The dark matter of software

My rule of thumb is that for every 100 unhappy users, 1 will leave a negative comment. For every 50 negative comments, 1 user will submit a proper bug report. The corollary being that for every 1 bug report, there are 5,000 users who quietly walked away from your product.

Considering that 25% of users will only open your app once, it’s scary to think that you may be ignoring the rest.

The Missing Feedback

This happens because submitting bugs sucks. Sorry, but it’s true. It’s hard to write them, and there is rarely a thank you. When was the last time you saw “[User] helped us fix a big problem you all had last week, all praise [User]! hooray!”

Not only do you lack information to prioritize bugs and schedule your features roadmap, but you miss a chance to turn an upset user into a loyal fan. You think the gal from the shoutout above will submit more bugs? Tell all her friends? Damn right!

Not too long ago, I tried to install Left4Dead 2 on my wife’s computer so we could shoot some zombies together (aww). I ran into 3 separate issues, none of which will get reported.

Three examples of “dark issues”

1) Bug: Wi-fi drops while downloading a game using Steam.

Three obvious suspects: the wifi-adapter, my sweet Asus router, and Steam.

I should submit 3 different bug-reports to 3 different manufacturers. This means joining 3 different support forums and creating 3 new user-accounts.

The bug-reports could have a packet-dump from Wireshark and the version numbers of all firmware/software/drivers. A lot of work on my part. But the result would probably be the three vendors blaming each other.

But good news, I found a workaround! And what great information that would be for the bug-report. But because of the friction of sharing information, the fix will never reach the developers either — it will remain invisible.

2) Bug: Steam Beta client crashes on startup on OSX.

OSX generated a nice crashdump (with full symbols: the crash was due to an unruly stl::vector) and I sent it to Apple. Does Apple forward this bug-report to Steam through a Microsoft’s WER-like vendor-program? How long is the turnaround? Will Steam ever reply back to me with “hey [Alex] we fixed that problem you were having”? No, I as a person will be lost in the telephone game of forwarded bug reports.

For sure, one day I will open up Steam and an update will have fixed the bug. But there will be no closure and no credit to the users who made it possible. No viral feedback-loop to convert regular users into raving fans / bug-reporters. I will remain an uninspired spectator.

3) Feature: Show compatibility/performance of a game on your machine before downloading it.

I had to wait for an 11GB download of Left4Dead2 before Steam would announce that it’s incompatible with the laptop’s videocard.

Valve has gigantic stats on everything-performance, so this feature could be built easily. But where do I submit such a feature request? Yet another forum. Want to see ideas disappearing into a giant unstructured discussion board?

What can we do?

These were three simple examples of possible software improvements that won’t reach the developers because of friction. If you have an audience in the millions, like Steam, surely some enthusiastic new blood will get over the Great Communication Barrier. But if you aren’t as big as Steam, can you really afford to make it so difficult for your users to talk to you?

Tools like UserEcho, automatic-updates, and automatic minidump-submits are a great step forward. But what we really need is just one central spot for all bug-reports and feature requests. What we need is a social bug tracker. (If you are interested, contact me)

Users are not part of the Software Lifecycle taught in school, but they should be.

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