On June 1, 2010, iLounge updated our iDesign series—a look at the top industrial designers and designs in the iPod and iPhone ecosystems—with a series of six new feature articles and interviews. For the first time, iDesign expanded to look at the work of noteworthy application developers, including Duck Duck Moose, PopCap Games, and Tapbots, while probing the creative, marketing, and engineering talents of leading Apple case developers Incase, Speck Products, and SwitchEasy. Today, we’re rolling out the extended version of the sixth of the interviews we conducted, which has been edited only modestly for style. This iDesign Interview discusses Tapbots, a small but impressive developer of unusually engaging tool applications, designed to convert units, measure your weight, or help you copy and paste files between your computer and an iPhone or iPod touch. Tapbots uses distinctive graphic designs, animations, and sounds to give its apps robot personalities—Weightbot, Convertbot and Pastebot—and thereby sets them apart from numerous functionally similar competitors.
The full iDesign feature on Tapbots can be seen on pages 72-73 of the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5, with excerpts from this interview following on pages 74-75. iLounge interviewed the company’s founders, programmer Paul Haddad and designer Mark Jardine. Enjoy.
(1) How did Tapbots come into existence?
Paul Haddad: Mark and I were working in the web group at Oakley putting in long hours on a particularly rushed project. We’d been reading the various reports of people having huge successes on the App Store and started talking about maybe doing an application. I had been working on—and continue to—losing some weight and wanted a good way to track my progress. I asked Mark what he thought about doing a simple application to track weight just to test the waters. I figured we’d be able to put something together in a couple weeks, well I was wrong, but a few months later we released Weightbot and launched Tapbots.
(2) Tell us about your influences. You both worked at Oakley, which has a reputation for edgy, masculine designs, but the Tapbots site—Mad Scientist, Blogbot, and Nurse especially—shows an obvious appreciation and talent for Japanese design and manga.
Mark Jardine: I’ve been drawing since I was in elementary school. A lot of my influence came from living part of my childhood in Japan and Korea. I never felt confident enough in drawing to pursue it professionally so it’s always been a hobby. Building a brand around Tapbots really gave me the opportunity to hone my drawing skills and have a little fun at the same time. It works great because we are able to create a fun world that our apps live in, without forcing users to acknowledge it. However, this world/art style actually provides a lot of art direction. Having a strong concept to work with keeps us inspired and focused.
(3) You describe your apps accurately as “easy to use, focused, and lots of fun.” Walk us through the creation of Pastebot, which wraps a sophisticated file transfer backend in a cool wrapper.
Jardine: Pastebot was an app that we thought about doing for a while. Paul’s PTH Pasteboard is a very powerful (and useful) app on the Mac. However it’s very much tailored towards power users. I always thought giving it the Tapbots treatment could make it much more popular. We didn’t expect it to be that successful on the iPhone because the idea of managing a clipboard is not something everyone thinks about. We also knew it would be slightly crippled compared to how they work on the desktop without being able to run in the background. Normally we’d drop the app idea because of the risks, but we came up with so many fun ideas that we just had to do it.
Pastebot was a big change for us. Our first two app interfaces were designed specifically for the purpose of that app. Pastebot was our venture into a more common iPhone interface. We agreed that if we went this route, we would put the same amount of work that went into our other apps. That meant completely designing and coding the interface from scratch. Our biggest fear was that some of the fun of using our apps would be lost by being a bit more traditional. So we put a lot of thought into how common gestures and tasks work in other standard iPhone apps and how we could make them more enjoyable.
(4) Most iPhone OS tool developers present users with one or more flat, list-like screens with stock transition effects and few if any audio cues. You use sophisticated screen-splitting, fading, and layering transition animations to give your screens depth, and sound effects to make them feel like miniature computers. How did you come up with the idea to focus so much on the look and feel of your UIs, and how critical were the iPhone OS’s development tools in producing the final results?
Haddad: There are thousands of applications in the App Store. Chances are if you have an idea for an application there’s already something for it available. So to stand out you have to do something different, you can focus on having the most features, the lowest price, the best marketing, hell, sometimes you can just be the luckiest. Our way to stand out is to try to make applications that have a unique and fun look and feel. Mark spends a lot of time thinking about how our applications should work and we spend a lot of time polishing every aspect of the UI so that our apps provide a unique and fun user experience.
The fact that the iPhone SDK is based on Objective C and is very similar to the Mac OS X SDK is a big reason we can be successful. I’ve been working with OS X and NeXTStep before that for pretty close to two decades now so there wasn’t a huge learning curve going to the iPhone OS. We make pretty extensive use of Core Animation and pretty much all the other iPhone OS frameworks. I think it’s pretty safe to say that without all the iPhone tools, our applications wouldn’t be as cool as they are.
(5) Your apps have a common visual theme, but they’re as different from one another in purpose as can be. How do you pick the tools you want to develop, and are you ever concerned that a fan of, say, Pastebot would love your designs and want to buy more, but have no need for something like Weightbot?
Haddad: We have a large list of applications that we want to work on. Towards the end of one development cycle we start talking about what to do next. We go back and forth over a long period of time trying juggling between different ideas before finally picking something. I can’t say we have any particular method other then picking things we think are interesting and that people will buy. I don’t we’re ever too concerned that someone loves one app but has no use for another. We try to create applications that have a very specific purpose and we know that those purposes won’t appeal to everyone. Fortunately there are enough iPhone/iPod users out there that if an app doesn’t appeal to someone it’ll likely appeal to someone else.
(6) Now that you’re both full-time with Tapbots, what’s coming next? Tweetbot? Something specifically for the iPad?
Haddad: There’s probably something coming before Tweetbot, hopefully in the next few weeks. It’ll be a much simpler app than our other ones. We wanted to take a break from Tweetbot and try to do an app that didn’t take 3+ months to complete. Once that’s done we’ll go back to work on Tweetbot.
iLounge: Thank you for your time.
[Editor’s Note: Staff, sketch, and rendered images are courtesy Tapbots. The original iLounge feature article on Tapbots can be found in the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]