Designer at Tapbots
Hey Mark, thanks for joining me. Would you mind introducing yourself and
providing a brief overview of your work at Tapbots?
Thanks for the opportunity, Sam. My name is Mark Jardine and I'm the
designer for a small software company, Tapbots. We make apps for iOS and
the Mac. I work from home in Northern California and live with my wife, 2
small boys, and a dog.
Tapbots was started by Paul Haddad and I about 4 years ago. He does all of
the programming for our iOS apps and handles the overall business. I do all
of the creative work which includes all the design related to our apps, as
well as the sounds, and whatever marketing materials we have (website,
videos, etc). For fun, I try to include my illustrations wherever I can. I
always wanted to be a professional illustrator, but never had the chops for
Tapbots has had a lot of success on the App Store, especially with
Tweetbot. What led you to decide to make a Twitter client, and what sort of
challenges did you face over the initial design process?
Pastebot was the first app we made where we took our look and applied it to
a more standard type of app with tableviews. We were pretty happy how that
turned out (at least at the time). We always talked about doing a Twitter
client, but wasn't sure how that would work out. The reception of Pastebot
really gave us the drive to tackle a Twitter client.
The biggest challenge with designing Tweetbot was balancing our aesthetic
while keeping the app functional. The main function of a Twitter client is
reading and heavy chrome tends to detract from that. I always thought we
sacrificed making the perfect Twitter client just a bit for the sake of our
brand, but we were following a formula that was working. I definitely don't
have any regrets though. I learned a lot from it. But the release of iOS7
marks a new chapter for Tapbots and we are making changes to continue
making the best apps we possibly can.
Tapbots' brand has always maintained a decidedly different look and feel,
but we've seen some iOS7 updates to previously iconic apps criticized for
too closely resembling Apple's stock apps. In a post iOS7 world, how do you
avoid that pitfall and maintain a unique brand identity?
iOS7 is new so it will take time for everyone to find their own identity.
We are still deep in that process ourselves and it may take a couple apps
to get there. In any case, our primary goal is to make the best looking
apps we can and spend lots of time crafting an experience that delights.
The overall experience is truly what separates one app from another.
One of my favorite aspects of Tapbots' apps is the attention given to the
little details that add character and personality, like the sounds, the
spinning streaming icon, and the numeric identifier hidden in the
background. How much time do you spend thinking up these little delights,
and how important do you think they are to the general user?
I think attention to details and finding little ways to delight a user is a
really big deal. Apple has always done this as well as great companies like
Panic. Our company was built around the idea that all software should be
fun in addition to functional. We spend a lot of time trying to do things
in clever ways and put a huge focus on animation and sound which help shape
an experience. I also think it's a balancing act and some apps need more
restraint than others.
Game designers constantly playtest until their design intentions are
properly communicated to their audience. How do you tell how clear and
effective your design is before launching an app?
I usually go by gut feeling. I think I have a fairly good sense of what
works and doesn't most of the time. So the first checkpoint to pass is me
enjoying the app for myself. If I don't enjoy using it, we need to make big
changes or go back to the drawing board. Once we are happy ourselves, we
release it to a few beta testers to see what they think. But at that point
we are really happy and confident with the direction of the app.
I have heard quite a few proclamations that the market for paid apps is
dying, but Tapbots has had a lot of success selling apps at a fixed price
point. What are your thoughts on that sentiment, and do you expect that you
will have to adjust your distribution strategy in the future?
It seems to be going that way, but I think we’ll be fine for now. We try to
provide an experience in our apps that make users want to try them even if
they don’t necessarily need the app. When an app is only a couple bucks,
that’s not too hard of a sale.
The demo videos we create with each new app is a really important part of
this. We tend to make our videos very honest. A single shot of the device
showing how the app works with no cuts. There’s no trickery. What you see
is what you get in a sense. Since our apps are just as much about the
animations and sounds as how they look, these videos really help sell it.
We are always ready to try something new though. It’s very possible that a
future app might fit the “free with in-app purchases” model and we might
give it a shot just to see how it goes. That’s one of the benefits of being
a tiny company. It’s easy to take risks and try new things.
Tweetbot 3 was recently released, and though Tapbots' signature chrome is
gone, the app retains so much of its personality through its use of motion.
What inspired the choice to develop a new physics engine, and how did that
choice affect your approach to designing the user interface?
I’ve always been inspired by what Loren Brichter has done with physics in
his apps. When I learned about UI Dynamics in iOS7, I knew that was the
direction I wanted to go in. The only reason Tweetbot’s original UI was so
heavy-handed was because we wanted to stick with the look and feel of our
utility apps. iOS7 sort of freed us from our past which I think was a
really good thing for us. I really wanted to make Tweetbot the best
experience possible for the widest range of users. That meant trying to
make the UI look and feel at home in iOS7 while still retaining all of the
little details that make people enjoy using the app. Stripping out all of
the custom artwork made the app smaller, faster, and freed up a lot of time
for us to really polish the experience.
I find it interesting that you discovered that removing detailed art assets
helped pave the way for a stronger user experience. I imagine Apple came to
a similar conclusion when they stripped away skeuomorphism in iOS7. Do you
think using heavily skeuomorphic interface elements always detracts from
the user experience of an app?
I think it really depends on the app. For a Twitter client, probably. For
something as simple as a calculator app, I think we need to inject some
more fun into it visually. I’m not in any camp for or against
skeuomorphism. I’m designing for a platform and right now that platform is
iOS7. People can argue all day long about what they think is better, but we
are a 3rd party company making software for Apple’s operating systems. We
will follow their lead and take our own liberties where we feel it makes
I think a fair analogy is when photography started to go digital. There
were the early adopters that embraced DSLR’s and the use of Photoshop for
post. And then there were the film guys who refused to move on. In many
ways, film was still better than digital, but we knew where the future of
the industry was headed. And a lot of die hard film guys got left behind.
iOS7 is a reboot and it will get better over time. I’m learning and
embracing the design language now so our future apps can be better because
Did any of the changes in iOS7 introduce particularly challenging design
problems for Tapbots? The new handling of the status bar sparked quite a
heated debate, for example.
Not really, other than having to get acquainted with the new visual style.
The only challenge I can think of was getting some of the physics
animations to feel right. I think the real challenge will come when we get
around to updating some of our other apps.
As a self-proclaimed gamer, have you ever found inspiration for your work
in the games you play, and are there any recent games you found
The Wii Fit was what inspired our first app, Weightbot. When it comes to
games that inspire me for the work I actually do, I think it tends to be
more casual-based games. Graphic improvements with each next generation of
games don’t really impress me anymore. They are an expectation. All of the
augmented reality stuff coming out these days is very interesting to me.
The 3DS AR demos were pretty cool and I’m very impressed with what Sony is
doing on the PS4 on that front.
As we wrap this interview up, let's talk about your future ambitions for
Tapbots. What do you hope for the company to become, and what kind of
legacy do you want to leave?
I don’t have any big ambitions or plans for Tapbots other than being able
to keep creating apps that people love to use. I really love what I get to
do everyday and just want to continue getting better at it. I’d love for
our company to be as legendary as Panic 5-10 years down the road, but I’m
focusing on doing what we do best today.