Matthew Bischoff

Hello, I’m Matt. I make apps in New York at Lickability and Tumblr.

Once More With Feeling

For years now this website has merely pointed people to my profiles on other websites and social media services. It wasn’t always that way. In the past it housed my blog, a podcast I hosted, and even a photoblog at one point. Remember those?

It’s time to make this place my own again. A place to put the things I write and make. And more than that, a place to experiment.

Inspired by my heroes and my friends, I’ve decided to write under my name. And while I expect that what’s here will change a lot of over time, I’ll try not to break too many links along the way.

If you want to come along for the ride, subscribe in your feed reader, and if you want to know more about the guy who’s writing this, there’s an about page.

Lowering the Gates

The New York Times Building at night

A year ago, I sat in a glass-walled conference room at The New York Times in a routine meeting. I listened as a business-schooled product manager spoke about yet another monetization strategy when he broke character and whispered, “now is the time to lower the gates”. He was referring to The Times’s crackdown on website users who read articles for free by googling headlines, installing NYT Clean, and clearing their cookies. Now, that defensive mindset is creeping into The Times’s mobile products.


Late last month, The New York Times quietly slashed the number of free articles in its mobile applications from 3 per day to 10 per month. It’s not hard math, each reader can access 80 fewer articles this month than they could have last month, a decrease of 89%.

While great free apps like Circa, Yahoo News Digest.1, and now Paper from Facebook, fight to take over mobile news, The Times scrambles to persuade mobile users to pay top dollar for its coverage by limiting what they get for free.

Since the NYTimes iOS application was released in 2008, the number of articles that users can read for free has changed multiple times. The app has gone from everything being free, to the dozen rotating “Top News” stories, to three articles daily, to only ten per month. The last change occurred just months after the previous. If it had to be adjusted this quickly and drastically, the meter strategy on mobile just isn’t working.

Since The Times’s mobile products are partially supported by advertising, it’s counterintuitive to drive down the number of ad impressions by cutting off enthusiastic users just as they’re getting excited about the content. Ten articles per month just aren’t enough to justify keeping the apps installed; it’s almost insulting. The proof is in the plummeting App Store ratings as well as in the company’s usage statistics, which I suspect show readers returning less frequently since the change.

From the outside, it looks as if the company is desperate to drive up subscription numbers on its confusing digital subscription packages, which are still more expensive than having the newspaper dropped on your doorstep every weekend. But I think there may be something deeper going on.

The Times plans to roll out even more digital packages this year, and people I’ve spoken to at the company are starting to worry that few will want them. Why not make its current offerings less appealing in the short term, so that they can save the day with their newer, better apps in a few months? If this is what NYT is doing, it’s downright irresponsible and counter to The Times’s commitment to integrity. There’s no integrity in misleading readers.

I asked Times spokesperson Linda Zebian about the changes and she defended the move, writing, “We continue to believe that our strategy of balancing free and accessible content with revenue from paid usages is the right one.” When asked whether the company was attempting to make the mobile applications behave identically to the website she added, “The intention is to align the meter experience on mobile apps with the website and our mobile website…”. I got no real answers to the questions of whether this change is expected to decrease advertising revenue or intended to bolster the planned new digital products.

When I raised this issue on Twitter, Jordan Kay asked me what I would do differently if I were in charge of The Times’s digital subscription strategy. If The Times wants to be the place that most Americans read their news, then it must adopt a freemium model that’s much freer than this in order to compete.

But I don’t think that’s what The Times is or should be. It’s a premium news source, and it would be much better to make that clear from the start. Everyone knows how good the journalism is. Charge for it up front with an optional free trial. As it stands, the meter devalues both the product and the brand, and any new products the Times plans to add later this year run the same risk — creating confusion and muddling the message.

The Times’s new mobile strategy forces casual readers to look for other options, and there are many out there. I hope The Grey Lady will realize her mistake and change course quickly, but knowing how things work inside an organization founded over a century ago, I’m not holding my breath. By dropping the pay gates on mobile users, the Times is ensuring its irrelevance in an increasingly mobile world.


Photo courtesy of Jason Kuffer

1. Disclosure: Yahoo owns Tumblr, where I work.

Software Criticism

Critica

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
— Winston Churchill

Last week, I wrote a short blog post on my Tumblr commenting on the news that my former employer had released a new web application and critiquing the product strategy, calling it “pointless”. Apparently this struck a chord because minutes after I had shared my brief thoughts about the new Today’s Paper web app, I started receiving tweets, direct messages, and emails from former colleagues, friends, and followers. From what I’ve heard, it’s also generated several internal emails and conversations. Many of the messages I received raised the same question: why would I write this post?

The answer is simple: I care a lot. Software needs to be criticized to get better. 90% of it is crap, and very few people are willing to explain why. My blog is a place where I can express my opinion, and I have a strong opinion about this “new” product. I share my thoughts with the hope that they’ll make people think and encourage discussion, which is exactly what happened.

There are several arguments that people made about why I shouldn’t have written the post. These deserve to be addressed one by one:

Didn’t You Work For Them?

Yes, I did. I don’t any more and lack of a sane product strategy is one of the reasons why. A lot of the most amazing things we learn about how companies work are from people that used to work at them. Books like Hatching Twitter, articles from former Apple employees, and a lot of the best answers on Quora wouldn’t be possible without ex-employees speaking up. Learning requires opening up.

The people that worked inside an organization are the ones that can explain and critique it with the most insight. They also tend to be more emotionally invested in the company’s success. I plan to continue criticizing (and praising) the organizations I’ve worked for, and I hope others do the same.

Why You Gotta be So Mean?

Whenever someone accuses me of being mean, I stop to consider to whom I’m being mean. In this case, there are two groups of people I mentioned in the post.

The creators of the web app (designers, developers, editors, and product managers) The (potential) users of the web app

The only thing I say about the creators of the web app is that they are “truly great” at what they do and that their time should not have been wasted on something so silly. Doesn’t sound mean to me.

Can people’s feelings get hurt when something they work on is criticized? Absolutely, but that’s no fault of the critic. We don’t worry about Guy Fieri’s feelings before giving his restaurant a scathing review in The Times, and we shouldn’t be afraid to criticize software for this reason either.

Was I mean to the users? Well, I did say that many of them will likely die soon, but only as a way to cheekily explain the demographics demanding this product. Not mean, exactly, but a little heavy handed and likely unnecessary.

I’ve been criticized for lacking empathy towards members of this generation of people that are uncomfortable with The Times’s current offerings and prefer the simplicity of print. To the contrary, I think that generation is right. Many of the Times’s current products, especially the website, are confusing, outdated, and just plain hard to use. However, the solution is not to make yet another product. It’s to make the existing products great for everyone, just like Google and the iPhone are great for everyone. Good design is universal. No dumbing down necessary.

What’s Wrong With Skeuomorphism?

Nothing, except that’s not what this product is. It’s not just using skeuomorphic techniques to improve NYTimes.com, it’s literally another way to view the exact same content on the exact same platform. By my count there are at least 13 ways to read the Times: Paper, iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Kindle, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Web, Mobile Web, Replica, Times Skimmer, Time Wire, and now Today’s Paper. We don’t need more ways to read the same content that better imitate the past. We need the existing applications and websites to be much much better and focused on the future of news consumption.

The Team Had Fun

It’s fine for a couple of people to make a terrible product for fun or to learn, especially because it’s difficult to know if something will be good before it exists. But for a company that’s as large and well respected as the Times, it’s embarrassing to use the team’s enjoyment as a reason to release a product to the public. Plenty of products have been killed before release at The New York Times and this should have been one of them.

People Asked for It

Of course they did, but just because people ask for something doesn’t mean we should build it. Often, the way users phrase questions and requests is very direct: “You should do this”, but they really want us to do the thinking for them. No one asked for an iPhone before the iPhone was released, and yet hundreds of millions of people of all skill levels use and love these devices every single day.

It’s our skill and responsibility as creators and experts to understand and synthesize user feedback into great products, and not slavishly do what our users say, producing one more pointless product after another.

It’ll Make Readers Happy

Today’s Paper may very well make readers happy just like plenty of people are still happy with their dumbphones. That doesn’t make those phones good products. If the Times believes that Today’s Paper is really the right way to look at Times content, it should be the way the website and the native applications work, not a side effort that’s only available to subscribers and doesn’t even work on smartphones. This is simply a product that placates a vocal minority. These are the people that would still be asking for a faster horse years after the Model T was released. They will only drag the company and its products down.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball called Today’s Paper “utterly uncluttered”. He’s right but misses the larger economic point. This isn’t a sustainable way for the Times to publish content, even for only subscribers. It has no ads which means that if the website operated this way, the entire thing would be a money-losing operation. Gruber is presumably comparing it to the clutter of the NYTimes.com website, but guess what most of that clutter is: ads.

It’s Just an Experiment

This product is not an experiment. Experimentation is something you can do internally, via user testing, in private betas, or on whiteboards. Experiments don’t have revenue goals, and usually don’t require full-time engineers working for months. Experiments don’t have splashy launches and email campaigns to hundreds of thousands of users. Would I have criticized this publicly if it was just an experiment? Absolutely not.

“That sucks” is negativity. “That sucks, here’s why, and here’s how to fix it” is criticism, and it comes from a place of love. That’s the difference. — Alex Payne

In media like film, theater, television, and music, quality criticism is something that’s expected and encouraged. People looks to critics to tell them what’s good, what’s terrible, and why. In software, this same culture has failed to develop. Sure, there are review websites, but the main question they ask of software is: “does it work?” and not “should it exist?”.

We live in an environment where companies and individuals are constantly releasing new products, and the signal to noise ratio is incredibly low. We need to collectively grow a pair and become comfortable criticizing each other’s work. We need fewer products that are higher quality.

In order to produce better products, we must be willing to critique openly and honestly. We must accept that we will all fail. It’s not personal.