Sorry Biz: So far, Jelly isn't my new jam

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 10, 2014

From The News Desk

When Twitter co-founder Biz Stone launched his new Q&A app Jelly last month, the tech blogs erupted in mocking. After all, this was a rich dude who'd already had success daring to try again. That's hater gold.

Erin Griffith was one of the lone bloggers who stepped back and took the position of, Wait a minute, lots of things we do already on the Web have been refreshed anew thanks to smartphones and photos.... why not?

I was with Erin. I still find it hard to get answers to questions in a timely manner online. And while many critics said we already have Quora for Q&A, Quora worked hard to adapt to a mobile first environment, investing heavily in a CMS that is thumb-friendly. If Quora is this focused on making mobile work, surely it's a sign that there's still a big need for immediate answers with context from people you know who can help.

Beyond that, the public markets are full of companies that sounded stupid at first, but were magic when you used them. It wasn't clear that TiVo was any different than a VCR until you experienced it. It wasn't clear that Twitter was anything more than saying what you had for lunch to anonymous strangers. It wasn't clear that Instagram was more than just another Flickr. I wrote early on that for those who took the time to try Snapchat it was obviously powerful beyond sexting.

I had high hopes, then, for that magic Jelly moment. That moment where the experience added up to way more than the app store description.

But after a few weeks of using the app, I've been pretty disappointed. I have struggled to find questions to ask that really need photos. And most of the ones I've been asked to answer don't rely on a photo either. A common one I see is whether someone should buy a FitBit or UP band. The photo isn't necessary in that. Anyone answering the question has likely used one or the other, and so they know what the devices look like. And if it's not necessary, then Jelly isn't really doing something new. It's just a different UI. Snapchat and Instagram used photos to change the nature of communication, not just window dress.

After racking my brain for weeks for a question to ask that could use a photo, finally this weekend I came up with one. Watching the weather report of a massive storm moving in, I snapped a photo of the meteorologist report and asked what Bay Area parents suggested I do with a rambunctious two year old, given we couldn't get his energy out in the park as usual. (I also asked the question on Twitter to judge the difference.)

Truth be told, I didn't get great answers on either Biz Stone creation, but Twitter fared better. On Jelly, I enjoyed reading other parents talking about fort-building and baking cookies and finger painting. Would that I had a two-year old who was so calm.

Perhaps it was my bad for asking the question poorly, but I was hoping to get some undiscovered gem of an indoor playground specific to the Bay Area. The only specific answer I got on Jelly was the Exploratorium  -- to which we have a membership, and is a go-to favorite -- but I got that answer and more on Twitter. (Yelp and Google, for what it's worth, were even less helpful.)

In short, like a lot of questions I answer on Jelly, the photo wasn't necessary in asking it, and the responses were pretty similar to what I'd get asking the same question on Twitter. Only on Twitter, there's a much wider audience of people who might know the answer. Next time I'll just skip Jelly.

It's similar to the problem I had with Path. In practice, I used it the same way I'd use Instagram. And Instagram was bigger with more of my close friends and family on it, despite Path's intention to be the smaller network where friends and family connect. Without a close circle of my friends and family on Path, it was just yet another place to share photos.

And that's the problem. It's not that Jelly isn't well-designed or a fun, engaging experience. It's all those things. But this is 2014, and our phones our already cluttered with things that are well-designed, fun, and engaging. Likewise, it's not that the premise was wrong: I still didn't have a good way to get the answer to my question. The idea isn't overdone; it's just not done right. And in my brief experience, it still isn't via Jelly.

If Jelly is going to keep its spot on users' home screens it needs to solve the problem it promises to solve. You could argue that's a user problem more than it is a product problem if people aren't asking or answering photo based questions well. But if a "user problem" is common enough, it suggests a fundamental product problem at the root.