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: tech

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.

Words Are Dying

My 3rd grade teacher once told me that each page of your book should have 1-4 words you don’t know. Less than 1 and what you’re reading is too easy. More than 4 and it’s frustrating.

As the revolution of user generated content continues — blogs, tweets, listacles, photo apps, facebook posts — I’m left wondering if our collective vocabulary as a society is beginning to rot.

Technology, in its relentless march towards convenience, is progressively eliminating our need to write our own words.

Spell check is partly to blame. Twitter deserves some scorn. Autocorrect. Google’s predictive serach isn’t helping. Predictive typing is coming full steam to your text messages on the next iPhone.

We’re living in a world where the need to wield language is being eliminated and, where not eliminated, standardized and therefore sterilized.

Keep your emails short. Don’t use words people might not know. In business and in life, misunderstandings can ruin a project, a career, a life. I’m being alarmist but you get the point.

We’ve prioritized simplicity and communication over specificity and nuance. We’ve prioritized colorful emoji over colorful language.

It’s disconcerting because, like other, I believe our ability to think is often constrained by our vocabulary. Our lexicon is a sort of glass box that houses our ideas.

In an era where a digital thesaurus is at your fingertips, I’d like to see people get the same delight at inserted a unique synonym into a text as they do a funny gif.

As fans, builders, and consumers of technology, perhaps we can push language once again to its Shakespearean boundaries.

My name is Will Dennis and my current favorite word is “gloaming” — it’s a noun that describes the time after sunset but before dark. I think of it as the time that fireflies come out.

I’m currently building Hopscotch. You should follow me on Twitter here.

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.

Progressive Payments

Payments are still stupid.

I rented a car on Getaround last week. I set an initial reservation period and was charged the reservation fee up front.

During the rental period I could extend the reservation at anytime.

This model is inefficient. As a customer, you’re incentivized to book the absolute minimum possible time upfront and then extend as you need (there are no extension fees). Obviously, you don’t want to pay for time you don’t use.

The ideal scenario is if I use the car for exactly the amount of time I need. Not only do I get charged appropriately, but Getaround gets more availability per car in their fleet. The fleet is more efficient, Getaround needs less cars, they pay less insurance, and spend less on supply side acquisition.

Most are aware of the per-transaction fees credit card companies charge, but I think Getaround’s fleet inefficiency is a good example of a larger, system-level problem with today’s lump-sum payment infrastructure.

Money Actually Can Equal Time

Despite the age old adage “time is money,” money generally doesn’t behave like time. Money generally comes and goes in chunks while time, in contrast, elapses consistently.

Often, money is moved in chunks due to transaction costs. Nobody wants to pay more fees than the minimum. As a result, there is a system-level incentive to minimize the number of transactions.

Crypto currencies like Bitcoin have the promise to completely transform the current time-money relationship. Because Bitcoin doesn’t cost money to transfer and because it’s infinitely divisible, you can perform micro transactions that very much embody the notion of “time is money.”

It’s a big deal.

The Wild West of New Business Models

Imagine paying for a museum not as a ticket price up front, but based on the amount of time you spend inside. Imagine a website devoid of ads but that costs you one hundredth of a penny every second you’re on it. Imagine paying for cable television per minute instead of monthly.

Because there are no transaction costs, you can be charged as needed, for whatever amount need, in perpetuity.

It’s the beginning of a more efficient system. The way the internet crippled traditional content delivery systems, bitcoin has the ability to cripple current payment methods.

New payment companies will emerge. New processors. New points of sale. New wallets. New regulation. New theft.

Not only is calling Bitcoin “The Internet of Money” appropriate from a functional analogy perspective, it’s also appropriate analogy for it’s potential disruptive impact.

Giddy up.

Thanks for reading. My name is Will Dennis and I’m currently building Hollerback. I think you’ll like it.

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