Hacker News is one of the websites I visit every day and it continues to take my breath away. What makes the website so special is not simply its great design, but also the strong technology and business components. The website follows fundamental design rules and is impressively easy to use. The technology may appear standard, but it is deceptively simple and additional features help elevate Hacker News above similar forums. Finally, the business case is the genius that really makes the site work. Let’s drill down into each part, design, technology and business a bit more.
Hacker News’ design is near flawless. In the famous design bible, “Design of Everyday Things,” the author talks about simplifying tasks, visibility, proper mapping, constraints, thinking error first and perception. The site is a paragon of simplicity with its minimalist design, limited features and intuitive layout. The features are visible and correctly mapped because it is a shallow site, meaning all of the features are available from the front page, and labeled appropriately. By forcing constraints (no links in the post title, for example) and expecting user error, they have focused the function and usability of the site like a laser on the users they are seeking. Finally, all products are defined by how we perceive them, and Hacker News at first glance looks like a vertical list. Users are familiar with the feed format and know that they should keep coming back to check new items, but the site also has important categories at the top: “new,” “comments,” “show,” “ask,” “jobs,” “submit.” It may not be the most attractive website, but, for its target audience, it is ideally designed.
It is no surprise that the technology behind the site is equally as well thought out. Not only did Paul Graham and Robert Morris create a whole new dialect of Lisp, called Arc, but the carefully chosen features are a delight to use. The search function seamlessly integrates Algolia’s search algorithm, which works fantastically, for searching either posts themselves, comments or the text in the link provided. The karma algorithm is deceptively simple (upvotes + comments - downvotes = karma). The sophistication comes in when trying to prevent scammers from abusing the system and only including the option to downvote for high karma commenters. This has helped keep the community from turning into a place for anger and cruelty. Finally, Hacker News implemented an API a few years ago, to encourage users to build on top of the community they have created, turning a basic forum into a platform.
The last piece that makes Hacker News so different from other startup, tech or developer forums is the business piece. If you go back and read the 2007 post “Why we made this site,” you see that Y Combinator’s partners created the site to save themselves the time of sifting through emails of links, build a community and to do pre research on Y Combinator applicants. This business insight, that the community of Y Combinator startups could be ported to the Internet, is the key that makes the whole site work. It is a virtuous cycle, whereby users learn from Y Combinator veterans and gain karma points by making their own contributions, in the hope of one day being veterans themselves.
The sum of its parts makes Hacker News one of the best sites on the internet and a daily read that continues to astound me. The community they have developed is the result of an ideal blend of design, technology and business. This standard is what each product manager should aspire to. It is not always the most beautiful, technologically advanced or revenue generating product that stands the test of time, but the ones that have been thoughtfully crafted to sit at the intersection of design, technology and business.