“My Eyes Were Opened” – An Interview With Heath Huffman

An Event Apart strives to present ideas and information to help you be great at what you do. From time to time, we like to find out how we're doing by interviewing people who've attended the show. In that spirit, we spent some delightful time chatting with Heath Huffman, an entrepreneur and old-school jack-of-all-trades who created a popular website creation service, DoodleKit, and who attended An Event Apart Seattle in 2013.

Heath Huffman

Hello, Heath! What do you do professionally?

I am the co-founder and co-owner of Doodlekit, an online website builder. I am a UX/UI web designer by heart, but I wear many hats. I focus primarily on website tool creation, usability, and design—I make the tools that people use to make websites.

How did you get your start with the web?

In the mid 90s, I went to work for Corporate America as a desktop programmer/developer, and in the early 2000s transitioned over to web development as the internet became more prevalent. I developed web applications in Java, JSP, Servlets, MVC, and more. Growing up, I did a lot of art stuff—I have always had a natural knack for drawing and designing things. My employers caught onto this early, and pushed me more towards front-end web development. That led to me starting my own web business in 2006, and eventually creating Doodlekit.

What is Doodlekit, who is it for, and why is it awesome?

Doodlekit is an online website builder that allows individuals and small businesses to create their own website online at an affordable price without having to write any code. It comes with tools such as blogs, forums, form builders, shopping cart, image galleries, etc. Doodlekit's latest release comes with a template maker built in, allowing users to create their own templates from scratch or modify and tweak existing templates from our template library. Basically, if you don't know much about websites but you need one at an affordable price, then Doodlekit is perfect for you!

At last count, we have over 50,000 sites hosted on our servers, including 2,000 non-profit sites that we provide on a pro bono basis, and about 100 people sign up every day. There have been over two million sites created on Doodlekit since we launched, and we get about nine million page views a month.

You tweeted about applying AEA training to your portfolio. What did you mean by that?

It actually applied in two ways.

First, thanks to AEA, my eyes were opened as to the kind of development I needed to focus on for future iterations of Doodlekit. I had been aware of responsive design and building websites for mobile, but not to the extent or scale that I saw at AEA. I realized the importance of designing for mobile devices, screens of all sizes, and the use of different input modes for website interaction on these devices.

I have since started working on a whole new website layout system for Doodlekit based on responsive techniques talked about at AEA. Everything from Luke's “Write/Read Mobile Web” presentation to Josh Clark's “Designing For Touch” made me rethink everything I thought I knew about building the tools people use to make websites. In a nutshell, it was a reality check and a wake-up call.

Second, I took advantage of my need to update my portfolio website to try creating my own responsive design framework from scratch. Managing the content, images, and design on different screen sizes and devices has been a productive learning process. Heathbits gave me the opportunity to do this and tinker around with what I learned at AEA. I will probably eventually end up using a third party framework as a starting point for Doodlekit's redesign, but I wanted to develop one myself first to get the feel for how things worked.

Why do you think you'll move to a third-party framework after having done things yourself? Support, community, performance, something else?

I should clarify this better. Third party frameworks are more of a starting point. When all is said and done, it will still be pretty custom. Technology for the web evolves so fast, it's hard to figure out where to put a stake in the ground. Since our last major release, CSS preprocessor languages like Sass and LESS have taken off. I see opportunities to simplify our existing custom template framework by using these more in combination with third party tools for responsive design like Bootstrap or Foundation.

Do you have a sense of the return on your investment (ROI) you got from being at AEA?

Unfortunately, we do not have any responsive templates released yet. I'm still in the research and development phase of building the new tools for this. I can, however, tell you how AEA changed my perspective on template design and development moving forward.

First, let me explain the way I have to think about websites vs. your ordinary UX/UI web designer and developer. I don't get the luxury of developing a single site and CMS system for a specific client or company. Everything I do has to be thought out at a more generic level. It's not “how can I use this to make my client's website better,” but more like “how can I use this to make the tools that my clients can use to make their website better.” Because of our demographic, I have to be careful not to offer too many options or have too many choices—while still providing enough flexibility to accommodate as many user needs as possible.

Beyond layouts, AEA brought to light many other considerations I hadn't thought much about before: how people interact with websites (touchscreen vs. mouse vs. keyboard), how they hold mobile devices when using them, and how important content placement in the flow of your framework is. Can I create tools to help users do this better? Can I accomplish all of this while still providing an excellent user experience for my user demographic, without overwhelming them? We'll see, but AEA definitely gave me a huge boost in the right directions!