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Feature creep, polarization, and passion

by John Casasanta
September 17, 200915 comments

Simplenote

Several weeks ago, I came across a post on Daring Fireball about Simplenote, a fairly bare-bones iPhone note-taking app. Like most of you, I’d been using Apple’s Notes app for taking notes on the iPhone. Notes is a nice app… simple, functional, and stylish (yeah, I know, some people HATE the Marker Felt font used in it but I’m fine with it and it works well within the app’s context, IMO).

But the one area that the Notes app has always been lacking is regarding sync. The first version had absolutely no sync at all. At best, you could email yourself particular notes if you needed them on your computer.

Notes

When iPhone OS 3.0 came out, Apple finally did add sync to the Notes app. Unfortunately, it was a pretty uninspired attempt, from my point of view. The syncing was done within the Mac Mail app. Yup, your notes ended up in your mail reader. WTF.

Apple’s most bloated app ever

I repeatedly have to second-guess Apple’s decisions to slowly turn their once sleek apps into bloated monstrosities. Remember iTunes circa-2000? You know, the sleek app that you played your MP3s (the de-facto standard back then) with. I do.

SoundJam
via SoundOnSound.com

It was actually called SoundJam MP and published by Cassidy & Green then, who’ve since gone out of business. It was my music player of choice back then mainly because it was extremely simple and just did what you wanted it to do.

Apple acquired the app from them and turned it into iTunes. I wasn’t really into the first version of iTunes… the library metaphor didn’t gel with me for a while so I continued to use SoundJam. But after a while, I finally gave in and made the switch.

FWIW, I’m still not completely sold on the library concept… what I mainly don’t like about it is that almost anything that’s played by iTunes becomes part of the library and this sucks if you’re like me and like to sample a lot of music downloaded from the web.

I had to make QuickTime Player the default app for opening most media types to avoid this headache. But the big downside to this is that you can’t play music through AirTunes with it unless you use some hacky 3rd-party software.

Over time, Apple “refined” iTunes into the app that it is today. Now you can do all this and more with it…

  • listen to Internet radio
  • burn audio CDs
  • subscribe and listen to podcasts
  • manage and sync to your portable music player (aka iPod)
  • purchase music
  • purchase audiobooks
  • catalog your movies and videos
  • rent movies
  • purchase movies
  • manage your cell phone (aka iPhone) ringtones, music, photos, podcasts, video, and apps
  • purchase apps for your smartphone
  • manage and sync to your digital media receiver (aka tv)

ÜberTunes
playing, buying, and syncing music, movies, podcasts, radio, photos and managing your portable music player, cell phone, and digital media receiver has never been so simple and straightforward!

I’m dreading to see that the next major iTunes version has tacked-onto it. Predictions anyone?

Not as bloated but getting there

HellaMail options

Not quite the bloatfest that iTunes has become, but I could see it getting there over time is Apple’s Mail app on the Mac.

In addition to being the app you read and write email in (go figure!), you can now also subscribe to RSS feeds, compose notes, and make lists with it. Maybe it’s just me being a curmudgeon, but all these extras just don’t do it for me.

Is there a point to all this?

Yah, hang in there.

So, along with the notes feature in Mail now, you’re able to sync notes. Sync which notes? Your iPhone notes… the ones from the Notes app on the phone.

WTFsync

And this doesn’t cut it for me. For one, it just feels unnatural. But much more importantly, Apple’s idea of “syncing” has typically been pretty crackheaded in my experience. And it’s not just me… I ranted in the MacHeist forums a while back about this exact issue right after I got burned by it.

The general consensus there? Apple’s syncing works for some and not for others. And this is bad. I simply don’t trust it based on all the bad experiences I’ve had with it.

Moreover, Notes syncing is limited to when you’re connected to your computer via USB cable. That’s a huge shortcoming because I hardly ever sync my phone when it’s connected to my computer anymore. It’s too slow and because of this I turned-off auto-syncing a while ago.

By now you probably realize by now that I a) don’t like bloated apps like Mail including notes functionality and b) Apple’s syncing doesn’t always work for me. So the Notes app was pretty much crippled from my point of view. I needed a new solution.

Enter Simplenote

notes for this post

So when I saw the Daring Fireball post, I figured I’d give it a shot. I did and it just worked. Simple notes that had basically the same functionality as Apple’s Notes app along with the huge benefit of straightforward syncing.

The syncing was done through a simple web client. All over the net, wirelessly, quickly, and automatically. It seemed like the perfect solution.

Simplenote web client

Well, almost perfect…

To put it lightly, people had some strong opinions about the app’s icon. Cloud Factory, the maker of Simplenote got a ton of feedback in the form of Twitter tweets, emails, reviews, etc…

“I bought this because of John Gruber’s glowing review, but I’m withholding stars for putting the ugliest and unimaginative icon on my iPhone.”

“I can only fault the app in one area, and that’s icon design.”

“The icon is bad. Looking forward to the update.”

“I have one complaint though: the application’s and web apps’ icon. It doesn’t radiate the beauty and simplicity Simplenote offers.”

“That said, I do have to take issue with one little thing that I don’t like about Simplenote. I hate the icon. Seriously, it has the most unattractive icon of any app I’ve seen for the iPhone.”

And the day after Gruber posted his glowing review of the app, four brief words on the icon from him:

“It is pretty bad.”

Things weren’t limited to the normal feedback channels. Someone even went so far as to write a blog post about collecting donations for having a new icon commissioned:

“I hate the icon. Seriously, it has the most unattractive icon of any app I’ve seen for the iPhone. Even worse that the original Wine Guide icon that looked like a lady’s crotch. It actually has caused me to come close to deleting the app on several occasions. I certainly don’t have it on my iPhone’s home page. Yes, it is that bad.”

… with, of course, a Twitter account dedicated to getting this campaign going.

Cloud Factory made an “interim” icon for Simplenote to tide people over for a bit until they could come up with a final one. This one was fairly basic and was met with mixed, but still passionate, reactions by Simplenote fans…

“It does all of these things perfectly. Esp. since the developer has replaced the ugly icon that Gruber and other reviewers have mentioned.”

“The only issue is that the interim icon is still ugly.”

“I love the new icon! Hope you keep it! It was actually what made me go ahead and purchase SimpleNote tonight.”

“Just FYI, I liked the old icon (note stuck on locker). Consider this a vote in favor of it :-)”

App icons are über-critical in the App Store

One of my planned future posts was going to be on the importance of your app icon and app name. But it’s an incredibly simple concept so I can sum it up in a few sentences here… If your app icon and name doesn’t clearly convey exactly what your app does, you may as well not even put it in the App Store.

There are several apps in the App Store that have gotten a good amount of hype but have failed because of bad choices for their icon and/or name. This is very simple concept and I find it odd that so many developers seems to spend so much time on their app while neglecting this critical aspect. It can mean instant failure.

We take a crack at it

I really liked Simplenote the second I bought it. But like many others, I wasn’t happy with the app icon. It’s the kind of app that you use very often so it’s natural that you’d likely want it on your first screen of apps on your iPhone, but it made me cringe a bit every time I’d turn my phone on.

After I reported a bug in Simplenote (now fixed) to Cloud Factory, I offered that we create their new icon since I was a fan of the app and I feel that we make effective icons. Michael Johnston, who runs the company, was open to the idea and he showed me his proposed final icon concept. It was a straightforward index card design and, in a nutshell, it conveyed what the app did. Mostly.

It’s worth pointing out that Michael did express some apprehension to our version of the icon. He felt that design element that we used to convey that the app features wireless syncing was too strong. I felt that this was really the selling point of the app for many potential customers so it should be a fairly prominent element. He ultimately agreed and the latest version of Simplenote was released with our icon.

And the polarized passion continues…

“I just wanted to tell you that I love Simplenote, but I really don’t care for the new icon. The wi-fi badge thing just seems unnecessary and weird looking. Otherwise, thanks for a great app.”

“Hey. Just saw your new icon today. And it’s totally awesome :-) (Can’t wait for the next update to have it on my iPod touch)”

“Very, very happy with the final icon @simplenoteapp. Thank you.”

http://twitpic.com/g2ikz - @simplenoteapp I tried a quick fix and flat look of the sync button looks better.“

“@simplenoteapp keeps getting better and better. Good work. However, I second the icon without the Wi-Fi pill.”

“@simplenoteapp’s icon enhancements has been exciting to see as much as the service has been to use.”

“@simplenoteapp Great update, guys! But the new icon really bugs me. Would definitely be nicer and simpler to remove the blue wi-fi pill. :-)”

“New iPhone icon looks nice! Looking forward to 2.11”

“@simplenoteapp The icon just left my Home screen. Prefered the other one. Otherwise, good update.”

“@simplenoteapp awesome, thanks! I love the new icon; I think it’ll much better match the quality of the app.”

“@simplenoteapp I like the icon w/out the sync icon. Might stand out in iTunes but looks worse on my iPhone where I see it every day.”

“hey #simplenote we want the old icon back ;o)”

“So looking forward to @simplenoteapp’s 2.11 update. Pretty sure their twitter avatar is also the app’s new (non-sucky) icon. Rejoice!”

“@simplenoteapp I think it’s pretty sharp, and gets the point across nicely. Looking good.”

“The final icon (lined paper with wifi badge) is really nice and sits perfectly next to Things, giving me my two most useful iPhone apps.”

“Still the best notes application on the App Store, and with the new icon I’m no longer embarassed to see it on my home screen.”

“Not sure what the fuss over the icon is, the new one is fine. If the app works, the icon doesn’t really matter.”

“Simplenote: elegant note taking app for the iphone. Can’t say the same for the new icon.”

“Oof. I’m seriously disappointed in Simplenote’s final icon. If I hadn’t already moved to Shovebox and local syncing, that would push me.”

“Likes the new #Simplenote icon and the feature update(s)”

“and simplenote’s icon goes from bad to worse. a stack of notes? a WIFI ICON don’t apps get rejected for less than this?”

“Although I have disliked every icon Simplenote has had, I really wish they would stop changing it.”

“Simplenote 2.11 is now available in the App Store. I like the new icon but I would like to see the sync button to be less aggresive.”

“Really digging the Simplenote update, but what’s with the new icon? It is *hideous*. The old one looked much better, and simpler.”

“Your interim icon was better, I’m sorry to say. The simplicity of a white lined pad matches your app–adding the little airport icon disrupts it. It does communicate that the notes app synchronizes, but it’s no longer as clean as Apple’s, which is too bad.”

“Simplenote’s new app icon is excellent. There are no longer any shortcomings to this app.”

Evolution

Simplenote icon design evolution

If you’re curious about how we evolved our take on the Simplenote icon, here’s the Skitch session for it:

http://skitch.com/bartelme/b4xej/simplenote

After showing Cloud Factory the original attempt and getting feedback from them, we revisited it and made a couple of minor changes. And there was a final revisit for an almost indiscernible change.

If all Simplenote was about was note-taking, then the proposed final icon would’ve been more than adequate. But it isn’t just that. Again, one of the most significant features in the app is its simple and effective syncing. This needed to be conveyed in the app’s icon or people wouldn’t give it the time of day in the App Store.

Since being released, the new version of Simplenote has risen in the ranks, which is a good sign that the new icon is doing its job.

Simplenote icon
get Simplenote
on the App Store

bookmark
Simplenote
website

SmokingApples.com recently did an iPhone notes apps roundup and they ultimately came to the same conclusion that Gruber did… Simplenote is best of class.

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Who linked to this

15 comments

  1. B
    8:21am, September 17, 2009

    “If your app icon and name doesn’t clearly convey exactly what your app does, you may as well not even put it in the App Store.”

    You mean like this? http://bit.ly/1nJ6lQ

  2. August Wester
    11:41am, September 17, 2009

    I provided the developers of Simplenote with some feedback concerning the icon a while ago (and I’m actually quoted here). I helped Cloud Factory coming up with the second icon – the one with the pink badge.

    I think the second icon is much, much better than the current and, unfortunately, finale icon. What I don’t like about how it looks now, are the horrible colors of the lines AND the way it looks like there are several pieces of paper placed on top of each other. It completely ruins the balance between Simplenote’s icon and EVERY single other app icon.

    I still find Simplenote to be an awesome application, but is has been removed from my Home screen due to the ugly icon.

  3. Edmundo Junior
    12:03pm, September 17, 2009

    I really like the new icon (trought I never use this app before) and works perfect with the Deep 2.1 theme by ToffeeNut (http://toffeenut.deviantart.com/art/Deep-2-1-iPhone-Theme-92072201).

  4. dan
    12:14pm, September 17, 2009

    I disagree with your wtf regarding notes in mail. For many people mail is a place with a ton of incoming information and contacts. Notes on the iPhone can easily be thought of as emails to yourself.

    The options would be to have yet another app for these simple notes, or include them in iTunes. I much prefer the mail solution. However, I do agree that cloud syncing is much preferred which is why I use simplenote.

    For the record, I love the icon. Simple, like the app, with a visual reminder of its best feature.

  5. Aidan Hornsby
    1:53pm, September 17, 2009

    Excellent article. I work as the irregular icon and interface designer for chilli X (www.chillix.net) and agree completely with your statement about apps needing a great name and icon to succeed. Obviously this isn’t enough on its own most of the time, but it is VERY important. I have been working hard on refining the icon for our to-do list Done for its upcoming 2.0 upgrade, and have been attempting to make it slot seamlessly onto any home screen. I’d love to know what you guys think when it is released :)

  6. Peter da Silva
    5:18pm, September 17, 2009

    I agree, the wifi badge makes no sense: wifi isn’t syncing. And even a sync badge (say, a looping arrow) is redundant. The emphasis should be on notes. Leave it at the third icon with no badge at all.

  7. Dave Robeson
    10:09pm, September 17, 2009

    Interesting — looks like you took the OmniFocus icon, removed the checkmark and pasted on a WiFi badge. :)

  8. misr
    12:29am, September 18, 2009

    I personally prefer Awesome Note. It has great icons and is a very pretty application. I am sure taptaptap would appreciate the design. Yes, it doesn’t have sync at the moment but it’s in their roadmap (it will sync with Google Docs).

    Pending App Store approval is their latest updates which includes ability to make a note into To Do (task) with due date. For $4, this is a steal, IMO.

    http://bridworks.com/updates.php

  9. Will
    6:24pm, September 18, 2009

    A perect icon for a notes app is Polar Bear Farm’s icon for Note Pad. Like the built in notes app, but nicer.

  10. daiyami
    11:07am, September 19, 2009

    I don’t use SimpleNote (yet), but I had read some of the news and was favorably impressed by the new icon. I liked the wi-fi pill, and in fact, it made me feel that there should be a kind of standard signal that apps sync.

    This is somewhat tangential, but it also made me think that maybe app developers should run a price campaign around syncing. That is, I saw at least one review for SimpleNote that was all “huh? this app does nothing Notes doesn’t do” and it was clear there was no respect for syncing. But a standard icon and some blog posts detailing how much WORK syncing is to code, trying to set up ways that people can browse the app store for “apps that will sync to desktop/web clients”, might help pull some apps out of the race-to-$0.99 pressure. Anybody (like me), who spends most time on the laptop and wants the iPhone as an auxiliary, will spend money for syncing. I think it would be worth making a kind of unified approach to that market. So then, when I see the wi-fi pill (in whatever color or size), I know this is an app I want to investigate further.

  11. whalt
    5:04am, October 5, 2009

    Wow, after all that build-up I couldn’t wait to see what this hideous original icon could possibly be. It must truly be a crime against the eyes. And then you finally show the “evolution” and I’m thinking, really, that’s what all the fuss was about? A post-it note on a locker? The superciliousness of the Mac design community is just too much sometimes. There’s sweating the details and then there is just myopic wankery.

  12. Jim
    2:10pm, October 7, 2009

    I have to agree with Whalt. The new icon no more conveys the notion behind SimpleNote than the interim and proposed icons do. In fact, I would have scaled-up the size of the sticky note in the original icon, put some scribble marks on it, and finalize that as the icon. It would very strongly convey that SimpleNote is about…well, notes. The final icon design is close to plain vanilla in its symbology and I doubt it will inspire customers seeing it for the first time to leap at their mouse in order to click “Buy App” immediately. I have to wonder if the Omni Group folks are not giggling a bit because SimpleNote’s icon is a rip…ok, inspired from OmniPlan’s. The Wifi emblem in the icon, in place of Omni’s checkmark, could cause customers to conclude that SimpleNote sync’s only over Wifi.

    Sometimes the designeratti takes the debate amongst themselves a bit too seriously; this case is a good example of that. I mean, look at BBEdit’s icon, which conveys zip that the app is a monster of a text editor. Design is not religion–we’re not saving souls here–but about inspiring sales and a great user experience.

    Lastly, the bum rap given to Notes syncing with Mail is over-done. For many people, probably the majority, Mail is their Outlook, a one-stop shop for info. The job of Apple is not necessarily to change people’s preferred information handling habits, but really to make their experience a good one–if people want Mail to be all, then so much the better.

  13. Josh
    8:04am, October 8, 2009

    I actually do like the new icon, only that I think without the blue “Wifi” squiggle, it’ll be perfect. It’s a notes app first and foremost, that fact that it syncs should happen under the hood and you don’t need to advertise it.

  14. liza
    12:49am, December 18, 2009

    I love that you are so concerned about the look of the icon. This blog rocks, and I don’t even own an iPhone.

  15. Jerilyn
    11:21am, November 2, 2011

    It is difficult to find advised people with this issue, nevertheless, you seem like you no doubt know exactly what you are dealing with! Appreciate it


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