When college and university offices consider launching a new platform or app for their communities, they’re often torn between the need to provide a service that their constituents want and the fear of paying for one more thing that nobody uses.
Too many offices have worked hard to launch a new website, service, or app for their students and alumni only to see nobody use it. We chalk it up to “platform fatigue,” the weariness we all feel when we have to sign up for another website with another account and remember another password. Members of our community, we think, already use so many platforms, websites, and apps that they don’t have room for one more. That’s why ours failed.
But I’m here to explain why platform fatigue is a myth and why platforms really fail: There’s no such thing as platform fatigue—there are only bad platforms.
First, let’s define exactly what we mean by ‘platform.’ We hear about “social media platforms,” “blogging platforms,” “fundraising platforms,” and so on. The word fits in the vague space that we use to fill with “software” and “program” before we stopped installing stuff on our computers and started using web-based services. A platform is just like any other tool we use, but it lives on our computer or phone instead of in the material world. In the case of higher ed, platforms are things we want our constituents to use, too: mentoring platforms, engagement platforms, networking platforms, etc.
To break down the myth of platform fatigue, let’s consider the following analogy: platforms as kitchen gadgets. Apple corers, blenders, deep fryers. Judging online services the same way we evaluate material tools will help us understand why platform fatigue is a myth and why people really stop using platforms. Then we can figure out how to choose platforms that work.
In this post, we have three such analogies.
#1) You Had One Job: When a one-trick platform doesn’t perform
It’s your dad’s birthday. He’s been on a fried egg kick lately, but he doesn’t have the patience to learn how to cook them just right, and he can’t get his eggs to stop sticking to the pan. You know just the thing. You saw it on TV the other day, and it cooks the perfect egg every time with zero effort. It’s called the Rollie Eggmaster, and it promises to change your dad’s world.
Okay, turns out the Rollie is a little disappointing. Your dad uses it to make a couple egg sandwiches, but after having to wait ten minutes for his weird egg tube each time, he goes back to frying them on the stove. Plus, he had to unplug the toaster to make space to plug it in every time he wanted to use it, and cleaning it was kind of a hassle even with the little brushes it came with. So the Rollie gathers dust in the back of a cabinet with all the other unused gifts he hides from the people who gave them to him.
Alton Brown (in the GIF above) calls kitchen gadgets like the Rollie “unitaskers”: gizmos that are only good for one thing (and often not even that). Many platforms that schools and universities have to choose from can really only do one thing. When members of the community don’t need to do that one thing, or aren’t happy with how the platform does that one thing, they don’t use it. And then they forget about it. Just like your dad’s Rollie.
But you’re not mad at your dad for not using it. The Rollie was pretty weird anyway. So for Father’s Day you get him an expensive All-Clad non-stick pan with D5 technology (whatever that is). It’s pricy, but worth it—at least you hope so.
Turns out it is worth it. Your dad uses it not just to fry his eggs, but to saute vegetables and braise steak. It’s also non-stick, which means it’s easy to clean. Your dad does everything with it.
A good platform is like this pan. It’s simple and easy to use, so you enjoy using it. You can use it to do a lot, so you use it all the time. You love it, so you recommend it to everyone. Soon, tons of people are buying this pan—or signing up for your platform. People don’t get tired of something they find useful.
If you’re the kind of person who objects to buying new kitchen gadgets on principle and you worry that members of your community feel the same way about new platforms, just make sure that whatever service you offer includes a way to sign up with an existing social account. Then people who try to keep their lives free of digital clutter won’t have to worry about one more password.
The problem with the Rollie wasn’t that your dad didn’t have room in his kitchen for one more thing. The problem was that the Rollie could only do one thing, and it was bad at the one thing it promised it could do. So don’t be afraid to go shopping for platforms for your students and alumni—just make sure you don’t buy a Rollie. Find something simple, versatile, and functional, instead. Like the pan you can use to cook almost anything.
People won’t get tired of a platform if they get value out of it. The minute a platform becomes inconvenient to use or stops delivering on its promises, that’s when people abandon it.
#2) Instructions Unclear: When a platform is confusing
Anyone who owns a mandolin slicer will swear by it, but every mandolin owner can agree on one thing: they’re no fun if you don’t know how to use them.
The mandolin meets all the criteria we discussed in the first analogy: they’re versatile, they’re functional, and they’re easy to use. The only caveat? They’re only easy to use if you have some instruction first. Otherwise you’re likely to slip, cut yourself, and wind up with your fingers in a cast.
Platforms like the mandolin are great as long as you know how to use them. In order to learn how, you need some instruction. And if a platform doesn’t teach you how to use it, is it really a good platform? That’d be like buying IKEA furniture that didn’t come with the assembly manual.
When you consider a platform, remember that two sets of people need instruction: your team and your audience. You and your team need a set of instructions to help you launch the platform for your community, and members of your community need instructions about how to use the platform when they sign up.
We read instructions like this all the time without realizing it. Take this step from Facebook’s sign up process. Facebook encourages users to do three things immediately after creating an account: find their friends, fill out their profile, and add a profile picture. These steps help the user get value from Facebook by connecting with other people right away.
Can you imagine if Facebook didn’t have this introductory process on sign up? What would you see? An empty news feed, an empty profile, and no friends. It wouldn’t be very encouraging, or useful either. What would you do first? Like pages? Add friends? Change your privacy settings? Add profile information? Download the app? A new user wouldn’t know where to start.
When platforms come without introductory instructions (which those of us who design platforms and apps call “user onboarding”), users feel confused and overwhelmed immediately after signing up. If they’ve been promised something—”Connect with other alumni!” “Find a job!”—they’ll be disappointed to have difficulty finding it. And if you and your team don’t get guidance, you’ll have no idea how to make your new platform successful.
Without instructions, you and your users will be like first-time mandolin users. Mandolins look easy enough to use, but if you use one without knowing how to use it properly, it won’t end well. If you have a bad experience with a platform the first time—or hear from someone else who has—why would you ever want to use it again? Negative first-time experiences prevent your platform from building a community. They make it seem like nobody is showing up to use your platform, when the truth is people are using it once but not returning to use it again because they were confused or frustrated the first time.
If you’re going to work with a vendor, make sure they understand user onboarding and that they will be available to help your team launch the platform you’re paying them for.
#3) Dancing on Your Own: When you launch a platform and nobody shows up
Ok, we’re dropping the kitchen equipment analogy for this one, but we’ll try to stick with the food theme.
Imagine you’ve been invited to a potluck. You cut some vegetables into razor-thin slices on your mandolin and make a great stir fry with your All-Clad non-stick pan. You’re excited by the promise of great food and company. But when you show up to the potluck, your host hasn’t made any preparations, and no other guests have arrived. You wait around for a few minutes and then leave, disappointed but hoping to cut your losses by enjoying your delicious stir fry alone.
If you launch a platform but don’t do enough preparatory work to get your community onboard, you are that bad host.
When your first users show up to an empty page, this is how they feel. They’ve gone to the effort of signing up and creating an account, but, to them, it doesn’t feel like you’ve put in your share of the work. You haven’t helped get the party started.
Researchers at Stanford, Penn State, and McGill all agree that building a critical mass of active participants early on is vital to the growth of online communities:
“[C]entral community goals like engagement...may best be seen as second-order goals that must first be enabled by building a critical mass of members who can contribute meaningful content and activities.” (Rosson and Carroll, 2013)
“The estimated effect of clique size on subsequent growth was especially high...hinting that these structural features may be important at the early stages of group formation.” (Kairam, Wang, and Leskovec, 2012)
“For an online community to grow from a handful of active users to hundreds, thousands, or more, the number of participants providing leadership must also grow.” (Johnson, Safadi, and Faraj, 2015)
In order to reach that critical mass, you need to identify active community members and leaders and convince them to start using your new platform. Then when other people show up, they’ll find that the platform is active and useful. This is the so-called network effect, or Metcalfe’s law: The value of a network is an exponential function of the number of people in the network. The classic example of the network effect is the telephone: What use is a telephone if you’re the only one that has one?
Choosing the right platform for your community is only your first step. The majority of work involved in launching a new platform is part of the launch itself. You’ll need to prepare a launch timeline, educate staff and stakeholders, and start generating activity on your platform so people will want to use it right when they sign up. The trick is not getting stuck with the catch-22, “We need activity to encourage users to sign up, but we need users to generate activity.” Activity isn’t something you can code into a platform. It takes one-on-one outreach and a committed group of volunteers to make it happen.
This might sound like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be if you have help. Make sure the vendor you choose to work with is there to help you prepare and execute a launch plan. If they’re not, you’re not getting your money’s worth—and neither is your community.
Developing an Online Community for Women in Computer and Information Sciences: A Design Rationale Analysis by Mary Beth Rosson and John M. Carroll (Penn State University)
The Life and Death of Online Groups: Predicting Group Growth and Longevity by Sanjay Kairam, Dan J. Wang, and Jure Leskovec (Stanford University)
The Emergence of Online Community Leadership by Steven L. Johnson (Temple University), Hami Safadi (Stevens Institute of Technology), and Samer Faraj (McGill University)
When a platform fails, it’s because it is flawed, not because of platform fatigue. For a platform to be successful, it needs to be multifunctional, include introductory instructions that make it easy to use, and have a strong launch plan. People only complain about having to use one more platform when that platform isn’t really worth using.
Are you in the market for an engagement platform? Be sure to read our whitepaper 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Engagement Software.