If you've ever experienced Google Reader, the web-based aggregator of RSS feeds, then you've experienced ugly. It's a basic utility lacking any design appeal, cluttered with text and blue hyperlinks. But for Akshay Kothari, the cofounder of Pulse, Google Reader served as an inspiration.
"When we first started the project at Stanford, we interviewed a handful of hard-core Google Reader users--it's amazing if you sit down and chat with them," says Kothari (pictured above). "If you look at the mobile interface, it looks like an inbox--it looks the same as Gmail side-by-side. [Users] would open Google Reader and cringe at the numbers given: 1000-plus stories not yet read, with each of feed having 100-plus stories."
"The first design was a total disaster," Kothari says, laughing.
Google Reader's aesthetic made reading news a migraine--more of a chore than an enjoyable experience--and he and fellow engineer Ankit Gupta set out to design a better product. In just six weeks, the two had created Pulse, a sleek news-reader app for the iPad. (It's now available on other iOS- and Android-based devices.) In just a little more than a year since its launch, Pulse has rocketed to 4 million users, and their company, Alphonso Labs, has raised $9 million in funding, and won a coveted Apple Design Award for its much-mimicked two-axis interface. But high-end design wasn't always the focus of Gupta and Kothari, who had coding on their minds more so than any sense of aesthetic.
"The first design was terrible--a total disaster," Kothari says, laughing. "We had these funky, 3-D visualizations in the back. We had these curved, bezeled [tabs]. I have no sense of design--it took 25 iterations of the layout before we stumbled on this two-axis interface."
Even with little cash, the two cofounders decided to hire a designer. "We said [to a visual designer], 'We don't have that much money. Can you spend just one full day with us?'" Kothari recalls.
As Kothari explains, the designer, a classmate from the Stanford D-school, "took out all the crap," leaving a stripped-down, simple UI where the "content does all the talking." The upgraded version shot up to the top of the app store charts almost overnight. And a week later, Pulse hit an extraordinary (albeit unexpected) milestone.
At Apple's WWDC, Steve Jobs took the stage to talk about the iPad. "One of the first apps he mentioned on the iPad was Pulse, and I was like, 'Did that just happen?'" Kothari recalls. "It was amazing -- we were still in school, and Steve Jobs mentioned our name--I couldn't even have dreamed that would happen."
For these engineers, the biggest discovery was design's import in product development.
But for this masters student in electric engineering, the most important discovery was just how important design was to the development process. "When we started, we didn't have an office space. Our office space was this place in Palo Alto, called Caffè del Doge, where we would sit down from morning until evening--we're actually not allowed to enter it anymore because they got so sick of us -- but we sat there the whole time, coding the app, improving the design, and going around showing [customers in the store] the iPad app," Kothari says. "The really cool thing was that the iPad was just released, and so people were curious. But instead of giving them the iPad with the home screen, I would turn on Pulse, and just look over their shoulders to see where things were falling apart. We quickly went from a crappy program to 'Oh, this is kind of interesting' to when one person said 'Does this come with the iPad?' When he said that, we knew we had hit an interesting point [in the design]."
For any other born-engineers out there interested in trying your hand at your own startup, Kothari has one bit of advice.
"All young entrepreneurs, especially those building consumer products, should think about design--put it as a very high priority," he says. "Design is everything."