I love seeing new websites and startups launch on Hacker News; even the "I threw this together in a few hours to learn X" sites are usually worth a quick diversion. But what I really love is all the great feedback you get on such posts. Because of how HN is set up (and I guess also because of the user base it attracts) it encourages people to be honest in their comments and opinions - it might be harsh (and it usually is) but that is the best kind of advice. It's also a chance for the rest of us to learn someone else's lessons (I hesitate to say "from their mistakes"); I have so many good ideas or alternative methodologies stored away for later use just from these threads.

However, there is one piece of advice that keeps cropping up over and over again, concisely: "what exactly are you offering, I dont understand"

It's wierd; even HN regulars launching sites miss this crucial piece of advice. It's frustrating to see ambiguous confusing sites that would be cool if I knew what the hell was going on!

I made a mental note ages ago not to fall into this trap; and so promptly almost did exactly that today when putting together a "launch package" for a new website.

Lesson Learned

The front page (not launched yet, hence no link) was drafted a while back but then left untouched with a decent sized box containing the words; "DESCRIPTION HERE". Today I sat down and (bearing in mind that mental note I made) drafted what seemed to me to be a decent introduction. I applied all the right principles; light heartedness, not too clever, simple language, plain English - the works.

I was very proud of my 4 sentences.

Fortunately the urge to show the site to someone was too strong - so I dropped a link into an email to a good friend and waited for the expected lavish praise and compliments on such a simple website. Sadly this is what I got back:

Umm, I dont get it Tom? What exactly are you trying to sell there? You need an introduction or something!
This from a guy plumb in the middle of my target market with a definite understanding of the problem I am trying to solve. "I guess he didnt read my intro then; the idjit". I grabbed my phone and managed to explain the whole idea in less than a minute; cue the lavish praise I so rightly deserved in the first place! ;) Except then he said
Well why didn't you just SAY that? You have that nice intro box on the front page and you could nail it in there easily?
My 4 sentences, apparently, werent so great.

What went wrong?

After considering how I had just explained the concept over the phone I jotted down some notes . Comparing those with my original draft was a bit of a shock; the 2 were very (if subtly) different. Looking at them both, too, it was immediatley obvious the second version was a much better description of what the site was offering. It was frustrating because I had actually taken great care to write something that I thought would make sense to a total "newbie" and now it was apparent this wasn't the case.

I cant actually put my finger on the exact problem - I don't think it was anything to do with being too close to the project or having a better understanding of the problem to be solved. Rather I think it is simply about picking the right thing to say; not something you can do by careful consideration but by testing it out as you go.

I did a quick A/B test with a larger group of friends to get feedback from them. Surprisingly the second description tracked a lot better (probably 5 times better) than the first - it wasnt just one person having difficulty (or, rather, requiring different language) but everyone felt the same!

Pro Tip

So here's the thing; yesterday I would have told you to use plain English, lose the fancy talk, forget the lingo and keep it concise. Today you should do all of that AND get some people to read what you wrote.

It doesn't really matter who (so long as they have a chance of understanding what your doing). The best way is to explain it in person then jot down notes on what you said to them (or record it, even better).

Also notice the specifics people are getting confused on; what matters to them about your site. If your solving X problem but your friends are all asking about Y feature dont ignore them, there is a reason.

Most importantly though please stop and take time to consider your index and landing pages; please please let me in on exactly what your doing. Don't Sell it. Describe it.