Think Different

Firewheel Design ( got out of the line of fire by creating Blinksale (, a Web-based invoicing system. The simple application contains only the features that are absolutely necessary for the largest percentage of its users to successfully create, submit, and track invoices.

Firewheel's decision to minimize Blinksale's feature list might look like a mistake because it seems as if it won't be able to compete in the rat race with the big boys of invoicing systems. But Firewheel did something the big boys haven't done. It got out of the line of fire by creating something that makes it stand out from all the rest.

Blinksale is aimed at contractors who don't need to do anything fancy with their invoices. Many people who need to submit and track invoices need only a few basic tools. These include a way to create the invoice, submit it, mark it as closed when payment is received, and perhaps send a receipt confirmation to the client. When the folks at Firewheel Design set out to create Blinksale, they realized they could keep it simple and satisfy the vast majority of user needs. They may have even realized that making it more complicated would decrease their chances of satisfying user needs. So they designed an application that does one thing, and does it very well: It gives people a fast and effective way to create, submit, and track invoices.

(See how easy it is to explain? That's a good sign.)

The system can be used by plenty of people besides contractors because it's so stripped down, a trained monkey could use it (if the trained monkey did, say, carpentry work on the side). The application contains just a few key features.

The Dashboard and New Invoice Screen

When you log in, Blinksale shows you a summary of your recent activity (open invoices, past-due invoices, and so on) so you get a quick, at-a-glance, dashboard-style view of the state of your invoices. It offers three easy-to-spot buttons, each of which is used to create one of three invoice types.

You simply choose the client the invoice is for, or create a new one (right there, on the same page) and hop over to the New Invoice page. This page looks like a real invoice, so you maintain context the whole time you're creating it. All the fields you need to complete are displayed as form elements so you can simply edit the invoice onscreen and click the big Save Invoice button.

Blinksale's main invoice-editing screen is easy to use.

When you're done, you see the final version of the invoice and a few new buttons, which let you send the invoice, edit it, or delete it. One click of the Send Invoice button produces an in-line form on which you checkmark all the people in the client company to whom you want to send the invoice and write an optional message.

The Finished Invoice

The invoice itself is an HTML-formatted email that looks great right out of the box (well, the browser), and you don't have to configure anything at all to send off a professional invoice to a client in five minutes or less.

Blinksale generates easy-to-read invoices and lets you email them to your clients in a click.

Simple as that.

Goodies for Experts

The more adept Blinksale users out there have the option to subscribe to their invoices using the iCalendar format, which means Mac users can track invoices using Mac OS X's built-in calendar application, iCal. You can also export the invoice data as an XML file or Excel spreadsheet, so if you decide to cancel your Blinksale account, you can retain all your data.

As for settings, Blinksale has a few basic templates from which to choose how you want your invoices to look. You can also send reminders to clients about late payments and create thank-you messages to send to clients who pay their bills on time.

The whole application takes about 30 minutes to learn inside and out, and just about pays for itself every time you create an invoice (at the time of this writing, Blinksale ran $6 per month for up to 20 invoices, with plans of up to $29 per month for 500 invoices).

Firewheel built only what was absolutely necessary for most people to successfully handle the activity of invoicing clients. There are no obscure configuration options, no redundant functionality (there's exactly one way to complete each task in the tool, which makes it easy to learn), and no fancy interface widgets to figure out. It just does exactly what it should, and it does it within a simple, clean interface that somehow makes invoices seem friendly, like someone you'd want to take to lunch. (We'll talk more about software personality in Chapter 9.)

The Result

Josh Williams, one of the creators of Blinksale, is justifiably proud of how things turned out. He recently told me:

As a small design company we did our fair share of client billing. Unfortunately we've always been less than enamored with the off-the-shelf invoicing and billing software that is available at your local office supply store. After a few years of frustration we set out to build our own Web-based invoicing service. Goal number one was ease of use. Goal number two was keeping our cost of design and development of the service low. Remarkably, these two goals often go hand in hand.

Firewheel could have designed Blinksale to be chock-full of features that did everything from integrate with Intuit QuickBooks in 12 easy steps to prepare tax information and let you export it to Intuit TurboTax at the end of the year. They could have built a product that rivaled its competition feature for feature. They didn't. They built the 20 percent people actually need. Nothing more. Nothing less.

And while there are a few extra gadgets thrown in for more computer-savvy users, Blinksale does a great job of keeping things simple and focused. If all you want to do is create an invoice and send it off to a clientthe single task most people will spend most of their time completing in Blinksaleyou can do it in just a few minutes and be on your merry way.

Designing the Obvious. A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design
Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design
ISBN: 032145345X
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2004
Pages: 81

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