Archive for July, 2014

Desktop Wallpaper Calendars: August 2014

July 31st, 2014 No comments
About Everything

We always try our best to challenge your artistic abilities and produce some interesting, beautiful and creative artwork. And as designers we usually turn to different sources of inspiration. As a matter of fact, we’ve discovered the best one—desktop wallpapers that are a little more distinctive than the usual crowd. This creativity mission has been going on for six years now1, and we are very thankful to all designers who have contributed and are still diligently contributing each month.

This post features free desktop wallpapers created by artists across the globe for August 2014. Both versions with a calendar and without a calendar can be downloaded for free. It’s time to freshen up your wallpaper!

Please note that:

  • All images can be clicked on and lead to the preview of the wallpaper,
  • You can feature your work in our magazine2 by taking part in our Desktop Wallpaper Calendars series. We are regularly looking for creative designers and artists to be featured on Smashing Magazine. Are you one of them?

About Everything

“I know what you’ll do this August. 🙂 Because August is about holiday. It’s about exploring, hiking, biking, swimming, partying, feeling and laughing. August is about making awesome memories and enjoying the summer. August is about everything. An amazing August to all of you!” — Designed by Ioana Bitin3 from Bucharest, Romania.


Camping time

“I was inspired by the aesthetics of topography and chose to go with camping theme for the month of August.” — Designed by Nicola Sznajder32 from Vancouver, B.C., Canada.


Dessert First

Designed by Elise Vanoorbeek75 from Belgium.

Dessert First76

Shrimp Party

“A nice summer shrimp party!” — Designed by Pedro Rolo120 from Portugal.

Shrimp Party121

Friendly August

Designed by Ricardo Gimenes137 from Brasil.

Friendly August138


“For this piece, I was inspired by what the end of summer meant to me as a child. I remember running around barefoot in the warm grass and catching fireflies late into the night. I wanted this to be a little reminder to everyone of the simpler times.” — Designed by Rosemary Ivosevich178 from Philadelphia, PA.


Embrace Summer!

“You’ve waited 300 days for summer, better hold on to it!” — Designed by Mira Hoayek211 from Lebanon.

Embrace Summer!212

Let It Bee

“In the summer, I always see alot of buzzy animals, including bees. And because of the relaxing nature of summer, I thought ‘Let it bee!’.” — Designed by Pieter Van der Elst254 from Belgium.

Let It Bee255

Directional Colors

“I have created and recreated this image in my head many times over and finally decided to create an actual copy. The ‘arrows’ have been big lately as my life has shot off into the design field. And the colors, well, they’re just awesome.” — Designed by Tatyana Voronin271 from the United States of America.

Directional Colors272

Falling Stars

“In August the stars are ‘falling’. The more falling stars you see, the more wishes will come true!” — Designed by Olga Bukhalova314 from Italy.

Falling stars315

Go Outside And Play

“If you’re sitting around looking at computer wallpaper, it’s time to get up from your chair and go outside. Have some fun today!” — Designed by Dwight Odelius357 from Houston, Texas.

Go Outside and Play358


“Even the sun gets a heatstroke in August!” — Designed by Luc Versleijen392 from the Netherlands.


Enjoy The Last Month Of Summer!

“Everything is better at the beach, enjoy the last month of summer!” — Designed by Design19417 from Romania.

Enjoy The Last Month Of Summer!418

A Midnight Summer Dream

“It’s not Shakespeare, it’s Monk, staring at the stars in a warm summer midnight. Just relax…” — Designed by Monk Software430 from Italy.

A Midnight Summer Dream431

Liberty Will Never Perish

“A small reminder from ‘the great dictator’ to all aggressors, oppressors and dictators, inspired by the Nordic Giants’ track Mechanical Minds, font by Denise Bentulan445 and Gesine Todt446, background by some free texture collection I can’t remember.” — Designed by Aydin Demircioglu447 from Germany.

liberty will never perish448

August Is My Favourite

“I love to use my brush lettering when I can, and it seemed appropriate for August. The photo was taken on a trip to Japan, I believe this on is from atop Mt. Fuji.” — Designed by Marshall Taylor488 from Canada.

August Is My Favourite489

Oh La La…. Paris’s Night

“I like the Paris’s night! All is very bright!” — Designed by Verónica Valenzuela503 from Spain.

Oh la la.... Paris´s night504

Imaginative Life

“Everyday, I keep getting impressed by how complicated life can be. But if you use your imagination, you can make it more understandable for yourself and structured.” — Designed by Aveline Estié524 from Belgium.

Imaginative life525

Photography Day

“In honor of my late grandfather, who planted the love of photography in me and it’s been growing ever since!” — Designed by Marc Daccache541 from Lebanon.

Photography Day 542

We All Need That Summerbreak

“We should all take a little break from our computers and smartphones for at least once a year and what better month to do so than August? Enjoy the amazing weather that August has to offer and have fun outside.” — Designed by Robin Willekens584 from Belgium.

We All Need That Summerbreak585

Summer Mood

“August is a colorful month, which inspires happiness, so I designed a wallpaper with a funny representation of this summer mood.” — Designed by Alejandra Estefan627 from Spain.

Summer Mood628


Designed by Sebastian Navas672 from Belgium.


August in Lyon

Designed by Emilie Grand687 from France.

August in Lyon688

Relaxing Chester

“Nice way to relax in a retro industrial environment with Chester.” — Designed by 021bcn706 from Spain.

Relaxing chester707

With Hustle

“Abraham Lincoln has always been one of my favorite presidents. I stumbled across this quote and knew that I had to do something with it! Here’s to living with hustle!” — Designed by Alyssa Hernandez729 from Omaha, Nebraska.

With Hustle730

Join In Next Month!

Please note that we respect and carefully consider the ideas and motivation behind each and every artist’s work. This is why we give all artists the full freedom to explore their creativity and express emotions and experience throughout their works. This is also why the themes of the wallpapers weren’t anyhow influenced by us, but rather designed from scratch by the artists themselves.

A big thank you to all designers for their participation. Join in next month747!

What’s Your Favorite?

What’s your favorite theme or wallpaper for this month? Please let us know in the comment section below.


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The post Desktop Wallpaper Calendars: August 2014 appeared first on Smashing Magazine.

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HTML5: More Flexibility in Form Design

July 31st, 2014 No comments

Forms have grown more versatile with HTML5. The input element is now able to contain email addresses and dates and marking input fields as mandatory or prepopulating them with content is no longer a case for JavaScript – just to name a few of the most valuable additions. But then, there’s even more to it. Did you know you can now have more than one “submit” button and did you know that you can now have input and select element living outside your form element? We’ll walk you through this…

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Declarative Programming And The Web

July 30th, 2014 No comments

Like most web developers, I spend my days giving instructions to computers. These instructions generally involve some input (a request for a web page), some logic (get the right content from a database) and some output (send the content to the requesting browser). This process of telling a computer how to perform a task, such as generating a web page, is what we commonly call “programming,” but it’s only a subset of programming: imperative programming.

There’s another type of programming, declarative programming, that most web developers also use every day but don’t often recognize as programming. With declarative programming, we tell a computer what, not how. We describe the result we want, and the details of how to accomplish it are left to the language interpreter. This subtle shift in approach to programming has broad effects on how we build software, especially how we build the future web.

So, let’s take a moment to investigate declarative programming and the web we can build with it.

Hidden In Plain Sight

Declarative languages tend to fade into the background of programming, in part because they’re closer to how we naturally interact with people. If you’re talking with a friend and you want a sandwich, you don’t typically give your friend step-by-step instructions on how to make the sandwich. If you did, it would feel like programming your friend. Instead, you’re far more likely to talk about the result you want, such as “Please make me a sandwich” (or, perhaps, “Sudo make me a sandwich1”). If your friend is willing and able to follow this instruction, then they would translate the phrase “Make me a sandwich” into a series of steps, such as finding a loaf of bread, removing two slices, applying toppings, etc.

This type of result-focused instruction is how declarative programming works, by leaving the logic of how to implement requests to the system that is interpreting the language (for example, your friend). When we want an image in an HTML document, for example, we simply include an tag, and then the system that interprets the HTML (typically, a browser) would handle all of the steps needed to display that image, such as fetching it from a server, determining where exactly to render it, decoding the binary data, scaling the image and rendering it to the screen. We don’t have to explain any of this, so we often forget that it’s all happening and that someone programmed both how it happens and how that complex process is derived from a simple .

Another factor that makes declarative programming hard to see as programming on the web is that it “just works.” A lot of work went into making languages like HTML, CSS and SQL capable of providing enough clarity on what needs to be accomplished that the steps required to achieve a result can be determined without detailed instruction. But most web developers began using these declarative languages long after the hard work2 of building them was complete, so we just see them as normal and ordinary and just a natural part of the way the web works3.

When web developers do get involved in declarative programming before the interesting work is done, it’s typically while developing an API for a website. Most APIs are implemented via declarative programming. Rather than provide a way to give a website step-by-step instructions, APIs usually have a simple language that can be used to express the desired result. When we want to get some tweets from Twitter’s API, for example, we give a description of the tweets we want, such as “everything from @A_single_bear.” If the API is imperative, we would instead describe the specific steps we want Twitter to implement on our behalf, explaining how to load, format and return the tweets. Thankfully, the API hides all of that logic behind a simple declarative language, so we only need to describe what we want, not how to get it.

Two Paths Forward

Once we realize how widespread declarative programming languages are on the web, it’s hard to imagine the web without them. Hard, but not impossible. As JavaScript has grown to be ubiquitous, the tools we would need for an imperative-only web are easy to find. We could swap out HTML and CSS for rendering directly in JavaScript4. We could swap out SQL for a JavaScript-native database5 (or two6). And we could swap out calls to declarative web APIs with imperative calls to JavaScript functions, even across the gap between client and server7.

We could put all of this together and entirely stop using declarative languages on the web, even before we get into more advanced technologies heading in our direction, like asm.js8. We can, now, build the web equivalent of mainframes: large, powerful systems built not as a collection of disparate parts but as a cohesive whole. We can now JavaScript all the things9. We’ve tried this before, with technologies like Java and ActiveX. And some organizations, such as AOL, have even had success building a less messy web-like stack. The difference this time is that the technology available to build these “mainframes” is part of the open web stack, so that anyone can now make their own self-contained web-like stack.

An imperative-only JavaScript web is enticing if we understand the web as open technologies and connected documents. But if we expand our understanding of the web to include connected systems, then declarative programming is a key part of how we connect those systems. With that understanding, we should be heading in another direction. Rather building more complex systems by replacing declarative programming languages with imperative programming, we should be wrapping more and more of our imperative code in more and better declarative languages, so that we can build future complex systems on top of our current work. Rather than looking at JavaScript as the modern Java or C++, we should be treating it as the modern shell script, a powerful tool for connecting other tools.

By defining the implementation details in the language itself, declarative programming allows imperative languages such as JavaScript, PHP and Ruby to use the results as steps in more complex behaviors. This has the advantage of making a behavior available to a variety of languages, including languages that don’t exist yet, and it also gives us a solid foundation on which to build higher. While we could build our own document-rendering system in JavaScript or Python, we don’t need to because HTML has already solved that problem. And we can reuse that solution in any imperative language, freeing us to solve new, larger problems. JavaScript can draw an image on a canvas and place it into a document with HTML. Your friend can make you a sandwich and a fresh lemonade. But we’ll get to this future web only by valuing declarative programming as an approach worth maintaining, now that it’s no longer the only option.

Declarative First

When we start building a tool on the web, we often jump right into making it do what we want it to do. A declarative-first approach would instead start with defining a language to succinctly describe the results we want. Before we build a new JavaScript library for building sandwiches (or, of course, another10), let’s consider how we might describe the results in a declarative programming language. One option would look something like {"bread": "rye", "cheese": "cheddar"}, while another would look more like . There are many choices to make when designing a declarative language, from high-level format choices (JSON? XML? YAML?) to details of data structure (is cheese an attribute of a sandwich entity or an entity in the sandwich’s toppings list?). Making these decisions early could improve the organization of your later imperative implementation. And in the long run, the declarative language might prove to be more important than the amazing sandwich-making implementation, because a declarative language can be used far beyond an individual implementation.


We can see some of the advantages of a declarative-first approach in public projects that have taken both approaches. For example, three years ago the Sunlight Foundation started working on a project to make it easier for people to contact members of the US Congress. They began with a Ruby app to automate the submission of contact forms, Formageddon11. This year, they launched a new declarative-first effort toward the same goal, the Contact Congress12 project, starting with a declarative language that describes contact forms13.

The activity14graphs15 and timelines of the two projects make it clear which approach won out, but the benefits of the declarative approach go beyond the direct results. The YAML files produced by the declarative approach can be used to build apps like Formageddon, but they can also be used for other purposes, ones not even intended by their creators. For example, you could build an app to analyze the descriptions of contact forms to see which topics members of Congress expect to hear about from their constituents.

Successful declarative programming is in some ways more challenging than imperative programming. It requires clear descriptions, but also requires knowing enough about imperative implementation to know what needs describing. You can’t just tell an app where a form is and expect a valid submission, nor can you say to a browser and get what you want. But if you’re up for the challenge, the rewards of a declarative-first approach are also greater. Declarative languages often outlive their imperative implementations.

Try starting your next web project with declarative programming. See what languages you can find that already describe what you’re making, and write your own simple languages when you can’t find anything. Once you have a declarative definition of what you want to make, build it with an interpreter of those languages. You’ll probably end up making something more useful than you would have with an imperative-first approach to the same problem, and you’ll improve your imperative approach in the process.

(al, ml)


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24 Fresh and Free HTML, PSD and GUI Templates: July 2014 Edition

July 30th, 2014 No comments

Continuing with our monthly series, we bring a selection with the best quality items for webmasters and app developers looking for good interfaces to use in their projects. Our favorite this month is Kappe, but as always, there should be something for everybody. If you’re a first-time visitor to this series, scroll down to the bottom of the post where we have neatly listed all the already published parts of our monthly collection.

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CSS3 Background Blends: Photoshop Background Effects in pure CSS3

July 29th, 2014 No comments

With CSS3 we are able to add more than one background to an element. In doing so background images and/or colors are piled upon each other, just as you know from the layers concept of Photoshop. While transparencies exist, the underlying background file or color will shine through. The new CSS3 Background Blends allow for even more possibilities to combine several backgrounds into one impressive appearance.

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Selling The Value Of The Web To Small-Town Clients

July 29th, 2014 No comments
Educating clients on the ROI a website can bring is a great first step to closing deals.

Selling your services as a freelancer or a small shop is tough enough as it is. Selling to a small-town business that might not even see the need for a website adds an extra level of difficulty in turning a profit.

I’ve provided web design services to small-town businesses for the past few years, having had many happy outcomes, but also a lot of negative experiences from which I’ve learned hard lessons. One of the most important things I’ve learned is how to sell the value of the web. Many of my clients needed to be convinced that a website would actually be good for their business. A lot of them were almost naive about the web and about the impact and reach that a professional website and online strategy would have for their small business, even one whose target market lies within a 15-kilometer radius.

My experience with selling to small-town clients comes from running my tiny web design shop, Hetzel Creative, for three years now in rural Iowa. I started from a blank canvas after having moved to this town and building a clientele that now includes over 80 small businesses, mostly in southwest Iowa. I’ve gotten to the point that most new businesses around here are referred to my company, on the strength of my successful track record and portfolio.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume you live in a rural town like mine, with a population of about 5,000. You’re a great designer and developer, and the compelling idea of breaking out on your own drives you to look for your first client. You’ve landed a meeting with Ned’s Remodeling. Ned heard about you through mutual friends and is interested in a website for his small construction company.

After your initial meeting, in which you gathered information, you hit Ned with the numbers.

That much to build me a website?!” Ned is shocked. “Forget it! I have a nephew who could give it a shot for free.”

Now’s your chance to sell the value of the web.

A Website Is An Investment

Cash flow is often tight for small businesses, and you don’t have the luxury of dealing with department heads who aren’t closely tied to the money they’re spending. When a small-business owner writes a check, that money is very dear to them. So, Ned is obviously going to be put back when he hears a realistic estimate of what a properly designed and developed website should cost. Still, the only thing more important to him than his bank account (and his family, friends, etc.) is the future and growth of his company. The trick, then, is to sell Ned on a website’s return on investment.

Educating clients on the potential return on investment of a website is a great first step to closing the deal. (Image credit: Philip Taylor2)

Aside from the popular “Your business will be open 24/7” argument, you can sell Ned on a professionally designed and strategic website in many ways. Listed below are just a few, but you can easily get creative and tailor your responses to different clients, whose understanding of the web will probably vary.

Everything Is Trackable

With just a free Google Analytics3 account, you can track so many more metrics for a website than you can with print ads and other traditional advertising channels. This is a wonderful selling point, because it will reassure Ned that he can always look at the metrics and visualize whether his investment in the website is paying dividends. And if the results are not ideal, then those metrics will tell you what to tweak.

Your Image, The Way You Want It

A website serves as a central online destination for the whole brand. Ned needs to know that without a website (or with one that is poorly designed or that lacks compelling content), his online image will stretch as far as Google reviews or the Better Business Bureau. That might not give potential customers enough information for them to pick up the phone, especially if a competitor is dominating local search results for home remodeling and has a website that projects a compelling, trustworthy image.

Effective Advertising

The money spent on online advertising to drive prospective clients to a website is much more manageable and trackable than money spent on traditional advertising like newspaper ads, flyers and phone book listings. Online ads and listings, SEO and web content are in a unique category of advertising. Not getting as many hits as you would like? Adjust! Change your content and experiment. Not on the first page of Google for a particular term? Optimize! Rewrite some content and change some keywords.

Spend your advertising dollars to get your website into a high-traffic area that your target audience will see. Spending as much as, if not more than, an offline budget for online advertising is a no-brainer because you get so many metrics and insights on how an online campaign is performing. Ned wouldn’t have such control and accuracy with his advertising if he didn’t have a website, so this is a great point to sell him on the investment.

Productivity Enhancement

This is probably the last thing Ned expects from a website, but if properly thought out, a website can certainly enhance a small business’ overall productivity and free up time that is used for manual tasks. Take a simple contact form. More people are willing to submit a form online than to pick up the phone. It’s just easier and a lower barrier. Not only will Ned gain more leads, but now he has more time to research thoughtful answers than he would have had he gotten questions over the phone. And he can set aside a certain time of the day for written questions, which is better than being distracted by a phone call while drawing a blueprint or repairing a roof.

You Get What You Pay For

If you’ve convinced Ned that he needs a website for his business, then his most pressing concern will still be the wad of cash he’ll have to drop to pay for it. Even if he does view a website as an investment, investing in anything without some disposable income is still tough. At this point, he’s probably thinking of ways to spend the absolute least that he can, which is most easily done by pushing you to the backburner to find someone cheaper.

Educating your client on the importance of a website and why you’re the right person to deliver it is all that’s standing between you and the money they’re willing to spend. (Image credit: Tax Credits5)

The key here is to make absolutely sure that Ned understands he will get what he pays for. You could remind him that he would advise his own potential clients not to trust just anyone to remodel their home; likewise, he should be willing to do the same for the online face of his business. Clients should trust experts to perform the services that they’re good at. Sure, he could get a free WordPress theme or use some cookie-cutter website-building service, but that’s like using duct tape and cardboard to fix a broken window. It might work, but you wouldn’t get the efficiency and beauty that a professional would provide.

Explain The Possibilities

Many people like Ned simply don’t know what they can achieve with a website: bill payments, sales, content management, newsletter registration, customer portal, email drip campaigns, subscriptions — the list goes on. If Ned is clear on what can be done, he’ll understand that an expert is needed to pull it all off.

Make sure, however, that you’re not just selling a list of features. You want him to see you as a partner who will share in the joy of the success that your services will bring. The features are only part of what a client wants. After all, thousands of freelancers can design and code as well as you can. Ned has to trust that the other guys don’t care as much about him and his success as you do.

The Importance Of Design

Even in a small town, where your reputation hangs almost solely on word of mouth, having a professional image is still critical. You understand this because you’re a designer, but Ned probably doesn’t. Without getting too deep into research on brand recognition, make sure you can back up your claim that good design is important to Ned’s small business. Here’s a great quote from a Razorfish’s report on branding6 that you can have ready (it’s five years old but still makes a great point):

According to our findings, 65% of consumers report that a digital brand experience has changed their opinion (either positively or negatively) about a brand or the products and services a brand offers… For those brand marketers still neglecting (or underestimating) digital, it’s as if they showed up to a cocktail party in sweatpants.

Break Out A Statistics Sheet

If Ned still needs convincing on why he needs you, show him some statistics. I’ve prepared a document for new clients that lists statistics on the number of Americans online, the number of people browsing on mobile devices (for selling a responsive solution), figures on how consumers are persuaded by a brand’s online image, and more.

Plenty of statistics are available for you to refer to in your sheet, like this one from a September 2013 report by BIA Kelsey7:

94& of the consumers surveyed have gone online for local shopping purposes within the last six months. Among those surveyed, 59.5% have completed a local purchase of merchandise or services online, within the last six months.

Or this one, from a September 2013 survey by and Toluna8:

83% of surveyed US consumers reported that having a website and using social media was a factor considered of high importance when choosing small businesses.

Or this one, from a June 2012 survey by 99designs9 (a great one to show Ned that others in his position think professional design is important):

80% of small business owners consider the design of their logos, websites, marketing materials and other branding tools either “very important” or “important” to the success of their companies.

Analyze Competitors

Another great way to convince Ned of the need for a website is simply to do a Google search right in front of him. If “glenwood iowa remodeling” brings up a list of all of his competitors, then he’ll see that he’s missing out. Even if you don’t offer SEO, Ned has to have a website in order to optimize it. If you do offer some SEO (or even include basic optimization in your service), then Google some of your current clients in front of him to show how you have helped companies get to the top of search results. Just don’t lead the client on if you don’t have the results to show for it — especially if they can so easily check how capable you really are.

Aside from search rankings, analyze some of Ned’s competitors’ in front of him. Point out what’s good and not so good about them. I always like to tell clients what I would do differently with their competitors’ websites because that helps them understand our expertise in a context they’re familiar with.

Bring Social Into The Mix

Several clients have come to me looking for the whole online package: website, Facebook page, Twitter account and branding, etc. Other clients had to be sold on these “extra” services. If you’re looking for extra angles to hook clients, offer a broad range of services, because — let’s face it — Facebook and Twitter are highly visible these days (Ned probably has a Facebook account already). The average client already has (or at least should have) an active Facebook page for interacting with customers and marketing to the public. So, offering a social strategy, or at the very least designing a nice profile and cover photo, is usually an easy sell.

Facebook for Business.10
Facebook strategies and promotional designs are good services for clients who are looking for the full package. (Image: Sean MacEntee11)

Beware of working with clients who solely want to use Facebook or Twitter, though. Many small businesses start with Facebook as their only online presence. While it’s a cheap way to get online, clients need to understand that their social pages should ultimately drive people to their “home”: their website.

How Did We Meet Ned In The First Place?

Contact with a prospective client can come from many different sources. The things that have always landed me contracts are word of mouth and a strong portfolio. Of course, I had to build my reputation for people to refer me, and that can be done in various ways.

The single most important thing that I did for my small business was to join the local Chamber of Commerce. I got leads simply from being listed on its website as a trusted local service provider, but the more important leads came from attending its events and talking to people. I never went to an event (coffee nights, banquets, golf outings, etc.) to land a contract that day. Rather, I went to become more acquainted with other business owners and to build their trust so that, when they did need a website, they would call me first.

Other ways to get your name out there include joining a committee (I was on the Chamber of Commerce’s marketing committee), attending events for entrepreneurs (who are your target market, after all), doing some pro bono work if you’re starting out, and giving current clients 10% off their next invoice if they refer you to someone. Just being around other business owners and making friendships in their circles should be enough to get you at least one contract; if you do a great job with them, the referrals will start coming in.

I’ve definitely tried things that don’t work, too. For instance, don’t waste your time on newspaper ads, cold calling, phone book listings or mass emails. You’re in the business of selling value, not just a service. Your best clients will arise from trusted relationships and from their belief in your ability to increase their bottom line.

Above all, make sure that your own website is killer. Experiment with different content until you’re at the top of search results for local web design and development. Of course, make sure to show off all of your latest and greatest projects. Case studies do a great job of selling (especially if the website visitor is in the same industry being profiled). Plenty of resources are out there to help with your online strategy, so don’t skimp on the quality of your website.

The Sky’s The Limit

Hopefully, this article serves as inspiration for those of you with the same target demographic. Keep in mind that working in a small town is not necessarily your best bet to raking in a ton of money and designing glamorous websites. But you’ll sleep well knowing that you’re benefiting the community by providing expert services. And keep your eye out for other markets to get into. With the number of fully distributed companies on the rise, you can do business with just about anyone from the comfort of your home.

Remember that selling to small-town businesses is a lot about education. Ned doesn’t know just how much value a website can provide. Educating him on the possibilities and the state of the web might just convince him to go with you, without your even having to explain “why me.”

(ml, al)


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How Limitations Led To My Biggest App Store Success and Failure

July 28th, 2014 No comments
This is the story of how the App “Free Time” came to be and what our team ultimately learned in the process.

Look at your calendar. If you’re anything like me, all you see are meetings, places to go, things to do, people to meet and not a lot of white space. Few people love their calendar. So, we set out to change that, and we learned a lot in the process.

Our app is an iPhone app that flips your calendar upside down and lets you focus on the free time in your day, instead of all the busy time. The app itself has been around since 2011, but the story of how it came to be and what our team ultimately learned is one that I have been wanting to tell for quite some time. It’s the story of how limitations led to my biggest success in the App Store — and my biggest failure.

This is the story of how the App “Free Time” came to be and what our team ultimately learned in the process. (View large version2)

Embracing Limitations

At its core, the app (called “Free Time”) is all about exactly that, free time. But, as most software projects tend to go, while it was conceived in simplicity (answering the question, “When am I free?”), Free Time came into the world with a few more features than expected and a lot more complexity. We were in college when I came up with the idea. I was bouncing back and forth between classes, alternating schedules from one day to the next, and trying to find time to get together with my friends. In 2010, more than a few companies were trying to solve the same scheduling problem (Tungle.me3, Doodle4, When Is Good5, Scheduly6, etc.). Everyone was grappling with the same fundamental issue: When are people free and how do we get them together?

Most of those companies spent or continue to spend millions of dollars building complex infrastructure to support in-the-cloud calendar scraping and mutual time resolution (i.e. figuring out when two people, in potentially different time zones, are both available). It sounds simple but it really isn’t, and thankfully we didn’t know that.

This brings me to my first major takeaway: Embrace your limitations. At the time, our limitations seemed significant:

  • We didn’t have any funding.
  • We didn’t know how to build a server.
  • We had no idea how complex calendars and time-based calculations were.
  • We had never sold an app in the App Store.

Limitations can be tricky, but they can also hold hidden benefits. I couldn’t pay anyone, so my friend and designer Houston learned to design for mobile; my freshman roommate, Nathan, learned about calendrical calculations and C++; and I learned Objective-C. We were scrappy and bootstrapped, but we made it work.

Because the three of us didn’t have any money and we didn’t know how to build a server, we built everything within the app (even the mutual time resolution), and we launched a product that is infinitely scaleable and that, to this day, has no inherent costs other than Apple’s annual developer fee. Not many app developers in this day of hyper-connectivity can make this claim.

Because we had no idea how complex calendars are, we actually thought this app was going to be a walk in the park. It wasn’t, but if we had known the ins and outs and complexities of time, I have no doubt we wouldn’t even have started.

So, if you’re feeling limited or constrained, don’t. Limitations can make a big difference and could ultimately lead to your most creative moments.

37signals likes to think of constraints differently7:

Constraints are often advantages in disguise. Forget about venture capital, long release cycles, and quick hires. Instead, work with what you have.

The Launch

We launched roughly eight months after we started building the app. It was nights and weekends mostly for the three of us, but we finished it, put it up in the store and breathed a momentary sigh of release.

The Calm Before the Storm

We were in review for seven long painful days. I had submitted a few small apps before, so I knew the drill, but this time the wait was excruciatingly long. On the seventh day (coincidentally, the same day we were graduating from college), I got a push notification from iTunes Connect: Free Time had been approved and was in the App Store. There was a lot of high-fiving and celebration; we told our friends to download the app, and we posted about it on Facebook and Twitter. At the time, we didn’t really have a marketing plan; we had talked to a few people but hadn’t really drummed up a lot of interest thus far. As far as we were concerned, graduating from college and launching an app was plenty for one week.

We graduated on a Thursday, and by Friday three hundred people had downloaded the app. We were blown away and went to sleep that night convinced that this was a first-day fluke and that no one else would find it. The next day, the same thing happened, another three hundred people. This kept up until Apple featured it as a “New and Noteworthy” app one week after it hit the store.

Being featured in the App Store is like throwing gasoline on a fire. It set off an explosion of downloads, support emails (both positive and negative), media requests, etc. It was one of the most exciting and terrifying experiences: packing up our belongings, thinking about “the real world,” and getting emails from people in Qatar who were using the app and finding a lot of bugs.

The next few weeks were chaotic as we pushed out new updates, responded to media inquiries and tried to figure out what had just happened.

The Results

Eventually, things quieted down. We kept pushing out updates to address user concerns, and a few years later, here we are. I like when developers share numbers, so here are some fun ones from Free Time:

  • Downloads
    To date, more than 200,000 people have downloaded the app. Other than our website and social pages, we haven’t done any marketing.
  • Countries
    The app has been used in more than 150 countries around the world (and we still only support English). Surprisingly, the US accounts for only 48% of all revenue and 35% of users.
  • Time spent
    Since we started tracking anonymous session usage two months after launching, users of Free Time have spent a combined two years using the app — a little ironic considering that it’s all about saving people time.
  • Accolades
    The app has been written about and profiled by CNN, ReadWriteWeb, Lifehacker and AppAdvice and has been featured by Apple a handful of times.
  • Money
    The app was free when we started out, which is part of the reason why it was downloaded so much. Even so, through in-app purchase and eventually a paid model, revenue from Free Time has paid for a cup of coffee for the three of us every day for the past three years — certainly not enough to sustain any of us, but something to be proud of nonetheless. In addition to revenue, our work on Free Time helped each of us find a job that pays the bills.
We did a few things right, but this article is about what we did wrong. (View large version9)

So, we did a few things right, but I’d rather tell you about what we did wrong, and what we learned in the process.

Throughout the process of building the app, launching it in the App Store and dealing with the onslaught of users (and complaints) from across the world, we learned a great deal about the shortcomings of the app and about the reality of the way people think about their apps and their calendars.

1. Changing Perspectives And Letting People See Between The Lines Is A Great Way To Stand Out

When we started prototyping the app, we built it to be a really fast way to dispatch an email to a friend or colleague who wants to know your availability on a particular day. That was it, nothing more. To enable this behavior, the time between your events became a button that you could tap to share. That actually ended up inverting the weight of the calendar’s UI and placing more importance on the inverse (the free time).

The time between events became a button, inverting the weight of the calendar's UI and placing more importance on the the free time.10
The time between events became a button, inverting the weight of the calendar’s UI and placing more importance on the the free time. (View large version11)

By inverting what was traditionally expected of a calendar UI, we stuck out, and every time we showed off the app, we got the same response: “That’s really neat and makes a lot of sense.” To be honest, we stumbled upon it, but that changed perspective enabled us to see something we all knew in a new and interesting way. As a result, we garnered a lot of attention with a relatively simple change to something that everyone takes for granted.

Drew Olanoff of The Next Web said:

Free Time will completely change the way you look at your calendar.

Apps don’t need to be new and novel ideas, and they don’t have to create an industry out of thin air. The way to build a great app is to focus on something simple, even something that everyone takes for granted, and then make it better. The transportation app Uber is novel and unique for a lot of reasons, but at the end of the day it’s just a better way to hail a cab. All that the developers did was change people’s perspective and make something better.

2. Get Ready To Iterate

Initially, we designed and redesigned the app more times than our designer Houston would have liked. When building your own app, learn to embrace this, because iteration and refinement are key ingredients of a successful app.

While the functionality remained mostly the same, the design emphasis and navigation changed dramatically.12
Our first iteration is on the left, and what we ended up launching is on the right. While the functionality remained mostly the same, the design emphasis and navigation changed dramatically. (View large version13)

Don’t be afraid to start in one place and end up somewhere completely different. With each iteration, we tried to incorporate new learning and new feedback. By getting a rough proof of concept out to beta testers early, we were able to identify some key flaws in our presentation and concepts.

Our First Notion of Sharing

In our early iterations, sharing was a separate activity, and since we had started with a tabbed architecture, putting sharing in its own tab made sense. Through early beta testing, we quickly realized that you mustn’t let a user act on their day without the context of what is happening on that particular day. The view we started with only showed availability, but without the surrounding events, our testers were confused and unable to correlate their availability with the calendar.

Without the surrounding events, our testers were confused and unable to correlate their availability with the calendar.14
Without the surrounding events, our testers were confused and unable to correlate their availability with the calendar. (View large version15)

A New Inline Approach

This second iteration not only adopted a new color scheme to provide better contrast between free time and busy time, but also incorporated free time right on top of the regular calendar.

The second iteration provided better contrast between free time and busy time.16
The second iteration provided better contrast between free time and busy time. (View large version17)

This improved context, and it gave users the information they needed to act on their free time without having to change tabs and switch context. It also enabled users to see their calendar in a new way and gave many the value they were looking for even if they didn’t want to act on that free time.

The Final Product

In our final iteration, we increased the calendar space to show as many events as possible. We also made sharing a modal activity that users could toggle from any screen. By focusing more on the calendar’s UI, we were able to incorporate the notion of selectable free time right inline and in a way that would be comfortable for users who are familiar with Apple’s Calendar app.

In the final iteration the calendar space was increased to show as many events as possible.18
In the final iteration the calendar space was increased to show as many events as possible. (View large version19)

But iteration never stops. Now that we were done with the app, we had to update the icon.

After being done with the app, we had to update the icon.20
After being done with the app, we had to update the icon. (View large version21)

3. Iterate Doesn’t Mean “Add More”

We also failed to realize in our iterations that we could have (and should have) removed features and functionality that our testers found less compelling. We never identified a minimum viable product. Ultimately, we focused our iterations on evolving the product, when we should have spent time refining the core value proposition, “When am I free?” This led to an inevitable bloat of features, which diluted the product and ultimately required us to create a lengthy user walkthrough that explained the nuances of the app and what it does. The walkthrough was six screens, and when we launched we forgot to include a “Skip” button (a big mistake).

Not including a “Skip” button in the six screen walkthrough was a big mistake.22
Not including a “Skip” button in the six screen walkthrough was a big mistake. (View large version23)

In the last year, only 42% of new users made it through this initial walkthrough on first opening the app. All of these users had consciously decided to purchase the app and waited for it to download and install; so, this walkthrough is disastrous in its conversion numbers.

Holding back when you’re passionate about something is extremely hard, but it is equally important to recognize that a lack of functionality (more favorably referred to as simplicity) is as impressive as breadth of functionality. While our initial concept was to enable users to focus on the free time in their day, we ended up launching with the following features:

  • People could see their availability on top of their calendar.
  • A quick filtering tool enabled people to use custom availability searches to find free time during particular meals, days and durations. To support this, we allowed users to specify the time of each of their meals.
  • Users could specify work hours, in addition to their waking hours, in order to narrow down their free time.
  • People could change the calendars that affected their Free Time.
  • People could specify the lengths of the blocks of time that were displayed, and we built complex algorithms to determine how to split up particular blocks of time to fit user preferences.
  • People could see a quick view of their availability for any given meal.
  • People could search for free time during particular time ranges, on particular days, during particular meals and for specific durations.
  • People could share their free time by dispatching an email, copying it to their clipboard, composing an SMS-specific version with shortened text and — yes — bumping phones (that was a thing then).
  • Once two users had shared time, a certain file type allowed them to see each other’s availability and view a dedicated screen of their mutually available times.
  • Oh yeah, and we supported all of the actions you’d expect a calendar app to support, like editing events, creating new events, displaying all-day events, handling events that overlap and appear on top of one another, and so on and so on.

It turns out only one feature really mattered: letting people see their availability in a new way. According to our analytics, 95% of the time, people just want to look at their calendar, see their availability and act on it in their own way. They don’t really filter (only 8% of users did that), they don’t share (only 2% of users did that), and they certainly don’t bump phones to find out when they’re both free (only 0.002% of users did that).

4. Solve A Worthwhile Problem, But Don’t Expect Your Problem To Be Anyone Else’s Problem

Being passionate about what you’re creating is important. If you can’t build a product that you would use, you’ll never be able to build a product that anyone else would want to use. So, build something that solves your own problem, scratches your own itch or satiates your own need. This will give you the passion to do what it takes to create something valuable. At the end of the day, even if it doesn’t take off, you’ll have something that you can use.

But don’t expect the problem you are solving to be anyone else’s problem. When we started, we thought the app’s ability to resolve two calendars and present mutually available time would be a game-changing feature for offline use. We wanted to displace the big players in the space, the Tungles and Doodles of the world that force users to broadcast their availability all of the time and that require expensive servers and deliver a lackluster experience. I can’t even begin to tally up the amount of time we spent building the database structure and modifying the app to allow for this mutual time resolution. It easily took up an entire month of the eight-month development process. Since launch, 179 of those 200,000+ users have used it, many only once. In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s 0.000895% of users.

For comparison’s sake, while 179 people have used the mutual free time feature, 2900 users have shared their free time in some way, shape or form; 15,000 have filtered for their free time, most only once; and the other 150,000+ seem content just to see their free time laid out on top of their calendar.

This is a tough point to get across and an even harder one to avoid. So, what do you do? Trust your instincts, but temper your excitement. Build something that you love, but don’t expect others to love it the way you do. When push comes to shove, let go.

5. Build For The World, Not Just Your World

We never internationalized the app to support any languages other than English. This was our second biggest mistake. Two years ago, launching an app that doesn’t support the rest of the world might have been acceptable. Today, if you are building your own app for the App Store, build it for the entire world from the start.

The map above shows Free Time usage around the world in 2013.24
The map above shows Free Time usage around the world in 2013. (View large version25)

Even today, the US accounts for only 48% of Free Time’s total revenue and only 35% of our users. Had we decided to translate and support other locales, our financial return would have been higher.

Be Careful With Time, a Strange and Complicated Concept

We always thought of Free Time as a cross-platform app, and we originally thought that the mutual time resolution was its biggest feature (remember?). So, we adapted our strategy to accommodate that use case. As a result, we built the underlying calendar-parsing engine in C++, a language that compiles to both iOS and Android. It also didn’t hurt that Nathan knew more C++ than Objective-C, so it was a natural fit for him as well.

Without the help of any system libraries like NSDate or NSCalendar, we set out to build our own cross-platform calendar database and reinvent the wheel in the process. Never do this. The inherent complexities of time make this sort of endeavor a monolithic challenge equivalent to rebuilding an entire city brick by brick just because you don’t like the location. If you can leverage someone else’s work and not reinvent the wheel, do that.p>

(Image credit: Smythe Richbourg27) (View large version28)

You need to think of a few scenarios if you are building an app that has anything to do with calendars or time-based calculations.

30 + 20 is easy, basic math. Day 30 of this month + 20 days isn’t so easy. OK, maybe you think that that calculation is relatively easy and that the answer is probably the 19th or 20th of the next month. It seems easy until you think about people in Egypt and find out that their next month is Pi Kogi Enavot (“the little month”), which is only five days long!

Another fun thing we found out was that midnight on certain days in certain countries never exists. Most of the all-day events we stored began at midnight on a certain day and ended at 11:59:59. We thought that this was a pretty logical and straightforward way to store an event, but we forgot about daylight savings time in Brazil, which jumps from 12:00 am to 1:00 am, instead of 1:00 am to 2:00 am as it does here in the US. Therefore, midnight never exists, and as a result, for at least for one day each year, the app would crash on launch for users in Brazil.

Oh, and Leap Day in 2012 was one of my favorite days. Almost every active user sent us an email or tweet letting us know that the app was off by a day (as it remained for a month).

The current year in the Buddhist calendar is 2557.29
The current year in the Buddhist calendar is 2557. (View large version30)

We also had a lot of trouble with different international calendars that differ not just in their translations, but fundamentally in their current year, month and day. We have a surprising amount of users in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and one issue with Free Time is that it doesn’t support the official calendar there very well (the Islamic Hijri calendar). The current year in that calendar is 1435, and the days of the month are all completely different because it is a lunar calendar, not a solar calendar. I can tell you with a high degree of certainty (even though I haven’t tried it myself) that mutual time resolution between someone on the Gregorian calendar (the most common of calendars used) and someone on another calendar will fail spectacularly. Thankfully, no one seems to use that feature!

Languages and Dates Are Only Part of the Problem: Culture Makes Up the Rest

Building for the world isn’t just about internationalizing your app, though. Consider also different use cases for populations and cultures around the world. When we launched Free Time, we baked in the concept of weekdays (Monday through Friday) and weekends (Saturday and Sunday). We also assumed that most users work Monday to Friday and have different waking hours on weekends than on weekdays. In hindsight, this was an obvious oversimplification, but at the time we weren’t thinking about the world —we were only thinking about our world, and that is exactly how our world works.

The Monday-to-Friday work week was initially hardcoded into the app.31
The Monday-to-Friday work week was initially hardcoded into the app. (View large version32)

We soon discovered that this assumption was entirely incorrect in many countries throughout the Middle East, where the weekend starts on Thursday and ends on Saturday (Qatar and Saudi Arabia are two such countries). As a result, we had to allow users to specify their work week and selectively enable work hours.

On the left is the version we launched with, and on the right is a simplified UI that allows you to make changes on particular days.33
On the left is the version we launched with, and on the right is a simplified UI that allows you to make changes on particular days. (View large version34)

Inadvertently, in building for our world, we also alienated another part of the population, people who work the night shift. Because we required users to tell us when they wake up and when they go to sleep (so that we could infer their number of free hours), we built a control to select those hours that extended only from 12:00 am to 12:00 am. We didn’t think of the people who work the graveyard shift and need to set their “day” and working hours somewhere between 12:00 pm and 12:00 pm.

Our solution for workers on the graveyard shift was to extend the slider. Unfortunately, the slider's increased range made it a bit harder to select a time of day.35
Our solution for workers on the graveyard shift was to extend the slider. Unfortunately, the slider’s increased range made it a bit harder to select a time of day. (View large version36)

These are just a few of the eye-opening edge cases that calendars, time-based calculations and a diverse and international audience made us think about. Apple does a lot to help developers support these use cases out of the box and directly from the operating system, but only if you let it.

Build for the world, not just your world, and don’t reinvent the wheel.

6. Invest Time In Subtle Details — People Will Notice

Here’s something we did right. We spent a lot of time improving and perfecting the loading animation and other subtle animations throughout the app (such as for updating settings, filtering, etc.). This level of polish was ahead of its time and really set the user experience apart.

Perfecting animations throughout the app was ahead of its time and set the user experience apart.
Perfecting animations throughout the app was ahead of its time and set the user experience apart.

Animations in apps are more commonplace these days and are becoming more of a requirement with the new UI paradigms introduced in iOS 7. Still, a well-crafted animation is still a fantastic way to set your app apart from the pack. Finding the right balance between features and subtleties that surprise and delight users is an important step in creating a memorable experience. When I speak with people about Free Time, many of them remember the spinning cloud and the clock hands and nothing else. They vaguely remember that it has to do with calendars, but they always remember this animation.

Think critically about what kinds of memorable experiences you can create, and make them wonderful.

7. Keep Pushing — Great Ideas Deserve To Live

This was our biggest mistake. Great ideas deserve to live, and giving up on one too quickly does a disservice both to your users and to the idea. While full-time jobs and nascent careers took precedence for all of us after graduating, our lack of continual refinement and updates over the years is one of my biggest regrets.

A graph chronicling the declining usage of Free Time over 2013. New users are highlighted in red.37
A graph chronicling the declining usage of Free Time over 2013. New users are highlighted in red. (View large version38)

With only six updates since 2011, usage has fallen dramatically due to application bugs, OS updates and a loss of faith in our ability to maintain the product:

  • Only 50% of people use the app for more than six days.
  • Only 15 to 20% return after one month.
  • Between 2012 and 2013, sessions declined by 59%; the average session length declined by 55% (down to 1 minute 34 seconds); and users declined by 61% (down to 20,000).

People form an emotional bond with the software they use. Throughout Free Time’s life in the App Store, we have continued to receive emails from people who go out of their way to express how much they love using the app and how it has completely changed the way they look at calendars. When building an app that people will use every day, think about how you will evolve it over time and adapt to your customers’ needs.

Just last week, we got this email:

Are you ever going to update Free Time? I work two jobs and scheduling is tough, but this app helps. Just letting you all know the app is great and I would love to see it continue!


So, we did a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong, but the real disappointment for us and our users is that we never really improved the app beyond the initial few months. We could have built an Android version, an iPad version, a web version and a Mac version, and we could have experimented with our pricing model to better suit our users, but we didn’t. For various reasons, life got in the way and we gave up too quickly. I’m sure we could have turned it into a viable business, but we opted to pursue other things.

Thankfully, we aren’t done with the app, and we’ll be launching version 2 in the coming months after a long hiatus. We’ve learned quite a bit, and we’re changing a lot: the calendar view is now front and center; the focus is on finding Free Time, not sharing it; and the number of features has been drastically reduced (much to our chagrin).

A screenshot of a beta version of Free Time 2.39
A screenshot of a beta version of Free Time 2. (View large version40)

As you build your next great idea or even build an idea that just scratches your own itch, remember the following:

  • Embrace your limitations and use them to your advantage.
  • Create something that changes people’s perspectives, so that they never forget you.
  • Don’t be afraid to iterate often, but resist the urge to add more during each iteration.
  • Trust your instincts and build something that you will love (even if others might not).
  • Build for the world, not just your world.
  • Don’t give up.

Oh, and think twice about building a calendar app. It could be a real drain on your free time! You can sign up to hear more about Free Time 241, or check out Free Time in the App Store42.

(al, ml)


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The post How Limitations Led To My Biggest App Store Success and Failure appeared first on Smashing Magazine.

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Social Influence: Incorporating Social Identity Theory Into Design

July 25th, 2014 No comments
Voting down the party line without knowledge of the candidates and issues is an example of social identity theory playing out in real life.

No person is immune from the influence of the people and groups they encounter. As much as we would like to think that every thought we have is original, that every opinion we express is informed by facts alone, the truth is that we use others around us as a reference point for much of our attitudes and behavior. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s human nature.

Knowing how groups influence people can help you to move from being a common, everyday, work-your-fingers-to-the-bone designer to a strategic influencer of your target audience with relative ease. In fact, whether researchers, designers or managers, everyone involved in user experience (UX) design would benefit from deeper knowledge of how to incorporate social influence in their work.

In this article, we’ll focus on how concepts related to social identity theory — a theory within the psychology field of social influence — can help UX professionals to more effectively incorporate social influence in their work.

Social Identity: Old Theory, New Application

Way back in the day (1979, to be exact), Henri Tajfel published a chapter1 (PDF) arguing that, in many situations in life, an individual acts not as an individual, but as a member of a group they identify with. Think of someone who identifies with a certain political party but is not well informed on the candidates or issues they are voting on. When they step into the voting booth, they vote down the party line solely because they identify with the values and beliefs of that particular party.

Voting down the party line without knowledge of the candidates or issues is an example of social identity theory playing out in real life. (View large version3)

According to social identity theory, one implication of identifying with a particular group is that the closer that individuals feel to a group (the “in-group”), the more uniform their behavior will be and the more likely they will regard members of other groups (“out-groups”) as being cut from the same cloth, ascribing negative attributes to those out-groups.

Example: PC vs. Mac

Let’s look at an example from the Apple commercials of not so long ago4. According to Apple, those who use Mac products are cool, edgy and hip. Members of this group would identify themselves as possessing those traits and would identify those who use Windows-based PCs as being uptight, stuffy and behind the times. Apple hoped that viewers would buy into these associations with Windows PC users. Thus, not wanting to identify with a group considered stuffy and boring, some individuals would want to purchase a Mac product. Apple used social identity in an attempt to cultivate an attitude towards its product that would lead to a certain behavior (in this case, purchasing a Mac product).

How Is Social Identity Developed?

An individual forms and reinforces their social identity through two key processes:

  • Self-categorization
    This refers to how an individual assigns themselves and others to categories based on beliefs, behavior, attitudes and other characteristics. To continue our example, “I think like a hip, trendy person” would be in line with being a Mac user, and “You think like a closed-minded, stuffy person” would be a trait of a Windows PC user.
  • Social comparison
    This refers to the process of comparing others to oneself and labelling their traits as being like (in-group) or unlike (out-group) your own, often associating positive or negative attributes with the group. For example, “Mac users wear skinny jeans and don’t tuck in their shirt,” which is seen as desirable, while “Windows PC users wear suits,” which isn’t desirable.

Of course, most people are members of multiple groups. This can complicate things. Also, social identity does not completely determine an individual’s attitudes and behavior. Applying social identity theory will increase your influence on users but will not guarantee its success. Many other factors influence a person’s decisions, including the persuasiveness of a design. Nevertheless, applying social identity theory could lead you to greater results, with less expenditure of resources.

Let’s look at how social identity theory plays out on the web.

A Social Identity UX Case Study: Facebook

Love it or hate it, Facebook is king of social networking for a reason. Social influence and social identity concepts have been successfully incorporated in the network.

Facebook’s Use of Self-Categorization: In-Group

Creating a profile on Facebook5 is an initial step in joining a group — you are now a part of Facebook, the group. And what typically causes someone to join Facebook6? The reason is that they want to belong to social groups that reside on Facebook (an example of self-categorization), and they want others to see what they are doing and vice versa (social comparison). Members of Facebook already have these social characteristics in common.

An individual who creates a profile on Facebook is limited only by how they choose to self-categorize. Other people can then view the following:

  • photos they’ve posted,
  • jobs they’ve worked at,
  • sports teams they like,
  • books they’ve read,
  • events they’ve attended,
  • groups they belong to.
Facebook’s profile allows for a lot of opportunities to develop one’s social identity and exert social influence. (View large version8)

You can customize your profile to identify with social groups that you align with and to allow others to easily find out whether they would connect with you over certain things, thus enhancing your in-group ties.

How Social Identity Might Play Out on Facebook

Imagine that I posted a comment sharing my view that the US men’s soccer team is superior to Brazil’s national team (delusional, yes, but please work with me). One of my current friends likes my comment. This friend’s “like” shows up in the newsfeed of one of their friends, Jim, who lives in Philadelphia and is an avid US fan. Jim sees the comment and clicks on the link to my profile. Perusing my profile, which is configured to be accessible to friends of friends (they’re in-group, too, you know), Jim sees that I live in Philadelphia and am a fan of his favorite band, Sleigh Bells9.

Jim sends me a request for friendship over Facebook. In response to his request, I check out his profile and see that he has similar interests, lives in my city and is friends (at least on Facebook) with similar people. I accept his friend request. We have just strengthened our social tie, reaffirmed our in-group identity with each other and discovered reasons to be active users of Facebook. The scenario could play out in many ways from here, including actually meeting with Jim and finding additional common interests and friends.

What Does Facebook Get Out of Facilitating Social Transactions?

You might be thinking, “But these are all feel-good things — people aren’t paying to be users of Facebook.” True, but we wouldn’t have to look far to see that social identity and influence have benefited entrepreneurs in social media10. Additionally, Facebook tracks people’s exchange of data in ways we can only imagine, primarily to surface advertising and other promotions. Perhaps Jim and I are now on Facebook’s list of Philadelphia residents who are fans of US soccer. Perhaps we’ll both start to see paid advertisements in our feed from local venues that host soccer-viewing parties. That’s a win for Facebook, a win for advertisers and a win for Jim and me (but mostly Jim).

Add to this the other social transactions that users can make over Facebook:

  • post pictures and tag friends,
  • comment on what others have posted,
  • create groups,
  • suggest that other friends join groups and like pages.

You can see how Facebook has used the principles of social identity theory (perhaps inadvertently) to become the biggest player in social media.

There’s more.

Facebook’s Use of Social Comparison: Out-Group

Facebook facilitates out-group interactions as well. Remember that identifying those not like you reinforces your identity just as much.

Let’s say that Jim from our previous example checks out another person’s profile and finds that they belong to the animal rights group PETA. The person has posted a few comments pointing out the rights of animals. (Please note that this is merely an example to explain out-groups in the context of social identity. I do not have an affiliation with any of the groups mentioned here. Eat meat or don’t — it’s your choice.)

As an avid hunter and wearer of fine furs, Jim sees this as being out of line with his social identity (making the other person part of an out-group), and perhaps he ascribes negative characteristics or traits to this person that he identifies as belonging to all PETA members (for example, dismissing him as a “vegan nut case”). Being motivated to counter PETA’s viewpoint, Jim searches Facebook for anti-PETA groups to join. He finds and likes Hunters Against PETA, where he is able to socialize with like-minded peers.

Members of Hunters Against PETA would consider members of PETA as belonging to an out-group11
Members of Hunters Against PETA would consider members of PETA as belonging to an out-group. (View large version12)

Once he is comfortable with the group, Jim comes back and posts the comment shown below, based on a recent run-in he had with PETA folks on a university campus. Note the language he uses to lump all PETA members as “freakin’ psychos,” a clear out-group generalization. Jim doesn’t know many, perhaps any, PETA members well enough to classify them as “psychos.” While he’s on the page, Jim links to the profile of another group member and sees that they share 26 friends. Jim sends this member a friend request. Jim’s ties with Facebook and Hunters Against PETA have now been strengthened through social comparison.

Facebook facilitates interactions that reinforce in-group ties through out-group comparison
Facebook facilitates interactions that reinforce in-group ties through out-group comparison.

Why Would Facebook Want to Facilitate Out-Group Interactions?

As with positive in-group interaction, Jim is now a stronger member of the Facebook community, and Facebook has recorded his interests and interactions for future marketing campaigns. Jim might not receive any further ads for campaigns to raise money or awareness for animal rights, and he might see more ads about local gun shows, concealed carry classes and any other interests that fellow members of Hunters Against PETA have been found to share. Jim might also use Facebook more, knowing he can find like-minded individuals who are against the same groups he is against.

How Non-Social Media Websites Incorporate Social Identity Theory

Not that this is rocket science, but if you don’t thoughtfully incorporate elements of social identity theory to address social influence, then you run the risk of, first, doing it wrong or poorly and, secondly, missing out on opportunities to influence users that your competitors will take advantage of. This goes beyond e-commerce websites. Pew reports13 that people have looked to the Internet for years to facilitate their group connections and further the causes of their groups. While I cannot speak to the financial effectiveness of the examples below, the companies do demonstrate how to incorporate social influence into design, thereby increasing the appeal and effectiveness of their products.

The Columbus Dispatch

Email and social media are common platforms through which in-groups share articles from online news outlets. The Columbus Dispatch14, like many online news outlets, enables individuals to easily share noteworthy articles through email and popular social networks. Not only does this heighten the knowledge of and interest in the topic among the group, but it tells members that the group as a whole considers The Columbus Dispatch to be a trustworthy source of news. The news outlet benefits from increased traffic, trust and visibility among members.

The ability to share an item of interest is a common social influence technique used by news websites15
Allowing for items of interest to be shared is a common technique of news websites. (View large version16)

The strategy can backfire. By displaying the number of shares, The Dispatch also tells users which articles are not popular. A lack of sharing might deter some users if they think an article would not be popular among their group.

Few shares or likes could deter users from sharing content with their groups
Few shares or likes might deter users from sharing content with their group.


Kiva17, a platform that helps individual lenders make micro-loans by connecting them to micro-finance institutions around the world, uses both self-categorization and social comparison to promote lending. Individuals can join a team that aligns with a group they feel connected to (self-categorization) and compare what people in out-groups are lending (social comparison). Theoretically, this should create competition between unlike groups, raising more money overall for micro-finance institutions to give to borrowers. It is probably not a coincidence that the default view of the group listing (shown below) shows an atheist group immediately followed by a Christian group (the top two contributing groups in cumulative dollars). The right panel of the screen displays a leaderboard, highlighting which groups are raising the most funds recently.

Kiva creates competition between groups for raising funds18
Kiva creates competition between groups to raise funds. (View large version19)

Again, this strategy could backfire. If a prospective member sees that a group is struggling to raise funds, ideally they would be inspired to join that group, lend more money and recruit others to contribute. However, if they believe that any effort they expend to push the group ahead of the pack would be fruitless, then they might contribute to the group but not join or might find another venue in which to contribute.

Similarly, if a prospective contributor saw that a group has not had any recent activity, they might choose not to join the group or not contribute.


Mega-retailer Amazon20 doesn’t shy away from wielding social influence. Individuals can share what they have purchased on a variety of popular social media platforms. A quick update on Facebook that you have found a good deal could net quite a few more sales over time from others in your group. Showing others your similar taste in products (social comparison) or emulating the shopping habits of people you identify with (in-group) is as simple as clicking a mouse.

Amazon gives users the option to share their purchases with their social networks with the click of a mouse21
Amazon enables users to share their purchases on social networks with the click of a mouse. (View large version22)

The potential flaw in this design is that completely bypassing this form of social influence is as simple as not clicking a button. The questions and reviews sections for products allow for more robust social exchange, where conversation is generated that can truly influence purchasing decisions.


Pandora23 is a platform on which users explore music, create channels based on interests (self-categorization), share those channels (in-group) and browse channels created by others (social comparison). Users can find who among their friends have shared music channels by logging in through Facebook. Additionally, users can choose whether to share their channels, sparing them any embarrassment if they happen to be a fan of music that some in their social circles would consider to be out-group.

Pandora allows you to align your music tastes with others you consider in-group24
Pandora allows you to align your musical tastes with others whom you consider in-group. (View large version25)


Nike+26 connects members to a social network of peers who offer motivation, challenges and advice on running. Nike+ highlights the large number of individuals in its community on its landing page (shown below). Users also see Facebook friends who are members of the website. That’s enough to convince most people that they will find a likeminded individual or two with whom to form a group once they register.

If a new member realizes that those they consider in-group are running more than they are, perhaps they will increase their monthly regimen to be more in line with their in-group. Running can also be facilitated by social comparison; if they think running conflicts with what an out-group would do, an individual might consider joining an in-group that defines themselves as runners and might log their runs on Nike+.

Nike+ ties millions of runners together around a common interest27
Nike+ connects millions of runners through a common interest. (View large version28)

Why does Nike care? More running means more products to be sold — oh, and a network of millions to collect data from and advertise products to.


Mendeley29 extends social identity to academic journals. Much of what becomes popular in academic theory and literature happens because academics share work that they respect with other academics (in-group sharing). With Mendeley, you can find groups based on common subjects of interest (self-categorization) and see what others in these groups are reading and sharing (in-group and social comparison).

Mendeley puts the social in social psychology journals30
Mendeley brings social into journals of social psychology. (View large version31)

Leveraging social comparison, Mendeley enables members to see which articles are being posted, who has posted which articles and how many other users have read a particular article. These types of statistics are very influential with academics, who need to stay current on literature considered relevant in their field. Mendeley allows for self-categorization by showing individuals what others are reading and allows for social comparison by showing what groups others belong to.

Mendeley allows you to catch up on the literature others in your group have posted, strengthening in-group ties32
Mendeley enables members to catch up on literature that others in their group have posted, strengthening in-group ties. (View large version33)

What Not to Do: Social Grocery

Social Grocery34 provides evidence that making something social and incorporating the tenants of social identity theory don’t necessarily mean that the venture will be a success. Moreover, calling something social doesn’t make it so. I can’t speak to the financial state of Social Grocery, but its website and social media efforts indicate that it is not currently facilitating social interactions effectively.

Lack of activity hurts Social Grocery's credibility and reduces the likelihood of social influence occurring35
A lack of activity hurts Social Grocery’s credibility and reduces the likelihood of social influence. (View large version36)

The company attempts to apply social identity theory by enabling individuals to publicly post grocery items that they like or dislike, make comments about those items (self-categorization), see what others in their social networks have posted and reviewed (social comparison) and earn points to increase their status in the group. Part of the trouble, as we saw with The Columbus Dispatch, is the lack of posts and diversity of participation. A look at Social Grocery’s landing page shows a three-day gap between posts (assuming that all posts are displayed chronologically), and of the three most recent posts, only one person decided to “like” something that someone else had posted. The lack of comments makes the experience void of meaningful social interaction over the five-day period covered by the three posts.

A number of additional problems exist.

Social Grocery seems to have abandoned its attempt to create a deep social network. The screenshot above shows that a few people still actively use the website. However, a quick jump to the company’s Twitter feed (below), which is directly linked to from the home page, shows that it has not tweeted since November (presumably 2013 but perhaps even one of the years prior). Prior to those November 4th tweets, the next tweets are from April 2012. “Social” Grocery? It doesn’t seem so.

Social Grocery has not tweeted in months; there is nothing social going on here37
Social Grocery has not tweeted in months; there is nothing social going on here. (View large version38)

Social Grocery’s Facebook page (below) has over 3,000 likes — not bad, much more than the number of friends I have. However, they have not posted anything for approximately two years. While Facebook asks me to invite my friends to like this page, I would be embarrassed if my friends thought I wanted them to be associated with this page (they might invite me to become a member of an out-group in response!).

No, I will not invite my friends to like this page, I want them to stay my friends39
No, I will not invite my friends to like this page — I want them to stay friends. (View large version40)

The takeaway is that Social Grocery is about two years delinquent in implementing Kevin Stone’s advice41 on how to shut down a failing product in a dignified way. I wonder who the few stray users of this product are and what benefit they get from continuing to post on the website.

From a quick look through Social Grocery, a user might determine that it is an out-group and that people like them just wouldn’t use it.

How Can Social Identity Theory Work For You?

The examples above provide food for thought on how you might incorporate some of the tenants of social identity theory to influence your users. Much of what has been done is fairly intuitive, especially since the boom in social media, an era in which users assume that they will be able to interact with your product socially. So, what can you do to incorporate social identity into your product?

Ask Questions

In all of this, don’t lose sight of your audience. User research is critical to successfully implementing any social identity strategy. Answer the following questions before implementing it in your design:

  1. How do your users engage with your product outside of the digital realm?
  2. What common experiences with your product do users share?
  3. Are there drastic differences in lifestyle between your user types?
  4. How do competitors engage socially with their users? Are their efforts successful?
  5. Where is the low-hanging fruit? What ready-made social experiences can you drop into your design in order to hit the ground running?
  6. Are you committed to supporting the social interactions around your product for an indefinite period of time while it grows?
  7. Does incorporating social elements into your product even make sense? (If you’re selling groceries, then perhaps not.)
  8. Perhaps most importantly, how will you convey to users the opportunities to interact socially around your product?
    • Being able to communicate effectively with your audience is a prerequisite to applying any social psychology principle. You don’t want to send mixed messages that lead people to feel that only an out-group would use your product.

Analyze the Opportunities

If you haven’t done so yet, take a closer look at what you offer and how it could be enhanced by social identity theory. Are there opportunities for individuals to connect around your product? It could be as simple as emulating Amazon by enabling users to share their purchases with friends.

Do you have any venues for groups of people to discuss your product, share transactions and make recommendations? Can you capitalize on in-group thinking by showing who else uses your product and providing testimonials? Nike+ has a more robust implementation than most would consider necessary, and based on the size of its community, its attempt to gamify running has proven to be successful.

Can you create competition by showing how use of your product would differentiate in-group members from those they consider out-group. If you framed it right, you could play both sides of the coin? Like Kiva, could you develop some healthy competition between groups to see who can be the top user of your product?

Social Grocery demonstrates the importance of committing to your social networks. “Seeding” social interaction is critical for any website whose owner aspires to incorporate the principles we’ve looked at. It doesn’t take much effort; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because Facebook, Twitter and other social networks already provide the framework. Enabling users to link to your product through existing networks is a shortcut to facilitating social interactions on your website.

You don’t need to do everything with social identity, but do be aware of your options and the level of effort required to implement them. If you are just starting to incorporate social concepts into your product, then you’ll need to develop a network quickly or rely on an existing network to inspire others to use your product. You need to commit to maintaining the network or else users will not stick around for the long haul.

Additionally, to apply social identity theory, you’ll need to highlight how use of your product would make someone more similar to an in-group or less similar to an out-group. And, importantly, you’ll need to commit the time, effort and resources to develop and implement the methods of social influence that you’ve chosen. Doing this while following the principles of social identity theory in your design will improve the experience of using your product, increase conversions and command greater respect for you in the market.


Social influence, particularly social identity theory, provides key concepts for you to address through UX design. You can influence people by thoughtfully incorporating social identity concepts into your design. Knowing the theory and how it plays out in real life will enable you to discuss with colleagues and potential clients how and why your design will be effective at influencing users.

Incorporating these concepts into your design will cover areas that many of your competitors would otherwise have taken advantage of and will position you as a designer of influence among your users and peers.

Additional Resources

Designing around social identity is a complex process. Here are some additional resources to help you along the way:

(al, ml)


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