The “Out-Of-Box Experience” and the Mobile Market

In the old days, companies used to ship you their software in a big square box. Actually, when I started, the software delivery guys from Digital Equipment would hand-carry the magnetic tapes to you. By the time we reached the PC/Server era, your software would arrive in a massive mailer. Inside that Costco-sized box was a manual and a compact disk (…okay, okay, it was mostly floppy disks). It wasn’t always easy to get a trial version of software because the company actually incurred some real costs in packing and shipping the materials to you. As a consumer, you had to put in work too. You had to march through a phalanx of sales reps and sales engineers in order to get your trial copy. It was a far cry from today’s world, in which you just download the ZIP/EXE/DMG/TAR file from the web site and away you go.

Once your trial arrived, you’d open the box, install the software and fire it up. We called the period from the opening of the box through the installation, all the way to the first hour (or so) of using the software, by the phrase the “out-of-box experience“. Yes, I know it SOUNDS like some hippy-trippy saying about you becoming one with the cosmos—or an overused company retreat exercise—but that’s not what it meant. When you mentioned the “OBE” you were talking about your initial impressions of the product and the likelihood that you would purchase it.

If the product put a smile on your face during the installation and first-use, it had a “positive” OBE. Products that were difficult to install, were difficult to use at first, or were just plain ugly to look at (bad colors, bad fonts, busy screens) were said to have a “negative” OBE. After all the work that went into just getting the trial software into a customer’s hands, a bad OBE could be a real killer.

Having a bad OBE can kill you in today’s universe too.

These days, expectations are higher particularly in the mobile apps sphere. Serving up a lousy web page is a bad idea, but it’s not necessarily fatal. It does not cost you much to surf to a lousy web page; you don’t actually have to download or install anything. Will you go back to a bad web site? Maybe.

Mobile apps are a different beast altogether. I tend to get mightily perturbed when I go to the trouble of downloading and installing a mobile app and it’s terrible. I get particularly angry if I also have to create some sort of web account to go along with it on the back end. A bad OBE means that I might delete the app in question and never try it again.
So the question becomes, do you risk putting out a mobile product with a clunky OBE in the middle market? Despite my previous remarks, my answer is a guarded YES. If you are technology company in the middle market with solid customers in a defined niche, it is a bigger risk to get to the market late. Go early and iterate, rather than wait until your app is “perfect”. Your customers are with you anyway and, while they might not love a clunky OBE, they will live with it. They are likely to be more unsettled by the lack of a product on your part, particularly if your competitors have a mobile product in play.

However, if your FIRST product is a mobile product then my advice is the opposite. Your OBE had better be killer or you’ll get deleted and never re-added.

Hire developers that understand mobile (iOS, Android) and your first product will be more likely to have a decent OBE, even if the software lacks a ton of functionality. Shoot for a minimum of features, make it run fast and keep it as error-free as possible. Apps with tons of features tend to have lots more errors that jump out at the user. Since you aren’t likely producing a game app, your mobile software will need to connect to your backend systems–upping the potential for errors (limited signal coverage, data synchronization issues, etc). A fairly simple app, with clean graphics, that runs fast and relatively error-free is a good start.

We may be years removed from the literal box, but the OBE is still very relevant. The appearance and ease of use of your mobile product (or website, for that matter) communicates its quality to your customer. You are asking them to expend their time and effort to acquire and install your app–or worse, to discover that it doesn’t exist–so it’s up to you to make that effort worthwhile.