Kevin Hale of Wufoo talks UX, Funding, Startups and API integration

Editors note: In this edition of “5 Questions for” Kevin Hale, co-founder of Wufoo, talks about how Wufoo came into being, their approach to new features, why they moved away from the Valley and how to bring personality into your web app. Kevin will be presenting a intimate workshop, “How to Change Free Users Into Paying Customers“, at Future of Web Apps Miami. Buy your tickets now.

Wufoo originally started out with funding from YCombinator. For those who might be considering the seed funding route could you share some of your experience and offer some insights into the process?

I have nothing but good things to say about YCombinator. It is no exaggeration for me to say that it transformed the lives of the founders pretty completely. They gave us introductions and opportunities that we would have been hard pressed to recreate solely on our own and it’s also been a gift that just keeps on giving.

The growing network of knowledge from the founders we interact with and have access to just by association is staggeringly resourceful and amazing. I actually try to do whatever I can to help give back to the program including giving free workshops or providing design reviews whenever we go out there and visit the newly funded batch of YCombinator startups.

The blessing of that program was that we were able to hole up in an apartment together and do nothing but craft Wufoo into existence. I think a lot of people forget the importance of just getting a chance at getting away from distractions. No girlfriends, no regular friends, no anything else.

Because it’s YCombinator and because it’s Silicon Valley, we met some pretty amazing people out there (CEOs, Investment Bankers, other entrepreneurs, Google/Yahoo employees, other young founders, plenty of reporters, etc.) and it lead to a round of Angel Investment in the end, which is what got us to launch and eventually profitability.

Ironically, one of the reasons we moved back to the east coast in April, was because we ended up making too many friends and were spending way too much time in meetings. We went back to Tampa to basically hole up again (for much cheaper living costs) and get our baby launched.

For anyone on the fence, it’s totally worth it and I hope you at least apply, because the application process alone is insightful (if not a wake up call) in terms of helping teams rehearse and focus their company’s message, product and direction.

Introducing new UI (user interface) elements to an app always involved an element of risk. How do you, as the person responsible for the Wufoo UX (user experience), go about introducing new features and responding to feedback from users?

Like most software teams, we do love making new features and releasing them to our users. Our goal, however, is not to create code that just checks off items on a feature list. Just to be clear, while I am the first person to jump start how an interface will look and feel, and for the most part, the last person to polish the details before they’re released, everyone on our team participates in the direction of our application, the testing of those new features, and maintaining them from a support point of view.

Because we’re a small team that desires to stay a small team, everyone has to wear multiple hats in our company and that includes manning the inbox and doing customer support every single week. One of the interesting side effects of having a company where everyone has to answer support emails, is that everyone has a stake in making sure application is as easy to use as possible. We actually call this approach to designing software Support Driven Development and it’s been really great for us.

The priorities and desire for simplicity and clarity are actually the result of people wanting to make their weekly support interactions as few and positive as possible. Getting a feature into Wufoo that adds unnecessary complexity is a big no-no in our company. In fact, we make adding any element to the interface the hardest thing possible in our design process. Every button, every word, every link, every switch is scrutinized to make sure it’s absolutely necessary and won’t generate a future support request.

Additionally, users are also really bad at both explaining what they need and what other people need. It’s just part of human nature to justify biases rather than consider needs objectively from the vantage point of what’s good for the community and the future of the app itself. This is not to say you shouldn’t bother with your users (or your designer’s intuition) when you’re building your product or considering new features.

I sincerely believe that users are the key (and intuition does help), but you have to realize that user interface studies have shown time and again that what you have to trust is what the users DO and not what they SAY, which is why getting an interface out there quickly and used in an observable way is crucial. After that, it’s all just successful iterations based on feedback from those on the ground.

Wufoo now integrates with many of the big name web apps out there. For those creating web apps today how important is opening up your data via APIs and offering quick and easy integration to popular apps?

First off, providing an API to users shouldn’t be put on the back burner because it’s difficult. Any good development team is going to be designing their app around some sort of structured framework or API system internally and so the logistics of providing public access, from what we’ve seen, usually revolves around jumping over the hurdles of semantics and documentation.

To me, what makes creating web applications really exciting and much more interesting than creating traditional desktop software is that it’s built on a foundation (The Internet!) that is inherently primed and geared towards generating vibrant ecosystems regardless of distance. I believe it would be a terrible mistake (not to mention a rather ironic tragedy) to spend time creating software that is literally built on top of networks and then isolating yourself from everyone around you.

With Wufoo, we’ve been doing our best to leverage that potential as much as possible and it’s worked out really great for us. So many of the services we integrate with like PayPal, Campaign Monitor, FreshBooks, Highrise, MailChimp and Twitter are valued brands to our users. Because they are run by really incredible companies, one of the nice side effects of that is when those products improve our products are essentially improving by association.

One of the methods, we’re most excited about is our new WebHook implementation that will allow any developer or application to make a Wufoo form forward a HTTP POST of all the variables collected to any web page they specify. The idea behind WebHooks has been around since 2006, but they’re really starting to take off now because of how easy the spec is to make the magic happen between two services.

The Wufoo interface is very fun and playful (in terms of the typefaces, logo, design, language etc). Was this a very conscious decision or just a reflection of it’s creators?

Definitely, a bit of both.

We knew that we were not the only form builders in this space, so it was really important to us that the difference come out in the personality of the product in addition to its ease of use. In the beginning, we tried to look at other interfaces for inspiration, but we realized quickly that we weren’t going to learn much about how to make something easy from Microsoft Access or Infopath. I actually still don’t know how to use either software to create a form.

The inspiration for our color palette, though, did come from our competitors. Everyone else out there at the time was using either some variation of cubicle blue or corporate gray to brand their product or service. It was really depressing to see so much software out there designed to remind people they’re making databases in a windowless office and so we immediately knew we wanted to go in the opposite direction and use a lot of vibrant colors.

My goal was to design Wufoo to feel like something Fisher Price would make. We were determined from the get go to make sure Wufoo wasn’t just going to be excellent at what it does, it was going to be fun, too.

As far as reflection goes, my background is fine arts-based, so my perspective on the Web is a bit different from most designers in the industry. I studied Digital Arts and Modern American English Literature at a very small private liberal arts college on the east coast of Florida.

The digital arts program was an interdisciplinary fine arts amalgam of computer science, art and music. Out of college I was into creative writing and electronic art. Graphic design, software interfaces, digital photography, video installations, sensor research, online storytelling, conceptual weirdness ‚ all of it excited me.

I initially was only interested in the Web as a medium for my art work, as an expression of myself. CSS was just a tool to help me express my ideas better. Yes, it separated my design information from my structural information‚ but I was mostly interested in the fact that it was easier for me to layer 57 pictures of robots on top of each other (I was very weird in college). To me, Wufoo was an opportunity to extend my experiments in that space–eliciting real emotions and the feeling of friendship through software.

As a subscriber to Treehouse (a downloadable web magazine) back in the day, I have always wondered why it stopped and if you have any plans to bring it back?

Well, you can thank Y Combinator and Wufoo for its discontinuation. Our goal with Treehouse was always to be a means to an end. When it was just the three of us and before there was even any hint of funding in the air, Chris, Ryan and I knew we wanted to make a company and make software around the ideas we had experimented with on our web development blog, Particletree. The problem was time and money.

Because I had a background in publishing and served as Editor-in-Chief of my college newspaper, I pitched to the guys that we could probably create a monthly PDF magazine about web development and use the revenues and time (I figured it should only take up 2 weeks a month to produce the thing if we developed the process correctly) to then make the software we always wanted to make.

We didn’t have a lot of money saved up at that time and so only Ryan and I quit our jobs to work on it full time while Chris kept his job in the government and split his paycheck with us. I worked out our editorial direction and design and Ryan built the digital download system.

All three of us had to solicit writers and write reviews and articles to fill up the 60 pages of content that we planned for each issue. I was responsible for the design content, Ryan was responsible for the programming content and Chris was responsible for the business content. It was actually a really scary and exciting time for us because it was a total gamble.

However, half way through our second issue, we found out that we were accepted by Y Combinator and that changed everything. What most people don’t realize during that period is that while we were working 16 hours a day building Wufoo out in California and trying to solicit funding, we also had to simultaneously create 4 more issues of Treehouse to fullfill the 6 month subscription obligations we promised to our readers. We were so exhausted by the end of it all that something had to give and it was, unfortunately, Treehouse.

We do, however, still have high hopes for the format and content we formulated with Treehouse and maybe, one day, it’ll be resurrected. You never know.

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