I am uber-pleased to present to you an interview with Michael and Willi, the guys behind Robocat and the craftsmen of the very popular app, Outside (app store link). I’m very honored that Michael and Willi took the time to provide me their insights on their success, their answers are worth every app developer’s attention.
Tapity: Congratulations on a successful launch and a great product. Like the Tapmates, who I interviewed last, you are a team composed on a designer + a developer. Again and again I’ve seen this kind of team push out great apps (i.e. Tapmates and Tapbots) and often succeed financially. Tell us a little about yourselves. Also, what do you think are the benefits and detriments of working as a team and do you have any tips for those of us considering this kind of partnership?
Michael: I’m a 25 year-young designer and University Masters Reject. I’ve been freelancing internationally as an iconist and interface designer for 3 years now. I maintain pixelresort.com where I give out free icons and the occasional article. I also have a handful of other web startups and generally just enjoy the freedom and caffeine intake a young independent designer is supposed to. I think the benefits of working as a designer/developer duo is an increase in performance in almost every aspect of planning, developing and launching a polished product. It’s all about complimenting each other’s skills. Designing and developing apps requires very different mindsets, which means that in almost every situation of development people engaging in these two activities will have some valuable insight that will help create a better product.
Willi: I’m the developer of the team. My background is in theoretical Computer Science at Copenhagen University. As a computer scientist I’m actually quite interested in the area of HCI. I have done some work in information visualization and usability testing. I’ve always been interested in icon and graphics design. When I stumbled upon Michael’s artworks, I simply fell in love with his style and attention to detail.
It’s definitely a benefit working as team in contrast to outsourcing the design part. We kept pushing each other to improve the quality of the app. There are several times where Michael and I had to redo a lot of work to improve the overall direction. This would have been costly had we outsourced any part of the development. This was our first collaboration, so we used this project as a steppingstone on how we best should work together in future projects.
Tapity: Outside has sometimes been criticized for lacking a lot of the features the other top weather apps have (like weather radars). I realize, however, that it is easy to add features while it is hard to axe them. What was the design process of Outside and how did you determine and stick to the scope?
Michael: From the get-go we wanted to create something that wasn’t already on the shelves. We wanted to make the whole business of weather forecasting more fun and accessible. This meant that instead of looking through tables of weather data or advanced satellite images we wanted people to feel a sense of ‘exploring’ the weather. This entry point of simplicity stuck with the app all through development. In the end it also came down to what weather sources we could combine to get global accurate weather data. Many features like radar images simply weren’t available globally for free. We thought it was important to have a single app that would have the same feature set worldwide, instead of having say, US specific features. So the process of ‘feature elimination’ was also helped by what data was available.
Willi: The design process was pretty straightforward. We wanted the app to be ridiculously simple to use. We had the opportunity to start with a blank slate for a weather app. Instead of trying to fit as much weather information as possible on a tiny screen, we started with the bare minimum of features and then applied the 80-20 rule. We brainstormed what kind of features made sense for us as average knowledgeable users. We had to tighten the scope and we didn’t feel like making an app for amateur meteorologists. We ended up with a much better product because of it.
Tapity: In almost every kind of coverage I’ve seen of Outside, there is one common denominator: people say it is fun. This is a subject that I have been delving into recently because I think it is important, especially in iPhone apps. While not every iPhone app needs to be fun, the “fun-factor” is certainly a way to differentiate your app from the crowd. I also believe that people tend to share experiences that turn mundane activities into fun ones. What were the costs and benefits of going beyond usable and what are some of the factors that can make an iPhone application delightful to use?
Michael: The hedonic qualities of interface design are something I spend a lot of time researching getting my university degree in pixel pushing. There really is no hard rules that define what fun is and how to inject it into your projects, which makes the whole thing wonderfully intangible. There are however, some guidelines that will help you gain a level of delight. They all have to do with the polish and interactivity of your app. Smooth animations, sound and whimsical analogies can help turn mundane tasks into stuff that feels fun. There’s a high level of obsessing over pixel perfect details and timing of animations going on to create something that people find enjoyable to use – I guess the cost of this is prolonged development times and sleeping disorders where the benefits are clearly a more enjoyable (and perhaps marketable) product.
Willi: We wanted to turn something as boring as checking the weather forecast into something fun and enjoyable. Regular people don’t really care that much about checking weather, they just want to know if they need an umbrella or can wear a t-shirt for the day. The “fun-factor” is definitely important for people to take notice of your app. We took a lot of time to polish the user experience, eg. I had to switch from a working animation system in Core Animation to OpenGL ES in mid-development, because the performance for the animations weren’t up to our standards. It was definitely worth it at the end though.
Michael: Actually I think our coverage has been our greatest triumph. We haven’t spend a single dime on marketing. A lot of labour has gone into making it easy and accessible to talk about Outside. We’ve got a press package for download over at outsideapp.com and I cooked up a nice video teaser in After Effects but generally we’ve employed an ideology of “if it’s a good and interesting product, people will talk about it”. This strategy has proven to work. This is really satisfying because it basically means that if you create a well thought out and polished product, that’s nicely presented, people will applaud it and spread it naturally. There’s something wonderfully honest and democratic about that.
Willi: I believe that our unique approach have helped a lot, in terms of getting coverage on many different blogs. The timing of the launch also helped, as people are generally more interested in the weather when it’s bad.
Tapity: You launched the app at $3 and it has been doing very well. The additional subscription model has been a bit controversial (I think to the shame of humanity in general because I think it is perfectly fair). What are your thoughts on pricing and what have been the costs and benefits of going with a subscription model for push notifications?
Michael: There has certainly been a lot of banter and youthful misguided anger at our pricing model and specifically our subscription model. Apparently there’s a very noisy segment that will have you think that you are the son of satan if you release an app that costs more than $0.99. Inherently I think the app store economy is a tough place for a polished app. It’s simply hard to compete with all the bollocks that’s been created by opportunists and if you want to price your 6-months-in-the-making app at $2.99 you’ve got some nerve. As for our subscription model, it’s really quite simple – we wanted to create this awesome notification engine with a server monitoring your custom notifications. We don’t own weather data ourselves and we don’t have our own server, let’s face it – we’re just two guys trying to start a company from a small apartment.
Looking into the future, it became obvious that as our user base grew the server costs would go up. Something would need to cover the cost years into the future – the initial app sales wouldn’t be able to cover it, as logic would dictate it would eventually be very unprofitable. So the subscription model was really our only option if we wanted to pioneer something like this in a weather app. We’ve made sure that the notifications part is completely optional, so that you can always use the rest of the app if you choose not to subscribe.
Willi: As we are only a small team and funded the development ourselves, we have to price Outside according to how much effort and time we put into developing and maintaining the app. We definitely got many people talking about our subscription model. With this model we’re giving the user the freedom to choose whether they want this kind of service or not. This also means that the user can choose to use the service selectively, for example only in the winter quarter. Some people have expressed that they wanted a higher initial price and have notification included in price, but I think that would probably scare more users away. At the current rate of new apps appearing in the App Store, many users just buy apps out of curiosity. The subscription model is also a good way to keep the users using your app, and let those loyal users support your development efforts. Also, Outside 1.0.1 just got approved and here we’ve included a 300 day subscription option for the low price of $1.99 – hopefully a lot of people will find that a compelling option.
Tapity: Any other lessons learned from the launch, especially related to marketing?
Michael: I can’t stress how important it is to just have a great product. It will go a long way in marketing itself by word of mouth (which basically means twitter these days). We learned that having a functional and appealing website, even before the app launches, is an attraction in itself. Also give people the material they need to write about your app, supply them with a press package or a nice video demonstration. The internet is a really chatty place, and if people like what they see- they’ll tell their mates.
Willi: I think the three most important things are: a great product, a great website and an easy way for people to start talking about it (twitter, mailing list with exclusive stuff). Instead of waiting until the app arrives in the App Store, start promoting it a few weeks before, to build up that initial interest.
Tapity: Is there anything else you would like to share regarding your experience designing, building, or marketing Outside?
Michael: It’s been a tremendous experience so far, but Outside is really only in its infancy. We have an exciting Roadmap ahead of us. Also as a company, Robocat just crawled out of the cradle and pawed its first cat tree. We are determined to make this our livelihood and we hope a lot of people will follow and support us as we work our way to becoming a successful development company.
Thanks guys for the great insights, be sure to follow them on Twitter at @flarup and @williwu. These guys are worth watching. As an example, they recently released a neat video documenting the Outside pre-launch excitement. Cool stuff.Tweet