Last week saw the latest release of Instapaper, a service for saving web pages for reading later. It seems like a simple thing, but Instapaper has embedded itself into my life surprisingly deeply, and is a must-have for folks who find themselves with dozens of tabs in their browser of articles they want to read, but don't quite have the time for right now. Instapaper also proves quite instructive of how to deliver great experiences.
Given my love of the service, what I find most inspiring is that it is essentially the creation of one person, Marco Arment. Originally begun as a side project while he was the CTO of Tumblr, about a year ago he decided to focus on it full-time. I'm guessing Instapaper began as one of those, “I want to use something that does this, there's nothing out there, so I will just make it,” projects.
As an Instapaper user, I feel Marco's love and care throughout my use of the service, and I think it suggests an opportunity to approach interaction and service design as a craft. This is exemplified in the use of helpful prompts that guide your use of the tool, providing functionality before you even knew you wanted it. My favorite example of this on iPhone and iPad is when I “copy link” from Safari or my RSS reader, and then open the Instapaper app. Most apps would have you paste the link into a field in order to save it for later. Instapaper, though, pops up a dialog the moment you open the app, with a one-click choice to save that URL to read later.
It sees that you're bringing a URL over, and reasonably believes you want to act on it. It's a small thing, but so helpful, and indicative of the care in the app's design. Other such prompts include an offer to “Return to Position” if you (perhaps accidentally) tap the top bar (which causes the page to scroll to the top), or an offer to turn on pagination if, on the iPad, you use a swipe gesture (as opposed to vertical scroll).
Instapaper shows the power of approaching experience design as a craft, as opposed to some kind of massive organizational process. It demonstrates the power of the small team. Or, as Marco shows, even a team of one. And, as Marco hones his craft, he is able to evolve the experience over time. Too often companies launch something and then move on to whatever's next. Instapaper shows what happens when you go deeper and deeper and deeper into something. Unlike Microsoft or Adobe, who simply tack on features with every new release, Marco, instead, refines the design, honing it, polishing it, like his app is some jewel. I'd love to see companies approach service design the way Marco has. It would require a fundamental shift in how they work, but the results could be quite beautiful.