November 27th, 2013
Freckle Time Tracking is turning five on December 1. In 5 years of being a co-founder of Freckle I’ve learned a lot of things, but here are 5 important takeaways. Maybe it helps you on your path to product nirvana:
1. You’re not a “tech company”—you’re a “make customers awesome” company
People don’t pay you because you have amazing programming skills and can write nginx configurations blindfolded. People pay you money because the product you sell to them saves them time, money, effort and nerves. It’s your job to make your customer more awesome. Every decision you make for your product and business should revolve around that.
2. Never promise dates for a feature launch
Just don’t promise launch dates for a feature. Ever. Trust me on this. People will ask you all the time when “feature X” is ready. A good way to answer that question is (if you plan on doing it), “We’re considering this feature for a future version. I can’t give you a date on when it will be ready.”. Just be honest to your customers—you don’t know yourself if and when a feature will really be ready.
3. Spend money on things that help you stay productive
This includes obvious stuff like a laptop that doesn’t suck (upgrade often), a good working chair and desk, and less obvious things like software that allows you to concentrate on developing your application’s features rather than configuring servers.
4. Do not work too much
Overworking yourself is the first step to failure in business. You can’t do your best if you’re permanently stressed out. Don’t check email in the evenings. If you’re only 1 or 2 people, don’t provide 24/7 support. It’s ok. Customers understand. It helps to not have a mission-critical product (if Time Tracking goes down it’s annoying but people can take a note on paper).
You didn’t start a company to die of exhaustion. Your health, family and social life is more important than 5 minute support response times and a 100% uptime guarantee.
By the way, one way to keep on top of this is to keep track on how you spend your time.
5. Don’t believe the hype
People are good at getting excited. And people are good at believing the hype™ about new technologies, frameworks, programming languages and ways to deploy. People will tell you what to do and what to plan for. That you need to scale to millions of users, and you’re doomed if you don’t plan for that. That generating HTML on the server is so 1994. That node.js will cure cancer.
The fact is that you need to be pragmatic—your goal is to run a business. Use technology that is proven (to you), and that you know how to work with. My “litmus test” for technology is if the people that provide it are in a similar situation as you are: having to rely on it to run their own business (this quickly weeds out cool-but-academic-only stuff). You need to optimize for shipping. That includes writing less code, having broad test coverage, and concentrate on getting things out in order of long-term profitability for your business.
Good luck with your business!
November 18th, 2013
Whatever you do, in a real business, all of these things are unlikely to help you to launch features faster.
Adding a new feature encompasses a lot more than just sitting down and writing some code:
- First you need to figure out what the feature is…
- …then you need to make sure you define what it isn’t.
- You need to make sure that it will make your customers awesomer.
- You need to think long and hard about if it’s a good fit for your product.
- You need to design how it works, in detail. (Don’t forget those pesky edge cases!)
- You might need to research if it’s technologically feasible.
- You need to decide if it’s worth the maintenance and support cost.
- If it needs a user interface, you need to design that as well.
- You want it to work on phones as well, right?
- You need to write tests to make sure it doesn’t break anything else.
- You might need to deploy it in off-hours to minimize disruption to customers. Everybody on the team loves to stay up all night!
- You may need to adapt your infrastructure and add new hardware and software, which needs to be bought or rented, managed and monitored.
- You need to write new documentation. (Hopefully not in multiple languages.)
- You need to update your marketing.
- You might need to update your onboarding process.
- You need to tell your customers about the feature, and not just once.
- You might want to add a tutorial for the new feature.
- You need to track adoption of the feature and spend time to decide if you need to change anything. If you do, you might have to run through all of the previous bullet points again.
- The feature
might will make future features more complex.
The gist is that programming and technological choices really only play a minor part in all of this. Our old friend, the 80/20 rule applies here: It’s 80% all of the above stuff and 20% implementation.
IMHO, the real strength of a good framework lies in how easy it is to support an application in the long run. I suggest that your choice of technology is based on how you can minimize friction and extra work, as well as how likely it is that it is still around a few years form now.
For web applications, choose something that has good defaults, is easy to test and is playing to the strength of servers (DB queries, HTML generation) and clients (showing HTML, UI interactivity) and minimizes the amount of code you have to write.
For any sort of application, always, always go for something that the people creating and maintaining it use in their own, paid-for products. Avoid anything that solves “potential problems” that aren’t actual real problems like the plague.
Pragmatic, real-world solutions beat oh-so-clean-we’ve-everything-in-layers-hypermedia-blah-blah-blah any day. Personally, my winner clearly is Rails, but YMMV. Heck, I even use PHP in some projects where a larger framework would just get in the way.
But don’t think the latest insert-buzzword-here framework will solve all your woes—it won’t.
October 24th, 2013
The launch of iOS 7 a month ago, like it or not, has been quite successful with apparently about 2/3 of iOS users now on the latest operating system from Apple.
As you might have heard, web apps were severely broken on iOS 7—a huge step backwards over the stability and feature support in iOS 6. A few of the more grave bugs have now been fixed in 7.0.3.
Note that these bugs only affected saved-to-homescreen web sites that have the “apple-mobile-web-app-capable” meta tag enabled.
confirm() now work again
- External URLs work (
- mailto:, tel: and other special URL schemes work*. You can now open a Mail.app compose window from within your web.
Some issues remain and hopefully get fixed in a future release, such as a problem that overwrites existing home screen web apps (until a Spingboard restart), bad performance on initially load, and disappearing screens from the task manager.
I haven’t tested startup images, which where also quite broken. If I get around to that, I’ll do that as well.
*Note that you can’t test mailto: with the iOS Simulator, as there’s no Mail.app installed on it. You’ll need to use a real device.
A special note to Apple: please, for the love of science, include a changelog for Mobile Safari and Mobile Web Apps in your release notes, or have it around somewhere else. It’s horrible to have to guess and being not sure about what’s actually being fixed or not. Why not share bug reports publicly for this, at least for registered developers? We’re not in the dark ages of software development anymore. Thanks for listening!
October 10th, 2013
This is part 2 of a 3-part mini-series on designing iOS 7 web apps:
In part 1 of this series you learned some tricks about styling your application—but what about user interaction?
All the buzz about “reduced” or “flat” styling in iOS 7 is taking the spotlight away from an other major change, more “physical” animations:
People are accustomed to the subtle animation used in the built-in iOS apps. In fact, people tend to regard the smooth transitions between views, the fluid response to changes in device orientation, and the physics-based scrolling as an expected part of the iOS experience. Unless you’re creating an app that enables an immersive experience—such as a game—custom animation should be comparable to the built-in animations. — iOS Human Interface Guidelines
There’s a few important transition animations that come practically for free for native applications, but take a bit of tinkering if you want to recreate these in a web app:
- “Show panel” animation, when you drill down from a list, or when you show settings
- “Show modal panel” animation, an animation showing a modal panel scrolling up from the bottom of the screen
- The controversial physics-simulating rubber-band bouncing scrolling like in the Messages application
An easy way to analyze animations is to use the iOS Simulator (which comes along Xcode) and a tool to take screen videos. Be sure to export in a lossless format and you’re now able to inspect the animations in detail (I use Final Cut Pro because it makes it easy to step between frames and add markers to get timings, but anything that has a step-by-step frame advance and a timestamp works).
On the left you can see the panel animation when drilling down in a list, which is the same animation I wanted for our mobile web version of Freckle Time Tracking.
Next to the duration of the animation, the easing equation (or in CSS parlance, the “timing function”) is the most important component of an animation. You don’t just move things, you move things with acceleration and deceleration (just like in the real world, here come physics again!). I’ve used Stylie’s Motion tab to design a timing function that’s close to what Apple uses on iOS 7.
If you do a step-by-step analysis of the panel animation, you can see that not only the new panel slides in from the right, but the old panel is sliding 50% to the left while getting less opaque, with a gray background behind it. The text in the navigation bar does some cross-fading as well—it’s actually a quite complex animation.
Caveat: you can only focus form fields as a direct result of a user interaction, like on a
touchend event. This means that if you want your forms to animate in, you can’t focus a form field via code and users will have to tap the form field they want to edit. This can be fine with editing forms, but with “new” forms you’ll likely want to forego the animation and opt for focusing instead.
Home-screen web apps
The final thing that takes a web app closer to being just like a native app is being able to run full-screen, a thing that has been possible for quite a while now on iOS by saving to the home screen. Just like in previous iOS versions, this is possible in iOS 7 as well. Please note that there are several horrendous bugs in the current incarnation of iOS 7 (like no alert() or confirm() modals, mailto: not working and other issues).
Nevertheless, two small tips with this:
meta tag’s content to
to get a fully translucent phone status bar. You can add a class to your
element to indicate that your application is running from the home screen (
if (navigator.standalone) $('#body').addClass('standalone')
). When that class is active, add the necessary padding to the top of your page.
Switch to a high resolution (1024×1024) touch icon and rely on
apple-touch-icon to provide a correct icon for iOS 6 (with the gloss) and 7. Note that the border radius has changed, I’d suggest to try not to bother to be too clever and let the OS do the job of cutting the icon to the right shape.
There’s a hype about designing “offline first”, which I think is a load of crap. These are phones people use, and they’re almost always online, and it will certainly not get worse in the future. I assume an always-on connection, but just in case the connection goes down I show a warning message (that people can easily dismiss, if they choose to).
It’s as easy as…
offline are functions that hide or show your offline message.
That’s it for getting your web app closer to iOS 7 behavior—next time I’ll take a look at making cross-device compatible web apps, that load fast, work (almost) everywhere and don’t completely crap out on older devices. Stay tuned!
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October 3rd, 2013
Mobile web apps just got even cooler, with Chrome for Android adding support for full-screen, saved to home screen web apps, making them first-class app citizens like on iOS.
Read about how to implement this on Google’s Developer Docs.
September 16th, 2013
This is part 1 of a 3-part mini-series on designing iOS 7 web apps:
So you want to create a mobile web app that doesn’t look like it’s from 2007 and loads fast to boot with, ideally looking and working just like a native app.
Now you might heave heard that Facebook famously switched to a native app citing performance concerns. However, you’re probably not Facebook and pushing terabytes of data around—most mobile apps just display some data and provide a way to input data (mostly just text) and that’s about it. Web apps do a great job, and you don’t have to develop a native app for each platform you want to support. Plus, you get to use skills you already have.
There’s three main areas that making a “native-like” mobile web app can be broken down to:
- Styling, specifically typography, hairlines, transparencies and animations
- Behavior, including saving the web app to the home screen, making the status bar “part” of the app and reacting to on/offline events, and fast-loading
- Cross-device compatibility, so the app runs on Android and other devices as well
In this first part of a mini-series I’ll go into some details about styling. I’ll use our new mobile web app for Freckle Time Tracking to demonstrate (if you’re a Freckle user: it’s in closed beta right now, ETA very soon!).
It’s all Retina, baby!
iOS7 no longer supports any (iPhone/iPod-sized) devices without a Retina screen and a lot of the design changes are informed by that. Thinner fonts, hairlines and so on are easy enough to do in native apps, but can be hard to do in web apps.
iOS7 uses several different new fonts, and you can choose to support “Dynamic Type”, the new system-wide text size setting. Please be aware of the difference between the font: shorthand setting and the font-family: CSS properties, you’ll need to follow these rules exactly:
For text in lists and basically any normal text use “font-family: -apple-system-font;” (internally refers to ‘.Helvetica Neue Interface M3′¹) and, if you don’t want to participate in Dynamic Text (see below) force set size 17px and line-height 21px.
- Headers in navigation bars use “font-family: -apple-system-font” with font-weight: bold (internally ‘.Helvetica Neue Interface Medium P4′) at the same size and line-height.
Very large text, like the one shown here in Freckle’s Timer panel uses “font-family: -apple-system-font” with font-weight: 100 (internally ‘.Helvetica Neue Interface UltraLight P2′) at 72px size. The round colon characters are actually part of a different new font that comes with iOS7, “AvenirNextCondensed-UltraLight” (size 70px).
You can also tap into the new system-wide font scaling setting (Dynamic Text) for better accessibility, with various other
-apple-system CSS presets.
The most important presets are
-apple-system-body. Different from -apple-system-font, all of the above presets set not only the font family but also other properties like size and line-height; and must be used with the font: shorthand CSS property.
-apple-system-font can yield slightly different results (and not the exact same font) as compared to the
-apple-system-* presets.² In most cases, it’s probably better to use the presets (and keep usage of -apple-system-font to a minimum). Don’t forget to set font-size and line-height if you can’t or don’t want to support Dynamic Text.
You can see all presets by attaching the to the iOS Simulator or a test device with Safari’s Web Inspector (you need Safari 6.1 beta, OS X Mavericks or a WebKit nightly!) and use the autocompleter to see all the options you have:
(The system wide text size setting doesn’t affect navigation bars or the really large text that’s shown in the clock application. If you’re looking to emulate these UI elements, use font-family: -apple-system-font and set the font size manually.)
CSS just pixel-doubles border lines on Retina screens, and doesn’t provide an easy way to do a 1 physical pixel wide hairline.
CSS borders can’t just be “0.5px” high (the CSS px unit requires integers, and DOM elements always are positioned on integer-based coordinates as well). One workaround are scaled CSS background images.
In the following example the data URL contains a 2px high PNG image that has a transparent upper pixel, and the pixel in the color I want the hairline to be as the lower pixel. An other way, which has the advantage of allowing you to easily customize the color but is slightly more verbose, is using SVG:
Transparencies and blurs
Using blurs should be limited to very few occasions since it's a major performance hog—you can't have any surfaces that blur out the background layers and still expect scrolling to be smooth for example. But it's useful for example when you want to show an important message in a modal dialog but want to be able to hide it again when an event occurs (which normal alert dialogs can't do).
Blurs can done by setting a
-webkit-filter: blur(8px) on all content and navigation elements, and overlaying an element with a transparent background and no blur.
For partial transparencies in navigation bars, just do gradients that have some transparency on one end and are full opaque on the other. When you know the height of an element, as is the case with iOS-style navigation bars, you can also include the hairline in the gradient, saving you from overlaying multiple backgrounds. Here's the CSS gradient used for the pink gradient in the navigation bar:
In the next installment of this series, I'll take a look into animations.
¹Apple recommends against using the internal names, which while they do work in iOS 7.0, are subject to change in future iOS versions.
²I don't have specific examples but this is information from a reliable source, which I can't name.
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September 4th, 2013
BaconBiz Conf 2013 Trailer
Join us at our next BaconBiz Conf—watch the trailer for the last one and leave your email to get all the talk videos from this year as they’re released and be the first to know when we’ll do it again…
August 30th, 2013
“[These phones] have these keyboards that are there whether or not you need them to be there. And they all have these control buttons that are fixed in plastic and are the same for every application. Well, every application wants a slightly different user interface, a slightly optimized set of buttons, just for it.”
—Steve Jobs, iPhone introduction Keynote, January 9, 2007
I agree with Steve Jobs. However, the state of keyboard customization in mobile web apps is sad.
For our new mobile web app for Freckle Time Tracking I’m looking into ways to have the least possible amount of taps for the user to enter her time. In order to that, I want to tell HTML input fields which keyboard to open. Sounds simple? Read on.
The iPhone and Android phones support various keyboards, among them keyboards specialized in entering text (the “default” keyboard), entering numbers (a keypad with some extra buttons like a comma and a decimal separator) and a phone keypad (which has stuff like “ABC” on the 1 key and a # key).
Now what I’d really like to do is show the user the keyboard that is part of the default keyboard but shows up when you hit the “123″ key—a horizontal row of numerical keys like on a real hardware keyboard. The reason for this is that people in Freckle should be able to enter stuff like “15m” for 15 minutes of time, just like they’re used from the “desktop” web version.
Let’s have a look at the available ways to select which keyboard should be shown:
The type attribute
The type attribute can be set to “number” to allow numerical input. (I won’t go into the “tel” type).
type="number" input field to something like “2:00″, no dice. The value is (silently!) not set. Note that adding a
novalidate attribute doesn’t change this either.
On Android, it’s yet a different story—I get a specialized keypad with numbers only (and a few special characters). Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for my use case as the user can’t switch from the specialized keypad to the default keyboard.
The pattern attribute
According to Apple’s documentation, setting the
pattern attribute to
\d* is “equivalent to using type=number”. Except that these are dirty lies, it actually does something very different—show just a numeric keypad without the possibility of changing back to the default text entry keyboard.
There’s a second problem, perhaps even more serious—there is no API to either know if there is a keyboard displayed currently nor to determine the visible viewport of the mobile web page (the visible content area of the mobile browser minus any space taken up by any keyboard shown). This prevents me from adding my own row of keys that could provide the extra functionality I need (notwithstanding complex issues with browsers losing input field focus when tapping these keys; this can be worked around).
Additionally, the Safari HTML Reference documentation was last updated about two years ago in 2011 and still sports screenshots from the original iPhone. It’s overdue for an update.
Alas, I can’t make this work correctly on either iOS or Android, and will have to default to the normal keyboard and perhaps try to add some of my own buttons, guesstimating the keyboard size and position.
Why is this so hard? Why can’t we have nice things? Mobile web apps seem to be treated as a second-class citizen by both Apple and Google. All I want is to make the user have to work less and be able to use my web app quicker—and be more awesome.
Dear Apple and Google: please allow me to do that.
August 23rd, 2013
Do you like the slim progress bars used by Chrome on Android as well as Safari on [redacted]?
What’s a slim progress bar to do?
- The progress bar is a 3 CSS pixel high solid color bar, on top of the browser content window.
- Fades in to indicate activity, usually network requests (Ajax!).
- While stuff is loading, trickle to the right in animated, small steps. This trickling is actually random and doesn’t indicate real progress. This is to communicate to the user that “something is going on”.
- Stop at about 80%-90% of screen width if stuff is not finished by then. The trickling can get shorter and slower while it reaches this threshold.
- When things are loaded, animate the progress bar to 100% width and fade out.
Never fear, here comes zprogress!
This does the same exact thing, but works with Zepto’s animate method. To facilitate GPU-based animation, nprogress uses only CSS transforms and opacity-based CSS transitions (it basically moves an off-screen bar that’s as wide as the screen onto the screen with a translation transform). Using just CSS it adapts to any screen width and will automatically work as expected when the screen orientation is changed. It’s also API-compatible with nprogress, so it’s easy to pick up. It also doesn’t come with several features, e.g. there’s no spinning progress indicator. I find this a) redundant and b) outside of the scope of the pure progress bar.
Zprogress is easy to hack as it’s only about 70 lines of code (including CSS!), so if you need to add features for your web app it’s probably the easiest to just fork it. It’s a one-liner to plug it into Zepto’s Ajax system to have the progress bar globally for all Ajax activity (see the README for details).
Grab zprogress on GitHub!
August 10th, 2013
The answer to this question is, of course, 0. Zero, nada, zilch.
Here’s the new landing page we made for our Time Tracking Software, Freckle:
Here’s some things the page does that might not be obvious at first glance:
- Responsive design so it works on phones
- Screenshots and logos are fully retinafied
- SVG images for some of the logos
- Self-serve web fonts
- Hover over the top area with the piecharts and you see an animated tooltip popping up, just as in Freckle (this is done with just CSS)
- The “screencast” further down the page is an animated GIF at retina resolution (biggest asset on the page at 386K)
- The press logos under the plan selection are using
webkit-filter to show them in greyscale (hint: add
-webkit-transform: translateZ(0) so this works correctly on retina screens on Safari)
But, guess what, browsers these days have a lot of super useful stuff built-in so you don’t need to (and yes, the site will horribly fail on Internet Explorer before version 9, but we don’t target that crowd anyway as Freckle is not compatible with those).
Freckle (empty cache): 34 requests ❘ 699 KB transferred ❘ 1.90 s (onload: 875 ms, DOMContentLoaded: 196 ms)
Freckle (primed cache): 30 requests ❘ 14.2 KB transferred ❘ 1.22 s (onload: 202 ms, DOMContentLoaded: 56 ms)
Here’s a few of our competitors websites loading from empty cache on my fast internet connection (under ideal conditions: latest Chrome, US east coast, 60Mbps, Saturday morning). I won’t give names to protect the innocent:
- Site A (empty cache): 96 requests ❘ 583 KB transferred ❘ 1.42 s (onload: 1.26 s, DOMContentLoaded: 697 ms)
- Site B (empty cache): 52 requests ❘ 872 KB transferred ❘ 962 ms (unload: 823 ms, DOMContentLoaded: 571 ms)
- Site C (empty cache): 104 requests ❘ 1.6 MB transferred ❘ 3.30 s (unload: 3.07 s, DOMContentLoaded: 1.54 s)
First impressions are important. I strive to have
DOMContentLoaded fire as quickly as possible for that warm fuzzy instant loading feeling. If you can keep this under 100ms to 200ms your users will be very happy. For Freckle, we do everything possible to make it load super fast because we know that time tracking sucks and you want to get it done quickly. Software should assist you when you need it but get out of your way as quickly as possible.
By the by, interested in why we have a long-form landing page? Read Amy’s post on how to grow your SaaS business when it reaches the “Plateau of Doom” (cue dramatic music!).