Some­times sit­ting around the office talk­ing about your favorite things can lead you down a path where you get to make some­thing spe­cial. That was our expe­ri­ence with Force Block. We made some­thing we need­ed that also hap­pened to res­onate with peo­ple all over the world: a sim­ple app to block Star Wars spoil­ers.

Design

We’d tried some oth­er tools for block­ing spoil­ers, but they all came up short. The all-pur­pose block­ers took way too much effort to man­u­al­ly set­up for Star Wars, and the only oth­er Star-Wars-spe­cif­ic block­er was too sen­si­tive, and had no way of learn­ing from its mis­takes. So we knew ease of use was and some kind whitelist func­tion were our top pri­or­i­ties.

We also knew that no mat­ter how spe­cif­ic our pat­tern match­ing library was, there would still be a lot of false pos­i­tives due to the sheer vol­ume of Star Wars con­tent float­ing around. This meant users would run into our block screen more often than it was pre­vent­ing real spoil­ers. So why not make it fun?

Thanks to the pun-filled brain of our edi­tor Erik But­ton we were able to come up with a bunch of quotes and jokes, and we pro­grammed the plu­g­in to dis­play one at ran­dom with each block. He kept adding more through­out the devel­op­ment process, and we found our­selves refresh­ing pages just to see what fun­ny mes­sage would come up next.

Aes­thet­i­cal­ly, we stuck to the Star Wars stan­dards: a sim­ple black screen, cyan News Goth­ic text, and a yel­low title in the tra­di­tion­al Star Wars logo font.

Build

Force Block was designed to be smarter than your aver­age fil­ter. To do this we built log­ic that would flag the page based on the sever­i­ty and quan­ti­ty of spoil­er-rich word­ing. Some words that reg­is­ter low­er on the scale and would take a high­er quan­ti­ty of appear­ing on a page to acti­vate the block­er; while some words and phras­es that we knew were very like­ly spoil­ers would block the page instant­ly.

No sys­tem like this can be per­fect of course, so we erred on the side of cau­tion. Whats worse for the user, hav­ing to click through a few false warn­ings, or have a plu­g­in that let an impor­tant spoil­er slip through the cracks? Assur­ing the user would have have the low­est like­li­hood of being spoiled was para­mount.

After a less than a day’s worth of cod­ing and a bit of test­ing, we had an app that met all our min­i­mum viable prod­uct cri­te­ria: it was sim­ple, fast, fun to use, and effec­tive at help­ing peo­ple get to the pre­miere with­out get­ting spoiled.

Launch

After we blogged and tweet­ed about it, one of the first places we went to share our launch was Prod­uct Hunt, which is a great source for inter­est­ing apps and prod­ucts, with a strong com­mu­ni­ty of design­ers, devel­op­ers, and entre­pre­neurs. Justin is a Prod­uct Hunt beta tester, so he men­tioned it in their pri­vate Slack team which helped prime the engine.

Now that we had a a fin­ished prod­uct that was start­ing to get users, we knew we need­ed to add some fuel to the fire. We wrote up a press release and blast­ed it out to our media con­tacts. We were for­tu­nate that it res­onat­ed with so many dif­fer­ent media ver­ti­cals: tech, film, and gen­er­al pop cul­ture. We also knew it would be ben­e­fi­cial to talk direct­ly to blog­gers via Twit­ter, so we reached out to a hand­ful of movie review­ers and some of our favorite writ­ers with per­son­al mes­sages explain­ing why they might like our app.

Reception

For the first 24 hours, we wait­ed, watch­ing our stats and con­tin­u­ing to tweet to the long-tail of our press list. By the end of the night we’d tracked a few hun­dred vis­i­tors.

Justin woke up unusu­al­ly ear­ly the next morn­ing, and checked our Prod­uct Hunt sub­mis­sion. 25 upvotes, and it was fea­tured on the home­page! This was a land­mark accom­plish­ment for us, being such big fans of Prod­uct Hunt, and acute­ly aware of how many sub­mis­sions nev­er get noticed.

He then flipped over to Google Ana­lyt­ics, where a few hun­dred view­ers had turned into 7,775!

That traf­fic wasn’t just com­ing from Prod­uct Hunt though. Some­one had run the sto­ry at Engad­get. And then Giz­mo­do picked it up from there. And then Ars Tech­ni­ca, the Tele­graph, The Verge, The Next Web, and oth­er tech blogs. We spent half the morn­ing just track­ing down refer­rals.

Then we climbed the press lad­der from there, using our cov­er­age to boost anoth­er wave of tweets and press releas­es tar­get­ed at more main­stream media. Pret­ty soon we were on the front page of Buz­zFeed, Busi­ness Insid­er, the Wash­ing­ton Post, Enter­tain­ment Week­ly, Time, and Pop­u­lar Sci­ence. We even got a men­tion at the end of NPR’s Mar­ket­place, and a tweet from Katie Couric her­self.

All said and done we tracked over 270,000 vis­i­tors to our plu­g­in, with over 130,000 installs, and a host of earned press that was a com­plete thrill to watch unfold.

The app’s quirky phras­es also had an unex­pect­ed side effect: peo­ple were tak­ing screen­shots of them and post­ing their favorites. This helped the plu­g­in spread to peo­ple who may not have even been look­ing for any­thing but a laugh.

Feedback and refinement

It was excit­ing to have so many real users in so lit­tle time. We took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn as much as we could from them, which was inter­est­ing and reward­ing, even for such a sim­ple app.

We kept a close eye on reviews and sup­port requests via Twit­ter, blog com­ments, and espe­cial­ly Google’s Chrome store. Any app will attract its share of bad reviews, war­rant­ed or not. In our case, some peo­ple found it too sen­si­tive, oth­ers not sen­si­tive enough.

We made sure to reply to every one we could find, to at least acknowl­edge their con­cern, and in some cas­es, take their sug­ges­tions to push small refine­ments to the app. Our rapid improve­ments, plus engag­ing with peo­ple in this way seemed to help keep our over­all app rat­ings high, as poten­tial bad reviews were dif­fused either by quick­ly address­ing issues, or by the detailed expla­na­tions we’d offer in our pub­lic respons­es. A cou­ple peo­ple actu­al­ly amend­ed their rat­ings upward after sim­ply hear­ing from us!

Two days after the release, Justin took one for the team, col­lect­ing a list of spoil­ers from The Force Awak­ens itself, via a friend who attend­ed an ear­ly screen­ing. We updat­ed the app imme­di­ate­ly, mak­ing it more secure than ever. Iron­ic, he could save oth­ers from spoil­ers … but not him­self.

What we learned

It was a fun project all around, from build­ing it, to see­ing it catch fire, and talk­ing to so many peo­ple who enjoyed it.

What did we learn?

  1. It’s pos­si­ble, with focus. We now know it’s pos­si­ble to con­ceive of and release a sim­ple suc­cess­ful app over a week­end. Sev­er­al folks on our team have attend­ed hackathons like Start­up Week­end before, but those con­cepts nev­er seem to take off, often times because they’re too grand. We kept our scope bru­tal­ly sim­ple and focused, and this dis­ci­pline paid off. Our app may have been min­i­mal, but it was sol­id.
  2. Climb the media lad­derWe start­ed by post­ing to Prod­uct Hunt, and from there we attract­ed the tech blogs, and then lever­aged that cov­er­age to go after main­stream press. And final­ly, it all came back full-cir­cle, with local media run­ning a few sto­ries, which always feels great.
  3. Tim­ing is every­thing. We knew every­one would be talk­ing about spoil­ers the week of the release, so it was a per­fect time to ride the cul­tur­al wave and con­tribute some­thing to the Star Wars zeit­geist. And it worked! In face, the week of the pre­miere, search­ing for “star wars spoil­ers” in Google returned us on the front page!
  4. Side projects are worth itSure, this didn’t make us any mon­ey (direct­ly), but it was a nice change of pace for every­one since we don’t usu­al­ly build Chrome exten­sions, and it was refresh­ing to release some­thing in so quick a time­frame, and then be done with it. We learned a lot, and we had a great time doing it.

Alto­geth­er we had a blast. It was a great hol­i­day diver­sion, it taught us a lit­tle about build­ing and releas­ing apps, and it was a nice ego boost to see so many peo­ple enjoy­ing our work.

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