When iterative development goes wrong - the new Digg.com

Iteration.It is, in many ways, the lifeblood of software development.  It tends to be understood these days that, once you release a product, your next step is to start working on version 2 immediately.  The goal is usually to take what you've done, see what's working and what's not, learn from it, and iterate.  Take out the stuff people don't like, add in new stuff that they will.  This doesn't happen only in software either.  The iPhone is a great example of iterative development.  Each new iPhone has added things to the equation driving people to a new version.  Even if they were happy with the one they have, the new iteration often has enough value to convince people to upgrade.

It is rare but possible that the "next iteration" could abandon a current product for something better, but completely different.  Apple has done this many times with varying degrees of success.  The example of success came when, at the height of it's popularity, they end-of-lifed the iPod mini only to replace it with the iPod nano.  The new version was, at it's heart, still a small iPod but the form factor changed (it got thinner and lighter) and the internal tech also changed (it went from a mini hard disc drive to flash memory).  It was a resounding success, but a step many in the tech world would have been afraid to try.

The less-than-successful example was iMovie '08.  After bringing dead simple home movie editing to the masses with the timeline based iMovie, and iterating it for several popular versions, Apple chose to move consumer video editing to a completely different paradigm.  I'm not going to discuss the merits of the new approach (I hated it with a passion at first) but the fallout was a perfect example of what happens when you rock the boat just a bit too much.  The people revolted and apple was forced to keep iMovie 6 available as a download to appease those who just didn't dig the new paradigm.

So into which of these examples does the new Digg.com fall?  If you ask me (and a lot of other people) it falls squarely into the latter.  Digg is trying to remake itself into a "social news" site, and while that may be a nobel goal for Digg as a company, the problem is that they are doing it at the expense of what Digg truly is - a crowdsourced news aggregation service.  While there are, I'm sure, a lot of users who will gravitate to the new features like following the Diggs of friends (I have none on Digg) or following certain news sources (I don't), it shocks me that Digg has so completely misread it's core functionality.  But more important than misreading it, they've apparently abandoned it.

Here's how I used Digg-

  • first thing in the morning, load Digg.com
  • scan down the page, looking for articles that interest me
  • middle click to open links in background tabs
  • arrive at headlines I've already seen several pages in
  • start reading the articles in the tabs
  • once done, head back to the front page to see if anything new has come along
  • repeat throughout the day.

This use case is, unfortunately, no longer a viable way to use the service.  For one, the new web 2.0, "load the next page below the current page" makes the entire site essentially one big page.  How do I get to page 4 quickly without loading pages 1-3 first?  you can't.  For two, there seem to be far fewer, and far less interesting stories making to the front page now, which is, BTW, no longer the front page. If you are logged in, the front page is actually your new social news page. Confused yet?  I am.  What was a useful tool for quickly finding the latest "popular" news is now apparently a tool about popularity that might contain news.  Maybe.

So what does a company do when the iterative process goes so wrong?  From the Apple example, maybe digg will come around in the next week or so and offer a way to switch the view you get when logged in, allowing users to "just read the news" which is all I really want.  However, since the news that appears on Digg is user driven, the ultimate danger is that this disruptive moment has driven enough users away that the new Digg can never become what the old Digg was.

I won't begin to speculate as to what research was done before making such a big transition.  I also don't fault Digg for trying something new.  Innovation is a great thing.  But if ebay closed up shop tomorrow and reopened as myspace, users would be generally confused.  The problem comes from abandoning the core function to attempt to create a new core.  If the risk pays off, you can be selling iPod nanos.  If it doesn't, you're stuck with iMovie '08.

So how's reddit doing?