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I develop a free webapp and am thinking of taking some of the most popular and time consuming feature requests and turning them into mini, crowdfunded projects. I would post those on the site and users would be able to pledge money towards whatever goal I set that would make the time commitment worth it. This would allow me, financially, to spend more time keeping up development on this project and also keep it free.

Is this something that might make users feel blackmailed (even though I think that's ridiculous) or have some other negative, cultural side-effect that I should keep in mind? Has anyone tried anything like this before?

EDIT: The app I'm talking about specifically is a platform for dynamic and collaborative curriculum development, used mostly by three groups:

  • Self-motivated, independent learners, who are trying to learn (mostly tech-related) skills using free, online resources, organized and pre-curated by educators and other learners like them.
  • Educators who want to develop curricula that are a little more dynamic and do a better job of engaging students in their own learning.
  • Employers who want to post skillsets that they need for a particular position, linking to free, online resources and projects that would help applicants learn the skills they need, then prove that they really can do what they hold claim to.
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Welcome to the UX Stack Exchange! I like your first post. The answer could depend largely on your app's audience. For example, people playing a game are going to have a very different mindset from people who are shopping or from people who are looking to volunteer. Can you edit your post to tell us a bit more about what the app does and what people it attracts? –  3nafish Apr 28 '13 at 1:15
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App info added. I didn't put in any specific information before, because I hadn't posted here before and didn't want to sound like I just joined to plug my app. –  Chris Fritz Apr 28 '13 at 16:44
    
This is a duplicate of sqa.stackexchange.com/q/5990/2377. Cross-posting on two different Stack Exchange sites is generally discouraged, on Stack Exchange. Instead, you should pick one site for your question to appear, and flag the other one to ask the moderators to migrate/merge it over to the other site. –  D.W. May 6 '13 at 3:08
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up vote 3 down vote accepted

There will always be a section of any user base that will hate a developer if they dare charge for anything. (Even if (as per your proposal) the charge is voluntary and those who aren't prepared to pay can still hitch a ride on the coattails of those who do; which is the problem that shareware has always had.) The people who fall into this category expect to get paid for their own work, but in their view anything that is or can be on the Web should be free (as in beer, not speech). There's nothing you can do about those so I'd be inclined to ignore them; you're entitled to be paid for your time and expertise, since ultimately it's the only thing that any of us have to sell.

I get the impression that you intend to offer the enhanced version for free as well. I'm not sure how I'd feel about that if I was one of those putting my hand in to fund it given the "coattails" effect mentioned above. My feeling is that it would probably be more equitable for it to be "free" for those who helped fund it (yes, I know, it's not really "free" since in a way they paid for it in advance...), and for it to be available to others for a nominal fee. If you go down that path you will probably minimise the "hate" effect if you still offer a completely free, reduced-feature "express" edition, though.

However to my mind the key question is this... can you actually deliver? And just as importantly, can you support what you deliver? And in this I'm not talking about your technical skills (if you've written the thing in the first place we can take it as read that you have the skill set to do the extra functionality), but rather in terms of whether your other commitments in life will let you deliver.

As long as your app is free it's not unreasonable for you to address any bugs or issues in your own time as and when you can on the basis of "you get what you pay for". Once peoples' hands go into their pockets though, their expectations naturally escalate. Doubly so, I think, when they pay in advance for something to be developed. And if you aren't 100% certain that you can deliver these updates AND support them then it might be something better left alone.

This story is worth reading before anyone embarks on a crowdfunding venture. I'm not suggesting that it's typical but it does show how good intentions can turn into something that's toxic for all concerned.

I definitely wouldn't say that you shouldn't do it - if you can pull it off then users get a better product and you get a bit of income to compensate for your efforts - but you definitely need a plan before you go ahead.

The best way of determining how your user base will react, though, is to ask them. It's easy enough to put together an on-line survey and hook it up to a feedback page where users can post their thoughts on how they feel about the proposal. That's what I'd do first.

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@ Alan — Your answer is interesting, but I don't like the egoist part about reserving the features for the people who paid for them. I would be more inclined to pay for a feature if the feature would then be accessible to everyone. This would make my paying a donation more than a buy. Like when you donate to Wikipedia. I am OK to donate money to a charity who gives food to the poor little starving children of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. I don't donate money to a “charity” who sells food. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Apr 28 '13 at 15:13
    
Moreover, making the paid features accessible to everyone for free would make the users hate you less. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Apr 28 '13 at 15:13
    
I just updated the question with more information on the app. It is for education, so in this case, I agree with @NicolasBarbulesco that framing it as charity that they can actually benefit from themselves might manage expectations appropriately, since normally you get nothing from charity - and don't get to choose exactly what your money goes into. –  Chris Fritz Apr 28 '13 at 16:54
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