How much to scratch your own itch as a Startup?

Let me first define the itch concept – the itch here on in will refer to how far to take of your own opinions and desires of how a piece of software should operate.

So the question is from the title:

Q: How much to scratch your own itch as a startup?

Let me answer this right up front:

A: The correct amount.

Off the back of the Thursday night WDYK event, some Startup and User Experience talking points were raised that I wanted to discuss. I started off by trying to fit it in to the last post, but it didn’t quite fit there. I’m working in a Startupesque environment right now and just wanted to put some ideas down on ‘paper’, so here goes…


The statement that sent me off on this thought path was “don’t just scratch your own itch“, it’s good that Joel reminded the audience of this. Often as software developers we inject too much of our own usability ideas into the software being built. This falls over when we eventually realise this is not how typical users of our application would like to use it, even if they are other software developers. What I’m currently working on is not a core software engineer’s tool, say like bug tracking software. It is targeted at a specific type of user and process. But of course we developers often put our ‘application user’ hat on as we build features. Knowing that we’re building the system for someone other than ourselves doesn’t inhibit members of our development team from having strong opinions on how it should operate. This isn’t a bad thing…

Start scratching

There is something in the argument of “scratching your own itch” being beneficial – it is a reasonable starting point to turning your idea into a functioning application. But you always need to keep in mind your needs aren’t going to be exactly those of the customer. There’s a fair bit of this kind of opinion floating around on blogs: “Focusing on our own problems doesn’t necessarily mean we’re solving other people’s problems, or solving problems that matter at scale“- Ben Yoskovitz, source.

When subject matter experience/expertise comes in to play in building the application, you possibly are focussing on your interpretation of the problems that do matter. You can’t always get the cleanest/best problem definition from your users. So you go on to manage the itch combining the expertise and opinion with some user experience analysis. Your team probably has a vision of what the application will be about, heading towards hopefully at least one killer feature/aspect that makes your product stand out. So you go forward combining your ideas and refining with some user testing, now days focussed around the users experience and flow through the application.

Scratch right

This is how you get to that magical place which is the correct amount of scratching your own itch. Have the application be capable of (within reason) all you desire, but reign that in to simpler flows refined by actual results of real users navigating through the system to achieve their normal expectation of work supported by the system.

When my reaches that magical place, I’ll share what it took to get there, but for now it’s just an objective off in the not too far distance.

Scratch well

Joel describing his own start-up raised some great points about not needing venture capital, and how your product would likely be better off without it. There’s no financial pressure from the investor wanting to cash out sometime down the track. The way you do this is by:

1. Make something people want,
2. Make it better than what is out there,
3. Tell people about it.

That last point was a great theme to touch on, Mark had his ideas on this which were about going out to find your users, and not just shouting as he put it (a company blog, a company twitter account). Finding and engaging with users is critical. This is what it will take to get the widest range of feedback to help build your application. But it needs to be guided into a solution that’s not something that has come out of a very large handful of a ‘committee design meetings’.

As an FYI; Joel was Joel Friedlaender – Founder at Red Guava and Mark was Mark Mansour – Founder at Agile Bench

Web Directions South – What Do You Know? Night in Melbourne

Last night Thursday 23rd August 2012, I went along the What Do You Know? event held at The Appartment a great little place I used to frequent when I was working on Exhibition Street.

Earlier this year I was at the Web Directions South Code event, so anything put on the Web Directions South team is great and you should attend. In particular the up coming conference in mid October 2012, Sydney.

So back to Thursday nights event. There were 12 lightning talks, each 5 minutes long, I’ll list them off with links to what was most interesting / their entire presentation.

I wanted to talk about a few that stood out to me, mostly because it’s relevant to what is happening at Picnic Software at the moment.

The 4 presentations that stood out as very relevant to what we’re doing at Picnic Software were:

  • Mark – 5 Simple Things You’ll Forget When You Start a Startup
  • Joel – DevOps for Startups: Tales from the trenches
  • Matt – What the $%&# is UX Design?
  • Will – The User is Drunk

I started off by trying to fit it in to this post, but it ended up longer than I expected so it’s here: How much to scratch your own itch as a Startup?.

Summary of the event with links, in order of appearance:

The State of Our Web Performance Union
John Bristowe, @JohnBristowe

Content being deliver over the web is getting larger faster than bandwidth increases. Aim for performance. Have a look at a data trends

DevOps for Startups: Tales from the trenches
Lucas Chan, @geekylucas

Monitor and be ready for spikes. Uptime is critical. Don’t build what you can rent.

What the $%&# is UX Design?
Matt Magain, @mattymcg

Watch this on YouTube and check out

A whirlwind tour of D3.js
Tony Milne, @tonymilne

It’s very powerful, check it out

A brief introduction to the Gamepad API
Anette Bergo, @anettebgo

Getting Sourcey with Javascript
Michael Mifsud, @xzyfer

Source Maps are the future of debugging the web –

Startup Myths Debunked
Joel Friedlaender, @jfriedlaender

Named some common myths that are all likely wrong; failure is high e.g. 9 in 10 Startups fail, your idea is worthless, you need venture capital, the only costs are your time.

CSS checkboxes and the ridiculous things you can build with them
Ryan Seddon, @ryanseddon

50 handy things you’ve never heard of
Charlie Somerville, @charliesome

From zero to superpimp mobile web app using Tres
Julio Cesar Ody, @julio_ody

Julio amazingly wrote some non-trivial JavaScript using Backbone.js and his library:

The User is Drunk
Will Dayble, @willdayble

Good UI is ‘not there’, say things twice (icon and words), you can’t beat over the shoulder testing (watching your user).

5 Simple Things You’ll Forget When You Start a Startup
Mark Mansour, @markmansour

Marketing (is critical and not easy), Product (focus on benefits and customers), Promotion (talk to customers), Price (Tiers and known costs for customers), Place (don’t shout at your customers, go find them)

Sketching an actual solution.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, project commitments have been drowning me. But the tide has now receded.

Last night (Tue 30th of June) I attended the Melbourne Silverlight Designer and Developer Network (SDDN) event, always great fun and interesting and always has free pizza (if you get there early).

With presentations from Mahesh Krishnan @ about new features in Expression Blend 3. The most interesting to developers of business systems being; sample data generation, and IntelliSense support.

Which was followed by a great demo of SketchFlow – A rapid prototyping tool (that works) by Shane Morris a User eXperience (UX) guru from Microsoft.

SketchFlow looks to fill a gap well for designing something that can actually be played with and fine tuned by designers, users and business analysts. Having been involved in projects where UI’s left up to the control of developers have resulted in lots of rework when clients begin to use them as part of UAT such a tool if used properly should improve the process greatly.

Some of the great uses for SketchFlow are to quickly explore possible flow paths in an application, screen layout design and actually begin to setup associated actions such as animations and transitions. The deal-maker being it’s ability to create actual, usable code. Without the designer/business analyst writing code. This code can then be “harvested” out when development begins. It also includes a feature designed for testers and other lovers of long documents, it can output a word document of the screen designs, annotations and possibly feedback elements. The feedback element of the system allows a redistributable (via silverlight package or central web location) for users to navigate around the application screens, and draw and add notes. With the most typical example of a “simple request” – *big circle around logo* with the text: “can we make our company logo bigger?!”.

There should be a Beta release coming soon, so get a hold of it to actually witness it’s potential. It’s worth checking out the AU Remix 09 videos including the key note where SketchFlow is mentioned.

I won a copy of ‘Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design’ (Interactive Technologies) available at Amazon. I hope to get a chance soon to start reading parts of this, and may make a post out of it.

I won the book by raising a question about how one could go about using SketchFlow to help design a “Version 2.0” of an existing system. Attempting to incorporate actual real world looking components from the real operational system side by side with new additions, including mixes and matches for modifications/overhauls on existing system screens. The flexibility of the tool seems to lend itself to using it in a variety of scenarios and project types.

Update (10 Jul 2009): Download Blend 3 RC & SketchFlow Release Candidate here.
Update 2: That link isn’t a wise choice… Stay tuned to :