Becoming your own client: advantages and obstacles

What we learned from building our own product.

One of the the greatest frustrations as a creative person is having brilliant ideas that never see the light of day. These ideas get killed by clients, squashed by budgets, halted by time restrictions, or simply get pushed to the back burner because there is higher priority (read: billable) work to be done. We recently committed to building more internal products at Versett as a way to improve our own processes, to sharpen our skills, and to foster the development of these great ideas. As we reach the completion of our first project, we felt it was a good time to reflect on the process and how it differed from our typical client work.

Our first foray into the development of internal products was the creation of a custom iOS keyboard. We hate typing the same things over and over and wondered: what if you could access the things you frequently type with just a couple taps? Enter Shortcut. Shortcut allows you to easily save addresses, emails, hashtags, loyalty numbers, responses, and more — all accessible from a custom keyboard.

The Hard Stuff 😬

For our first product, we determined that a small team of two (Vinciane de Pape and Steven Ritchie) would be sufficient to handle the responsibilities of design, development, and project management. Working on an internal product sounded like a dream project, but the truth is that acting as our own client presented a very unique set of challenges we’d never encountered.

For us, the first hurdle was mentally treating this project as if it were a client project, especially in terms of time allocation. Juggling this project along with other higher priority (ahem, billable) work was a struggle some days.

Next was underestimating how much time it would take us to build Shortcut, from initial sketches to launch. Despite making a concerted effort to treat this project like a “real” client, other work occasionally took precedence, which pushed the timelines out more than we had anticipated.

Another unexpected challenge that arose was trying to be as objective as possible with feedback. There were times where it felt strange to play the role of the client as well as the developer. It can be difficult to separate yourself objectively, and we had to remind ourselves that ultimately the goal was to come to a solution that felt right, not just what we liked personally.

Lastly, it turns out that developing keyboards still sucks. One of the biggest issues with building an iOS keyboard lies simply in the nature of their behaviour. They are typically a bit clumsy to toggle to, instantly appearing and often having a long loading delay. They can inexplicably crash, leaving the user without a keyboard, and sometimes just appear as (null) in the keyboard menu. While these things are out of the developer’s control, it makes for a less than ideal experience from the user’s perspective.

The Good Stuff 🎉

The good news is that we learned a lot in facing these unexpected challenges. The timing was fortunate as we are currently working to evolve our own internal design process at Versett, and this gave us the opportunity to test drive these changes on our own product. What we really loved about working on Shortcut was how quickly we could collaborate, how much fun we had working on something new, and how fast we could get things done. It was refreshing to not feel bogged down by external processes that normally are out of our control. Our work wasn’t held up by client feedback and approval cycles — just our own time management. It was also nice to have the greater Versett team at our disposal for user testing and gathering meaningful input.

Despite a few minor hiccups, overall it was a great first experience from which we gained a lot of valuable insight into our own processes. Working on this project allowed us to try new things and to flex our skills in ways we normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to.

We’re pretty proud of the work we’ve done on Shortcut and hope that you find it as useful as we do.

Available now in the App Store.

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