By now, apps are such a routine part of our daily lives that we rarely think about what actually goes into making one. We sat down with Brandon Williams, our iOS Engineer, and Zack Sears, Product Designer, to discuss how they created Kickstarter’s iPad app even as they were updating the iPhone app. If you’ve ever wondered how something like this comes about, read on. (If you just want the app, you can get it here.)
How do you start making an app?
Zack Sears: We would lock ourselves in a room with a whiteboard. The primary problem we wanted to solve was how you navigate from a list of projects into a specific project, to other projects, and then making that flow work. The iPad is such an interesting device in terms of how you open or close things with pinching, dragging, and swiping — we really wanted to think through all the different ways of navigating through. Once we solved that we went into mockup phase. I started working through different concepts of vertically scrolling through projects, horizontally scrolling through projects — what do we think the transition is going to be when you're going from a project within a list to a project page, and then into the next project, and then how do we close that? Is there a visible close button? Or is there some cue to be able to drag it and close it or pinch or something like that?
Brandon Williams: We just wanted to visualize it so I wouldn’t be coding blindly. Then I would experiment a lot — I had things like a white screen with samples of project cards, showing what the transitions would be for blowing them up and shrinking them back down. It was a lot of coding. We did so many versions, and the one we settled on was having this entire vertical world spectrum of categories, and within each of those, sideswiping between projects. It had all been converging on that, but we went all over the place along the way.
The entire app, the code, it opens up with splitting: “Am I on the iPhone or on the iPad?” And then along the way there’s more and more code saying "if iPad, if not iPad." That’s the route we went because we were like, we’re just going to do the iPad.
Why an iPad app?
BW: After we launched the iPhone app, it just made sense to have an iPad app too. Zack, back in the day, worked on something that was internally known as “Lean Back,” and became publicly known as video mode, which is what should have been on an iPad. No one wants to do an intensive video discovery on their desktop computer.
ZS: The idea was to be able to, quite literally, "lean back," and browse Kickstarter projects based on their videos. We built the feature but the technology wasn’t right — it really was an experience intended for the iPad. The iPad is the perfect device for that. It’s geared toward casual discovery.
BW: And the entire point of the app was to focus on discovery.
ZS: I think a lot of our power users — people come to Kickstarter to find out about new cool stuff — are not necessarily looking for a specific thing they want to back. It’s more like, "I just want to see all this cool stuff that people are making." Really embracing the idea of being able to get a cross section of this creative universe.
BW: That’s also a relatively recent user pattern — for people to just casually browse. Historically, so much of our traffic has been someone going straight to a project because a friend shared a link. But we've reached a point where people are going to come to Kickstarter without knowing about a project, just wanting to explore.
Is that something you've already noticed happening?
BW: Yeah. We were surfacing that data and seeing more and more repeat backers.
ZS: We’ve reached a certain level of maturity where people are comfortable enough with the platform that they’re coming back and looking for stuff.
BW: No one is downloading the iPhone app who only ever backed a single project. It’s going to be people who are repeat backers and just want to be in this mode of browsing. If you just backed a single project, you'd use the website. So we could also use the app as a playground for experimenting with our brand, where it would typically be a bit more scary to do that on the site.
Do you have an example of that experimentation?
ZS: The way we revamped Discover — the pages for finding projects — last summer on the actual website was very much inspired by what we had done already on the iPad. We had this back and forth where we got inspired by using the iPad as a testing ground and solved a lot of things. Then we actually brought it to the website, and solved all the other things that weren’t quite finished yet.
What was your vision for the app?
ZS: If you download the app, you probably already know what Kickstarter is. That's a huge hurdle that's already been solved. So the things that motivated me were, first, the opportunity to make a really nice, optimized experience on this device — but second, I think the most important part was creating something that really caters to our hardcore, passionate users.
BW: When I first started working here, Kickstarter wasn’t really looking for an iOS developer. It’s a web company — the conversation was, "does Kickstarter even need an app?" I grappled with that for a long time. It really is serving some of our core, most vocal people. We aren’t trying to push everyone into this app. If you downloaded it, you get it.
Can you talk a bit about how you started working on the iPad app and revamping the iPhone app that already existed?
BW: It wasn’t part of the original scope. Zack and I were working all day in a conference room. I had the iPad and the iPhone hooked up to my computer. You can install the app straight from your computer as a test. I accidentally installed the iPad app on my iPhone, and it was all gigantic and didn’t make sense, but there was enough there that it could totally work. The project cards were the size of the phone, but you could scroll through them sideways and flip through categories.
ZS: Even tapping and pulling it closed and stuff like that — we were like, this could totally work.
BW: We saw it and couldn’t un-see it, so we worked on it in secret just as a side project, spending a couple hours on it, getting it more into shape and as we worked on new designs for things we hadn’t nailed down.
ZS: We went rogue and did it silently because, honestly, we wanted to make sure we could actually do it before we promised anything. This is a huge win, technically, because we now have a universal app with a shared code base. It’s also a win for us in terms of creating a nice, unified experience across phone, tablet, and desktop.
BW: Pulling up a category page, seeing a splash of color, you can tell that all these things were influenced by each other, and it’s the first time we’ve had that ever.
As you were working on the iPad app, did it change the way you thought about looking at the site on a desktop computer?
ZS: I think it has informed a lot of future direction for the project page. We recently rolled out a revamp of the project page, and I think there are hints of this new stuff, but we’re going to do it a little more incrementally on the site. It’s almost entirely changed the way we think about the Discovery section of the site and what we care about putting front and center — how we present categories, how we present the primary ways of slicing and dicing the projects.
Can you give some examples?
ZS: Right now, if you go to a category page, the category name is front and center and all the sub-categories are below that. The content you want will be grouped together. We’re basically pulling out of the advanced filter and putting that front and center, so it’ll be category sorted. That’s something that we found just by looking at the data around the new Discovery experience. That’s what people are doing nine out of ten times.
BW: And the project cards are precious.
ZS: They’re representations of people’s projects, and we don’t want to clutter that view with 50 things to look at. This is very much about making sure that we’re not putting too many things in front of you at once. We left everything on the table forever, but we decided on certain interaction patterns early on — this idea of swiping horizontally through projects, whether that’s in discover view or once you actually open up a project. We thought, this is the way it has to be. We knew that was right. Everything had to fit around it.