#15. Micro Mobile Interactions
This week we talk to Luke Wroblewski about Polar, Micro mobile interactions, Beer and much more.
- Polar app
- Polar: A Simple App That Explores Just How Smart A Simple App Can Be
- Mobile Design Details: Echoing Core Interactions
- Linking Mobile Web & Native App Experiences
- The New Tech Mullet
Jeff: My name is Jeff Bruss and this is Episode 15 of the “Breaking Development” podcast, the podcast focused on web design and development for beyond the desktop. Today Jim King and I are speaking with Luke Wroblewski, Luke is currently the CEO and co-founder of The Input Factory…an internet startup focused on creating big value from micro mobile interactions. Luke’s newest endeavor…or one of his newest endeavors…is a pretty cool app called Polar. So, here we are with Luke…welcome.
Luke: Thank you guys, thanks for having me.
Jeff: Did I screw up any of that intro info?
Luke: No, I think you got it quite well.
Jeff: Did I even nail that last name?
Luke: Now you’re asking for too much!
Jeff: It’s good to have Polish heritage in me. [Luke interjects “”There ‘ya go”“] So, we were wondering, right off the bat, are you wearing a perfectly pressed green shirt right now?
Luke: No, I am actually wearing a Polar t-shirt, believe it or not. Gray!
Jeff: Last time we were at the Breaking Devolpment Conference I was sitting next to somebody and they said they always pictured in your closet a whole closet full of perfectly pressed green shirts…I agreed with that.
Luke: Minus the “perfectly pressed” part.
Jeff: That happens later on?
Luke: No, that barely ever happens.
Jeff: Speaking of green, how come you always depict yourself as a little green bald-headed man?
Luke: I think it just sort of evolved naturally, ‘96 or ‘97 or so when I made my website I had all these bitmapped icons and somehow they ended up green and it just went from there.
Jeff: So there’s no significance to it other than it just evolved and that’s how you first drew yourself?
Luke: Yeah. It wasn’t actually me in the beginning, just little icon-guy. You know when you make software you do a little caricature doing things?…I made a green one, and over time I just evolved it and evolved it.
Jeff: So, “speaking of”, did you do the polar bears?
Luke: No that comes from a very good illustrator that I’ve worked with over the years named Scott Jackson over in the UK.
Jeff: He hooked you up with the polar bears, and the animation-type parts for the new app?
Luke: He gave up the art, and we did all the heavy lifting to make it work in the end.
Jeff: As far as the new app goes, it’s been getting a lot of legs on the Internet, I’ve seen it in Fortune [we meant Forbes here] and a bunch of other places. Why don’t you tell us a little bit of how it works?
Luke: Yeah. The general idea is we want to make it as fast and fun as possible to collect and share opinions. The way we did that is we started from the mobile experience, and we tried to make a very visual experience around a poll voting and creation process. We timed it…we can make it about 30 or 40 seconds with one thumb …you can create a poll, make it look beautiful, nice pictures, and have people voting on it instantly. That speed, and sort of that focus on making it super fast and super lightweight seems to be paying off. We crossed about a half a million votes in the first eleven days after we made the application “live”…we sort of hard launched it.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s cool. I’ve been playing around with it since I found out about it here and there. To me, kind of the coolest part about it is the user interface is so simple. Thinking back, there was actually a method to my asking about who did the polar bears, and why the green man. I’m wondering…there’s an artsy side to you, in my opinion (that might not be an entirely fair statement), but do you feel that helps you to develop these user interfaces that are so simple?
Luke: I think that’s a good question. My undergraduate degree…I have one in art history, and one in graphic design…before I went on to do masters and sort of more interfaced based things. So I definatly have a background in the arts, but I don’t think I’m the best artist out there. Where I found my niche, I think, is in the interaction and the product design aspect of things. Because I have that art background, I think I can at least evaluate whether or not the visuals are working well. I built a little bit of the eye around it, regardless of whether or not I am the one who does the actual art or not.
Jeff: I guess I was just thinking more “left brain, right brain” type things as where you come off…you get to interact with so many more people. My favorite part of that app is the user interface, to be honest. Everything about it…some of this was pointed out online in some various articles I read about it, and some of them I just came across myself…the refreshed polar bears, the simplicity of the buttons…you’d written a blog on locations; all your stuff is on the bottom of the screen, which I like. The whole app is just real well done, and I’m wondering…how did you tie native with mobile, or isn’t there much of that?
Luke: Let me just back up a second. It’s all about the interface, the whole thing is just an interface, there’s nothing more to it than that, right? So, if the interface isn’t good, then nothing’s good…there’s no app beyond that. We have to kind of communicate that value, we have to allow people to get that value quickly, easily
Luke: In terms of web vs. native, we actually started out trying to do the whole thing in web. What we found was when we bundled it into some of the native components; we just weren’t getting the performance that we wanted out of it. Pretty much the main reason why we have a native application is because that first, kind of, main list of these visual photo polls where you vote, that’s the core experience. That has to be fast. That has to be fluid. That has to be easy. We just couldn’t get the performance we wanted out of it on the web. My co-founder had never coded an iOS app before so he, basically, learned to code Objective-C and make an iOS app just so we could have that good performance in the feed.
Jeff: Speaking of iOS, is this iOS only right now?
Luke: Currently iOS only, yeah. We have a web component where you can actually vote, so the app is tied together with, like, a multi-device responsive interface for the content that you create in it. So if you make a poll, you can blast it out to Twitter, Facebook or wherever and anybody with a web browser can vote on it. They just can’t get in there and create an account, create things like create polls themselves, browse around. That’s stuff that we’ll be working on, but we’re still focused on making sure that the actual app is as good as it can be. We don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin just yet.
Jim: I think that’s really one of the more interesting aspects. When I first saw the app, I thought it’s a poll app. It’s kind of neat. I didn’t think I would use it a lot, but then I started using it and it was very neat. Then I discovered that when I shared a poll, it gave me a URL. That URL allowed me to then go in and share that and allow other people to come in. But then, that interaction that you’ve gotten to where it knows if I have it installed and I can login and that sort of thing, so it kind of prompts me along the way. One of the things that you had said in one of your posts is, you know, you quoted Jason Grigsby who said, ‘Links don’t open apps.’ But then, you went and proved that, while that’s technically true, but you’ve really don’t some clever things to make it work pretty seamless and I haven’t seen that anywhere else.
Luke: It’s “seamless,” right. There’s still an opportunity to get into this weird state in Safari where you’re trying to open a custom URL scheme and it doesn’t know what it is. We’ve done our best to mitigate against that, but what we do is we push you through the browser once so that we can set a cookie. And inside that browser we’re gonna say, ‘Hey, this guy’s got the app.’ So if you ever encounter one of the URLs, one of these web pages, we’re gonna check to see if you have that cookie and if you do, then we’re gonna quickly pop you open into the app. We’re actually using it in interesting ways. You see people inside of the application, like linking between polls using these web URLs, and so if someone’s got the app, they click on that link, it opens the browser for a split second, then goes back to the app, and opens the app to where that actual poll is inside the app. It’s kind of weird but it happens so quickly that sometimes people probably don’t even know that’s what’s going on.
Jeff: And then having access through a URL like that, I think it pushes people who don’t have the app to want the app?
Luke: Yeah, let’s hope so. That’s the idea. At a very high level, I get asked all the time, ‘Web vs. native? Web vs. native?’ Right? That’s been the quintessential question for mobile for the past four or five years now. I guess since 2008, so four years. The way I always describe it is I think they’re both good at different things. I think native apps are very good at richness, creating a very in depth, awesome, kind of high performance experience when you need to access things only the device can do. For us, that was all about those tables and the scrolling of the media and the ability to vote quickly and have a smooth experience with that. That’s a rich user experience that can only happen in native today. That may change. I’d love for that to change. But then the web is all about reach. It’s about being as many places as you possibly can. When you think about the benefits of those two things, you can put together a strategy that says, well, let’s do what native does best, let’s make it as rich as possible.
Luke: Let’s do what the web does best.
Luke: Let’s make it as accessible as possible.
Jeff: Yeah. I was critiquing that. I was basically saying well done because a lot of big business could learn from that. “Hey, if we could tie our native into our web more.” Like for example I guess, shopping immediately comes to mind. Every big chain store, every big box store, has a shopping app but nobody uses the app. They use the mobile web site, but if they could tie the two together somehow like you’ve done here. Where you are referencing a URL that almost forces you to use the browser at some point, I think that you’d get more legs out of your native app. Does that make sense?
Luke: Yeah. Totally. I mean the whole problem with a native app is, by definition, it’s only native to one platform, right?
Luke: So like somebody has to be an iOS user or an android user to use it and then in order to reach all those platform you have to build multiple apps and that’s where things start to become really complicated and hard for a lot of companies. The beauty of the web is every single one of those platforms ships with a browser. Not just a browser, but a great web browser, these days. So you can go everywhere.
Luke: And then I think rather than treating those things as like an either or sort of choice, to me it makes a lot more sense to think about it as well how do we get the benefits of both and how do we let them work well together instead of having them fight? Right?
Jeff: And that’s refreshing to hear because so often even we’re not a big company, but we always seem to- Your brain kind of seems to only work one way or the other. It’s like, “Hey we need to build this or we need to build that,” but we need to build these to work together to get the best reach, the best product, the best everything. Again well done. I mean, I’m not surprised that you’d be the guy that does this and does it well with some help. I don’t want to throw your partner out completely?
Luke: He did it all. All I do is mouth off.
Jeff: Well somebody’s got to be the mouth piece of it.
Luke: Yeah. There you go. That’s the way it works.
Jim: Although I’ve got to you, when I looked at Polar and one of the reasons I’m glad we started with talking about Polar is that if you look back at all the information on your blog and you kind of read it chronologically moving forward, you kind of really see where Polar is kind of the culmination of all these different ideas that you put out there and all implemented in one little app. I find that very interesting in how you built upon those ideas, and how you continue to build upon them.
Luke: Yeah and everything’s still in iteration, right? And experiment. There’s a fellow who writes for Forbes, Anthony Kosner. He has a column called Quantum of Content and he wrote a little blog post about what we were up to that really resonated with us. A) because it was kind of flattering, but B) He said, “Look at all this stuff that goes on behind the scenes to make a simple app simple.” Right? And I really appreciated the message that he had in that article, because he went through about a lot of things you guys are talking about. About linking things between the web and all the performance stuff and I mean just all this stuff that the average person never sees that goes into making something easy, easy. I think a lot of people forget about that many times, right? And also sometimes it’s kind of negative because people look at what we’re doing. “That’s such like a simple thing. That can’t be interesting.” Right? But I think that’s where it gets interesting and the more you dwell into this stuff, the more you learn and the more stuff you have going on and the more ideas you have in your head; it’s harder and harder and harder to say no to stuff. Right? It’s harder and harder and harder to focus yourself and to take all that information you have and distill it down to just like one thing or two things that actually make sense.
Jim: That’s interesting. Today I was just reading a piece where Nike is going to start basically some program to get developers working on these micro apps. Is that kind of your thought on where things are headed? Into a lot of these little, micro-interactions I guess is what you talk about. Is that kind of the future of where tech is headed?
Luke: I mean at some point the interactions will be very passive, right? So I wear one of these Nike fuel bands and one of my interactions, the times when I actually interact with this thing, I’m actually irked because that’s when the battery’s dead or I have to synch it with a device so I don’t lose my data and I have to plug it in and all that stuff. I dislike that, right? I much prefer just to wear it around all day and have it be tracking how active I am. Generally if I’m being more active, less active, tracking my goals, so on and so on. I want it to be a totally passive interaction and so maybe that’s the ultimate goal and we’re just going about doing our things and the digital stuff is just working for us in the background. I think that’s good from a data collection perspective, but I also think people are really like expressing themselves and making things and it’s just like human nature to go make stuff.
But as our potential to make things throughout the day on stuff like mobile devices and through different form factors and stuff like that; as that changes, we as software designers and app creators or what have you or micro-app creators have got to take a step back and say, “Okay. Well is what we know from the past twenty-five years of building on the web still relevant right now?” I’ll give you an example. I was walking through the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and there was an advertisement for the Samsung Galaxy S3, like the smart phone, right? And there was a interface on it and the headline of the ad was, “Samsung Galaxy S3: Ready for Business” and there was an interface on it that looked like a Windows 98 app crammed into a smart phone. I mean it had great buttons. They were beveled, right? It had like five menus on there. Like and I looked at it and I was like, “What the hell?”
Jeff: It was like a Blackberry app.
Luke: Right. It’s even worse than a Blackberry. Like they literally just superimposed a Windows 98 app onto the smart phone.
Jeff: Ready for business.
Jim: And that’s interesting. I just recently transitioned over to using Android from an iPhone and one of the beautiful things about it, I’ve found, has been Google Now and what I like about it is I don’t have to do anything. It just does it for me.
Jeff: Built for lazy people.
Jim: Right, exactly. That’s going back to my Unix roots.
Luke: It’s not that we’re lazy, though. I mean it’s just like we just have got better stuff to do, right?
Jeff: Yeah. Right. That was just a blast on Jim.
Luke: No, no. I get it. But that’s like I think is the promise of the software, right? Like let us get on with the things that we actually want to be doing rather than sitting around and mucking with buttons and menus and crappy interfaces and all this stuff that we sort of had to deal with for years with computers.
Jeff: Well and go ahead Jim.
Jim: I was just going to comment on that and saying, yeah. That’s exactly right that people get lost in the fact that the computer is a tool that you’re supposed to be using. Not that it’s supposed to be using you. Today when we have to do all this interaction and fill out all these forms and take up all of this time. That’s the tool is using us instead of us using the tool and I think Google Now is a good example of where the tool is actually a tool.
Luke: Yeah. I mean it can probably go a hell of a lot further than Google Now, right? Google Now is sort of like baby steps into this stuff and you guys have had Scott Jensen come and talk at the conference a few times and he sort of always talks about these sort of just in time interactions, right?
Luke: You walk up to something or you’re near something and the computer does something for you and we’re just scratching the surface of that today. I don’t even know if we’re scratching the surface of it yet. Maybe we’re just kind of starting to see it on the horizon, if you will.
Jeff: Well speaking of the conference, I want to go back to Polar real quick. I did read that Anthony Kosner article and what was cool to me was he pointed out all the things that you’ve been teaching us. I’ve known you now for about two years, through the conference. One eye, one thumb. The no password protected characters. It was cool to see everything that you preach, you put into practice in the app. The first time I used the app, it was amazing how quickly I could set it up and create a poll and it was there and I felt like, “I’m missing something. This should be more difficult.” So to be able to put into practice what you teach everyone I think is truly different than just going up on a stage and telling everyone how to do it, but having no real life experience in it.
Luke: Thank you.
Jeff: So for that, I commend you.
Luke: I mean I have this philosophy like, if I’m not learning I don’t have anything to teach anybody, right? I should just shut up and actually go back to learning something.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, it’s easy to get up on a stage and tell everyone how to do things and even as someone who runs a business and things like that it’s like, “Do as I say. Not as I do.” Well you’re doing as you say and as you do, which is great. Which is cool.
Luke: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah. I mean, again that’s how I learn, right? Like if I wasn’t out there doing these sorts of things, I wouldn’t be learning. That’s one of my pleasures in life that I get invited to go these events because A) I go and give a talk, but ninety-five percent of the time only five percent of it is me actually talking. Ninety-five percent of the time, I’m learning from everybody else there.
Luke: Which is I think you sort of have to have that. At least I have this sort of mind set like I’m there to keep learning so that I can pick up on things and then therefore put that back into the world.
Jeff: Since all you ever do is travel and go to conferences and help other people figure out how to make great apps and web sites, what are your three favorite beers in your travels?
Luke: Well my absolute favorite beer right now, hands down, is Racer 5 from Bear Republic. It’s the best IPA.
Jeff: That I haven’t had. Where is that at?
Luke: The best IPA in America. So let’s see. Bear Republic. It’s somewhere in California. I don’t know exactly where, but close to here.
Luke: a couple of hours away. So that’s hands-down the winner. Then I was in New York on Tuesday, and I wish I could remember the name of this beer-head. So in Japan right now, a pile of new breweries just started to open up, and they’re very much into the craft beer craze that’s penetrating America. The most popular one is this Hachino Nest White Owl ale.
Jeff: I’ve had it!
Luke: You’ve had that one?
Jeff: Oh, absolutely. It’s the best.
Luke: It’s a really damn good beer.
Jeff: In fact, I have a picture of the label on my smartphone because I can never remember the name of it.
Luke: It’s something crazy.
Jeff: And every time I go to a sushi restaurant, I show them the picture and say, “Do you have this?”
Luke: Yeah. And so anyway, I was at a sushi restaurant where they had that, but they also had an IPA that those guys made, which was just tremendous. I didn’t know that they were making ales like that out there. So that was really cool. Those two, probably. I don’t know if I have a third draft off the top of my head.
Jeff: We won’t make you do a third. We put you on the spot with that question anyway.
Luke: It’s good. I had it ready.
Jim: So let’s toss you out another tech question, then. Tell us about the New Tech Mullet.
Luke: So that’s sort of like the umbrella idea around which we founded the company Input Factory. And so, you know, I’m not naive enough to believe that the first product or app we put out there is going to be the only thing that we can, is like our only bet, right? You have all, you’ve learned new things, you’ve tried different stuff. So what we have at a higher level than that, than the app is just an idea about what kinds of circumstances can create for interesting services today. And in particular, you know, the fact that people have these mobile devices with them anywhere, everywhere, and they use them in all these little bits of time throughout the day, or on the couch, or, you know, in the bathroom. People might say they don’t, but they do. There’s this huge opportunity to collect things in, like, small, calculated bits from people. Now that’s not valuable unless you can actually do something with it, right? It makes no sense to get piles of little lightweight interactions if you can’t figure anything out. And so at the same time while we have this big mobile trend, we also have this huge trend toward Big Data. I’m on the advisory board for a couple companies whose entire business is trying to help companies organize just tons and tons of data, ‘cuz they’re collecting it and doing nothing with it. From, you know, visualization software to analytics tools, so on and so forth. So the Big Data side is “Ok, if you have tons of data, you can actually learn things from it and do stuff with it.” And I think that if you combine those two things together, you create a really interesting paradigm for me as a user experience guy, alright, because what you’re doing is you’re taking all the complexity of understanding the data and making sense of it and you’re absorbing it onto yourself. So you’re sorta taking the complexity and sticking it on the back end, and what you end up giving the customer and the end user is the super-simple, very lightweight interaction through these micro-mobile interactions. And as a result of that, that feeds more data, which gives you more stuff to do, and you know, that’s just sort of a nice little equilibrium you can get into.
Jim: Sure. I remember working in agencies. All of our clients, they always wanted you to track everything you possibly could, and so you would track all of this data, but then you never really did anything with it. So, yeah, if you can get to where you can take all that data, and all that information, and all those inputs that you’re getting and then churn it back out. And that’s, again, you know, I’m obviously a Google Now fan. I think that’s one of the, like you said, a baby step into utilizing that and coming out with something that’s useful.
Luke: Yeah, absolutely.
Jeff: Utilize that data to simplify a process, even. You know what I mean, that’s something we’ve been working at internally here just to eliminate steps and speed up processes. Again, to take some of that pain away, as we’ve learned in past conferences, too. You know, you lower the pain, and it’s a much better user experience.
Luke: Yeah. I think this goes back, to quote Scott Jensen again. I think it goes back to his “user experience equals value minus pain,” right? Or something like that.
Jeff: Yep, exactly.
Luke: So if you get enough value, it’s worth it. Or if you just reduce the pain enough, it’s worth it.
Jeff: Exactly, and I’m one of those ones that, again, I go back to your app, you know, the pain was so low that that’s what made it worthwhile to me. So no matter what the process is, if you can lessen the pain just because you already have that user data, why not put it to good use rather than just sit on it.
Luke: I mean, I think he [Scott Jenson] even makes the point, he goes as far as saying, “Look, if you can get value down to zero and pain down to zero, well, people will still probably do it, even if it has very little value, because there’s no pain whatsoever in doing it.”
Jim: Right. I can tell you, with Polar you can tell. Pinterest was the big app for my wife, and she spent hours and hours in Pinterest. And then I introduced her to Polar, and now all she does is create Poles all day long. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
Luke: Sorry about that. [Laughs]
Jeff: Is she the one that just posted that poll about pink or blue socks?
Jim: You know, because it’s not on Android yet, I’m kinda lost without it.
Jeff: Luke we appreciate your time clearly, we did have bdconf coming up April 8th the 10th. Luke is speaking and doing a workshop at that of then and we just unveil that we did Breaking Development conference San Diego July 22nd to the 24th, we haven’t officially announced that you are going to be there yet, but you have told us you would join us again.
Luke: I wouldn’t miss it
Jim: Now the podcast listeners have a little inside track
Jeff: Hopefully there’s a bunch of them that know before ever everyone knows
Luke: Yeah, as I was saying earlier, it’s my pleasure that you could get these things learned and B.D conference is one of the best where I learn a ton.
Jeff: We appreciate that, we also appreciate your time on episode-15 Breaking Development podcast. Is there anything else you want to give a plug for or say hello to
Luke: Come to the bio-dome
Jeff: Well that the San Diego will be in hard rock I have never been there, so I don’t know how we have to officially name that one
Luke: Yeah that’s going to be interesting. We’ll have to see how that plays out.
Jeff: We can call out our bionomical name
Luke: Cafe-o-dome that’s terrible, terrible, terrible pun
Jeff: Guitar museum, I don’t know, thanks Luke.”