Stuck on The Moon

By Joel T. Sanders • Posted on March 7th, 2019

Aaron and I have been wandering in the metaphorical desert with The Moon app. In December, we stopped all new development to observe how people were interacting with the tool and incorporating it into their daily routines.

In addition to our existing beta users—who have been through several iterations—we invited new coaches and end users to demo the tool.

For the coaches, we found what we expected: they love the core concept of focusing their clients on taking consistent action. We get all of the questions an app developer wants to hear: “When will it be ready? How much does it cost?” and other buying signals.

But our end goal has never been only to sell an app to coaches. That’s obviously a necessary step for us to have a sustainable business. Still, our target has always been coaching clients, and specifically helping them reach their goals to live more meaningful lives.

What we wanted to see (and hear) from coaching clients was, “YES! This is what I’ve been needing!” It’s true that we get that response sometimes, but all too often, what we hear is, “Meh.”

Compounding the problem was poor execution on our app’s fundamentals: users not being able to login, extremely long wait times after clicking, or clicking and getting a blank white screen.  There’s no excuse for that.

But even when everything worked as it should, end-user enthusiasm has been lukewarm.

Watching Users Navigate The Moon App

So we decided to take some time and think: What does the app need to do to get end users excited?

To answer that question, we used two approaches. One is a technology that allows us to watch people navigate around the site (to protect privacy, we are unable to view anything they type). After observing hundreds of sessions, obvious patterns emerge.

The second approach I personally find even more valuable. We get on a Zoom call with a user who has never logged into the site, and have him or her share their computer screen. We then ask them to login to the Truly Amazing Life version of the app, navigate around, and “think out loud” as they do so.

We coach them to disable their natural “niceness” filters. We want brutal honesty: “You cannot offend us,” we say. What we want to hear is their natural, deep, emotional reaction to what they are experiencing, as they experience it.

One problem we noticed was the first impression after login. Users land on the “actions” page, which is literally where all the action happens…eventually. The problem is that it’s completely blank for a new user. And it’s not at all clear that it should become populated with their own list of goal-oriented habits and tasks, nor that a community is there to support them.

To mitigate that problem, we created a short “Welcome To The Moon” course and set a video to open automatically upon first login. In the video, Aaron and I explained how the app works.

But most users instantly closed the video. It seemed to be more of an annoyance than a help, because it blocked the rest of the app. The video intruded on their natural, exploratory behavior of wanting to click around to learn about this new environment.

Thus, we were left with the same problem: a mostly-empty “actions” list with no indication of what to do next. The implicit–and sometimes explicit–feedback was, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, nor do I care to find out.”

Hint: Users Need to Care

Once it was clear that a user would naturally go no further, we prompted him or her to look at other pages, so that we could gain insight into other areas of the tool.

The page with the most-positive reaction was the programs (online courses) page. That page uses a “digital cards” format to describe each course, with an image, a short description, and a “preview” button. As they scrolled the page, users would say things like, “This looks interesting,” and their faces showed them perking up a bit. Only when they saw something that caught their attention would they care to click.

The lesson for me was twofold:

  1. Our courses page has just enough of a combination of images and text to capture end-users’ imaginations, and
  2. People don’t really like to click; they would much rather scroll to explore.

What if we redesigned the core actions page to use a similar combination of images and text? Even more daring: Could we make the entire app experience take place on a single page?

With that in mind, I began sketching alternative ways the actions page could look. Modeling the courses page, I created “snippets” of text on brightly-colored digital cards. Not too much text, and not too little, just a short headline that described what was there.

The mission: make it absolutely obvious, upon first login, and without having to click anywhere else, that this was a place to learn, take meaningful action, and communicate with others about results.

Exploring Other Technologies in Our Space

At the same time, we went back to research other platforms in our space. When we started out three years ago, there weren’t many options available. Now, there are dozens; perhaps hundreds.

Some apps are focused on helping people build and sell online courses: Thinkific, Kajabi, and Teachable are all hosted platforms that do exactly that. Then there are the WordPress plugins that do the same thing: LearnDash, MemberPress, and LifterLMS are three of the biggest. We also looked at a number of habit and goal-oriented apps.

For a time, it seemed that goals were the Big Missing Feature in our tool. What better way to get people to connect with an app than to make it deeply and personally meaningful? Thus, making goals explicit and obvious seemed to be a necessity.

Upon deeper reflection, I came to the conclusion that making explicit goals central to our app is too deep of a rabbit hole. Not only is goal-setting and planning hard work, it can quickly become a distraction and an excuse for not progressing on anything.

For example, if you already know that you want more emotional mastery in your life, you can use the Headspace app to learn meditation. Headspace doesn’t require you to write out your desire for emotional mastery or set up milestones with specific measurable outcomes.

Instead, Headspace teaches a simple daily lesson and assigns a simple daily meditation. And it works: I personally used Headspace for more than 3 years on a daily basis. Millions of other users have also had success.

I didn’t need to revisit an explicit goal at all. In fact, if I had done so, it probably would have made the experience worse. Who wants to remind themselves on a daily basis about what they don’t have?

Don’t get me wrong: there is a time and a place for diligent goal planning. I just don’t believe that it’s required on a platform like ours, and that in fact it’s more likely to become a distraction than a help.

Navigating the Desert with Your Brother

The other problem about being in a desert with a dear and close comrade, who has been with you every step of a difficult journey, is figuring out which way to turn next. And that’s where Aaron and I have different views, at least right now.

My mission is to continue striving and iterating to get our platform right and to solve a big problem. I believe that some of the design concepts I mentioned earlier can really work, and that it’s worth at least testing them to find out.

Aaron is much more skeptical, and rightly so. We’ve been through so many iterations and development challenges—and have spent so much time and money—that maybe it’s time to shift directions entirely. Maybe we’re completely off the mark. And since we’ve taken on investor money, we want to be realistic and cautious about our chances for success.

Even if we’re onto something, are we the capable technologists who can bring it into existence? Neither one of us, after all, is a developer: we rely on others to develop the platform. We made a terrible decision hiring our first CTO, salvaging nothing from the effort. And while our present team has performed better, the quality of what we’ve built still doesn’t measure up to either of our standards.

Where we go from here depends on a number of factors. After all, there isn’t “one way” to help people live meaningful lives. Maybe we shift our focus to a different specific problem, while still aligning with our overall mission. Maybe we simply stay on “pause” and help others with the existing technologies that are already on the market, to learn a variety of approaches. Or, maybe it’s just time to give up.

If we give up, are we the miners from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, stopping three feet from Gold?

If we continue, are we fools, digging for Gold with plastic spoons, in a place where there’s zero chance of finding it?

Do we split paths, and take two different directions as business partners?

These are the questions on our minds. The journey we’ve had to this point has been difficult, and the journey ahead appears to be just as challenging.

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