Thursday, August 27, 2009

Indie app milestones part one

In the precious and scarce spare time I have around my regular contracting endeavours, I've been working on my first indie app. It reached an important stage in development today; the first time where I could show somebody who doesn't know what I'm up to the UI and they instinctively knew what the app was for. That's not to say that the app is all shiny and delicious; it's entirely fabricated from standard controls. Standard controls I (personally) don't mind so much. However the GUI will need quite a bit more work before the app is at its most intuitive and before I post any teaser screenshots. Still, let's see how I got here.

The app is very much a "scratching my own itch" endeavour. I tooled around with a few ideas for apps while sat in a coffee shop, but one of them jumped out as something I'd use frequently. If I'll use it, then hopefully somebody else will!

So I know what this app is, but what does it do? Something I'd bumped into before in software engineering was the concept of a User Story: a testable, brief description of something which will add value to the app. I broke out the index cards and wrote a single sentence on each, describing something the user will be able to do once the user story is added to the app. I've got no idea whether I have been complete, exhaustive or accurate in defining these user stories. If I need to change, add or remove any user stories I can easily do that when I decide that it's necessary. I don't need to know now a complete roadmap of the application for the next five years.

As an aside, people working on larger teams than my one-man affair may need to estimate how much effort will be needed on their projects and track progress against their estimates. User stories are great for this, because each is small enough to make real progress on in short time, each represents a discrete and (preferably) independent useful addition to the app and so the app is ready to ship any time an integer number of these user stories is complete on a branch. All of this means that it shouldn't be too hard to get the estimate for a user story roughly correct (unlike big up-front planning, which I don't think I've ever seen succeed), that previous complete user stories can help improve estimates on future stories and that even an error of +/- a few stories means you've got something of value to give to the customer.

So, back with me, and I've written down an important number of user stories; the number I thought of before I gave up :-). If there are any more they obviously don't jump out at me as a potential user, so I should find them when other people start looking at the app or as I continue using/testing the thing. I eventually came up with 17 user stories, of which 3 are not directly related to the goal of the app ("the user can purchase the app" being one of them). That's a lot of user stories!

If anything it's too many stories. If I developed all of those before I shipped, then I'd spend lots of time on niche features before even finding out how useful the real world finds the basic things. I split the stories into two piles; the ones which are absolutely necessary for a preview release, and the ones which can come later. I don't yet care how late "later" is; they could be in 1.0, a point release or a paid upgrade. As I haven't even got to the first beta yet that's immaterial, I just know that they don't need to be now. There are four stories that do need to be now.

So, I've started implementing these stories. For the first one I went to a small whiteboard and sketched UI mock-ups. In fact, I came up with four. I then set about finding out whether other apps have similar UI and how they've presented it, to choose one of these mock-ups. Following advice from the world according to Gemmell I took photos of the whiteboard at each important stage to act as a design log - I'm also keeping screenshots of the app as I go. Then it's over to Xcode!

So a few iterations of whiteboard/Interface Builder/Xcode later and I have two of my four "must-have" stories completed, and already somebody who has seen the app knows what it's about. With any luck (and the next time I snatch any spare time) it won't take long to have the four stories complete, at which point I can start the private beta to find out where to go next. Oh, and what is the app? I'll tell you soon...

2 comments:

RichardB said...

That's a sound method. I look forward to seeing the fruits in due course.

Steph West said...

What an interesting creative process. Have you ever tried applying that process elsewhere?