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Archive for the ‘Languages’ Category

Best of 2012!

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Best of 2012

We are super honored that Apple included Languages in the App Store Best of 2012 list in the “Intuitive Touch” category. We always strive to create innovative apps that delight users so we are stoked that Apple chose Languages as one of the most cutting-edge apps of the year, alongside inspirational apps like Clear.

Congrats to all the other winners!

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A brief update on Languages

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Now that Languages has been out for a bit I thought I would post a brief update.

Editors Choice

The launch was, in a word, unbelievable. Apple chose our little app as Editors Choice — the best possible feature — in many countries, and New & Noteworthy in most others.


We finally accomplished my lifetime goal of beating Angry Birds in the top-charts (if only for a time!) The app peaked as the #1 app in the entire App Store in some countries like France, and #5 overall in the US.

For a tiny company like ours, that is a pretty ridiculous feeling.

Sales? We’re not talking about sales publicly but I can tell you that sales in the top ten are quite nice and we are happy about where we have settled down after the initial buzz ended. Indies can definitely thrive on the App Store and this whole experience has given me a ton of hope for the future.

We definitely have big plans for Languages and also have a bunch of other apps in the pipeline. As always, I look forward to sharing everything we are learning along the way. I am currently writing a lengthy case study on Languages for Smashing Magazine so you can look forward to more details soon.

Buttons are not the enemy

Monday, April 9th, 2012

We can't wait to show you what we've been working on...
I recently called 2012 the year the interface disappeared, voicing my excitement and concerns with gesture-based interfaces. Apps like Clear and Paper challenge us to rethink what is possible with touch. We got pretty excited and designed a completely gesture-based Languages prototype to show people at SXSW. I had the privilege to show the prototype to some folks I really respect — Steve Krug (Don’t Make Me Think), Evan Doll (Flipboard), Jared Spool (UIE), David Barnard (App Cubby), Josh Clark (Tapworthy), and Whitney Hess, to name a few — and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and very helpful (thanks guys!)

After mulling over the feedback with the team, we’ve redesigned the prototype to include some buttons. Here is why.

Buttonless only works for extremely simple apps

Virtually buttonless experiences can delight but that only works when you eliminate not just the buttons but the functions as well. Imagine if Clear attempted to include even half of the functionality of power-user apps like OmniFocus and maintain a relatively buttonless interface; it’s impossible. Why?

  • Number of gestures: Tap once, tap twice, tap and hold, swipe left, swipe right, swipe up, swipe down, pinch out, pinch in, twist, drag a part of the screen… Without buttons, there are only so many different functions you can allow with these interactions.
  • Memory: we can only use a small number of gestures without making user’s brains explode.
  • Mental model: using gestures for certain functions will feel extremely forced. Gestures only work for functions where the user’s mental model matches how the gesture works. You can help form the user’s mental model using metaphor. If it’s a book, the user expects to drag the page to flip it. Users can easily grasp gestures where they are directly manipulating objects like that but many functions are so abstract that you will be hard-pressed to find gestures that feel natural for them.

So part of the genius behind Clear wasn’t just the gestures but the minimalism, without which the app would break down. There is obviously a market for these kind of minimal apps but that route generally excludes power-users who will complain of the lack of functionality. That’s fine for cases like Clear where a large enough percentage of the population doesn’t need power features but you need to question whether that’s the case for your own app before making the decision to go the minimalist route.

Buttons are not our enemy. They are not as satisfying as directly manipulating objects with gestures but in interfaces that accommodate more than a few simple functions, they are often very necessary in order for the interface to make sense.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that buttons may be the best way to teach gestures, especially when considering making our apps accessible (which, I know from first-hand experience, Apple’s App Store managers pay attention to *very* much). More on that later.

That said, our new Languages design is very much gesture-driven but includes buttons where gestures don’t make sense or to supplement less-obvious gestures.

My mind is exploding with thoughts on gestures and I plan to write a lengthy article that covers gestures in depth, with some ideas on how to best teach gestures as well. In the mean time, check out Josh Clark’s great talk, entitled Buttons are a Hack.

2012: the year the interface disappeared

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

First, doh! The New iPad looks amazing and iPhoto for iOS is ridiculously inspiring for app designers. It reminds us that touch presents us with new ways to manipulate software, which is what this article is all about.

Second, it’s been way too long since I’ve blogged.

Third, wow, we’ve got a new redesign. What do you think?

Fourth, innovation is in the air and it all started with a to-do app of all things. You’ve heard of it; it’s called Clear by Realmac Software, Milen and my friend Phill Ryu’s new studio Impending.


Phill questioned everything: the need for a navigation bar at the top, chrome, inessential features, and even buttons. Phill hates buttons:

“Buttons are about the most unsatisfying interaction you can have in a touchscreen device. Just think about it. At least when you’re using a mouse, you click a button, and you’re clicking a button. When you’re using a phone you are smudging glass, and there is absolutely zero feedback.”

I think that’s awesome. A huge part of great design is figuring out what we can obliterate and Phill did an amazing job at that: it’s demolition design! No buttons, just gestures. It’s a very satisfying and fun experience and one that I’ve integrated into my daily life.

I like to think that I question inessential elements and features but Phill’s demolition design put me to shame. It’s downright inspiring.

This is scary

Clear is controversial, dangerous, and inspiring. Chrome disappears and gestures are the interface. Starting with Clear, apps won’t be cool just because they look pretty. There are lot’s of pretty apps. I think to make a cool app in 2012, we need to pay heavy attention to the interactions – each interaction needs to be delightful. Now the danger is that people are going to see Clear and mimic it; they’re going to throw usability out the window and build super unintuitive gesture-based apps. We don’t want to go to that extreme — as David Barnard rightly points out, user interface chrome definitely has it’s place — but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we need to find ways to use gestures to improve the user experience. David has some good ideas here too.

Designing gesture-based interfaces

When we are designing gesture based interfaces, I think we need to keep in mind at least four points:

  • Gestures can make interactions faster and easier. It’s easier to swipe the whole screen than tap on a target on the screen.
  • Directly manipulating objects is so much more satisfying than pressing a button and getting a result.
  • Gestures can remove the need for buttons and chrome, as Clear has done. This can make the app really clean. The problem then is that users might not know how navigate the app if they don’t know the gestures. They aren’t as discoverable as buttons so we may need to play some usability tricks to make sure our users can easily figure them out and remember them.
  • Gestures are cool. That shouldn’t be underestimated.
  • Update: I can’t believe I completely forgot to mention one of the most important. Gestures are terribly undiscoverable. While Clear’s gestures look extremely intuitive, they are actually not. They are only intuitive if you watch a video or tutorial illustrating them being used. Without such help, we would be clueless on how to use Clear and would easily get stuck. This means that with gesture-based interfaces we need to always be thinking about how to teach users our gestures or provide alternatives to them.
  • Gestures sometimes require two hands. Make sure that there is some kind of alternative to a two handed gesture. Pinching is often cooler than tapping but make sure you don’t require users to pinch to use your interface.

Rethinking Languages

That said, we have been completely re-imagining the Languages design. We’ve questioned features and unessential UI, taken a chrome-less, very much buttonless gesture-based approach, and think we’ve added a few of our own innovations along the way. To see if a gesture-based interface *really* works, you really have to use it so we conducted several hackathon sessions with our Sonico buddies over in Austria and prototyped all the major gesture interactions.

Let me tell you, it rocks and I can’t wait to show you what we’ve come up with.


Speaking of which, I’ll be at the South by South West conference in Austin for the next week and would love to get input on the gestures we’ve been working on in Languages so please ping me if you would like to meet up and get a demo.


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Christain Billings and Matthew Miller did some amazing work on the icon and teaser website!

We’re starting our marketing initial marketing push for Languages. I’ll be at SXSW giving out previews to the press, I created a @languagesapp Twitter account and Facebook page. Last, but certainly not least, we just launched a pretty incredible teaser website that you really have to check out.

Let me know what you think… Exciting times!

Where We Are with Languages

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

We’ve been getting a bit behind with our coverages of the development of Languages, alas! So let’s do a bit of catch up to bring our coverage back into real-time.

Last time we talked about how to build a fantasy app by using magic. That led us to a list of features to put in version 1.0 and wrapped up strategic design. Now we can rocket on to the second stage of our process: interaction design.

Interaction Design

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The purpose of interaction design is to design the app’s interface while focusing on the ways in which the user interacts with it. Thus it’s not simply spatial—figuring out what buttons go where; but it is also temporal—related to the user’s experience over time. Interaction design demands an empathetic imagination, because the interaction designer must always bear in mind, as they are putting down buttons, the ways in which the user will interact with the buttons. Interaction designers must be able to look at what they are designing from the user’s perspective.

The way we did the interaction design for Languages was typical for us. First, I did a first draft of the interaction design in OmniGraffle (which is an excellent tool for designers). Then I presented the draft to the team. We then went into a cycle of design and iteration that is still ongoing. Generally I make a first pass at a design and then Jeremy refines and massages it to perfection—all amidst a vigorous feedback loop.

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Here is one of our early wireframes of the primary dictionary interface. Things have changed a lot since this iteration.

We decided to start the app off with a home-screen that would be a bookshelf containing all of the language dictionaries. The idea was that users would tap one of the dictionaries to access it (a la iBooks).

Visual Design

Although we are still wrangling with interaction issues, we have also begun the third and final stage of design: visual design. This is the part where we make the app real pretty. This is also the part where we make the app delightful and add those little touches of fun and humor.

We do visual design in the following steps. First, we decide on a visual theme; in the case of Languages, we decided on a physical dictionary metaphor. Second, we decide on a color scheme; in this case we decided to go with earth tones with a brown emphasis. Third, we decide on fonts. And finally we roll up our sleeves and begin thrashing away. We decided to have Jeremy take the lead on the graphics for the dictionary, while I got to design the shelf (Christain, one of our interns, has been designing the icon).

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Behold, the shelf!

As things stand now, the shelf is basically completed, with only a few minor refinements left to do; meanwhile the dictionary interface is in a state of flux due to some revolutionary and very exciting insights that Jeremy recently had. He’s going to talk about all of that in an up-coming post.

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