What always surprises me about folks in software is…
- How few people ask for help: meeting your peer at another company helps you steal ideas and makes you seem open-minded and — here’s the thing — you’ll believe them, and listen to them and act on what they say — and when you explain your rationale to others you’ll be able to cite a credible reference.
- How readily people offer help: it’s flattering and fun to help and often involves a free lunch.
Redfin’s brown bag program is a case in point. Andy Liu showed us the light on SEO. Ben Elowitz explained conversion in terms of education and trial, which is why we published a real estate glossary. Scott Jacobson talked about running Amazon Marketplaces, which is why we simpified our agent recommendations and launched our partner network. The whole Urbanspoon crew helped us build a shiny new thing, which we’re just about to launch. And Paul Goodrich pulled our head out of the sand — just in time! — about how to scale a business.
Almost every time someone comes by to give us a brown-bag lunch, it has become a catalyst for change.
Last Wednesday it was Jonathan Sposato and Peter Roman who gave a talk on how to design a beautiful website like Picnik. They talked about the dandelions that pop up as you complete each field in Picnik’s registration system, and the progress bar that impulsively accelerates through the last 10% .
They talked about spending time in the beginning on their brand, not arguing about the abstract names of a category — not about, say, whether Redfin stands for transparency or honesty or openness — but getting to very precise feelings by multiple examples, examples of words and pictures and things they liked and wanted to be like. They showed pictures of chairs designed in 1941 and the latest architecture in Gramercy Park and images of kids with their parents and color swatches.
It was something I really agreed with because I have always felt that the most magnificent accomplishment of any work of art — and any brand is a work of art — is a sustained and precisely expressed emotion. It has always seemed to me that the people with the most emotions, the best emotions, struggle to sustain them.
But the real insight came at the end of the talk when Jonathan explained that they worked so hard to delight people — Picnik tries to give everyone a little surprise — because the Picnik folks come from a gaming background. As executive producer of Halo, Jonathan had to make the shell casings fly from the gun and bounce off the wart-hog in just the right away. It was a totally alien perspective for most of us, since we come from a business software background where people are users — someone forced to use our product — not players.
There’s probably a good case for the stripped-down-to-the-metal speed and functionality of Craigslist or Google Chrome. But it is hard to deny the emotional appeal of being more painterly in our design.
Anyhow, the two things that I got out of the talk were that Redfin should stop trying to win a logical argument with consumers about why our home-buying service is clearly the rational choice, and start pumping on the glands and the heart — our site sometimes seems masculine and cold. And the other thing is to think sometimes like a gamer: what if our users were players who didn’t have to do anything unless it was for pleasure?
It’s an active debate at Redfin — we took years off Sasha Aickin’s life by introducing rounded corners into our user interface, to make our delightful site more delightful — so it’s hard to know where to draw the line. But Jonathan and Peter made a good case, and you can tell already from sitting in Redfin meetings that it changed how we think. Thanks guys!