Tarantinoing Our First iPhone Application

Why you should prototype your UX and skimp on the pixel-perfect mockups.

Tarantino tarantinoing

For Film geeks like me, Tarantino has the most unique mastery of story like no-other. The complex masterpiece that is Pulp Fiction however really took it’s toll on the then still relatively new director. While writing the third story arc for Pulp Fiction, Tarantino had severe creative blocks. These creative blocks were so severe, he ended up writing Reservoir Dogs instead!

Yes that’s right, from the ashes of his burnt out pride came Reservoir Dogs and the stunning Pulp Fiction. This is ‘Tarantinoing’ something. (Yes it actually has a meaning that isn’t this, but I digress)

The start of our Pulp Fiction

At the start of 2013, three rad-dudes and myself took a year long paper at university together. It teamed us up to build an iPhone app before the years end. Beyond many issues with the paper, our team had a solid driving force to be independent, we pushed for progress and strived to do the best we could. We invested our small amounts of money into training and we began to brain storm application ideas.

We created a fantastic idea for a lecture recorder called Lec. Based around one feature that didn’t really exist in many other recording applications, we were going to use tags to make our app unique in a polluted marketplace. We wanted the ability to place markers during our lecture and give it a name. This way if we wanted to re-listen to parts of a lecture or search for a given subject matter, we wouldn’t have to trawl through hour long recordings.

The circle plan that doomed us

We all fell in love with the idea and went to work right away on a proof of concept alpha for functionality. I worked on the design of how the app would function and look in the spare moments we weren’t head first into iOS documentation. It was at this stage where we set the motions of failure for ourselves up.

Sowing the seeds of failure

We’d set ourselves down the same path as Tarantino on Pulp Fiction. Our first iPhone app wasn’t our lecture recorder Lec, it was a time zone converter called Time Match.

So what went wrong? We didn’t prototype!
Some of the many looks of Lec over the design phase

We had designs, four different iterative stages of pixel-perfect designs. However we underestimated real world usage of our app with our design metaphors and really botched our UX.

Working application with tags where appropriate, clearly this wasn’t going to work out well for our users

The core functionality of recording and playback was shown as a circle. A whole lecture was about an hour, a clock face takes an hour to go around, the logic checked-out. This very feature that we clung onto as a team was our downfall and it needed to go.

In trying to be unique and different with how our application worked, the radius of our circle wasn’t large enough to accommodate the amount of tags we needed for an average use case. Our beta showed this horribly, but parts of the team were dedicated to this circle because we didn’t have any other ideas and had invested too much time. This was not the app we wanted when we conceived the idea. We couldn’t use it for what we wanted it for. There was no point carrying on, so it was time to start from scratch.

Back to the drawing board!

It’s challenging to balance studying and work at the same time with our ‘baby’ on the side. But life was getting in the way of our iPhone app and ruining my creativity. Stress and urgency had set in, as I pursued with pen and paper frantically.

But I had nothing.

Creative block, working at it’s best. I couldn’t solve our design issues for Lec. While this occurred, as a team we decided to build a smaller application to see how the app store submission process went. As a secret backup plan, we thought for our university paper we could use this app if shit hit the fan (which inevitably it did).

A single page of planning for TimeMatch, it was enough for the four of us to know where to go from here

We came up with an idea one Thursday, built our new app over a weekend, got it polished and submitted by the following Thursday. That was Time Match. We had proved to ourselves that we could design, build, and produce a final production application. Not only that, we could do it over a week!

What is Success?

We built Time Match from a need. It was a product we wanted that didn’t exist. It’s comic book origin was a direct copy of Lec’s origin. This is why we were building apps, to build useful tools. Time Match itself hasn’t been hugely successful but it was a personal success!

Building from success

Shopping List App Prototype WIP by Neway Lau

After coming off the design and development high of Time Match, I found myself trawling through Dribbble to see if any such ideas for a time converter had been conceived before. Suddenly I’d found Lec’s calling card! It was a grocery list where you’d drag the cell to indicate the amount of an item you wanted. I stared intently trying to figure out how it could be applied to Lec. I had this link opened for ages as I remixed, hashed, and really took a huge amount of inspiration from it. I’d finally had it, this idea would finally work the way we wanted our app to function from day one!

Eureka! If I’d been in a bathtub, neighbours would certainly have been alerting the cops to a random white guy streaking through our complex.

I’d found and figured out the main issue we had previously. We hadn’t designed for tags first! Time Match was solely based around the core function of easily dialling in a time and changing time zones. The UX drove the overall product. With Lec, we’d put emphasis on the wrong things.

A new sketch on the core four screens of our newly refined app
We’d thought about our app as a lecture recorder, but our app wasn’t a lecture recorder. It was a snippet recorder.

We recorded a whole lecture and broke it down into tagged snippets of easier to digest information. That may seem like a negligible difference, but it really isn’t.

Armed with only a handful of sketches and a drive to get back to work we built out a small proof of concept low-fidelity app. No pixel-perfect mockups, just the raw pencil sketches and a drive to get something to function well on the phone. The idea worked. It worked well!

Wise words of wisdom

This was our first and second apps. It was ambitious and we learned many bad habits along the way. We were extremely lucky to have a course in our second semester that actually taught us how to code in Objective-C and covered many object-oriented design paradigms.

So what would we recommend newbies like us? Keep it small and simple, prototype a lot, and stay away from the feature creeper.

So… How is it going?

As of writing this article, we’re still in development. But we’re coming out the other side a whole lot smarter than we were going in. The whole process has made our team of four a great group of friends, and we’re having fun!

Be sure to keep an eye out for us in the future! We’ve opened Pandoras box, and we’re not shutting it anytime soon!

We’re South45, a team of creative, fun and quirky developers based in New Zealand. Chat to us, we’re friendly. Honestly!