popular feed.

And when done incorrectly, user’s motivation to participate dwindles. The “feed”, a staple of modern social products, is critical to inspire. It’s the first thing users see when visiting the service and serves as a jumping-off point for further engagement. If the content is uninspiring, boring, or off-topic, users may not come back. DeviantArt, a community of illustrators, photographers, digital artists, and other designers, showcases a diverse collage of art on its homepage to appeal to its broad audience. This ensures no single medium dominates the popular feed and provides provides inspiration for its varied audience of artists.

Segment Users

Broken windows isn’t just about visual aesthetics though. The content itself is important. Polar, a popular mobile app where users create and vote on polls, has a diverse user base. Naturally, the types of polls created by a teenage boy is much different than those created by a middle-aged woman. Surfacing a poll about COD: Black Ops 2 vs. Halo 4 to the latter will likely turn them off and make them question, “is this product for me?”

Polar elegantly addressed this by simply asking users about themselves and the type of questions they want to see. In doing so, users self-classify and the feed becomes curated for different user segments, broadening the product’s appeal.

Ask yourself:

  • Does your product have broken windows?
  • Are you enabling users to create and share ugly?
  • How are you inspiring your users?
  • Are you alienating some users rather than accomodating for different user segments?

P.S. Want to learn how to build more engaging products? Sign up for my email list and get a FREE copy of the upcoming book, Hooked, by Nir Eyal in collaboration with myself.

P.P.S. I’m on Twitter (@rrhoover). Say hi! :)

[1] They weren’t only asking for it, they were hacking around MySpace to customize their profile before it was officially supported. It’s easy to justify a product feature with this much validation but doing so without understanding the downstream impact can be detrimental.

Photo credit: akeg

More Writing by Ryan