After more than a year of building Value Study–an iOS app that helps with learning to draw and paint–I think it is worth stopping for a breather and having a little Retrospective.
I came up with the idea of Value Study while trying to teach myself the fundamentals of drawing and painting. It's been a lifelong interest but one that I've never been talented at, and so I often pick up a pencil and then put it down after realising how bad I am. In 2019 when I was due another attempt (this time equipped with an iPad and Apple Pencil), I realised that I should apply the same practices that I use for the things that I am good at. I should take the whole process of learning as broken down digestible steps, use logic and understand the core fundamentals as well as I can.
I set out to improve my artistic abilities but soon realised that values, one of the core fundamentals, were really hard to distinguish. It's not so hard on a black and white picture but when you are looking at real-life or a colour image, it's non-intuitive that some colours that are vastly different have such a similar value... the same tone of brightness despite the properties of the colour itself.
And so it began... my distraction. Instead of purely focussing on improving my skill, I realised that I had an idea that didn't seem to exist. There were a few decent apps on the App Store that helped with finding values, but I wanted to take it a step further... to clearly see which parts of the image had the same value. This was not initially a fully-fledged app idea, more a prototype just to help myself get better at seeing values... but it soon became clear I could get something fairly robust up and running quite quickly that may help others too.
Was this a good thing? Is a distraction that becomes relatively successful (more on that later) still a distraction?
I've not let these thoughts bother me too much. I am a professional programmer with no intention to become a professional artist, so, naturally, I would have thought about combining the two interests at some point. The way I see it, working on Value Study keeps my brain thinking about how to see the world differently even if I don't become a brilliant artist at the end of it.
There's another advantage to this distraction... I can use these two projects (the app and the art) to benefit each other through the natural process of being distracted by one task to complete another (I'm sure there's a good word for that). So while some of the time I may prefer being in Xcode and debugging colour spaces, there are also times I would rather sit in the park with a sketchbook. This bouncing between projects has always been a thing for me but it feels very beneficial the fact that both are so closely related.
Over the years I've built up quite a strong belief system (rightly or wrongly) around building things for people. I don't mean from a code style or technology point of view, but things like privacy and accessibility.
So despite this being the first iOS App I've made that has made it to the App Store, I knew I had to stay true to my beliefs and start on the right foot.
These strong intentions were not written down as "values" (oops, pun!) or anything like that. They were stronger than that. A core belief that I have inside me. I think that's the level of shared values that we all strive for in teams and maybe it's impossible to get when there's more than a single person. I didn't need to question or record any of these intentions, they are just true to me and this is my app.
When I released Value Study, I honestly wasn't expecting a single person to use it. It wasn't immediately that I even told friends it was in the App Store, let alone announced it more publicly. I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to grow completely organically... I truly didn't think it would work but it kind of did.
I think this mindset was the right one. Too many people (including my past self) go into a new project like Del Boy, thinking it will be an easy route to "success". It may sound easy for me to say, but I truly did go into releasing this app as if everything I had hoped for was already achieved just by getting the app into the App Store itself. You see, I have had so many projects that have been "live" in the sense, on the web but never seen. So the barrier of entry into the iOS App Store was motivational for me, as it was some kind of acceptance from someone.
So I was truly happy when I saw the first stranger had downloaded the app, and equally happy for each person that did going forward. Even just one person a day was a trickle of success to me. Random people, without any promotion, picking up the app because it looks like it may be interesting or helpful to them.
To this day I rarely have more than 20 new downloads per day, but it's been over a year and that adds up to thousands of people that have my app on their devices right now. It's a retrospective, and this goes in the "Good" column. A pat on the back to myself... for the app being downloaded yes, but more so for the mindset I've had of seeing that trickle of users as a success instead of wishing for a big bang. I'm not Instagram and I honestly don't want to be.
If the knowledge of users downloading the app is a positive feeling, then ratings and messages are incredible. Remember, I didn't expect a single random stranger to use it and even now I am still surprised by each review that comes in.
As it stands right now in May 2022, globally there have been over 500 ratings with an average of 4.8 out of 5. Some people may think that's nothing, but to me, it's an incredible achievement that I'm really proud of. With each review that came in, it was clear that this was a tool that others do actually find useful!
Version 1.6 was intended to be a great update. It had some fixes for known bugs, including one that caused one of the only 1 star reviews that had a message with it. It also finally meant I had sorted out the UI for the value selector swatches... the concept stayed the same but it looks far more visually appealing now and is clearer when one is selected.
However, in doing so I changed how the colour spaces worked when converting between images so that I could fix a bug I noticed during development for the selected colour not appearing the right colour. This of course ended up causing a bug that affected a bunch of people except me! I've thankfully managed to replicate and fix the issue since then but not before getting a bunch of emails.
Can I please say a massive thank you to everyone that experienced an issue with v1.6. Somehow it affected a bunch of people and any reviews they gave did not affect the overall rating of the app. And every single email I got was extremely gracious and I appreciate every single one.
I've learned a great deal about developing for iOS. I am a front-end website developer so while it wasn't a giant leap, it's been a learning curve. When I released version 1.0 it was functional, if not pretty, but it was really slow. You would select the image you wanted to use then wait for it to load and wait again to select the value you wanted to see or to change the number of values.
Needless to say, the technical side of what I've learned could be a blog post in its own right. The key thing was to realise there is an "Apple way" to do stuff and the best solutions tend to fit into that way. For instance, there are multiple data structures used for images (particularly
CGImage) and converting between them or mixing them in irregular ways is extremely bad for performance. Once I got my head around these kinds of problems... it became clear that not only could I remove the loader that I had added (which took me ages to get working by the way!) but I could also run it in real-time!
This performance improvement is even more obvious when stepping outside of the app itself. I wanted to run a bunch of images in bulk through Value Study so I extended the unit tests to accept a list of URLs (in this case all from Unsplash). I don't have the exact numbers but I think it's fair to say it can now generate 6 variations of value study per image, for 30 photos, in about the same time it used to take for just one photo.
A retrospective is supposed to be open and honest. I'm still–despite many efforts–a beginner when it comes to drawing or painting. So it has to raise the question... am I a fraud? I think the answer is no, otherwise, I wouldn't be making the app. But it is one of the big questions that has stopped me from trying to add any premium tier to the app yet. It's hard to consider someone a fraud for making an app for themselves and sharing it with others for free. But if you're asking for money and not very good at drawing/painting yourself? Well, that's another matter.
As with so many retrospectives... I don't really have a solution to offer. On one hand, I could ignore my inner thoughts and make an app that helps people but know that those paying for any extra features are most likely to be better than I am.
The other solution of course is to become an artistic master... which I don't think will be happening any time soon no matter how hard I try!
So for now this question remains open whenever I consider a premium tier, but I'm confident that it will resolve itself. After all, I definitely have learned a great deal and improved by creating and using the app. My understanding of values is far better than when I started. And at the end of the day, I've made loads of products that help people do their job better without me personally being good too. For almost five years making tools that help patients and clinicians alike, so maybe I can answer my question with an answer from experience... it just needs the right amount of user research.