The process behind designing a product is all about understanding the goals, the audience and what it's intended to do. It doesn't matter if it's a chair or a mobile app, the process is very similar, what changes are the tools and materials. For mobile apps, one of the most difficult parts of the process is to prototype with a high level of fidelity in quick turn arounds so we could test on the devices. The past year we saw an insurgence of great tools like Framer, Origami, Pixate, Invision and many others. Today, we share a great interview with the folks behind Fuse, a tool that will help us to design and develop beautiful, smoothly animated native apps for iOS and Android.
Fuse is a development tool combined with a rich set of libraries that help both developers and designers build better apps.
Tell me about yourself.
First and foremost, I’m a programmer and self-proclaimed problem solver. I’ve been programming since my early teens and I’ve always been interested in real-time graphics, in the form of games, demos, graphics hardware and anything in-between. In addition to all the pretty pixels I’m deeply fascinated by the complex problems you have to solve if you want to get the most out of whichever platform you are working on. Not just the technical challenges but also understanding the entire process involved in creating something great.
My background is from the demoscene, a somewhat underground digital art community that originated back in the early 80s. It started out with young programmers trying to best each other in pushing the boundaries of their home computers but has evolved into a more free-form community of digital creatives who create amazing stuff for kicks.
Out in the real world I’ve worked on creating software and demos for all sorts of devices and also helped build graphics processors that ended up in hundreds of millions of phones.
A few years back I co-founded Fuse, a Norwegian design and development tools startup, to make it easier for everyone to build awesome apps.
What’s Fuse, anyway, and why should designers care?
Fuse is an app development tool suite that lets developers and designers work better together. It’s bridges the gap between static designs and fully working native apps on iOS and Android. It’ll enable designers to work directly on the actual app in much the same way as they do on prototypes and mockups today.
It also makes it easy for developers to create things that can be immediately customized by the designer, without going through awkward iterations of telling the programmer “three pixels to the left, please”.
What makes Fuse truly unique is that all this power and flexibility is available both through pure code in a powerful dialect of C#, as well as an artist-friendly abstraction layer that compiles down to the same source code. No compromises, just great workflow.
The project started because we as developers wanted to remove some of the tedious plumbing work and repetition involved in creating interactive experiences that ran well on mobile phones. At first we focused on the programming side, building abstractions that make it easier for any developer to do things that have usually been reserved for game development specialists.
However, we soon realized that the real problem was at a higher level: How could designers get the same level of control over the final application as the programmers, on their own terms? Since then we’ve been developing tools and frameworks to allow the two groups to work closer together and simplify the entire app development process.
What should designers consider when creating a mobile app?
User experience first. While many designers are already great at this it’s always worth repeating. Nothing should ever get in the way of the app’s purpose and how that is communicated to the user.
That said; this is obviously not the same as making boring apps. With mobile devices today having so much power I often feel that we’re missing out on some great opportunities for taking user communication to the next level. Designers should definitely consider how they can use more of this potential to make their work really stand out in the crowd. After all, if all apps conform strictly to the same guidelines.. which ones will be remembered?
I’m not necessarily talking about making stuff that looks like it came out of the TRON movies (although you could if you would) but about using motion and visual effects in meaningful ways.
On the slightly more mundane side there’s responsiveness and making designs that work on a range of different devices and form factors. Android has been extremely fragmented more or less since day one and now that iOS also supports several different screens there’s no denying that designers have to master this in order to reach as many users as possible.
Who are some app and demo scene designers who inspire you and your team?
Starting on the app side, there’s obviously a lot of talent out there, and sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint who actually worked on the apps you like. Favourites around the office are people and studios like Marcus Eckert, Creative Dash, ustwo and of course Tommy Borgen and the team at Uppercase who have actually contributed to the design and direction of Fuse.
To be honest, I’m often more inspired by prototypes and concepts than anything I find in the app stores, because they can take things further and offer a peek into the future and to what ideas can become reality soon.
As for the demo scene I’m actually fortunate enough to be working together with a lot of people who do extremely exciting things in their spare time. The guys in Excess, Dead Roman, Spaceballs and Elix / Youth Uprising are all on the same floor as me in the office.
But what’s just as inspiring as the work done in the demo scene is what some of the same people are doing outside of it. An obvious example is the game industry where almost any studio you can mention is either founded or strongly powered by people from the scene. Rovio, Remedy, DICE, Supercell, Grand Cru - we could go on forever.
Speaking as a programmer, are there code-related issues designers often miss?
The key thing is how well the design matches the capabilities of the development tools and the target device. Something that seems trivial at the design stage may be extremely time-consuming, or even impossible, to implement in the actual app.
The only real way to fix this, without the designers having to become programmers themselves, is through close collaboration with the developers and by getting their ideas into code so that they can be tested and tuned as quickly as possible.
This also raises the issue of communication between the two skill groups: it’s crucial to get past the point of designers asking for “a softer bounce” and the programmer answering “which dampening factor?”.
If we find better ways of communicating ideas between people who usually think and work very differently it will greatly benefit the things we build together.
Another issue I’ve often seen is what I call “the danger of real data”, which is when something that looks great at the design stage falls apart when it’s hooked up to real-world data instead of mock content.
Typical examples would be apps that display text from external sources and suddenly come across unexpected text formatting (like long names), or beautiful maps that weren’t designed for the very real case when all your highlighted points of interest are clumped together in one spot, or when you’re making a music player app and the cover images from music backend API for some strange reason aren’t as beautiful as the ones you hand-picked from Google when you designed it. Shocking stuff, I know, but you’d be surprised how often this happens.
Again, the way to deal with this is to find a way, and sometimes the guts, to test your ideas in the real world as soon as possible.
What current trends are you noticing in mobile design?
We have evolved tremendously over the last 10 years. From overly rendered icons to strictly flat designs to “2.5d” and shadows and anything in between. I like where we’re at now, where something can be clean but still a bit more playful and spiced up. I don’t think this is just caused by a change in tastes and trends though, but also due to the maturing of apps design in general.
Of course, many people still tend to jump on the latest bandwagon just for the sake of “Oh! Shiny!” (parallax on the web anyone?) but there’s a lot more willingness to experiment and try to carve out something unique with fine detail and personal touches.
Another of the driving forces behind all of this is probably the users; they simply expect a lot more from their apps nowadays.
How will the world of mobile app design change in the next 2-3 years?
As I see it, there are three main points here:
- Apps will to a much larger degree define the personality of organizations and products, even in the cases where the app itself is not the product. While this is already happening to some extent there will be a shift to the point where the apps are the public face of what an organization does, more than just one of many equally important pieces in an overall brand. This’ll obviously means that designers will play an even bigger role in the app creation process than today.
- The internet of things will drive user interface innovation, also on the devices we already use today. New use cases and products spawned from the IoT revolution will require entirely new ways of presenting and interacting with data in order to be successful. While there already exists hardware and software that can implement sci-fi-style scenarios like fully automated homes and seamless integration between all your smart devices no one has yet come up with user interfaces that makes all of this intuitive and easy to control for most people! (e.g. all those people who didn’t actually build the systems).
- A new generation of tools that are not just “nice to have” but actually crucial. User expectations will continue to rise at an even higher pace than today, and while mobile hardware technology will increase at a more evolutionary rate than the phenomenal jumps we’ve seen in the last 5-7 years it’s still very much improving. Unless anything else changes this means that the investment needed to create apps that stand out from the rest may become back-breaking.
The obvious remedy here (just as it has been in the game industry) is the creation of new and much better tools, allowing designers and developers to spend their time solely on building the products they want to instead of “fighting with the platform”.
What's next for you and Fuse?
We’ll begin to open up the beta program very soon and that’s the number one thing on everyone’s mind back in the office right now. There’s been a huge amount of interest so far and it definitely seems like we’re on to something that people want. Not just the cross-platform support but a massively improved workflow and a chance to create apps that really stand out.
That said, we have ambitious plans for Fuse and the beta is really only the beginning. Fuse has been built bottom-up in order to be extremely extensible and we’re really going to take advantage of that. We are building higher-level WYSIWYG tools on top of what we already have today and there’s a lot of new features planned for both developers and designers. Some are already in development but ultimately it’s the feedback from beta users that will decide what comes first.
We really would like anyone interested in app design and development to sign up for the beta, so please help spread the word!