Design

What’s new with TED’s iPhone app? Q&A with our developer and project leader

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TED iPhone developer Matt Drance at TED2011. Photo: Robert Leslie

At the launch of the TED iPhone app, the TED Blog sat down with project leader Thaniya Keereepart and engineer Matt Drance to talk about working together, building new features and what’s coming next from our mobile team.

Thaniya Keereepart: I work for TED, I do product development here. My role on this project has been spearheading the mobile initiative, trying to get TED on mobile devices, and making sure that the experience on the mobile device is as good as the one we have on the web. Pretty much just being the advocate for the user.

Matt Drance: I’m from Bookhouse Software, which is my company, and I led the engineering effort for the iPhone, coming off of the iPad project that we did together.

From the iPad app — how much of that ported over to the iPhone?

MD: Well, a lot of the experience ported over. What we learned building the iPad app had a great effect on what we built for the iPhone, but they really are two separate projects. You really have to think different for a smaller device when people are on the go, between train stops, versus something like the iPad, where someone is more likely to be sitting on their couch for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. How we expect people to use the app is much different between the two cases. So actually very little of it translated directly.

What’s something you had to really rethink for the iPhone?

TK: Screen real estate (laughs).

MD: Definitely. Good one.

TK: Yeah, it’s, what, four times smaller than the iPad? So we can’t really have this larger screen, big beautiful pictures, all that stuff goes out the door. And with the limited screen real estate that we have, it’s important to make sure our entire talk collection is available and accessible within a few taps. We can’t overwhelm the user with a list of 1,000 things. We want to make sure that the things that are new are prominent, and make the list very easy to use.

MD: One of the major differences between iPad and iPhone as far as user experience is concerned is, the iPad user experience tends to be much more open-ended. Wherever you are on iPad, we’re always pointing you to something else. We’re always making a recommendation of what to watch next. And that’s with the idea that you’re going to be sitting down with your iPad for a while. We don’t have as much of that on iPhone, because when you’re on your phone, you’re probably on the move, or maybe sitting on a subway, and you don’t intend to use the app for 20 minutes at a time. So the iPhone app is much more focused on getting the right information into people’s hands as quickly as possible.

TK: Also, we put a lot of focus on the use of audio on the iPhone. Unlike the iPad, where someone is always looking at the device, there is a very valid use case for people who are using the iPhone to put their phone in their pocket. So we introduced audio tracks for each of the talks, as well as what we call TED Radio, which is essentially a linear stream of whatever TEDTalk is playing at the moment. These two features are unique to iPhone right now. We introduced them for the phone because the use case is very strong: plug your headphones in, put the phone in your pocket, walk around, and there you have it!

Are there other new features we’re rolling out with the iPhone?

TK: Oh yeah, the bookmark! Want to talk about that, Matt?

MD: The iPad app allowed people to download talks so they could watch them offline, if they’re getting on a plane or going to be without a network connection for an extended period of time. The iPhone app has that feature as well, but we also have a lighter-weight feature called bookmarking, which is literally that: you decide you want to watch a talk later, it looks interesting to you, but you don’t necessarily have the time or the bandwidth to download the whole thing. So you bookmark it.

It’s another quick, easy-access feature for people who are using their phones on the run. When they see something that looks interesting, they can just tap a button and then come back to it later, without any other needs or requirements.

TK: This is one of the features that had been requested in the App Store reviews. We take a lot of time in reading through the reviews, and there are a series of feature sets that we introduced onto the iPhone as a result of suggestions. This is definitely one of them.

And a bunch of these things that we are introducing onto iPhone will eventually be woven into the next iPad app. This is a universal build, so every time we build, it’s part of both devices. So in the next release for the iPad, we’ll be focusing on adding some of the features from the iPhone.

MD: Yeah, I’m really excited about coming back around to iPad with that stuff.

How will this project inform how we develop apps for other mobile platforms?

TK: In terms of feature set and experience, this project will be the benchmark for other mobile devices. The iPad was the first mobile app we’ve done, and it was very, very well-received. I’m going to guess we did something right [laughs]. So it will definitely inform a bunch of other projects. As far as from an engineering perspective, of course, they’re completely different projects.

Tell me more about the development process. What are some features you’re most proud of?

MD: One thing that I really was happy with on the iPhone project was how we were able to condense the “Inspire Me” feature onto a small screen without losing any of the experience. That was initially a large challenge for us, thinking what we wanted to do for the Rolex feature on iPhone versus on iPad. And I think initially we were trying to think about how to do something totally new because of the screen size. But we ended up coming up with something that looked and felt exactly the same, that was just smaller! And that required a lot of clever work. Making this feature, how do I say it, “resolution-independent,” was an interesting challenge. And it ended up making the iPad side of the code better in the process.

Another thing we did is, we changed the talks database that was sitting on the device. We brought in Marcus Zarra, from Zarra Studios, who’s a noted expert on Core Data, which is Apple’s database technology, and we ended up with a model that was much faster, much cleaner. And we’re looking forward to bringing it over to iPad as well.

TK: One of a key hidden features that I really like about the iPhone is that its audio integration is done really well. If you leave the app, you can still use the main iPhone audio control to control the volume and play, pause, all that stuff. It blends right in — you can mulltitask.

We also put in AirPlay support as well; there’s a lot of really cool nifty little features, so it feels seamless.

MD: Yeah, the audio feature — investigating that and coordinating with the server team to make the streaming radio feature work — was very interesting, and once again we’re looking forward to bringing that to both platforms.

It sounds like this project involved a lot of reaching out and working with different groups.

TK: For the streaming radio, we worked with Michael Glass from TED and with Rogue Amoeba.

MD: Oh yeah! the guys at Rogue Amoeba were very helpful in getting IceCast to work in the way that we needed it to to support TED Radio. I knew them before this project, and it was wonderful to get their help. They’re awesome.

TK: [TED engineer] Mark Bogdanoff also chipped in quite a bit as well, as usual. And on the design front, we started the project with Eric Hope. He was a fantastic designer. And then we picked up Brian Wilson, from Reason Interactive, who worked on a good chunk of our original iPad design, to help us out on the tail end of the project. I picked up bits and pieces on the design side as well.

MD: And Will True from TED helped with QA.

TK: And I think Matt Curtis did a very good job in managing expectations with our partner Rolex in the work we’ve done with iOS, with the “Inspire Me” feature. The whole project was underwritten by Rolex, and we were able to strike a very good relationship. They’re supporting our initiatives, and obviously they want their brand to be present but not intrusive. It was just phenomenal; we could have free rein to do a lot of the things that we wanted to do, all the while being able to support what Rolex wanted from the partnership agreement.

MD: And we do need to thank the folks at Apple because they did give us a lot of support over time through their support mechanisms, their support avenues. It’s always great to work with them. And it’s always wonderful to work with TED.

TK: Oh, we’re never letting you go.

What’s next for mobile?

TK: As far as roadmap, we’re quite ambitious. It’s not over-the-top things but things that resonate with users. As mentioned, we want to bring the features from the iPhone over to the iPad, so that’s the next phase; we believe very strongly that the audio, TED Radio, is going to be quite popular, so in the next release we’re looking to give the user more control: Start from the beginning, skip to the next track … So those are a few things on the immediate horizon.

Longer term, what’s on the docket is making the video load a little faster, as well as localization: subtitling the talks as well as localizing the app itself, with all the little details in a series of different languages and distributing them in their respective markets worldwide.

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TED iPhone project leader Thaniya Keereepart at TED2011. Photo: Robert Leslie