Q&A: Wufoo's Hale shows good (Web 2.0) form

At the Office 2.0 conference last year, there were a number of interesting new companies and services.
Written by Alan Graham, Contributor

At the Office 2.0 conference last year, there were a number of interesting new companies and services. One of them in particular not only impressed me, but got me to part with my money each month. I'm a proud Wufoo user and I evangelize it every chance I get.


Here's a description of the service from their site:

Wufoo is an Internet application that helps anybody build amazing online forms. When you design a form with Wufoo, it automatically builds the database, backend, and scripts needed to make collecting and understanding your data easy, fast and fun. Because we host everything, all you need is a browser, an Internet connection and a few minutes to build a form and start using it right away.

For most people, form creation is complex and requires the need of a web designer. However, not everyone can afford to hire out for something as simple as creating a destination to collect a Name, Address, and Phone Number. On the other hand, for those who know their way around html/CSS/cgi...form creation might be a bit easier, but can also be time consuming. This is why Wufoo is an outstanding tool. Within a few minutes I can create a form with a companion report, and I can host it directly on their site, or they give me the code to simply paste it in another site/blog.   

 I have some basic guidelines for what makes Web 2.0 work and Wufoo is Web 2.0 as it should be.

  • Platform Agnostic
  • Works Intuitively
  • Solves a real problem with little pain
  • Uses existing metaphors or technologies without reinventing everything
  • Knows where it is going, and is quick to get there without releasing something half-baked
  • Not in perpetual beta

What I like about Wufoo as an idea is that it uses all the fancy Ajax-y UI elements, but they never get in your way. The online service works like an offline tool, guiding you from one task to the next with relative ease, and helpfully predicting what you might want to do next. In fact, I built my first form in under 5 minutes with zero documentation.

Interview With Kevin Hale 

Tell me a little bit about your background?
I studied Digital Arts and Modern American English Literature at Stetson University, a very small private college on the west coast of Florida. The digital arts program was an interdisciplinary fine arts amalgam of computer science, art and music classes. Basically, out of college I was into creative writing and electronic art. Graphic design, software interfaces, digital photography, video installations, sensor research, online storytelling, conceptual weirdness -- all of it excited me. What's funny now is that I found the web to be the medium that I was the least interested in when I left school. It wasn't until I started keeping my own blog and had to get a job in the space that I realized there was a lot of potential out there.


What was the inspiration behind Wufoo?
I was doing some writing and design for a small division at a research university, and that's where I met Chris, who was doing web application development there. He introduced me to his brother, Ryan, who at the time was still a student and writing all the database programming examples for his professor's computer science textbook.For about a year, we talked constantly about how frustrating it was to build these really boring forms and databases for our employers, who failed to appreciate how much tedious work was involved just to create something simple as a contact form or an online survey. We just wished that they could do it on their own and leave us to do something more interesting. It wasn't until we attended Jason Fried's Doing Big Things with Small Teams at SXSW 2005 that we realized that there was absolutely nothing separating us from any other successful group at the conference. That night we bought a domain name and about two months later, we launched Particletree, a learning blog to create some street cred for ourselves and to force us to study and know our web development knowledge cold.The initial vision of Wufoo was as an ASP content manager with the ability to allow for unlimited inputs and reversible forms, which meant that they could be used for both backend management and public submission. As we wised up, ASP turned into PHP and we eventually better vocabulary changing it from a content manager to a really easy form builder.


Wufoo has a really nice design aesthetic. How important was the user experience when you were designing the service/product?
It was everything to us. We're not the only form builders in this space and so it was important that the difference be in the experience and ease of use. We tried to look at other interfaces for inspiration, but we realized quickly that we weren't going to learn much about easiness from Access or Infopath. I still don't know how to use their software to create a form.

It was also really important to me that Wufoo be different in spirit as well. I wanted to create a tool that doesn't make me hate life. Creating forms on Access constantly reminds you that you're stuck in a cubicle. We were determined from the get go to make sure Wufoo wasn't just going to be excellent at what it does, it was going to be fun, too.

In the early days we did interface testing on our girlfriends, who were very tech-incompetent at the time. Just sat and watched (no help allowed). If they couldn't build a survey with Wufoo, then it wasn't easy enough for us. Their feedback was so great that it lead to releasing an interface demo two months into the project, so we could gather as much feedback as possible while we built Wufoo. The thing is I'm an okay designer when I'm left to my own devices, but with data (passionate data from people who were just as frustrated as I was) I was able to design something much, much better.


What are your thoughts about the web 2.0 landscape and where do you see things heading in the next couple of years?
My background is fine arts-based, so my perspective on the Web is a bit different from most in the industry. I initially was interested in the Web as a medium for my art work, as an expression of myself. CSS was just a tool to help me express my ideas better. Yes it separated my design information from my structural information—but I was most interested in the fact that it was easier for me to layer 57 pictures of the robots on top of each other (I was very weird in college).

If you want to know what I think of web 2.0 in the context of web applications, I think the success of it is tied to the perception and trust issues companies have with software being out of their control. IT people are very possessive about their gardens and so I'm excited about the doors being opened by Google Apps for Your Domain and Salesforce. A lot of those trust issues have to deal with infrastructure and so Amazon's S3 services and Compute Cloud are also amazing resources and compelling arguments to turn people on to using web applications more and more.

That said, the new Office (with that ribbon) is pretty spectacular to me in terms of interface design. They really changed things around--moving away from features! features! features! to helping people make amazing end products. Making people look good at their jobs, which all anyone really wants in a tool.
If Adobe can make this integration between Flash and PDF work, I think we might see some amazing things come out of that. They seem to be moving slower than I would like, but there's so much potential for a web developer to get into the power of desktop applications with the ideas they're cooking in the labs.
What future plans can you tell me about?
We're working on Paypal and Google Checkout integration so people can do things like event registrations and simple order forms through our forms, but the thing I'm most excited about is our Form Gallery. Since launch, we've had over 15,000 people build forms with Wufoo. Our users are generating an awesome number of ways to collect data and it's exciting that with Wufoo, there's an infinite number of creative and really functional ways to build these things really fast. We think it would be a shame if there wasn't a way to share the templates and structures our users are creating and so we've been steadily working on a Form Gallery for designers and developers to be able to easily share their Wufoo forms with other people so anybody can get a quicker head start on creating forms and databases.

We'll give the markup and CSS for each form for free to anyone and if you want to customize and have it collecting data immediately with Wufoo and we're going to make it as easy as a single click. We think it's going to be one of the largest and most useful collection of form templates out there and so we're really pumped about that.

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