Know Your Core: Providing Focus for Web Applications

By Luke Wroblewski

Published: June 8, 2009

“In a world with such low barriers to entry, knowing that you can do something can quickly become secondary to knowing if you should do it.”

As the Web has grown, the cost of getting a new application online has plummeted. Web hosting services with unlimited bandwidth and storage now cost less than ten dollars a month. Free open source platforms can easily power the back-end of an application. Free development toolkits for client-side programming (JavaScript) and styling (CSS) make building the front-end of an application much faster. In aggregate, these factors enable a new Web application to get in front of a global audience very quickly and easily.

Under these circumstances, it’s possible to launch countless ideas online. We can roll out new services fast, add new features weekly—if not daily—and do optimization testing and refinement in near real time. In a world with such low barriers to entry, knowing that you can do something can quickly become secondary to knowing if you should do it.

To stand out from the burgeoning number of products online and help your organization make the right decisions about what to build, it’s crucial to develop and stay focused on a clear value for your Web application that is distinct and obvious. In other words, you need to know your product’s core:

  • Be able to define your product clearly and concisely.
  • Build what defines your product first and hold it sacred.
  • Grow outward from your product’s core.

Define Your Focus

“Setting the right focus for your Web application with a clear and concise definition that people can readily understand not only helps your organization make the right decisions, it also benefits your customers.”

The original goal company founder Pierre Omidyar laid out for eBay Inc. was “to create the world’s first global economic democracy.” Omidyar’s belief was that anyone in the world should be able to buy or sell any item at a fair price. So, he set out to create a “level playing field” that could make this aspiration a reality.

When measured against Pierre’s original definition, eBay did quite well. In 2005, this online marketplace was the 29th largest economy in the world. eBay was available in 38 markets, had 700,000 sellers in the United States who made their full-time living on the site, was home to over half a million online stores across the world, and saw over $1,500 (US) of merchandise change hands on the site per second. As these statistics clearly illustrate, the core of eBay—allowing anyone to buy or sell anything at a fair price—really came to life as the company grew. Along the way, Omidyar’s concise definition of the company helped it make many important decisions and still emerge with its core essence intact.

Sometime around 2005, the company’s goal shifted from “enabling a global economic democracy” to “$8 billion in 2008.” (I’m not sure of the exact numbers.) While, a financial goal is a worthwhile pursuit for a publicly traded company, it doesn’t do much to tell people how they should operate. In fact, it’s not too hard to imagine how employees might make different product design and feature decisions if their goal is “$8 billion in 2009” versus “enabling a global economic democracy.”

Setting the right focus for your Web application with a clear and concise definition that people can readily understand not only helps your organization make the right decisions, it also benefits your customers. Without a definition of the core essence of your service, two things can go wrong:

  1. Customers may not understand the value your Web application provides.
  2. Your company may drift away from the value customers believe your service brings to the world.

Focus on the Core

“Once you’ve clearly defined your product’s core, the crucial next step is bringing it to life. In most cases, there is some feature or product design decision that ultimately determines how a Web service will work.”

Once you’ve clearly defined your product’s core, the crucial next step is bringing it to life. In most cases, there is some feature or product design decision that ultimately determines how a Web service will work. Sometimes, this decision is made deliberately, but other times, it’s a matter of happenstance.

What product design or feature decision was responsible for bringing eBay’s core to life? When asked, most people quickly assert that what most likely enabled its level playing field to thrive was the user feedback system that lets both buyers and sellers rate each other based on their previous transactions together. After all, ratings let people benchmark the credibility of others in the marketplace and thereby engage in fair trade with fair people. While the feedback system is indeed a crucial element of the eBay ecosystem, it may not have been the strongest enabler of its core.

That honor, as a product strategist at eBay once explained to me, belonged to the default sorting mechanism on the eBay search results pages. Whenever someone searched or browsed for an item on eBay, the results that came back were sorted by Time: ending soonest by default, despite the many other sorting options that were available, including price, category, best match, and other options shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1Time: ending soonest, the default sort order on eBay results pages

eBay sort order

The impact of sorting everything by time remaining meant that everyone got equal time in front of eBay buyers. Whether you were a big retailer or an individual seller, your product was first in line when your auction was about to expire. This system helped nurture the “level playing field” at eBay’s core. Everyone got prime shelf time for their items, so they could sell to anyone in the world at a fair price.

After more than twelve years without any change, eBay recently modified this element of their user interface—instead sorting results by Best Match by default. What impact this will have on their core only time will tell. But it’s quite likely the eBay experience will no longer be focused on the level playing field that originally defined the company.

Another example of how product design decisions can bring the core of a Web application to life comes from the social media site, Digg. Digg defines itself as “a place where people can collectively determine the value of content.” The site’s digg button reflects its core—a single click lets people make a positive vote if they like a piece of content, as Figure 2 shows.

Figure 2—Inline single-click-to-vote button on Digg, before and after voting

Digg voting

The digg button is not only the most prominent element on the site’s home page; it’s also the central element on all of the site’s category pages and in activity streams as well. Content owners across the Web can embed Digg code on their own sites, so the digg button is available even off the Digg site.

Digg founder, Kevin Rose, articulated the impact the single-click digg button had on his site: “When we made the move to the one-click digg, activity went through the roof. It was just insane! Just the ease of the one-click and you’re done made all the difference in the world.” Rose’s focus on getting this core element of the experience right clearly paid off.

Build Outward

“Once you have defined your core and know what is responsible for making it a reality through your Web application, you need to keep it at the heart of everything you do.”

The way Digg consistently used prominent, one-click-to-vote buttons across their Web application and the rest of the Web highlights another important consideration for Web application teams. Once you have defined your core and know what is responsible for making it a reality through your Web application, you need to keep it at the heart of everything you do.

Because it is quite easy to add new features and make changes to Web applications, it is also quite easy to dilute or diverge from your core. Building too much outside the core essence of your application can confuse customers and reduce the interactions that matter most for your service. If people could no longer buy or sell things at a fair price, why would they continue coming to eBay?

Instead, when you change your Web application—and just about all Web applications do change—ensure it grows outward from your core to build new value and increase engagement. To see this approach in action, let’s look at the photo-sharing site Flickr. As Bryce Glass’s diagram in Figure 3 illustrates, the core essence of Flickr is “people sharing pictures.” From there, a wide ecosystem of contacts, groups, pools, sets, tags, comments, feeds, favorites, notes, and more has grown. But at the heart of all these features remains the simple act of sharing a photo.

Figure 3—Bryce Glass’s diagram, showing how Flickr features build outward from its core

Flickr ecosystem

Even when Flickr enabled video uploads, they did so in a way that remained true to their core. By allowing only videos that run ninety seconds or less, Flickr put the focus on “moving images” rather than TV shows and movies—media that does not align with the site’s core essence.

In Summary

“To ensure you are creating a differentiated Web service that people can understand and identify with, know your core.”

As barriers to entry for Web applications continue to fall, clearly defining, developing, and maintaining the core essence of Web applications matter more and more. To ensure you are creating a differentiated Web service that people can understand and identify with, know your core.

Define your Web application in concise terms, so people get the value you provide. Make that value obvious by bringing the core to life in your product. Build what defines you first and hold it sacred. Grow outward from your core and into new opportunities. Your company’s teams and products will be more in synch, and your customers will thank you for it.

2 Comments

Thanks for this article. I think good experience designers are able to quickly understand the essence of a Web application and keep it central to everything they do. Unfortunately, organizations don’t always listen to UX people. Companies exist to make money, but they’ll only succeed in that goal if they are helping users succeed at their goals. It’s so simple, yet so elusive!

I agree with Emily here that the success of a company depends on the success of their users’ goal achievement, and Web apps are specially meant for that. Good article really. Keep it up.—Web Application Developer

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