Published on 29 November 2015
Roughly six months ago, I had a fun idea for a website that I fully expected would be a joke, that I would share with a few of my friends, and that would promptly be forgotten by the Internet. I had just joined Hacker Paradise in Bali. I needed a project for a hackathon during my first week there, so I decided to build out my idea. I made a basic website, didn’t think too much about the style or the wording, and launched it that afternoon.
The idea was simple: I would get drunk, and review your website in the process. I would look for bugs, dark UX patterns, poor copy, and evaluate the site as a whole. The domain name said it all: TheUserIsDrunk.com.
The site went wildly viral. Within an hour, I was at the top of Hacker News. I had just under 100,000 hits on the first day. Within a week, I had around 300k hits. I was interviewed by FastCo, Tech.co, Gizmodo, VWO, Hubspot. And, almost immediately, the orders started coming in. I raised my price from $50 to $500, sure that at some point, people would stop buying. They didn’t.
Today, I am announcing that I am closing it to open orders.
In this post, I’d like to share my process and my favorite parts of the entire experience; what drinking professionally is like; serious questions I have about privilege; why I feel it is time for me to close the site; and what’s next.
The User Is Drunk provided a service that wasn’t actually as straightforward as it seems. I wasn’t really a “user”, a naïve person you’d pay on fiverr.com or a friend you’d ask to check out your beta site. I’m a full-stack developer with experience evaluating UX/UI for websites, mostly ones I was building as part of teams in New York and San Francisco. The site could easily have been marketed as “The independent UX reviewer is drunk,” with the following line saying: “I’ll get drunk and give you advice that I could have given you sober about your UX, pretending I am a normal user, but I’ll mess some stuff up.” The service could have also been touted as “Richard will get drunk and try to have as good a time as possible while straddling the line between comedian commentator and astute observer.”
Just to be clear, “The User Is Drunk” wasn’t an entirely novel idea. There was another guy who had come up with the same idea before: Will Dayble. I had doubtlessly heard of the phrase from him, although I didn’t know the provenance of the idea at the time and thought it was just a standard idea used in the industry. That probably says more about my absentmindedness than about the state of UX as an evolving discipline. There’s a few reasons why drunk users are interesting, from a UX perspective. I could list them all here, but Austin Knight of Hubspot wrote an absolutely fantastic article about drunk user testing, based on my service, that says it much more eloquently than I ever could.
My process reviewing sites went something like this. I would have a few drinks, always with friends. At some point during the evening, I would wander away for twenty minutes and launch up my computer. I would generally spend around ten minutes on a site — sometimes, I spent as long as twenty minutes, sometimes as short as five. I used a Trello board to organize everything. I used ScreenMailer to take videos, although for some special instances I used QuickTime to record mobile reviews. Afterwards, I would give the video to a writer friend of mine, David Young, who would type up my rants in a nicely formatted PDF (originally designed by Simon) that I would then send to the customer. David was an absolute champ, and every dollar I spent on his copy editing was 100% worth it. He’s listened to hours of me talking incoherently, and somehow made sense of it.
In the end, what I would send to the client was a PDF with a list of things I had noticed in the site — bugs, dark patterns, bad copy, etc. — and a list of things that they could instantly do to improve their site. I also attached a screenshot of the video and a link to the video of me going over their site. If they liked it and said yes, I would put a link to their video on my website. At the moment, there are 36 videos up. I probably reviewed somewhere around 50 different sites, all told.
The actual videos were the main deliverable. Sometimes, they were really useful to the client. I identified bugs, found parts of their website they didn’t know existed, and pointed out where copy could be better. I got great feedback, and occasionally I would get repeated clients. Sometimes, the videos were useful for other reasons — for instance, they wanted exposure. I’m fairly certain Mathbreakers.com had no idea how much traffic they would get from my site as my first client (tons). For a lot of buyers, the entire point was just to see what I would make of their site, because they thought I was a pretty funny guy when I was drunk. And, sometimes, my reviews were completely useless to everyone involved. I’ll talk more about that later.
Means Living in Bali and Thailand, getting drunk wasn’t expensive, difficult, or out of the ordinary. I was traveling with 30~ friends, and on any given night some of them were up for hanging out. Many even seemed to enjoy watching me go away for ten minutes in the middle of a beer to record myself stumbling my way through someone’s website. I made a deal with my friends, as I didn’t want to drink alone: if I was reviewing a site, I would buy everyone drinks. All that I asked of them was that they, you know, hang out with me. Most of them thought this was hilarious, and were more than happy to oblige. There was always someone up for a drink.
When I first posted the site on Hacker News, one comment, quickly upvoted, was this:
Alcoholism is sad. :(
The comment was later deleted after a barrage of HN commenters stated this wasn’t alcoholism, let the kid have a good time (something I’m not sure I agree with). I wish the commenter had left it up. Although it may seem strange, it was this comment that, for the first time, made me take a step back and think honestly about what I was doing. Remember, I hadn’t thought that the idea would go viral, at all. I did it as a joke. Now, all of the sudden, I was contractually obliged to drink. And I was known for it.
I quickly did a few things. First, I added a huge disclaimer to the website. Then, I made it clear that I would be responsible about drinking times, and I gave no assurances to any customers that I would do their reviews by X date. A few people did email me asking when their review was coming; in those cases, I would generally just move them up in the queue. This took a lot of pressure off of me to drink. Still, for the first month or so, I was essentially drinking every few days. I would suggest that absolutely no one do this, for any reason.
I’m naturally a lightweight. At the beginning of this venture, I would get drunk on two beers. I’m not even joking. My friends suggested at times that I just pretend I was drunk. I never did, because it didn’t take much for me to become inebriated and stay that way, and because it felt disingenuous. I had routines to ensure that I was still at peak performance the next day, because I hate hangovers and I like working. My main routine involved big breakfasts of greasy, non-sugary Indonesian food, lots of coffee, and long distance running. If you ever suspect you may be hung-over the next day, I highly suggest running five miles before dawn on only a few hours sleep. You’ll sweat out the alcohol, stay fit, and the pain of the first few miles will rapidly give way to a fantastic, natural endorphin high. Make sure you stay hydrated.
(I don’t want to get too sidetracked, but running is the best. I can’t possibly explain how beautiful it is to run through Indonesian rice paddies in tropical heat, or on Thai beaches before dawn with shrimp boats and lightning storms on the horizon and ghost crabs flirting with the waves next to you. Drinking is pathetic in comparison, but running doesn’t pay my bills.)
After a couple of months, my tolerance level rose through the roof, and my routines were less effective. I dealt with this by only “working” once a week, if that, and I stopped drinking casually. Luckily, my price level was high enough that by this point I was mostly out of clients.
In July, I moved to Boston. This was my first time living in my native New England in ten years, and my social group was radically different — mostly, I was hanging out with my cousins, not digital nomads. Since I was spending more time with my family, this also meant I was much less likely to get drunk often. Pretty soon, I found that I had difficulties finding anyone who wanted to have a few drinks on any given night, which meant I had to plan events as far as a few weeks away. This was a lot better for me physically, but made the entire thing much less of a side project and much more of a job.
If drinking is your job, you swiftly realize how miserable drinking is. For one: alcohol is a depressant, and always trying to stay in a good mood is tiring. Sometimes my comments on people’s websites weren’t intellectually useful or comedic, often because I wasn’t in a good place that night. On one occasion, I think I sang for a couple of minutes in the middle of the review. I’m not proud of that.
Alcohol is also expensive, in terms of both time and money. For me, this was especially pertinent. Sometimes I would review the wrong site, and I had to do a site over. Most of the time, my clients thought this was hilarious, especially after I sent an email saying that was part of the problem of streamlining my process. How do you make a drunk person more efficient, anyway? Sometimes they didn’t find it all that funny — I was, after all, paid to provide a valuable service. The amount of time I spent on a site also varied, as it depended upon my ability to find things to comment on — this wasn’t always easy — and how tired and / or bored I was. If I could stand here and honestly tell you that I found a way to standardize how drunk I was or what mood I was in, I’d be either a liar or not a human (approach with caution). I didn’t. That’s part of what drinking means.
Alcohol obscures judgment. Sometimes my comments were idiotic. Sometimes I think I was downright mean as a reviewer. I’ve since dedicated a lot of time towards reading articles and learning how to give constructive and not destructive criticism. This is very hard, and I hope I’ve gotten better at it. Alcohol can also, besides obvious liver damage, lead to dangerous situations. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone was ever physically hurt by The User (as my friends called me sometimes), but there were a few bicycle rides I probably wouldn’t do again if asked.
Imagine if I weren’t a white heterosexual-looking cis-male. Would The User Is Drunk have gotten anywhere near the amount of press it got if I were an African-American man? If I were a woman? What if I was both? What if I was from Indonesia, like the majority of people I saw daily when this started, and not an educated, upper-middle-class kid from Connecticut?
These sentences are questions because I don’t have answers to them. I do know that I would not have gotten the same amount of press, at all, if I was a member of a minority; if it had, I think the comment sections would have been filled with slander and ignorant statements. We’ve all seen these, so I don’t need to give you some potential examples here. My being a white dude made it that much easier for people to share and laugh about my website.
As the months went on, I found myself asking more questions. For instance, what if it was more obvious that I am not heterosexual, but openly queer? Does my sexuality even matter here? Does the fact that I founded this while backpacking around Southeast Asia flaunt how mobile and independent I am, and how I am a product of a capitalist, warmongering, and colonial empire (looking at you, America)? Am I complicit in that legacy?
The worst question, that came soon and which I mentioned above, was this one: what if I was actually an alcoholic? I started to wonder if I was being ableist by doing something that many people cannot — drinking excessively.
I am one of those strange kids who remembers the first time I had a drink. It was at 3:33pm on my birthday, 18 years exactly since I was born, because I wanted to only drink when it was legal to do so. I had a Guiness, hated it, got drunk for the first time that night, and hated that too. I can count the amount of times I got drunk my first year of university (7), I think largely because drinking had a huge stigma for me because of how sheltered I was raised.
(Note: I do not think that I am an alcoholic, and I am more than happy to sit down and talk seriously with you about this if you feel I need to. Please get in touch. I’m listening.)
Raising these questions amongst my friends, many of them tell me that I am “being too hard on myself”, or “thinking too much.” But by not answering these questions on my website, by not drawing attention to them, I was enforcing the status quo of “It’s OK to drink and laugh about drinking, as long as you’re a white bro.” I also bought into drinking culture, and in particular, drinking tech culture, as a thing that is OK.
It is not ok. Being able to enjoy alcohol with your coworkers or community isn’t a given, it’s a privilege, and not everyone is afforded it, subscribes to it, likes it, or has the option. I know people who didn’t mesh well with a team because they didn’t drink, and I know people who felt excluded at tech conferences because they didn’t drink. I know young people who can’t enjoy conferences because there’s alcohol there.
I know people who struggle with drinking. Alcoholism is real, and it is ugly, pernicious, and brutal.
I tried to sideline my privilege. I added a few lines to my website. I told myself, “Sure — but you are, in fact, a healthy, able, twenty-six year old tech male who can do this. So why don’t you? Have some fun. Live your life. Recognize who you are, but don’t apologize for it.”
I’m still debating whether that was the right thing to do. I have friends who are firmly in the “No, it wasn’t OK” category, and friends who definitively aren’t. Disagreements make us human.
I’m raising these questions here because I think they are important to talk about, to mention, not because I have answers, and not because I feel like raising these questions alone will absolve me of any guilt or damage I may have caused. The only thing I can do is recognize my privilege and check it. I dropped that ball in some ways here. I wish I was alone in this. I’m not. As a culture, tech is extraordinarily bad at not dropping that ball. The only thing we can do to get better, as a culture, is to recognize and check our privileges.
Some of you might know that I launched TheUserIsMyMom.com shortly afterwards, with my friend Scotty Allen and his mom, Pam. While not a great commercial success, The User Is My Mom also got significant amounts of traffic, and was seen on Motherboard, Wired, and CNBC. There are very similar questions we could raise about whether it is ableist or sexist. In both cases, I personally would emphatically say no, because Pam wanted to do it herself, and that’s her choice. But the way we phrased it might have been better, and I’m not sure that riding on the controversy wave, as I certainly did, is the best move.
The last few minutes of reading have probably not been fun reading (they weren’t fun to write). I don’t want to give the wrong impression about it was like doing The User Is Drunk, on a daily level. For the most part, it was a very enjoyable experience. I had a great time.
One of the coolest bits was that I would meet people, someone would bring up TheUserIsDrunk.com, and I’d hear a lot of “Oh, that was you!?” This happens pretty regularly, and is, in a “yeah, that was me, no big deal” kind of way, pretty damn satisfying. I’d also see references around the web now and then, like this quote at the top of Designer News:
My favorite review I did, hands down, was jeffreypicard.com. Jeff is my favorite person. His website had no CSS, and he paid because he wanted to see what I would do. I laughed so hard. Here is my review.
Some other notable highlights include my review for meh.com, where I bought a dog toy for a dog I don’t have; my review of weeklyfilet.com, where I liked the product so much that I mentioned that David Bauer and I should be friends (we since are on Facebook and Twitter, much to my amusement); and my review of drsquatch.com, which was memorable mainly because their site is great, and because their product is great. They sent me some soap that smells absolutely amazing — like, seriously, stop what you’re doing and go buy their soap.
I also had an absolutely great time with BREWPUBLIK, my sponsors. BREWPUBLIK is an awesome company in North Carolina that delivers hand-picked brews to your door. I went down and visited them a bit ago, and they’re a great team and they work so hard. I really can’t praise them enough (they’re not paying me to say this here, either).
I covered most of the reasons I am shutting down The User Is Drunk above, but I wanted to recap a few of them here.
It’s not that it isn’t profitable, or can’t be made profitable, or that it can’t scale. I’ve thought about all of these things, and there’s definitely a sustainable business model to be made out of drunk reviews. The User Is Drunk also helped me get out of immediate credit card debt, something I am incredibly happy about, and for the first time in my life, I have savings. That’s really cool. So, finances and declining demand for drunk reviews isn’t why I am writing this post.
Mainly, I don’t want to drink professionally any more. I’m not in the same community I was in when I started, and I don’t like asking my friends to drink with me while I have financial benefit in mind. Call me crazy, and several of my friends have (especially those who say, “Just split the profits with us. We’re cool with that.” Of course you are, you nincompoops.)
I also would like to be able to say that I gave value to every single person I worked with. I don’t think this is true, and I don’t think it would be true going forward. I don’t want to just give people a product — I want to make everyone I know be AWESOME. All of the time. That’s what I want to be like as a person. The User Is Drunk was a fun experiment, but I don’t think it was an entirely successful one; there were times I let clients down, times that I never got a return email after sending the video, and some bridges I feel I may have burned. I hate burning bridges, and I hate letting people down in any way. Since I can’t standardize how I drink and how much value I give to people while drunk, I am going to try my hand at something else.
Now that I no longer do drunk reviews regularly, as of writing this post, I am going to try and focus on giving better sober ones. If you need any UX/UI appraisals, do let me know. I’m available for hire.
You may have noticed, above, that I said “regularly” and “closing it to open orders”. What this means is that if you really want to have a drunk Richard video —email me. I won’t do sites for any paying customer anymore, but if I like your site, and I think I can honestly help you out and help make your website AWESOME — well, maybe I’ll see if I can give you some comments after the occasional night out. This should help me quality control both my life and my product better, which will make me — and you — happier.
For now, I am going to focus more on open-source projects. I’m still working on Beagle, a Chrome extension PDF and HTML annotator I’ve been building with the MIT Media Lab to help make science better. I also want to work more on IPFS.io, the distributed web that I think may seriously change how we use the Internet.
I also want to write better fantasy literature, climb bigger mountains, see more art, run a marathon, volunteer to help more people, and enjoy both what a late night with a book feels like, and what the early morning looks like with a clear mind. If you’re interested in following me on this journey, and learning about what projects I have and what I’m thinking about — I’ve got a new tiny letter here: https://tinyletter.com/richlitt.
Here’s to the future. Cheers!