Why Swivel.com is no more

I was an early and excited user of Swivel.com, as you might remember from this 2007 Extraface post about creating a chart there of the least popular Boy Scout merit badges. That chart is now gone from the internet, as Swivel shut down recently. Via FlowingData today, I found a really insightful interview with the founders about what happened and why it didn’t work out.

One of the kernels I took from this is that perhaps targeting passionate but low-skilled users is a very tough road row to hoe. I excerpted a piece of the interview and wrote a short bit over on Tumblr about this (apologies for the back-and-forth here and there; it’s the best I can do while I figure out how best to overhaul my presence(s) online):

“I think what we learned, like Roseman is saying, that the interface is not that important, that there are analysts who are really good at tools like R, SAS, etc. and prefer to continue to work in those tools to do powerful things with datasets. And people who are not inherently biased towards working with datasets, they are not going to do it. Except for what they see in the newspaper, like USA Today or the New York Times. That may be the end of it.” -Brian Milloy, former CEO of Swivel, from this interview

I think this is another way of saying what I’ve suspected when pondering other projects — that building an app for passionate but unskilled novices in a field that already has solid experts is very difficult. No tool or UI is really going to help a non-programmer/non-designer/non-statistician create compelling data visualizations; it can’t really make up for their shortcomings or lack of experience in those areas other than just giving them a glimpse at what the field is like. This also applies to that “drag n drop your way to an Android app!” tool Google created. If used by experts/intermediate developers as a fast prototyping tool, it makes sense. If marketed to non-developers as a way to make the process more accessible, not so much.

It seems to be that the struggle, sale, and refocus of Dapper, although certainly targeted to a very skilled set of ideal customers in tinkerers like Marshall Kirkpatrick, probably points to a similar lesson. I’d love to hear of spirited counter-examples, if you have them, of small companies that took on the challenge of making something experts do fluidly more approachable by well-meaning but low-skilled beginners, and succeeded for a good chunk of time. Maybe the iPhone photo manipulation apps might be an example. DabbleDB? Y! Pipes, though I’m not sure how well that’s doing any more?

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