Web App Trends: Users as Developers

Joshua Porter

November 17th, 2006

(Part of a series on Web App Trends. See also: Fast Iterations)

The legend of how eBay got started is a quaint one: Pierre Omidyar created eBay so that his wife could buy and sell her favorite collectibles: Pez Dispensers. The story has been told thousands of times, and most people like to think that the site is a labor of love. Unfortunately, the story turns out to be a little bending of the truth: apparently Omidyar realized the site’s potential before pursuing it.

It is true, however, that Omidyar used the site to help sell his wife’s collectibles. He was one of the first users, as well as the first developer, of eBay. That may sound like an unusual combination: to be both the user and the developer. Our conceptions of both tend to be very different. Users are those people who use stuff. Developers are those who build it.

But what happens when they’re one in the same? What happens when the user is the developer, and vice versa? It turns out to be a powerful combination that leads to unseen advantages that those building for others don’t have (and might not be able to duplicate).

Scratching Your Own Itch

The web application Basecamp was created by a team of web developers at 37signals who had a project management problem.

“Basecamp originated in a problem: As a design firm we needed a simple way to communicate with our clients about projects. We started out doing this via client extranets which we would update manually. But changing the html by hand every time a project needed to be updated just wasn’t working. These project sites always seemed to go stale and eventually were abandoned. It was frustrating because it left us disorganized and left clients in the dark.”

“So we started looking at other options. Yet every tool we found either 1) didn’t do what we needed or 2) was bloated with features we didn’t need — like billing, strict access controls, charts, graphs, etc. We knew there had to be a better way so we decided to build our own.”

Other People Have the Itch, Too

What happens next is the same: after you scratch your own itch someone realizes that others have the itch, too. It might be the developer who notices, or another user. Mike McDerment, who co-founded Freshbooks, a web-based accounting application, describes this:

“(We) founded the company in January 2003. We were doing web design and development projects for various clients. We built FreshBooks for ourselves and very quickly realized that other businesses needed a painless billing solution. We put our heads down and got to work.”

Eating Your Own Dogfood

After you realize that others have the same problem, the next step isn’t to start building for all of those other people and assume you know everything. No, it’s to continue to design for yourself, and then use the product for an extended period of time. Play with it, push it, pull it, make sure that the features there are the right ones, not the nice-to-haves.

Christina Wodtke (who spoke at our User Interface 9 Conference), is working on a new web app: Public Square. She’s testing it out in a small way before releasing it as a service, using it to run one of our favorite sites, the online magazine Boxes and Arrows. She’s effectively killing two birds with one stone…using it herself as well as testing it with others to get real feedback.

Increased Passion for the Work

This users-as-developers cycle may be more virtuous than others. Dan Cederholm, who co-built a wine-sharing site called Corkd, describes how much more passionate he is when working on his own project.

“There’s a real difference between being a hired hand on a project for a specific amount of time and someone who has ownership as well as passion for what they’re working on (ownership and passion can be exclusive as well, but combined, they pack quite a punch). The short-term, part-time attention of a freelance designer or developer can often lead to clunky, duct-taped solutions after the contract is over and the site is actually being used by real people. Cork’d has been the complete opposite situation, where we’ve been able to launch a product that would be considered “done” under most circumstances and then react to member feedback using the same attention to detail that went into the initial construction.”

A New Model

At first, it can be quaint to say that building for yourself is a nice perk of your situation. Increasingly, however, starting with eBay and now with firms like these four (and countless others as well), this new model is becoming the de facto way to develop, a critical part of success. If you compare a piece of software created by its users vs. one that’s not, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference. The designers understand the problem better, they’ve worked through most of the issues, and they’re more passionate about it after all is said and done.

6 Responses to “Web App Trends: Users as Developers”

  1. Mike McDerment Says:

    Joshua,

    Thanks for the mention and a great post…From my experience it makes all the difference when you are intimate with the problem you are trying to solve. That way you have a much better chance of getting the subtle decisions right as you design your application and the UE…and the right answers to those subtle decisions is where the magic is at in web apps.

    BTW – Looks like the link to my post about FreshBooks is broken (it has a link break tag on the end of it).

    Cheers,

    - Mike

  2. Joshua Says:

    Fixed now…thanks…and great add-on, too! Getting those subtle things right is a form of expertise, I think, that maybe isn’t seen as such.

  3. Travis Says:

    I am glad to see this article — I am a software developer by trade but have also grown up in a entrepreneurial environment. I used the “scratch your own itch” concept to start Team Cowboy (www.teamcowboy.com), a web site for managing sports teams. I am on a recreational soccer team in Seattle, WA and was using another site for this purpose and simply got fed up with it’s lack of functionality, slowness, and the site manager’s inability to respond to my basic emails. Out of frustration I created Team Cowboy and now upwards of 50 sports teams are calling it home — many of which have also switched over from the other Web site I had been using. I see the “scratch your own itch” idea as common sense and something I plan to employ into many other ventures I have planned for the near future… -Travis

  4. Daniel Szuc Says:

    Suggest if companies can harness this type of attitude internally – get people excited about innovating and building great products leveraging on existing technologies – magic can happen!

    I guess that what Google are doing … imagine … being able to explore a platform like Google, its data, coming up with ideas and testing those ideas quickly with users. Imagine being able to do that without any of the typical corporate constraints. Even better!

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