A couple weeks ago I wrote about what I would do if I was Dennis Crawley (and how I thought Foursquare could be improved).  Today, I’d like to write about one of my other favorite products: Quora.

Much less widely known than Foursquare, Quora is a relatively simple questions-and-answers app where people use their real names to offer expertise, opinions and experience.  Users can ask questions, answer questions, and vote answers up or down.  It’s a pretty simple concept.

There are really three things that make Quora special and they represent the three distinct value propositions of the app.

1)   Niche Industry Expertise

Several industries have very active Quora usage.  For instance, if you want to learn about mobile advertising, you could spend hours on Quora reading questions and answers about how mobile advertising works.  Most of the answers are provided directly by ad tech engineers themselves – so there is no marketing filter.  Just real, hard industry expertise: people talking to people about real problems and solutions.

2)   Sparkling Gems of Humanity

What is it like to be a drug addictWhat is it like to be a New York City taxi driverWhat is it like to be in a train crashWhat was it like to meet Steve Jobs in person?

Genuine answers by real people sharing their experience, their struggles, their pain and their joy.  For the most part these aren’t famous authors or writers, and many of them have never had a forum for their stories widely before.  There’s just something incredibly appealing to me about this kind of raw, human experience.

3)   Authentic Celebrity Responses

How did JJ Abrams get his start in the movie business?  Answered by JJ Abrams himself.   What’s it like to play basketball with Barack Obama?  Answered by Obama.

These celebrity responses feel authentic and real and may actually be written by the celebrity themselves rather than a team of PR folks.

Now for the weak spots.

Despite the abundance of extremely valuable content on Quora, sifting through and locating the valuable bits can actually be quite difficult.  There are three primary methods through which users find the content on Quora:

  • Search

If you know what you’re looking for – you can search for it.  This is mostly useful for value proposition #1 because it is more likely that users looking for industry expertise will know what they’re searching for.

  •  “Newsfeed”

There is a Newsfeed type interface that shows users’ answers that might be relevant.  I’ve largely found this to be one of the weakest points of the app.  My Newsfeed has rarely shown me answers I’ve found interesting.  It’s mostly a fire-house of answers about topics I’ve chosen to “follow” with very little filtering or curation.

  • Weekly Highlight Emails

Every week Quora emails users with the top posts they may be interested in.  This is actually both my favorite and least favorite part of the app.  The questions and answers in the highlight emails tend to be much more relevant and interesting than those in the newsfeed and each time I receive the weekly email a few of the posts always catch my interest.

The problem is that they only send the first 20 or so words of the answer in the email and require users to click into the app in order to see the full answers.  Strategically, I understand this – Quora wants to drive users to their app.  However, the app doesn’t work without an Internet connection.  So when I’m in the subway or on a plane (as I am right now) – all you can really read are the first few words of what would be very interesting content.  It’s a tease that becomes very frustrating to the user.

The primary things that Quora could do to improve their app are actually relatively straightforward:

1)   Solve the offline problem

Not being able to access content offline is very frustrating – especially when the most interesting and well-curated content is sent through email.  There are a few different ways they could solve this problem:

  • They could write out the full answers to the selected questions in the weekly email.  This means they’d have to sacrifice driving users to the app, but at least it wouldn’t cause a negative user experience.
  • They could find a way to cache top answers in the app for offline viewing
  • Or – probably the easiest thing they could do is sync the Newsfeed functionality with the weekly emails.  At least that would make the well-curated weekly email answers available in the app for viewing on demand.

2)   Focus on their distinct use cases

Right now all questions and answers are treated relatively equally in the app, newsfeed and weekly email.  There is no appreciation for the different mindsets that users are in when they are trying to do research for work, or just browsing answers casually.

A user who is actively researching about their industry has a much different need than a casual reader looking for something interesting.

Currently Quora is like a single print magazine that alternates pages between a trade journal story, a human interest story, and celebrity gossip article.  Quora needs to recognize their distinct value propositions and focus on making them useful to their users depending on what mindset the user is currently in.  Today, by ignoring user mindset, Quora falls short in truly realizing any of their value propositions.  The key to changing their trajectory is to focus on developing the user experience for each of their distinct value propositions independently (rather than trying to be all things to all users).  For a user interested in niche industry research, a search-based experience makes sense along with recommendations of similar articles.  For users who are looking more for human interest or celebrity stories, a “stumble upon” type functionality would be a much better way to engage with the content.

Overall, a little focus and a few relatively small product tweaks here could make a huge difference for the app.

Improving Quora
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