I was fortunate to have learned this strategy lesson early in my career. Read on for the story on how I learned to tell if a product is good.
Koofers is an academic service that helps college students study, and I was one of the lead engineers on the Flashcard tool. At the start of my internship at Koofers in the summer of 2009, the executive team gave us an incredible amount of freedom as long as we showed measurable results. We were brainstorming late at the office one night and realized that a lot of folks spend a ton of time making flashcards to memorize terms just before an exam, but then the flashcards go to waste once the semester ends. We wanted to streamline the process and make it easier for people to study. The thinking was if the barrier to make a great flashcard deck was reduced, then more people would use them and get better grades.
We wanted to make sure the process was as similar to physical flashcards as possible, since most of Koofers’ users were non-technical and the paradigm was already well-understood. So I scanned some physical flashcards and analyzed them at 1600% in Photoshop. I got the digital flashcard looking exactly like a real one, animated with an aesthetic flip when sides were swapped and all. I remember being at work at 2 in the morning tweaking the line height so characters with tails like ‘y’ would just barely fall below the lines. Then I coded up a print button so you could export your work onto physical flashcards. The product took off the next semester, and the rave reviews made all the attention we paid to detail worth it.
During the semester, we learned that lots of folks wanted to study vocabulary for foreign language classes using flashcards. We hadn’t supported foreign character sets yet, so I took two weeks out of my winter break to head back to Koofers and add support. It was incredible to be able to see the impact of my work in such a short time frame — I decided to spend a few days out of my break to enhance the tool, and the chatter in the dining hall back at school was about how awesome Koofers had become over break.
Today, over 2.5 million flashcards are available on the site. If you’re an incoming freshman in just about any major in the US, chances are there are plenty of rich study materials available to you absolutely free of charge. The process taught me that the best way to build something noteworthy is to find a way to make your users rockstars. If you can help people succeed and make them proud of what they’ve done on your platform, then you’re onto something.