Howells.

Designing and making for a user-base of one

Brooklyn-based designer and developer Jonnie Hallman (a.k.a. Destroy Today) said in a recent interview:

I like the idea of making an application and just building it for yourself first. Because then it’s successful no matter what because it makes you happy. If it reaches 100,000 users that’s great; that’s just a bonus though. But if you’re able to use it years down the line, that’s the ultimate goal.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as I try to get another project off the ground, called Shorthand. It’s a link-sharing and commentary tool that I’m building because I haven’t yet found a link repository tool that I genuinely like. Delicious is horribly over-complex and and over-designed, and Pinboard–as much as I love the rationale behind a completely utilitarian bookmarking tool–doesn’t fill me with any pleasure whatsoever.

So Shorthand is in essence a tool that I’m building just for myself.

There will be a social layer that spans the application, but the most important thing is that the tool will work well for a user-base of one.

This is a different approach to how people approach building web apps in that most web apps are built for a user-base of 30million (to use Instagram’s figure)., because ultimately that is what will sell when the tool gets acqui-hired. This is how I approached building Fiftytwo, since it’s value is derived from a group of people showing their work and feedback to others.

But the best pieces of software and tools are built with a very single-minded purpose, for only a single individual. This is how a hammer is designed, and few have ever complained that a hammer doesn’t quite satisfy a user’s needs.

If you bear this in mind when building a product, you’ll reap two main benefits:

  • Lifecycle testing a product becomes directly relevant. Using the tool again and again and again throughout development and making it work perfectly and enjoyably for just yourself means the tool has been built correctly and has achieved its goal already, regardless of however many people end up using it.
  • The product will work without the catch-22 situation of requiring a broad user-base from the get go. Of course, some products demand this (dating websites, for instance) but if you look at your product, there will almost always a way to simplify it such that the benefits can be enjoyed by a single user using it alone.

(Incidentally in the interview, Jonnie also talks about killing old projects, and moving onto new things, which echoes my recent post about doing lots of things.)

Comments — 3

katie on April 30 — 12:01 pm #

I’m really excited about Shorthand, by the way. Like you, I don’t have a link-bookmarking tool that does everything I need it to and nothing extraneous so it sounds perfect.

Daniel Howells on April 30 — 1:15 pm #

@katie hmmmmmm I really don’t want to oversell it since it’s SO basic! :-/

Gregory Schnese on April 30 — 9:29 pm #

This is my philosophy behind Musa.fm, my music sharing website. I hear music all the time, from many different sources, and I wanted a play to post all these songs.

I at least wanted to be able to play the songs back for myself, which I do all the time. As more people signup, they can see the songs I post and I can see theirs.

There’s a lot of value for just one person, and if a community develops, that’s great too.

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