“How great would it be if we could track you using your phone GPS for the race tomorrow?” I asked my wife in anticipation of her 13.1 mile run at the Pittsburgh Marathon. She thought it would be a cool way for family and friends to keep up with her, so we began searching — and quickly found — the solution. RaceJoy is an app designed to help get information on race day, with an $0.99 upgrade that would let you use GPS to track runners (as well as send cheers and other cool little features). We both ponied up the fee in our respective app stores (we’re a mixed iPhone/Android family) and moved on with our day.
The next morning I was standing at around the sixth mile and assumed that my wife wouldn’t get past the starting gate until at least 7:30 (she was in the fourth “corral” behind the starting line leaders going at 7am sharp), so I began checking my phone around then to see what her progress might be. After a few refreshes, it was obvious that RaceJoy was down. A few check-ins over the next 45 minutes or so and I realized that it was likely down for the count. Disappointing, obviously, but not the end of the world. I got to see my wife, she finished the race injury-free, we got to grill burgers and sausages with friends, and the world continued to turn.
Or, at least I thought. I decided to check in with Twitter to see if I was the only one who had issues with the app. I found a couple of tweets like this:
— Tom Rubritz (@psutommy02) May 4, 2014
— regina wilson (@ReginaCorvina) May 4, 2014
Then I began to read the tweets from RaceJoy. They’re a two-person team and look to be from Pittsburgh (or at least CMU), and seemed to have developed this system with the Pittsburgh Marathon in mind, though it had been used at other events. You can tell that they were looking forward to this being their big coming out party, and the scale of the failure just made it all that much worse. Piling on was unnecessary, though there was no shortage of it.
— Aaron Cooper (@ALoop65) May 4, 2014
To their credit, RaceJoy let everyone know that they would be refunding anyone who paid the upgrade fee through Google Play, and would be mailing checks to anyone who bought it in the Apple App Store. They owned up to the issues, apologized to everyone they could, and were trying to solve enough technical issues to salvage the day. Then there was this tweet:
— Cat Harris (@iCat12) May 4, 2014
That one hit hard.
I’m writing this as an innovator apologist and realize the importance of feedback — no matter how severe — in the real world. To some extent, there’s nothing better that could have happened to RaceJoy long-term than to have an expensive catastrophic failure (assuming they’re not financially devastated by the refunds). But the level to which people were comfortable being mean was disappointing and decidedly un-Pittsburgh-like.
For those who’ve never invented anything, let me say this — making stuff is hard. It’s very hard. It’s excruciatingly hard. It’s nearly impossible. And, making something that works every time is even more difficult. It takes days/months/years of meticulously working through every imaginable (and unimaginable) scenario to make sure that the customer experiences something effortless. Think about that — years of work so that your experience is effortless. And we expect this effortless experience for 99 cents (a good portion of which goes to Apple and Google).
We should be better users.
This isn’t a complete list, but if you want to be a constructive user who encourages people to take the risk of making something to improve your life, I ask you to keep a few things in mind:
- Be Kind: Inventors have thick skin, but please do not treat every malfunction as if it was akin to the brutal murder of a household pet. Innovators understand that you’re disappointed and expect a better experience. Most innovations you use aren’t made by large corporate monoliths, but by individuals or small teams (in this case, Shelly and James) who are trying to make the world incrementally better. Vitriolic anger and condescension are not kind responses.
- Be Specific: Please provide specific, constructive feedback. Things don’t always work and it’s not always obvious as to why. Sometimes it really is user error, but sometimes it might be a situation that the innovator hadn’t previously considered. Knowing what happened from beginning to end can help an innovator take one step closer to making the experience effortless for everyone.
- Be Forgiving: Life is hard. We all fail. Being open to trying something again (or trying until it works). Nailing an app with a flood of one-star reviews might feel good, but it might also ensure that the innovation made to make your life easier that didn’t quite work as expected won’t be available the next time you need it. It helps to have perspective, realize that most of these failures are not life-threatening, and be open to trying again when you have a chance.
Please, please be better to each other. Innovation is hard. And, to Shelly and James, who were working tirelessly to make things work in the middle of a whirlwind of crappy feedback — well done. You two did an exceptional job of handling the issues fairly, kindly, and publicly. It’s easy to get defensive in these situations and you handled yourselves perfectly. If I wrote a post about how to be a better innovator, your response would be a case study.