How ThinkUp needs to improve

Posted by anil

We’ve been heads-down, busy working on ThinkUp (while also welcoming bundles of joy and dodging hurricanes), but now it’s time to resurface and talk about the future of ThinkUp. Since the release of ThinkUp 1.0 almost one year ago was greeted with responses like “the social media management tool that matters most" and "this is a big deal”, we naturally wanted to start with one of the most important topics we can discuss:

What sucks about ThinkUp.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love ThinkUp, and am insanely proud of what the community (and my cofounder Gina) have done over the past few years. But if we want to do justice to the awesome promise of what’s been built, then a great place to begin our work is by being our own harshest critics. Let’s dive in.

  • It’s too hard to get around. Today, the experience of working with ThinkUp (once you get it set up, see below) is a process of clicking around a series of disjointed, separate dashboards. And even if you can figure out how to navigate down to the individual data display you’re interested in, there’s little context. You have to start all over if you change between different accounts or different social services. In short, ThinkUp today is like most other dashboard-style apps: it feels like work.
  • It’s way too hard to get started. This one’s obvious - you have to have a ton of technical knowledge to get up and running with ThinkUp. Some of this is deliberate; While ThinkUp was under the stewardship of Expert Labs, we didn’t focus on a simple starting process since that wasn’t a requirement of policy-focused goals. Some of this is philosophical; Making sure ThinkUp can run fully and unfettered on any individual web server (instead of as a centralized service) makes configuration more complicated. But worse, the current setup process is followed immediately by a very complicated configuration process, where a user has to set up all her accounts on various services. And both of these high hurdles have to be cleared before there’s even a place to start using ThinkUp.
  • It isn’t immediately satisfying. And there’s no reason to come back. Once you clear the hurdles to get into ThinkUp, you typically get a blank screen with some vague promise of data or functionality to come, but that can take some time, and until it’s done you’ve got nothing to do. Worse, even if you do return, there isn’t some substantial change or evolution to encourage you to return more to ThinkUp in the future. Perhaps if you stumble upon a particularly compelling dashboard, you’ll remember where it was and decide to revisit, but that seems fairly uncommon.
  • We don’t say who ThinkUp is for. While almost any user of social networks can find some value in ThinkUp, that’s an audience of almost a billion people, which is far too broad a target to address with a product, so we end up being vaguely unsatisfying for almost everybody. This also makes it impossible to talk about the app in a way that would let a new user know if it’s going to be satisfying to use, or for a developer to know what areas to work on if they want to get users engaged and excited about their work.
  • Developers don’t have enough guidance of how they should work on ThinkUp. While we’ve got some great documentation and an excellent set of tests for expert hackers who want to improve ThinkUp, it’s pretty tough for a coder who’s not familiar with ThinkUp to know where to start. The areas of functionality that can be customized or extended are extremely broad, and a pretty high level of knowledge is required to be productive. While we’re doing a good job of being inclusive to developers, we’re not doing a great job of showing a potential new developer what they should hack on.
  • We rely too much on the kindness of strangers. Right now, a great deal of the attention or usage that ThinkUp has earned in the years that it’s existed has been due to the built-up good will that Gina or (to a lesser degree) myself and the former team members of Expert Labs have accrued. Asking for nice people to use our app as a favor is a great demonstration of how nice people can be on the Internet, but it won’t lead to the kind of sustainable growth that’s going to keep ThinkUp vibrant and thriving over the years to come.

The good news is, we’ve been talking through these issues over the last few months as we’ve turned ThinkUp from a project into a real company. That’s a process that’s still in progress, but it’s time to share with our community our thinking about how we’re going to address these issues, and to get feedback from all of you about how we’ll make ThinkUp even better by tackling these big goals together.

We’re also happy to hear about anything we’ve missed in regard to ThinkUp’s shortcomings or, naturally, its strengths. More soon!

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