Making Unsplash for iOS

When I joined Unsplash, the first thing we did was brainstorm app ideas. Our strategy for native apps was (is) to create and release small apps that put the spotlight on the beautiful photos you can find on Unsplash, and see the ones that stick.

We also didn’t want to just port over to mobile and assume that users would want to use Unsplash in the exact same ways on mobile, given that desktop creative use cases can be very different than mobile use cases.

So we started to get our hands dirty with Uploader for iOS, an app that allows photographers to submit their photos to Unsplash. Then we released Wallpapers for Android and macOS, both update your wallpaper with curated photos from our community.

However, we knew that the one app everyone would really pay attention to would be the iOS app. Here is the story of how we built it.

Early plans

In June 2017, Apple showed the upcoming (at the time) iOS 11. I was excited with the emphasis they made on iPad. It had been neglected for a few years, but this time Apple proved they didn’t give up on it. On the opposite. They promote the device as a replacement for laptops, with a large catalog of productivity apps for creatives. Creatives? We can help here!

Amongst iOS 11’s new features, two stood out to me. The improved Dock provides a better feeling of multitasking, similar to macOS. And the ability to drag & drop content between apps is a significant improvement. It was evident to us we had to take advantage of that new feature.

I started working on the app mid-July. We didn’t have a list of features yet, but we knew we wanted to support drag & drop. So I quickly built a prototype to play with it on iPad.

Unsplash for iOS — Drag & Drop Prototype

We paused work in August until mid-September to work on Wallpapers for macOS and Android. When we went back to Unsplash for iOS at the end of September, we had a better idea of the features we wanted:

  • Browse photos
  • Browse collections
  • A dedicated section for wallpapers
  • Search
  • Drag & drop photos to other apps on iPad

We thought this would be good enough for a first version, and planned to release updates later to add more features: create an account, log in, like and collect photos, and more.

At the end of October, that version was ready, with a tab for each kind of content (Photos, Collections, Wallpapers, and Search). But as we used it, something didn’t feel right.

Unsplash for iOS — Early Version

What was wrong?

That first version was somewhat a dumbed-down adaptation the site and had several issues.

  1. The abundance of content (New/Trending photos, Curated/Featured collections, Wallpapers) could be overwhelming for people who just discovered Unsplash.
  2. For Unsplash users, it was misleading to use an app that tried to reproduce the site, but with limited features. It was frustrating not to be able to see more details about the photos, and like/collect them. There weren’t enough ways to interact with them.
  3. It wasn’t obvious what you could do with photos. You could download them, but it wasn’t a great experience.

Changing course

We gathered and realized we hadn’t set a proper goal/direction for the app. Writing a mission statement for a product helps so much taking any decision during the development. We screwed up not taking the time to write something down when we started the project.

From the beginning, we wanted to make an app that helps people find the right image for their projects. It had to be easy to pick up and had to put the spotlight on the best photos.

We changed the design, with only one screen that contains all the essential things: Search, New Photos, and Featured Collections.

It took another couple months to make those adjustments and get it right, but the app is now much easier to navigate and understand for people who are new to Unsplash. It’s also enjoyable to explore pictures, and the prominent search bar makes it easy to find photos.

Unsplash for iOS — iPad

Drag & drop is a big thing too. On iPad, it’s pretty cool to be able to drag photos to other apps. But we didn’t forget about iPhone and built a fun way to drag & drop to download pictures.

Unsplash for iOS — Drag & Drop to Keynote

It took us more time than we had planned to release Unsplash for iOS, but we are glad to have changed direction, and we are confident this was the right move. The app is fun to use, and we hope you will enjoy it as much as we do.

We want to know what you think about the app and what you feel is missing. Your comments will help us prioritize future updates. Email us at

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