Evernote’s Phil Libin Responds to Some User Complaints but Not All

Yesterday we posted about some recent and some long standing and uncorrected issues with one of the most popular mobile Apps on the market, Evernote. Yesterday’s post was prompted by a post from Jason Kincaid which highlighted both an issue with sound recording and more importantly a data security and privacy issue. In that post I reiterated issues Surface 2 users have had with Evernote on that platform that makes the App all but unusable. I also pointed out that these concerns with Evernote were symptomatic of larger issues in the fast paced mobile App development world where growth is king and stable functionality often takes a back seat to releasing new features.

Evernote-logo-e1362251497276Last night Evernote’s CEO Phil Libin responded to Kincaid’s post with a blog post. In that post, Libin says that Kincaid is correct:

I got the wrong sort of birthday present yesterday: a sincerely-written post by Jason Kincaid lamenting a perceived decline in the quality of Evernote software over the past few months. I could quibble with the specifics, but reading Jason’s article was a painful and frustrating experience because, in the big picture, he’s right. We’re going to fix this.

He also goes on at length to talk about the danger zone of focusing too much on acquiring new users over stepping back and working to keep existing users happy with stability. Libin calls this looking in instead of up:

However, there comes a time in a booming startup’s life when it’s important to pause for a bit and look in rather than up. When it’s more important to improve existing features than to add new ones. More important to make our existing users happier than to just add more new users. More important to focus on our direction than on our speed. This is just common sense, but startups breathe growth and intentionally slowing down to focus on details and quality doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Despite this, the best product companies in the world have figured out how to make constant quality improvements part of their essential DNA. Apple and Google and Amazon and Facebook and Twitter and Tesla know how to do this. So will we. This is our central theme for 2014: constant improvement of the core promise of Evernote.

All well, good, and welcome communication from a company CEO that needs to focus his company on core stability and keeping the users satisfied that helped build the value the company now enjoys.

Evernote has taken some steps to resolve the data security and privacy issue raised by Kincaid and that’s mentioned specifically, but only in a PS to Libin’s blog post that dismisses the issue as not a problem but a bug:

There is no inherent privacy problem, but Jason’s article did alert us to a bug in our menu bar helper quick note feature for Mac. This bug resulted in an extra copy of quick notes being stored in the activity log on your local hard drive. This in itself isn’t a serious problem, but it was incorrect for our support staff to suggest that emailing the log file couldn’t expose any sensitive information. We’ve made three immediate changes as a result: (1) The menu helper bug has been fixed, and is available in the direct download version of Evernote for Mac. (2) A message now appears when you click the “email log” button that warns users that the logs may contain some account information such as note title and notebook names, which can be removed if desired, as well as other metadata designed to help the user and support engineer work together to quickly diagnose problems. (3) We’ve changed the training of our support staff so that they now warn users that note titles and notebook names are present in the log file, and that users can remove them, if desired.

Again, all well, good, and welcome, although I don’t quite see the distinction between a problem and a bug with this issue. These changes and Evernote’s new 2014 theme hopefully point to better things ahead. I would offer the following in this ongoing dialogue with Evernote:

I wouldn’t consider Evernote a startup any longer. Libin and his company may need that startup mentality and culture to keep driving them to new goals. But Evernote has become as synonymous with the mobile computing experience and been around long enough that I don’t think users view the company as a startup. At some point you are no longer “starting up.” Instead you’re navigating down the road you’ve chosen. If you run off the road your passengers (users) don’t care that you’re trying really hard.

Libin makes the point that larger companies like “Apple and Google and Amazon and Facebook and Twitter and Tesla” know how to focus on keeping current users happy while working to acquire new ones. I would argue that isn’t correct. I can’t comment on Tesla, but these other companies seem to be equally capable of ignoring user concerns when they are raised in favor of focusing on new features. In fact, sometimes it seems to become easier to ignore customer issues the larger some companies become.

Startups breathe growth and intentionally slowing down to focus on details and quality doesn’t come naturally to many of us.” I find that language the most telling in Libin’s post. and it hits the target of the larger issue in mobile app development dead center. If focusing on details and quality is perceived as intentionally slowing down (a negative connotation), then someone somewhere in the school that churns out future startup CEOs needs to develop a new curriculum. The real world obviously isn’t teaching those lessons. Libin’s implicit admission that this has occurred within Evernote, and by extension many other companies living in the apparently otherworldly startup culture isn’t as surprising as the admission itself is.

Each year for the last several in a post highlighting my wish list for the upcoming year I have listed a wish that CEOs be forced to unbox and use their own products in front of the media. The premise is that regardless of the size of the company, I think many CEOs are too far removed from what normal users experience. Typically when a product or revision is released, CEOs are already focused on the next thing and most likely “dog fooding” the next version. I’ll amend that “wish” here by saying that CEOs should be required to read their user forums and support comments while using the existing version.

I mention that last point because of another issue I raised in my recent post. The hot button issue of the moment is data security and privacy. Libin is correct to focus on that in his response, albeit in a PS that says there isn’t a privacy concern just a bug. It’s been over a year since Evernote released Evernote Touch for the Surface RT platform. Libin, Evernote, and his customers who use a Surface RT or Surface 2 would be well served if he were to speak or reach out to comment on the year long problems that prevent Evernote Touch from running successfully on that platform. Based on my emails and other responses, quite a few are moving to OneNote after giving up on the waiting game.

I applaud Libin’s efforts at damage control here. I also applaud this new focus that he says will be the 2014 theme around the halls of Evernote. I hope the dialogue continues. It needs to. And not just with Evernote, but other companies as well. I plan on making my “theme” in 2014 to keep focusing on these issues and providing appropriate follow up. Maybe we’ll start a column that is called “Feet to the Fire.” I’d like to read the notes, emails, and research I collect on this and other issues in Evernote on a Surface 2. Once Evernote finally solves that year long problem. Here’s hoping I can.