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Meet the Devs - Appulse

In this week's developer interview, we'll be talking to Derek Smith of Appulse who has learned develop almost entirely by trial and error.

Published onDecember 2, 2014

Derek Smith developer interview
Welcome back to our Meet the Devs segment! In this piece we take a little time to get to know the people who really make Android what it is today and that is the app developers. In this week’s developer interview, we are talking to Derek Smith from Appulse.

Name: Derek Smith

Developer Name: Appulse (or you can just call me Derek)

Country: Canada

Google+ Profile/Page: Official G+

How many people on your team? 1

developer interview - Flow

About your company?

I don’t have a company it’s just me. However I do work with the amazingly talented people at Flow in Victoria B.C. where I lead development and interaction design for the Flow Android app.

What level of experience do you have with coding and development?

I’ve been building apps for Android around 4 years, and have build around 20 apps in that time, most just for learning that were never released. The apps I’ve built have crossed the spectrum pretty broadly which has allowed me to understand and be able to build out back end infrastructure, but also to appreciate and understand the huge importance of the front end interface which really defines an app.

What languages do you know? How and where did you learn them?

I know JAVA and XML with a lil pinch of HTML and CSS on the side. Everything I know about coding is from trial and error honestly, it’s just been a massive amount of Googling, in-fact I’ve prefaced my Google searches with “Android” so many times that I frequently accidentally add it in searches that have nothing to do with it like “Android how to change a bike tire”. As far as resources go I frequent Stack Overflow and when I was learning adapters for listViews. Android Begin is an amazing resource.

What level of experience do you have with design?

In the beginning when I was building my first 4 or so apps I didn’t really know that I was designing, in-fact I barely followed the design guidelines, when I clued into the importance of design It really changed the game for me because I realized there was an actual person on the other side encountering this thing I made that was displayed on their screen.

I’ve worked and currently work with with talented graphic designers, and I’m definitely not good enough to be considered one of them. Instead my design strength is in designing the layout of the interface itself and the way it interacts with a user when they navigate from screen to screen, poke, tap, swipe, and indulge in the information presented. The design styles I most admire are the constrained ones, the ones where they really thought about why something is there and why it behaves the way it does in that particular context, an example of this would be the old version of Circa news, instead of normal scrolling they opted to have the design snap content to present you with a piece of information perfectly on your screen when you scrolled — this level of detail is what I strive for in my designs. Someone way smarter than me once said “the design isn’t in the details, the design is the details” and I thoroughly believe this to be the case for mobile apps.

I try to let the user know they’re being listened too, for example animating the element beneath their finger can drastically aide in the simplicity of the interface, for this reason interactivity has been a big focus of mine for a while now. Interactivity in conjunction with well timed navigation animation is where I’m focused right now, and I think that focus will be here to stay for a while.

The O.G. in transitions is definitely the novel, like the actual paper book. Reason being; novels have chapters, I’ve never seen a novel where the chapters are divided only by a thin black line without names or numbers. If they just had a line you’d probably get lost, chapters are meant to be checkpoints. Novels instead of thin black lines usually have a full blank page, followed by a big title, chapter number, and maybe even an introductory paragraph, these are all design decisions that get you mentally prepared for the next part of the story. I believe in interfaces we should aim for the same goal novels have when changing chapters which is to continue the story in a way that the reader (user) knows exactly where they’ve come from, and why they’ve come.

What apps have you made?

Lot’s, notably:

Flow Team Tasks
Beat Box
Simple Dictionary (open sourced)
LED Flashlight + (open sourced)
– Tradely (was a failed attempt at a trading network similar to craigslist)
Nanaimo Bus (first app)

How do you monetize your apps?

Ads suck and people hate them, instead I like the “lite version / paid” model.

Do you consider yourself successful?

Yes, It’s been amazing so far I consider myself incredibly lucky to work with the people that I do, from the start I’ve never wanted to be the smartest person in the room — if I was I wouldn’t learn much, so as long as I’m always learning new things, working with the best people I know, and not living in the streets I’d consider that success.

How difficult is it to make money as a developer?

You really need to hit a niche hard with an indie app to make any money, so I’d say that as far as one-hit wonder app’s go it’s difficult. Obviously though there’s a huge variety in the Play Store now with all different kinds of business models, It really depends on what your market is, and what value you provide.

As far as careers go, there really aren’t enough adept Android developers out there to fill all the spots, my point being that it’s a great time to consider focusing entirely on Android development and developing a deep understanding of the SDK. Get good and prove it, then you’re immediately in a hireable position.

What can Android do to improve?

Android L is a great step forward, I’ve been running the preview for a while, I think the focus on design now is increasing and the more that aspect gets attention the better Android will become. However there’s always the the problem of manufacturers *cough* SAMSUNG *cough* completely ignoring design best practices and creating bloated, overwhelming, pixel barf like TouchWiz. The problem I have with TouchWiz in particular is that it’s majorly bad and confusing, which is heightened by the fact that Samsung is so popular which in turn makes lots of people think Android is TouchWiz thus creating a bad brand image for Android as an overall system. I’d love if Google stepped up and enforced design guidelines more heavily on third party manufacturers, this doesn’t mean any draconian “all hail Google the design overlords” system, it would just be keeping the essential things standard across devices A.K.A. the main things like navigation and the settings app.

Why did you choose Android? Do you develop for other platforms? What are the differences between them?

iOS cost $100 a year and I needed a Mac, they also have a strict review process which can make it take weeks to publish your app. Android was much more inviting and I saw a greater opportunity with it early on due to it’s sheer market share and the amount of development resources out there. This isn’t bashing iOS in any way I think there’s definitely a level of quality that Apple maintains with it’s policies — just for someone like me when I was starting out it was putting too many barriers in the way.

Google is also taking strides with Studio and the Gradle build system, I’ve built a few apps using it now and it’s clearly working to provide above and beyond an X-Code level IDE for Android. So from an IDE standpoint, currently you’ve got about an even match so wether you choose Android or iOS to develop for is a personal decision based on your preferences.

What are your thoughts on iOS and Windows 8?

They’re alright ;)

Nanaimo Bus screenshot for developer interview

What do you think of the Android design guidelines?

The ICS holo design guidelines were great, I also really like the ADIA series put out by Google Developers if you haven’t watched them yet they’re definitely worth it. You can watch it here.

Holo’s great because it’s Content > Everything else, it sheds the superfluous elements focusing almost clinically on the elements on the page, this design language also resizes really well, and it never really looks that bad. The design team got a lot right with the holo guidelines and as you can see they’ve essentially upgraded the same elements for Material Design.

Material Design to me is what happens when you’ve designed the worlds most used operating system, the fact that they can even focus on the details here while designing for literally billions of people is amazing to me, and stands out as the single most impressive feature of the entire project. I think a lot about just how many different configurations it works on and why it works on them, I’ve come to realize it’s great because it doesn’t lie to you. It’s an honest interface, it casts shadows based on height, touches resonate and fade in and out, there’s no jarring 3d flips or extremely saturated blurring, the paper and ink follow a set of laws — it’s based on things people know at a deep level and assume should work, the whole thing is just a very smart beautiful way to design a set of signifiers for interaction similar to how 4.0 build out UP navigation as a system wide “thing” that people new.

simple dictionary developer interview

What are your favorite apps?

  • Like I mentioned earlier I loved Circa News until the latest update, the new version is fine it’s just less good that the last one because they dropped my favorite feature which was the segmented scrolling, and the design is much sloppier in certain spots now. The content still holds up though and is probably still the best news app you can get.
  • True skate to me is the best game on Android hands down, it’s physics are on point. The only thing I find lacking is it’s menu structure, there’s too many levels and I think it could definitely use a re-think. I’ve probably spent a good $10 on True Skate so far and it’s been completely worth it.
  • Dropbox has the best share intent screen of any app, it’s share screen really is something to take notes on for any share screens in the future you might design or build.
  • I’m into VSCO Cam, it barely follows the design guidelines but in it’s particular case I don’t really care much because it works nicely in it’s own visual language, and isn’t too far from the standards. There’s also a lot of nice little details built into the UI when editing and exporting a photo it’s definitely a user sequence to check out.
  • The old ICS/4.4 photo gallery – at-least in L there isn’t one built in. The reason I like the old version so much was it’s multi selection methods, luckily there’s a few nice clones on the play store to use. They really had the navigation right in that app, it’s a shame they dropped it.
  • The new Chrome app is really nice, and has a great set of gestural interactions that make using it a breeze, also note the subtle animation in the overflow menu, super clean.

I could probably go on for days talking about apps here, so I’ll stop.

What has been your experience been like working with Google?

Ah Google, “it’s complicated” as Facebook would say. The developer relations side is nice and they do a good job explaining and teaching best practices. As far as the Developer Console goes it’s a very powerful, sometimes underrated tool, that provides a lot of valuable insights into how your apps are performing — of course it could be improved more though.

The complicated part for me is the horror stories I’ve read about peoples developer accounts being outright terminated with no chance of revival, this is much more common with AdMob as well, that’s the side of Google you don’t want to deal with, good luck contacting customer support or speaking with a real person once you’re in that position. For me that’s a big part of the organization that needs improvement

What does the future of development look like?

One thing I’d bet on is that there’s going to be a lot more service apps, a working example of this now is the new Foursquare, you don’t need to actively open it to actually use it, instead it’s context aware to the point where it just gives you tips when you’re near somewhere that might be interesting, this looks like just the beginning of a new genre of app which can almost function without any graphical interface.

Apps that work in the background like this translate perfectly to wearables, wether that be a watch or a pair of glasses. Just like how sound was the most important interface for touch tone phones, context will absolutely be an important factor for wearable devices we might even start seeing UX designers turn their way of thinking toward more context oriented approaches, dare I say User Context Designer’s might be a thing in the next year or two.

Context is important right now, it’s kind of what notifications are, little moment portals that shoot you into some content that’s called for your attention, I see lot’s of apps taking advantage of this now, and with wear integration it can only become more important as time goes on.

What tips do you have for aspiring developers?

Just build lots of apps there’s no shortcuts to learning, if you’re thinking about an app idea just build a mockup then dive in.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Lot’s of thanks to Metalab and Flow for being awesome, as well as all the people who’ve influenced me the past couple years.

Shout-outs to my parents, you da real MVP’s.

Developer interview wrap up

We want to thank Derek for chatting with us in this week’s developer interview! If you’re a developer and this looks like something you’d like to do, check out our Meet the Devs form! We look forward to hearing from you.