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

Category: mobile

Building What You Design

I’m teaching myself iOS. Before that I was primarily focused on mobile design. I’ve found interesting the new transparency with which I can see through the “design stack.”

Before learning iOS, I would design with the user in mind — in pursuit of that perfect user experience. Now I design with both the user and the engineer (me) in mind.

If a design is marginally better for the user, but much more difficult to build, is it in fact the best design?

It’s a new question I’ve been wrestling with. We’re in the business of building things that look great, work great, and also ship quickly.

Having insight into each part of the process is forcing me to make engineering related design decisions at the UI level — sometimes consciously sometimes not.

It makes me realize how costly some “design-y” decisions can be to the actual building process.

My main perspective shift is that “design then build” may be a fundamentally flawed workflow. Engineers should be alongside designers when scoping projects.

The best design may be the one that minimizes the time-to-build/user-benefit tradeoffs.

This brings me to the next question I’m wrestling with: Is pure user-centric design bullshit?

The tradeoff between time and polish is not an engineering problem, but should be a framework for software design itself.

An Argument for Building Multiple Apps at the Same Time

I believe more small start ups should build multiple consumer social products at once.

I’m not going to blindly advocate for a labs model, or an in house incubator. I don’t think these models make sense for small teams in most industries or verticals.

I am, however, going to make the argument that when building a specific type of consumer product — consumer social networks — parallel development of multiple products is likely the right strategy.

Even 6 months ago this would have been a bad idea. I now believe building apps in parallel is the right approach for consumer social apps for a few key reasons.

The first reason is that consumer preferences demand dead simple apps — apps that do just one or two things really well. Instagram and snapchat are great examples. You can also see companies like foursquare and facebook currently unbundling their flagship apps to simplify their experiences. Yo, whether a long term success or not, has garnered attention and usage for its simplicity.

The second reason is the time needed for an mvp has drastically changed over the last 12 months. Mobile infrastructure as a service, whether it’s backend, social, or messaging has finally emerged. Services like Parse, Firebase, Layer, and Hull are comodifying a lot of mobile tech that had to be build in-house 12 months ago. Prototyping concepts has gone from months to days.

The third and final reason that parallel development makes sense is that market adoption is still the main obstacle for breakthrough consumer apps. Unfortunately for developers and startups, the timeline on which mainstream adoption happens — if at all — is highly variable. If you’re instagram then it can happen quickly, if you’re snapchat it can take 6 months, and if you’re whisper it can take a full year. Simply put, apps that break the mold often need time to find their audience or for their audience to adopt the behavior.

The opportunity for parallel development really emerges from the timing mismatch of the second and third reasons above: It is quick to build an app (Yo) but it’s often slow to pick up (Whisper). Building, releasing, and marketing extremely simple apps in a tight, disciplined cycle may be the best option for hitting it big in social. This cycle allows you to stomach the risky experiments for long enough to see if they resonate.

Truly game changing apps emerge from a mix of risk taking, experimentation, patience, persistence, and serendipity. They often look crazy or weird when they first launch.

Parallel development lets you ship more crazy ideas and watch them for long enough to tell if what you’ve built is actually a niche art project or possibly the next Facebook.

Our small team just finished Techstars NYC with an app called Hollerback, which we’ve since decided to pause development on. We’ve been experimenting with parallel development of a few consumer social apps and the results are promising so far. If you want to take a look at our latest experiment Hopscotch, you should sign up for early access here. We think it could be big ☺

Of course, you should also follow me on Twitter

The Next True Platform is Mobile Messaging. And Facebook Knows It.

Facebook bought WhatsApp in February and today announced that it’s ripping its messaging app out of the core Facebook app.

What has always been fascinating/tricky about the messaging system is that there is no open protocol for apps to talk to one another. Unlike email where I can email you from Gmail and you can respond via Yahoo, with messaging we both have to be on the same app.

This makes a messaging network extremely valuable once it’s at critical mass. It does, however, lead to users downloading different apps to message with different relationships. FB Messenger for loose relationships, WhatsApp for international friends, and iMessage for close family and friends.

When betaworks surveyed people’s homescreens at the end of 2013 they found that of the people with messaging apps on their homescreens, 88% had a non-Apple messenger.

The ecosystem is very, very fragmented.

With Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp and their push for an independent FB Messenger app, they’re moving towards a privately owned messaging protocol. How long until we see WhatsApp and Facebook users able to message each other? Once that occurs, the value of the combined services increases exponentially. (Thanks Metcalfe’s law).

Soon after comes developer support to allow 3rd party apps to leverage the sharing and relationships of messaging (which WhatsApp already has tested with BuzzFeed).

The next true platform is mobile messaging. Facebook knows that. They already played this game with their developer ecosystem on the web.

It’s deja vu all over again.

Edit Your Product into a Corner

keith-haring-painting-into-corner2

When building out a product, there are so many potential features to include, it’s hard to decide which features need to be included in the first version.

What we’ve found helpful building Hollerback, is actually editing back features until the experience, well, breaks.

By taking away the very features that make your product useable, you quickly get a deep understanding of why each feature has to be there. You also get the added benefit of cutting out fluff in the process.

A good rule of thumb is that if you cut something and don’t miss it after a week, leave it out.

With aggressive feature editing, you arrive at the experience that truly matters — the set of features that accomplishes your “one thing” in the simplest way possible.

Well designed products aren’t sets of features, they’re systems that accomplish a task with little to no friction.

By editing your product into a corner, you start to consider each new feature as necessary to solve a specific friction point. Eliminate features until your experience breaks, then only add the features that eliminate friction.

The result is a product that feels both whole and simple.

If you’d like to check out our execution of a whole-yet-simple product check out Hollerback.

Let me know if I can be helpful will@hollerback.co

How to Talk About Design

I watched a talk yesterday by Ryan Singer, design guru of 37 Signals. The talk has a bunch of great points, but one struck me in particular – his description of how to qualify effective design.

Effective design is a lack of friction.

I love this definition because it fully captures the iterative process of design and the trade offs that come with iteration. The best part is that it doesn’t rely on “designery” language.

It’s not just a great definition, but it’s a great way to tackle design problems and opportunities.

Designs can always be better if there is friction in the system. That’s why iteration is necessary. Finding the best design is often a process of designing then using then designing then using. Using your product allows you to find friction. Design allows you to eliminate it. It’s tricky because eliminating friction in one area can introduce it in another. That is what makes design so fun and challenging.

If you’re able to kill friction without introducing it elsewhere in the system then you’re on your way to a great design.

“Friction” is just so much more tangible and human than terms like simplicity, aesthetic, design, feel, or ux. Simplicity and aesthetic result from an absence of friction – I don’t think they drive effective design in and of themselves.

Our understanding of friction as a word and a feeling is basic, it’s human. Your mom can feel friction just like a designer can feel friction.

We have frequent field tests at Hollerback where the entire team goes out and uses the app for a few hours. When we come back, we discuss bugs and potential UX improvements. The UX part of the discussion was good, but hard to nail down exactly what UX was.

From now on we’ll be using points of friction as the focus of our discussion. I look forward to seeing if it pushes our design and product in a more effective, delightful direction.

My Favorite Design Links of the Last 6 Months

Over the past 6 months I’ve been actively working to improve my design chops. Visual design, interaction design, ux, design thinking — you name it. When I find a helpful resource (ie asset, article, definition, process) I save it to a bookmark folder in Chrome.

Below you’ll find an unordered list of design focused links I came across over the last 6 months.

Instead of writing descriptions or trying to cull the list, I thought I’d share it in its raw form. Click around. Explore. Hopefully you’ll find some of them helpful.

If you know of a resource I’ve missed, add it in the comments!

Why good storytelling helps you design great products.

The Kano Model

What is Product Love?

Dribbble Mock Up Resources

Starter’s Guide to iOS Design

The iOS Design Cheat Sheet

Upping Your Type Game

Wilson Miner — When We Build

The Mental Model of Verbs in App Design

Getting to Signature Moments with Microinteractions

Improving UX with Customer Journey Maps

How to become a designer without going to design school

Creating Successful Product Flows

How Designers Can Help Developers

Required Reading For Product Designers

Learning to See

Dieter Rams: ten principles for good design

Final Designs are Always the Simplest and Most Practical

New in Android

Android Design Guidelines

inVision Mobile Prototyping

From Google Ventures: How to Hire The Best Designer for Your Team

Your App Makes Me Fat

Warm Gun: Lightning-Fast Mobile Design

Butterick’s Practical Typography

C.R.A.P.

Why Whitespace Matters

Glyphish Icons

Digital Design — GUI, Layout Interfact on Pinterest

Adobe Kuler Color Wheel

A Rare Look At the Graphic Design Guidelines at Google

Google Visual Assets Guidelines

10 Rules for Making Good Design

PlaceIt — Generate Product Shots in Realistic Environments

Designer News

Review: The Design of Everyday Things

First Principles of Interaction Design

Gestalt laws of grouping

Forget All the Rules About Graphic Design

Design Better and Faster With Rapid Prototyping

Creating Prototypes with Keynote

Fake It. Trash It. Build It.

Balsamiq

Mobile Design Details: Performing Actions Optimistically

My Six Rules for Mobile App Design

Design By Numbers: Typography

52 Weeks of UX

Learning from “bad” UI

Cognitive Overhead, Or Why Your Product Isn’t As Simple As You Think

Portkit: UX Metaphor Equivalents for iOS & Android

An Event Apart: 10 Commandments of Web Design

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model

Type Hunting

What To Do When You’re The Only Designer They’ve Got

Best Logo Designs of All Time

Trade Marks and Symbols by Stefan Kanchev

Great Products Focus on A Motif

Thirteen Tenets of User Experience

Five Ways to Prevent Bad Microcopy

If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it

Touch Gesture Reference Guide

Taste for Makers

Beyond Flat

A Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design

There is no place for just shitting all over other people’s work

Felt Presence — Ryan Singer

An Insider’s View of Mobile-First Design: Don’t Make These Mistakes

If you’re interested in seeing if any of this pays off, you should check out Hollerback

Let me know if I can be helpful: will@hollerback.co

 

Growth vs Engagement – Start Up Metrics

growth versus engagement

For every consumer internet start up, the conversation of growth vs engagement has come up. (If it hasn’t, then it should). They can take many shapes, but they’re widely regarding as the “rule-of-thumb” metrics for success. Either or both should be “up and to the right.”

Read any press release or listen to any founder and they’ll probably site one of the two as an indicator of success — likely that which is most impressive — in the form of user numbers (aka growth) or something like pictures sent (engagement).

There is a lot of nuance around these two keystone start up metrics — such as how to exactly measure them and what needs measuring— but the more important issue for young companies to tackle: these two metrics are at odds, organizationally.

In a start up, with your limited resources, you need to be focused on as few things as possible. Whatever you decide to focus on has implications for your product, your users, and your organization. Whatever you make the goal, the entire organization needs to be aligned.

So should you be focusing on growth or focusing on engagement?

Why Growth and Engagement are Important

If you’re Paul Graham of YC lore, then the very definition of a start up is growth. I don’t disagree. If your start up generates revenue from day one, whatever makes revenue grow the fastest is probably the best course of action.

There is, however, a whole genre of apps and sites that don’t make revenue from day one. Most of these start ups have to reach a large user base in order to turn on a significant revenue generating engine. Twitter, Pinterest, even Google falls into this category in my opinion — they wouldn’t be able to sell ads if they didn’t have a significant user base. Growing quickly and achieving scale are clearly necessary for revenue.

But what if your users don’t come back after their first visit? It’d be pretty difficult to serve ads or create a business if you don’t have users regularly visiting your product or service. That’s some of the problem with start ups that “hack” growth in unsustainable ways. It looks great as user numbers rise, but there’s no telling if those users will come back. No return users, no business.

So there are two pieces to the revenue generation puzzle — scale and engagement. Both are absolutely necessary. Accordingly, both get a lot of attention as key metrics for start up success.

But They’re Mutually Exclusive

Start ups have to ruthlessly prioritize their objectives. What is the one thing the start up is going to accomplish in the next week, month, year? By necessity, other objectives take the back seat.

This is why growth and engagement are tricky. They’re both necessary for success but young can’t companies can’t really focus on both.

Some practical examples of their exclusivity:

Should your designer be working on the “time to Aha moment” flow or on the “Invite your friends” flow?

Should your engineer add Facebook post functionality or improve the app’s responsiveness and load time?

Should your marketer be focused on community management or strategic partnerships?

It’s a tough call.

Enter the VCs

To add to the difficulty of the decision, many start ups are dependent on VC or angel funding for their first few years or longer. A VC has to believe your company is worth taking a bet on so they look to some tangible, quantifiable statistic to justify their risk (they are finance folks after all). Enter the conversation about growth and engagement.

While all VCs need a compelling story about growth or engagement in order to invest, that story can take a lot of different forms. Here are a few that have popped up in conversation.

Growth:

  • Week over week growth of users/revenue (10% is great)
  • Month over month growth of users/revenue (40% is great)
  • Total users (A bajillion is great — this bar keeps rising)

Engagement

  • Daily active users (40% is great)
  • Monthly active users (50% is great)
  • “5 out of 7″ — what percent of weekly active users are active 5 out of 7 days a week. (60% is great)

VCs see a lot of companies so they tend to form opinions about what metrics are healthy. The above metrics are very important, but in reality they’re symptoms of success rather than leading indicators.

VC ears tend to perk a little more when they hear growth numbers rather than engagement numbers. If your growth numbers are phenomenal, you should have an easier time raising. Once again, this isn’t indicative of your company’s potential success, but growth is an easier story for them to tell in a partner meeting. It’s fair because it’s also more closely correlated to a large addressable market and a large potential return.

Find Your Effectiveness Metric

I was speaking with a founder of a launched mobile app that isn’t generating revenue. He just raised a great seed round from top-tier investors.

In his pitch, he didn’t discuss user numbers and he didn’t discuss daily actives either.

The story he told was based on a metric he defined internally. It followed the rough model of:

If a user is exposed to A, what percentage of the time do they successfully complete B.

Step A was the social onboarding process of the app and step B was the key desired action. The founder created a metric that measured the core value exchange and effectiveness of his app. That was the metric he explained and that was the metric that proved his app was working. The conversation of his funnel was 85%.

This is an amazing example of someone framing and executing on a key metric that is business specific. While it alludes to engagement, it really measures the app on how effective it is at delivering value.

Because the market the app is addressing is proven and large, then he can tell a really compelling story to VCs, employees, the press, and stakeholders:

I’ve built an app that is proven to work that is addressing a large market.

The key is to find a metric that measures the effectiveness of your solution for a given market. If it’s truly effective, your engagement numbers should be solid and your growth should be happening somewhat organically.

Tell the Story

When someone asks about growth or engagement of your product, don’t be afraid to be a politician — answer the question they should have asked.

Talk about the effectiveness metric that is at the heart of your product. It’s really the only metric that explains how well you’re doing.

The most valuable insight on metrics that I’ve received in the last few years of asking these questions was the following:

Don’t worry about the metrics you think VCs or the press want, worry about the metrics that prove to you and your team that you’re getting out of bed in the morning to work on the right thing.

Such good advice.

Tell the story of why you’re building what you’re building. You’re rational, you’re smart,and you’re passionate about the problem and you care about your users. Don’t bullshit yourself. Find a metric that is core to your business and accurately represents whether or not your long hours at the office are justified.

Find that one metric that accurately represents your business’ health and make sure you believe the story it tells. Focus on aligning your organization, product decisions, and investors behind improving your one metric.

That’s when up and to the right actually means something.