This is the story of ShelfLuv, an instant book Amazon book search I made for the midVentures Hackathon that ended up winning Best Overall App. ShelfLuv is book search application that displays new search results as you type, similar to Google Instant and Youtube Instant, but features a gorgeous bookshelf user interface.

The Beginning

I’ve had the idea of building a bookshelf user interface for a book search for a while now. I’ve been enamored with these types of interfaces ever since Delicious Library, the iPhone app Classics, Shelfari, and more recently iBooks. However there was no real reason to build one other than satisfying my own creative hunger. It was one those ideas people put in the back of their mind to get around it one day. Needless to say I’ve been mulling over the design of the app for a while now.

The Instant Craze

On September 8, 2010, Google launched Google Instant, a modification of their search engine that provides instant search results as the user types. A week later, a Stanford University student builds Youtube Instant using the Youtube API. It goes viral and he gets a job offer from Youtube co-founder Chad Hurley over Twitter. I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be cool to marry my bookshelf book search idea with Instant, hanging on the coattails of this craze. I ask my friend about my idea. He couldn’t believe I would stoop to hopping on this passing internet meme/fad.

The Obsession

Although I’ve had the idea for a while, it started to bug me more and more. I wanted to realize it. I started really thinking about the user interface and how it would work. I started to thinking about the design. I started to figure out how the instant feature would work. I also started to look for excuses to work on it in the form of hackathons. I found one in the midVenturesLAUNCH hackathon. Hackathons get me pumped and gave me a goal. I decided it was gonna compete in it.

The Name

I had no idea what I was gonna call this. I just gave it the codename amzn-instant and ran with that for a while. You can see that from my affiliate tag – amzn-instant. Not very creative. After much thought I finally came up with SpeedyShelf. I felt it reflected the instant and quick responsive nature of the product. I even bought the domain name. However, after a few days of mulling on it, I felt the name was too generic and too descriptive of a SINGLE feature of the product. A few days later I came up with some new ideas: LoveYourShelf or ShelfLove. I asked my wife which one she liked more. She said the latter – it was shorter and catchy. I agreed. Unfortunately ShelfLove was taken but ShelfLuv was available.

Planning & Preparation

Once I made up my mind that I would do the hackathon, I started the necessary preparations. Not planning for a hackathon is like going to a gunfight with a knife. Not only because of the time constraint but because of the odds stacked against a one man team. I was secretly hoping my friend Ravi would not compete because he always manages to lay waste to the competition every time he comepetes. At the same time, I welcomed the challenge of going up against him. I’ve done hackathons where there were 7 team members to a team. I’ve also done hackathons where they had worked on their idea for months. I could be severely outnumbered. I hadn’t looked at the Amazon API for a while so I revisited it. I started to figure out what the design would look like and what code libraries I would use to be able to do this in a short amount of time.

Design Thinking

I started thinking about what the features of this search app would have considering the time constraint. It’s big feature would be the gorgeous UI and the ease of use of it. I also thought about design as part of function. The books wouldn’t just look nice and pretty but the different types of editions would be visually distinct. Paperbacks would have some sort of indication – like a page curl; hardcovers would have a binder effect, and Kindle editions would have a Kindle behind them.

The Actual App

The actual app really doesn’t do much. You can type to search for books and as soon as you typed, books would start showing up. You can’t even view more books than the first page of results (limited to 10 books). You could click on a book which would take you to a detailed page. One really AWESOME feature that it had was you could sort the books by alphabetical order or sales rank. When you did that, the books would “fly” over to its correct order. It was a beautiful feature that added a really nice touch to the already beautiful app. However that was pretty much all that the app did or could do given the allotted time. In retrospect this quote probably resonated with me:

Build half a product, not a half-assed product.
- Jason Fried

Presentation & Aftermath

Sunday came along and I did the presentation. At about that point I was running on very few hours of sleep, coffee and Mountain Dew. The judges deliberated and I won. Part of the reason I focused so much on design and not feature set was because I had read that the prize for Best Design was the AR Parrot Drone. I knew that I would never actually buy one but I sure wouldn’t mind one for free. I ended up winning Best Overall App which meant that I would not be eligible for Best Design. In fact Best Design became Best Idea. I discovered a day later after I caught up on sleep that I actually won a booth at midVenturesLAUNCH and a chance to present on stage to an audience of 1500 people at the UIC Forum. Steve Huffman co-founder of Reddit and Hipmunk presents after me and I get to meet him afterwards.

I submit my app for review at Hacker News, a website for computer geeks and tech entrepreneurs and it generates lots of traffic and good feedback. Lifehacker picks up on the story as well as The Next Web. My friend Nicole who writes for The Examiner writes an article covering the midVenturesLAUNCH and also mentions ShelfLuv. I’m still riding the high. This is the ShelfLuv story so far.

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