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Presentation: Making Apps That Don't Suck

by Michael Floyd on May 25, 2011 |

Developing apps that surprise and delight can seem like an illusive goal that is difficult to articulate or quantify. But in this latest presentation just posted on InfoQ  Mike Lee, the software engineer that worked on projects like Delicious Library,Tap Tap Revenge and the Obama ’08 iPhone app, proposes an algorithm for making better apps.

Lee starts with the assumption that an apps sucks, rather than assuming it’s great. From that starting point an engineer can determine why it is less than perfect and develop a plan to suck less. Lee presents a series of case studies to examine the differences between good and poorly executed interfaces, and to determine the annoyance factors that make it difficult to get in and out of apps. Annoying features include:

  • Splash screens that simply display a logo
  • Pop ups that point users to obvious menu items like the tutorial
  • Intermediary screens to activate unknown modes

Lee stresses that users just want to be placed directly into the app, and will turn to help and tutorials when they need to.

Bugs are a fact of life and sometimes small mistakes can lead to catastrophic results. Lee presents two case studies here and offers the analogy that like Indian Poker where everyone can see your card but you:

Your mistakes are as obvious to others as their mistakes are to you. So you should have at least one other person look at your stuff. No matter how good or experienced you are, you’re going to make mistakes.

When it comes to fixing bugs, Lee says:

Ship it today and fix it tomorrow is a terrible idea, because you only get one chance to get someone to try your app... The most obvious solution is often wrong and usually insufficient.

Another factor that contributes to user annoyance is implementation details that too often get in the way of the user experience. The job for the software engineer is to hide these implementation details. Other areas Lee covers is determining when the project is done, handling user feedback, avoiding market segmentation and how to design for everyone.

Once you have the annoyance factors worked out of the app it’s time to improve your app and make it stand out. "Make an impression that really sticks. Ship version 3.0 because you only get one chance."

Ultimately for Lee it’s about software quality. App developers need to compete in terms of the quality of their work, not by producing cheaper, low-cost products. If you do you will lose. View this spirited and popular presentation originally presented at the QCon London 2011 Conference.

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Funny with useful suggestions for better user experiences by Faisal Waris

and Mr. Lee has garnered wisdom that belies his youth.

Great fun by peter lin

I didn't know what to expect, but the talk was a load of fun to watch.

Experience without rules by Michael Poulin

A statement like "a software engineer makes great applications not because he follows good rules but because he has a better way of looking at the world and he learns from experience" scares me.

To what criteria the application is great if there are no rules that set the objectives?

If someone starts with no experience, how many chances s/he has to get this experience if I would not buy produced application (because it was made w/o rules and experience)?

Re: Experience without rules by Russell Leggett

I don't think he was saying no rules, I think he was more saying that you can't just follow rules and get good software as a result. It's like art - "An artist makes great art not because he follows good rules, but because he has a better way of looking at the world and he learns from experience." I think it still holds up. Sort of like saying - knowing how to draw is not enough.

And I will say that it depends on what part of the spectrum you are working. User interface / user experience, are much more design problems than engineering problems. As such, they require more knowledge of people - soft skills, as opposed to hard. And its not just the visual design. There are plenty of rules for that too - color, whitespace, etc. Someone could easily do a presentation on that - there are plenty of books as well, but what Mike was getting at is more about the values that don't boil down to rules. Heck, each of the things that Mike pointed out COULD be made into rules, but that would be seeing the forest for the trees.

Awesome Presentation. by Richard Clayton

I love it. Very accessible and not necessarily specific to software.

Wonderful, wonderful presentation -- one of the very best by Mario Lanza

I have always subscribed to the principle that by noticing what sucks about something you can learn how to improve it. Mike Lee really hits the nail on the head. He is a very entertaining and engaging speaker. Well done!

Ship it today and fix it tomorrow is a terrible idea, because you only get by Daniel Ribeiro

One of the most anti-lean comments I've seen. Which is kinda surprising to see on this week, where Eric Ries hosted Startups Lesson Learned Conference advocating MVPs for maximize learning, and overcoming the "My baby is ugly" syndrome.

Excellent by Roy Wilson

Excellent presentation!

Great style and I learnt a lot by Imraan Jhetam

Great presentation. Very useful to all developers.

If only this site was not in Flash so I could watch it on my iPad!!!

Re: Great style and I learnt a lot by Fabrice Marguerie

If only this site was not in Flash so I could watch it on my iPad!!!

If only iPad supported Flash...

The presentation software kind of sucks now by James Watson

I was struck by how coincidental it is that the slides do not display properly while watching the presentation and how the frustration Mike Lee was describing matched my own experience of not being able to see the slides.

I don't know what changed with the presentation viewer but its broken now.

Saw 3/4 of video in full screen before realizing that slides were apearing by Al Scotch

Saw 3/4 of video in full screen before realizing that slides were apearing below.
Now that sucks! :)

But a very entertaining and motivating message, nevertheless.

Excellent presentation that applies to humans by Brian Edwards

...but more importantly, am I the only person who wants a Harry Potter Sonic Obama backpack?

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