I’ve spent twenty years trying to make code accessible to people, mostly as a writer. I reached actual millions of people explaining how tech works. And what I’ve learned is that only a small group of people wants total control over their computer. Instead, people want control over their lives—and if “computer” is the way to do that, they’ll learn “computer.” But not with excitement. Most people don’t love cars. They love going places.
So that’s been the lesson of 2023, at least for me, after watching how people actually use Aboard and seeing what they make of it. Tech nerds are often convinced that if we build something the “right” way, people will use it the “right” way, or more specifically, our way. But this is the wrong approach—we should just stop trying to convince people to be more like us, and instead try to build stuff that helps.
At Aboard, we want to dress up the data you have—bookmarks, spreadsheets, lists—and make it more app-y and easier to manipulate. We want to give you more control and privacy—and get out of your way. We want to do this for any individual stopping by, and for organizations that need their teams to manage data. What’s lower than low-code? Whatever it is, that’s us.
(Is there maybe a little angle to wanting to build a tool for small groups to organize themselves cheaply with a low learning curve in this election-year-of-our-warmer-climate-2024? Yes. But it doesn’t matter. No one uses software because it’s virtuous. They use it because it’s useful.)
We have a few things to build in Q1 of 2024, but we’re starting to go into the world and sell, too. A lot of the lessons we learned this year are so predictable I won’t bore you with them—they are the stuff of every startup retrospective:
- Building software remains hard
- Mobile drives everything
- AI is interesting, but not the whole shebang
- Onboarding is more important than you think
- Going to market is expensive and confusing
- Getting new users is hard
- People don’t know what you’ve built unless you tell them (we keep getting asked to support features we’ve already built)
- Just because you build a feature doesn’t mean people will use it
But the big lesson for me this year is how we see and approach digital mess. Which ties back to my earlier point about not expecting the user to share our passions.
I love organized data. Like, a lot. Library systems, the Semantic Web—a whole world of controlled vocabularies, taxonomies, all that deep nerdy stuff. And from the beginning of the Web, there’s been a fantasy that humans will, given enough time, organize their data correctly so that computers can index it correctly. That we would all become librarians.
Sometimes this works. There are, of course, libraries themselves—I advise some of them. There are also digital repositories like the Internet Archive. Wikipedia is built on cross-referenced links; Archive of Our Own is full of user-generated, volunteer-wrangled fanfiction tags. There are all sorts of online places where people serve as amateur or professional librarians for the good of the community. Of course, as groups grow, tagging and linking systems often break down, but humans do their best.
Over this past year, watching the links come in, seeing a few thousand early users show up, I came to realize something really obvious: Most people don’t love organizing data for the hell of it. I do, but normal, non-data-obsessive people do not. They might enjoy putting stuff in order, but that’s so they can see the results.
The way I’d boil it down is: People want to tidy just enough to have guests over.
And we should embrace that. Because it’s true of me, too, and everyone I know. So that’s my goal for the new year: Stop assuming there is any virtue in being good with data. It’s a skill. Our job is not to turn people into database programmers. It’s to keep them from ever having to be database programmers. They’ll never know the fate they avoided.
Maybe this is a sign of maturity. Instead of wanting to make the users more like us, we want to help them be whatever they want. So you just keep doing what you’re doing, kindly. If you want to help, just invite a friend and tell them to beat this thing up. If you think we should help an organization (Aboard is a platform, we can adapt the code as needed), just tell us and we’ll politely introduce ourselves. But mostly just keep using this thing and telling us what could be better, and we’ll try to be more useful.