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Interview with Jeff Nichols, Director of Product Design at BaseCase

As a student at Furman University in South Carolina, Jeff Nichols worked on visualizations for an atmospheric model developed in support of a NASA satellite mission.

He arrived at BaseCase after developing enterprise synchronization solutions for the telco industry as well as various consumer desktop apps for Mac and Windows. We spoke about the iPad, design, and his vision for BaseCase products.

I’d like to talk about product design in relation to the iPad. To start with, why do you think the iPad has seen the success that it has?

Well, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the iPad and iOS have revolutionized the computing experience. Never before was there a computer that was so intuitively usable.

There are a number of reasons for this, but I think the main factor is that it takes away an entire layer of abstraction. In iOS we aren’t manipulating a metaphor that in turn manipulates the content. Instead we manipulate the content directly, with our fingers. There’s no mouse, no trackpad, no pointer, no scrollbar.

For those accustomed to traditional desktops and laptops this may not seem like a big deal, but if you’ve ever seen a young child use an iPad then it’s plainly evident that this direct manipulation of content drastically lowers the barrier to entry.

How does this impact BaseCase?

Of course our users aren’t young children and do have experience in more traditional computing environments, so why does this matter to us? It’s important to realize that whenever we can remove layers of abstraction we also narrow a conceptual gap between the user and the content.

It’s all about making things more immersive, and this is what’s important to us. Immersion leads to engagement, which is effectively our ultimate goal as an app platform provider.

Does it also present any new challenges?

Absolutely. But what’s really interesting is that the challenges that we face now when targeting the iPad have turned out to improve our strategy for building apps in general.

I’d say the biggest hurdle when designing BaseCase apps for the iPad is simply dealing with the limited screen space available. Before the iPad came out our apps were exclusively ‘dashboard’ style apps, where we’d cram as much information onto a single ‘screen’ as possible. Once the first iPad was released it was immediately apparent that this style of app was unsuitable for this new platform, primarily due to its relatively small screen size. Thus began our transition to develop more ‘storyboard’ style apps, where a story is presented over multiple pages with each page focusing solely on one particular message or aspect of the story.

This new style of app is actually more effective in the vast majority of our clients’ cases. They’re easier to follow and less overwhelming, and they helpfully serve as guides during face-to-face presentations. There is definitely still a place for dashboard style apps, but generally the shift towards creating more storyboard style apps has been beneficial for our clients, regardless of whether they use iPads or not.

Do you have a design philosophy in general? Can you summarize it for us?

I’ve always been very drawn to the popular quotation from Steve Jobs that design is not just what something looks like, design is how it works.

I think this sentiment is very strong at BaseCase. We certainly want our apps to look good, and in this aspect the quality of our apps has increased substantially over the years. But we have always put a lot of effort into making sure that our apps ‘work’ well.

In what ways do you mean?

Most importantly by making sure that they are logically structured and intuitive. And in the case of storyboard style apps, that they guide the user through a well-considered narrative.

This focus on ‘obviousness’ is also very important in our approach to the design of BaseCase Interactive as an app development platform. We want to provide an intuitive and user-friendly platform so our clients can quickly build apps in-house without resorting to outsourcing and custom software projects that are difficult to update and maintain.

Do you have a particular recommendation for companies using the platform?

We’ve learned so many lessons over the years that it’s hard to come up with just one recommendation. I’m tempted to get into more technical concepts like alignment and white space, but if I would have to come up with a single recommendation, it would be to put the story first. An app can be beautiful, flashy and impressive, but if it is also illogical, unstructured or confusing then all is for nothing. Like the iPad mentioned before, a thoughtfully conceived story is immersive and engaging, and this is what we’re really after.