10 Questions with Jonathan and Peter of Picnik.com

brand_240×100_green.pngIf you’ve read my blog, checked out my Flickr stream, or stood within 5 feet of me for more than 10 minutes you know I’m a huge fan of Picnik.com. When Tom hooked me up recently with my very own Picnik t-shirt, I thought it was time to reach out the Picnik folks and invite them to answer 10 questions. Thanks to Jonathan Sposato and Peter Roman for taking me up on the offer!
1. Tell me about Picnik… what is it? Why’d you build it?
[Jonathan] Picnik gives everyday “real people” photo editing superpowers right in a browser. its the easiest way to do anything cool to a photo whether you want to crop it, reduce red-eye, get creative and add a crazy assortment of effects, print it, save it to Flickr, or email it to someone. basically any verb you want to apply to a photo, we would like to have Picnik do. But the real beauty of Picnik is that ALL of this happens in a browser, which means there is absolutely NOTHING to download or install, and your experience bridges seamlessly with anywhere on the web where you want to GET a photo, or to STORE a photo.

Why did we build it? In general we are a team highly motivated by biting off the hard, unusual challenge. We just saw that there was a huge opportunity to do two things:

  • Give people photo-editing awesomeness in a way that had never been done before. Make it easy and cheap (FINALLY)
  • Create a next generation type of app that was rich and dynamic, yet runs in a browser.

2. What do you see as the “long-term vision” for Picnik?
[Jonathan] There are several facets to the longterm vision for Picnik. A big part of the long term vision is that we want Picnik to be THE single “one stop shop” tool for anyone wanting to do anything cool to their photos whether online or OFFline. I think soon I’d like to drop the distinction of “Best Online Photo Editor” and just goal ourselves to be the “Best Photo Editor” period. To do that that means ANY verb that can be applied to a photo, whether that’s edit, resize, print, save, add border, add frame, email to friends, send to cellphone, etc, people should be able to do using Picnik. Another component of this is that Picnik can also become the “nexus” or a meta front-end to anywhere where your photos are. A common internet problem right now is that a user may have pictures scattered everywhere ranging from Photobucket, Flickr, their Facebook account, and/or their hard drive. If Picnik becomes a “one stop shop” to view, organize, and action on all that, then that would be tremendously powerful. I think at the highest level Picnik is already starting to realize that vision.
We have a number of additional broad vision ideas we are developing as well. All of these relate to solving common internet photo user problems that are not being solved now.

3. I have to ask about the absolutely incredible Flash interface. With so many people going to AJAX for their tools, and after such a long history of Flash interfaces being marginal at best, what made you choose Flash?
[Peter] Flash was really a no-brainer here. Unlike AJAX, Flash lets us directly manipulate pixels in real-time, right on the client. This let us eliminate the round-trip client to server to client processing making for a true desktop experience. As for the User Interface (UI) itself, in the end, Flash is just a tool. It’s up to designers and developers to do something great with it. Luckily, we’ve got a truly kick-ass team that completely respects the role of UI and User Experience (UX).

4. What were some of the biggest challenges with building a tool like this?
[Peter] One of the biggest challenges with Picnik was bridging the gap between the desktop and web. We sit right at the nexus here, so it’s not always clear on which side to lean. Take back button support, for example. Desktop apps rarely have this concept, yet we made the decision to support it as users don’t stop to think “I’m in Flash, so I shouldn’t hit the back button.” We live on the web, so we need to be good web citizens.

Another huge thing we’ve dealt with is monitor resolution support. Usually, we’d be targetting 800×600 and up, but inside Facebook, we only get a width of 640. There’s tons of smarts inside Picnik to sense the user’s stage width and reposition/refactor elements accordingly. Working and looking good from 640×480 up to 1600×1200 and beyond is a big design and development challenge, but it’s crucial given our varied audience.

5. You’ve built your tool in no small part on APIs to connect to other services. Scary? Beneficial? Tell me about it.
[Jonathan] I’ll take this one. I think these publicly available API’s are the best thing these web services have done to enable additional value for their users. We haven’t found leveraging them to bridge with various photo services to be scary at all, but truly a lot of fun (its fun to see your own product become more and more useful!) Perhaps “where you stand is where you sit”, but from my perspective the most challenging aspect of leveraging others’ API’s has to do with the business side of it, and getting right the secret combination of words that might unlock API access on the part of the service provider. To be fair, everyone we’ve talked with has been great. But there are times when there are varying degrees of accessibility to third parties and after an initial foray into their API it may become evident that there are additional permissions that need to be granted. Nothing is inherently wrong with this but when its a small company talking to a big company sometimes that process can take many months.

[Peter] The APIs have been incredibly beneficial. A huge part of what makes Picnik fun to use is how tightly it integrates with your favorite photo service. This wouldn’t have been possible without the APIs sites like Flickr and Facebook provide. Scary? Not particularly. These sites want more traffic and more stickiness, both of which have been delivered in droves by the scores of third-party add-ons. Just look at Facebook’s meteoric rise after the launch of their platform. Why shut off the added richness apps like Picnik bring?

6. What’s been the biggest challenge in building a service like this?
[Peter] The biggest challenge has been nailing the end to end user experience, coupling both design and development to create a true desktop experience. Picnik runs right up against the boundaries of what Flash and Flex can do. Seeing how far we can take it and balancing that with a smooth user experience is an ongoing challenge.

7. Any future plans to add more social features to the site, allowing shared designs, or design galleries of great works?
[Peter] I think this will become clear very soon… 😉

8. Looking over the About Us page of Picnik it’s clear there’s a vast array of brainpower brought to bear. Who’s the smartest and how much does the rest of the team hate them?
[Jonathan] I am pretty sure I’m the dumbest guy in the room at all times. Conversely I think my business partners Darrin and Mike are wicked smart. Peter our chief designer is certainly no slouch either : ) We’ve been very lucky because uniformly the entire team is stellar and would be A+ hires at any awesome blue chip company. But to answer your question I think I am most jealous of Peter because he’s smart AND he’s got great hair. ; )

[Peter] Ooh, tough one. I think I’d have to go with Brian, what with the Stanford degree. Honestly, it is pretty amazing working with this caliber A team. It may sound cliched, but everyone here really loves what they do and they each bring their super-genius brainpower to bear. I think it really shows in the final product.
I’d also add, as a designer, this is an absolutely thrilling environment. I’ve never had this level of development support. Everyone here is willing to go the extra mile to get the design right.

9. What’s the coolest thing you see happening online these days?
[Peter] The absolute coolest thing, the one that makes the geek in me wide-eyed with wonder, is the increasing interconnectedness of everything online. For the longest time, the web’s been almost the opposite of what it should have been — a bunch of walled gardens, islands where data sat alone. This has drastically changed in the past few years with APIs spawning just about any kind of mashup you can imagine. The fact we can make a Web app like Picnik tap into your Flickr, Facebook, Photobucket, and Picasa Web accounts all at once and pass things across all these services and then out to other ones is fantastic.

And with more and more people moving more and more of their lives online, the possibilities will continue to grow exponentially.

10. What are you dying to tell people about Picnik that no one ever asks?
[Jonathan] Thanks for asking! That there are several cool “hidden” features that people never seem to find. One of them is that you can simply pull in your pictures from ANY website. Even if you don’t have a Flickr or Facebook store of photos, just go to “Get from Web Site” and simply type in ANY URL. Picnik will pull in the photos for you to edit. Another great feature that is a bit hidden is how you can “cruise” your Facebook friends’ photo albums. If you are connected to Facebook, simply pull down the user name menu on the upper right and Picnik will produce a Rolodex of your Facebook contacts. You can simply just jump to any friend, any album and voila! you can start messing with their pics : )

Lastly, more germane to photo-editing awesomeness itself is the “effect painting” feature common to a number of the special effects. You might see a little paintbrush icon after you click on the effect like sepia for instance. Clicking on the paintbrush will open up another control that will allow you to selectively paint the effect on to just a specific area of the picture. You can also reverse the effect, and generally have a very very high degree of control over how you want the selected effect to be applied. We just added this a couple of weeks ago and I am not sure everyone knows about this : )

[Peter] I’m dying to tell people that Picnik can and does provide professional quality results. As a long-time Photoshop jockey, I’m in awe that we can do this in a browser and do it fast. We really are bringing high-end photo editing to the masses and making it easy too boot.

Normally, I’d wrap up the interview by exploring some of my favorite points raised. No time for that now, however… I have new features to go try out. I will share two links to extend the Picnik fun:

UPDATE – 10/20/7: I’ve just read that Picnik is partnering with Flickr to bring “native” image editing straight into Flickr itself. Wow!