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Sunday, 4 October 2015

App craftsmanship

Bespoke artisan furniture; we can all appreciate it, even if we can’t afford it. There’s a place for Ikea, mass production and flat-pack, but there’s also a place for craft.

It’s similar with software. There’s a phrase “code is craft”. The mobile app revolution is perhaps one of the best examples of that philosophy.

We’re not talking business cases, global delivery, multi-platform development or sprawling requirements here. We’re talking software developed by a handful of people, or maybe even a single person, building the absolutely best thing they can. We’re talking small nuggets of software perfection.

I can think of two good examples of this: Tweetbot (Twitter client) and NetNewsWire (RSS reader). Both of these apps are something rather special. They are also the two most-used apps on my iPhone. Every day I use them to keep abreast of the world around me. And they are both little nuggets of perfection - created by software artisans.

The UI design of these apps is subtle. They are both designed to fit within iOS in a respectful way. They don’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but use standard UI capabilities, extending only where useful. Branding is exhibited through subtle use of colour, icon design and animation. Nothing is overt, everything feels natural - as if it had been desiged by Jonny Ive himself.

Discrete might be another way of explaining this kind of design philosophy. Being discrete and subtle sometimes takes a lot more effort and thought than being brash or overt.

Take the way that NetNewsWire subtly colours the navigation bar with the theme of the news article’s source. We don’t see a brash logo, but rather just a subtle colouring. As a result, everything feels consistent. But articles are also differentiated in a discrete way.

And take the way that everything in Tweetbot scrolls at 60fps. Consistently smooth inertia scrolling at 60fps takes design effort. That effort isn’t obvious, but it’s there. This kind of attention to detail is needed if you want an app to be something special. It’s not easy to measure and justify the effort involved. But it matters if you want to delight your users.

Sweating these details matters - because it creates something a little special. And when something’s a bit special, it’s obvious - in the same way that a hand-built piece of furniture is obviously special.

I use NetNewsWire and Tweetbot not just because they get the job done, but because I appreciate the thought that has been poured into them. Using apps like this is pleasurable.

In contrast, some other apps annoy me every time I use them. Their brash colours, their clumsy styling, their inept attempts to re-interpret standard UI controls for no purpose, their stuttery scrolling. Some exceptional examples have even failed to update for iPhone 6/6+ screen sizes, continuing to operate in zoom-mode a year later - hardly an attempt to delight users.

Much has been said and written about the economic difficulties of making a business in app development, with so many free or £0.69 apps around. But I gladly coughed up the ‘premium’ price for Tweetbot and NetNewsWire.

When I say ‘premium’, I mean the price of a couple of Cappuccinos, which perhaps puts things into perspective. I can drink coffee for a few days, or I can buy an app I’ll use every day for the next couple of years, at which point I’ll gladly pay again for the upgraded version.

There’s a role for something better and that role has value. Many of us still appreciate craftsmanship and are willing to pay for it.

I cannot afford to furnish my house with bespoke furniture. But luckily, software craftsmanship is cheap. If you can afford a Starbucks, you can afford a good app. So when you see a great app that costs a few pounds, compare it to the value you get from a coffee. Apps like Tweetbot and NetNewsWire are enormous bargains.

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