words on the internet

i'm will dennis. these are my movie reviews and thoughts. i don't proofread before publishing so forgive the editing or lack thereof

Month: January, 2013

Move in before you buy the furniture: Design vs UI on the web

The importance of design on the web is one of the most “critical” aspects of a start up’s success. You get a lot of people doting on new websites for their beautiful landing pages and along with it designers excited to profess their obsession with “pixel perfect” UI.

In fact, the importance of UI is extremely overblown. The way pages connect and function and where users interact is what will make or break a web service, not the UI.

I’m going to go ahead and use the analogy of a house as a website and users as prospective homeowners. I think it works.

The Foyer 

You need a welcoming entrance. It should lead to the most impressive part of the house or perhaps a general tour. It should make visitors say something like “Wow. This seems like a nice house. I’m going to go snoop around.”

The Kitchen

Someone has to put food on the table. On twitter the food is a tweet, on ebay the item for sale, on youtube the video. Whatever the meal, the chef needs the stove and oven in order to put out their best food, and for them to be able to cook day after day. If the kitchen is especially well built, chefs can socialize with each other.

The Dining Room 

There should be an airy communal space where everyone who’s in the house can interact. The food is served and the hungry guests chow down. They get the chance to like, buy, or retweet the food so the chefs know they liked it.

The Bathroom

Sometimes you need to take care of business, readjust the settings if you will. The bathroom doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does need to be 100% functional. Otherwise things get messy and you spend more time in the bathroom than you should. That never is a good experience.

The Bedroom

The bedroom is where an individual can come, own their space, hang a few pictures, and make sure they’re presentable to the world. This room needs to be functional, under the user’s control, and also fun and homey.

After investigating the various rooms the user makes the call: should we move in? should we spend time here? is this where we want to cook and eat our meals? They’re snooping around deciding if this is the place where they want to invest time and energy. This is where they’ll tell their friends and family they’re living. If the floor plan has missing, uncomfortable, or hard to find rooms, users will look for another place to live.

Only after the lease is signed do prospective home owners discuss furniture and paint color. UI is furniture and paint color. Hacker news, digg, google, twitter, facebook. They all made sure their floor plans worked great before worrying too much about the furniture.

Make sure what you’re building is somewhere livable before you buy furniture. It just doesn’t matter how nice the living room couch is if you have to walk through the bathroom to get to the kitchen.


26 ways blogging and running are the same activity

The last few weeks I’ve decided to add two things to my daily routine: running and blogging. Maybe because I decided to add both at the same time I’m struck by their similarities, but here’s a list of the obvious and maybe not so obvious similarities. I’ve exchanged “both” or “running and blogging” with “It” for simplicity.

1. It’s solitary.

2. It provides a great venue for uninterrupted thought.

3. It’s exercise (mental // physical).

4. It kind of sucks.

5. It’s a hard habit to get start and easy to quit.

6. It’s seemingly pointless.

7. It’s time consuming.

8. It’s surprisingly rewarding.

9. It requires dedication.

10. You’re going to suck at it when you first start.

11. No one cares that you’re doing it.

12. You should do it for yourself. (see #11)

13. It’s the best way to start your day.

14. It’s better when you’re caffeinated.

15. It’s best to be a little hungry before you start.

16. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else who does it, just focus on improving.

17. The payoff is longterm, not short term.

18. It makes you uncomfortable.

19. Do it every day, no matter how much you don’t want to.

20. Bananas help.

21. It makes you happier.

22. It makes you respect people who do it for a living.

23. It gives you more energy.

24. It’s a great way to learn about yourself.

25. You tend to surprise yourself.

26. In your mind’s eye sweatpants seem like the ideal apparel for doing it, but you couldn’t be more wrong. You burn your sweatpants because you realize you’re an employed adult.

Happy blunning! rogging!

a privacy standard across the web

We’ve been building a business that lets anyone who owns a bike rent it out while they’re not using it. We connect two people who have never met, they organize a time and place to meet, they exchange a valued possession and they expect that it will be returned (and in good shape).

You could argue that participation in our system could be categorized as behavior change. You could argue people are becoming more open, more willing to connect online, more willing to trust people through the internet.

Interestingly, the most frequent reason we get for people requesting to have their accounts removed from our system is that their name shows up google search results because of our site (since fixed). It’s fascinating that people are willing to meet a stranger in person to give them their bike to rent, yet are still uncomfortable with their name showing up in google search for that very same service.

There has undoubtedly been a push by facebook, twitter, and google for a more open internet and less personal privacy. Openness is fantastic for information, but maybe services that are private and google-proof will be the places where real, honest human social connections can occur. It will be interesting to see if user privacy becomes standardized across the web over time or if privacy will become a feature on which services can differentiate themselves.


the web as performance art

Fred Wilson mentioned in a post how one of his portfolio entrepreneurs equated himself to an artist, and the web as the most powerful artistic tool of our generation. While an appealing thought, it’s a stretch. Releasing V1 of a site is a far cry from releasing a song or putting down the brush on a canvas. When conventional artists “ship,” it’s over, it’s out of their hands. The public has it now.

But you can never really finish a website. The potential for “better” UI and sustainable competitive advantage are just around the corner with the new feature set. Things can load a little faster, be a little easier to navigate, look better on mobile. With web, what takes a few weeks to build then takes years to improve and refine, all while in the public’s eye.

There are just a few sites like hacker news and google’s homepage that have remained relatively the same of the past few years. Are these sites just good enough or perfect from day one? Would an updated UI or a change in layout be beneficial? You could make the argument for either, but their compelling commitment to simplicity is the exception rather than the rule.

In tech I think there is a constant belief that things can always be better. There is an innate drive for progress. From broad political systems to industry to pixels on a web page, an answer lies is tech. There is the belief that if we just work a little harder and think and create a little more we’ll make a dent in something.

Maybe the web is indeed art. A type of performance art set in the struggle for relevance and constant improvement. If art is supposed to represent something within the human experience, I guess creating a website actually seems pretty appropriate.



Quick no’s are the best

Someone turned down investing in our company. And I greatly appreciated it.

I wasn’t particularly excited about the answer itself, but the speed with which they said no was invaluable. It allowed me to quickly gather feedback, establish a friendly relationship, and move on.

The quick no seems slightly off-putting at first. Why hadn’t this person taken the time to ask follow up questions? Research our market? Test our product? In reality, the quick no is infinitely better than the slow, researched, labored no. (In last place: maybe’s and no-responses).

The beauty of the quick no is that it saves everyone time and actually preserves the relationship. The longer a tough decision is left unsettled, the more that decision hangs over your interactions with that person. A maybe or a slow response not only hurts the relationship, but frustrates and prevents at least one party from moving forward with another important decision.

Someone quickly and respectfully telling you “No, here’s why..” is the second best answer you can receive (the first of course being a “yes”). It’s really an amazing asset for both parties when hiring, raising money, or even trying to “grab a coffee.”

If there was such a thing as business tool belt, I’d throw the “quick no” right alongside the trusty “write short emails” and “bcc.”

Macro Trend: Code becoming user interface

It increasingly takes less code to build things on the consumer web and I think the importance of this macro trend is being significantly underestimated.

As engineering salaries remain high, I hear a lot of people advocating for web programming education. A few examples are sites for instruction online like codecademy and in-person courses like hackerschool and devbootcamp.

More engineers are absolutely necessary, useful, and crucial to a start up’s success as well as the general ecosystem. But for how many more years will engineering be a key competitive advantage? At what point will I be able to create a website using solely a graphical user interface (GUI)? I’m not talking about wordpress sites or blogs, but actual model-view-controller architecture that scales.

Programming languages almost reference this possibility implicitly: object oriented programming. It implies the web architecture exists in space and can be moved, touched, manipulated.

You can see some interesting progress being made with sites like newhive and moonbase. These aren’t just cookie cutter site generators, this is user generated web. The user is the programmer.

Programming started as ones and zeros and has become more and more abstracted, more and more user friendly. In a few years I think Ruby on Rails (or the equivalent in power) will be as user friendly and visual as Photoshop.

From there, the web is truly a sandbox.

Hiring as Foundation for Company Culture

The idea of culture in a small company is often talked about in relation to things like team lunchs and company soccer teams, but I think the foundation for great company culture is built through the hiring process. A candidate’s skill set or reference is what gets them in the door for an interview, then it’s up to you to determine if they are a “culture fit.”

Culture fit is a pretty vague idea, and it’s easy to head down a rabbit hole of “Who are we?” “What is our company culture?” “What do we value?” “What is our spirit animal?” style questions. While solidifying company values are great, it’s still difficult to translate them into a hiring criteria.

The following 5 criteria are what we use to determine if a candidate is a culture fit.

1. Like the person

2. Respect the person

3. Trust the person

4. They’re quick to learn

5. They’re a hard worker

I’ve rushed someone in the door to fill a needed role, they didn’t meet all the criteria, and it didn’t work out. We now make sure every new team member meets all 5. It’s become central to our hiring process and we’ve found it provides clarity when thinking about what it means for someone to be a “culture fit.”


Public Output

There is no better way to build a brand online than output. Let people know what you’re thinking, doing, seeing, feeling, opining.

Tweets, blog posts, instagram pictures, video blogs, guest articles, speaking at conferences, interviews, side projects, art, photography. The more you can produce the better. Each one is it’s own little PSA that says “Hey, what’s up. Remember me. I’m important.”

Interestingly, we’re at a point where quantity is more important than quality. We’re living in an increasingly ephemeral culture with Snap Chats and endless real time feeds.  The current output is judged moderately as there is always expected to be, either explicitly or implicitly, more to come. Another tweet, another post. (God forbid you have a few consecutive sub-par posts, that may be grounds for unfollowing).

The narcissistic edge of output is dulling as we all continue to struggle for scraps at the increasingly crowded online-relevance dinner table. VCs, entrepreneurs, journalists, celebrities, employees, thought leaders, industry professionals. If you’re not out there, you’re nowhere. And if you’re nowhere online, then are you relevant offline?

All press is good press. Ahem. All google results on your name are good google results on your name.