LearnAre There Problems Web Apps Can’t Solve?


writes on February 9, 2012

I’m a developer, have been for a long time. I’ve been wrting code for the web for the past decade in my life. I think I might be stuck in a bubble, I look to the web to solve problems that can be solved better in simpler ways. And looking around, I know I am not the only one.

I want to tell you a story of a couple of problems that we’ve tried to solve several times with technology, when all we needed was a couple dollars worth of office supplies.

The Lunch Party

I’ve been working with Nick Pettit since 2007, before we came to Carsonified and Treehouse. In our last job we had a group of friends we would regularly go out to lunch with from the office. After a while, the decision of where to go became too difficult. “We went there yesterday!”, “I don’t really like X!”, and “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” became the common choices.

Then, I was writing in Rails, so I thought, “This is an easy problem to solve. Create a Restaurant and Person model, set up a voting system, input local eateries, Bam! Problem solved.” I had spare time in the office and this could easily be classified as learning, or experience building. I ended up making two or three prototypes over the 3 years I worked there.

The problem is, nobody really used it. Maybe it was a usability problem, but I think the process of using a web app to plan lunch just is not natural. Going out to lunch was a very social activity, and voting on a computer screen doesn’t really mesh well with that.

The “Lunch App” became a running joke between me and Nick. It was a more sarcastic version of “There’s an app for that.” An idea that seems easy, but just doesn’t really work. Fortunately, before I spent the rest of my life trying to plan lunch in the office, the problem was solved for me. Nick and I quit. Then we joined Carsonified to built Treehouse (then Think Vitamin Membership).

There were now just 3 people in the company, and one of them was on another continent. Lunch was just agreeing between 2 people what to do, a web app is overkill. Then we hired Michael. Then Jon. And Amit, now there are 19 people working in the Orlando office. We scaled for a while, we just had to get 3 or 4 or 5 people to agree on lunch. It became stressful around 7. Suddenly the whole office can’t eat at the same place. Organizing lunch became a problem again.

For a few weeks we handled it in our campfire chat room. Someone would suggest a lunch destination, some people would be in, some not so much, an alternative choice would surface. It became hard to track who goes where. I began to think about the “Lunch App” again. Then I came to my senses.

I grabbed a sharpie and a pack of sticky notes, wrote everybody’s name and all of the restaurants, each on their own note. I stuck them on the wall and this happened.

It was amazing. Everybody could see the options, see who wanted to go where and make a good decision. We split into 3 reasonable groups and had excellent lunches, all the way around. This took 2 minutes to make.

There were bugs. The sticky notes were cheap. It was a bit boring, but that was fixed by going to the store and buying some extra-sticky sticky notes. I also picked up some stickers and other decorations so people could customize their stickies.

Version 2 was deployed in a few minutes, now with MySpace levels of “tasteful” customization.

Video Workflow

Lunch planning was not the end of our sticky note problem solving. Managing a video production studio is tough. We spent a lot of time at 2 video pros and 3 teachers. It was pretty manageable, but now there are 9 people on the video team, and 7 teachers. Now planning is critical. We have one screencasting room, and one video studio. With so many people figuring out who is using what resource when, and who is working with who when became our biggest headache.

At Treehouse, we use a lot of web apps. We have switched project management apps more times thatn I can count. Codebase, Basecamp, Github, Remember the Milk, Trello, Team Gannt, Asana, and probably a few others that escape my memory. It felt like we were switching project management apps every week. None of these apps were bad, but they all left something to be desired for our needs.

Then one day the sticky notes began to spread. Michael began utilizing other walls for organizing project workflow and scheduling

So, Sticky Notes Solve All Problems?

No, my point is not that we should all use sticky notes for everything. Obviously this has disadvantages vs a technical solution, but for lunch, we don’t need to have our remote employees involved, for obvious reasons.

The moral of the story is that it’s very easy to get lost in our tools. As web designers and developers, we love the web, we love our tools. It’s easy to get into the mindset of solving every problem with what you know, when the obvious solution just isn’t obvious to you anymore.

Next time you set out to solve a problem with software, step back and think, can I solve this problem without it?


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9 Responses to “Are There Problems Web Apps Can’t Solve?”

  1. Such applications are “solutions looking for problems.” But as noted, good ways to build experience or even code which can be used elsewhere. Kind of violates YAGNI though…

  2. I use organizing apps. But I think this is much more effective.

  3. At my last job we had this problem. (pre-iPhone, pre-App world) We happened to have a pair of scissors on our counter that people would absentmindedly spin. One day, I made a pie chart of many of our standard places to eat. I made some of the slices bigger, based on their historical popularity. No one took issue with my divisions. We laminated the pie chart and when it was time for lunch we spun the scissors and the chart decided for us. (Yeah, sometimes we spun more than once.)

    • HAHA! Anthony, that’s amazing! Makes deciding for lunch seem like a game.

      In my previous job choosing was simple – our bosses always treat us out to lunch and we’re to young (and shy) to speak up so we just eat wherever they want.

    • We used to spin coke bottles! And, LOL, whenever we spun more than once we settled for the GTPS (Going Together; Paying Separately) formula after a lengthy argument 😉

  4. So true. Even working with one person remotely, we’ve tried Basecamp, Asana, Things and what not…With so many people churning out so many web tools it so easy to get enamored by one and then another a week later…we often the simplest communication is the best way.

  5. Anonymous on February 9, 2012 at 2:19 pm said:

    nice read. Very modest of you to write down such a story.

  6. Chris963 on February 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm said:

    You could as well use scrumblr 😉

  7. W Tinbergen on February 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm said:

    Nice read.
    In my opinion, post-it’s are an essential part of SCRUM in line with your reasoning .because the tool would be too complicated, and probably wouldn’t give you the same oversight as a colored wall does.

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