As a developer, every once in a while you go to find a piece of software to achieve some task or another only to discover it's missing - no one has yet made the thing you wanted. Typically you then resolve "I shall fix that need!", look at your pile of work that you need to do, and then add "...one day". So you add it to a little todo list of apps that you'll one day write.
But that list is important - as at some point you'll either find yourself with a little spare time, or just in need of a little project to work on to allow you to take a break from whatever you're meant to be doing. After a year of hammering on a particular project it can be good to just step away for a short period, do something completely different, and then come back with a fresh outlook and with some new skills and knowledge under your belt.
As I aluded to in my recent blog post, after almost a year of development on PlaceWhisper and still struggling to get it to where I wanted (i.e., to perfection), I started to find myself a little dulled. My enthusiasm wasn't at its peak, and I frankly just needed to step away for a little bit.
At that point I decided it was time to tackle a fresh project, but nothing too big that couldn't be wrapped up and shipped within a month or so. The aim was to learn some new things - there was a pile of cool bits of code I'd wanted to prod, and to force myself to try and design an app that didn't look like a native app but felt like a native app. So I reached for my todo list of apps, and selected one to work on.
And the results is Tickets, a little iPad app for developers that lets you access and manage the issue tracking webservice Lighthouse. Although there's the excellent Lighthouse Keeper for the Mac, and a couple of iPhone apps for accessing Lighthouse, no one had seemed to do one specifically for the iPad, which struck me as strange, as the iPad is a nice format for such a tool. It means your away from computer, so in a different frame of mind from where you might just accidently start coding rather than planning, and it's a better screen size for planning than the iPhone.
The development process was not my usual process, as this was as much an opportunity to learn as it was to build something. I went through a number of UI revisions with different interface libraries that I'd wanted to understand - initially it worked like the Twitter app, before being replaced with the current grid view interface, for example. After trying these new approaches, and having learned how they worked, I focussed on the one that felt most natural.
Visually it was also an experiment to play. I've no delusion that I'll ever be a top notch designer, but to understand how a design works and try and quantify what I like/dislike about designs it is useful to have at least tried myself. So Tickets was a playground for me to experiment at designing and the design process. In the end, after various iterations, it ended up with the ticket based visual motif it has today. The idea of trying to take a single metaphor throughout the app without straining it was the key here. Early designs tried to shoehorn the ticket metaphor into everything, but that didn't work. For instance, the ticket editing dialog originally looked like a ticket that you filled in, but that meant that there was too little space for actual content. It was a nice practical reminder that functionality comes first, and the theme, no matter how unifying, has to come second.
The end result of all this playing was an app that I now use day to day to keep up to date on my projects, and I hope others will find similarly useful. There's more I could add to it, but as I discussed in my recent post on shipping PlaceWhisper, it's important to draw a line at some point and get it out into people's hands. I was pleased to discover the design, which had been largely an experiment for me, received positive feedback from testers (along with some useful suggestions for tweaks too).
And, now with Tickets 1.0 in the app store, and after last week's re-evaluation of the why and what of what we do, I'm back on PlaceWhisper feeling refreshed and excited again, and the todo list goes back into the draw until next time.