PRODUCTHEAD: Bad communication — how to annoy and alienate your users

PRODUCTHEAD: Bad communication — how to annoy and alienate your users

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

punchdrunk productsick singalong


Celsys are going to start charging for software updates to their popular Clip Studio Paint product

The way Celsys communicated this to their users caused outrage — some of which was justified

Fog Creek found themselves trying to monetise their viral product Trello, which it had promised would be free forever

Fog Creek had first mover advantage on an easily copied product, which it exploited by a timely sale to Atlassian

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every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


A bit of a case study for you this week in how not to communicate with your users.

The context you need

Unless you’re a digital illustrator, you’ve probably been blissfully unaware of the user furore surrounding Clip Studio Paint. It all stems from the decision by the software’s vendor, Celsys, to fundamentally change its licensing and pricing model. The changes, which it communicated poorly while announcing its next major version, provoked such a user backlash that it runs the risk of losing a significant proportion of its user base to its competitors, both commercial and open source.

Clip Studio Paint is a popular drawing software package that has been lauded by illustrators and animators as a desirable alternative to the industry stalwart Adobe Photoshop. This was partly because of its well designed features, but also because of its licensing model.

In contrast to Adobe’s ongoing subscription model, Celsys offered a perpetual licence of Clip Studio Paint as a one-time purchase at a competitive price. People liked that differentiator a great deal because it was a one-and-done purchase (ownership), rather than a commitment to keep paying every month forever or lose access to the tool (rental).

A change in licensing model

To coincide with the release of version 2.0, Celsys announced that perpetual licenses would no longer receive feature updates free of charge — unlike version 1.0, which had received about 80 free updates over 10 years. Instead it would continue to offer the base product as a perpetual licence, while introducing what amounted to an annual subscription to receive updates.

For completeness, Celsys has for some time also offered a monthly subscription that lets you use Clip Studio Paint on as many devices and platforms as you want, which also received free updates.

When laid out like that, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What’s the big deal?”

In my view Celsys appears to have made two missteps, one of which has amplified the other.

1. Taking a hard left

Celsys’s first misstep was the abrupt transition away from a pure perpetual licensing model, which included free feature updates, and to which long-term users had become habituated over the previous decade.

As many software vendors offering freemium product versions have found, it’s really hard to start charging for things you had previously given away for free. Whether they were free upgrades, free features or other free perks, shifting them behind a paywall inevitably antagonises or loses a proportion of your users who now feel that you’re taking back something that had already been given to them.

Tweet by @Hell_Yena
Tweet by @Hell_Yena

You can sometimes get away with this when you have a captive audience with no credible alternatives (but you’d be a bad person for doing so). For Clip Studio Paint, this was not the case.

Celsys put users into the position of having to decide between:

  • paying more to stick with Clip Studio Paint, which was not an industry standard but good enough;
  • paying a bit more again to switch to the industry standard, Adobe Photoshop;
  • paying nothing and sticking with version 1, albeit with no further feature updates; or
  • taking a moderate hit in usability and capability and switch to the open source and free-to-use alternative, Krita.

You could probably imagine professional artists, for whom we might assume software cost is less of an issue, would move up to Photoshop. Price-sensitive hobbyists would probably stick with version 1 for the time being and shift to Krita for free, particularly as Krita closes the capability gap.

Would that leave Celsys with enough people willing to pay annually for an Upgrade Pass for Clip Studio Paint?

A lesson from history: Trello

Trello Example Board Team
Credit: Trello, Inc. / Atlassian

Do you remember Trello? Riding the wave of Agile software development, it was a breakout hit in 2011 with its fast, simple and flexible Kanban board. Fog Creek decided to make it freely available at no charge, promising it would stay free forever. With no real competitors, and a user base growing at an exponential rate, co-founder of Fog Creek Joel Spolsky wrote in 2013:

Trello has been out for less than two years and it’s been growing like wildfire. We recently hit 1.5 million members, of whom about 1/3 perform some action every month, and our MongoDB database now contains more than 70 million cards on 3.7 million boards.

So the obvious question I get all the time is, “How exactly are you supposed to make money with that?”

You may have noticed that Trello is free. Not “free trial,” not “freemium,” but just plain old free. Some people have justifiably wondered if it really makes sense to pay a dozen people, nestled in fancy offices with free lunch and espresso, to develop software that we have to pay Amazon cash money to host, while not actually charging for said software. Some have commented that this business model might actually be just a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

“Free as in Fortune Cookies”, Joel Spolsky, Joel on Software (30 April 2013, retrieved 17 September 2022)

Fog Creek’s answer was to introduce a new collection of features under the banner of Business Class, then later Trello Gold, and hope that enough users would need and pay for those features to subsidise the growing cost of hosting and maintaining Trello as a whole. History tells us that this approach was at best moderately successful.

The main problem was that the lion’s share of the value to users offered by Trello was already freely available. Most would-be paying users realised they could live without the paid-for features and stayed with, or downgraded to, the free version.

While Fog Creek missed the boat on monetising Trello for themselves, they made it an attractive enough business for Atlassian to acquire in 2017 for $425 million. So by no means a terrible result.

Like Trello with Business Class and Trello Gold, Celsys is trying to shut the stable door after the horse has already bolted. It has put 10 years of effort into improving their version 1 product, and its users appreciate that. But if it wants to start charging more for something its users already have, it has to give something of additional value to its users in return.

2. “What’s in it for me?”

So the first misstep by Celsys was to put feature updates behind a paywall, which users had become accustomed to receiving for free. The second misstep, which in my view amplified the first, lay in the way the change was communicated to the users.

If handled more sensitively, and perhaps with a less abrupt transition spread over a couple of major versions, Celsys could have probably achieved their aims of offsetting their software development costs without kicking up as much of a fuss.

Brand, tone and language

The tone and language of the announcement doesn’t help. It comes across as very formal, almost legal, more like a contract than an information update. Compare and contrast the style of the licensing announcement with the tone of their competition announcement a few weeks later. It’s super-jarring.

Hindsight is always 20:20, and I’m sure Celsys didn’t expect such a reaction from its users, but the way it communicated this change screamed, “This is about our needs, not yours.”

May I suggest you invest in a more user-focused copywriter, Celsys? Or just use whoever did the competition announcement for all your messaging.

No motivation to upgrade

Digital artist and former UX designer Brad Colbow gives a good breakdown of the problems with the messaging. He notes that, rather than focusing the announcement on generating hype and anticipation for the new release of version 2.0, Celsys instead chose to focus almost exclusively on changes to the pricing model. There was no content to motivate the users to upgrade.

After all, version 1 was going to keep working and clearly met users’ current needs. Celsys completely failed to answer the users’ question, “What’s in it for me?”

Some things are better left unshared

With my product manager hat on, I scrolled down through the announcement, saw the instantly recognisable end-of-life flow chart and cringed. Sure, this may be an accurate description of the plan, but this should have stayed internal-only, at least for this level of detail.

End-of-life flow chart from Celsys's announcement about Clip Studio Paint
End-of-life flow chart from Celsys’s announcement about Clip Studio Paint

Bearing in mind it has taken Clip Studio Paint ten years to get from v1 to v2, the flow chart talks about versions 2, 3 and even mentions the introduction of version 4. In the absence of any realistic timescales on the diagram, it could reasonably be describing updates that would play out over another 10 to 20 years (although I’d hope they were planning to release more frequently than before).

The chart looks way too far ahead for users to be helpful. Instead it serves only to raise questions and doubts in the users’ minds. Because it’s an end-of-life diagram, there’s nothing good for the user to look forward to. All it’s really saying is, “If you want upgrades after v2.0 you need to have a current Update Pass. Or you can buy the all-you-can-eat monthly subscription. Or you can stick with version 1.”

While not necessarily a great message for users, this would have at least have been simpler for them to digest.

When the change in licensing is already giving users reason to look to alternatives, the messaging should reassure and calm them, not create further anxieties.

This end-of-life chart should have stayed firmly in the internal slide deck, and not been included (certainly not at this level of detail, anyway) in the new version announcement to users.

Final thoughts

Celsys poorly communicated a licensing policy change that came across as legal and grabby to its users. While the degree of outrage expressed by its users was unexpected, it could have anticipated some of the backlash if it had considered its users’ needs, context and available alternatives more closely.

Celsys could have focused more on how the new version would benefit its users to motivate them to upgrade. It should also consider how to write in a tone, style and language more in tune with its user base.

Is your company making the mistake of tone-deaf communication with its users?

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

Changes to the Windows/macOS One-time Purchase (Perpetual) Version in 2023

Celsys’s announcement to users.

Read it and weep


Clip Studio Paint announces subscription plan, angering the online artist community

The ‘one-time purchase’ rival to Adobe Photoshop has betrayed its fan base.


[Jess Weatherbed / The Verge]

Why are people so salty about Clip Studio Paint?

Clip Studio announced version 2.0 recently and along with it a new pricing strategy. And people were not happy. What went wrong?

View from a professional digital artist

[Brad Colbow / YouTube]

Free as in fortune cookies

Trello has been out for less than two years and it’s been growing like wildfire. We recently hit 1.5 million members, of whom about 1/3 perform some action every month, and our MongoDB database now contains more than 70 million cards on 3.7 million boards.

So the obvious question I get all the time is, “How exactly are you supposed to make money with that?”

Whoops we’ve gone viral

[Joel Spolsky / Joel on Software]

Why Trello failed to build a $1 billion+ business

In 2011, Joel Spolsky launched his company Fog Creek’s new product at TechCrunch Disrupt called Trello.

Within days, Trello succeeded in getting 131,000 eyeballs. 22% of them signed up. The vision for Trello was to create a wide product that was so simple and useful, just about anyone could use it. It caught on like wildfire.

It’s also why Trello ultimately had to sell to Atlassian for $425 million when it could have become the next $1 billion SaaS application.

Good, but could have been better

[Hiten Shah / Nira]

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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from a finished year-long project.

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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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