Clips: An Unsolicited Custom App

It was late June, almost a month after Apple had unloaded a slew of iOS 8 APIs onto developers at WWDC.

I was reading the Book of Matthew on my iPad while commuting on the train, and I came across a number of verses that I’d like to jot down for later reference.

For every verse that I’d like to jot down, the process went like this:

  1. Select the verse in Safari
  2. Copy the verse
  3. Switch to Notes app
  4. Paste the verse
  5. Switch back to Safari
  6. Select the book and chapter number
  7. Copy the book and chapter number
  8. Switch back to Notes
  9. Paste the book and chapter number
  10. Switch back to Safari
  11. Copy the link
  12. Switch back to Notes
  13. Paste the link

I started to think how different it’d have been on my Mac. The number of steps taken wouldn’t have been very different, but I knew it wouldn’t have felt as painful. After all, switching apps is fast on the Mac, and I’m a keyboard junkie.

And I have Alfred, which comes with a Clipboard manager that stores a history of things I’ve copied. I could copy one item after another in quick succession from Safari, then unload them one after another into another app to minimize the switching.

Apple had already seeded the second beta of iOS 8 then, but we still haven’t figure out what we’d do for iOS 8.

Hon Cheng and I knew there was a great opportunity for us to be on the App Store on day one of iOS 8’s release, so time was quickly running out.

We kept looking at all these awesome new technologies that Apple had empowered us with and wondered what we could do with them. We had some ideas, but none really stuck.

We wanted to do something that wasn’t possible before. And that means a widget. Or something that makes use of CloudKit (because we both hate server work, and we’ve been shelving ideas that involved any form of server work). Or a custom keyboard (Hon Cheng wanted something that inserts memes, but I wasn’t so keen).

I was reminded of something that Steve Jobs once said about not starting with the technology:

“One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it.”

And then, there was this copy-and-paste problem staring in my face, and I thought how nice it would be if I could do what I was doing more easily on my iPad.

And I thought about people like Federico, who spends way more time than me doing research and writing on his iPad. If I was frustrated with the state of copying-and-pasting on iPad, surely he’d feel many times worse than I did.

The process that led to the birth of Clips reinforced an idea that I always had: only make apps that scratch a personal itch, and by extension, only make apps that I’d use myself.

It may sound like we’re severely limiting our market by addressing a specific problem for a specific person, but in our experience, this approach usually results in apps that other people actually find useful as well.

We made Dispatch because we wanted a better way to handle support emails on our phones. I made Due because it was too much hassle to set up a reminder on iOS.

With Clips though, things are a little different.

Since both of us write fairly infrequently on my iPhone and iPad, we know we weren’t the perfect person to model Clips for. (We were taking the app in all sorts of directions. At one point, Hon Cheng was using Clips to store QR codes in the widget for easy access).

So we needed another person to make Clips for. And in a way, Clips is an unsolicited custom app that we’ve made for Federico (though he doesn’t know).

Since we know he’d be doing a whole lot of writing with the release of iOS 8, we shipped him a beta copy as soon as we could in order to get valuable insights into how our target customer actually uses Clips.

Each time we have to make a call about Clips, we’d always settle on something that (we think) would make sense to how Federico would use it.

Technically, we’re not in the business of making custom apps for clients. But practically, all of our apps are custom apps for a specific person.

If you’re making an app and you’re not that person, find one. Then, never lose sight of this person and his problem, and make decisions for your app in a way that will help him solve his problem.


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Every Thursday, around noon time PST, Apple refreshes the App Store featuring a new set of apps. Clips was fortunate enough to be featured by Apple on a number of App Stores this week, coinciding with its launch. That, of course is the... Continue →