The Secret Sauce of Writely

I spent a fun hour talking with Sam Schillace of Writely. We talked about the uptake (enormous) and different approaches to the idea of word processing on the web, but two things really stuck with me: platform and people. Every entrepreneur wants there to be a secret sauce for success–if you use Ajax, or Linux, or tagging, or (insert delicious top tag du jour) you’ll have a great product. Sam’s secret sauce isn’t platform.

That said, the platform is interesting. Writely is written in C# and deployed on Windows boxes. This isn’t interesting because of “oooh, he’s using The Enemy” or any nonsense like that, it’s interesting because this makes it the first Web 2.0 success that I can think of that was written in .NET. That’s an interesting datapoint in and of itself. The reason for choosing C#, other than “we had Visual Studio laying around”, was the integrated debugging of browser and server components. He demo’d it for me, and it’s mindblowingly useful. It is to Venkman as Venkman is to alert("foo has value " + foo).

That’s platform. It’s nerdy and that’s cool, but people is what still has me thinking. Writely has a three-person team at its core, and one of the core team has thousands of hours of user experience research. The engineers come from a desktop app background. This is important because, as Sam said, the desktop is a mature field. The average desktop app has hundreds of subtleties and nuances to their use that the average web app does not. If you’re building an Ajax application and taking advantage of richer UI possibilities, you need that fine sensibility to avoid producing an unusable abomination. An analogy might be to desktop publishing: when people first could use any font and put any text anywhere, they did. And they shouldn’t have. The best desktop publishers came from the print world and had the sensitivities honed by years of old-school design.

The same is true in the web world. Look at successful companies like Flickr and 37signals–there’s someone in those companies who’s as worried about the user on the front-end as the other people are worried about the servers on the back-end. I’m tempted to generalize and say that behind every successful Web 2.0 company there’ll be someone who understands the user. I know that’s not guaranteed always to be true–someone with a crappy product will be acquired because they’re lucky. But in general I think we’ve gone from a time when high concept was enough to get you an exit, to a time when you have to prove yourself with users. The key to that is understanding the user.

This might be the Return of the Designer or the Revenge of the UX Guru, but I prefer to see it as the Need to Please. Not just in the macrocosm of “solve a problem the user has” but in the microcosm of “every aspect of this app should behave the way real users expect”. If there’s a secret sauce to Writely, it’s this merciless focus on the user. And as both a user of technology and a creator of one, I love it.