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April 28, 2009

4

Who Designs Our Stuff?

by shiftyjelly

I came across this thread on forums.mactalk.com.au (a great site by the way) today:

http://forums.mactalk.com.au/39/63407-apps-beautiful-user-interfaces.html

It got me thinking. There are people out there that love our design, and I don’t think we’ve actually ever talked about how it came about. In the early days of Pocket Weather (July of 2008) we were trying to design a weather application that we actually wanted to use. The problem that we kept running into is that we, to put it mildly, suck at design. I think it’s a very common thing for programmers to be really bad at design. There are many reasons for this, but the most plausible one is that the best programmers are analytical problem solvers that like to build, tweak and optimise things that have defined inputs and outputs. Creative people on the other hand…well you get the picture.

So I started canvassing all the people I knew who knew anything about design. They all had pretty much the same reaction “The iPhone comes with a weather app you idiot”. Luckily for me I had no lack of motivation, self determination and will to see it through (my wife would summarise that as ‘stubbornness’, but I digress). Then the designs started flowing in, but they were all universally bad. I may not know how to design, but I know what I like, and I liked none of them.

Enter Nathan Swan. I knew Nathan quite well, and had even helped him out with a small business that he runs, but had never seen any of his designs. I canvassed the idea to him, and he jumped at the concept, and got crazily excited. It was the first time in at least a month I had found someone as passionate as me about our little iPhone project. I think even Philip (our Ruby Magician) wasn’t sure why were building a weather app at the time. I had no idea what to expect, I sent him a rather crude brief of what I wanted, and he didn’t even have an iPhone.

Then on the 28th of August 2008, I received this in my inbox:

Original Design

I almost fell off my chair. I showed Philip and he was just as excited. Nathan had blown me away! The design was clean, readable, simple and he had nailed the weather icons just right. To this day I haven’t seen any other application or weather service that has better weather icons than the ones he designed. It was only a few weeks later that Pocket Weather AU was finished and unleashed on the world. It went to the #1 spot in the iTunes store in only a few days, where it stayed for several weeks. Achievement wise, I count those as some of the best of my career and I’m sure that Nathan and Phil feel the same way.

I’m convinced that to a large extent we owe our success to Nathan. We could have got by without him, but it would have been half the application it is today. Some programmers make the mistake of thinking of design as an afterthought, something you tack on when you’re finished coding, but at Shifty Jelly we firmly believe that design comes first, before you touch a single line of code.

The other great thing about design is that it’s a hard thing to copy. Take for example our recent initiative to post weather updates on Twitter, only hours after we had done it our competitor here in Australia subscribed to a few of our feeds, and the very next day had his own competing service up and running. The barrier of entry was low, and ethical debates aside, it was an easy thing to emulate. Design on the other hand is a much more individual thing, and the barrier to entry is quite high.

So thanks a bunch Nathan! (@_nathanswan on Twitter)

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Apr 29 2009

    “Some programmers make the mistake of thinking of design as an afterthought” – not wanting to create the usual divisional debate between the OS’s but it’s this thinking that paved the way for Apple’s success and the success of all websites/apps/services that realise the easier it is for people to mentally understand the offering or feel affinity with the product the easier it is to buy. UX design is the single most important part of the initial buy-in process, without it you have something that “supposedly” works great and is exactly what they wanted…. maybe… will think about it… gone, forgotten.

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