Among computer programmers, there are many that could rightly be called the “incarnation of geeks” – people that jump at the opportunity to obtain the latest gadgets. To them, updating their computer peripherals is about more than just making their work more efficient.
The keyboards, headphones, and each and every item surrounding programmers’ desk environments is a reflection of their lifestyles.
We spoke with Jesse Vincent, a leading programmer known for his work in Perl. He had the unexpected idea to create a keyboard out of none other than wood.
The Keyboardio is a wooden keyboard targeting hardcore computer users. We sat down with Vincent and his wife, a co-founder of the company, and learned about what went into the development of the product and how their “road trip” to focus test the product on actual users went.
A design spontaneously born out of research
——A wooden keyboard is quite a novel idea. Where did the inspiration come from?
It’s actually an interesting story. The fact that it’s wooden happened totally by accident.
When we made the first prototype, I was living in Boston. I went to a shop with a laser cutter in order to prep a prototype to show at an appointment we had with a potential client. However, we ran into a problem: it was the dead of winter. I had ordered acrylic plastic, but there was a blizzard, and the material didn’t arrive on time.
——Terrible. So what did you do?
Vincent: I didn’t want to lose the opportunity for the meeting, so I went to a local lumber shop and bought up plywood and used that instead. I was surprised to find that the result was even better than plastic.
Wood has a warmth that puts the user at ease. It was like the keyboard had had new life breathed into it. This was really unexpected.
——An unplanned accident actually created the best result. Another unique aspect of the Keyboardio is its butterfly-like design. Tell us about how you devised this layout.
Vincent: We prototyped over thirty different designs. One project that we used as a reference early on was work done by the University of Tokyo. That project looked at the usability of computer equipment, and they designed a keyboard based on how people actually use their hands. Instead of a rectangle, the design was spread out like wings. We used this as a hint in our prototype, arranging the keys and the perimeter of the keyboard in a butterfly shape. People really liked this design and found it comfortable to use.
Most keyboards are clinical, almost like medical devices. They’re awkward and unfamiliar. We want to create something more appealing and fun.
A project launched as a couple
——We want to ask you about the team members and how you approached recruiting. You started as a husband-and-wife team.
Vincent: I originally thought this keyboard project was going to be a personal thing that took a month at most. However, I was surprised to find that lots of people wanted to know where to buy the product.
I told my wife, who was completing an MBA, about it, and she said, “If there are this many people that want to buy it, it means there’s a real need for it – can’t we make this into a business?” That’s how the project started.
My wife is now in charge of the business side of things, which is her forte. It’s not my personal strength, so we have a great synergy.
——How did you get people to collaborate with you on the project?
Vincent: In general, we relied on introductions and recommendations from friends and acquaintances. In addition to the two of us, we have mechanical and electrical engineers, and they are hired on a contract basis.
San Francisco is home to major firms like Google and Apple that hire engineers, so there is lots of great talent being scooped up elsewhere. Finding good members and building a team is difficult. You have to have the funds to pay their wages and you have to find people interested in working on what you’re working on.
At the same time, we had help from a lot of volunteers. I think this is owed to the fact that we are providing our idea in an open-source format, so people were enthusiastic about collaborating with us.
The road trip campaign
——Let’s talk about fundraising. You used Kickstarter for initial pre-orders of the product.
Vincent: There are lots of great crowd-funding sites in the US, like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Using these platforms is extremely useful for hardware startups – the reason being that using crowd-funding lets you gauge the initial scale of your market. Will the initial volume of units shipped be in the hundreds or thousands? This data lets you talk specifics with the factories and make decisions on what technology you will use to make the product.
—— In 30 days, Keyboardio raised over 600,00 USD and over 2,000 supporters. We heard that you and Kaia (Dekker) visited numerous cities during the campaign.
Vincent: That’s right. During the thirty days of the Kickstarter campaign, we went on a road trip spanning the US and visited hacker spaces in twenty-five cities.
The germ of this idea was in the fact that we wanted to put to use the car we had sitting unused since moving to Boston. We decided that we might as well go for two or three cities and try showing the keyboard to others.
Before the campaign went live, we sent out a post on our mailing list asking if there were people who wanted us to come and visit. We got responses from over a hundred people in fifty cities. We checked them on a map, and they were mostly within driving distance. So we ended up driving 8-10 hours each day, giving our supporters feedback on our travel status, and then hitting the sack before setting off the next day.
We got lots of feedback on this trip and learned that there was still much we could do to improve the product.
——What specifically did you learn on the trip?
Vincent: On Kickstarter, we only offered a quiet version intended for use in offices. On the road trip, we got lots of requests from people about the sound of the keys. It turns out that a lot of people who are picky about their keyboards prefer keys that rattle off a sound almost like a machine gun.
Fortunately, changing the sound simply came down to swapping out some mechanical switches, so we were able to incorporate this idea and offer a clicky version for an extra ten dollars.
——That’s a small but valuable piece of feedback. Lastly, what are your near-term goals and vision?
Vincent: Our near-term goals revolve around delivering high-quality products to users in a timely fashion. In the long-term, we want to bring excellent new input devices to the market that are more well-designed and functional than anything else out there. We want to make this a device that acts as users’ trusty ally when working on their computers. We are currently drafting new designs which, while not yet to our liking, will be something we want to share with everyone once they’re ready.
There is still much that can be done to refine input devices, and we have lots of ideas. We want to keep focusing on keyboards as we grow.
For programmers, a keyboard is like an extension of their own limbs. The Keyboardio, with its organic materials and design based on bionics, is like something out of a dream for users who spend long hours typing on their keyboards.
The Vincents, poised to bring the Keyboardio to the world, struck us as engaged in creating something that is like an everyday T-shirt: a perennial classic that will last for years to come.
What came across in this interview is that craftsmanship, yesterday, today, and in the future, is always something that unfolds closely rooted to the lifestyles of the producers.