Developer adoption as a chemical reaction: activation energy and barriers to entry

Donnie Berkholz's Story of Data

Developer adoption as a chemical reaction: activation energy and barriers to entry

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Yesterday at OSCON, I was talking with my co-presenter Leslie Hawthorn about motivations of open-source contributors when a new way to think about barriers to entry and funnels occurred to me. Drawing on my background in biological sciences, I started considering how a concept in chemical catalysis called activation energy could pertain to getting people down the funnel from website visitor to user to contributor.

The basic concept is this: for a chemical reaction to succeed, it needs enough input energy to get past the hardest part — the intermediate “activated complex” between the initial and final states, a.k.a. the reactants and the products. The energy it takes to get over this barrier is called the activation energy.

In terms of developer adoption of software, what we’re talking about is the motivation required to get past the barrier to entry. Potential incoming users or contributors will have a particular level of motivation that varies from person to person, depending on a variety of factors from available alternatives to free time to whether their boss dictated a particular solution. This motivation is the input energy, and how hard you’ve made it to participate will cut out a certain percentage of the population with motivation below your activation energy.

Perhaps most critically, this is a repetitive process that happens on every step of the funnel, from someone who visits your website to someone who becomes a core community member and leader. Each step of the funnel, people’s motivation level increases as they become more and more committed and less willing to give up and leave. That provides them with the energy to surmount progressively higher barriers.

So how can you apply this concept? When you’re thinking about your adoption funnel, the most important barriers to entry, all things equal, are the initial steps. If all barriers were of equal height, then the earlier ones would be most important to focus on lowering because your potential users’ motivations are lowest at the beginning.

Photo credit codyL.


One comment

  1. One way to lower the entry cost is to use a plugin architecture. This lets folks try the code, perhaps play with an existing plugin, or — for the more adventurous — even try to write a simple plugin.

    It is *very* helpful if folks don’t have to master a large glob of code to do anything useful. They need an immediate payoff from a small initial investment of their time.

    Though many think of open source as free, it really isn’t. Potential users and contributors are giving you something much more valuable than money — their time.

    thanks,dave shields

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