Ideas worthy of existance

    Andy Kim of Potion Factory

    As a Mac user, I am a huge fan of using applications that can provide an excellent user experience. Despite its size, the “impossibly small” Potion Factory has been responsible for several examples of, what I consider, excellence in application UX. Luckily for us, the developer Andy Kim, has taken time out of his schedule to talk about his work with us. Please enjoy.

    Joshua Mormann | vonCreedy.com: Your blog at the Potion Factory website, goes as far back as September 15th, 2005, however I believe you go back before your blog a ways. When did Potion Factory open its doors for application development? Can you explain a little about your background leading up to starting Potion Factory?

    Andy Kim | Potion Factory: Gosh, this seems like ancient history now, but I was working odd jobs here and there after quitting my dot com job. I have a B.A. in Computer Science, but I wasn’t doing software for a few years back then, at least not seriously. My sister was studying graphic design at the time and I was intrigued by her shiny aluminum PowerBook. It had a whopping 1 GHz G4 processor and a 17 inch screen. A truly magnificent piece of hardware at the time. It was the first 17″ laptop ever made. During her winter break, I convinced her to switch with my HP laptop for a month. She never got that PowerBook back.

    Andy: After trying out Mac OS X for 2 weeks, I was pretty convinced that I wanted to make software for it. It had all the things going for it. It was easy to use in a way that Windows and Linux couldn't dream of. Not only that, it had this aura of elegance which is quite rare in an operating system. It seemingly achieved the impossible: it attracted both the techies and novices. I wanted to get in on the ground floor before it exploded onto the market as I thought it deserved to.

    I convinced my friend Jin Kim to join me because he was on the fence about quitting his job anyway. I think my speech with the bold prediction of Mac OS X achieving 50% market share within 10 years pushed him over the edge. He bought a Mac Mini the next week and we set off to write code in a garage. This was April of 2005. We both had lots of software experience, but it was our first time doing anything on the Mac or writing Objective-C code. There was definitely a lot of learning involved at first. We first worked on what would later become Tangerine, but our debut product was Podcast Maker in September of 2005.

    I still remember the euphoria I felt when we sold that first copy of Podcast Maker. I think we were jumping up and down non-stop for about an hour. The thought that we could make this work, that we could work on stuff that we wanted to and get paid directly by our users was a welcome awakening.

    vonC: Every time I’ve ever contacted Potion Factory for support, I’ve always been pleased to be communicating directly with you. How many were on your team in the beginning? How many of you are there now?

    Andy: There were two of us in the beginning, but since 2007, it's been just me for the most part.

    vonC: Your apps all are extremely well thought out, from the purposes they are designed to serve, to the usability, to the GUI design, down to the application icon. Can you explain some of your design and development process? Who designs your app icons?

    Andy: It's a process of constant iteration and experimentation. This was especially true for The Hit List. I do start with an overall vision and a priority list of what the important elements are in the app. From there I work out what needs to be placed prominently on the screen and what can be hidden away for the power users. I usually have to make a prototype and live with it for a while to see what works and what doesn't. Then I go back and tweak it up in small ways, but sometimes I have to abandon big concepts that just don't work. You really have to be ruthless at cutting out stuff that don't work.

    You'll see what I mean if you look at the demo movie I made of an early prototype of The Hit List back in 2007. It's similar to the current version in a lot of ways, yet very different. A lot of the concepts in there were abandoned or morphed into something else because while it looks cool, the usability wasn't there. It was not an easy to learn UI because so much more of it was keyboard driven. I really struggled to make The Hit List radically different at the beginning of the project, but at one point, I had to accept that being different for just difference sake is not better design. Unless it's better by miles and leagues, different can be just a distraction when it comes to user interface design.

    As for the app icons, I designed all of them except for the one for Voice Candy. That one was done by Mischa McLachlan who's a designer at Apple now. I love designing them and working on them, but my skills haven't improved as much as I'd like since I only get to do one every couple of years. When I do work on one, I make sure to give it a lot of love and attention since I consider them to be very important.

    vonC: I want to take a quick break from the questions, and gush a little about The Hit List if I may…

    I switched to The Hit List a couple years ago, shortly after I had sunk some money into Things, and OmniFocus. I didn’t think I needed another task management app. I already owned licenses to two of the most expensive solutions out there. When THL showed up as part of the MacHeist3 bundle in early ’09, I noticed it was from Potion Factory. Having totally loved Podcast Maker years earlier I decided to give The Hit List a shot, just to see how it worked.

    What I noticed right away about THL was that I became immediately more productive at actually executing my tasks, where much of the productivity I had hoped to gain by purchasing the other task management apps, was spent trying to use them effectively.

    I actually found that my experience with THL was so far superior to my experience with the other apps that the ability to sync to my iPhone became nearly unnecessary. THL has been so much easier and faster for me to use, that using another app just for it’s iPhone sync capabilities has actually proven counterproductive for me in the long run.

    THL lets you “single-task” your way through your day at the office, without breaking concentration. In OmniFocus I was constantly asking myself, “Ok, where am I?” With Things I was constantly asking, “why can’t I just nest lists? Should I make this an Area instead of a Project?” Those split seconds of confusion, or dissatisfaction, can derail you repeatedly, at the cost of sometimes hours a day. THL’s nearly flat learning curve, perfectly obvious UX, standard folder-style organization, sub-task flexibility, and extensive power-user key commands, let anyone get productive right away, and reach even greater speeds as they learn it’s nuances. I’m a huge fan.

    There was nothing like it when you released THL, and there is still nothing like it. Some might wonder why the world needs another task management app, but I think now with cloud sync, and the release of the iPhone, people will begin to see the light. I expect to see a massive adoption wave, as users requiring iPhone/iPad sync begin to adopt it, and bring their colleagues along.

    vonC: While still in Beta, THL was nearly perfect as far as I was concerned. Now with cloud sync up and running, and the iPhone version now available at the on the App Store (Got it and Love it, by the way), I believe you have a killer app on your hands. How long was THL in development before it’s Beta release in early 09?

    Andy: Thank you so much. It was around March of 2007 when I began thinking about a task management app, but it was after WWDC 2007 that I really began working on it. That’s because right after WWDC is a great time to decide what to work on when you want ride the next wave of Apple technology.

    Having done a few apps by that point, I was getting pretty comfortable working with Cocoa. Up until then I produced apps that were relatively small in scale. This time I wanted to work on something a bit more meaty. I wanted to create what I could think of as my masterpiece. With such a lofty goal, it’s no wonder that the app took so long to get to 1.0. It was in development for a year and a half before it became available as a public beta. In hindsight, I should have called it a 1.0 right then. But being a stubborn perfectionist and somewhat stupid too, I waited until I had the matching iPhone app and cloud sync ready before I called it a 1.0. The me back in 2009 had no clue whatsoever that a cloud sync service and a Mac and iPhone app that syncs with it invisibly would be so hard to make.

    vonC: Most of Potion Factory’s products seem to be born from needs not being met in other existing software. Do your products start out as personal tools before they are considered for actual product development? And what drives you to be so complete in your app design and polish?

    Andy: Yes, most of our products were started to scratch our own itch or that of a friend. Tangerine, I Love Stars, and The Hit List were developed because I wanted to have them for my own use. Voice Candy was something Jin wanted to make, and Podcast Maker started off as a quick and dirty tool for a friend. There is one other less known app, Five Moku, that I made in order to experience what having an app in the App Store is like.

    I think that for an app to be a product, it needs to meet some minimum requirements if it wants to be taken seriously. I try to meet that minimum and then provide a little somethin' somethin' extra.

    vonC: Why was Podcast Maker sold off to Lemonz Dream back in 07?

    Andy: We never really talked much about the dissolution of the partnership that Potion Factory was originally, so it makes sense that people think that we sold off Podcast Maker to another company. But actually, Lemonz Dream is a venture operated by Jin Kim, my former partner. When we decided to go our separate ways we agreed that he would keep Podcast Maker, our flagship product at the time, but form a new entity to manage and distribute it. I kept the other two apps and the company name.

    vonC: With apps like I love Stars for making it as easy as humanly possible to rate your iTunes songs, and Tangerine for simplifying the building of tempo-based playlists, you must listen to lots of music. Do you listen to music while you work? And if so, what kinds of music do you listen to while hard at work? Any favorite songs/albums you recommend?

    Andy: Yes, I do listen to a lot of music. When I'm working I try to listen to stuff that doesn't have a vocal track because lyrics tend steal your attention. Fortunately, there are a lot of amazing music without any singing in it.

    When I need to think deeply about something I listen to slow and calming music. The album “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis—probably the most well-known Jazz album of all time—works wonders here. There's also a lot of good stuff by McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis, etc.

    When I'm powering through and writing code that I've already planned out, I like listening to upbeat music. A hearty recommendation here is the album “Rodrigo y Gabriela” by the band of the same name. You might want to look them up on Youtube if you haven't heard of them. Also, a “life hack” I discovered a few years ago is that workout music is great for writing code. It not only keeps you energized and pumped up, but you don't keep running into jarring breaks every 4 minutes since they're usually mixed to run continuously. So you tune in, get in focus, then work for about an hour— which is about how long these things are anyway—then when the track ends, you take a break.

    *vonC: *Do you have heros or influences that inspire your creative work? If so, who/what are they?

    *Andy: *My peers in the Mac and iOS developer community. They never stop to amaze me with their creative output. They constantly inspire me to be better at what I do.

    *vonC: *Do you have methods or techniques that you use to push through the tough times? If so, what are they?

    *Andy: *The techniques I use are all reflected in the design of The Hit List. It's quite simple really, it just involves two steps: 1) plan, then 2) do.

    First I plan what I need to do. This is what the outline view of The Hit List is used for. This is when I think about what I really should be working on and in which order. I basically put my boss hat on and write up a very detailed outline that commands my near-future self what to do. What seems like an insurmountable task gets broken down into many small actionable steps. Sub-tasks in THL are great for this. The smaller the better since checking those tasks off are rewarding on their own and because it motivates me to keep going. It's crucial to do this right, so that when I'm working on stuff, I don't constantly doubt whether there's something else more important that I should be working on.

    Then when the planning is done, I roll up my sleeves and just get to work. I try to forget about everything else but the task at hand. I completely trust that the instructions that my past self gave me will get me where I want to go. I'm just mindlessly following orders at this point. When I'm in this mode, I don't look at the outline since knowing what's next will only cloud my mind. So I jump into card mode in The Hit List and use the timer to keep me focused. How long I take to complete a task is actually not that important to me. What's important is to not forget what I'm supposed to be working on since it's so easy to get distracted.

    It's not easy to repeat this cycle every day, but when I do, I find that it's when I'm the most productive.

    vonC: Sagely advice?

    (Always ______.)

    Andy: Always strive for perfection. You have to know and accept that you'll never achieve it, but…

    (Never ______.)

    Andy: Never give up.

    vonC: Timeless advice Andy. Thanks so much for the interview.

    Visitors wanting to learn more about Potion Factory and their excellent apps may visit the following links:

    Share this article on
    Author image
    Written by Joshua Mormann