Being Agile, Seeking Robustness

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Building a Website for a Small But Unique Organization - a Case Study


What should the website for a small but highly unique organization be like? I don't think that there is an exact answer to this question. However, I recently had the opportunity to build a new website for a small private high school in British Columbia, and I think I came up with a pretty good vision. Now I would like to share about this experience. First off, I am a huge fan and practitioner of the 37signals approach, and for this project I was particularly inspired by a book titled REWORK (a New York Times best-seller written by two guys at 37signals). In my humble opinion, the result was fantastic, and I do believe that this new website is comparatively the best in its class (pun intended). I should share with you that I am not a real professional web designer, nor do I usually create websites. However I was excited to find that despite my lack of expertise, by carefully employing the lessons from REWORK, the site turned out extremely well.

Now before I get into exactly how it was done, please take a look at these sample screenshots from websites of high schools with comparable educational philosophies. When taking a quick glance, ask yourself which of the four websites you think best succeeds at expressing the school's uniqueness:



So....If you choose the bottom right one, please keep reading because that's the one I'm responsible for, and I would love to share the process I went through in creating it. If you picked a different site, then you're off the hook and can stop reading if you want to. HOWEVER, if this is the case I would really appreciate it if you could please leave me a COMMENT regarding why the bottom right was not your first choice.

1. About the High School

The Island Oak High School, located on beautiful Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, was founded in 1995 by the entrepreneurial parents of home-schooled children. Unlike the majority of public high schools in North America, it is very small with only 10-20 students in each grade. It is not well known at all, even amongst the local community. With no reputation to speak of, even people who hear about the school don't really have a way of forming an opinion about it. Before I had any connection with the school, let me just say I had no idea whether the school would be worth consideration for my daughters' future education. Even though I had visited their previous website, all I really felt I knew about the school was that it was tiny.

Now that I have had the opportunity to work on this project, I know what a unique and special place this school really is. While this information is of course explained on the new website, here is a synopsis of my observations:

(1) It is a small-sized school, and they prefer it that way

As I mentioned in my last post, The school has a warm and caring environment. Everybody knows everybody, and it is like a large extended family. The students and the staff love it! One student that I interviewed said "(here at the school) people think I exist."

(2) It is a Waldorf school

In 1995, the founders were home-schooling their children. Inspired by Rudolf Steiner, they decided to start a school implementing his philosophy. In North America, this type of currinulum is called Waldorf education. Through providing a unique curriculum, Waldorf education is devoted to enabling children to be able to think for themselves, to be autodidacts, and to directly affect positive change in their world.

(3) For a school so small, there are many international students

Because there are many Waldorf schools all over the world, and many students in this curriculum study abroad in exchange programs in 11th and 12th grade, a large percentage of students come from other countries. International exposure to this degree is rather rare in regular schools.

(4) Nature's blessings abound in this beautiful environment

Island Oak is located on a large island on the west coast, and happens to be the warmest Canadian place in winter. As a result of the mild climate, the land is very rich in soil which nurtures delicious vegetables. Grass-fed cows, goats and sheep produce outstanding milk. The forests on the island bestow health upon the sea here, making the highest quality seafood available including abundant oysters, various kinds of wild salmon, and prawns, to list a few. The students here can take advantage of the environment by kayaking, climbing and other outdoor sports in summer, and engaging in winter sports as well. All of this adds to the school's appeal to international students.

(5) Students get to be themselves

At this school, there is no peer pressure to be anybody but yourself. While some students may meet up and be social after school, other students may go home immediately to assemble their DIY computers or pursue other interests. Everything is acceptable.

Sounds pretty different from your average high school, doesn't it? Island Oak definitely has its own way of doing things. While not for everyone, the families and kids for whom it is a fit are exceedingly lucky to be able to find such an environment. To be honest, it was its uniqueness that convinced me to help out with the website. If it had just been a regular school, I would not have had much interest.

2. The Problem: "Should Make the Invisible Visible"

Because they are a private school, they must attract new enrollments every year in order to maintain their optimal size.

From an insider's perspective Island Oak is full of life, and the students are actually happy to be there (unlike what Paul Graham once wrote about "the emptiness of school life" in his essay). It is a great environment in which to learn. However, from an outsider's perspective, well, that's the problem. There is no outsider's perspective as the school is practically unknown. And this is the school's biggest problem.

This issue is primarily due to the fact that the school uses its resources to give a lot of individual attention to the students. They did have had a website but the previous site didn't do a justice to the school. So my objective became clear—the new website would effectively communicate the school's mission and environment to prospective students and families, both local and international.

3. "Competiton"

I took a quick look at some of other Waldorf high schools' websites in North America.









Now don't get me wrong—the sites look good. It seems as if all of these schools hired a professional web design firm to create the sites for them. In terms of the aesthetics and design, I like the San Francisco site best. The primary objective that these sites accomplish is establishing that the schools exist. Beyond that however, if I were for example deciding which school would best suit my children based on these sites, they don't do much to differentiate themselves. I really wouldn't want to have to visit each school in person, so the websites should give me enough information, and the right type of information, to help me make such an important decision.

This realization convinced me that the best website for the school would highlight its uniqueness and should avoid pretending as if it were a big established Waldorf school. Rather, the site should be more personal, speaking warmly to the visitor's heart about the school personality. The school should not aim to directly compete with these other schools, but should showcase unique and original experiences available at Island Oak. Once I realized this, I knew that this project was going to be a success, although it turned out to be harder to achieve than I thought...

Related Lessons from REWORK: "Don't copy," "Underdo your competition," "Who cares what they’re doing?" and "Less mass"
There are many websites in your domain, and they often look similar. Visitors are tired of them. If you copy them, you will tire your future customers. Aim to be unique and opinionated yourself.

4. What to include

Because I wasn't familiar with the school, I decided to try to gather first hand information about it through interviews with teachers, students, and parents. Also, I enlisted the help of Vivi de Graff, the energetic parent of an 11th grader to start working on content for the site. We worked together really well, especially as she is highly intelligent and detail oriented.

Vivi, who is a perfectionist, came extremely prepared to begin collaborating with me on basecamp (a project collaboration service from 37signals) with her ideas for what the content of the site should be. On her list were 56 well thought out items, and the idea that there would be nine plus pages with 24 subpages. I countered her proposal with my own, which was that we should limit ourselves to have only four pages of content! I'm sure this surprised her, as her inclination was the exact opposite of mine. My idea was to make sure that our essential message would be clear to visitors, and to make sure that this message was reinforced and applied everywhere throughout the site. This was also important due to the fact that we were only working on the site part time, and this kept things manageable.

After our initial messaging on basecamp, we came together for an in-person meeting. She had come up with a great tagline for the school: "Small School with a Big Embrace." It is perfect because it captures what the school is really about. That really helped us focus our work, and we reconfigured her original content list into four main pages (although one was added later), a top page, and a time-sensitive page with information such as newsletters and announcements that can change on a weekly/monthly basis. Following this structure we were immediately able to weed out extraneous information. For example, in the original list of content, there was a page titled "What is a Waldorf Education?" As this item is not directly related to the message "Small School with a Big Embrace," and there are any number of articles on this subject available elsewhere on the web, we decided that it wasn't necessary. At the end of our session Vivi declared "This (list) is clean!"

So if you work on a website for a small but unique organization, consider limiting the number of total pages. That way, the organization's message will come across as bold and clear. Related Lessons from REWORK: "Embrace constraints," "Build half, not half-ass," "Be a curator" and "Hire a good writer."

5. Building content

Another thing that Vivi and I decided during our initial meeting was to have "talking titles" on the menu for every page instead of brief one or two word titles. On the top page of the Waldorf High School of Massachusetts Bay, for example, we can find School, Community, Alumni, Calendar, Contact Us, Directions, Search and Site Map in the tab menu. While these short titles are more common, we strove to achieve two goals with our talking titles. One was to include friendlier navigation for the visitor, and a talking title sounds much warmer than a one-word title. The second was to apply our theme "Small School with a Big Embrace" in all aspects of the site design, including the menu links. Compare "School" with "Come in and Meet Us" in these examples below.


vs.


The other intention of the talking title method was to convey a clear objective for each page. The talking titles helped us clearly set a specific mood/mission so we could work on it without forgetting exactly what we wanted to cover. Additionally, they helped us focus where all of the information should go in the previously mentioned curatorial stage. Instead of cutting out what we thought was unnecessary (which can be hard to do from a list such as "School, Community, Alumni, Calendar, Contact Us, Directions, Search and Site Map,") we choose what is critically essential and matches our theme, and/or we redistribute the information to an appropriate page. So in my experience, Talking-titles are creator-friendly a well as being more visitor-friendly. Win-win!

At this point, we were now ready to fill in the content. Our strategy was to use as many photos and videos as we could. We wanted to let the media speak for itself about the school's atmosphere. We decided to have a photo shoot, and on that day we got so many wonderful images that it was difficult to pick only a few. We definitely found a way to communicate "Small School with a Big Embrace.". You will see what I mean when you look at the top page. Also, Vivi did a wonderful job with the content itself. The text was very clear, and instead of making the text formal, she kept it in alignment with our theme and the tone was warm and inviting.

6. A student generated video

As I mentioned, we planned to create a video for the "Come in and Meet Us" page to showcase the school.

Vivi told me she was going to shoot some videos of the faculty and campus. A little bit later, she told me her daughter, who is in 11th grade, was editing the video for us. A month later, I asked Vivi how her daughter was doing, and she told me that her daughter was a perfectionist and kept fiddling with it. After another two weeks passed, we decided that we should encourage her to finish up. A few days later, I received a link to a YouTube video. It was fantastic!

It brilliantly captures how and what the students are up to at the school in a very personal way with scenes of student life, as well as faculty interviews. The way it was shot makes you feel like you are immersed in the video, not only a distant viewer. I later found out that this student both recorded and edited the footage, which is quite impressive for someone who had never had any formal training, and had not been around computers until recently (Waldorf educators discourage use of media/computers until when children reach an appropriate age). In one month she taught herself all of the skills necessary to complete this project, which is a perfect example of the culmination of the self-learning and thinking skills instilled by a Waldorf education. While technically not perfect, and not an "official" nor professional view of the school, the video explores the school from a student's perspective, shows off the girl's potential, and is thematically in line with our message. Take a look at the page later.

Other schools created their videos by hiring professionals. An example could be HarvardJustice.org. These are very well-done and look almost like a TV show. However, you don't have to do the same for a smaller organization - it might not look slick and professional, but your hand-made greeting video will be fine if you express yourself in a personal way. It will express what you are.

Related lesson from REWORK: "Nobody likes plastic flowers."

7. Infrastructure should be optimized for an organization with no technical staff

Composed of a very small team, the school has six teachers and two administrative staff. Because of a lack of a technical staff, they had been having difficulty updating the previous website. As a web developer, I knew that the school would be best served by a good content management system (CMS) so that they could update the site in a WYSIWG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) manner, and the CMS should be web-based (they could not afford to hire a person on a regular basis who could maintain an internet server. Even though I could develop a custom CMS for them, what if I moved to Germany in future?). Also they had some pdf files to share on the web, such as monthly newsletters, and they need to have their own email addresses. They were using an email/web hosting service that was not capable of custom configurations such as having a subdomain or using a CMS.

Initially, I just did some technical migrations from the previous infrastructure behind the scene which included a domain transfer, hosting the previous site on my own server, and moving the email server to Google Apps for Education. The running cost was now pretty negligable.

The next question was regarding which CMS we should use. I intentionally postponed making a choice about this until that moment, because if we had done it beforehand, it could have affected our creativity and restricted the contents/site design, and I didn't want that limitation. But now with the contents clearer, I started to figure out what would be good enough.

In terms of page contents, there is the top page, four main content pages, and a sub page PLUS a seasonal/time-sensitive information such as news and event announcements. The first six pages, thanks to our careful curation process, were not going to require much updating, perhaps only once or twice a year. However, the news/event announcements section would be added to frequently as it is almost blog-like. So, I separated these items into two categories - one for relatively static content which would be served at islandoak.org, and the other for timely information would be at news.islandoak.org as a blog. At the top page of islandoak.org, I decided to show titles and links to the most recent entries by parsing the blog's RSS in Javascript. By separating the two, I could completely hand-craft the static contents at islandoak.org.

Once this logical separation was complete, choosing a CMS was fairly easy. Any web server is capable of hosting islandoak.org, and likewise could any blog service could host news.islandoak.org. For the latter, I chose tumblr because it is simple and easy to use. When the school needs to publish a monthly newsletter pdf, they can just drop the file in a dropbox, get the public link to it, and then post it on news.islandoak.org.

Because of the more permanent nature of the content on islandoak.org, I decided to go with tumblr also, but in a separate account. On tumblr, you can have custom designed static pages. Then the school can easily update the pages through tumblr's user friendly web interface, and without having to learn to use more complicated sftp tools.

In summary, we postponed the making a final decision on which CMS to use until the last moment in order to avoid any impact to our pure creativity in building content. And we chose the platform so that the user only had to use a blogging interface + dropbox to maintain the site. And the static/dynamic separated structure gives them the flexibility to migrate the platform anywhere as long as a static content hosting + a blog service are available to them. So they will never be locked in anywhere.

Related lesson from REWORK: " (The) Tone is in your fingers."

8. Design time!

And now to design the pages!

In my primary role as a programmer I can confidently tame state-of-the-art databases, manage a cluster of a hundred servers, or professionally program the backend of a web application. My specialty however, is not design.

If what the school needed was fancy eye-catching design for the website, I would have brought in an actual design firm. However, as the most important thing in this project was to convey to visitors that the school is a "Small School with a Big Embrace," I decided that I could design the pages myself, adhering to the following criteria:
  1. The design would be minimalist, allowing the content such as photos and videos, to shine
  2. The design would be clear so that the message is recognizable at any distance.
  3. The design would be simple so that the visitors don't have to make too many choices
  4. It would be compliant with web standards and have no need for proprietary tools
I formulated this list with several specific practices and designers in mind as inspiration. Inspiration for #1 was Apple's top page. #2 came from Helmut Krone, a designer for Volks Wagen's advertisements. #3 is a well known fact from psychology research which proves that it is better to have fewer choices, and many top designers have adopted this. For #4 I was indirectly inspired by Chris Boone.

Having those four strategies with the site proposition "Small School with a Big Embrace" in my mind, I hand-coded the xhtml/css (plus some jQuery scripts) from scratch. At this stage because everything was already carefully curated at the content level, I had a fewer design items for each page. This made the page design pretty straightforward. So what’s the end product? Well, have a look at the website. Perhaps some of my favorite designers in the world could have done a better job, but only if they fully understood the site’s specific needs discussed here. While overwhelming at the outset, ultimately our position of wearing multiple hats for this project helped us produced a cohesive and effective design. We may be a small team, but it made us, and the results, stronger!

9. Concluding Remarks


Last week we finally launched the new website. Almost immediately we began seeing incredible improvements—in fact in statistics such as the bounce rate, the average time visitors spent at the site, and the average number of pages visitors viewed have doubled! Vivi accurately exclaimed "We made the invisible education visible!" And that’s exactly what we had set out to do.

Being small is fine. Having limited resource is OK too. However, through this project I have learned that a key for success in a website development project for a small organization is to embrace these constraints and allow uniqueness shine through a minimalist design.

Lastly, please visit the site at http://islandoak.org. Thanks for reading!


Acknowledgements
I would like to thank Brian Eng for his feedback on the initial design of the top page, and Emily King for reviewing this post. I should also mention that Vivi de Graff displayed the quickest grasp of the essence of REWORK that I have ever seen in my life as a practitioner.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Harvard Doesn't Want You to Like It, But Stanford Does So

As a volunteer, I have been helping with rebuilding a web site of a small private high school. Promoting the school on the web is very important for them because they have international students every year and want to continue having enrollments from overseas.

When I visited there last month, the business administrator whom I was meeting with was out of her office, attending a French class of Grade 9 or 10. She was sitting on a chair among students, paying attention to an international student from Germany. "French class is very hard for German students. It is taught in English, and they have to go back and forth between English and French via German," said she. Yes, the school is that small, filled with those warm attentions to each individual student.

For this kind of projects, it would be better for them to hire a professional designer, and I am not a designer - although I practice the design-first development (or may be well-known as Getting Real, by 37signals) in my projects. The school was recently founded by parents of home schoolers, and thus their resource is limited like a boot-strapped startup in our entrepreneur world. So they don't wish to hire a 10-20K design firm. This doesn't mean to me they cannot have an impressive web site - if it is very focused and simple, expressing who they are efficiently.

Yesterday, a parent who is studying web design at a college joined the project. It is great to have her because she knows the school from inside as a parent. In one of messages she sent me, she asked if I knew Joomla, a content management system saying it had good support, popularity and flexibility and even Harvard University was using it and gave me this link. She sounded she wanted to try it out. So I visited the page of The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, whose screen capture as of writing is below.

Source: http://gsas.harvard.edu/

At a glance, I can see the site is designed by a professional, well-organized by vertical tabs, and its CMS, if any, seems functional enough. However, it is not a good design example for the school's site, at all. Take a look at Department of Art & Art History of Stanford University. Here is a screen shot.

Source: http://art.stanford.edu/

The main difference is, I have to dig out the Harvard site by clicking this and that to know what the graduate school would be for me, while the Stanford page burns it to my brain in a few seconds. Stanford sends me a very clear message, whereas Harvard doesn't. As a prospective student or parent, I would be interested in Stanford, but not in Harvard, if those are the only information I got.

So I wrote back to her as follows. People often think a good CMS can make the site look professional. However, the most important thing would be the message. Other detailed information would be secondary. A rich, mature CMS tends to make us forget about these because it focuses on information architecture instead of the message itself. Even worse, it tends to dilute the message. This is why I would prefer a simpler tool (or even a single page) especially for a small organization which does not have much information to organize. It has to send a simple, focused, simple and original message. Otherwise, it would end up with entering a competition against other established large private schools.

In one hour, she emailed me saying it was so true and she would focus on the content and the message of the new site. I was very glad I made sense to her. I guess she would love the new book by 37signals, titled REWORK.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Substituting CAPTCHA

Jeff Cohen recently wrote an article on implementing CAPTCHA in an agile manner. I love his story about practicing “Do the simplest thing that could possibly work.” In this blog post here, I would like to raise a point, in the same context but in a bit different perspective, on CAPTCHA. The argument below is originally made by one of my friends, Kenn Ejima, the creator of Rejaw and Lingr, in his blog post (it is unfortunately written in Japanese, thus I am writing this post).

CAPTCHA seems widely used to avoid spammers on the web. When I signed up a Google account, Google forced me to decipher almost unreadable characters in an image to go through the sign up process, something like below.

Google Accounts

It is really hard to read, at least for me. Presumably harder for bots. That way, Google have been avoiding signing up from bots. Good for Google. However, they force me to feel a pain. The problem is that if Google, like the above example, tries to strengthen CAPTCHA, it will become more difficult for users to read the characters in a CAPTCHA image. It is not user friendly at all. As an agile developer, I would love to make users happier as time goes. Here is Kenn's idea to tackle the problem. Since the context is "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work,” I would just mention about one of the simplest examples in his blog post.

First, introduce a hidden field whose id is token:


<input id="token" type="hidden">


Then, add a simple javascript to the page:


<script type="text/javascript">
document.getElementById('token').value = 'Thu Feb 28 00:06:14 -0800 2008'
</script>


On the server's side, we can verify if the token value is reasonable. In Rails, it could be like:


def verify_token
t = Time.parse(params[:token]) rescue Time.gm(0)
Time.now.between?(t, t + 2.hours)
end


Simple enough. While drastically reducing users' pain, the strength of this implementation against bots is equivalent to Jeff's simple CAPTCHA implementation, isn't it? One step closer to the goal of Agile Development, making users happier.

Thanks Jeff and Kenn for their posts.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

RAID0 in the EC2 Clouds

For those who are interested in using RAID0 in the clouds, I posted some benchmark results of Amazon's EC2 here. I tested RAID0 volumes with various number (from 1 to 10) of EC2's EBS volumes. Also, you could see this post by UKD1 Limited.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

PhotoShare Interview

I have recently had the opportunity to interview Satoshi Nakajima and Yuuichiro Masui, developers of PhotoShare, an iPhone App from a startup called BigCanvas Inc. PhotoShare is a photo-lifelogging app—a photo version of twitter for iPhone, so to speak. Users can upload photos captured with the iPhone camera and share them with people publicly, with friends, or with family (e.g. sharing a baby's photos with the grandparents).

photoshare_example.png

As of now (only 19 days since the release), more than 2000 photos are uploaded everyday at PhotoShare. Most of them come from iPhones all over the world. This is an amazing accomplishment to achieve from scratch for an unknown startup. I flew to Seattle to interview the developers in person.

What's Happening at PhotoShare?


Koichi Hirano (KH): I was surprised to see more than 2000 photos uploaded within two or three days of the launch. What is going on at PhotoShare now? Is it getting more popular?

Satoshi Nakajima (SN): Yes, we now have more than two thousand photos being uploaded every day. We have observed that many users are starting to use PhotoShare even more frequently. They now seem to be starting to use PhotoShare as a lifelogging tool. An example. I have a friend whom I met through PhotoShare in Japan. He uploads photos frequently, like what he had for lunch, where he was and so on. So I know he has had Ramen noodles for lunch for the past three days. He is sharing his life with me through PhotoShare. He looks like he is enjoying photo-lifelogging, and I am enjoying looking at his photo-lifelog. Our users are from all over the world including U.S., Japan, Hong Kong, U.K., Amsterdam, Canada and so on. That's what's been happening recently.

Uploaded - 31-Jul-08-27

PhotoShare also has a very high participation ratio, too. A participation ratio is the ratio of the number of users who are actively generating content to the number of total users (active users + read-only users). At Web 2.0 Expo 2007, I saw a presentation which said YouTube's participation ratio was 0.4% or so. At PhotoShare the ratio is about 70%. I mean about 70% of users are uploading several photos every day.

KH: That's pretty high.

A Healthy User Community


SN: Additionally, our user community is very healthy. Users are protected from inappropriate photos now. At the beginning, some users uploaded pornography, which was against Apple's policy. We had a feature which allows any user to report inappropriate photos to us. When a user reported such a photo, we would review it and delete it when necessary. As it turned out that this manual process was too slow so we changed the feature. Now if any user alerts us about a photo, our app will keep the photo hidden until we review it.

Now, if a person uploads a pornographic or inappropriate photo, other users will flag the photo using this feature within several minutes. Recently, a user in the U.S. uploaded a photo of a hand-written piece of paper which said something like "Stop using stupid Asian letters!" which we thought was offensive to the diversity of the world. That photo got reported and hidden via user alerts, not from Asian users, but from other U.S. users. We are very impressed with healthiness of our community.

Why PhotoShare has Become so Popular


KH: It seems to me that the kind of success that you achieved it is next to impossible to have within two weeks of release on the web nowadays. You have huge competitors like Flickr, and many other giants in the Photo arena. It would seem like there is no room for late comers. What was your secret? Did you hire a PR firm to promote PhotoShare? Did you pay sexy users from MySpace to upload their photos at the beginning as promotion?

SN: We did hire a PR firm to promote PhotoShare inside the media, but this has not become effective yet. It may take time. And we didn't pay anybody to use PhotoShare. Therefore, this success has been purely due to the fact that we were able to submit the application to Apple by the deadline date, which was I think July 7th or 8th.

Yuuichiro Masui (YM): Our application was listed as the second app in the Social Networking category at the App Store (Apple's application store for iPhone users) at the very beginning, simply because our application name there was "Big Canvas PhotoShare" which starts with "B". So it was well-exposed to public at that time.

KH: It was reported that during the first 72 hours of the App Store launch, 10 million applications were downloaded.

YM: Yes. That way, we were able to reach people who were playing with various iPhone Apps.

SN: The reason we hired the PR firm was that we wanted to be mentioned at TechCrunch. But at the moment, not achieved it yet.

KH: So you are telling me that you not only have had no mention at TechCrunch, but you didn't even cheat by paying users to boost your apparent popularity? Basically your success is solely based on meeting the submission deadline at Apple? Your user community has grown organically, and PhotoShare's vision has been sufficient. I suppose I should ask you how you come up with this app?

Why Did You Start Your Company?


SN: To tell the truth, we originally started this project in order to obtain Yuuichiro's U.S. investor's visa. I met him in Tokyo in October 2007 for the first time. I could tell that he was a good geek and he said he wanted to live in the U.S. Within 30 minutes, I proposed that we should start up a company in the U.S. so that he could apply for a U.S. class E visa. We did not have any ideas for PhotoShare then. In March 2008, for the visa application purposes, we needed to write a business plan for the company. We had a discussion by chat. I brought several ideas, and the idea of a photo sharing service interested Yuuichiro. At that time, I was cracking the iPhone SDK (NB Apple released the iPhone SDK in the early of March 2008) and was really into it. So we decided to go for a photo sharing service as an iPhone App.

YM: I wanted to have a photo service with which I can share my daily photos with people like my grand parents, who are not internet-savvy. So in that sense, I liked the plan. However, I was also very skeptical about the idea of photo sharing. It was obvious that there were many photo sharing/storage players like Flickr and I was not sure how we could really differentiate our prospective service.

PhotoShare Underdoing Competition


KH: PhotoShare users seem to be developing a culture that's quite different from Flickr's. Flickr users spend a lot of time to making their photos beautiful and even artistic, whereas PhotoShare users are just uploading quick snapshots casually and frequently. The vision of PhotoShare, or "Photo-lifelogging", seems to be understood and well-received by many users, and this vision itself has successfully differentiated PhotoShare from other players. So I want to know how you come up with the vision? Did you have that in mind from the very beginning?

SN: Well, I wish I could say I'd had that vision clearly from the beginning, but I didn't (laugh). However, we reached the progression to this vision very naturally because there were already several popular photo sharing/storage services on the internet. Due to this fact, we knew we had to fully leverage the fact that we had nothing. You know Flickr already had tons of accounts, which we didn't have at all. We were really a new startup. Thus the logical conclusion was that we should aim for non-Flickr users. I mean people who don't even know what Flickr is. We figured that this market would be huge. Another key point was to make the app so that new users can register very easily, meaning the registration process should be throughly minimized. If Flickr develops an iPhone app, it is obvious that users will sync their account information with the iPhone app. So we knew that our app needed to excel in this regard to compete with existing Flickr users' experiences on iPhones. And we started with the very simple idea of sharing photos of people's daily life with friends or families. So even though we concretized our vision of "Photo-lifelogging" later, the idea was already there when we started planning the app. Once we decided on our vision, we did not look at the features of any other existing players. We felt that would have caused us to start to adding this feature and that feature and end up with an unusable app. We just focused on our vision.

KH: If you are targeting non-webby people, you really don't need to be mentioned by TechCrunch. TechCrunch is really a popular media among VCs, startups, web designers, programmers and heavy users of web, but none of them are your target demographic. So even if TechCrunch had posted about PhotoShare, there might have been no positive impact to your target prospective users. Perhaps it was lucky for you that you didn't make it into a TechCrunch post at the beginning.

YM/SN: (Laugh)

SN: I could describe our service to potential investors very nicely now. We have seen the advent of the Text communication age that followed the onset of voice communication. Now this age will lead to photo communication..... or something like that. But we are not actually interested in investors.

We Were Supposed to Win Apple iPhone App Award


KH: I read Satoshi's blog post in which he declared you were determined to win the Apple iPhone App Award.

SN: We were there at WWDC to receive the award. It turned out that many winners are famous players on the web such as Twitterrific, AOL and OmniFocus, but not new startups like us.

KH: The best iPhone Show Case in the social networking category was Twitterrific. Although I think Twitterrrific is a great app, I wrote about this in my post arguing that PhotoShare should have won the award because you guys show the fullest potential of Apple's platform, without relying on user assets on the web.

YM: Two or three people from apple seemed to review our app quickly and left. They did not carefully look at PhotoShare. And at that time, there were only three test users who had uploaded photos, Me, Satoshi, and my wife. The contents might not have been particularly exciting at that time.

PhotoShare Running on the Cloud


KH: So you were ready for the award? Also, in your blog post, you said that you were trying to handle 300 thousand users. How did you design your backend?

YM: We are running all of our servers on Amazon EC2 and storing uploaded photos at Amazon S3. The backend is built on Ruby on Rails. There are two big EC2 instances for database servers, one instance for load balancing with PerlBal, one for caching contents, two for Apache, and some for mongrel.

KH: Somewhere, you said your performance criteria was handling 300 thousand users. So, that is roughly one photo upload per second? That's about 46000 photos daily.

YM: Yes, we can handle that now. And we can scale out very easily by adding mongrel instances and changing the load balancer configuration a bit.

PhotoShare, Only 2 Developers and Not Hiring


Satoshi and Masuidrive

Photo: Satoshi Nakajima (Left), Yuuichiro Masui (Right)


KH: Now tell me about your team. How many people do you have there? When did you start developing it?

YM: Satoshi does the iPhone side development, and I do the backend and keep the servers on the cloud running. And we also have Adam who oversees legal and operational things. In total, 2 geeks and 1 suit.

We started to develop this app during the second week of April, 2008. The submission deadline date at App Store was July 7th. We had only three months. In my professional experience, I used to spend 2-3 months to set up a robust, reliable infrastructure. Satoshi told me to prepare an infrastructure which could handle 300 thousand users. That was to assure the reliability of the project. But we also had to complete user interface design, application development, and building the infrastructure all in the three months. I shouted "No, I don't have enough time!"

SN: Indeed. If any of us had caught a cold during the three months, we could have never finished that by the deadline date.

YM: I worked from 10am to 3am, and Satoshi worked from 3am and went to bed at around 11pm.

SN: It was only possible because this project was ours and there were only two passionate developers. We are not VC-backed. If we felt any part of project was owned by somebody else, we would not have been that motivated. If we had one million dollars invested by VCs, we would probably not be successful, either. With one million, VCs would tell us set goals, spend a lot of money, hire people, and achieve the goals. We would need to give fancy presentations to VCs regularly which would consume our time, and would need to spend time to hiring and managing people. Under those circumstances, we would not have finished the development within those three months. We are two motivated developers, and that had turned out to be enough and efficient. We are the guys who brought this miracle to pass. We are not aiming to be VC-backed. It's just because we would like to be successful.

KH: I believe the 37signals people would love to hear about your method of success, although the TechCrunch people would not be very happy about it.

SN+YM: The key was not to hire people.

Next Small Things, But Not Next Big Thing


KH: What is the next thing for you at PhotoShare?

SN: First of all, we would like to build our community and provide continuous tweaks to satisfy our users. Then, we would like to introduce some priced plugins for PhotoShare, such as a photo editor or annotator for further enjoyment. The price of these tools should be equivalent to a cup of coffee. If the number of users is large enough and 5% of users purchase the plugins, we could be pretty profitable as we are only three people. That is our business model. We would like to run our company like a good local Italian restaurant. We will spend a week or so to develop a plugin, then release it to see how it goes. We would like to do this kind of things with various ideas. An italian restaurant would not invest a year in preparing new a la carte menu item would it? They just add a new dish after spending about a week experimenting. If it does not do well, they just take it off of the menu. That is it.

KH: When will you introduce the plugins?

SN: It will be after we are confident in the growth of our community. We hope it will be at the beginning of 2009. One idea is for a preset device which a user can send to less tech-savvy users like grandparents to share their uploaded photos in a television. We have plenty of other ideas along these lines.

Apple vs Microsoft


KH: Do you have any comment on Apple? iTunes, iPhone, or iPhone App Store?

SN: Just that it's incredible. I want to say "Hey, what were you doing Microsoft?" Apple announced the iPhone SDK at the beginning of this year 2008, and released it at the beginning of March 2008. It has been only seven months since the announcement. Now, there are more developers for it than those around Windows Mobile or Symbian OS. Developers are moving from those platforms to the iPhone because they understand they can do much more interesting things on iPhones. I should point out that iPhone excels in terms of hardware and its operating system. In that sense, Microsoft is three years behind iPhone.

KH: Satoshi, you could go back to Microsoft and rewrite the Windows Mobile OS from scratch (Note: Satoshi Nakajima lead a Windows 95 developing team at Microsoft).

SN: I would hate to do that. I could do that technically speaking, but I don't have any real motivation because Microsoft is not my company. The very key to us is building a small team and growing it organically. In that sense, our future success, if any, will be simply because our company was founded for Yuuichiro's visa application. You can not start up a company with VC money for a visa of a person.

KH: Satoshi and Yuuichiro, thank you so much for this stimulating discussion.


Satoshi Nakajima was born in Japan and created the world's first CAD software for the PC, and also lead the Windows 95 development team at Microsoft. Satoshi is a co-founder of Ignition LLC, a Washington based VC, and is a founder of UIEvolution, a mobile platform company.



Yuuichiro Masui has lead a number of projects at big companies in Japan as a freelance programmer. His achievements range from a boot system for an embedded system to popular web applications written in Ruby on Rails. He is an author of numerous articles of software magazines in Japan. He moved to Washington, U.S.A. in March 2008.

Monday, July 21, 2008

PhotoShare: An Innovation Thanks to iPhone + iPhone App Store Infrastructure

On July 11th, as I wrote in a previous post, I came home from the cellular phone store without an iPhone. It was totally sold out. As I was very interested in what's going on around the iPhone 3G (what kind of people are using it etc.), I checked out an iPhone app called PhotoShare. It is a social photo sharing service available on the iPhone and the web, developed by one of my friends Yuichiro Masui and his colleague Satoshi Nakajima. I visited the web version of [PhotoShare] (http://bcphotoshare.com) and there were already almost two thousand photos already uploaded from iPhones. This number was clear evidence that PhotoShare was rapidly getting popular. To be honest, I found this very surprising because on the web nowadays, this type of Web 2.0 service does not typically get this much traction after a launch in such a short time (I mean, within a day). There are too many similar Web 2.0-ish services out there and the web is very competitive space. I wondered, "What is really going on?"
To figure it out I spent some time to exploring photos uploaded by numerous users everyday for a week or so. Some of them are from the so called "MySpace Generation" sexy girls. But most of them are just daily life photos, most of which look uploaded directly from iPhone's built-in camera. I recognized that people were uploading not only in the U.S. and Japan, but also from Hong Kong, Europe, and all over the "iPhone" world (N.B. iPhone is now available in more than 20 countries).

I was excited to see all of the photos, and I felt that there is something innovative around PhotoShare. I reasoned the following.

Most users are not webby nerds



Having seen tons of photos, I felt that the majority of users may not necessarily be webby nerds. Thinking about the price of iPhone 3G, complared with iPhone 1G and 2G, iPhone 3G users would probably include more "ordinary" people, as compared with those of iPhone 1G. Most of iPhone 1G users around me were webby nerds with relatively high income. I definitely sensed that difference this via the photos uploaded at PhotoShare. The style and type of shot on PhotoShare was very different from those of Flickr. I found photos at PhotoShare to be more casual and less art-oriented than Flickr. At Flickr many users really care about the quality of photos, cameras, and photographic techniques used. They invest more time per photograph, from setting up their Flickr accounts to choosing appropriate lighting for a photo.

At PhotoShare people with this much attention to detail were few and far between. PhotoShare seems to have succeeded in reaching people which the current photo web services (at least Flickr) have never reached. I must confess, I am a big fan of Flickr, and I don't use PhotoShare as much as I use Flickr. So, I am am in fact not a person in the market that PhotoShare is approaching. For those who have already concluded that PhotoShare is just another version of Flickr, you may want to reconsider your assumptioin.

Users are enjoying taking daily photos of life and some users are uploading many photos as if they are life-logging



This was quite surprising, too. They seem to be enjoying their photo lives like music! Rather than looking at PhotoShare as another version of Flickr, I think of it as another version of Twitter. PhotoShare founder Satoshi Nakajima mentioned this in his blog.

If my memory is correct, there were only several taps on my iPhone to start using PhotoShare, including purchasing (well, it is free though) from the App store. After installing it, only five taps are required to go from the main screen of iPhone to taking a picture, to completing its upload. It is really easy and quick. This is a very important key for lifelogging. I have been a lifelogger for more than a year. A little over a year ago, I developed a lifelogging web app. Photo-logging was an important part of my lifelogging. I would take a picture of a page of a magazine article that I was reading at a cafe so that I could refer to it later on, I took tons of pictures of someone's presentation at a conference while text-lifelogging on my ThinkPad and so on. What I was doing behind the scenes was quite complicated. First, I had a flickr account. I took pictures with a Nokia N95 smart phone, with ShoZu installed. I set up my Flickr account with Shozu of N95. ShoZu hooked Nokia N95's camera software and it automatically upload photos to my Flickr account via Edge or WiFi as I took pictures.

Then I told the lifelogging app about my Flickr account information. The lifelogging app periodically imported photos from Flickr, just like FriendFeed. Finally, I could refer to the photos as a part of my lifelog. I had to set up several apps, and hardware-wise, I had to go back and forth between the smart phone and my PC. Quite complicated right? Do you think you or your family would like to do that by yourself? Probably not. This is probably the biggest reason why there have been few lifeloggers in the world. PhotoShare, equipped with Apple iPhone and distributed through the App Store, has skipped this complicated processes which one would have to get through if they don't use PhotoShare. Several taps on the iPhone achieves the same thing as my whole process outlined above. Basically, what I was doing with a camera phone, software called shozu, the web app, my flickr account, and several settings with them is now all possible with one device iPhone + several taps. More importantly it is all available to millions of iPhone users! In a matter of day, PhotoShare users have surpassed someone like me who has spent a couple of months figuring out how to do all of that a year ago. Now that the world has PhotoShare on iPhone, there will be more and more photo-lifeloggers. This is huge innovation.

iPhone + App Store could be as powerful the Web



Here is a more general lesson I learned from PhotoShare. iPhone + AppStore has the potential to become a powerful infrastructure or as robust an ecosystem as the Web is. By Web here, I mean world wide web accessible through computers browsers.

Web browsers have been innovative in the sense that they made the distribution cost of services and information ignorable. A somewhat similar thing is now also possible on the iPhone App Store, too. Apple has made it. Apple opened the door of "App Store" on the iPhone infrastructure to developers (although it is not completely open). A good developer can create a successful iPhone app to distribute it to some millions iPhone-addicted users on Apple's iPhone App Store. They can develop anything from a useful office application to games to social web or Web2.0-ish things without using relying on existing web apps (I would say it is a social iPhone). PhotoShare is an early example. Although PhotoShare is also available on the web and they are using the same infrastructure as Web apps' (They are running the service using Amazon EC2, S3, and perhaps SQS, and running Ruby on Rails), from the users' perspective, it is not a web thing (they don't care what a hypertext transfer protocol is).

Everything seems happening on peoples' iPhone. Users don't need to have accounts on the web, even they don't have to have any experience using the internet. An example of the opposite of this is Twitterrific, an iPhone client app for Twitter, which actually won Best iPhone Social Networking Application at Apple's event WWDC08. Although I am a fan of Twitterrific and think it is a wonderful application, I don't think that it shows the fullest potential of the ecosystem of iPhone + AppStore because Twitterrific itself is dependent to the popular web service called Twitter. In order to use Twitterriffic, you need to have an account at Twitter.com. Therefore I find that Twitterrific is an excellent application, but not quite innovative. On the other hand, PhotoShare has demonstrated to me how it is possible to launch a social application from scratch without relying on pre-success on web. They achieved attracting thousands of new users within a week or so without having a preexisting web app thanks to Apple's infrastructure. You may say this quick success at PhotoShare is due to their clever viral marketing strategy or hiring an excellent PR firm, but I would say it may not be the case as viral marketing would take time as we see on the web. So I would say it is solely due to the infrastructure (I will confirm about this with them if I have a chance and keep you posted).

I am not 100% happy about iPhone 3G itself, as written by DHH, but the above lessons are enough to make me happy to have an iPhone. I mean, I am excited about the potential of iPhone + App Store. Props to Apple, and of course, to Satoshi Nakajima and Yuichiro Masui, the developers of PhotoShare. I myself am one of the old-school web app developers, still living within the websphere. Am I going to move onto the iPhonesphere? Well, if my wife decided to purchase an iPhone, then perhaps I would. Until then I will continue what I am doing because there are many things to be done in the websphere, and I am still excited about them.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

iPhone 3G Sells Surprisingly Well in the Countryside of Canada

A week so ago, I bought an iPhone 3G at last. When Apple first introduced the first generation iPhone, I was a resident of U.S. As a person who is extremely interested in technology and user experience, I know that I should have bought one of the first generation iPhones, but I didn't. This was because I was about to move to Canada and decided to keep my Nokia N95 for that time. On July 11th, Apple finally introduced iPhone 3G in Canada, and I purchased one of them without hesitation. I currently live in the country side of British Columbia, Canada and as a matter of fact, I have only seen three people using macs in my town. iPods? Well, I haven't seen any people using them at all. Smart phone? Well, I have never seen such a thing in this town. Actually, I was asked what smart phone means by a resident here when I talked about the iPhone.

Based on these experiences, I figured that there would be no line on the iPhone debut day in front of a cellular phone shop. On that day, I had a very busy schedule as I am dad with three children including a two-week old baby. Somehow I managed to find time to go to the shop at 5 PM and told the guy at the shop confidently "I am gonna purchase an iPhone." Surprisingly, he told me that it was totally sold out. I was deeply disappointed. At the same time, I sensed that something revolutionary was happening not only in Canada but also all over the world. In a small town with almost no Macs, iPods, or smart phones, the iPhone 3G was completely sold out. As a matter of fact, according to an automated message from Fido (a carrier which sells the iPhone in Canada) customer service line, iPhone was sold out and people should place their names on the waiting list. Well, that weekend completely changed my perception Apple. Apple is doing far better in Canada than I expected.