Describing IFTTT to someone unfamiliar with the service can be a challenge. The explanations are often too vague (“IFTTT helps people make simple connections between anything on the Internet,” explains cofounder Linden Tibbets) or so complicated they go over people’s heads. It’s always easier to start with examples. The web service leverages the Internet to automate tasks like saving your Instagram photos to Flickr, sending a text message when rain is in the forecast, turning on your lights from Facebook, and more.
A testament to the Internet of Things–a buzz phrase that refers to networked smart devices saturating our lives–IFTTT carries out actions on the web when channels are triggered. These actions are based on its namesake recipe: If this, then that. It’s a simple idea with endless possibilities.
Up until a week ago, IFTTT had existed solely as a desktop site. When the company debuted an iOS app, it received much acclaim in the tech press, landing an Editor’s Choice distinction in PC Magazine before it even launched. It was also named a best new app by The Verge. A year in the making, building the app came with a set of challenges as IFTTT was adapted for people on the go. Yet while the app represented a major milestone in the company’s two-and-a-half-year history, it’s nowhere near complete.
IFTTT’s 2,400-square-foot office on San Francisco’s Market Street is a much-welcomed upgrade from Tibbets’ living room, where he launched the service while working part time at design consultancy Ideo.
Tibbets, 30, had spent about a year at Ideo programming in Flash, an event-driven language that, like IFTTT, is focused on triggers and actions. The work, as well as the book Thoughtless Acts by Ideo’s Jane Fulton Suri, made him think about how people interacted with objects in ways they weren’t intended for, such as using “a hammer to keep a door open or ashing a cigarette in a bottle cap–these itty-bitty behaviors,” he noted.
“I could use things to solve problems in the physical world,” Tibbets told Fast Company. “That kind of behavior is largely missing when it comes to software or the Internet.”
It’s that thinking that shaped how he viewed the web, which he says lacks a common set of rules, unlike the physical world where “everyone has this layman’s understanding of the laws of physics,” such as friction and gravity.
“But with the Internet, there’s no common understanding,” he continued. “There are things everyone gets like email or hyperlinks, but there’s still this lack of concrete rules. Could that cause-and-effect thing be turned into one of these fundamental rules? How do we productize that? How do we make this available with an interface anyone could use? What are some of those other rules that might exist?”
With that in mind, he went on to develop a working prototype of IFTTT based on inputs and outputs that would put the power of the Internet at everyone’s hands. These inputs and outputs–and the combination of commands that activate them–are called “recipes,” and users can create their own or modify other people’s. To help build the network for these recipes, Tibbets eventually enlisted the help of his brother Alexander, who at the time was crashing on his couch while job hunting in San Francisco.
“The first thing I did was answer emails,” Alexander, 28, recalled. Soon, his brother gave him his next task.
“It was on my birthday and Linden had built a login page for the working prototype. I was doing my own work looking for jobs in the film industry out here in San Francisco and he said, “Hey hey, test this out. Go here. Sign up.”
With that first test, he took on a quality assurance role, and over the years, as part of a small 13-person team, he would wear hats in community management, business development, marketing, communications, and operations, which he currently oversees.
Towering at 6’4″ and 6’9″, it’s easy to spot the two brothers, who are from a small town outside Dallas called Duncanville, in the office. (In case you’re wondering, Alexander’s considered the runt of the family.)
Working out of a nondescript building in SOMA, a hotbed of startups, IFTTT moved into its fourth-floor office at the beginning of 2012 after raising a $2 million seed round. To date, the company has raised $9 million in funding.
The space, open and airy, looks very much like a startup office with bikes in the corner, snacks in the kitchen, twice-a-week catering, a plethora of Apple displays, and impromptu stand-up meetings. There’s also Lady, a pint-sized Teacup Pomeranian who serves as IFTTT’s guard dog. (Her stuffed-animal demeanor aside, Alexander describes her as fierce.)
Devin Foley was a week shy of his one-year anniversary at IFTTT when the iPhone app hit the App Store. Having led the mobile effort, he said the team’s hard work has “really paid off.”
“After working on IFTTT for iPhone for nearly a year, it feels amazing to have released it to such a positive response,” described Foley. “I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve built, more so than anything I’ve ever worked on.”
From left: Linden Tibbets, Devin Foley, Alexander Tibbets
Designing for mobile came with a set of challenges, from recipe discovery to minimizing the number of clicks needed to create a recipe. “You can’t just re-create your desktop web experience in a mobile app and expect it to be what users are looking for because people want an optimized experience,” said Foley.
User testing quickly yielded observations about how the app needed to be simplified.
“One thing we found immediately is when creating a recipe, as soon as you start asking the user to start typing in information, it kind of starts feeling like work,” Foley stated. “The first version, there was overwhelming feedback about recipe creation being too much work. We went back and rethought how we can make this faster. What should the mobile experience be?”
Instead of having users type, Foley utilized large icons and on/off buttons. “You can do it with one hand, and we minimize the number of clicks and optimize it to make it feel like browsing.” The app also introduces three native channels: iOS Photos, iOS Contacts, and iOS Reminders.
By nature of smartphones and small screens, browsing is easier than typing. Discovering new ways to use IFTTT had been difficult on the desktop site, leaving users to wander through pages and pages of shared recipes–more than 100,000 at this point–the greater community can view and use.
“I like to think and I’ve been pretty sure so far, there’s really something in there for everybody who uses the Internet,” Linden said. “There’s something there they’ll find valuable. The problem is the overhead to find that something is pretty immense in a lot of cases.”
The company decided to use the app as an opportunity to address the issue. Though Linden says IFTTT will focus on creating a better recommendation system, perhaps an engine that surfaces recipes based on channels activated, it’s, for now, hand-curating suggestions.
Also coming to users in a future iteration is the functionality to turn personal recipes into shared recipes. Still, the company has noticed using shared recipes is more popular on the app than creating new ones, whereas the distribution is more even on the site.
“All a user has to do here is click use recipe button, and they’re finished,” Foley demonstrated. “For most use cases, that’s all that’s required. It should be more about exploring and helping the user get work done as quickly as possible.”
Another feature exclusively available on mobile is a feed that shows when and what recipes were executed. With the ability to add custom notifications, users can also be informed the moment an action takes place.
Because of the differences that exist between the site, Linden said “we think of [the app] as the next version of IFTTT.”
“It’s not necessarily an iteration but a full rethinking of what it means to interact with IFTTT,” he continued. “The iPhone represents the first device IFTTT is on natively, but it’s certainly not the last.”
Though there are plans for an Android app, the iPhone version is far from done. Deadline considerations meant certain features didn’t make the cut. Linden said he’d estimate the current app as being “over 50% there.”
“There’s still a lot more to do.”
Aside from the app, IFTTT has been busy ramping up the number of channel partners, including connected hardware such as activity tracker Jawbone Up, Wi-Fi scale Withings, Philips Hue color-changing bulbs, and Belkin’s WeMo home automation products.
IFTTT’s first hardware partner, Belkin, approached the startup about a year ago when it was readying its WeMo Switch and Motion Sensor. Helping bridge these rules into real-life objects represented a turning point for IFTTT.
“We love everything that’s happened with the Internet of Things, and we certainly have started from a strong base of these more abstract web services,” Linden said. “That’s really powerful to build a bridge, not necessarily from the physical back to the digital, but starting from the abstract and making sure the way we think about rules and how our service works maps over to the physical stuff coming online.”
Take the Purple Rain recipe for instance. A nod to Prince, the recipe changes the color of Philips Hue’s bulbs to purple when it’s raining.
Of course, adding new partners can be taxing, especially with only eight engineers on board. The company is hoping partners take a more active role in developing and maintaining their own channels. IFTTT also runs an apprenticeship program, a three-month paid program that could funnel talent to the engineering roster.
Bullish about connected devices, Linden envisions a society in which everything is smart, even packs of gum. “Why not if it’s cheap enough?”
But with Wi-Fi-enabled smart gum comes questions about how people will interact with it.
“Who’s going to have enough knowledge to say from the top down what your pack of gum is going to do with anything else?” Linden asked.
Could it be IFTTT, which essentially democratizes the Internet of Things?
“I think it’s got to be from the bottom up. It’s got to be the people who interact with the stuff.”
[Image: Alice Truong for Fast Company]