I spoke to Jen Gordon, App designer, Trainer extraordinaire, Founder of Tapptics.com. As developers, we think designers are super-heroes because they seem to make stuff look good with so much ease.
So how do they do it? Is it possible to learn how be a design rockstar? Listen to the interview below to find out.
Read the transcript below.
Tope: So, hello everyone. Today, I’m talking to Jen Gordon, founder of Tapptics.com. I’m sure you know Jen. If you don’t, Jen has a lot of training on iOS app design and also on how to design for Android as well.
She has a lot of courses on Udemy. She also has a lot of guest posts on Smashing Magazine and you actually see her a lot on a lot of websites. Mobiletuts is also another example. So she’s versatile. She knows a lot about her stuff. So let’s get into it. I have a lot of questions to ask Jen today. Jen, welcome and thanks for speaking to me today.
Jen Gordon: Thank you.
Tope: Thank you. All right. So tell us a little bit about your background. What did you do before Tapptics?
Jen Gordon: Before Tapptics, I focused on web design. I started at Yahoo! probably about nine years ago and I mainly designed landing pages and ad campaigns for a lot of the clients that were advertising on Yahoo! and so I worked for them as a contract for about four, five years. And whenever the iPhone came out, is when I started transitioning into mobile. I’ve done a little bit of mobile stuff at Yahoo! primarily ads and that sort of thing but when the iPhone came out, I was like, “OK. This is where it’s going to take off. This is where I need to be.”
And I always kind of had it in the back of my mind doing mobile ads at Yahoo! I’m like this is going to take off. This is going to take off.
Tope: So is that what motivated you to start Tapptics then?
Jen Gordon: Yes, exactly. Well, what happened was I started designing apps for myself.
Tope: OK, OK.
Jen Gordon: Just to learn how to do it mainly. In the back of my mind, you’re always thinking, “Hey, you know what? This could be like a big money maker,” or whatever but primarily what came out of it was I just became an expert at how to design for mobile. That was the primary thing that came out of it and so instead of people asking me about my apps, they were asking me about how did I design my apps.
Jen Gordon: And yes, so that’s whenever I created – I basically just took all the assets from about two to three years of designing apps and I created a starter kit because whenever you’re designing for a platform for a long time, you kind of have your own templates that you start with.
Jen Gordon: And so I basically took the templates that I used myself and just beefed them up with all the different elements that I would use really frequently.
Jen Gordon: And so like in some of the templates, they will have like the copy and paste mockup and I’m like never in a million years would I show a client cut and paste. That’s just like a thing I would just never show and so anyway, that’s how it all got started.
Tope: OK. Sounds good. So the apps that you have, that you developed for yourself, are they still live right now? Are they actually on the App Store …
Jen Gordon: Yes, they are. They are. I just got a phone call from Apple. They’re like, “Hey, your developer license expires in five days,” and I’m like, “Oops, I guess I better go renew that.” So actually this is a good reminder.
Tope: Can you give us a couple of those, like the name of those apps? So maybe …
Jen Gordon: For iPad, search for Doodle Bright. It’s a Lite Brite type application that was done in Cocos2D.
Jen Gordon: And there’s another fun one called Celebrity Mashup where you can take your picture and then you basically put your face in the face of a celebrity or a celebrity’s date. Those are my favorites, is whenever Justin Bieber is like standing next to someone.
Jen Gordon: And you put their face or your face in where their face was and …
Tope: Oh, that’s a nice concept. That’s a nice, interesting concept. So how did you go about developing them? Because I mean you’re a designer, right? So how do you actually – did you develop them yourself as well?
Jen Gordon: No. So what I did was we just – it was pretty interesting back in like 2008 trying to find an iPhone developer but I found a few. I found one in California, one in Canada, one in New York and basically I had experienced contracting development work for the web and so I took a similar approach with mobile just being as detailed with it as I could about the storyboards and specifications and mockups and it worked pretty well.
Tope: Sounds good, sounds good. So the thing is – I mean we know that as developers, right? I mean I’m a developer and I kind of suck at design most of the time, right? And you have a lot of training that teach people how to design. Is it really possible for a developer to really learn how to design apps? Like how can we get the aesthetic – how will I put it? Super powers that designers have.
Jen Gordon: Well, I ask myself that question a lot because it’s one of those things where you have a cursive knowledge no matter what expertise you have and so personally, I believe that it is possible and that there are like techniques and tricks that you can learn to identify what makes a design work or not work. Like we all have like this intuitive sense of what appeals to us and what doesn’t.
Tope: Yes, but we do. The thing is we know what appealed but how to actually put it on to paper.
Jen Gordon: Yes.
Tope: Are there some – how will I put it? Like steps or say step one, do this. Step two, do that. To actually get to putting that good design or that thing that you know will appeal to someone on the …
Jen Gordon: Yes, or let me give you a tangible example. So what I try to do with all trainings is give a before and after Photoshop file.
Jen Gordon: So basically, you will have a Photoshop file that starts out with something that needs improvement or something that is completely basic. Like, if you picked up one of the templates online and you just wanted to make it look good. So in the trainings for the game design, the iOS design, I talk through concepting.
Jen Gordon: And basically it’s just a worksheet and you go through and you define. OK. What are like – are you creating an app that has to do with street art. OK? Well, if you’re doing an app that has to do with street art, then you’re probably not going to have an aesthetic that looks like you make wine.
Tope: OK, OK.
Jen Gordon: And I just talked to some of the basics like that saying, “OK. Well, if you’re doing one on street art, you would definitely consider that you have more flexibility to use a varied color palette.”
Jen Gordon: Whereas if you’re doing an application for a spa, you want to go with colors that are very spa-like.
Tope: OK, OK.
Jen Gordon: And another example is illustrating for example something very simple like a ListView. OK?
Jen Gordon: And talking through the – what makes that ListView more or less readable. Like everybody can look at a ListView and say, “Which one is more readable?” if you had two to compare.
Jen Gordon: But then talking through. OK. Well, the reason why this one is more readable is because there’s a visual hierarchy where your eye lands on this element first.
Jen Gordon: And so – and these are all very teachable, learnable things about design that you can duplicate over and over without being even an expert designer.
Tope: Well, that’s good. I mean that’s good news because the thing is, some people will – you might get a template to work off of
Jen Gordon: Yes.
Tope: But a lot of people actually also want to have their custom designs. Something that is really theirs. So I’m guessing these developers – at least some of the people I know having –writing emails also would like to be able to learn how to at least use a little bit of tool to actually get their own design. So it’s good to know that it’s actually teachable. So what tools do you actually use for example with a designer? Where do you start from?
Jen Gordon: Where do I start from? Well, my tool of choice is Photoshop.
Jen Gordon: I do some work in Pixelmator just for those who are Pixelmator fans.
Jen Gordon: So I’ve got some very, very, very simple things that I’ve done in Pixelmator but typically, everything I do is in Photoshop just because you can’t get away from the fact that an application, if it becomes successful, is going to need to proliferate a variety of devices.
Jen Gordon: And so you got to be ready to resize all these images and if they’re not – if they’re all bitmap, you’re going to run into major problems. So …
Tope: Yes, yes. OK.
Jen Gordon: I’ve seen other people who are Illustrator. I’ve seen other people create fantastic interfaces in Illustrator so I’m not against that at all. I think whatever tool you’re most comfortable with.
Tope: Yes. What I’ve also seen is that on your website, you have some videos on how to do mockups. So basically – actually start from a mocked up version of your app. Very low, low def and then if I actually start doing the design – a lot of those developers actually jump into the coding straight away which I guess is not a good thing. So what are the benefits of mocking up your app before you actually start designing or coding or developing for example?
Jen Gordon: Well, I will say for those who like to jump straight into the coding, there’s something to be said for the iterative process and launching fast and getting practical feedback from your audience and that sort of thing with that. But if at a minimum you can sketch some low fidelity mockups before you do that, you’re going to be – you’re going to have more to – well, I will just say you’re going to be in a better place after you get the feedback.
Tope: What I’ve also noticed is actually that what – I’m actually looking on an app right now. It’s going to be like a child-minding app. So for child-minders, people who take care of their kids when they are at work or stuff like that so they have these – a lot of people look at what they have to do and I’m thinking of actually doing an app for that and this is the first that I’ve actually sat down to actually do a mockup before… I’m going to call myself out here….
So it’s the first time I’ve actually sat down to mock up an app and to be fair, I have downloaded the app iMockups for iPad and to be fair, it actually does a lot to actually give you your thought process beforehand. There are a lot of things that you may not actually want to – like how do I say it? That you don’t think about until you actually start doing the mockup and not think of – you forget. So I think it’s a good – how do I put it? It’s a good exercise to actually do before you actually get into the coding. So …
Jen Gordon: Yes, yes, yes. It is.
Jen Gordon: There’s definitely value there because what you’re doing is you’re – like you mentioned, just your thought process. You have something to compare to.
Tope: All right. Cool. So then also a question which I also wanted to ask you because I mean this is part of some of the courses that you have on Tapptics. This was actually very interesting for developers because getting your app developed and launched is the first bit.
The second is actually getting it discovered on the App Store. So you have a course on App Store SEO. Can you give us some tips on how to get your apps or get our apps actually up in the search results? Like what do we need to do or take into consideration to measure – when people search for something related, then our app shows up in that list.
Jen Gordon: Right. Well, this is an area where I did a lot of experimenting because whenever I launched my apps, I found that they were the kind of apps that were very search-worthy meaning they weren’t the kind that had some really obscure name that would never be searched for. Basically I created a whole group of spot apps and they were – well, they are. They’re still in the App Store. They’re designed to help you find like one specific thing. So for example, if you like love ice cream or love pizza or love burgers or love coffee, then each of these apps is designed to help you find that one specific thing, no matter where you are.
Jen Gordon: And so for example, I started experimenting with the CoffeeSpot because it was the most popular out of all the spot apps obviously. And so what I found was that there’s a few different techniques first of all that you can use to find out number one, how search-worthy your app may be and then what the combination of words needs to be in the title of your app in order for it to rank over your competitors.
So like if you wanted to see if – like say you have even an idea for an app. Before you even started developing or doing any sketches, you would go in and just start typing in some of the keywords that people might search for to find your app and just see if those keywords are taken. See if there’s – or not taken but see if those words start to show up whenever you’re typing them into your phone, into the search box. If those words start to pop up, that tells you that those are keywords people are searching for in the App Store.
Tope: Are you talking about the auto-complete results …
Jen Gordon: Yes.
Tope: OK. All right. Cool. OK.
Jen Gordon: Yes, correct. That is what you’re looking for is the auto-complete text. Another thing is if there are apps out there that do the exact same thing that you’re thinking of doing. That’s not a bad thing. That’s actually a good thing because if people – if there’s no other app out there, like what you’re thinking, there may be a reason for that.
Jen Gordon: It may be that nobody wants it. It may be that somebody created it and nobody wanted it and they pulled it. It’s better to see competition that seems pretty active than no competition at all.
Tope: Yes, yes. I understand.
Jen Gordon: So basically what I did was I pulled Starbucks and coffee finder. Those were the two most popular terms that I could determine from the auto-complete and I put those keywords in the title of – for CoffeeSpot. So another piece that I thought about was whenever you are looking at the results on your phone, it cuts off the title of your app.
Jen Gordon: And so it’s very important for those first few words to tell the user what they’re getting. So for example, I knew I wanted to use the words “coffee finder” and also “Starbucks” because people are searching for Starbucks and people are searching for coffee finder. So the title for CoffeeSpot reads, “Coffee finder, the best place to find Starbucks”.
Tope: Oh, OK. There’s no risk of you getting your app rejected because you’re using the trademark name in the title. Isn’t that a problem?
Jen Gordon: Yes, it has never gotten dinged for that.
Jen Gordon: Actually, let me see what the current title is. I’ve switched it around quite a bit over time but I will see if I can pull it up and I also believe I used Starbucks in the keywords which …
Tope: OK, OK.
Jen Gordon: They still let things slide as far as that goes. I would say though I still have a great chance of findablity just based on the words “coffee finder”.
Tope: All right. So …
Jen Gordon: Yes, I wouldn’t always count on getting dinged on the keywords because the thing is, you got to try it and see because if you don’t try it and see if you get dinged …
Jen Gordon: If you don’t get dinged, that means other people aren’t getting dinged which means those people have a leg up on you.
Jen Gordon: Because they tried it and got through.
Tope: Yes, I understand what you mean.
Jen Gordon: So that’s part of the competitive piece of it. It’s like well, you can’t always follow the rules because not everybody else is following the rules.
Tope: Yes. I mean if you – there’s no problem if you get rejected. You can always change it later and then try again. I mean there are no three strikes and you’re out type problems with that. So OK, that’s good. That’s good. So there’s also the question of – so do you – today, you put those keywords in your title and your keyword list, I’m guessing.
Jen Gordon: Exactly, exactly.
Tope: When you submit it.
Jen Gordon: Yes. Yes, yes. I will say I just looked up CoffeeSpot. So it’s actually – the title reads, “Find a coffee shop with CoffeeSpot, Indie or Starbucks.” That’s the exact title. So – and there’s – I think – I can’t remember the character limit but there’s – you can have quite a lot of characters in your title. So …
Tope: Yes, I think – I mean you can actually have a long title. I mean not everything is going to show up but everything will be added to the search …
Jen Gordon: The search.
Tope: Yes, exactly. It’s going to be counted in the search when …
Jen Gordon: Right.
Tope: … people search for that. Yes, yes. I can imagine. All right. All right. OK. Sounds good. What about app monetization, right? So we know we have the options of either making things free or making them paid for or have in-app purchases. What have worked for you? I mean what options do you think?
Jen Gordon: Yes, yes.
Tope: Yes …
Jen Gordon: Well, it really depends on your audience which a lot of times you don’t know exactly who that is until after you’ve launched. That’s the sad part is – I mean unless you’re Xynga who can hire millions of testers before they launch and that sort of thing.
Jen Gordon: But – so basically, I will give you a couple of examples. So the Celebrity Mashup, I launched it for free with in-app purchase.
Jen Gordon: Well, it was misleading that it was free because it wasn’t in the games category. You know how you see a lot of games that are free and people kind of expect there’s probably in-app purchase to level up or something.
Jen Gordon: Well, in entertainment, people are not expecting in-app purchases.
Tope: Well, yes. I mean for people looking for celebrity type apps, I’m not sure if they also want to pay a lot of money for that as well.
Jen Gordon: Right. Exactly. So – and not only that. The audience skewed much younger than I expected.
Jen Gordon: Because it had like Justin Bieber and a bunch of like teen stars in it and so they were – I mean if you look at the reviews on Celebrity Mashup, people are pissed even though I give away like more than half of all the content and the app is free.
Tope: Yes, yes.
Jen Gordon: But they still just don’t like that. So a lot of it depends on your audience and what are their expectations as far as what they expect to pay, how much they’re willing to pay.
Jen Gordon: Part of that is just trial and error. So what I always say as far as pricing goes is develop the app with about two to three different monetization strategies already baked in so that you can quickly shift gears without having to redevelop the app and even more monetization strategies is better. So you might develop the application with – even though this is kind of mentioned but to do a paid version and a free version with ads.
Jen Gordon: Even though you don’t even have to do that anymore. Sometimes that’s – going the old school route there is the best way. Even though they could easily buy an in-app purchase and upgrade, some people just don’t – they don’t want to do that.
Jen Gordon: I can’t remember who it was that I read about that did that and found that strategy better than upgrading within the app.
Tope: I think that actually depends on your app as well too, right? Because as we said, it’s better to actually test it.
Jen Gordon: Oh, yes.
Tope: You can actually go upfront. Make it a paid version and then see how people receive it and then also make it free and then put in an in-app purchase. I mean see how people receive that as well. So …
Jen Gordon: Yes, yes, yes. And another resource that I love to read their trials and tests and such is Tap, Tap, Tap on their blog.
Jen Gordon: They write all kinds of – they’re very, very transparent about their launches and their sales and like what worked and what didn’t work and …
Jen Gordon: … I love how open they are with their information about that.
Tope: Oh, OK. Is that TapTapTap.com?
Jen Gordon: Yes, yes. TapTapTap.com. They’re in cahoots with MacHeist. So they get to test with a very large – hundreds of thousands of people. They can – are on their mailing list that they get – to get some very meaningful feedback.
Tope: All right. OK. Yes. All right. So thank you for answering the questions today.
Jen Gordon: Sure. Yes.
Tope: Actually come down to actually do the interview. How can people connect with you if they want to, I mean, like find out more about what you do?
Jen Gordon: Of course. Probably the best place to hit me up is on Twitter.
Jen Gordon: Just my handle is ItsJenGordon, I-T-S Jen Gordon. Someone already had regular Jen Gordon so I had to say ItsJenGordon.
Tope: All right. OK. All right. So on Twitter. And then your website is Tapptics.com.
Jen Gordon: Tapptics.com, yes. And if they want to reach me there, just hit the contact form and I check that daily.
Tope: Yes, yes. Yes, I’m also going to recommend the guys to actually go to Tapptics.com. It has a lot of resources that I’m sure is going to be very helpful.
You should check out Jen’s training videos as well too. I mean I got one on Udemy. I think she has a lot of similar ones on her website as well and well, all those trainings are actually – well, they are interesting to watch for me because I can also learn a lot of things from – on how to use Photoshop and also they are very interesting and very funny because you put your personality into those videos and I like the way you just crack some couple of jokes into the video and then that always cracks me up. So check out the videos on Tapptics.com. And then thank you very much for talking to me, Jen and have a great day. Thank you very much.
Jen Gordon: Thank you.