The principle of entropy states that systems tend toward their most stable state, and usually that stable state is that of lowest energy. Many markets exhibit the same behavior, and over time become dominated by low-quality, low-cost products. Market leaders are usually “good enough” — they aren’t well-loved by users, but they fulfill the user’s needs at a lower cost than higher quality products that provide a significantly better user experience. Wired recently published several articles looking at this principle, and they should be required reading and food for thought for any publisher.
“The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine” takes a look at a variety of markets where highly advanced, feature-laden products are shunned in favor of cheap, low-quality products. The article has everything you’d expect from a current look at technology and behavior, including quotes from Clay Shirky and a reference to The Innovator’s Dilemma. It talks about the rise of low-fidelity MP3 files over better-sounding CD and album tracks. Other examples include changes in military hardware, health clinics, and legal aid. Probably the best example is the emergence of the Flip at the expense of fancier video cameras, made even more telling by the recent announcement of iPod Nanos with video cameras, which are sure to out-“good enough” the Flip and drive it from the market lead.
The article has some flaws — it focuses more on changing consumer desires:
. . . what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect.
I’d argue that all takes a backseat to price, which is the real driving force here. I don’t think anyone deliberately prefers lower-quality products. However, most people do prefer to spend less money, and if a lower-quality product is good enough to meet their needs, they’ll buy it instead of more expensive options where quality is superfluous. There are also network effects and lock-in issues. And, as anyone who used a Mac back in the early days of Windows can tell you, the rise of inferior but cheaper products is certainly not a new phenomenon.
The second article is “Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess”, and it delves into the site’s continued success despite its horrible design, confusing interface, and lack of modern features:
Think of any Web feature that has become popular in the past 10 years: Chances are craigslist has considered it and rejected it. If you try to build a third-party application designed to make craigslist work better, the management will almost certainly throw up technical roadblocks to shut you down.
There’s a great deal of detail here about the founder’s eccentricities and the company’s odd ways of doing business, but the important point is their reasoning for keeping the site simple: users don’t seem to care about the design or exclusion of new features as long as the site does what they want it to do. And as above, the key factor is that Craigslist is cheap, if not free, for every transaction.
What does this seemingly inevitable evolutionary path toward lo-fi and cheap mean to scholarly publishers? Despite our shared interest in creating better, more feature-laden products for readers, the marketplace is likely to take a different direction. It’s difficult to reconcile — I’m a firm believer in quality and that it separates our products from the free offerings we increasingly compete with online. Is there a place for both “good enough” and high quality in the market? Or are our efforts just building bigger dinosaurs likely to be outpaced by smaller, more efficient mammals?
A few strategies have emerged that resemble this trend and are worth watching. Journal readers have clearly chosen PDF as the preferred format for reading papers. In some ways, this is the equivalent of MP3. It’s strictly limited compared to the more flexible and connected information delivery available in HTML versions of articles. The online versions offer things like movies and audio files, and advanced tools for commenting and interacting with the authors and other readers. These limitations don’t seem to matter to readers — the PDF version is “good enough,” and the online enhancements we’re all so excited about are not seen as important. If we were to take this to its extreme, we’d eliminate almost all online features and model our journals on a Craigslist-like simplicity, just having a listing of abstracts and downloadable PDF files. (Hmm, sounds a lot like arXiv.org to me.)
Another streamlining strategy is evident from PLoS ONE. PLoS ONE takes the position that much of the usual journal editorial process is both unnecessary and counterproductive. The journal removes the often time-consuming and expensive level of editorial oversight and careful article selection. Articles are peer reviewed, and those judged to be technically sound are published. Most publishers assume that readers want this additional editorial level of filtering. The scientists I’ve spoken with argue that their schedules are overcrowded, and that they do read specific journals because they know the editors will make sure all content lives up to a particular level of expectation. PLoS ONE makes the counterpoint that this filtering is something the market can live without and eliminates it, using the cost savings to power an author-pays business model that allows open access for readers.
E-books are another area where this principle comes into play. E-books lack much of what a paper book offers: color, layout, typography, design, and actual ownership and the benefits that come with it (re-sale, loaning, etc.). The question is whether these things are really necessary, and whether the lower quality e-books are good enough for most readers, particularly given their lower price point and advantages in convenience and immediacy. If historical precedent is any indicator, the answer is in the e-books’ favor. While e-books open up new avenues for content and interfaces, cheap dumps of unformatted text may end up the dominant form.
All that said, there are many ways that the scholarly publishing market differs from other markets, so the trends that emerge may not be identical. For journal publishers, there’s a level of insulation between our users (readers and authors) and our actual customers (librarians, who pay for subscriptions). The graduate student reading a paper isn’t usually paying directly out of his own pocket for that article — because of this, she may be less willing to sacrifice quality.
While cheap and “good enough” dominate most markets, there’s still room for high-end companies like Apple to thrive and remain profitable. For many scholarly publishers, often not-for-profits or parts of academic institutions or societies, market domination is not the goal. We don’t have shareholders to please, and can do things because they’re good for a field of study or improve communication, rather than because they improve the bottom line.
But it pays to understand the concepts behind “good enough” products — you’ll either be producing them or competing against them.