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: web

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.

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

Social Media Road Rage

RoadRage

Louis CK has a great bit in his new HBO special about road rage. His take: It’s amazing how hateful and angry we can become when we’re separated from people by a glass window and a bit of road.

Louis goes on to make the analogy about what road rage would look like if you were in an elevator — how ridiculous and disproportionate your rage would seem if someone gently bumped you.

It’s a fascinated comment on our situational criticism of others. For some reason we’re ok with judging those who we don’t know. The more detached we are, the more extreme the lack of empathy. I think this also shows up in our observation of celebrities as public objects and how their misfortune becomes lively cocktail fodder.

Creators Beware

I worry about the degree to which this behavior is expressed in social. We’re each still hiding behind the safety of a consequence-proof window — but now it’s a computer monitor and a browser window. It’s easy to criticize and judge others online. Perhaps YouTube comments are the best example of this internet rage in action. Reddit is also a great example of where usernames give you a license to say anything you want.

People who tweet or blog on a regular basis come to terms with this over time. You will be judged from afar, you will be called stupid or incorrect on occasion. People will disagree with you online in the comments or offline to their friends.

I believe that’s why you rarely see creators criticizing another creator’s work — they know how hard it is to put yourself out there and to be vulnerable. They’ve been criticized and know it doesn’t result in the creator feeling very positive.

A New Social Contract

I think there is an opportunity to create social networks where empathy — rather than judgement — is the norm. Sounds cheesy, but it doesn’t have to be. And it doesn’t have to be about happiness or personal growth or achievement or puppies. It can still be about the same type of content we all love consuming online: photos, videos, written posts, and creative works in general.

If we require the consumers and the creators to play by the same rules, then we get closer to an empathetic online network.What would a social network look like where content itself was the price to admission?

From a product perspective, it would strictly embrace a club house or exclusivity model.

For example: I take a photo then I get to see a photo. I write a blog post then I get to read a blog post. I upload a new song I wrote and then listen to a song.

What if we put the creators and the consumers of content in the exact same shoes by forcing all consumers to be creators. From a product perspective, there is no empty room problem because content is created and consumed at an equal rate.

In addition, I’d bet the quality of the content is actually be higher than for a broadcast model beuase there is a definite, specific audience (even if it’s a stranger). You’re truly the part of a like minded community that is participating and exchanging. There is literal empathy for the content creation process.

It’s About Relationships

The downside of this sort of content-exchange model is the reach. You don’t have thousands of followers or friends to influence. You just get one other person as your audience for each time you post. Some may see that as silencing, I see it as intimately social. By pairing the content of two creators, you form a bond between the two people that can form foundation for a relationship.

You lose the reach of Twitter’s broadcast model but I’d wager the benefits are made up in the strength of your relationships on the network. These relationships would be safe, powerful, and empathetic. They’d be honest, surprising, and fun.

There is an opportunity to create systems and products where empathy is the norm and truly social networks can from them. There is an opportunity to shun the follower count and embrace meaning. There is an opportunity for new online relationships and more enjoyable content.

We need to start building more elevators and less freeways.

If you want to see our take on the future of social media, check out Hollerback.

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

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.

Why We’re Not Hyping Our Launch

We’re launching our app Hollerback in a few weeks and with any new app or site launch there’s an interesting question: To hype or not to hype?

By hype I mean launching with press, tweets from influencers, marketing, promotion, getting featured on the app store, etc. The full-on “our app is the next big thing” hustle out of the gate. Of course, the goal of launch hype is to get people so excited about your app that there will be a rush to download it and you’ll shoot up the app store charts. Hell, maybe even buy some downloads and juice the charts and make it seem legit?

From there, users will be in love with the app, the thinking goes. It will live up to the hype. All will be grand. “Bring me a goblet of wine and the head of a pig!” we’ll say. Valuations will rise. Riches will follow. Universes will be dented.

If we time everything just so and the product and viral loops hit just right, we’ll just take off! All we need is some launch press and buzz.

It’s tempting. But we’ve decided not to do it. Here’s why.

Growth vs Engagement

Some might think hype increases user numbers and therefore makes fundraising easier. While hype does lead to larger early user numbers, it will hurt your percentage of daily and monthly active users because people are just checking it out rather than sticking around. Savvy investors look to more than raw user or download numbers.

You can raise a seed round with either of two metrics: user engagement or user growth. Engagement is a factor of the product while growth is a factor of time and money. Products are hard to get people to use. Contrastingly, time and money are just resources (and what investors are good at providing). If either metric is looking great, you can make a strong case for your product’s viability and future promise.

Growth can accelerate with time (and marketing) if real engagement is there. While there are varying schools of thought, our perspective is that engagement can promote growth but growth itself does little for an individual user’s engagement.

Accordingly, we’re optimizing for early engagement over early growth.

Hype only has downside 

The unfortunate truth is that hype doesn’t make products succeed. We all know that. Too much hype makes great products seem good and average products seem terrible. There are graveyards full of companies because press and friends exclaim the product “didn’t live up to the hype” and was correspondingly discarded.

And therein lies the true problem with hype: Hype kills evangelists. Hype turns product-loving early adopters into jaded skeptics. It turns users from curious explorers to jurors deciding a verdict.

This app raised how much money? Pssh. It’s not that well designed.

Their investors are who? Hmm. It’s kind of buggy.

Their cofounder is who? Huh. Idea seems played out.

Really, the last thing a start up needs to do is set a bar of expectation too high for itself. Start ups are already under-resourced and in most cases under executing on one or several fronts. Even the best new companies have to simplify the user experience considerably for their first version.

Hedge your product bet

Here’s the argument for going hype-less for initial release:

If your product hits with your demographic out of the gate, phenomenal! Start marketing it. Start spreading the word as aggressively as possible. Start running.

However, if it turns out there are a few kinks to work out, you’ve saved some public scrutiny and avoided bad user experiences. No one knows about your app. No one cares about your app. You still have a largely fresh slate with the early adopter community. It’s all (relatively) still good.

When you don’t impress your early users with the product, you can impress them with your customer service and feature improvements. You can build relationships with your early users (because there will only be a few) and turn them into future evangelists.

The beauty of waiting for your product to gain some traction before marketing is that you already have a core user base. Not only is this important for word of mouth, it’s important for your company to internally know that you’re building the right thing. It can set your direction. It’s honest usage that’s not diluted by drive-by downloads.

Focus on getting your product to level “Wow”

It’s incredibly difficult to make products that make people say “wow.” It takes time, feedback, and tweaking. Doing all that behind closed doors, or even with a group of testers, is extremely risky. Instead, focus on getting something shipped that early adopters (for your market) are going to use and potentially love.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be pushing to make great product from day one, it just may take some time. By the time it tips past early adopters, it should be surprisingly great. When something is surprisingly great, people will talk about it. They will become advocates for the experience and the product. They will be your evangelists.

Most importantly, they’ll explain to their normal friends why they should use the app. That’s when your product had potential to go from tech app to cultural force. That’s when you can demand your goblet of wine!

Focus on getting your product to “wow” and hopefully your users will be all the hype you need.

As I mentioned, we’re releasing Hollerback in a few weeks. 

When we do, we won’t be buying downloads to climb the charts and we won’t be announcing it on Techcrunch. You probably won’t see any “influencers” tweeting about it for awhile. 

We do think it’s an experience that will make you say “wow.” But before we market it, we want to prove people are excited about what we’ve built first.

So if you’re a lover of technology and experimental new apps, we’d love to have you try Hollerback when it’s ready. It’s like a party on your phone. 

Leave us your email here: www.hollerback.co 

 

Don’t Forget to Talk

When working on a technology start up, much of your day is comprised in silence, clicking away at a computer. Whether you’re an engineer writing code, a designer working in Photoshop, or a marketer firing off emails, it’s easy to go hours, or even an entire day, without having a business-focused conversation with your peers.

Especially with the “meetings are a waste of time” stigma floating around, it’s easy for start ups to become companies that only consist of two actions: deciding and implementing.

Decide. Execute. Repeat.

A crucial component to the creative process of product creation can be overlooked. Talking about the problem you’re solving in a free-flowing, organic discourse is often strewn by the wayside. It’s discarded as inefficient.

In our experience building Hollerback, some of the best ideas have come out of impromptu discussions. These discussions weren’t spawned out of a need for a decision. They were  one person electing to talk to another about a problem or idea. Whether it was pertaining to code, branding, distribution, or design,  speaking out loud to someone often brings new ideas into the mix.

Some of our best product decisions, and perhaps those that truly matter, have come out of healthy spoken discourse.

I’m now conscious of the power of spontaneous conversations and careful not to dismiss them as inefficient.

Embrace the unguided train of thought – sometimes it can lead to a creative opportunity or solution that can’t be found in silence.