Enabling Customization

Shapeways.com had an unusual problem. Due to being early in the 3D printing space, they had unlimited amounts of free PR that would bring thousands of curious visitors to the site. However, conversion rates were very low. Logically, while many visitors were interested in 3D printing, in order to actually make something of your own through the site, you have to upload a 3D model, which is a really high technical barrier.

The directive from the CEO was that he envisioned that Shapeways would be a place where people could customize any product.

Shapeways LightPoem
This is what came before. Yup, Java.

One of the core exciting site features that had established the company as an innovator were these simple interactive applets, called “Creators”, that allowed you to create a vase from a doodled line, and a lamp or napkin ring from a block of text. Unfortunately they were all client side Java applets that were barely functional and impossible to keep supporting.

On the technical side, future Creator apps would definitely need to be client-side javascript. From a product standpoint, it was clear that any future Creator app development would never capture all the multitudes of consumer products possible, so internally created apps should strive to promote the Shapeways API and foster a community of developers who would build apps for people to make 3D printed products.

I outlined a product roadmap that would launch three javascript-based Creator web apps and a new REST-based API. Not everything goes perfectly to plan in a hectic early stage startup, but I did ship 3 Creator apps as well as a number of other things. Highlights are given below.

Shapeways had recently released 3D-printed ceramic as a material. Fully glazed and food-safe, it was arguably the material that produced a result most comparable to consumer product level.

So I designed and coded this web app for Shapeways.com to make it easy to create custom ceramic cups. The app generates a valid 3D model for printing with correct wall thickness geometry. It happens to make sake sets and espresso cups rather well since 3D printing ceramic gets pricey for making a full size mug.

Initial prototype, before integrating on website:

Shapeways Vibe

The Sake Set Creator was well received among design blogs and it served as a good API example, but it didn’t result in many sales. We resolved that we should create a specific customizable product that would be marketed toward a specific audience. The team devised a partnership product between Shapeways and Soundcloud. We launched The Vibe at a stage event at SXSW, where users could create a custom iPhone case with the waveform from any sound on Soundcloud. It received significant press attention from sites like Mashable, PSFK, Wired, Forbes, and MTV.


I led product direction and user experience on this project, prototyping many different products and representations of the sound wave. I worked on a team with a visual designer, a front-end developer, and a back-end developer. I prototyped the creation interaction in code (javascript and php) and also made the wireframes.

Fun hack: The waveform is created without doing any extra sound processing. Soundcloud.com already generates a giant .png waveform of each file, so I just pulled that and converted the pixel data into an array of values. 5 waves look better in the design than 1 wave, so the extra waveforms are ‘smoothed out’ versions, where the spline curve skips a few values in between.

To get the product launched in time, I managed 3 rounds of prototype revisions in 2 weeks. Key production features were embossing each phone case with the order number on the inside for tracking, and making sure the printers were checked for calibration so that the cases printed with accurate tolerances.



2D to 3D

Sometimes the right product is the simplest thing that works.

While the Vibe was successful from a marketing reach perspective, the initial spike in sales and engagements quickly dropped off after several weeks. We turned our attention to figuring out what type of creator would be useful for continually making a variety of things.

By chance, my product colleague Nancy Liang had made a quick hack that turned flat black and white images into 3D models, but simply “popping out” the contours with a measured thickness. A quick database query revealed that thousands of models on the site had been made using this tool, and it had generated a consistent number of orders every week for the last 6 months, even though we had made little effort to promote it.

Most significantly, we discovered that the designs people were making were fairly well thought out. People were making keychains, earrings, logo plates…the image uploads indicated the the users were designers who were capable in Photoshop/Illustrator, and who just needed a bit of help to translate a design to 3D.

Thus the most effective Creator app was not exactly a customizable product, but rather a tool that supported designers better versed in 2D design.

I cleaned up the UI on this, and it still lives on at shapeways.com with few changes over the last 4 years. https://www.shapeways.com/creator/2dto3d

From that idea, I mapped out and wireframed several apps that would allow people to create jewelry and device cases using a black and white image as a starting point. Although my roadmap was stalled while the company addressed operational hurdles, it has been interesting to see that they later built and shipped some of those ideas I had defined early on.

Other Contributions

Since I was the solo designer for a while, I did everything from t-shirts and stickers for marketing events to box packaging.

At the time, Shapeways was shipping about 100 orders a day and was still using generic boxes. I designed the printed graphic on the box displaying the unique process of design to fabrication to delivery behind every shipment. After all, receiving the box with your print inside was the most significant customer touchpoint…it wasn’t just something you bought, it was your idea brought to life.

This insight was key to the rebranding efforts that shortly took place afterwards. The packaging design has been updated, but still includes my 3-step graphic.

As part of regular efforts to better understand our customer base, I made this visualization of Shapeways USA customers from order data in Mapbox. This represented about 25% of the customers, the rest being globally distributed.

I also designed, coded, and shipped the first Shapeways Holiday Gift Guide. The release significantly helped establish curation as a practice to surface great designs, and was very popular with the community.

Because there were so many esoteric products on Shapeways, I organized the gift guide categories by personas: Hacker, Hipster, Genius, Creative, Business, Trendsetter

The Gift Guide represented Shapeways at the NY Tech Meetup as well as the Wired Holiday Store.