How to Build a Website: One Piece at a Time

    by Tom Grasty
    September 22, 2010

    The likelihood that an online video editing site, a 21st century technological innovation if ever there were one, would draw inspiration from a 34-year-old Johnny Cash song about a broken-down, piece of junk Cadillac is, admittedly, a tad anachronistic.

    But as my partner, Nonny de la Peña, and I roll up our sleeves, crawl back under the hood and start fine-tuning Stroome, one of this year’s Knight News Challenge winners, it seems we’ve found our muse in the most unlikely of places.

    “One Piece at a Time”

    Released in 1976, the Johnny Cash song “One Piece at a Time” tells the tale of a Detroit auto worker who watches wistfully day in and day out as one shiny Cadillac after another roll past him and out the door. Realizing he’ll never be able to afford one himself, the resourceful auto worker recruits a co-conspirator and together they devise a rather envious plan: Create their own by stealing the parts, one piece at a time.


    Unfortunately, after assembling all the pieces (the smaller ones are snuck out in the worker’s lunch box; the larger ones in a mobile home), the men quickly realize the car is a little more than they bargained for — literally. The transmission is a ’53. The engine is a ’73. As for the headlights — there’s two on the left, and one on the right.


    Can you imagine if websites were designed this way? Don’t laugh. As it turns out, many are.


    Take the best feature from this site; take the best feature from that site. Why censor yourself? Why limit your developer? Build it one piece at a time. Let the user decide what pieces she wants.

    But there are dangers in letting functionality drive your build, rather than designing the site as a whole. Sure, you’ve got all the bells and whistles. But what good does it do if you can’t figure out how to turn it on?

    And so, with the words of that disillusioned Detroit auto worker ringing in our ears, three simple guidelines come to mind as Nonny and I ponder the next iteration of Stroome:

    Three Rules to Build By

    1. Don’t build for yourself.
    Sounds contradictory, I know. It’s your site, after all. You know what you want better than anyone, right? Wrong. Unless you’re the only one who’s going to be using the site (and if anyone can figure out how that business model works, let me know), you need to take yourself out of the equation. You may know your demographic better than anyone else; you may know the competitive landscape better than anyone else; you may even be the world’s pre-eminent expert in the field. But chances are you are not a web designer. So do your due diligence, then do yourself a favor: Get out of the way and let the guy you hired to build your site actually do his job.

    2. Don’t give your users everything they ask for.
    Admittedly, consumer input is invaluable. But so, too, is consensus. So rather than kowtow to your customers’ every whim and fancy, take copious notes. If you find you’re writing down the same thing over and over, only then should you consider adding it as a feature. Otherwise, write it off as a distraction.

    3. Don’t try to be different; be distinctive.
    Creating a batch of features just because no one else has them isn’t always a good idea. There’s a difference between being “different” and being “distinctive.” You want to be distinctive. And the best way to distinguish yourself from your competitors isn’t necessarily building a better mousetrap; it’s solving a pain in the marketplace no one else has solved. Or better yet, that no one else has anticipated.

    Looking back on it, when Nonny and I sat down to build the first iteration of Stroome last September, we did a lot of things right. But we had our fair share of detours, too. Enamored with what we could do, we probably did too much. Enthralled with all the options available to us, we probably opted for too many.

    And while the current version of Stroome hardly resembles what Johnny Cash jocularly refers to in his rockabilly cult classic as a “Psycho-Billy Cadillac,” it’s not without a few misplaced headlights, either.

    Of course, we have a plan to get rid of those. And we’ll do it one piece at a time.

    Want to hear the song that inspired this post? Click below:

    Tagged: collaboration functionality johnny cash knight news challenge online video editing participatory video stroome video

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