Episode 14: The “Idealist”
Learn how Shawn Hickman built the app he always wished he had, and his point-of-view about how you can do the same
I’ve had the pleasure to know, and work with Shawn in some capacity for about 10 years now. It’s pretty crazy to think how that time has flown on by. We first met when he was hired at his first design gig. He was a mega fan boy of Apple, Steve Jobs, and Disney (and still is). Little did I know at the time how much influence we’d have on one another for a significant portion of both our careers.
I’m lucky enough to be able to call him a friend, and honestly one of the smartest damn people I’ve ever met. He’s incredibly motivated, and anything I’ve ever seen him set his heart on learning, he’s done it. Become an expert at it. And soon has others eager to do the same.
The journey of his app, Sofa, has been an incredible one that I’ve had to the opportunity to take part in from afar since its inception. Whether it’s giving him general advice on where he could take it next, to being a crash-test dummy to help find any bug fixes.
If you aspire to build a product of your own… Shawn is someone you definitely need to connect with. I’m excited to give you a glimpse into the journey that has guided him to where he is today! 🎉
🛋️ About Shawn Hickman & his app, Sofa
I’m a designer who has invested in learning iOS development over the past few years. At this point I feel comfortable calling myself a designer and developer.
In 2015, I worked on the first version of Sofa with two friends. I was the designer, one was the iOS developer, and the other was the web developer. We worked very well together, but then life got in the way. This was a side project for all of us, and we still had full-time jobs. The two developers became extremely busy and couldn’t work on Sofa at the same capacity. The app sat there not being updated, and it was painful for me. This was the big driving force for me to learn how to code.
🔗 Read more about how I did it here.
The current version of Sofa is a solo effort. I do the design, development, marketing, planning, business admin, etc. I love wearing all the hats and the responsibility of having to figure things out.
The ability to design and develop solutions on my own has been incredibly liberating. It makes me love the iOS platform more every day. I’ve been working on Sofa continuously since that time.
Working slowly is underrated.
So much of software development these days prioritizes deadlines over experience. Just ship something every 2–3 weeks. It’s what happens when teams are too big, and expectations set by people who don’t understand what they’re asking for. It’s exhausting and sucks all the joy out of the process.
Smaller teams, working more deliberately and slowly, produce better work. Not more work, better more.
Sofa is a team of one right now, but that philosophy wouldn’t change even if it grew.
Joe Pascavage ✍🏼
How does that help motivate you to think forward?
It enables me to stay relaxed, which improves my thinking. Building stuff takes time and some ideas take longer than others to land.
I spend way less time in design tools. My process usually starts with writing. It can be as simple as bullets and then evolve into more solid thinking.
From there, I’ll sketch some ideas or look for analogs. Then I’ll start building it in code. The faster I can play with the idea on my device the better.
While Sofa’s data sources have large libraries, sometimes they don’t have what you’re looking for. This meant Sofa couldn’t be the place to store all your lists. I introduced custom items to solve this. This was the most requested feature…by far.
🔗 Read more about how I introduced custom themes here.
I knew this feature could easily become insanely complicated if I wasn’t careful. When working on something complex, I find it helpful to think through the guiding principles. This helps to keep me focused and not overthink areas that aren’t essential.
I also listed out what this feature is not. Framing the feature as not being something is just as helpful as defining what it is.
I’m super happy with the final implementation. It demonstrates a good way to add power to the app without introducing too much friction.
I think my blend of design and development skills gives me a unique perspective. I don’t try to create a perfect mockup or write perfect code. Not only that, but I use both skills to shape the work and know when it’s good enough to ship.
Wearing all the hats. I like strategy, designing, development, customer support, business admin, etc. It’s fun!
Joe Pascavage ✍🏼
How do you see apps evolving over the next decade?
This is the decade where software starts to move into our physical environments. There has been a lot of smoke around virtual and augmented reality (VR & AR) and this decade is when we’ll see the fire.
Apple has been investing heavily in ARKit for iOS, but using it has always felt foreign on a phone or tablet. They’ve also introduced the concept of compact UI in iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur (widgets). They’re showing you the building blocks of a great AR experience.
I’m also anticipating a resurgence in high-quality software from small teams (indies). When the first iPhone was released, we saw a gold rush with individuals and small teams building great apps. The App Store business models didn’t evolve at a fast enough pace, and we saw many apps get acquired or shutdown.
The App Store is changing, though. Subscriptions have been a big win for smaller teams and more recently the App Store Small Business Program, which features a reduced commission rate of 15% on paid apps and in-app purchases (down from 30%). This extra margin gives developers a big boost.
Joe Pascavage ✍🏼
What advice would you give to someone looking to start an app of their own?
Don’t overthink it. If you have an idea, start building and get feedback. Your first versions will be terrible. That’s expected. Keep iterating and make things better over time.
Also, you have to love the process. If you’re in it for the vanity metrics you’ll give up as soon as your motivation drops. Dig in and have fun.
Download & follow Sofa, you won’t regret it!
- 📱 Available on both iPhone & iPad on the Apple App Store
- 🐦 Follow Sofa on Twitter
- 📹 Watch Shawn talk about his process on YouTube
- 🗒️ The Sofa Forum is a fun way to interact with other users too
👏 Thank you for reading!
Shawn, this was outstanding! I’m so grateful to have you a part of this series, and for the time you took to share your story with everyone. You really are an inspiration my friend, and I can’t wait to see how you continue to push this forward. It’s just the beginning. Get it! 💪