Windows 8 design insights from Didlr founder

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Rich Holdsworth has been in mobile for over 14 years, primarily as the CEO of Wapple. We wanted to catch up with Rich about his new project Didlr, an app that lets users draw, doodle, sketch and create art work. Ubelly spoke to Rich about why he always designs for himself and the thinking behind developing an app for Windows 8.

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What's your background and how did it lead to your current role at Didlr?

I've been in the mobile space for nearly 14 years now, as CEO of Wapple creating mobile experiences for huge clients all over the world. Wapple is pretty focussed on professional services and technology but the skills held there are actually much wider so Didlr, as a consumer facing product was both a departure and a return to my roots. Before working in mobile I had been a senior games designer and producer working on video games at companies like Sony Computer Entertainment, Psygnosis, Interplay and US Gold.

How was the initial idea for the Didlr app developed?

On Christmas day last year my daughter received the U-Draw tablet for Xbox. While she was having a great time with it I noticed the obvious disconnect between scrawling blindly on a black piece of plastic and watching the results on the TV screen. Shortly afterwards I figured that just about everyone has a touchscreen phone or tablet nowadays and this was the perfect way to overcome that barrier. At the same time it occurred to me that it would be great to share a drawing created this way as simply as you would share a tweet on Twitter - instantly to all your followers.

I got to work creating a version for Windows phone. I had a little experience on the platform having previously created a simple insult generator application so I knew my way around the SDK. Quickly, I had a version up and running that allowed a user to draw on the screen but nothing could be done with the result - no saving, no sharing. Straight away I found that people would get really upset when they realised that their 'didl' would be lost. That gave me the confidence in the concept so I decided that I would continue to push forward with development.

Of course, this meant all kinds of extra stuff was needed - a server base, account management, API, dev tools and so on. These are pretty big tasks so I got the whole team at Wapple involved. We had to manage Didlr work around our core business activities which presented some challenges. But we did it.

Once the Windows phone version was launched I moved straight over to the Windows 8 development. This was awesome because I was constantly inspired by the way the phone version was received. Converting the code was easy and frankly a joy to take to the new Modern UI of Windows 8.

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What are the objectives of the app and how did you address them in the design and build?

The objectives are fairly simple - draw on screen and share with followers. There are other bits surrounding trends, discovery and ratings but the core itself is straight forward.

I always wanted to keep the design clean and functional. The focus needed to be in the immediacy of the experience so speed and clarity was always paramount.

Our API has always been lightning fast and we're running on a cloud infrastructure that allow not only allows for rapid scale but also on wide distribution of data. Communications code needed to be scalable and transferable across multiple platforms as we also provide clients to other operating systems and platforms like web and Facebook.

What was your inspiration for the design?

The inspiration for the experience was my own desire to make a product that was entirely 'good'. Something that people would want to use because of a joyous experience and positive reinforcement. Didlr is a highly visual application so I wanted to keep text elements to a minimum. That way users would be able to interact without any language barriers.

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What's your process for designing the user experience / journey?

I always design for myself. Honestly, I think that is where all good design begins as long as the designer considers other end users.

Perhaps it's because of my experience designing video games but I have always been able to 'live' the user experience while I am designing it. In video games you have to feel what it is going to be like holding a controller and pressing buttons when you design an experience. I guess it's the same with an application like Didlr.

So all the time, I find myself reflecting on the big picture. What will it be like if we make something bigger on screen, how will that affect how user's consume what is being presented to them, how will this in turn change their perceptions and aspirations? It is a process of constant consideration, invention and reinvention.

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How does the Windows platform allow you to make the most of the user journey?

What I love in the new Modern UI is the way that information can be clearly presented to users without having to clutter the screen. Although it's new right now we are confident that user expectations around horizontal scrolling to discover more, use of the charms bar, pull to select and so on will become second nature before long. This is great when you have a certain depth of information to display but don't want to pack the screen with buttons, text and icons.

The clear hierarchy of data and presentation of data on the Windows platform has not been seen before. The removal of unnecessary chrome is a bold step but beautiful to embrace. Sure, it takes some getting used to both from the designer's point of view and also from the user's but once the initial learning happens it's a fantastic UI.

We are still learning of course. Modern UI is not easy and I don't think anyone has perfected the use of it yet. But this is where we all need to work together to make things better. For example I have been inspired to see how Modern UI has been used in the new Taptiles game. In fact, I think this is the best implementation so far. I've taken it upon myself to evolve our UI to embrace some of the practices and design decisions seen there to improve Didlr.

So that's my weekend filled then - new version will be submitted to the store early next week!

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What's the business model (i.e. free/paid for/subscription/ads in apps) and why did you choose that option?

We're free to the end user and ads-in-apps supported. With an application like Didlr, this is a no-brainer. Right now we're using the Microsoft advertising SDK and we're seeing improvements there with each new release.

That said, our model goes beyond banner advertising and we are structuring deals for brands and businesses to sponsor the featured Didl channel and to use our application infrastructure and API in their own products. So, a car manufacturer may reveal a new vehicle design in a series of didls. A hotel chain may ask their guests to didl their holiday memories and then reproduce them on their website and digital picture frames in their lobbies. A TV talent show may ask users to didl their responses to performances and then show them on screen during live broadcasts. In fact, we suspect there are far more applications for marketing partners to use Didlr than we can imagine right now.

What made you want to build/design a Windows 8 app and bring Didlr to the platform? What appealed to you?

Didlr is cross platform because as a social application it is important that any user has access to the community. But Windows 8 has always been very appealing.

Firstly, I love the way it looks and works and there was a good fit.

But most importantly, Microsoft are going to be shipping a lot of installs, both directly and thrugh OEM partners. It's too big an opportunity to miss and frankly I'm shocked that more of the 'common' applications are biding their time in adopting the platform. Sure, there's a lot of iPads out there but there are so many Windows powered computers sold worldwide every day and that simply means a ton of potential users.

What was your preconception of working with Windows? How did that differ from the actual experience?

I already knew what to expect as we've been in the space for so long. And I was right! The platform is generally well supported but there are a few things missing because Win RT is new. Most people reading this will have hit a wall when they realised that there's no way to render a UI element to a bitmap anymore. Things like this are a pain, but I suspect most are things that will be sorted out soon enough.

What would you say to other developers who might be sitting on the fence as far as Windows 8 development is concerned?

How many Windows PCs do you think were sold in the world today?

What's different about Windows from other platforms you've worked on? (both good and bad)

I love that I was able to transfer most of the codebase from Windows phone to Windows 8. That rocks. I'm now in a similar place going to Windows Phone 8.

Visual Studio is the best IDE in the world. And yes, I've tried the rest having been in development for so long.

But here's the best thing. I have been in close contact with people at all levels of Microsoft. They have advised, solved problems, helped with design, encouraged us and helped us promote. Real people.

When we developed our first app for iPhone last year we couldn't even publish it because our name, Wapple, 'contains an apple trademark'. We couldn't even get to speak to a human being to explain that when Apple sued us over the trademark 'Wapple', we'd won!

What's the appeal of Windows from a business perspective?

Volume. Even the most hardened Apple iClone has to admit that the world runs on Windows.

What were the challenges for you building this app?

Windows 8 is a new platform. It's still evolving and some of the kinks are yet to be worked out. There isn't the wealth of knowledge out there yet to draw upon through searching the web for solutions to problems - because some of the problems have yet to be solved!

Modern UI is still new too and frankly some of the rules for creating the 'perfect' app are a little too strict. This is because the diversity of apps have yet to come to the OS. But I think that as soon as there are more challenges to some of the rules then there will have to be some give.

Don't get me wrong, I like Modern UI and I think that its best to adhere to the conventions, even at the cost of what would seem like an immediate benefit. But I'm just saying that the conventions need constant consideration as the platform evolves.

What support did you get from Microsoft?

If you can imagine a form of support then I promise you that we got it from Microsoft. Without their help then Didlr would not be the product it is today, on any platform. I cannot thank everyone involved enough.

What's next for Didlr?

Well, we've hit release 4 now which has seen refinements, improvements and optimizations. Based on feedback from Microsoft we recently included a new radial control for didling. That's awesome.

A new version went live today which includes new 'Medls' - awards for activities within the application and next week I'll be submitting a version that has more UI refinements in it. We are also in contractual discussions with OEM manufacturers to use some of their hardware differentiators when we're preinstalled on their devices. So once the free samples of those devices arrive I'll be hard at it on support for some pretty exciting things.

We also have more generic new features coming in. Containers, where you can store didls and share privately with other users, attached didls, daily topics, super stars and so on. I'll be busy for a while yet!

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