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Designing a Hand-Crafted App in 2018

Early this year I started playing with an app idea that became Selah Chords. I had a working prototype of the engine that would power it. I knew it could work. But what would differentiate it would be care for UI. Make it easy to do the things that needed to be easy. Instead of focusing on all the other tools that could be added— literally, the competition nearly includes the kitchen sink in their apps— I would focus on doing one thing really well.

A recently (at the time) published article from Michael Flarup had me encouraged to explore skeuomorphic design again, something I had been itching to do for years. To be honest, app design today is too bland. Most of us know that. It used to be full of texture and UI work, parts of the process that would take months. Each app had personality. Then iOS 7 happened. And all that work got thrown aside. Read that article.

I explored a number of paper, notebook, and other interface metaphors for Selah, trying to find a voice that could work. And in the end, I could not find a voice there. And the reason was because I wanted to rely on the screen, not the physical world’s physics.

I had one major interaction that needed to be nailed, in my opinion. Finding a chord. Seems easy, I know. But everyone makes the easy hard, for some reason.

Guitar Gravitas

This is a great app. I honestly use it quite a bit, as it supports chords that Selah Chords does not support. But finding a chord in Guitar Gravitas sucks. First, the root note selector is a slider. Second, the selected state is a dotted, 1px tall underline. This thing is horrible.

Then there is the scroll direction change in finding a chord. This app uses multiple panels that all scroll independently. This is not an iOS convention and instantly feels off. Mind you, on iPad, this is better because of the screen size.

The biggest reason that I use this app regularly, as opposed to others, is because of the chord charts. It shows me tons of voicings without the trouble that other apps make of that.

Guitar Tuna

One of the most popular guitar apps, as it is a tuner— a pretty good one— that also provides other tools. Personally, if you want a good tuner, get Fine Tuner, but that is a different topic. The chord library tool is what we are focusing on here. Once again, sliding lists for root and chord, but made worse by the scroll for voicing. Guitar Tuna only provides a handful of voicings— standard movable shapes, essentially. But to see them, you have to flick one-by-one through them.

I do not use this app much. Mostly because the interface is less than ideal.

Guitar Master

Another popular guitar app. Tuner? Check. Metronome? Check. Scales? Yup. And chords. That root note selector is better. All on one screen. No scrolling. But now to select a chord, you have to find it in a scrolling collection view— rows and columns— and expand it.

Wait, don’t tap— damn. It just played the chord. You wanted to see more voicings, didn’t you. Yeah, tap that small expand icon. And now, when the collection would have made since, you get this scrolling list of voicings and a guitar neck that takes up two-thirds of the screen.

Finding my Voice

As I looked to solve this one interaction, Jared Sinclair shipped ’Sodes. And boy. While not skeuomorphic, while super minimalist, it wasn’t boring. It wasn’t bland. Subtle gradients, sparse, well-thought our content layout design. The content was king, not the interface. But even without the interface being king, it didn’t get so far outta the way that you were confused. Buttons had borders. They looked like buttons.

So instead of making beautiful, meticulous textures, I started storyboarding animations. The first test of what I deemed gooey animation was built.

Instead of sharps getting their note name repeated, the sharp extended the preceding note button. The construction under the hood is fun, taking accessibility into consideration with an accessibilityLabel of the full name (“C#”).

And then the sliding selection. Clear selection state was important. At this point I was using Guitar Gravitas and that was my biggest grievance. Animating this allows for a fun, hand-crafted interaction, while not getting in your way. This is done by making the animation quick and informative.

The chord selector is brief. I didn’t need to support a hundred chords. Why? Because the most common chords can be summed down to a handful. I’m not looking to build the only chord finder you use, just your favorite.

Is Skeuomorphic Dead, Then?

I hope not. What I know is that it wasn’t right for Selah Chords. Which surprised me at first. I wanted it to be right. It might be for your app.

What’s Next?

Banjo support is coming. Selah Chords started with guitar, ukulele, mandolin, and dulcimer. I am adding banjo. Also copying or dragging voicings out of Selah Chords is coming. And favorite voicings. And who knows what else.

Get Selah Chords today. It’s free and will become an essential part of your musical toolkit.