LearnOpen Data: 3 Principles for Setting Data Free


Matt West
writes on August 12, 2013

Think of the top five cloud services that you use every day. Now lets say that that company was shutting down, how would you get your data out? How would you move it elsewhere?

You only have to look back in history to see that titans can fall. The companies that we see today as being too big to fail, will one day be overshadowed by the new kid on the block. What happens then?

It has been increasingly popular for companies to create walled gardens around their products. Once you enter their ecosystem the door slams shut and your data is held hostage. The eBooks market is a great example of this. If you buy a book from Amazon you have to read it using a Kindle, or a Kindle app. The case is worse for Apple iBooks, where you can only read your book on devices made by Apple. You may have paid for the book but you don’t own it.

The discussion around the freedom of our data has been going on for some time now. In this blog post I want to introduce you to three principles of data freedom.

1. Easy and Free Access to All Your Data

You should be able to get access to all of your data quickly and easily. Just having an API isn’t good enough if you’re not providing a way for your non-technical users to export their data.

Exporting data should be free. Free from any financial cost, but also free from any other terms. You shouldn’t be forced to signup to a mailing list or explain why you’re leaving on your way out. Could you imagine if you tried to leave a high street shop and the sales assistant forced you to answer a bunch of questions before you could leave. It would make for an uncomfortable experience, but more importantly, you probably wouldn’t go back.

Google's Data Liberation Front

Google’s Data Liberation Front

Google has a group called the Data Liberation Front that launched Google Takeout, a way of exporting your data from a number of Google products at once.

Twitter also launched a feature that is a good example of executing on this principle. They added a simple button within the settings page on their website that allows any of their users to easily download a copy of all their tweets.

2. Use Open Formats

Highrise Data Export

Highrise Data Export

When a customer wants to get their data out you should give it to them in an open format. It’s no good giving someone a file in a proprietary format that can only be read by your application.

When 37signals built Highrise (their CRM product) they added a feature that allows you to export all of your contacts in a variety of formats, including CSV. This not only allows customers to leave if they want to try out a different product, but also enables a way of transferring data to other complimentary products like MailChimp or CampaignMonitor.

3. It Should Be Easy To Get Data In

So all this freedom of data stuff is great but won’t it hurt my business? The advantage of locking a customer within your ecosystem is that they keep using your product; at least until they cut their loses and move their business elsewhere. Whilst I agree that this strategy often works, I think their is a better way of keeping customers loyal.

Giving your customers the freedom to move is one of the best ways to get them to stay.

If a customer wants to go and try out a competitors product, let them. Let them see how much better your product is than everything else out there on the market. Once they realise that fact, they will be back. Which leads me to the final principle. Make it easy for people to get data in.

Make sure that you have an easy way for your customers to get data into your product. Whether they are a returning customer or someone switching from a competitors product, the easier you can make the import process the better.

Final Thoughts

The web was built to be an open platform and yet we are seeing more and more of our data locked away in walled gardens. Companies that use these tactics are often just scared that their customers will leave because they know that they have a second-rate product.

Don’t just follow the crowd.
Build a product that stands out.
Let your customers own their data.

Give your customers the freedom to leave and they will be much more likely to stick around.

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2 Responses to “Open Data: 3 Principles for Setting Data Free”

  1. Joyce Lee, MD, MPH on August 18, 2013 at 11:12 am said:

    Great post. Important for business but even more important for health information! Free the data!

  2. Nice info!
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