How Alpha is Doing

by Peter Rojas

It's been a few months since my last update on Alpha and it seemed like a good time to share an update on where we're at and what we've been up to. As you might recall, Alpha is the experimental product group that Ryan Block and I help run at AOL that's charged with coming up with ideas for new apps and then going out and designing and building them. 

Back in January we had just launched Starlike, our second app, and it had been about six weeks since the launch of Pip, our first app. So where are we now? Both apps had great launches, but so far neither could be described as a breakout success.

While obviously we'd prefer this to be otherwise -- who doesn't want a hit, right? -- we also knew going into all this that we couldn't have any illusions about how difficult it can be for new products to find audiences, and that since it's unlikely we'd hit a home run on our first or second at bat we should expect a lot of trial and error. It's similar to what Kevin Rose's North Technologies is doing, spending a few months at a time on experiments in the hopes that one of them catches on. (They've already launched a couple so far, with one, Watchville, that seems to have found its audience.) Like them, we're putting stuff out there, seeing if it gets any traction, and if not, figuring out if there's anything we can do differently to give the app a shot at catching on before deciding whether to sunset it or not.

Pip, our quick messaging and notifications app, was our first experiment using this process, and in the weeks after launch we knew we had to pay very closely attention to how people were using it to see what we got right and what we got wrong. We managed to learn a tremendous amount from both user feedback and by examining usage analytics and then took all of that data to help us figure out what issues we needed to address and which new features we needed to include in the next version of the app to give it a better shot at success. 

The number one feature request we received from users was that they wanted to be able to create custom "pips" (i.e. a pip with a short message that they created themselves). This was something we'd considered offering prior to launch, but we were concerned this would make Pip a bit too much like a free-form messaging app and those pips wouldn't be "special" enough. It looks like we were probably wrong to be worried about that, so for Pip 2.0 we made it possible added to create any number of custom pips. (The interface we designed for custom pips is pretty nice, too, we hope you check it out!) 

Another mistake was to launch without international support. We relied on an internal solution for phone number verification that didn't work outside of the US, and while we knew this wasn't optimal, we mistakenly assumed we could get away with it for this initial MVP release on the grounds that we were just testing the idea, so limiting it to users of the US store would not be a big deal.

We quickly discovered that there are many people outside of the US who set the country for their app store to the US so they can download apps not available to them in their home country. The result was a large number of users who installed the app but couldn't verify their accounts and actually use Pip because they didn't have a US phone number to verify against. I'm sure you can imagine how frustrating that is.

Although we managed to disappoint a lot of people early who wanted to use our app, the good news is we've since switched to another messaging solution (Twilio), so just about everyone in the world can finally use Pip. For those folks out there who tried it before and couldn’t register, we hope you’ll give it another shot!

We also made it too difficult for users to invite their friends to use Pip and to find their friends on the service, and we're fixing that too, since the whole point of Pip is to be able to send quick messages to your friends. We thought we had done a good enough job here in the original version of Pip, but after examining usage data and seeing how people were actually using the app we had to accept that we had made it too complicated. We've made some changes to friend finding and friend adding in Pip 2.0 which hopefully address this, but this feels like one of those parts of the product that we're going to always be working to improve. 

Starlike's challenges have been completely different. Downloads have been solid, though not spectacular, and time spent per user session has been high, which is a good indication, generally speaking, that the people who are using it do like it. (I know that it's become a part of my daily routine, though admittedly I'm a little biased.) That's not to say that it was all smooth sailing, as shortly after launch we had some users who encountered issues with the feed updating very slowly or not being able to authenticate their Facebook account, but those problems have mainly subsided as we've introduced fixes and enhancements to the app. 

The real challenge for Starlike is that Facebook and LinkedIn, which are two of the three social services we've incorporated into the service, are making changes to their APIs that will make it difficult for us to continue to include them (Twitter, by contrast, has been very supportive of the product). We have been talking with both Facebook and LinkedIn about what we can do, but it may be that we have to remove both and stick to just Twitter. If so, we are going to have to decide whether Starlike is a product we continue to actively work on. 

Meanwhile, we've already begun the process of building several new apps (including one that might be best described as a spin-off from Pip) and we're constantly kicking around new ideas for products for our pipeline. It's been exciting to see new stuff like Meerkat and Periscope coming out of nowhere and seemingly blowing up overnight because it reminds us all that anything is still possible, which is exactly why Alpha exists in the first place.