When Storehouse debuted in January 2014 as an iPad-only social network for visual storytelling, it made huge waves for its exceptionally fluid, beautifully designed user interface. At the time, the practice of imbuing interactions with ambient motion had already been gaining ground in app design, but in many ways Storehouse jolted the industry forward, setting a new bar for how even the most basic interactions behave.
In the time since, Storehouse grew to a million users and launched an iPhone version. But as social networks have become increasingly noisy, and users’ willingness to join new ones has diminished, the company recently decided to make a dramatic break. In its new version, launched just last month, the core Storehouse strengths are still there, including the ease with which you can quickly transform a few photos into a gorgeous narrative. But version 2.0 has conspicuously done away with followers, hashtags, republishing and even timelines—all the requisite infrastructure of “social apps.” Its emphasis now is on creating private spaces for people to share photos with friends and family.
I talked to Storehouse’s CEO, Mark Kawano about this major change. Kawano is a friend and an incredibly thoughtful product designer. He spent many years at Apple working on software and as a UX evangelist before co-founding Storehouse, and brings a decidedly design-centric approach to startups.
Q. What motivated you to take such a new approach with this new version?
There were so many different motivations that ultimately led us to Storehouse 2.0. We always look at how people are actually using our service and combine that with our natural instincts on what our team thinks will be best for users. And like most startups, we are constantly thinking about how to build a business that will grow really fast. These are complex vectors that influence a lot of product decisions.
But the simplest answer is that we made the decision to focus our efforts on the parts of the service that people really loved. That meant that we had to remove features that were good or maybe even great, but that really weren’t significantly better than what already existed in the world.
Engineers and designers have a tendency to want to fix everything. I’ve seen many companies and products fail because the team spends all their time trying to optimize or fix all the things that are not working instead of making what is working better and better. With Storehouse 2.0, we decided to focus on making the thing that people loved the most, creating visual stories, even better.
Q. You mentioned “grow really fast”—that seems at odds with your decision to strip the social features from Storehouse. Can you explain?
I think labeling apps and services as social or not social is starting to get tricky. When I first moved to Silicon Valley, we were calling certain businesses “Internet companies.” You don’t hear that too much anymore. Maybe it’s time to rethink when we use the terms social media and social networks now that social features have become embedded into most of the digital products we use.
Regardless of the labels, Storehouse is a better product when your friends and family are also using it. Does that make us a social network? I’m not sure it really matters.
At the end of the day, people love Storehouse because it lets them take the photos and videos that are collecting dust in their camera roll and turn them into a story that they can easily share with friends and family. And our latest update made it a lot easier to share stories using all of the different apps people already have on their phone, whether that’s a messaging app or Facebook.
It’s still very early into our 2.0 update, but so far we’re very happy with how many people are creating stories. Without the timeline, people don’t have to space apart when they post and they can just share a cool experience right after it happened. And now that this big update is out, we’re already working on some slick new ways to make sharing photos with friends and family even more fun. But it has nothing to do with a following model.
Q. You’ve kept a lot of the aesthetic identity of the very first Storehouse, which really set a standard when it debuted. Has that distinctiveness helped you? Hindered you?
Because of the emphasis on photography, I can’t see us moving away from the clean, modern aesthetics anytime soon.
The designer in me likes to think that this visual identity has helped a lot. It sets the mood and communicates a certain set of brand values. For instance, it quickly shows how much we care about the product we’re building.
But I also know that this is only one small piece of the bigger puzzle when building a successful product. The brand values don’t mean much to a customer if the product isn’t useful to a customer. And if you’re obsessing over the details of the aesthetics before you obsess over how to solve the customer’s problem, it’s a huge hinderance to being successful. To be honest, we’ve been guilty of this at times.
Overall, however, I think we’ve found a nice balance of making sure we’re addressing a real problem in an efficient way while also providing a strong visual identity.
Q. You very first version shipped for iPad only. What did you learn about that platform?
People love their iPads. They really do. Since the first iPad launched, I’ve always thought that it is the hardest platform to design software for. Partly because of the orientations and partly because it’s a big canvas to fill.
But most of all, the usage patterns and habits are all over the map. Some people only use their iPads when they go on a plane, some use it every day as a PC replacement, and to many others it’s used for occasional tasks like gaming, video watching, or something else pretty specific. I think this is the main reason we started to see people use them less when bigger iPhones came out. It’s a device that many people don’t know how to consistently fit into their daily life.
Starting off as iPad only was great for us as we got extra attention that I don’t think we would have gotten otherwise. But we quickly learned that we needed to get to the iPhone if we wanted to have a more consistently engaged user base. So we did that. All that said, when you are using an iPad, the large screen makes viewing photos and videos an absolute joy. Nothing else comes close to that experience, in my opinion.
Q. How has being a designer as well as co-founder and CEO affected the way you’ve navigated your company through these evolutions from iPad to iPhone, from version 1.0 to this newest iteration?
It’s somewhat hard to say since I don’t know what it’s like to do this without a design background. I do know that most successful startups are constantly running a bunch of experiments. We’re doing this all the time at Storehouse and it’s very helpful to be able to bring a design approach to them–whether it’s coming up with the ideas or figuring out how to deploy them.
That said, I have also learned the importance of running experiments quickly to get the data back as fast as possible. This often goes against the designer in me as my natural tendency is to want to polish everything before releasing into the wild. So it’s important to be self aware of the bias that comes with my background.
Before Storehouse, I was a designer for a while in Silicon Valley. But it was at Apple that I learned many of the advantages you gain when the entire company cares about design and user experience. Everybody is more aligned around a single goal. That affects efficiency, communication, and so many other things that ultimately lead to a better product.
So when I started Storehouse, I knew that I wanted to have similar values embedded into our culture from the beginning. But wanting that and having that are two different things. Without my background as a designer, I’m not sure I could have recruited the right engineers, designers, or investors for our team. That’s a huge advantage as I don’t have to navigate the changes alone and our diverse team can all come together and figure out the best way to achieve the shared vision.