Admittedly, not everyone needs a Mac-based application to manage pictures taken by a microscope. If you’re a scientist, though, you probably won’t find an app that’s as useful and well-designed as Macnification. More than just an image organizer, this app lets users edit and analyze pictures from digital microscopes, attach important metadata , and even create time-lapse movies.
Apple must also think Macnification a pretty nifty app since it presented its developers Peter Schols and Dennis Lorson with a design award at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference this summer for Best Mac OS X Leopard User Experience.
As part of a series of posts that take a look at this year’s WWDC winners, I caught up with Schols to find out how to design a good user experience, and what it takes to be a good Mac citizen. Here’s what he had to say.
TAB: What gave you the idea to create Macnification? How long was the development process?
PS: My background is in biology and bioinformatics. While working in the lab to obtain my PhD, I made intensive use of electron microscopy. However, once the images were acquired from the electron microscope, I had to rely on a plethora of applications to manage them. I organized images in the Finder or in iPhoto, adjusted them with Photoshop, analyzed them with ImageJ and added scale bars with yet another application. Having to use half a dozen applications makes things very complex and error prone. In addition, most of these applications are designed for general purpose imaging: most of them are not able to deal with microscope metadata, for example. Therefore, I always dreamed of having one, easy-to-use application for this entire workflow. That’s how Macnification was born.
Development started in November 2006. Due to many new technologies in 10.5 that could benefit an image management application, we immediately opted to make Macnification Leopard-only. However, Leopard was still very much under development in the fall of 2006, so the initial development did not progress as well as we would have expected. It was only after we received the Leopard developer preview at WWDC 2007 that we could progress faster. We finally released Macnification 1.0 on May 6 2008, after 18 months of development.
TAB: How did winning the Best User Experience award benefit the Macnification project?
PS: The impact of an Apple Design Award cannot be overestimated. Needless to say, it has a positive impact on sales, which nearly doubled after the ADA announcement. Furthermore, it really makes the product stand out, especially in a niche that is not really known for excellent UI design. Most importantly though, it was a major recognition for Dennis and myself after 18 months of hard work.
TAB: Tell me a little about what goes into designing a good user experience when developing an app.
PS: We have put a lot of effort into planning this application: the first months of development were spent almost exclusively on planning the application’s mission statement, the main workflow and the application’s key features. Especially for a project this size, it’s really important to know exactly what you are going to develop, who you are going to develop for, how it will be used and what your users need.
Crafting a mission statement for the app, as John Geleynse emphasizes in his WWDC user experience presentations, is one of the best ways to make sure you do not overload the application with useless features or features that are not focused on the task at hand. Of course we had an advantage there: due to my experience with electron microscopy, it was much easier to know what users really need.
Once the mission statement has been established, we start thinking about the core user experience. What are the metaphors the user is familiar with when trying to accomplish tasks? How can we use the metaphors in the interface to make the application as easy-to-use as possible? Once the core UI is done, we start adding relevant but secondary features and we try to give them a place in the core UI in a way that makes them seem like natural extensions of the core UI.
Needless to say, this is an iterative process: sometimes you find that it’s very hard to add additional features without making the UI too bloated. That’s probably because the core UI is not well designed or because the metaphors being used are not in sync with the user’s mental model.
TAB: What was the biggest thing you learned by attending WWDC?
PS: I have been attending for the past 7 years and Dennis has attended for the past 2 years. The presentations are very interesting, not only for the technical details but also because they paint a much clearer picture of where Apple is heading than you would get from visiting apple.com or reading Mac news sites. If there is one thing you should know as a Mac developer, it’s probably where Apple is going. For example, by attending WWDC, we knew that Leopard would have extensive support for image handling through ImageKit. Being able to use this new technology long before it is being shipped in the final OS is a major advantage.
The possibility to interact with Apple engineers and user experience specialists is probably the most important reason to attend WWDC. In 2007, we had a UI-review of Macnification at WWDC. This review helped us tremendously in making some final UI decisions and in solving a couple of UI problems we kept thinking about. In addition, it’s a great way to check whether you are still on the right track UI wise.
In terms of code, we had similar experiences. We worked very closely with the ImageKit team to make the best use of this technology. It was a mutual process: the ImageKit team was glad to see their framework being used in a scientific project and by using ImageKit we could help it improve while receiving some extra tips and tricks to improve Macnification itself.
TAB: What would you tell someone who hopes to one day win a design award at WWDC?
PS: I already mentioned some key points, like the importance of crafting a mission statement, talking to users and trying to find out what they need, trying to follow their mental model and creating a simple core UI. All this is very important, but at the same time your application won’t win a design award if it’s not a good Mac OS X citizen. Your application must feel right at home on Mac OS X in terms of visual appearance, interaction and technology integration. It’s important to integrate with other applications and with the OS. For example, Macnification uses Core Animation, ImageKit, PDFKit, Quick Look, Objective-C 2.0, Time Machine, QTKit, Core Data, Spotlight and Core Image. It works well with Numbers and Mail and it has support for multiple processor cores.
Your application should do things that are new to the platform or that really help to push the envelope. With Macnification, for example, we are releasing the first scientific imaging application to offer non-destructive image editing, taking advantage of Core Image. We even use Core Image to provide scientists with the fastest EFI implementation on any platform. Additionally, we use Core Animation, not just to show some nifty animation effects, but also to make navigating huge image stacks much more intuitive. The take-away point here is that you should not just integrate technologies for the sake of integration, but make sure they offer a real advantage for your users.
Finally, you should get in touch with WWDR at Apple for a user interface review. It can massively improve your application.
TAB: Obviously Manification is tied to microscopic not camera images, but do you plan to release an iPhone App at any point that would allow users to access some of the functionality of the main app?
PS: It’s something we think about. This currently isn’t a high priority for our users, but it’s definitely something we keep in mind going forward.
TAB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
PS: Most Mac news sites only publish a list of Apple Design Award winners. As there is so much more to winning an ADA, it has been great to be able to share our experience! We would like to thank the Apple Blog for giving us that opportunity!