Blog Post

Color Proves Chasing Trends Isn’t Good App Design

On paper, Color, the iPhone (s aapl) (and now Android (s goog)) app which grabbed headlines Wednesday for securing $41 million in pre-release startup funding, looks pretty good. It’s a photo and video sharing app (those do well) with a geo-local twist (ditto) that’s built around the concept of the group (natch).

Color also has some influential people behind it. Founder Bill Nguyen is the man who sold music streaming service LaLa to Apple in 2009, and he has a history of successfully building and selling other companies, too. And Color recently brought on board DJ Patil, who was the chief scientist at LinkedIn.

The app itself works well and looks good, with an intuitively designed minimal interface, but you’d be mistaken for thinking you’re somehow not using it properly. It only really works if there are a group of people in your immediate surroundings using the app simultaneously. Otherwise, you’ll see little more than a steady stream of whatever you yourself happen to be capturing with your iPhone’s camera, because the app is limited to showing images from a highly local area.

Color is playing with solid core concepts, even beyond the trend-chasing aspects I mention above. Photo and video sharing among friends is clearly a proven winner, as is evident from Facebook’s success. And the app lowers the barrier to entry (though not necessarily to actual use, as you’ll see below) more than any existing social app by making the only login requirement your first name (no passwords, no sign-ups). But even that doesn’t save it from feeling badly like an idea in search of a problem.

The app first goes wrong by requiring you take a picture before you can use it. To some degree, that makes sense since the sharing mechanism is so simple, but in contrast to the simplicity of requiring only a user’s first name to sign up, asking for a photo and not letting you choose an existing image on your handset means many users who aren’t in a position to take one or just don’t feel like it might shut the app down and never open it again. And those who do satisfy this early requirement might be no less put-off by their next experience: You may find that no one around you — within 150 feet — is sharing photos, and the app appears to offer next to nothing.

The alternative case is not desirable either: Nearby people are sharing photos, and you’re inundated with images of complete strangers, along with the realization that those same strangers can see the self-portrait you just snapped, too, without much warning from the app. In both cases, I think many will be put-off enough to stay clear for good.

It’s possible Color has more appeal among the teenage users Mark Zuckerberg talked about when explaining the idea behind Facebook’s expanded messaging service, and I’m in a category of users who just doesn’t get it. But I think it’s more likely this is a prime example of how, when it comes to apps, 1+1+1 does not always equal 3. An app can’t just hope to profit by being at the intersection of a number of promising mobile trends. Developers still have to think intelligently about how those trends integrate, and remember that user experience, especially the one following first launch, is still the key to wide app adoption. Color fails this test, and as such, it definitely isn’t going to be the next Facebook, or even the next Instagram for that matter.

15 Responses to “Color Proves Chasing Trends Isn’t Good App Design”

  1. Especially hate the fact that one cannot limit the photo sharing to a party, event or a specific group. Maybe I dont want my friendly neighbours down the hall to see whats going on in our party… especially since I didn’t invite them. Major #fail.

  2. I’d like to say we at flook (iPhone app) were doing this a year and more ago, but we do concentrate more on reviews of places than just any photo, and we have thought of the one person in the room initial experience too, and let you view images as they’re made, anywhere in the world. Oh, and we have following, search, sharing to FB amd Twitter, a monthly competition, comments on photos, etc. Etc. Perhaps Sequoia might think we were worth 160,000,000? Sour grapes, yeah. Do you have to be a US company to get this kind of attention.

  3. Wow, the reviews in the Android store are insanely terrible.

    I’m thinking the launch of this app wasn’t planned very well and needed some outside catalyst event like CTIA or SXSW…

    Going to have some jittery investors!

  4. The biggest question that I have for Color is that it seems predicated on events serving as the catalyst to “train” the user to adopt. That seems like a chicken/egg, but then again, we don’t know if a chunk of that fund raise is allocated to buying sponsorship/distribution so you are perennially reminded that “this is a great place to use Color.” TBD.

  5. I could not agree with you more. The idea of having to take your own photo first just confused me. Secondly, I keep searching for the settings, thinking I have done something wrong.

    Finally, big woop – so I see photos of people around me. I am not sure that is really going to fly for me.

  6. Ravneet

    Android user.
    Any app except navigation that enforces GPS to be on is a fail.

    After that it is coded so that if.GPS doesn’t lock it’s background processes go crashing left an right. UI becomes unresponsive and blank.

  7. Isn’t that a sign that a “cool-apps” bubble is developing around the Silicon Valley, where a mix of names, cool concepts and cool user experience is enough to have you backed up by *millions*(sigh) of dollars for developing an application that could be of use… or not?
    I’m starting to really find that insane.

    Instead of putting so-called cool ideas, all suffering the déjà-vu syndrome, into the marketing blend, why not getting back to this thing called Innovation?

  8. The reason there’s no warning about sharing is that everything the Color app takes goes straight to their cloud. It’s like Twitter in this regard. And it’s the only way to *get* something in their cloud, hence no ability to open your library.

    Color is designed for a group of people, so playing with it in isolation can’t allow us to determine its usefulness. A little imagination is needed, too.

    But if there’s a crowd event, and 100 people are taking pics it and even one of them shares that stream, then the whole world can see it (and it updates as photos are added) via one shared URL. Imagine something like that for the recent disaster in Japan.

    I can see a place for Color, and for all the tech world’s complaining about innovation when something truly different comes along (this is *not* a photo-sharing service like Instagram or Best Camera) we frequently don’t see it. That doesn’t mean Color will succeed, of course–their web site is barren and it could use a few how-to videos–but in its element it’s something unlike anything we have on the social scene right now.

      • Excellent example Darrell. A conference, an art gallery opening, a trip to the zoo with a bunch of friends – all make for compelling use of an app like a Color.
        It is different than other apps for this main reason: generating relevant content has suddenly become a group activity and is no longer a solo endeveaour and this alone is part of the problem.

  9. This app will suffer the same fate as the Zune ‘social’ – the chances of anybody simultaneously using the app within 150ft are next to zero, even in a crowded area (and in my area, absolutely zero, 100% of the time). In any case, with such a small radius, other people’s photos are going to be almost exactly the same as yours anyway, so why bother.

    This one has not been fully thought through properly.

    • I agree – for the most part.

      I can see great value in the app when focused on specific events or venues. Take for example, a general-admission concert. To be the behest of Security, everyone snaps photos with their phone already. So right there, the app doesn’t require a change in behavior. +1. The 150 foot radius is sure to provide some neat results here. +1. And the Elastic network element would certainly shine here, too. +1. You’d see nothing but shots from around the stage. In this sense, it serves its purpose almost perfectly.

      However, scenarios like this are few and far between [for most people]. Regular usage, especially early on, will be minuscule at best. I see it working only in a few cities and only at certain times and in certain places within those cities. It really does seem like a product that was forced into the intersection of groups / social, geo-location and photo sharing — just “because we can.” Not because it made sense and filled a gap or solved a problem.

      To give it the benefit of the doubt and hope for success, I’d conclude it still has a chance. But with a 2 star rating in the App Store and loads of bad “reviews” so far, it will undoubtedly be an uphill climb.

      Even with $41 million bones.

      • I would propose that if you’re at a concert, a better experience could be had by putting your phone away (or even turning it off) and just focusing on the actual concert.. being in the moment, instead of distracted by technology.