Thursday, October 13, 2011

Good Software is Sticky

In the past few months much has been spoken, thought and written about ‘good software’ in the online poker industry. Good software, it has been said, is what made PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker the biggest poker sites in the world. In the last issue of InsidePoker Business, columnist Phil Shaw dedicated an article to the features that made these sites stand out from the crowd.

I agree with Phil that good software is one of the most important differentiating factors that an online poker business can have. Good software is ‘sticky’ – it helps you to retain players and builds loyalty, because a great deal of players are reluctant to convert to a competing site which has inferior software, even if other factors such as promotions or bonuses are better. To many players, perhaps even the majority, software is more of a factor in deciding where to play than game integrity and security, which tend to operate in the background with little visibility for the player. But what makes good software and how can you make yours better?

Let’s look at an unrelated company which is renowned for producing world-leading software. Apple is extremely topical at the moment, with the release of their latest operating system and smartphone, and the death of one of the company’s founders Steve Jobs. Apple has a reputation for producing some of the most user-friendly software available and has a loyal fan base eager to upgrade to its latest product.

You might think that Apple’s software has all of the leading edge features, but actually that’s not the case. Apple’s software is often criticised for lacking some of the functions available on competing devices. For example, Apple is regularly slated for not having support for the Adobe Flash platform on its devices, which competing Android, Blackberry and Windows mobile devices do. In fact, many have predicted that Android’s superior software features would give it an edge that would eventually wipe the iPhone off the map.

Apple knows that good software isn’t necessarily about having the most features. It’s about having features that are presented well and that work intuitively, without needing explanation. It’s also about introducing features that people will actually use, not offering endless levels of customisation for a tiny percentage of end-users.

Thus, an iPhone just works as you expect. The way you interact with the phone is natural. The interface is consistent across different applications. There are few unnecessary ‘expert’ features, and cool new offerings are packaged together in useful ways. There is a lot for online poker to learn here!
In recent years, there has been a tendency for online poker sites to focus on features aimed at advanced users, and to provide those advanced users with very powerful tools to help their game. This might have come about as site representatives have increasingly used player feedback from internet forums and elsewhere to plan their future product development strategy.

At first glance this seems like a sensible approach, as advanced users typically generate more revenue per capita than other player demographics. However, in some cases this has come at the cost of developing strong features for the remaining majority of players. The problem with using feedback from any vocal player group is that the players who are giving the feedback usually want you to hand them the money from every other player on a silver platter!

In my opinion, this has resulted in a great imbalance, with some online poker providers offering so many advanced features that the user interface is practically incomprehensible. This is particularly the case with smaller poker networks, who are keen to introduce features that will increase revenue immediately. Thus, we’ve seen features like ‘Auto Rebuy’ for ring games, and the ability to manage and play at insurmountable numbers of tables, tacked onto dated software not designed with expansion in mind, with these new additions sitting uncomfortably alongside older features and looking out of place.

Some sites seem to be focusing almost exclusively on introducing features to enable people who are already multitabling to do so even more. Perhaps these improvements will enable this tiny minority of players to play 10 tables instead of 8. But let me ask you this – would you rather implement a feature that helped 2% of your players go from playing 8 tables to 10 tables, or would you prefer a feature that helped 90% of your players move from playing one table to two?

There is an entire third-party ecosystem built around expert players, with hotkey programs, table managers, and fish finders among many pieces of software designed to provide the niche features that aren’t available in the mainstream. Therefore, your expert customers gain little when you implement a feature which is already available in a piece of third-party software. Most likely, they’ve already paid for it!

This focus on the expert user has meant that user interface design and simplicity has suffered greatly. A typical poker table is now covered in checkboxes, banners, pop-ups and buttons, often inconsistent in size, appearance and behaviour. This is one of the places where we can learn from Apple. Apple keeps the number of ways that a user can interact with its interface to a minimum – if an option can be either off or on, then a toggle switch is shown, and never anything else. Once the user has worked out how to use this one switch, they then know how to use every similar option in the software. 

Think about how you can make the look and feel of your software consistent across the entire product. From the beginning of your customer’s interaction with your business online, the behaviour of key features should be the same so that by the time your customer is signing up for an account and playing in the games, they already know how your software will behave. A user shouldn’t be faced with a steep learning curve every time you present them with a dialog – they should already know how to use it, because they’ve interacted with similar dialogs before. If you use a checkbox to turn something off and on somewhere in your software, every similar option should also be a checkbox – and not a mixture of radio buttons, menu selections and toggles.

Another thing that Apple regularly does is to hide options which are unnecessary or irrelevant. Turn an option off, and all of its confusing sub-options magically disappear. In addition, Apple products tend not to support legacy features used by a minority of people. This approach can also be extended to poker software – if there is an option that few players ever use, why have it? A good example is the ‘Auto Post Blinds’ checkbox which for some reason is still a staple part of poker software, despite the fact that a huge majority of players check it immediately at the beginning of a session, and never touch it again. This checkbox belongs in the past, along with so many others.

Above all, Apple software removes the distractions and focuses the user on the task in hand. We should do the same, and allow the user to focus on the game of poker. After all, that’s why they’re playing.

This article originally appeared in InsidePoker Business, Sep-Oct 2011.