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The opportunity to spend two weeks with a company that is changing the face of app development has been an amazing experience. I couldn’t have picked a more creative, inspiring and enthusiastic group of people to learn from. Or more patient – I spent two weeks observing, gatecrashing meetings and asking endless questions. Since its inception, Touchpress has remained at the forefront of what’s possible in app design and trying to develop and nurture this new form of media. In a market flooded with low quality products, apps created by Touchpress stand out by a mile. They combine in-depth research with compelling stories, wonderful illustrations, videos, animations and games, all seamlessly integrated into beautiful and intuitive designs.

During my short stint in the app world, I have tried to get my head around the process of app development. I had hoped to be able to come up with a linear model, mirroring the traditional publishing workflow. Alas, app development has turned out to be a far more complex, nonlinear and iterative process that combines writing, movie making, music, photography and software development. So where do you start?

Background research

Lots of background research needs to happen before the actual work on an app starts. For an app to be successful, it needs to solve a specific problem or need that the potential customers are struggling with. Not all content is suitable for an app, and making sure that the app is the right medium for what it is trying to achieve is very important. As is making a decision as to which interactive or visual elements should be included.

Apart from having a clear purpose, the app needs a clearly defined audience and a good commercial strategy. It is critical to do in-depth market research to identify gaps and place the app well so that it has the best potential to be successful in a crowded marketplace.

Proposal

Background research forms the basis of a proposal, which draws together an overview of the project, specifications, cost, schedule and a set of broadly sketched ideas. It is an important document, especially when other partners are involved in the production. While there are app developers/publishers who publish their own content (such as Nosy Crow, a children’s publisher of books and apps), a lot of the apps published by Touchpress have been done in collaboration with a traditional publisher or other content provider. At times other stakeholders have been also involved in the process, depending on the complexity and requirements of specific projects (such as in the case of Shakespeare’s Sonnets which were published in collaboration with Faber and Faber, The Arden Shakespeare and Illuminations or The Orchestra done in partnership with the Music Sales Group, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra). Collaboration ensures that the projects benefit from the expertise of each of the partners. While they all contribute to the scope of the project, Touchpress retains responsibility for the overall creative vision and execution.

Vision

Once the purpose of the app is defined, creating a vision for the app is a crucial step in the development, and the most difficult to pin down. How do you come up with new ideas? How do you break away from print and make the most of the capacity of the digital devices? How do you choose what type of interactivity to include? This is where creativity and technology combine forces to create the magic of good app design. The process of brainstorming is a team effort, involving partners, producers, artists, graphic designers and software engineers. Everyone brings their own expertise to the table, providing ideas on how to present the content in the best way and make things work.

While the ‘wow’ factor is very important, the app needs to be innovative and useful at the same time. It needs to be easy to navigate, and provide a tactile and interactive experience. It needs to make use of the potential of digital technologies, without being alienating to users. It also needs to be limited to specific features, otherwise the project will go forever, the file will be too big and the budget will blow out. In contrast to book publishing, there are no set conventions about what an app should do, what type of navigation it should have or even what should be included on the home page. This is very liberating but at the same time very dangerous. As with any project, creative or not, constraints are important. Good design should be simple, purposeful and invisible, and done on time and on budget, or as close to it as possible.

Design

Once the scope and the vision for the project are clear, it is time for defining the look and feel of the app. But there is more to app design than just the visual aspect. The design structure and interactions are arguably as important, if not more. All of these elements result from a close collaboration among graphic designers and software engineers. As John Cromie, Chief Technology Officer at Touchpress says, early design ideas can be quite loose as defining everything too soon suffocates creativity. As work progresses, the design gets tightened and the final look and the feel of the app take shape. All aspects of the app design have to work together toward a common goal – communicate the purpose of the app in a clear, intuitive and convincing way.

A script with detailed outlines, which looks uncannily like a script for a video production, serves as a blueprint for development. It becomes the basis for the visual prototype, which can involve sketching scenes and storyboards. This is done first on paper. Next the ideas are rendered in Photoshop and Illustrator, and then mocked up using Keynote and its animation features to see how everything sits together, to understand any technical challenges and to check the user interaction design. Software engineers may come up with a coded version of key features if the app is experimenting with new interactive elements. This approach reminds me of the design thinking process with its visual ideation stage and early prototyping to test whether the product will actually work.

Not surprisingly, the design of the home page is one of the most important elements and a consensus can be quite difficult to reach. As with book cover design, a lot is at stake in a very limited space. It is not only about the visual aspect, but also about navigation, usability and information design. The design of the app icon is another contentious issue. The essence of an app and the branding of the publisher need to be communicated within 76x76 pixels!

Asset production

While all the creative thinking and idea generation are happening, the production of assets gets underway. Depending on the type of interactivity and complexity of the design, a typical app requires various assets such as images, audio and video recordings, rotations, animations, etc. Some of these can be sourced from existing archival materials but more often than not they need to be produced specifically for the app. All of them need to be manipulated so that they are in the right format for the app. While some of the production can happen concurrently with the coding phase, at least some of the assets need to be ready when the software development starts. And of course, this is the time when the text is finalised as well. It could be text of a book, a poem, notes, dialogues, scientific descriptions, commentary, etc.

Software development

The app development at Touchpress is far more creative, organic and iterative than is the industry norm. Every project is seen as a challenge to do something innovative and surprising, and as new ways of doing things are discovered in the development process, they are incorporated into the final design.

Software engineers are involved from the early stages of the design, but of course this is the stage when they play the most important role. They understand the vision for the app and what it is trying to do, and translate this vision into software. Software development is more complex and labor-intensive than I have thought. It is an iterative process that requires ongoing testing and it happens over several stages, which are called alpha, beta and release candidate. In the alpha version, key features of the app are coded but not all the content is complete. It is an opportunity to see how things work and identify any issues in the design before too much effort has been invested. In the beta version, the app is fully coded with all content, but it can be buggy. This is when the real fun starts with in-depth testing and quality assurance. These steps involve making sure that the app does what it sets out to do and complies with general iOS expectations and conventions. Apart from checking content (including old-fashioned proofreading), the app is also trialed on various devices in order to discover any issues before it can attain a release candidate status.

Submission and release

The release of an app is somewhat more complex than is the case of books, at least in the case of apps for iOS devices. The release candidate is submitted to iTunes Connect, where it undergoes a review process, before it is approved and released for distribution on the iTunes App Store.

While the review is underway, all the metadata, a video preview, screenshots and descriptions need to be taken care of, and these comprise the most important sale tools for apps. The customers search for apps in the iTunes App Store, so the accuracy of keywords is of utmost importance, as is the case with ebook distribution and online book sales in general.

Similarly to print and ebooks, a lot of marketing and PR happens outside the iTunes App Store – via the website, newsletters, video promotion, social media and reviews. But marketing aside, as John Ozimek said in The Guardian, ‘the biggest factor in driving sales of an app is not media coverage or even Apple promotions, but word of mouth’. Interestingly, there are some similarities in the lifecycle between apps and books: both formats start as frontlist titles and move onto the publisher’s backlist over time. The main difference is that the apps require ongoing input from publishers.

Ongoing support

Once released, print books, or even ebooks, don’t require much support beyond marketing and distribution. In contrast, apps demand ongoing technical maintenance. With new devices and updates of the operating system continuously being released, there is a need to support several versions of the same app for various versions of software and hardware. This creates a whole set of challenges, which are multiplied when apps are released in numerous languages. Every update, apart from engineering work, needs a review of metadata and marketing information in the App Store.

Epilogue

Knowing how much work, care and attention to detail goes into the app development has made me appreciate Touchpress apps even more. I have had the chance to get some hands-on editing experience on an app that it currently in production and due for release in early December 2014. It is amazing!! That’s all I can say at this stage. And I can’t wait to see the final version.

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