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The Pitfall of Plenty: Overcrowding in Products
Overcrowding is when there are “too many users” on a product. But… what is “too many users”? Aren’t more users of your product always a good thing, why does overcrowding sound like it’s a bad thing?
As more and more users onboard onto a product and stick around, the number of users drastically increases, and along with it comes its own challenges. Successful products with a lot of growing users are susceptible to overcrowding. Overcrowding is a good problem to have; but if not tackled in time, it can lead to the downfall of a product.
From Wikipedia -
The carrying capacity of an environment is the maximum population size of a biological species that can be sustained by that specific environment, given the food, habitat, water, and other resources available.
Given that there are only so many resources to support a finite population, as the population increases, eventually there is a natural limit. In The Cold Start Problem, Andrew Chen relates this to overcrowding in tech products.
In this post, we look at examples of overcrowding in some popular, widely used products, and how this affects the user experience.
Crippling in Overcrowding
LinkedIn has been largely unsuccessful in combating duplicated posts, promoting original content, or enhancing the quality of content shown to a user. The LinkedIn feed today is dangerously close to an infinite scroll of copy-pasted posts and poor content. It smells of an inability to efficiently “network with your network” - everything the product stands for - thus failing to cater to any professional enrichment.
On most social products, the user tends to follow creators whose content they value and appreciate. On LinkedIn, in addition to following or connecting with creators for content, users seek to establish a relationship with anyone possessing impressive credentials. Over time, this can lead to a flood of content the user is not particularly excited about. LinkedIn is different from other feed driven apps like Instagram, Facebook, etc, in that LinkedIn is (or, needs to be) more than just a feed driven app: where a like is not enough; we need a mechanism to efficiently network and engage, we need to go beyond a timeline of content to searching for jobs, sharing wins, etc. In this regard, LinkedIn needs to solve for an intuitive timeline even more than other social media products do, and this is a hard problem, one that seems to be crippling LinkedIn today.
Lack of measures taken in the direction of mitigating overcrowding and resultant subpar content has caused the face of the product - the timeline - to metamorphosize into a largely repetitive and un-informational feed, and fails to keep the user hooked to the product.
Once upon a time, Quora had wonderful content, and amazing writers from all walks of life. Quora was a thousand worlds waiting to be explored within this one red app. Today, Quora’s feed is a terrible curation of content - ranging from content one has never expressed interest in, to poorly asked questions that can only command shallow answers.
As Quora became more and more popular and the “crowd” on the product increased, the product has largely failed to optimize interests to users, ending up showing content that does not keep the user engaged. Over time, this has led to several users who spent the majority of their time on the red app, abandoning it. Having reached its carrying capacity and unable to marry users and their interests harmoniously, Quora has failed to sustain itself.
In contrast, consider Youtube. Youtube has had exponential growth, and in stark contrast to Quora, has been able to not only withstand, but thrive in this “overcrowding” of users, and “overcrowding” of videos.
Thriving in Overcrowding
From Andrew Chen in The Cold Start Problem -
If you don’t apply spam detection, algorithmic feeds, and other ideas, quickly the network becomes unusable. But add the right features to aid discovery, combat spam, and increase relevance within the UI, and you can increase the carrying capacity for users.
While it is easy to think of overcrowding merely as “too many people”, it is often more than that. With a lot of users comes a lot of actions by these users too - A lot of content on LinkedIn (how do you maintain a high bar of educational content? How do you show interested users the relevant content?), a lot of questions on Quora (how do you prompt a user to answer a question? How do you ensure questions are not repetitive? How do you reward answers?) and a lot of videos on Youtube!
Inspite of more than 800 million videos on Youtube that continue to grow exponentially, Youtube manages to thrive in this crowd. Youtube successfully connects users with content they enjoy, even content they might enjoy, with carefully developed recommendations and algorithms. In an app with too many videos, it’s easy for the user to get lost in them; and for a new creator to feel overwhelmed to put any more content out there. Youtube combats this beautifully by putting power in the hands of users and creators - allowing them to create playlists to curate content, adding videos to watch later, etc. While all of these are certainly features that enhance the user experience itself, these also act as measures that prevent a user from feeling lost in a world of content, and this greatly aids the company’s organic growth by nipping overcrowding in the bud.
If you’re a software engineer, you definitely know stack overflow. And so does every software engineer on this planet. Now imagine the crowd on stack overflow! As of November 2022, Stack Overflow receives more than 100 million visitors every month and boasts of over 24 million questions and 35 million answers. That’s mammoth! Satiating a hundred million engineers grumpy with a problem they are stuck on, while creating a powerful knowledge base that lives on, is not an easy task. Stack Overflow does a great job of ensuring a high bar of content on the site by having in place a carefully crafted community moderation process. The community moderation empowers moderators to lock posts, protect questions, access data and insights, suspend or delete users and perform significant maintenance tasks like merging questions and tags to ensure sanity on a platform that is bombarded with complex questions by a large number of people. [More on stack overflow’s theory of moderation here.]
An underrated mechanism to ward off overcrowding on a site like Stack Overflow is to have powerful, efficient search in place. Powerful search easily ensures that there are no duplicate questions by enabling a user to quickly find what they need, instead of adding bloat to the product; win-win.
While Stack Overflow’s moderation has come under the radar multiple times (Stack Overflow’s moderation has been accused of gatekeeping and creating a hostile place for new users), this has been acknowledged by the leadership who have committed to taking measures to make the site a friendlier place, while striving to ensure a high bar of content and user experience. To a large extent, Stack Overflow has been doing a good job at this, largely by rising above being a product to being a community.
Slack is a widely adopted communication tool in companies across the world; and in large organisations, can quickly grow into a “ping menace”. I know people who grow anxious by the sound of a slack ping, and people who have hundreds of unopened messages on their side bar. With several channels of communication in several streams of work, Slack is in a position to quickly become a tool that hinders productivity instead of boosting it.
However, Slack has taken commendable measures to tackle overcrowding. Fine grained control over notifications and snoozing, ability to add reminders to messages, muting channels, grouping channels to aid navigation and workflow, etc - greatly improve user experience by allowing the users to decide their day and channel their productivity.
At the brim of overcrowding
In The Cold Start Problem, Andrew Chen further notes -
The network effect version of this in the technology industry happens when there is “overcrowding” from too many users. For communication apps, you might start to get too many messages. For social products, there might be too much content in feeds, or for marketplaces, too many listings so that finding the right thing becomes a chore.
Zooming in on overcrowding in communication apps, consider the ubiquitous communication app - Whatsapp.
With over 2.7 billion users on Whatsapp, Whatsapp has invaded everyday human life across the globe. Unfortunately, of late, it has become commonplace to see strangers messaging you (and in some cases, even calling you over Whatsapp!). Moreover, Whatsapp Business has pushed Whatsapp from being a lightweight app into a lot more than that. From the perspective of overcrowding, I wonder how that will turn out.
Whatsapp does have mechanisms to block/mute etc, which can aid in dealing with the menace of overcrowding of messages. But, with new parties constantly onboarding to Whatsapp Business, there is an increase in the flurry of messages that can wait, before demanding your immediate attention. It is safe to say that if Whatsapp was to roll out measures to manage this overcrowding of un-urgent messages from businesses, it would certainly be a welcome change for a large number of users.
Battling with Overcrowding
After aspiring for a large number of users and attaining the growth everyone aspired for, is succumbing to overcrowding inevitable? While overcrowding might be inevitable for a hugely successful product, one does not necessarily need to succumb to it. It is an uphill battle, but one that needs to be fought for your product to stay successful longer. Products at the brim of overcrowding must invest in tech/algorithms/strategies to battle the carrying capacity threshold. Products need to actively take measures to mitigate the negative effects of overcrowding over merely adding shiny features. While a feature adds a feather to the hat, rampant overcrowding can be wind enough for all of the hat to fly away.
If your product is successful and well loved, this is a problem you will always face. And that can be daunting, but that’s okay. After all, it’s a good problem to have! While there are lessons to be learnt from every product’s approaches and handling of overcrowding, in the end, each product needs to roll its own recipe.
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