Application Critique: Ello

Presentation Summary

Ello was pitched as a social networking platform for artist, that does not show you advertisements or sell your personal data. According to Ello’s about page, they were founded by a collection of artists & designers, and aims to provide a contemporary forum and virtual workplace for artists, brands, agencies, publishers, and fans.

Throughout the presentation, a few interesting points worth considering, were raised by the team. Here are my thoughts about the matter:


1. Understanding your target audience

The presenting team mentioned that Ello presented users with a mostly minimalistic and aesthetically pleasing user interface, that predominantly has a monochromatic theme.

At first glance, an “aesthetically pleasing” user interface might seem like the obvious choice. On the contrary, an aesthetically displeasing user interface would only serve to turn away users from the platform – which would be nothing short of a disaster for any social networking platform. Furthermore, a minimalistic theme is neither a new nor unfamiliar trend for us today.

So, why is this point interesting? The answer to that lies in their choice of a monochromatic color scheme. For most web applications, a monochromatic color theme would scream BORING (yes, with every one of those letters in caps). For a social networking platform that aims to appeal to artists and designers, the monochromatic theme would seem to be screaming NO and NO on every count.

Except, it doesn’t.

In fact, the choice of a monochromatic theme demonstrates their commitment into showcasing the artists works, as opposed to their own web application. It demonstrates that they understand their target audience and seeks to best serve their customers, even if that meant that their own design was to take a back seat. Rather than to steal the artists’ limelight, or to compete against the artist for the viewer’s attention, Ello commits itself to supporting the artist by providing a platform where they can showcase their artworks in an non-disruptive setting. And that is why this point is particularly interesting – because it demonstrates that design choices that might initially appear completely counterintuitive, can actually turn out to be clever and reasonable, if given more thought into the matter.


2. Improving load speeds

The above point actually brings me to one of the possible improvements suggested by the team’s presenter. He argues that everything on Ello was painfully slow, and recommends that they should use applications like Cloudinary or TinyPNG to resize and optimize the images to a much more reasonable resolution.

However, if we were to think back to Ello’s commitment towards showcasing its artists’ work as best as it could, then it becomes obvious to us why Ello might have chosen to display its artists’ work without any form of rescaling or optimization.

Picture this. You are a new artist on Ello and you have just captured some of the best moments, professionally captured on a professional video recording set, 4K resolution and everything. You upload the short video, go back to the dashboard to check out how the preview looks and… 360P resolution.


So we can conclude that the suggestion doesn’t quite fit Ello’s vision. Same point as above, call it a day? Well, not quite. While resizing and decreasing resolution may not be the most optimal solution, there are definitely areas for improvement when it comes to Ello’s load speed. As the frontend community continues to grow, more and more technological solutions are available that could help Ello with their loading time, without compromising on image quality. Service workers, for example, could be used to cache and fetch image previews that it has seen before. Ello could also aim to load less preview images on first load, and strive to load more, later, after the initial page load.


3. Phobia of advertisements

it was fairly fascinating when the team’s presenter presented Ello as an advertisement free social networking platform. I get it. We hate advertisements. We hate them with a passion. Some of us might begrudgingly watch advertisements on our mobile phone on a voluntary basis because it is a viable alternative to accessing paid content without having to pay for it, but we still hate it. However, we get it though – developers need to eat.

So Ello’s commitment into developing an advertisement-free social networking platform is definitely commendable. But, does it make sense? Advertisements on a social networking platform can appear disruptive and annoying, when the things that you really want to see are your friend’s likes, posts, and shares. Advertisement on a social networking platform for artists by artists, however, sounds absolutely perfect.

The difference boils down to the content that is being advertised. If I’m at Facebook to view my friend’s activities, I’m going to be turned off if I see an advertisement about something irrelevant – like a new B2B solution for some obscure business need, for example. If I’m at Ello to view artwork by other artists, I’m not going to be turned off with seeing promoted artworks on Ello – I’m probably going to see it sooner or later anyway.

Thus, in this particular aspect, I do think Ello can be a little more daring in venturing into the advertisement space. Of course, it might be hard for them to do so now, given how they advertise themselves as being advertisement-free. Besides, their business model is still working out for them, so perhaps it works out after all.


Original Thoughts

Sharing content

What do we think about when we say “social networking platform”? We think about liking, sharing, posting, commenting, etc. Simple, common, social things to do with people. Therefore, it completely blows my mind away when I tried to share an image from Ello, only to be asked where I wanted to share it to – Facebook, Twitter, Email, … <insert 10 other social networking sites here>.

I mean… really?

Where is the social aspect of a social networking platform if I cannot share an image from Ello, to a fellow artist on Ello? It’s almost as if we need to go to another social networking platform just to engage with our friends in an online social setting.


Onboarding required

The user experience in Ello can be downright confusing at times. I did argue that their minimalistic and monochromatic design serves to support, as opposed to compete, the art works that it showcases on its web application.

However, I believe that a minimalistic theme almost always mandates an onboarding process too. Without which, it is often impossible to tell what an icon is supposed to mean or do. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Ello has worked on this, or that it has plans to improve on this in the near future. Either way, we can only hope to see where Ello will go in the next few years.


What I hope to learn in CS3216


Indeed. As silly as that might sound, I hope to learn more about people in CS3216. More specifically, the people around me – people who are crazy enough to take CS3216, including myself.

It is definitely true that, through CS3216, we, as Computer Science students, will be exposed to the process of developing software for the ever changing digital market. Through that experience, we will probably discover better software engineering practices, frameworks, and tools that are used by many other large companies in the tech industry. We would probably also learn about the strategies executed on the business side, that are equally crucial in getting the developed software product into the market. Indeed, those are all, very valuable and desirable things to get out of this module.

However, I do not believe that there is any reason to couple the aforementioned learning outcomes with CS3216. Anyone who wants to learn about better software engineering practices, frameworks, or tools, can do so whenever. He can do so before he takes CS3216. He can do so after he has completed CS3216. Even if he never intends to take CS3216 for the rest of his life (maybe he doesn’t live in Singapore, for example), he can still learn the things needed for him to become a software engineer for the evolving digital market, at a pace that he feels he is most comfortable with. The same applies for non-computer science related stuff too, from learning about business execution to marketing of software products in the digital market.

So, that then begs the question – why take CS3216? I believe, the answer to that question is simple. People.

The CS3216 module permits a certain sort of experience that is not, otherwise, possible from other Computer Science modules in NUS. A combination of well known stories about the heavy workload and tough learning curve for CS2316, as well as a process of carefully screening and curating a set of students to take the module every year, almost certainly results in an environment where there is a higher proportion of highly motivated and deeply determined students than not.

This is exciting for several reasons:

1. You want to know what it is like to work with these people

If there is any time for experimentation, now is that time – as undergraduate students. You want to work with highly motivated people (people who are crazy enough to take CS3216) – and this will presumably ring true even after graduation – but it would be overly idealistic to say that your personality or working style is compatible with everyone else. Even in the unlikely chance that you are able to work well with everyone else, unless you plan to only build 2-man teams, there could be personality disagreements within the team too. Therefore, now is the best time to experiment and find people that you would want to form a team around in the future, even after graduation.

2. You want to find out how much further you will go with these people

Unbounded by the constraints of building an entirely predictable software application, how far can you go, working in a team full of strong individuals? It would be an utter waste to not experience the moment where putting several motivated students together result in something that is more than the sum of each individual put together.

3. You want to know more about yourself

And yes. I believe that the easiest way to discover your own strength and weaknesses, is to put yourself in an environment where you are pushed to be your very best at every moment, along with everyone else. Surely, immersing yourself in such an environment, will quickly let you know about what you are, yet, incapable of, and what you wish to strive towards in the near future.


The Aftermath

It’s perhaps a little too soon to talk about what comesĀ after CS3216, so I will refrain, but I believe it is, only, a logical conclusion to this question. Achieving the learning outcomes that you have set out for CS3216 is all fine and dandy. However, what do you plan to do with what you have learnt from CS3216.

After all, knowledge for its own purpose is meaningless – learning more about your own strength and limitations is meaningless without follow up action. But that, I claim, is a question for later. Until then.