Khoi Vinh has a good critique of our Ubiquity “marketing” strategy, here: Subtraction 7.1: Marketing in a Minute.

Quoth Khoi Vinh:

While I have great faith in Aza and his team’s talent, and while I’m pretty sure that the product itself is almost certainly worthwhile, I have to be honest: I have no idea what it does. As of this writing, I lack a clear understanding of its function or purpose. This is largely because, though I’ve come across references to it many times, the marketing hasn’t worked for me.

He’s got a point! The main Ubiquity project page does not clearly describe what Ubiquity does. When I try to block out my existing knowledge and read that page with fresh eyes, it sounds like some magical vaporware project that will be all things to all people, cure cancer, and make julienne fries.

It’s hard to communicate what Ubiquity does, partly because “what it does” is in flux. The scope of the Ubiquity project keeps growing. It’s not just a command-line UI for the web, because we’re adding the ability to plug in arbitrary new interfaces. It’s not just a standard for implementing commands in javascript, because we’re adding the ability to plug in multiple feed interpreters for multiple command sources. Thus when we try to describe the goals of the project, or the nature of the software, we have to reach for more and more abstract, generalized language.

It’s worth asking whether we need better marketing. (Keep in mind that when Khoi Vinh says “the marketing hasn’t worked for me”, he’s not using “marketing” in the narrow sense of a commercial marketing strategy — which wouldn’t be entirely applicable to us, since this is a free product — but rather our whole communication strategy: all the ways in which we try to get people interested in Ubiquity.) Even without an effective marketing effort, Ubiquity is spreading by word of mouth. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it’s spreading by “word of Twitter”. (Lesson: If you want to get popular real fast, include a built-in “Twitter” command with your software.) So is everything fine?

I don’t think everything is fine. By failing to communicate effectively, we’re missing an opportunity to teach people. Aza likes to point out that iPhone commercials actually taught people how to use the iPhone. They were subtle about it, but they showed people doing the two-finger spread and two-finger pinch gestures to zoom in and out, etc. If you had never seen a commercial or any other demonstration before trying an iPhone, you wouldn’t magically know to try that gesture. But if you had seen the commercial, and therefore had the idea of using multitouch gestures planted in your head, then the interface seems very “intuitive”.

There’s hard evidence (which I will discuss in a future post) that Ubiquity as it stands now is in fact very difficult for newbies to grok. We’re limiting ourselves to a self-selecting audience of early-adopters and technophiles who seek out new and unusual interfaces. If we had a more effective marketing and communication strategy, one that planted the idea of the interface into people’s heads before they started trying to use the software, maybe it would help us create a better experience for newbies.

So, question for the readers: If you’re a Ubiquity user, how would you describe the essence of what it is and what it does, in 25 words or less? I have some ideas, but I want to hear yours first.