Under the Radar

Under the Radar 12: Apps With Personality


  welcome to under the radar a show about

  independent iOS app development I am

  Marco Arment and I'm David Smith under

  the radar is never longer than 30

  minutes so let's get started so for this

  week's topic I thought it might if we

  might respond a little bit and possibly

  disagree a little bit with with a topic

  that our friends over at release notes

  covered about a week ago in release

  notes episode number 140 called like

  watching paint dry and release notes is

  a very good podcast that I highly

  recommend for developers who listen to

  this should also listen to that they

  cover a lot more a lot of like the

  business stuff they their motto is like

  everything but the code and so

  definitely love that show I've listened

  to it for a while they have a conference

  love that show love those guys and so

  this episode they they did was about

  basically as their they both have small

  software companies Charles Perry has has

  a company that recently launched an app

  called meta tax which is for tax for tax

  preparing professionals like not for you

  to do your taxes but like for your

  accountant to to reference while they do

  taxes for lots of people and then Joe's

  company bombing brain makes tools for

  pro audio and video producers and they

  so they both have these these companies

  that kind of appeal to like you know pro

  users of some kind and these are not

  mass consumer apps and this episode they

  did number 140 was was kind of about how

  they they both are like taking their

  their corporate voice more seriously now

  like kind of dropping some of the some

  of the the pretense of like being indie

  and making themselves appear like a

  serious company so like for example

  using we instead of I and you know kind

  of separating like their personal blogs

  even if it's about business that kind of

  separating their personal names and

  blogs from the company and not having

  like a company blog anymore of like them

  complaining about the app store stuff

  like that like separating those out so

  that their companies appear to be more

  professional you know kind of more like

  other big companies do where you tend to

  have like this kind of corporate almost

  non voice like it's not it's kind of a

  void of personality like there's not

  you're not like the the personality of

  an individual you're

  projecting the image of like a serious

  company and I think it's worth

  discussing kind of the pros and cons of

  that decision of that kind of approach

  of like whether whether you should be

  you know if you're an indie developer or

  like us like whether you should just

  kind of own that and and show

  personality in your apps and just use

  the pronoun I instead of we and things

  like that or whether you should appeal

  appeal to people's more conservative

  sides and and appear to be this this

  bigger company yeah what have you found

  in this game this regard David so when I

  first started doing development price

  set like seven ish years ago like as an

  independent I remember going through

  this and trying to decide well how I

  wanted to do it I think in the early

  days of my business I would always use

  like you always talk about it's like we

  do this we do that to try and appear big

  like refer to the company like almost

  like as its own it like as a third

  person and this these types of things

  and I think I was doing that week almost

  like to avoid like the imposter syndrome

  kind of stuff where it's like I wanted

  to hate to feel like I was a real

  company not just a guy but I think

  recently I've very strongly gone in the

  other direction with that and more and

  more I do everything and make it quite

  clear that it's like I'm a person I'm an

  individual who makes an app like most of

  my apps websites are now like hosted off

  my own personal site you know David -

  myths org is like where people would go

  to find my apps like that's linked to

  and is shown in the app store

  description for my app in some of my

  apps even like I'll have little notes

  that say like you know this app was made

  by David Smith a independent developer

  and herndon like thank you for

  supporting it or those types of comes

  like I'm trying to make it very clear

  that's where I went and for me I

  switched around

  mostly because I made peace with the

  fact that my goal is not to be a big

  company my goal is not to ever grow

  because like there's something to be

  said maybe for like faking it until you

  make it like if your goal is to be a big

  company to have lots of employees to

  have a big presence and so on to like

  say okay I'm going to pretend like I'm

  one of those because that's what my goal


  to become but once I just really made

  peace with the fact that was not my goal

  I wasn't like faking until I make it

  like I'd already made it I'm the one

  person shop that I kind of like being I

  was like then it's just kind of like

  silly pretense to do and in many ways it

  really it I was losing some of the

  opportunities that I could probably

  otherwise get by appealing to people

  more personally like it's it's a funny

  thing like you'll get a customer service

  response to somebody and they're kind of

  really mean and belligerent and kind of

  grumpy at you and you ruin you respond

  personally like in a more kind of like

  it's like hi this is like I don't know

  what you're expecting like I'm a person

  very often I'll get the like they just

  sort of calmed down like oh I'm so sorry

  like I'm used to yelling at customer

  service representatives of big faceless

  corporations but it feels a little bit

  more awkward when they're just like

  yelling at you know yelling at a person

  and so I'm sorry I found I get a lot of

  benefit from just saying like hey I'm

  one person and you know people like that

  it seems yeah I mean because III think

  like if you if you act like a big

  company people will treat you like a big

  company exactly and and that there are

  there are pros and cons to that like you

  know Charles Perry's Metta tax software

  for tax preparers like if you're if

  you're appealing to a more like a more

  narrow professional market like that and

  charging I think he charms like a

  hundred bucks for something like that

  you know that's this is like you know

  pro software at a decent price you know

  this is not consumer level stuff in that

  kind of context I think showing the

  personality of like being one person you

  know and we'll get into like kind of

  like personality and attitude also in a

  bit which i think is also part of this

  but being like the the hi I'm going to

  dependent person kind of thing in that

  kind of context could be a downside you

  kind of like it maybe those buyers might

  want the appearance of a big serious

  company like the or that just might be

  the norm in that field but when you're

  doing something like what you and I do

  which is consumer apps where you know

  you like you you know we have apps that

  are not going to be bought for a hundred

  dollars by professionals getting their

  job done we have apps that people buy

  because like kind of for fun or for

  entertainment or

  for for you know more more mass-market

  casual use and I feel like in that area

  there is not much of an upside to

  appearing to be a big company whereas

  you know so there are areas where that

  is an upside you know like like Charles

  uh like meta tax there but but I don't

  think that the kind of apps that we do

  are those areas so again is this is one

  of those things where the answer is it

  depends and and different things work

  for different people but I think it's

  important to recognize where your target

  market really is what kind of accurately

  making and what people think of you and

  what people want to think of you before

  you decide kind of which of these

  approaches to take because like like you

  know what I do an overcast is also it's

  completely the I'm one person approach

  in in like the support page and

  everything it in order to try to defuse

  people's anger into what they perceive

  as like some kind of chatbot for a big

  company that will never get read because

  they're angry at most big companies

  because most big companies don't help

  them right in my feedback form in the

  app I say hi I'm one person and before

  they can even get the email address

  there's a there's this like two sentence

  thing up top the debate basically says

  that I I'm just one person and also I

  don't have time to respond to most

  emails and so that immediately diffuses

  a lot of anger they might have towards

  like I can't get this to work your

  company sucks and and I really don't get

  a lot of those emails like I even with

  Instapaper I got way more because I was

  I was less heavy handed with instapaper

  about about the kind of like I'm one

  person approach with overcast I went

  very heavy-handed on that and the emails

  I get are generally extremely civil

  extremely nice I hardly ever get you

  know anger at all and also because I say

  right there in the feedback form I don't

  have time to respond to most emails I'm

  sorry that sets expectations for support

  also because you know a lot of people

  you know if if they think you're a big

  company they're going to expect maybe

  not helpful support but they will expect

  fast support responses and because you

  know that because that's what most big

  companies you can

  you can contact them and you can get

  support of some kind and it might not be

  very helpful but you will get a person

  who responds to you soon and if they

  don't get that and they think you're big

  company they get mad if you're a small

  if you're one person and you say I'm one

  person and also sorry I can't really

  respond to you most of the time and then

  you don't respond to them I feel like

  that's that actually leaves them feeling

  Lessing then then if they if they go if

  they think you're a big company and they

  email you and they don't get a response

  have you have you I mean I know you

  actually do support cuz you're a good

  person but I mean I think there's

  something to that for sure like it

  there's a bigger person know there's

  something to be said for setting

  expectations appropriately for what

  you're trying to like like project and I

  mean I remember I've heard people the

  funny thing alpha-1 sometimes get it

  when people who ask me like what's my

  support phone number and like it's like

  you know which is like a reasonable in

  some ways a reasonable a reasonable

  question like if you were a big company

  like if I was a big software company

  like I would imagine I can call someone

  at Microsoft to get support like I'm

  sure there's no hundred number maybe I

  mean I wouldn't surprise me but they're

  like I don't think like but you know

  what are you gonna call like they're

  gonna like call my own phone number like

  like where is how is that gonna work

  it's like it's trying to set

  expectations because maybe like at its

  core so much of this it's just about

  like honesty maybe it's like it's like

  this is who I am this is what we're like

  what I'm the level of support I provide

  this is the types of apps I do and I'm

  just like being transparent about that

  and so like with support when I say like

  it's like you can email sometimes I mean

  I have I hire someone who does a lot of

  deals like the front level of support

  for me so that my response or like the

  response time is pretty good in that

  regard but every now and then like I'll

  get people who email me directly just

  like they find my contact information or

  though you know sent that reply me on

  Twitter or something like that and I'm

  less responsive there but I don't I

  haven't gotten a lot of negativity

  around that because I think they know

  what they're doing like they're they

  know that they're contacting me as the


  not me as the company or not like you

  know they're not contacting pedometer

  plus plus they're contacting David Smith

  and the expectations I think you have

  for when you like sort of out of the

  cold email somebody is are very

  different than if you're just for when

  you're you know feel like you're

  responding to a company especially a

  company that you've paid a lot of money

  to and so just trying to be honest and

  transparent about that I think is a

  really helpful thing

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  the show

  so moving on a little bit from like

  whether you want to appear as a company

  versus an individual i I wanted to

  mention kind of personality of an app

  and whether your app should kind of like

  even just in things like the copy that

  you have in the app the the wording for

  things the micro copy the help text the

  even even like the major features of the

  app or the the branding of at the name

  the icon every like in all aspects of

  the app whether whether you want it to

  have a a personality a strong

  personality or a kind of more neutral

  theme and voice and I think there's a

  lot to be said for both sides of this

  the the the more neutral voice it would

  should be kind of like the default kind

  of the the corporate voice /no voice

  depending on how you look at it that I I

  think is the safe choice it's the

  easiest choice so it's easy to have a

  neutral personality because if you look

  at like Apple's apps Apple's apps all

  have an initial personality if you look

  at other platforms windows Google like

  you all these things they have neutral

  personalities at the system level and

  the reason they have neutral

  personalities is because they don't want

  to alienate people because as soon as

  you add any personality to it to to the

  app or or to the system or anything like


  you do run the risk that that's not

  going to work well for some people that

  some people are are maybe not gonna get

  it or they're gonna be confused like

  wait why is that kind of appearing like

  smart at me like like they're they're

  they're gonna they're not gonna like it

  it's gonna rub them the wrong way it's

  very hard to create a personality that

  spans across all cultures all ages all

  languages in a way that that nobody is

  really offended and at big companies

  like Microsoft and Apple and Google they

  have to consider that because they serve

  the entire world and and if they if they

  have something that is slightly rubbing

  somebody the wrong way that could mean

  like millions of people don't buy it or

  think worse of it or something and and

  so it makes a lot of sense if you're a

  really big company like that to to

  basically not have personality in your

  apps or to have very very little of it

  and I think a lot of people look at

  those big companies and they say well I

  want my app to appear to be as good as

  theirs and so therefore the right

  approach for me is also to have this

  kind of neutral personality and to not

  put much you know voice or flair in in

  the app and I think again this is one of

  those things where it depends on the

  business I you know if you look at again

  picking charles's meta tax is great

  example I bet the world of tax

  preparation does not really want their

  tax reference app to be making jokes at

  them like that would just rub them the

  wrong way it would make it look a mature

  issue it would it would make them feel

  like wait a minute what did I could

  spend $100 on this is supposed to be a

  serious reference tool and I need to

  know it's serious because I'm doing

  serious work with it at the same time

  though if you look at other apps

  especially and I said like consumer

  absolute like what we make I think a

  really great example of this is carrot

  weather I was gonna say the same thing


  it is the extreme archetype for the

  strong personality in an application

  like it makes a point of insulting you

  on a regular basis or at least making

  odd comments and like it's as though the

  app was made by this kind of crazy robot

  or I don't even know or AI am not sure

  what it's exactly the posed to be clear

  this crazy weather thing that you know

  has a strong personality and you love it

  or you hate it like it's it's very

  unlikely to be kind of like yeah I feel

  neutral about this we know weather

  overlord that's you know making jokes

  about me yeah but like so-so carrot

  weather is you know it's a weather app

  like there are a billion weather apps

  and they are differentiated by in part

  this incredibly strong polarizing

  personality they've added to that app

  and it kind of makes sense it works for

  them because a you know most people

  don't need their weather app to be a

  hundred percent serious all the time and

  there are enough people looking for

  weather apps that you you can have a

  polarizing personality like that in your

  weather app and even if you a lien eight

  ninety percent of people out there you

  can still make a really good business

  out of their remaining ten percent and

  you can look at that and you can say

  well that's bad business you know why

  why don't you make an app that appeals

  to more people and then you can do

  better and and of course it isn't

  actually that simple in reality you know

  in reality we have all these complicated

  factors and contributing factors in the

  case of something like this like in iOS

  consumer apps having some personality

  like that while it will lose you some

  people for sure and in carrot where

  those case I

  use carrot weather because I don't like

  that personally I find it a little bit

  much so I don't use it but I know a lot

  of people who do use it and who enjoy it

  a lot and the reason I know about it is

  because a I saw it once and it made an

  impression and I remembered it which is

  something you can't say about things

  that have a neutral voice they usually

  don't do that so I remember it made an

  impression and B it got a lot of press

  because it was noteworthy it was

  different it there are so many weather

  apps out there and it's very hard for

  any of them to stand out in any way to

  get press or to big get remembered by

  people who aren't using them every day

  and this one did it got press it gets

  remembered it has like you know about

  you and I have never talked about that

  before I had no idea that you had used

  it but now I know because like you know

  we we this app has made a splash for

  itself and has its own brand and

  personality that are established now

  that people know that people remember

  and and it stands out from the pack

  because it has personality so adding

  personality to an app and the stronger

  you do it the more stream this is adding

  personality to an app is a risk but it's

  a risk that might be worth it for the

  payoff and it's you know it's really up

  to you and and up to the market of the

  app whether that's a risk worth taking

  and how far you want to take it you know

  in their case you know as it like for me

  they took it too far

  but they're obviously doing well with

  everybody else so and you know III have

  a different app I use anyway so it's

  fine it's like and you know and and in


  I have personality and there are two I

  don't do it is I don't do it to the

  extent that they do I kind of my

  personality is more like a little bit of

  accent here and there like some of the

  microcopy around certain things and

  everything but it's not like it's not

  that heavy handed and because for me I

  thought that was the right balance

  because I want overcast to be semi

  mass-market but I also know that I need

  to stand out because there's already a

  mass-market podcasts app on the phone

  called podcast that's always there and

  heavily promoted and heavily indicated

  by everything so you know I knew that I

  wasn't going to win the battle with no

  personality but I also I didn't want to

  give so much personality that it turned

  off a big section of the audience so

  it's always it's a bow

  you have to strike and I think it's it's

  it's part of your overall design and

  branding of the entire app you know you

  should be considering this with any

  design decision Kyle you know a lot of

  you know even in overcast being this

  this app with this kind of like bright

  orange and white color theme like that's

  also part of the personality of the app

  it's like I'm not gonna just pick you

  know blue like everybody else everybody

  picks blue no offense everything

  everybody picks blue and the reason

  everybody picks blue is goes back to

  what I said earlier about Microsoft and

  Apple that it's it's very hard to pick

  colors that don't offend or have

  negative connotations to some culture

  somewhere and one of the reasons why all

  your icons in your computer are blue is

  because blue is is like probably the one

  of the most neutral but appealing colors

  that exists that can be the same around

  the whole world and not really offend

  anybody where if you pick like red then

  you know red might mean unlucky in

  country X Y or Z or you know something

  like that it's like there's there are

  always these these cultural baggages on

  all the on all design and color and

  personality choices that you have to

  kind of walk around if you're a giant

  company but as a smaller company as we

  as we've been talking about as a smaller

  company we have the freedom to to not do

  that we have the freedom to to to be a

  little bit polarizing for the benefit of

  having people notice us and remember us

  and maybe get some press and maybe get

  some some people who who resonates with

  ya because I think at its core I mean

  there's the marketing aspect of like you

  need to have something if you will

  ideally your app it's probably gonna

  have some sense of like word-of-mouth

  advertising to it there's gonna be some

  aspect to it that like you someone likes

  the app and they're gonna show someone

  else and there is a you have to have

  something distinctive about your

  application for that really to catch on

  and to work and like that

  distinctiveness could it be something

  more like fundamental like it's just

  really good its Reno it's just really

  solidly constructed but like that's a

  harder thing to get to such a degree

  that someone's going to be like wow let

  me show you this app that you know like

  all the way it always renders that 60

  frames a second

  and sinks really quickly like that's

  unlikely to be something that is a hook

  that is like something that really grabs

  someone's you know imagination and makes

  them want to tell people about it and so

  when you do something like this when

  you're talking when you're thinking

  about your application and you give it a

  give it a stronger personality or you

  have lots of little touches that maybe

  are a bit more Arthur are less safe

  you're giving yourself the opportunity

  to have more of those hooks to have more

  of those things that the press will

  latch onto that people your customers

  will latch onto and be like show other

  people you're like I'm thinking about

  like an overcast at the bottom of your

  settings screen where it tells you how

  much time you've saved with smart speed

  it's like it's a little touch that in is

  a great opportunity for someone to share

  the application with someone else even

  if you add these little things into it

  you're trying to give it a little bit

  more you know like personality or like

  non neutral non neutrality maybe even is

  a better way to say it like you give

  yourself the opportunity and being a

  small company like I like that I'm I

  feel fine doing those because I don't

  it's not like I have to go before some

  kind of committee to be like is this an

  accept like is this silliness okay like

  there's not like the Ministry of

  silliness that I have to go to and say

  I'd like to have this little silly this

  little silly touch to the application is

  that okay I would love to see like a

  conference room at Apple and on the

  front of the door in like sterile bland

  San Francisco Texas stenciled Ministry

  of silliness yeah but it's sure though

  like I imagine in some ways there is

  that that those voices in bigger

  companies that look at something and be

  like no that's that's not like that

  maybe that people could take that the

  wrong way or maybe that's not do you

  know like oh that doesn't fit with our

  corporate brand or a feel I mean or even

  like I think about like in pedometer

  plus plus I had a little thing it when

  you hit your goal confetti falls from

  the top of the screen which is a little

  bit of tight a little bit of personality

  a little bit of sleight of silliness

  that is probably the one with it's

  probably only a slight exaggeration to

  say like that feature is one of the

  biggest reasons the app has been


  because people love it like they like

  that feeling of getting their goal and

  getting confetti and it's an it doesn't

  have to be there the app doesn't need is

  something like that but putting it there

  by making it a little bit more fun a

  little bit more a little bit more silly

  I people it endears itself to people and

  like I like that I can take advantage of

  that and you know have you give people

  that fun of like hey check this out I

  just got my goal and you know confetti

  is falling from the sky yeah it seems

  like like maybe like the more

  commoditized a market is and like the

  harder it is to stand out otherwise like

  I mean you would know better than

  anybody else how many other pedometer

  apps are there on the store it's

  probably not a small number no it isn't

  anymore but yeah I mean when you

  launched it was a smaller perk as you

  launch like the second you possibly

  could but yeah it's not a small number

  now and so stuff like that will help you

  stand out now because you know it's it's

  it's a large market of mostly

  undifferentiated apps anything you can

  do to differentiate yourself and to give

  people a little bit of that little

  niceness a little delight little moments

  of delight that that is that helps you

  stand out and you know in in like

  business-wise you can you know this

  could integrate into your business model

  as well like you know if you look at an

  app let's let's say like one of those

  like hipster camera apps if they limit

  the amount of shots you can take and

  it's like like what didn't have some

  dismantle it's like you can like you

  like paper shot like an old Polaroid

  it's like an old film camera like like

  oh you get you could buy a roll of film

  or whatever that's part of their

  business model and people hated it but

  they talked about it and it worked you

  know in in a more I guess positive way

  you know in an overcast the the whole

  patronage model patronage works because

  from day one I've been giving the app

  the voice and personality of one person

  like not a big company one person so

  when I say hey please give me money if

  you feel like it that means a lot more

  than if it was a bland voiced company

  saying that I I think it would be less

  successful you know but at the same time

  it's a risk is like you know some people

  just think I'm a jerk and won't give me

  any money but you know it's

  think overall I think I found a decent

  balance there and and i think i think

  many apps could benefit from finding

  that kind of balance because as you said

  earlier this is something that the big

  companies they won't do because their

  Ministry of silliness will reject it all

  like do something if you want to stand

  out from the big companies do something

  they will never do because then they

  can't Sherlock you they like they can't

  put you out of business through that way

  like they that it's a way you will be

  able to stand out and one way you can

  always stand out as an indie is with

  personality because the big companies

  will never do it and it's I think in

  many ways like it's the great thing of

  it's the hardest thing for someone else

  to copy oh yeah like if I'm if I imbue

  my applications with my own personality

  like you know like my sense of humor the

  way I the way I see the world someone

  else may be able to come along and copy

  my features they may be able to copy my

  UI but those little touches are going to

  be very hard for them to copy for them

  to copy and so if my features start

  showing up in other applications like

  okay that the features there but it's

  not gonna feel the same as when

  someone's using that feature inside of

  my application because the reason it was

  there and the way that like it loses the

  context around it that made it

  distinctive and like in the crowded kind

  of insane marketplace that is the App

  Store like makings doing anything that

  is hard to be copied can only probably

  be a good thing yeah and other

  industries learn this lesson long ago

  like this this is how the fashion

  industry works big time like it's so

  much based on reputation and and like

  long term branding and personality and

  everything I'm like what does this brand

  mean we know what do they stand for and

  someone else can make the same shirt

  that's cost less the people will buy

  your shirt because they like you know

  the horse and your ads or whatever so

  it's like we have a lot to learn from

  other industries about this as well but

  you know software doesn't it doesn't all

  have to be safely blandly voiced it can

  be and there's many instances where that

  is the right choice but not all exactly

  and I think ultimately you just have to

  make sure the it's the most important

  thing like the biggest takeaway

  hopefully from today's show is this is

  something that's important to be a


  choice that it's something that you if

  you view and whenever you sit down to

  make software you have to decide like

  where are you on the spectrum what are

  your goals what are you trying to

  ultimately do with this piece of

  software and then you'll have to align

  that with the way you build it how much

  personality you put into your

  application how big you appear how fancy

  you appear how much silliness you allow

  and as long as it's a conscious choice

  you're probably doing you know in a good

  place because you're able to have it be

  consistent and then impactful for your

  customers exactly alright well we're out

  of time for this week and there's a good

  discussion so thank you very much for

  listening everybody they took on for

  sponsoring thanks to release notes for

  being good go listen to that show you

  should be subscribing to it and we'll

  talk to you next week