July 14, 2013
When you’re working on something new, maybe an app, game, business idea, podcast, open source library, or other creative endeavor, there’s a predicable moment that occurs. Over drinks or in an email, a well-meaning friend mentions something they saw or read about recently. They ask gently, “Isn’t this pretty similar to what you’re working on?”
You put on a brave face, but your heart sinks and you feel deflated. You critically examine your idea doppelgänger and confirm that they are indeed doing something very similar. You note how they seem further along and have solved a few problems that had you stumped. You take a deep breath as a wave of discouragement passes over you. “Why am I pouring so much time into this?” Belief in originality had fed your confidence.
Those are difficult moments, but don’t let them derail what you set out to create.
Originality isn’t what sets your idea apart. You are.
You have your own motivations and priorities. You have past experiences that shape your work, and dreams and values that shape its future. You and your crew bring unique skills and passionate beliefs to the project. Even though someone else is attempting to solve the same problem or wants to fill the same gap, the end result will not be the same.
Imagine a band recording its first album. Months of practice and sparsely attended shows have led to this moment. Then, they open iTunes and see a new artist feature on another guitar-driven four-piece writing uptempo songs about relationships. They’re even from the same part of the country.
Can you imagine the band canceling their studio time? “Sorry, we thought we were on to something here, but it turns out someone else had the same idea.”
Of course not, because within artistic pursuits, we understand that unique, worthwhile, and significant expressions can sprout from the same ingredients and constraints. I recently spent a day with a massive, inspiring book on modern architecture from around the world. What struck me was the incredible variety. Much like writers with words and artists with paint, pencils, or Illustrator, architects continually push the boundaries of what’s possible, despite beginning with the same materials and framework. Cooking, photography, poetry, and yes, apps and sites, are all similar in that regard.
The competition is between you and unfinished, not someone else’s similar project. There’s only one edition of what you’re creating.
There is room in this world for you and your idea. There is room for another band, book, photograph, movie, painting, building, app, game, podcast, and website.
Believe in it, see it through, and share it with the rest of us.
June 10, 2013
What if we understood how the technology industry is perceived?
the implications of perfect corporate buses transporting a small slice of the neighborhood to a campus far away?
that onsite haircuts, meals, dentists, massages, and coffee results in the loss of thousands of interactions with people in our communities every day?
that having skills that are currently in demand doesn’t make us better than others?
that users know when they’re being used?
that there are significant problems worth solving other than the ones people like us face regularly?
how it looks when we spend millions to celebrate our success, while 12 million of our neighbors are unemployed (one-third for 6 months or more) and nearly 4 million earn minimum wage?
that technology is not neutral, and profiting from people’s weakness is wrong?
that people deserve to being treated fairly even if we decided not to charge them for the product?
that we don’t have to accept how the press and others define success in technology?
that if we continue to game invites and use tricks to grow, we will be held in the same esteem as sketchy used car salesmen once were?
how harmful our lack of diversity is?
that just because we’ve embraced a fully open, online life, doesn’t mean the people who use our services have?
that the next generation is watching and learning from us?
I wonder what it would be like if we fought for the people who use our products first and foremost.
if we refused when asked to do something that violated the trust of our users.
if we didn’t settle.
if we thought more about the ripple effects of the technology we bring into the world.
If we focused on what we will leave behind.
if we realized how fortunate we are.
May 6, 2013
There are a plethora of writing tools. Smart, creative people regularly introduce a fresh approach to the craft of composing sentences. Editorially, iA Writer, Medium, Svbtle, and Draft each innovate on what has come before. As someone who spends a great deal of time stringing words together, I’m enormously appreciative of (and curious about) these efforts.
There isn’t as much focus on the idea stage of writing. How do you keep track of the topics you want to write about? Where do you play with six different titles for your essay? How do you collect sources and quotes? Most of my writing is more straightforward, but a recent project forced me to expand my toolkit and rediscover the power of the outline.
I love working in outliners like OmniOutliner, Tinderbox, and WorkFlowly, but mostly for organizing lists and tasks, planning features and writing product specs. Dave Winer, who has spent most of his professional life working with or on outliners, recently started a new company that is building them for the browser, first Little Outliner and now, the more powerful Fargo.
I have become quite enamored with Fargo over the past few weeks. Working with software that has decades of experience and knowledge behind it is a pleasure. It’s a joy to use and rapidly evolving. In the past week, Fargo has gained support for Markdown and posting to WordPress. What’s particularly powerful is that as new capabilities are added to the software, the community is able to influence the form and direction they take. The potential of most apps and services these days is scale, what might happen with thousands and millions of users. Fargo’s potential lies largely in the creativity of its users.
For my lastest writing project, I decided to use Fargo as the foundation (the above is a screenshot of a hypothetical article-in-progress). Using an outliner at the formative stages provides the greatest benefit. I can quickly add ideas and notes and reorganize them hours later, as patterns begin to form.
When I find relevant content online, I add the title and then the link, reflected by the bookmark icon. I paste quotes under that heading.
Where outliners shine is the ability to expand and collapse sections at will. I can collect lengthy quotes from a piece and then collapse that section to focus on other parts of the project. I find it very easy to get lost in a long document or collection of ideas; with an outliner, I work on one idea at a time.
Outliners have served me well in many areas and are now an essential part of my writing flow. It’s much easier to think flexibly when the tool is so flexible. If you haven’t tried one, Fargo makes it easy; it’s free, runs in your browser, and uses Dropbox for storage.
March 30, 2013
My priority this weekend was putting together a site to raise money for my sister’s increasing medical bills. Then, I received a phone call that her condition was rapidly worsening. An hour later, my phone rang again from the same number. No part of me wanted to answer it. She was gone.
Laura was the middle child in our family and I was the baby. I would often tell people that being three years apart, we were constantly mad at each other growing up, but as I looked through photos from those days, there we are, side by side in picture after picture, smiling.
We played innumerable board games together, wrestled over the remote control, fought until there was physical evidence. I kept score at her high school volleyball games and marveled as she went on multi-day bike trips with my dad. In the days before the Internet, DVRs or even VCRs, I would watch her favorite soap opera to let her know what happened when she got home late from school. I teased her about her first boyfriends and sat on the bed and listened to her when they broke her heart.
Laura was so great about my first girlfriend, of course, that she was a bridesmaid when Lori and I got married. Laura knew food and cooking better than most anyone and she and Lori shared many irreplaceable hours in the kitchen together, most recently at Thanksgiving.
She lived with us for a few months while our son was a toddler. He used to push the door open and tiptoe into her room to get a peek at this exciting new presence. She would sneak up to meet him with a surprise, “Boo!” and he would squeal and laugh and run while she chased him. For years she was known in our house as Aunt Boo.
What a sweet woman she was. Everyone who met her loved her, every man was mesmerized by her beauty. She agonized over the smallest decisions, but jumped at every sudden opportunity to get on a plane. She sought out beaches constantly and found peace at the ocean’s edge.
There were always interesting tales from her travels. For some reason, her story about getting pulled over for speeding while driving across New Mexico was one of my favorites. She started by expressing surprise, but the cop would have none of it. “We’ve been following you for 10 miles. The only time you slowed down was when someone didn’t get out of your way fast enough!” She told it with the biggest smile. I doubt she actually got a ticket.
Laura was so unique. She helped endless new families and babies as a doula. She played guitar and had a wonderful voice, became fluent in sign language, was a vegetarian before most knew such a thing existed, and danced to reggae in Jamaica. She was the one who seemed unsure of her opinions, but left you wondering why you were so sure of yours. Somehow she introduced me to Firefly, yet doubted my ability to pick out clothes for her, even from her beloved Sundance.
Whenever we watched movies and shows together, she would get frustrated and groan at unrealistic scenes. “That would never happen.” Each time, I’d chide her, “It’s a story! Who wants to watch real life?”
Not me, not today.
Many years ago, she and a girlfriend traveled the globe for six months, from Thailand to New Zealand to Malawi and more. They brought with them nothing more than massive backpacks and a fierce belief that there is no time like the present. She knew better than anyone I know that all that matters in life is people and moments.
God, I miss her.
March 24, 2013
What hurdles does a new app face? Moves, the iPhone app for tracking your steps, has been part of my life for a few weeks and I love it. Watching my usage evolve and interest in the app spread has prompted some thoughts about the hurdles a mobile app must overcome.
First, an app has to find its way on to your phone. Moves launched at the end of January and from an outsider’s perspective, has grown organically and consistently since. I came across the app from a tweet and every week, I see someone else talking about it. When someone mentions Moves, you can sense a smile on their face. They are delighted by the combination of the design and experience, the encouragement of healthy behavior, and the price (free). Side note: I’m skeptical of free apps with revenue-to-be-named-later and that applies in this case, too.
This type of slow word-of-mouth is ideal, in my opinion. Many apps launch with a large coordinated push. For a day or two, it seems like everyone is talking about it. A week later, no one is. Seeing new people discover and actually use an app, and then talk about it because they love it, is much more powerful than a mad rush to be first to a new fad. Nothing beats “I use this app and like it. You might, too.”
Not everyone sees it that way, and of course, many apps harness that initial momentum (even if largely manufactured) and go on to great success. One way or another, an app has to stand out. It might be through App Store promotion, a marketing campaign, the pedigree of those behind it, the love of influencers, or people raving about it.
Even when a app breaks through the noise, a person has to:
- remember the name
- search for it or revisit a link
- download the correct app
- open the app
- in many cases, sign in or create an account
If a new app does make it to your phone, how likely is it to stay? I installed Moves and a few days later it was on my iPhone’s home screen. I checked my total daily, kept my phone with me on the treadmill, told friends about it, and wondered if I’d hit a new daily record during SXSW (I did).
Then, I had to replace my iPhone.
A screen issue required a trip to the Apple Store. With the possibility of a replacement in mind, I backed up my phone before I left. Sure enough, the screen wasn’t repairable and I left with a new phone.
When I restored from the backup later that day, I noticed that some apps were missing. I actually didn’t know which ones, but just sensed gaps on a few screens. Apparently backing up your iPhone does not save apps that aren’t in iTunes (that’s my theory, anyway).
The next day, I realized that Moves was missing and installed it again. When I opened it, the data I had collected was gone, no epic days downtown and no lazy Sundays. After a few days, I checked to see the fresh data I had collected, but each day showed zero steps. Something wasn’t working correctly. I reset everything and now, things are working smoothly again.
Most likely, none of those hurdles were the fault of Moves. In fact, I gladly take the blame for them. These scenarios are not uncommon, though. Even a great app like Moves, an app that is basically doing everything right, faces these hurdles.
How many people would:
- notice an app was missing?
- take the time to search for it and download it again?
- continue using it if previous data, scores, achievements were missing?
- continue using it if it didn’t work initially?
If the app is considered essential (part of the mail, messages, lists, and calendar flow, tied to friends or family, an addictive game or service) we’ll jump through many hoops, but that is the exception.
There isn’t a formula for success here, unless you include temporary shortcuts like paying for installs or viral loop tricks (the “Invite All” button is awfully close to the “Invite” button, isn’t it?). At the most basic level, the quality of the app and the size of your existing audience are the two biggest factors in determining success, but thousands of companies and developers are tying to solve these problems every day and great apps don’t always succeed. My experience using Moves and working on other mobile apps has reminded me to:
Appreciate the challenge
We don’t always appreciate how difficult it is to create a successful app. Be reasonable in your expectations, supportive of your fellow developers, and humble if your talent and good fortune deliver a hit.
We focus a lot of removing hurdles that keep someone from installing and starting to use an app, but much less on those that cause a current user to drift away. We’re often casual about things like requiring users to sign in again after an app update. Yes, it’s unavoidable sometimes, but know that a single new hurdle can leave some of your users behind.
Create something inspired
If an app solves a problem in a unique way, reflects passion and care, or is simply inspired, it’s obviously easier to gain and keep someone’s attention. A new app should matter. It should have a core reason for existing, beyond “to make money” or “gain a lot of users”. People can tell if the creators believe in what they’ve built.
Form a relationship beyond the app
Don’t let the app be the only relationship you have with a user. That tenuous connection can be broken through something as small as lost credentials that require logging in again, a bug in the latest update, a new phone, or a fresh install. If someone is connected to the company behind an app, they are more likely to reach out for support, forgive a misstep, provide helpful feedback, or try the next, new thing.
When they reach a hurdle, they’ll ask for help.