Designer at Tapbots
Hey Mark, thanks for joining me. Would you mind introducing yourself and providing a brief overview of your work at Tapbots?
Thanks for the opportunity, Sam. My name is Mark Jardine and I'm the designer for a small software company, Tapbots. We make apps for iOS and the Mac. I work from home in Northern California and live with my wife, 2 small boys, and a dog.
Tapbots was started by Paul Haddad and I about 4 years ago. He does all of the programming for our iOS apps and handles the overall business. I do all of the creative work which includes all the design related to our apps, as well as the sounds, and whatever marketing materials we have (website, videos, etc). For fun, I try to include my illustrations wherever I can. I always wanted to be a professional illustrator, but never had the chops for it.
Tapbots has had a lot of success on the App Store, especially with Tweetbot. What led you to decide to make a Twitter client, and what sort of challenges did you face over the initial design process?
Pastebot was the first app we made where we took our look and applied it to a more standard type of app with tableviews. We were pretty happy how that turned out (at least at the time). We always talked about doing a Twitter client, but wasn't sure how that would work out. The reception of Pastebot really gave us the drive to tackle a Twitter client.
The biggest challenge with designing Tweetbot was balancing our aesthetic while keeping the app functional. The main function of a Twitter client is reading and heavy chrome tends to detract from that. I always thought we sacrificed making the perfect Twitter client just a bit for the sake of our brand, but we were following a formula that was working. I definitely don't have any regrets though. I learned a lot from it. But the release of iOS7 marks a new chapter for Tapbots and we are making changes to continue making the best apps we possibly can.
Tapbots' brand has always maintained a decidedly different look and feel, but we've seen some iOS7 updates to previously iconic apps criticized for too closely resembling Apple's stock apps. In a post iOS7 world, how do you avoid that pitfall and maintain a unique brand identity?
iOS7 is new so it will take time for everyone to find their own identity. We are still deep in that process ourselves and it may take a couple apps to get there. In any case, our primary goal is to make the best looking apps we can and spend lots of time crafting an experience that delights. The overall experience is truly what separates one app from another.
One of my favorite aspects of Tapbots' apps is the attention given to the little details that add character and personality, like the sounds, the spinning streaming icon, and the numeric identifier hidden in the background. How much time do you spend thinking up these little delights, and how important do you think they are to the general user?
I think attention to details and finding little ways to delight a user is a really big deal. Apple has always done this as well as great companies like Panic. Our company was built around the idea that all software should be fun in addition to functional. We spend a lot of time trying to do things in clever ways and put a huge focus on animation and sound which help shape an experience. I also think it's a balancing act and some apps need more restraint than others.
Game designers constantly playtest until their design intentions are properly communicated to their audience. How do you tell how clear and effective your design is before launching an app?
I usually go by gut feeling. I think I have a fairly good sense of what works and doesn't most of the time. So the first checkpoint to pass is me enjoying the app for myself. If I don't enjoy using it, we need to make big changes or go back to the drawing board. Once we are happy ourselves, we release it to a few beta testers to see what they think. But at that point we are really happy and confident with the direction of the app.
I have heard quite a few proclamations that the market for paid apps is dying, but Tapbots has had a lot of success selling apps at a fixed price point. What are your thoughts on that sentiment, and do you expect that you will have to adjust your distribution strategy in the future?
It seems to be going that way, but I think we’ll be fine for now. We try to provide an experience in our apps that make users want to try them even if they don’t necessarily need the app. When an app is only a couple bucks, that’s not too hard of a sale.
The demo videos we create with each new app is a really important part of this. We tend to make our videos very honest. A single shot of the device showing how the app works with no cuts. There’s no trickery. What you see is what you get in a sense. Since our apps are just as much about the animations and sounds as how they look, these videos really help sell it.
We are always ready to try something new though. It’s very possible that a future app might fit the “free with in-app purchases” model and we might give it a shot just to see how it goes. That’s one of the benefits of being a tiny company. It’s easy to take risks and try new things.
Tweetbot 3 was recently released, and though Tapbots' signature chrome is gone, the app retains so much of its personality through its use of motion. What inspired the choice to develop a new physics engine, and how did that choice affect your approach to designing the user interface?
I’ve always been inspired by what Loren Brichter has done with physics in his apps. When I learned about UI Dynamics in iOS7, I knew that was the direction I wanted to go in. The only reason Tweetbot’s original UI was so heavy-handed was because we wanted to stick with the look and feel of our utility apps. iOS7 sort of freed us from our past which I think was a really good thing for us. I really wanted to make Tweetbot the best experience possible for the widest range of users. That meant trying to make the UI look and feel at home in iOS7 while still retaining all of the little details that make people enjoy using the app. Stripping out all of the custom artwork made the app smaller, faster, and freed up a lot of time for us to really polish the experience.
I find it interesting that you discovered that removing detailed art assets helped pave the way for a stronger user experience. I imagine Apple came to a similar conclusion when they stripped away skeuomorphism in iOS7. Do you think using heavily skeuomorphic interface elements always detracts from the user experience of an app?
I think it really depends on the app. For a Twitter client, probably. For something as simple as a calculator app, I think we need to inject some more fun into it visually. I’m not in any camp for or against skeuomorphism. I’m designing for a platform and right now that platform is iOS7. People can argue all day long about what they think is better, but we are a 3rd party company making software for Apple’s operating systems. We will follow their lead and take our own liberties where we feel it makes sense.
I think a fair analogy is when photography started to go digital. There were the early adopters that embraced DSLR’s and the use of Photoshop for post. And then there were the film guys who refused to move on. In many ways, film was still better than digital, but we knew where the future of the industry was headed. And a lot of die hard film guys got left behind. iOS7 is a reboot and it will get better over time. I’m learning and embracing the design language now so our future apps can be better because of it.
Did any of the changes in iOS7 introduce particularly challenging design problems for Tapbots? The new handling of the status bar sparked quite a heated debate, for example.
Not really, other than having to get acquainted with the new visual style. The only challenge I can think of was getting some of the physics animations to feel right. I think the real challenge will come when we get around to updating some of our other apps.
As a self-proclaimed gamer, have you ever found inspiration for your work in the games you play, and are there any recent games you found particularly engaging?
The Wii Fit was what inspired our first app, Weightbot. When it comes to games that inspire me for the work I actually do, I think it tends to be more casual-based games. Graphic improvements with each next generation of games don’t really impress me anymore. They are an expectation. All of the augmented reality stuff coming out these days is very interesting to me. The 3DS AR demos were pretty cool and I’m very impressed with what Sony is doing on the PS4 on that front.
As we wrap this interview up, let's talk about your future ambitions for Tapbots. What do you hope for the company to become, and what kind of legacy do you want to leave?
I don’t have any big ambitions or plans for Tapbots other than being able to keep creating apps that people love to use. I really love what I get to do everyday and just want to continue getting better at it. I’d love for our company to be as legendary as Panic 5-10 years down the road, but I’m focusing on doing what we do best today.