Thoughts / diatribes on application design / January 29, 2007

i have a pet project that i started almost a year ago. it is an online php/js gallery powered by the buzzy, hype ajax.

and it has brought me happines loads of times. yesterday it brought me my first (and second) donation: $2 and $18 by the same person. i wanted to jump all day long. i felt someone finally got it besides me, and that really made me joyful.

why?

my gallery is a disastrous mix of php and javascript given that i’m not a programmer, so the code looks so amateur sometimes i get lost in it. disastrous is an understatement. changing one thing can break it all completely, that’s the code’s state.

but it extremely simple to use. it is, believe me. if not now, then once i have all the bugs covered. you just have to upload the php files, throw some images in some folders in the directory, change some settings in a config file (no more than 12) and voilà!, you’re browsing your last trip to Thailand!

your galleries are named after your gallery’s folder name, same as your photos. add a date and a dash to the gallery’s name and they’ll order by date. images open in a preview pane on top of it all (à la Lightbox) with thumbnail navigation. there’s a simple slideshow. define number of pictures by row and number of rows in the settings and images are resized automatically to the right width and height. you can set thumbnails to be squared or to maintain aspect ratio. it all adapts to your likings on-the-fly (including image caching) so you don’t have to do the maths.

you might say all galleries do that and more. yes i know. but i’m a lousy programmer, so i’m proud of my achievements.

but there’s a huge error i made from the start: i expected people to notice how wonderful it was not dealing with settings, and to admire the simplicity of it. and some people has admired it. but the majority just does not. they just see the errors, the bugs, the issues. and they tell me so, complain and even argue. did i tell you i give it for free?

but they’re right. it is not about it being simple enough. people want that *and* for it to work, period. and they’re right. it should work, period.

the main problem is that i’m pointing to a very demanding audience: the non-programmers, the code-unsavvy, the fallen angels of the programming world. they cannot see al the work that gallery takes (imagine dealing with platform-dependent directory encoding both in php, javascript and cross-data communication!).

they want it simple and working.

i know i feel very high for the designers and programmers of projects like JQuery, prototype, php, box.net, cpaint, flickr. i can see the beauty of their programmes and frameworks. i can see all the work and hours they have put into those projects. and i can praise them accordingly. but my users cannot see it in my gallery.

and that is a challenge, cause as designers and programmers it is so easy (and stimulating) to design for other fellow programmers and designers. but it is so astoundingly complicated, difficult, extenuating and demoralising to design for the common folk that does not want to handle code and complex issues and processes.

but those are the lot, those are the masses, and those are the ones that need it the most. other programmers can come up with their own library or framework or methods or APIs. but what about the non-programmers? the grandfathers and grandmothers that could use a computer to video-chat with their grandsons and granddaughters that are 3000 kilometres away? the student that has his mother’s computer jammed cross-state and cannot solve it by simply connecting to it for troubleshooting? what about syncing your contacts online? a simple and robust way for a web-illiterate Marketing Manager or an NGO worker to update the company’s site? (sometimes even i cannot find solutions that are simple on those regards[1]).

that’s a huge marketplace, target and whatever you can call it: it is huge. and someone should address it, cause i see a goldmine there. i mean it. just come up with a simple webmail service and you’d got my father’s money, i guarantee it! he’s 60, a medical doctor and don’t like computers that much but needs email to communicate. and he has good money, and is willing to spend it where programmes are to simplify his life. now multiply that by a big number, a very big one.

a goldmine i say!

fn1. there are very good services that solve some of these situations in an elegant way. but i think there could be more. i take the opportunity to praise projects like Apple .Mac, Fog Creek Copilot, Bosco’s Screen Share, Plaxo, Squarespace and others which are, according to me, pointing towards making informatic lives a lot easier.