An English Major Builds an App Pt.4 — Design, Simplicity and Performance

It’s a typical evening here in Oakland. The air is just starting to get cold, the coffee maker spurts out the last dregs of another pot, and I’m sitting down thinking about Tapestry, the app I released last month.

I’ve hit a snag. A few months ago, while coding on my patio with my legs up, that underdog mentality propelled my work and drew me into the weeds of this alien program called X-Code, which is in many ways still as alien now as it was then. At the beginning, I hesitated to change a thing from the frameworks I downloaded, afraid that a slight alteration will cause a fatal error. Such things did happen, but eventually I took off the training wheels and dove into app development.

My code — freewheeling, uneconomical, clumsy and disorganized — went from changing colors to changing significant parts of the app’s architecture. Suddenly, my hesitation turned into long nights, nights I’ll remember as endlessly engrossing and fun.

Then, while thousands of tech companies released the best prototypes and iterations on the CES show floors, I took several meandering walks through the casinos of Las Vegas, bought a couple of PBR’s and officially submitted Tapestry Story Reader to the app store.

A massive weight dropped from my shoulders. There, said the earth to atlas, the rock to sisyphus, your burden is gone. The insecurity about not getting a job left because I was so sure that iOS app development would lead me to the promised land. The anxiety of spending my journalism school so certain about something I didn’t know I could even make went out the window.

Incomparable pleasure, right? not quite. I’ve read enough author interviews and biographies to know that when a creative completes a piece they’ve been working at for a while, they don’t feel exultation when they finish it, but rather, an insatiable emptiness. The images that your mind’s eye creates before you’ve accomplished something mean very little — and are patently misleading — once you’ve accomplished said things.

Submitting the app felt like the last few steps before cresting over a tall hill. But getting it published, seeing a big goose-egg beside the ‘# of downloads’ button and (perhaps worst of all) seeing the app’s bugs, inconsistencies and frustrations while trying it out on a friend’s device felt like the summit of that tall hill was just the first leg of journey up a Himalayan mountain.

Design

A week into the release, the design that I had imagined was a triumph of the imagination and an expression of clever subtleties felt stale and unremarkable.

That’s not to say I didn’t think it was a good kick at the can. It evoked a sense of intrigue and succeeded at individuating every article. But the design itself wasn’t accomplishing the goal I had in mind. When using it, I could sense mild confusion, even to the point where I had to reiterate the purpose of the app after explaining it.

But I realized that the design must incorporate a kind of “truth-telling” to its form. It’s not simply a matter of presenting the essential information, but of also “describing” the nature of the information. And the information I’m dealing with — short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction — warrants a kind of nod to the field in the design.

Simplicity and Performance

2.o is going to be, above all else, an expression of the love for book covers, the love for the physical copy. I’m gonna want my users to literally smell the vanillin sweating off the app when they use it. I want them to read through Tapestry and have them clutch their phone as tightly as a great story might clutch them.

Instead of images, I’m going to shift my focus towards Typography. I want every entry to resemble a book cover, and I want people exploring my app to view each entry as though they were thumbing through this mysterious, living bookstore. And then, as my app grows (hopefully), I’m going to want to use this approach to create the ultimate mobile-first bookstore and publisher.

The reward of embarking upon a perilous journey in a place you’ve never been before is that you’re constantly learning new things, and for the bibliophilic, autodidactic part of me that craves knowledge-gathering but admittedly resorts too many late nights to perusing ancient battles on Wikipedia, app development became this interesting “way out”. And now I hope that I can prolong that thirst for knowledge and summon the same inspiration that lead me to build version 1.0.0 in the first place.

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