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Voices that Matter iPhone: August Trometer on UI design and the iPad

August Trometer is a veteran iPhone and Mac developer -- along with his own stable of titles, he's also one of the developers behind the popular Yowza!! mobile coupon app, and the author of a book on web development for Apple's handheld device. He spoke not once but twice on the first day of the Voices that Matter iPhone developer conference in Seattle last weekend -- in the morning on "Designing a Killer UI" for the iPhone, and in the afternoon about what's new for developers in terms of code available on the iPad.

After the second talk, he agreed to sit down with us and discuss a little bit of his thinking about concepts of UI design for both devices. In the interview below, he chats with TUAW about what developers can do to make better user interfaces for iPhone and iPad users, why he believes Apple had a plan for the iPad all along, and what's next in terms of interface design Read on for more.

One of the most interesting things I heard you say today was about the idea of user-centric versus engineer-centric design. Most of our readers aren't developers, which makes coming to these developer conferences very interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that idea of the user experience versus the developer perspective?


August Trometer: Sure. The user is the center of the app. They're the ones that use it every single day. And that's who the developer should be designing for. I always use Photoshop as an example of a "bad app," and I know it's not an iPhone app or an iPad app. There's nothing wrong with Photoshop, it's a very powerful app and it does a lot of crazy amazing things. But you can tell that the people who actually build that app don't use that app. And they're not building it for users -- they're building it because one of their bosses said, "We need a new filter that does this."

I think the biggest thing a developer can do is try and make sure that when they're designing their app, they're paying attention to the people who've never picked up an iPhone before, never picked up an iPad before, and who have never launched their app before. That's why when I'm doing an app and I get to a certain stage where I'm ready to show it to somebody, the first person I show it to is someone who doesn't have any idea I'm working on it, and I just watch them. I don't coach them, there's that whole Schrodinger thing, where you watch it and you might affect it. But I just keep my mouth shut, and it's very enlightening for me to watch somebody struggle with something that I think is very obvious.

Developers really need to think like that. We're not writing for ourselves. We're writing for people we've never met and we don't know how much experience they have, and we need to think about that.

You also made the point in both talks as well that the iPhone and the iPad are two devices that are completely different from the mouse, keyboard, monitor interface that we've been using. And you said today that the mouse is 1x1 pixel, the fingertip can be as big as 55x55. How does that affect the way you design apps going forward?

It completely changes things. You lose that accuracy, so that you really have to make sure [the user] can't accidentally touch something -- buttons have to be a certain size, they have to be a certain distance from each other -- you have to take all of those things into consideration. And even the iPad, with a much higher resolution, doesn't help things. More pixels doesn't help things -- your pixels still need to be the exact same size. And supposedly the new iPhone will have double the pixel resolution -- well, that just means your button will need to be even bigger. The finger as a pointing device is a very, very powerful thing from a user point of view, but from a developer point of view, we're not used to developing for that. We've only been developing iPhone apps for a couple of years now. So we're not really used to the sort of interfaces, and because of that, we need to keep that in the back of our heads.

We've posted videos of dogs, cats, and a 99-year-old woman using the iPad, so there's a lot of advantages that you can get in terms of audience. But what do you lose from that?

Content creation becomes harder. The iPad -- there's going to be some fantastic content creation apps for the iPad -- there are already some fantastic content creation apps for the iPad. Look at Brushes, for example, which was on the iPhone, now on the iPad and on the iPad it's even more powerful. But for the most part, the iPad is more of a consumption device than it is a creation device. Or it's a task-oriented device rather than a creation device. I think people in the creation business, from developers to heavy users of video editing and things like that, are still going to need to have a more powerful computer with the keyboard and mouse, because there's just certain things you can't do with a finger. But for those who don't need those things, or those who spend 80% of their day in a meeting, and they just want to take notes or be able to read and respond to email, the iPad is going to be perfect for those folks.

Another interesting point that you made today was the idea of an app as a metaphor. Even on iBooks, there's almost an official direction which is an app as a metaphor for book. Even in the evolution of the iPhone, apps started with lots of buttons, and they seem to be moving more towards the interface as metaphor. Can you describe that trajectory a little bit?

It's funny -- we've dealt with the "desktop" metaphor for so long, the whole folders and documents and things like that. Now that we're moving to the iPad and touch devices, documents have fallen off. We really don't deal with documents, at least not yet, and I don't think we will, I think Apple's trying to abstract that away from us so we don't have to deal with it. So we're getting rid of some metaphors, but in terms of the actual application itself and the way we use it, I think Apple's encouraging us to use more metaphors. And really, the most powerful reason is because we don't have to train somebody how to read a book. They've spent their entire life flipping pages in a magazine or a book, and so if you make that the metaphor of the app, they don't need any explanation as to how it's going to work.

The idea of textures in apps was interesting, too. A designer who knows what they're doing will create an app where you look at it, and you're like, "Yes, I know what that does." And on the iPad, the bigger screen space lends itself to that even more.

Textures add to that realistic element of those metaphors. The iPad, especially, with more pixels, you have to fill those pixels up with something. And you don't necessarily want that to be more controls, but visually, it looks empty if you just leave it as a blank color. So textures are a great way, on the iPad, to sort of fill that space in visually without really filling that space in with anything. But you pair that up with those real-world metaphors, and it gives you a lot of really cool opportunities to create awesome, awesome interfaces on the iPad that you just can't get away with on the iPhone because the device is too small.

Look at Apple's Contacts app on the iPhone, and it's probably perfectly designed for the iPhone, but it's just this list. And then you look at the Contacts app on the iPad, and it's sort of that book, like you'd go to Franklin and buy. And you look at it and you know exactly what it is and exactly how to use it, and those extra pixels that the iPad has afford the opportunity.

Finally, I think you're a little nuts on this...

[Laughs] I've been called worse!

... but I'll let you defend yourself! Which would you say came first, the iPhone or the iPad?

I think the iPad was the goal all along. And I think that for either technical or cost reasons, they released the iPhone first. But I think the iPad was the goal all along.

And what makes you think that?

The iPhone to me just seemed incomplete. I think the only thing that... they were looking at the iPad and said ok, let's make it smaller and add a phone. And that's sort of what happened. If you look back at some of the stuff that came out right around when the iPhone came out, Apple had said, or some news sites had said, interviews with various people, or maybe even Steve Jobs, had said that the idea was this "pad," "tablet," that you browse the web with, that you do email with, and then they ended up shrinking it down and adding a phone. But I honestly think that the iPad was the goal all along. Like I was saying the other day, we've spent 25 years using a mouse. That's a full generation of people, and yet we still have IT departments for support for people who don't know how to use a mouse. And the iPad is Apple's way of using -- pun intended -- a blank slate on user interface, starting over and going, "Ok, let's throw all the crap away, all these silly abstractions that we've used for years, throw them all away and let's start over." Because it's nothing like a desktop at all, and that's why I think the iPad came first.

Because -- even if Apple did design the iPad first, for the sake of argument I'll agree --

[Laughs]

The software has been backwards. We saw iPhone software first, and even if it's only been out for a little while, it's had that evolution. iPhone apps that we're seeing today are not the iPhone apps we saw at launch, and the iPad has learned that evolution. So if the iPad is where Apple wanted to be in the first place, and we're finally seeing the apps that they dreamed of, what comes next? What's the future of that?


That's a really good question. And if I had that answer...

You would sell a billion devices of your own, right? But where does iPad software go from where we are right now?


I had a conversation with one of my contacts at Apple, they were asking me if I was going to port one of my iPhone apps to the iPad, and I said probably not, at least right now, because the app's called Yowza, it's location-based coupons. And I can't see people lugging an iPad into a store to show a coupon. But then I told the guy, I said, but I don't think anybody knows yet how the iPad is going to be used. And so I can't really say yes or no until I see a little more how people use it in the wild.

And I told him, I don't think you guys even know how the iPad is going to be used yet, and he said, "You want to know something? You're right." The iPhone changed everything, and it's being used in ways that no one ever imagined, not Apple, not anybody. And I think the iPad is exactly that, where in two years, we're going to go, "Wow, I can't believe we're doing this with just this tiny little tablet of a computer." So I'm really excited about the future.

Cool. Thanks very much!

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August Trometer is a veteran iPhone and Mac developer -- along with his own stable of titles, he's also one of the developers behind the...