Norwegian Coffee Talk: Darkroom App — from inspiration to finished product

From side project to full-time commitment, Darkroom has quickly become a serious contender for the role as go-to-app for photo editing on the iPhone. We had a chat with founder Majd Taby about Darkroom, product design, mobile photography and how inspiration struck while hiking in Norway.

Why does everyone overthink things so much?

Summer, 2014. Majd was working as Tech Lead at Instagram, but kept thinking about “where I wanted to be and what I wanted to get out of my time…a choice of how I wanted to spend my time became necessary.” So how do you take that last step, quit your job and pursue adventure? Majd shares a journal entry on his blog that might shed some light: “I still feel scared. For years I’ve wanted to start my own company. I can’t sit here for another 2 years and find myself looking back in regret.”

Photo: Ryan Gomba

In a moment of self-doubt, Majd wrote another journal entry: “There are currently 3 things keeping me going: The knowledge that it logically makes sense to do it, the urging of my friends who have made similar moves, and the knowledge that failure, along with this self-doubt is as common as table salt.” Later that summer, a hike to Trolltunga proved a turning point:

“There’s a very strong sense of empowerment that comes from sitting in a cabin near Trolltunga, imagining a future in which people edit photos differently, and delivering on that future.”

Majd made it back to San Francisco with a working prototype. He left Instagram, and on February 12th 2015, he released Darkroom with co-founder Matt Brown.

Can you tell us a little about the inception and origin of Darkroom?

Once I delved deeply into mobile photography, I began developing a personal style that I liked to apply to a lot of my photos. The process to achieve that style started with the M5 filter in VSCO.

Majd’s old and new workflow

However, M5 equalizes and fades the highlights to a warm tone that I didn’t much like, so I would pull up the highlights manually in Snapseed using selecting adjust. What I liked about M5 was how it made my greens more yellow, desaturated my blues, and increased the contrast. It made my landscape photos beautiful. After a few weeks of this, I got sick of the very long and manual process of editing photos. I wanted to build an app that would perform the M5 color correction, but otherwise leave the photo as-is. That little project, which involved HSL color correction, grew and grew into Darkroom.

Right after starting to work on it, purely as a side project, my friend and I traveled to Norway to go hiking for a couple of weeks.

Photo: Ryan Gomba

We ended up taking hundreds of photos a day and wanting to edit them all using a similar mood that reflected what that day felt like to us. Out of our conversations, the little project I was working on grew into a full-time commitment. We were convinced that the problems we were dealing with were more common and shared than just the two of us.

Darkroom feels like a sign of the field of mobile photography maturing. Are there other signs, and where do you see mobile photography going from here?

Absolutely. Product-wise, a lot of the tools that are popular today have been around for a few years, and they’ve had to deal with API constraints and performance/device constraints that existed when they were built, but which no longer apply. Because they have a large user base on pre-iOS 8, they can’t just drop them. We don’t have to deal with that baggage.

Technically speaking, the iPhone 5S was a huge performance leap over the 5, and the 6 even more so (Incidentally, the 6 Plus is so much larger than the 6 but not any different hardware-wise, so it ends up being slower than the 6 in memory and GPU-heavy applications).

“But filters came with too much constraint, and that’s what we’re trying to fix with Darkroom. Take the best of filters, and give people creative freedom.”

Finally, mobile photography has been around for a while, and we know what works and what doesn’t. Filters were a great leap in photography. You’ve never been able to explore and get inspired like that before. But filters came with too much constraint, and that’s what we’re trying to fix with Darkroom. Take the best of filters, and give people creative freedom.

We’re seeing things like Moment Lenses and Exposure come on the scene. Mature, high-quality, shockingly effective tools at capturing and sharing moments with your friends. As the platforms mature, so does our understanding of what we can do with them. It’s ridiculous to think that we reached the limit of innovation and creativity with the existing tools.

You are a two person team. How do you work together, and what is your product design process like?

Photo by Max Voltar

I handle all the engineering and planning/execution. Matt, my co-founder, handles design, branding, marketing, PR. We both collaborate on product. We tend to complement each other well. Whereas I’m the systematic designer, Matt is the instinctual, emotional, and visual designer. Matt starts with a blank canvas and makes magic happens. I come in and make sure it fits into the whole story, makes coherent sense, and structurally makes sense.

“If we’re ever disagreeing, I’m focused not on the disagreement, but on figuring out why we’re disagreeing. Usually disagreement at this level of conversation uncovers more basic disagreement about where we imagine the product going.”

Whenever we’re taking on a new project, we start with a brainstorming session. We do this exercise with most major changes or new initiatives where there isn’t an established precedent. We try to scope out the range of options, regardless of feasibility or consistency with product. The goal at this part of the process is to get coverage, so we know what the extremes are, and unblock our thinking. Sketch and Artboards make this easy. Once we lay everything out, it becomes fairly easy to cut out the obvious choices, and we start focusing in on legitimate options. This is where the meat of the conversation is.

Curves in Darkroom

If we’re ever disagreeing, I’m focused not on the disagreement, but on figuring out why we’re disagreeing. Usually disagreement at this level of conversation uncovers more basic disagreement about where we imagine the product going.

The way I look at it, when you start out with a project, and two people are excited about it, they’re excited about it because they’re imagining something very specific in their head, and it’s a guarantee that what the two people are imagining is not the same thing. We both got excited about building Curves, but what does curves look like?

The mockups and wireframes we make are forms of communication wherein we share what we’re imagining in our head. When they don’t line up, we need to figure out the root cause.

“The product should reflect how we imagine it should work. As long as it doesn’t, we have work to do.”

Once we commit to a decision, the ball starts rolling. I start building, Matt starts designing, and we get to a base implementation as quickly as possible, get it in each others hands, and use it for a few days, decide what works and what doesn’t, and we keep iterating on it like this until we use it for an entire session without any discomfort noe issues coming up. The product should reflect how we imagine it should work. As long as it doesn’t, we have work to do.

You say you’ve built a foundation for the future. Have you had time to envision the future for Darkroom, and what would you want it to be?

It’s crazy to hear people talk about Darkroom already being the best photo editor considering how long our product roadmap is. We have a whole set of problems we want to fix with mobile photography, and we chose the minimum set of problems that present a coherent story to go to market with. Our problem space is split into two buckets: Workflow inefficiency and Creative limitations. We have a lot of work to do, and we’re moving forward as fast as we can without compromising the product. I’m really excited about Darkroom v4.

“We have a whole set of problems we want to fix with mobile photography, and we chose the minimum set of problems that present a coherent story to go to market with.”

Are there other products or type of products you would like to explore and possibly build?

Not right now, we’re hyper focused on moving forward with Darkroom. Bergen, the company, is built under the premise of building creative tools for creative people. We want to help people bridge the gap between expectation and capability using tools. Darkroom and mobile photographers is our first attempt, and the reception has been fantastic. It’s a large problem, with a lot of work ahead of us.

What were your thoughts and goals for the usability and the user interface going into this project?

Man, people have such a propensity to overthink problems. I’m fascinated by simple solutions to complex problems. This was a lesson I learned at Instagram. So many competitors spend so much time and energy fighting complexity, when Instagram was designed in such a way that it didn’t even have to try.

When it comes to product development, I try to maintain a distance from the product. In a void, outside of constraints and concerns of what’s possible and what’s easy to do, I try to figure out how the product shouldwork. I keep iterating on the product until I can use it end-to-end without once having the thought “Ugh, why did it do that?”

“I knew Darkroom was ready to launch when I took a photo, opened Darkroom, edited it, and shared to Instagram without once noticing the app. It was me and my photos, and that’s the way it should be.”

John Siracusa talked in his article “Hypercritical” on the power of being able to tell that something is wrong, and having the power to do something with it. I knew Darkroom was ready to launch when I took a photo, opened Darkroom, edited it, and shared to Instagram without once noticing the app. It was me and my photos, and that’s the way it should be.

What was the most important thing to get just right about Darkroom before you released it? And what was the hardest?

Product development is a magic trick. It’s an illusion. If that illusion ever breaks down, your whole performance crumbles. Darkroom is Darkroom because it removes the import process and makes editing your photos Lightroom-style as fast and as easy to do as browsing your photos in the native Photos app. That involves a lot of work behind the scenes. This is a photo editor. You need to edit the photo at full resolution, which is very memory and GPU intensive. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes to make it fast.

“Product development is a magic trick. It’s an illusion. If that illusion ever breaks down, your whole performance crumbles.”

Managing memory and hiding all that complexity took a lot of time. Also, Crop & Rotate. That was probably the hardest thing to get right. Constraining a rectangle within a rotated rectangle and making it move and resize correctly all the time turns out to be a totally non-trivial task.

Crop and rotate in Darkroom

What was the most important thing you learned while building Darkroom?

If I knew how much work it was going to be I doubt I would’ve actually done the work. I had a feature-complete version of the project, with a bunch of features that we pulled out from v1 finished in 5 weeks. It took 6 more months to ship. The biggest lesson I learned in Darkroom is the power of persistence. There’s a very strong sense of empowerment that comes from sitting in a cabin near Trolltunga, imagining a future in which people edit photos differently, and delivering on that future. It feels like in some sort of insignificant-as-far-as-humanity-goes way, I brought forth the future.

By the way, “Save as Square Photo” — talk about getting UX right!

Again. Why does everyone overthink things so much?

Save as Square Photo in Darkroom

Majd on Instagram
Matt on Instagram
Darkroom on Instagram
Darkroom on the App Store

This interview was first published on www.open.bekk.no in March 2015.

Majd is currently documenting the Syrian diaspora: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1093122046/displaced-stories-from-the-syrian-diaspora/description

Lars Bæk is Bekk Consulting’s New York correspondent. Thoroughly caffeinated, he explores design and technology with a Scandinavian soul and a New York state of mind. He writes his findings for Bekk’s #NorwegianCoffeeTalk series.