The difference between a half-assed app and a kick-ass app comes down to execution. Many apps try to be too many things at once— hey, have you thought about adding a tuner?— or packing in too many features too quickly. For Selah Chords to have that hand-crafted, well-executed look I wanted, I need to punt features.
When you are building an app, you have to define the MVP— the Minimally Viable Product. What is shippable? But, sometimes during development you reach a point that the product is shippable before you hit what you thought was your MVP. That happened with Selah Chords.
The initial MVP included Custom Tunings. The ability to add, edit, and delete tunings and instruments. Why? Because that is what the engine, the algorithm, was built to do. Give it a set of strings— and a couple parameters— and it would find chords. But once I had the interface for switching chords, scrolling through voicings, and the beautiful themes all in place I realized something. I could just load up a set of default instruments and tunings and ship it. Everything else was ready to ship, but to add Custom Tunings would take another month at least.
So I punted Custom Tunings. It made sense. It was still a very important feature to me, but not for the 1.0. And, as it turned out, not for the 1.1 either. Version 1.1 came with favorite chords, copying chord voicings, drag-n-drop, and banjo support.
You must, when you are building an app, have the goal of shipping. You can always ship an update. Ship early. Ship often.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the last year I have been learning both ukulele and mandolin, after 20 years of playing guitar. As I tweeted over the weekend, I bought a ukulele and looked for a chord app. I had a couple for guitar, but none of them supported ukulele. I found out pretty quickly that most of the apps suffered from similar issues. They were hard to use— bad UX/UI—, lacked iOS esthetic, and didn't have the features I needed most where they needed to be.
Now so much of that is subjective. Yes. True. When I am looking for a chord voicing, I am looking for where I can play it. The most popular apps show a single voicing at a time.
Take this app from The Ukulele Teacher. Are there other voicings? I will guess that the 1/32 up top indicates that there are. But how do I get to them. Swipe right to left? Nope. Maybe that next arrow in the bottom right? Crap! Now it's playing an audio clip of the voicing. Swipe up? There it is! But no scroll indicators, just a change of the fretted notes and the "1/32" changed to "2/32".
Now I want to switch to a D minor. How do I do it? Tap the C major "title" up top? No. The music note at the bottom?
Not the easiest thing to use. And to be hidden away behind an ambiguous button when it is an action I am going to use the most? Not good.
I have been playing guitar for 20 years and never learned basic music theory. I didn't know how chords were formed, just where they were. Sure, I knew that they were multiple notes being played, but I never cared or concerned myself with which notes aside from my root was being played.
So I started there. How is a C major chord formed? Well, it's based on the C major scale. I didn't know my scales. Or how they were formed. Guess I would start there.
A scale starts with the root note and then takes a certain number of whole and half steps between notes back around. A major scale, for instance goes 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5. That C major scale? C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.
So back to that C major chord. How is that chord formed? A chord is formed on intervals of a scale. The major chord is using the I, III, and V intervals of major scale. Roman numerals for some reason. There is likely a wiki page for that explanation, if you are interested. So we start at I, which is our C, go to III, our E, and end on V, our G.
To the programmer reading this, you might have noticed that this is math. I certainly did. And math I can do. I love math.
So I Built an App
Looking through the App Store for an app that scratched my itch made me sad. As a UX/UI engineer, I decided that if this was just math, I could design a better looking/working app and build a chord finder that didn't suck. But first I needed an engine. Take that math and turn it into an algorithm. An algorithm that I could hand a set of strings and tell it to find the C major voicings— different ways to play it across the neck of my ukulele.
This was, surprisingly, done on an iPad. I opened Swift Playgrounds and built the first prototype of the algo there. Even had it doing basic drawing of the chord chart.
The algo was straight-forward. Use the above math to find the notes of the requested chord, find all the notes on the set of strings given, then find all possible combinations of those notes on those strings. From there start narrowing it down to actual, playable chords.
It worked, so I started the design process.
Defining the App
What's in and what's out. So I had a powerful algorithm. I could give it 4 strings, and it'd find the voicings of a specific chord. I could give it 5 strings. Six strings. Seven. Ooo. I decided I wanted to support multiple instruments, obviously guitar and ukulele being the top of that list. But as I built the first working prototype app and had it running on my phone, I switched to mandolin strings and went to Guitar Center to play around. See how well it worked and if I could pick up another new instrument. And it was a success. One that went onto me buying a mandolin too.
The app was to stay simple. Prize simplicity, be willing to hold back functionality that other apps may have. No scales, no arpeggios, lots of noes.
So what was required?
A beautiful, clean interface. Easily scroll through a list of chord voicings. Big enough that you could read them comfortably, but small enough that you could see many at once.
A simple mechanic to switching between chords. That above ukulele app made it very difficult to switch chords. Others do as well. I wanted none of that. So my app would have two bars. Segmented controls. Easily switch between root notes and chords.
Multiple instruments/tunings and easy switching between them. This would be in a drop down. I wanted this to be quick to access, but you wouldn't be switching instruments as often as you switched chords, so a drop down was logical.
Removing Features and Narrowing in on Version One
I wanted banjo support in version one. And the ability to mark a voicing as a favorite. And support for adding custom tunings. But shipping is more important. I shifted from feature building to spit-shine mode in October, realizing that I had a perfectly usable app.
I always remind myself of 37signals's Rework book. Do I want a half-assed whole product or a kick-ass half product? I can ship a dozen features with bugs and no polish or ship a half-dozen features with delight and polish galore.
So I Spent My Year on an App
Like most programmers that decide to pick up a new hobby, instead of learning and mastering ukulele this year, I learned basic music theory, built, and launched an app.
Selah Chords has shipped. And the initial reviews are that it is beautiful, intuitive, easy-to-use, and extremely useful.
And coming soon, banjo and favorite voicings. And after that, custom tunings.
I’ve been writing for much of my life. I can go back to posts that I wrote years ago and hear my voice, my convictions, my emotions. I can see the evolution of that over time. Improve upon it. See where I’ve changed.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been playing my guitar again. I’ve been wanting to play with Yousician on iOS and always pushed it off. So I grabbed my guitar and started practicing with Yousician. I have an iRig, so plugging into my iPad Pro was easy. No waking the kid that way.
So this week, I purchased Capo and started playing along with some of my favorite songs. That app is amazing, but a story for another time. The night before last, as I played for three hours, I decided to hit record in GarageBand. After a song, I listened to my guitar. No voice, no drums, just my guitar. And I saw all my amateur weakness. So last night I focused on improving just one thing. And I hit record.
A guitar tuner to geek out over, Roadie is a beautiful example of what can happen when you carry a supercomputer in your pocket. Roadie connects to your iPhone with Bluetooth. The app listens to you strum the strings of your guitar and tells the tuner how much to spin the pegs. It also lets you know when you need new strings.