A "mobile-first" guru takes his approach to the polls with Polar

By Richard Nieva , written on April 16, 2013

From The News Desk

Luke Wroblewski knows a thing or two about "mobile-first." As big companies like Facebook try to reach small-screen nirvana, Wroblewski literally wrote the book on it. He's been touting the principles since early on, when he first made mention of the phrase in 2009, while he was Yahoo's chief design architect.

Yesterday he released a new version of Polar, a small polling app he founded in December that lets users choose their preferences between two things. The app presents pictures of two things, and a user taps on the image of her preference. For example: Who’s going to win that football game? Or what movie should I see? The idea is to create a quick way for people to share opinions with their friends. The company has raised a seed round of $1.2 million and backers include Wroblewski’s former boss Jerry Yang and Greylock’s John Lilly.

As with anything that deals with collecting data on opinions and interested, it has potential for marketing opportunities – think of all the free focus group testing. Wroblewski says that the average user votes on 50 poll questions a day. He won't share specific usage numbers other than to say that the young company has "tens of thousands of users," so he still has a ways to go in creating a formidable user base. When dealing with polling, it's a numbers game and quantity matters.

The new version has added functionality around tagging and categorization, and users can now create personal profiles, but at it's core, the product is still a one-tap operation. Wroblewski says the key to a mobile-first approach is designing an app with a distracted audience in mind. While a user is on a desktop, she is likely immersed in the site, but when on mobile, she can be out and about anywhere in the world, with any number of distractions. As such, the app is simple and clean, and doesn’t try to do much. He’s unabashedly proud of its dumbed-down state: you vote on things, and that’s it. There are other opinion-oriented apps out there like Thumb and Knotch, but those arguably aren't as lightweight.

Of course, if Wroblewski is such a mobile-first guru, it's fair to ask what happened at Yahoo. That company isn't exactly a shining beacon of mobile-first innovation. If that company had the secret before anyone else, why are we not all singing its praises? Wroblewski’s job at the company was to make sure there was consistency between Yahoo’s homepage and all of its products, like Yahoo Sports and Finance. But he noticed the best designs were in products designed for smaller screens, like the mobile version of fantasy football. “I kept trying,” he says, referring to his efforts to instill a mobile-centric view into Yahoo’s design sensibilities. “But it didn’t stick.”

It was a tough task to make a then-13-year-old company change its ways (something Marissa Mayer faces today.). “Your instincts aren’t right anymore. That’s a very hard thing to come to grips with,” he says. “Especially if they have made you very successful in the past.” He left Yahoo in 2010 and given talks on mobile design at several of the big tech and non-tech companies, including eBay, Zynga, Best Buy, CNN, and yes, Facebook.

At Polar, Wroblewski's task is a whole lot easier because he doesn't have a legacy website to transform and adapt. Facebook and Yahoo are also giant companies that perform big functions, so it's hard to compare the approaches.

Still, Wroblewski thinks there are design best practices that apply to any company when it comes to mobile apps. For example, removing the bloat where you can is important to keeping users happy. He recommends using what he calls “just-in-time” actions, like having a keyboard or menu bar appear only when the app senses you need it, based on your finger movements on the screen.

Another tip is not necessarily creating a faster app, but creating the perception of speed. This means doing a lot of work on the backend to make things appear automatically. With Polar, for example, polls are ready instantly after they are created because the engineers set up tiered processes that push the thing out quickly. "You haven't made cellular networks any faster, but it feels that way," he says.

Those are things worth keeping in mind for any app maker.