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Ultra-fast release cycles and the new plane


I just came back from dinner with my daughter Skyler (that's her in the picture). She's an extremely passionate myspace user. In her words, "If you're not on myspace, you don't exist." So I asked what made myspace so compelling... why didn't she fall in love with LiveJournal? Her answer is a lesson for software developers (especially Web 2.0-ers), and was a theme of SXSW:

"myspace keeps doing what everybody really wants, and it happens instantly."

She said they respond to feedback, "As soon as you think of something, it's in there."

She said, "It's always evolving. It changes constantly. There's always something new."

I asked if these changes were disruptive or made it harder to use when nothing stays the same, and she gave me that teenage-attitude-eye-rolling-what-a-lame-question look.

Then she said the weirdest thing of all: "myspace is like a whole new plane of existence."
She wasn't kidding.

And I thought of two things I heard at ETech and SXSW that were really thought-provoking...

Danah Boyd's astonishing talk at ETech and the talk by the guys from SkinnyCorp (founders of Threadless).

On the culture of myspace:

If you have kids of any age, or customers under the age of 40, or support an online community, I urge you to read Danah's transcript (the link above)--this woman knows as much about the culture of myspace as anyone, and she has a ton of insight and knowledge about online communities. At a deep level. (I consider her blog in my top 20 for sure.)

On lightning release cycles:

Skyler's comment about how myspace keeps changing and growing organically, almost every day, is a passionate user's view of what the developer's call quick release cycles. Where software developers are typically on release cycles of 6 months to a year, the Threadless guys said that even two weeks was a little long. In fact, virtually all of the web 2.0-ish folks at the conference mentioned these quick release cycles as crucial.

There are a ton of issues, obviously, like what happens when a new release breaks something that previously worked. The Threadless guys said that happens, but only rarely, and they just do a rollback. Skyler said she's seen things break on myspace, but nobody seems to care much since they know it'll probably be fixed tomorrow.

I wonder if quick release cycles become almost addictive to the end users... we're so used to thinking of how upset they'll be when we change things, but clearly this is a different (and frickin' HUGE) group of users who not only don't mind the change--they THRIVE on it. Perhaps those quick releases are a little like quick fixes. Code Crack.

The Threadless guys (and the 37signals guys) have said pretty much the same thing as Skyler did -- that some people may complain when you change something, and occasionally you might even lose someone from the community, but that it's very rare for someone to stay upset. One day the users are threatening to revolt if XYZ isn't put back the way it was, and the next day they've all but forgotten.

So, quick release cycles and a new plane of existence. I have to think about this some more... I'd love to hear your thoughts about any of this!

[UPDATE: there's a lively discussion about how this relates to game development, on Raph Koster's blog (an excellent regular read for those interested in game design/dev)]

[FYI -- I'm still not current with my emails. I'm working on it, and I'm home now for the next six weeks, so I WILL catch up.]

Posted by Kathy on March 16, 2006 | Permalink


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Bah! Myspace is banned at my workplace because it's (according to our net nanny at least) to do with personals and dating (crikey, can't let the geeks date - they might end up breeding, and then where would we be?!). Livejournal's pretty clued on the Web2.0 stuff too. People moaned about LJ losing entries - now it auto-saves drafts every few seconds. It uses Ajax for commenting on existing posts, you've got to-do lists, a calendar archive of past posts, endless customisation limited only by one's mastery of LJ's style system, an integrated gallery system to store your pics, and there's a plugin for iPhoto to upload photos. Myspace has a reputation deservedly or not of being "for kids" - but at the same time being something of a stalking ground for paedos to hook up with unsuspecting kids (there was a BBC news article about this a couple of weeks ago). I'd go with LJ any time - been a member since when it was invite-only.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Mar 16, 2006 11:39:36 PM

As a younger reader, yet a college graduate, in the workforce, etc. myspace is simply great for keeping up with current friend, catching up with old friends, and sometimes meeting a new one. nothing more complex than that. It's to whatever ends you make it to be. Much younger people use it as a social hub, people my age use it as a resource to connect and reacquaint, those older analyze it, then beyond that people don't "get it" and criticize and predict how it will be the end all to any real social interaction.

Meanwhile Tom is laughing all the way to the bank. ;)

Posted by: russell Perry | Mar 16, 2006 11:49:31 PM

There is no reason why normal software devs can't do the 2 week thing either. However your user base generally doesn't all download the new release as soon as it's online like you get with a website. Instead you have a mish mash of current and old versions in your userbase. Last year I spent 12 months on 1 release, but I averaged a beta build every 2-3 weeks for my email client. I got smart and put the exact release info in the X-Mailer header so that when someone emails in a support request I know which build on what platform.

It's just interesting that I mixed the 2, both long cycle stable builds (1 per year) and short cycle beta builds (2 per month). People tend to focus on one little thing, and the quicker you respond to that thing the more they like you.

Posted by: Matthew Allen | Mar 16, 2006 11:52:19 PM

Fast release cycles where things might break are fine for sites & web apps that are not mission critical in nature. However, if you're providing a web service that people - or more to the point businesses - truly depend on...then cautious dilligence must be exercised when it comes to release cycles. There's nothing wrong with moving to fast release cycles, but when your app is mission critical to people or a business, your QA better be spot on or you will risk losing customers. Fun sites like MySpace and Flickr can afford to have temporary issues because users will excuse them. But if you're running an online billing system, hosted CRM, online banking or hosted VOIP services - you can't afford to screw things up for your users. At the end of the day, consistent quality is the key to keeping customers happy - and generating revenue for you

Posted by: Matt Smith | Mar 17, 2006 1:52:18 AM

I'm shocked. I had no idea that MySpace rolled out new features. I've learned something today.

Posted by: Michael | Mar 17, 2006 3:28:40 AM

Just curious about your top ten blogs

Posted by: Murray | Mar 17, 2006 6:01:58 AM

Another thought provoking post, Kathy, for which thanks.

It resonated with another thought that's at the top of my head at the moment. Google in its just released Annual Report has comments about the Mobile Internet world. It seems to me that there isn't just one inter-connected Internet world. In fact we have parallel universes. Here you're talking about the Myspace Teenage world which seems to have very little overlap with other age groups and the spaces they move in. Equally you have the Desktop space and the Mobile space. Again so far very little overlap between them.

We certainly live in exciting times with boundless possibilities.

Posted by: Barry Welford | Mar 17, 2006 7:32:22 AM

Yay! I exist. I'm on the MySpace. And I'm old.

Posted by: Brian | Mar 17, 2006 8:31:08 AM

I still think it would be interesting to do a real usability test of MySpace users. I suspect that most people use a small portion of its full set of features, and probably use those the way I use my voice mail at work: by memorizing a series of commands that I don't actually understand, but which work. I wonder how much of the "as soon as you think of something, it's there" really means: "I never noticed that before."

I also suspect, with all respect to you and your daughter, that she's overemphasizing the "mom, you just don't get it" attitude for effect with some of her comments. She's gotta remind you that you're not cool enough to really understand. ;-)

Posted by: Andrew | Mar 17, 2006 8:41:49 AM

The "code crack" concept is certainly interesting, but I don't know that I actually believe Skyler. It's like, if someone is *asked* why they love myspace, they have to come up with an answer... and "new features" all the time seems like a legitimate answer... so they give it. but the real answer might be "i'm totally in love with this hot guy and i stare at his pictures all the time."

Posted by: Jim Gilliam | Mar 17, 2006 8:45:59 AM

One distinction that may or may not exist regards the audience you are targetting. I think every reader of this blog in some way likes to think about developers passionate about their work making programs that users will be passionate about too. A big part of this burden lies with the developer, but what about the user? You could give me a fantastic application that does something I really don't care about, and I still won't be passionate about it. Maybe there is some transcendent application that could make anyone passionate about it, but I think there are some limits to this. So then the difficult lies with the user: what if the user doesn't want to be using your program? Lots of people don't like their jobs, and they use software at work. These people want to just get their work done with a minimal amount of fuss, and it is these people (among others) who some developers have to worry about angering with frequent releases. Sites like MySpace have a user community who wants to be using the application, and is therefore willing to put effort into improving their skills at using it. But if you're making software for business, then it is much harder to make any sort of similar claim that all your users really want to be using your program.

If everybody was doing a job they really liked doing, then I think frequent software releases would be more common. (Ignoring for the moment where in the stack said software fits.)

Posted by: Anthony Cowley | Mar 17, 2006 8:53:56 AM

I think an extension to the ultra-fast release cycle could include live betas. Take GMail and Skobee as examples. GMail is constantly unveiling new features, taking feedback and implementing new ideas. Skobee just went live last week and is adding new features every day - users leave comments on the forums and before you know it, they're working on it.

One cool thing about these constant updates, is that it involves the user in the development process, even just a little bit. It makes me feel like I can direct how the software goes, even if I'm not the one actively working on it. I think I only get this feeling because of the _immediate_ feedback. If I made a request and it gets implemented a few months later, I probably would have forgotten about it already.

Posted by: Skrud | Mar 17, 2006 9:13:49 AM

I know of "mission critical" web-sites that deploy some portion of the web-site every week... but what they deploy HAS been tested for more than a week. Sometimes they have to retract a deployment, and they can do so within a day of discovering problems with the deployment.

Kent Beck's "Extreme Programming Explained (second edition)" lists a practice "Daily Deployment" as one of the "advanced" practices. It requires extensive automated testing, proper source-code-control, a "one-button" automated release/un-release process for internal testing an external deployment, and mastery of a whole set of agile skills.

Once you've achieved this mastery, then daily deployment is feasible and not risky.

If you and your team have not achieved mastery of these hard-to-learn agile skills, then it seems impossible and impossibly risky.

Posted by: keith ray | Mar 17, 2006 9:56:30 AM

Not sure if its kosher or not to post, but we just launched a service for keeping track of myspace profiles: http://www.myspacewatch.com/

Posted by: Alex | Mar 17, 2006 10:11:32 AM

It occurs to me that, in environments with slow development cycles, users are much less tolerant of "upgrades" which change, remove, or break beloved technology. (Or even upgrades which don't address their top priority request.)

On the other hand, if you experience the environment changing ultra-rapidly, perhaps you internalize it, and become more likely to forgive/tolerate.

(A parallel - I'm more forgiving of a waiter who's clearly swamped than one who's inattentive on a slow night.)

I'll also suggest that it's instructive to consider how this could be implemented in services which we think of as "stable" or "mission critical." Who would want Clippy popping up every few days to tell you that a minor upgrade has occurred to Office?

Posted by: Joe | Mar 17, 2006 10:23:45 AM

Matt: "but at the same time being something of a stalking ground for paedos to hook up with unsuspecting kids "

Hmmm...I have some first-hand, very ugly experience with what happens when the media thinks it is time to have a "Your teen in danger? News at 11" thing. I'll have to tell that story sometime... yes there are stalkers, but the extent to which this is new/exclusive to myspace, and how problematic it really is, is almost certainly WAY overblown. But that's a different issue...

In many ways, myspace is starting to fill a role previously filled by cell phones. Most teens today are moving away from voice and more toward text-messaging, and now Skyler (through Cingular) gets myspace alerts as messages to her phone. When I mentioned Skyler's you-don't-exist comment, she was not surprised at all and said that this is similar to what Japanese teenage (girls, mostly) were saying about their cell phones a few years back. You were essentially invisible.

Matt: "consistent quality is the key to keeping customers happy - and generating revenue for you"

I think this depends entirely on who your customers actually are... and of course how they define "quality." For most of us (me especially) quality is about how well things work (including performance, usability, etc.) but for these younger users... "quality" might mean something much more dynamic. I don't really know, though.

Barry: Excellent points!

Brian: Yes, you exist : ) Old? This is an interesting point... in some ways, Skyler has said that --shock--even THIRTY year olds have been a part of some of their affinity-oriented groups simply because they've become part of a particular myspace community. Locally, here, I'm thinking of the skateboarding community that Skyler moves in, which on the venn diagram has a high overlap with the urban art groups (including the art school kids). The age range when they meet up in the real world for either skating or an art slam is from 15 to 35, most of whom have come together through myspace connections.

Andrew: Skyler would NEVER do something like that to her own mom ; ) Or at least not more than once a day... I do factor that in, though, when I have these conversations with her. But I've been watching her involvment and social life change dramatically as a result of myspace. In fact, she claims--and this I believe having seen the change--that myspace has in some ways saved her from a very bad "rut" she'd fallen into. This is a teen who at one time appeared headed for depression, who is now more happy and "alive" (her words) than she's ever been. And she really does attribute the shift to the high adoption rate among her peers on myspace (yes, she even used the word "adoption rate", but that's from spending too much time in the company of geeks). Some day I'll talk more about the adventures she's had over the last year...

Jim: I think you're right about the pressed-for-an-explanation thing. But I want to think more about what she *actually* said, because it wasn't about "features", exactly, but more about the dynamic nature. She couldn't even name a single feature that stood out as something she had been wanting -- it was more about some new evolution of the system and community. I'm not sure how to describe it, but it was less about "they add new features we ask for" and more about -- "the thing keeps evolving and changing all the time." In other words, it was almost as though "change for the sake of change" has some value with that group, assuming the specific changes are valuable to at least some portion of the community.

Anthony: good points, I have to agree.

Skrud: Yes!!!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 17, 2006 11:23:08 AM

This topic has lit a spark in my mind; will have to see where it goes...

One thing that jumps out at me though is the "code crack" crack; I think it's about "newness" and "power". I know that even back in Paul's (of biblical fame) day, people had an addiction to new things. Acts 17:21 "All the athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas." Also, by changing things frequently, you're feeding into those passionate users' natural tendencies; and passion, as you know, is addictive and contagious.

Some other things that might tie in, but I'm to tired to think about this morning: possible relationships between early adopters and patience/ADHD, and expectation management verses tolerance for brokenness.

As even Danah mentions, good luck controlling the burn in such environments.

Posted by: greenup | Mar 17, 2006 4:08:42 PM

You ask.."I wonder if quick release cycles become almost addictive to the end users."
We are in our genes novelty seekers, hard-wried to notice and enjoy little changes. Like google's little goofies. The big changes are what scare us away.
Changes can be too small, too. Boring.
You know what you should read? I have two books you will love, well, I think you would based on what I read here.
1. The Mating Mind by G Miller
2. The Mind of the Raven, Bernd Henrich. We can't fly like ravens and we don't have their taste for carrion, but like ravens, we sure do like novelty.

Blog on, party people. We enjoy reading what you write.

Posted by: n&s | Mar 17, 2006 4:52:28 PM

Kids have been getting hooked on this stuff for the last two decades. I started 22 years ago BBSing when I was 8 y/o, my brother started when he was 4 y/o. Before Myspace it was Friendster, vbulletin, etc. Hopefully the Myspace people will advance to Wordpress w/ something like http://gravatar.com/ to implement "friends" lists.

Posted by: Myspace Pro | Mar 18, 2006 10:55:21 AM

n&s says: "We are in our genes novelty seekers, hard-wried to notice and enjoy little changes."

Yes, but I think we also need to challenge the extent to which this can also be an addiction - people are addicted to rapid change as a way of avoiding slowing down and facing a difficult reality. Looking for the next change can be like looking for the next fix.

Technology, including games, can have a role feeding this addictive process.

I'm not sure what the solution is, I just think we have to watch out for it.

Posted by: Sean FitzGerald | Mar 18, 2006 12:17:21 PM

Funny, only days before I read this I'd gone to check someone out on LinkedIn and thought "If you're not on LinkedIn you don't exist." Shows what "space" I'm in!

Posted by: Susie Wyshak | Mar 20, 2006 10:43:26 AM

1) I deleted my myspace because its closed nature and ugliness irrate me. Call me a codger, but I'm not stressing the loss - i still exist.

2) The concept of "addiction to fast release cycles" is EXACTLY how I feel about Consumating. I know they're constantly adding bits, and I love it.

Posted by: thedaniel | Mar 21, 2006 2:46:54 PM

You know what'd be cool? If myspace had a way of blocking you from seeing pages with horrificly bad design.

Of course, clicking in between the two remaining pages might loose its appeal quickly, but at least it could no longer be the kind of site that people who know the first thing about web design cringe at.

Oh well. Give 'em what they want.

Posted by: anon | Mar 22, 2006 1:56:04 PM

I'm a love journal user and I must admit that it hasn't changes a lot to my needs from the time I began to use it.

Posted by: Helen, software developer | Apr 4, 2006 8:01:28 AM

I've been a user of MySpace for about 2 years. I disagree that MySpace is popular because of them rolling out features quickly. MySpace is popular because of its community. If formed a very large community early on, and it's grown tremendously.

Technology-wise, MySpace is an abomination. They are constantly having server problems, it's impossible to even login to it during peak hours. It's like Friendster during the early days when they couldn't handle the load. They still haven't fixed bugs I've complained about for the last 6 months. Every week there is some message from Tom about some bug you should ignore because they know about it.

Yes, they add new features, but not particularly often and nothing that I want. They've mostly made things worse. Some things they have slowly fixed once they realized what a huge mistake their design decisions were (like allowing any HTML/CSS/Javascript in profiles and comments).

I use MySpace for the same reason I used to use AIM, because everyone I know is on it. No other reason.

Posted by: n | Apr 10, 2006 9:54:39 AM

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