Case Study: Elemental Drumbeat
One of our more interesting design projects was for a small start-up company in San Diego named Elemental Software. Its product, Drumbeat, is an authoring tool for creating dynamic, database-
The cast of
From the beginning, Elemental had set its sights high. Elemental wanted to create a program that was far more powerful than any other competitor's. It also wanted to make its program easier to use than any other. These goals were not at all incompatible. Most of the trouble we had arose because Elemental had
The existing product had some powerful features, but it had been
For our investigation, we interviewed several people, primarily Webmasters. As we proceeded, we saw a clear pattern emerge. The world of Web authoring was neatly divided into two camps. Of course, we defined a representative persona for each camp, and these two became the keys that unlocked the entire Drumbeat puzzle, though not in the way we anticipated.
Within just a few days of starting, we were able to
Betsy is an artist. She wears black and drinks espresso. She used to be a graphic artist but got bitten by the Web bug, and now she creates screen layouts instead of page layouts. She has read enough books to teach herself how to build nice-looking—but simple and static—Web pages. She has mastered the basics of HTML, but she
Every time Betsy needs some advanced processing, she must
It was quickly apparent to us that the Elemental team had, without a clear vision of Betsy and Ernie, been developing a program that tried to make them both happy. The result was a fuzzy concoction of powerful and complex features in a graphic presentation. They'd say, "Look what new cool thing the user can do now!" Their "user" was elastic, and they didn't have any idea of his goals. The programmers at Elemental were
After we introduced them, the entire company immediately recognized both personas as extremely familiar archetypes and seized on them as useful user definitions.
Who Serves Whom
Visual tools for constructing Web sites was (and still is) a hot
The competitive market had also split along the Betsy/Ernie division. On one hand, several other Web-authoring-tool companies were writing cool new tools for Ernie. They were all complex and hard to use but let Ernie create powerful, dynamic, and sophisticated Web sites for corporate
On the other hand, some other Web-authoring-tool companies were writing cool new tools for Betsy. They were all simple, visual, and easy to use, but they were all weak as kittens. They could only be used to build static sites with weak functionality, completely disconnected from any outside databases.
After we could see the landscape through the Betsy/Ernie lens, it was clear to everyone that the big opportunity was to provide Betsy with a tool giving her far more power than she was used to. This would give Elemental a desirable product in an uncrowded part of the marketplace. The programmers soon adopted "Betsy" as their rallying cry and focused their efforts on helping her.
This was a good starting point, but as we proceeded with our design efforts, we
In the old world of simple, static, first-generation Web sites, Betsy was independent. She could design
a Web site for a client without any help from Ernie. Because it was just Betsy doing what she was
As the Web evolved, it
But Betsy found that she was now dependent on Ernie to deliver a finished product to her client. For every new Web site she created, at some unavoidable point during the process she had to find Ernie and get him to install the database access and the dynamic page-composition code. She could no longer deliver a finished Web site without using Ernie, and he wasn't
Although Betsy still wanted to build a cool, powerful, dynamic Web site, that was not her most important goal. What had been a hygienic goal, and one that she had taken for granted, was her independence, but as soon as it was gone, it became dominant. Her most important goal was to be independent again, liberated from Ernie. She wanted to be able to strike up a relationship with a client, and then design, create, and deliver a beautiful, powerful, dynamic, database-backed Web site without ever having to wait while Ernie puzzled out some technical problem .
Our original vision had been to make Betsy's Web-building tool even more powerful while remaining easy to use. Although this was still very desirable, it merely delayed the time when Betsy would have to seek Ernie's help and wouldn't meet her most important goal. To succeed with Betsy, we had to design Drumbeat so that it would allow her to complete projects all alone.
Ernie wasn't all that happy working with Betsy, either. He needed to get all of his work approved by Betsy, and she was always nagging him about a pixel here and a pixel there—stuff he
We were now able to make a very clear and simple case. Instead of delaying Betsy's need for Ernie, we had to put up an impenetrable wall between them, granting independence to both of them. Betsy still needed the functions that Ernie created, and, after all, Betsy was a great source of work and revenue for Ernie, so there still needed to be commerce between them, but their jobs had to be fully disentangled.
Betsy could now create dynamic, database-backed Web sites using published modules, yet never meet their author. Ernie could write, publish, and sell functional code, without ever having to change background colors. By freeing them from each other, we leveraged Betsy's design-and-production skills and also leveraged Ernie's programming skill.
Ernie now finds himself in the role of tool builder instead of custom programmer. He creates plug-compatible code modules that can dynamically become part of Betsy's toolkit. His modules have a wider audience because he can sell them to many other Betsies, who can in
This is an interesting case in which the interaction design had significant effect on both the internal structures of the program and the way it was marketed. It is a good example of how design affects the inside while specifying only the outside.
The Elemental software
Well, we thought, that is true, but only in a few cases. In most cases, she would be independent, whereas currently she was
independent. For those few edge cases, she would merely be back to the status quo ante of depending on Ernie. This would
Because Betsy's independence is important to her, she will be willing to make commensurate sacrifices to get it. Because Drumbeat allows her to build Web sites from start to finish completely without Ernie, she is very willing to make minor compromises in her design to take advantage of Ernie's canned routines.
This is not a big sacrifice because not that many clients have demands that are out of the ordinary. If she ever gets the commission to build the intranet for Wal-Mart or the online reservation system for Hilton Hotels, she will certainly need to bring in sophisticated programming talent to help her with those gargantuan
The original program had many small floating palettes containing various drawing tools. Each palette covered up a portion of the Web site under construction. Everyone at Elemental had somehow acquired the idea that users really
Every one on our design team found the floating palettes
As we began to watch real Betsies use the product, we soon
To solve the problem, we knew that the only tools that should be kept around were those that were used very frequently, and any tools kept around were better off if they stayed in one place. Betsy would be
By a simple process of reorganizing the palettes so that they contained only frequently used functions, we made them much smaller. We then fixed them onto the screen in static locations. They now became an almost unnoticed part of the interface. This is a good example of how Goal-Directed design actually
Both the product and the design have been successful. As the implementation of the version based on our design neared completion, Elemental was able to raise a significant amount of venture capital thanks, at least in part, to the innovations in its interaction. Since its release, Drumbeat has been widely hailed by the industry press. This quote from PC Magazine is representative:
The product has been successful, despite the fact that many other Web-site-building programs preceded it to market.
As you have seen, looking at things through the lens of the user's goals can give us a unique and powerful perspective that opens up new opportunities for creative design. This is the