I first started working on Nollr in 2009. At the time, I had been looking for a solution to what seemed like a relatively simple problem. I was seeking a customizable startpage I could access at home, at work, and at school. While this sounds like a fairly standard request, none of the available options really appealed to me. To quickly sum it up my ideal solution would have met the following criteria:
- No installation required
- No advertising or data collection
- No flash, add-ons, or plug-ins
- Works on any browser
- Works on any platform
- Works on any size device/screen
- Is simple, clean and customizable
- Is private and independent
- Is flexible and scalable
Thus I began my quest to design the perfect start page. Naturally that led to many early questions. What would it look like and how would it work? Since the first prototype, you could say I’ve become a bit obsessed. Although the the idea has evolved significantly since the outset, this is really just a side project so it’s nowhere near what it could be if backed by more substantial resources (hint: support us). Everything from the name to the core interface ideas have changed numerous times and the design revisions to the beta version are easily in the hundreds. As a designer, I place a great deal of focus on basic things like size and proportion. Thus, the original ideas evolved through a highly iterative process which involved a back and forth between quick mockups in Adobe photoshop and then front-end testing of ideas that held promise.
In mid-2009 my friend Aaron Tang was working for a Boston-based startup called litl. He invited me in to meet the founder and CEO, John Chuang, and they showed me a prototype of the litl webbook. Mostly because Aaron was involved I was very interested to see what they were developing. Yves Béhar of fuseproject was hired to do the industrial design. Seeing the yet-to-be-released webbook and flipping it over into “easel mode” was a joy. The interface concepts, which included a widget and card based navigation, left an indelible impression. I had some initial concerns around the closed, flash-based, hardware-specific platform though. Instead, I wondered if a similar concept could be developed in HTML. Even though the litl webbook was not a raging success I think it led to many user interface advancements that are showing up in projects like Nollr, and even in Windows 8.
By 2010, after reading Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge, I had become much more interested in the fast-growing field of Interaction Design and had even considered going back to school to learn more about it. The School of Visual Arts had just launched an awesome Interaction Design MFA program which was co-founded by Liz Danzico and Steven Heller. I considered enrolling but, in all honesty, packing up from Boston and going back to school was not sensible at the time. Instead, I realized that I could “learn by doing” through the continual development of the startpage project design. In particular, I recall that as I became more entrenched in the design process I had also read a piece called The Web Is Reborn by Bobbie Johnson, and I realized that the project had the potential for wider significance. That piece, along with Ethan Marcotte’s post on Responsive Web Design a few months prior, offered greater strategic focus and a deeper sense of purpose for the project. While the first prototype was based on spacial concepts, similar to the presentation software Prezi, basic testing proved a more basic, vertical scroll was more intuitive, hierarchical and in fact much less disorienting.
Another conceptual milestone was to render the “inner workings” of the page (the URLS) visible, accessible, and easily editable. Our struggle here was to offer features for advanced users, but have the general interface remain clean. As I was reading the Steve Jobs biography this past year I certainly took note of Job’s insistence (in the case of hardware) on “locking the hood” so users could not “tinker.” In our case, however, I think it could be seen as functional and/or educational.
In 2011, my brother Jeff, who also studied Graphic Design at MassArt, was just getting into front-end coding. That fall he scored an internship at Upstatement, giving him a much better background for the project, especially in front-end development and responsive design. At that time Upstatement was working with Filament Group and Ethan Marcotte on the new Boston Globe website. The team at Upstatement helped Jeff to troubleshoot some early problems with the project. Around the same time, I participated in a very helpful workshop on HTML5 with Boaz Sender from Bocoup.
Since then, Jeff and I have met almost every Saturday to work on the project, kicking things off with pizza and beer at the Pengiun. One afternoon at the Penguin, sometime in late 2011 Jeff proclaimed he was “all in”. Thus, Jeff become a project co-founder.
Our first order of business was to finally give our project a name. Ideally, we hoped to arrive on a word or term that would both exemplify our backgrounds in art and design and also have some connection to our interface, for which we chose Masonry, a dynamic grid layout plugin for jQuery developed by David DeSandro. Masonry was exactly what we had been looking for; a non-flash technology that dynamically arranges our page frames like a mason fitting stones into a wall.
Years before, I had read about how American artist Tom Sachs uses the term “Knolling” in his New York studio. As the legend goes, the term was first used in 1987 by Andrew Kromelow, a janitor at Frank Gehry’s furniture fabrication shop. At the time, Gehry was designing chairs for Knoll, a company famously known for Florence Knoll’s angular furniture. Kromelow would arrange any displaced tools at right angles on all surfaces, and called this routine “Knolling”—reflective of the 90 degree angles characteristic of Knoll furniture. The result was an organized surface that allowed the user to see all objects at once. Tom Sachs spent two years in Gehry’s shop as a fabricator where he adopted the use of the term from Kromelow.
We felt that the concept of “Knolling” jived perfectly with our startpage project: a term which exemplified functional organization with influences deeply rooted in art and design. We initially liked “Knoller,” but ultimately decided that “Nollr” (sans “e”) felt more punchy and current, like the popular website Flickr.
In mid-2011, once the concept for our general page structure was solidifying, we sought the assistance of an outside design partner to help further develop our thinking around the notion of interactive widgets in particular. Someone had suggested that I seek out Skylar Challand, who was putting together web shop in Brooklyn, NY. A few e-mails later we had Skylar and his team at Oak onboard to help us design and develop three web apps. Our goal was for these new apps to work well both within our start page frames and also as full-page, stand alone web apps. Ultimately we designed a calculator, a digital clock, and a weather app. You can read about that design and development process, but more than anything I really think we were fortunate in our timing. Many of the HTML5 web technologies we used were still very fairly new at the time. Oak is now working hard on their own web application called Dropmark, which allows for simple collaboration in the cloud.
In early 2012, as we embarked on front-end refinement and testing, we realized that Nollr might have application beyond a simple web startpage. For example, Nollr looks best when displayed on a browser set to full-screen, so naturally we hooked our laptops to the TV and set it to full screen. Around the same time we had read this post about the highly fragmented smart TV ecosystem wars by Mike Isaac at the Wired Gadget Lab. Perhaps there’s room for independent alternatives like Nollr?
Or, if Harrison Weber is correct, by initially keeping our focus on the web itself we might have had the right idea all along? I remember a (hopefully true) story about Adobe founders John Warnock and Chuck Geschke. According to the story, John and Chuck developed the technology for Acrobat many years before they realized its potential for use. Luckily, with the advent of e-mail, and thus the need for a light and universal file format (the PDF), Acrobat found it’s raison d’être.
With that, let me segue into where we are now. We’ve learned a lot, but we certainly have a long way to go. We’re curious to see how Nollr is used. Our closed-beta version is nearly ready. A special “thank you” to all who have helped and supported this project, especially to our friends, family and team. We hope to learn a lot more. If you’re interested in helping out, or in becoming a closed-beta tester, just shoot us an email.
- Dan & Jeff Vlahos