Dropping Out of College to Teach Others How to Design Beautiful Software

Have you ever dreamed of creating an app that you haven’t seen anywhere before? Wouldn’t it be awesome to create app that users would pay to have?

Nathan Barry is a very successful app developer and a talented interface designer who, besides creating great apps, also provides instructions and tips on his website NathanBarry.com. He shares his experience of writing and marketing online products so other can learn from his process.

Nathan also recently published The App Design Handbook, an eBook about designing beautiful apps. His user friendly resource is so easy to understand and implement that it's not surprising that he's being blessed with success.

Enjoy my interview with this talented creative!

 

1. Nathan, you are doing some interesting work in design and iPhone applications. Tell me about how you ended up in this line of work. What is your formal education? How much did you learn on your own? What people or things influenced your career path?

I started to learn web design in junior high and high school. Early on I just got a book from the library and started typing code into a text file to see how it looked in the browser. Then I convinced my parents to buy me a copy of Photoshop Elements for my 15th birthday, which enabled me to do more actual design.

Then I went to Boise State University for graphic design, but hated the classes so after 1 semester I switched to marketing. After a couple years I realized I liked making money building websites more than I liked going to school. So I dropped out and started freelancing.

While most people would say I was self taught, I don’t really see it that way. I never had any formal design education, but I was taught by the very best designers from all over the world through the tutorials and articles they shared on their blogs. So I had the best education possible, I just had to provide my own motivation since no one was forcing me to turn in homework.

So I was self-motived, but certainly not self-taught.

2. I really like the way you use your experience to teach visitors. You are open and honest about the problems and mistakes you have made. How comfortable was that in the beginning? How does sharing those things feel now? Do you ever feel vulnerable about sharing? How do customers react to your honesty?

It took a while to get used to sharing a lot on my blog. I still don’t share as much as I could. It’s something I’m still working on.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to ask Rand Fishkin, the founder of SEOmoz, why he shares so many details, especially financial, about his company. He said that level of transparency shows empathy for those who come after us.

I love that answer. So many people, like Rand, have taught me everything I know about business and starting a company through their transparency. So I feel obligated to continue to do the same. If you ever want to know how much money a product of mine made, or what I learned from a failure, just ask. And I’ll try to put more of it on my blog.

The only issue I’ve had is when I talked about how much money my iPad application had made. I did it to be transparent and to try to help people who were considering selling their own apps, but a few people said it seemed like I was bragging. Which was not my intention at all.

3. Nathan, your link-in page includes an internship you did for the Idaho State Legislature. I’m curious how did a graphic design student end up doing organizing for Representatives? What are some of things you learned? How has that influenced the direction of your career? How helpful was that experience in networking?

Yes, when I was a senior in high school I worked as an intern for the Idaho Legislature. It was a really cool experience. I learned a ton, made a lot of friends, and got some fantastic letters of recommendation (that I never used).

I’ve always been interested in politics, so I loved the inside look I got from being around it every day.

The biggest thing I learned was that the people you see demonized on TV are really just people. Whether you agree with them or not they are just doing what they think is best.

4. On your todo for life list and used as an example describing the Commit App, is learning to draw. How is it coming? How is drawing different from creating computer images? Do you find it relaxing or is it more frustrating? You are also teaching yourself programming. Is the process similar? Which is easier to stay focused on?

Drawing is something I work on for a little while, but then put on a back burner to focus on other projects. I think my longest streak for drawing every day (tracked by Commit) is 12 days. So not great.
A year ago I might say learning to draw is a priority, but really our priorities are what we do, not what we say they are. So if you spend two hours watching TV every day, that’s your priority. So based on what I actually spend my time on, drawing is not a priority. At least right now.

Currently I’m focused on writing and fitness. At least those are the two things I make sure to do every day.

5. A couple of years ago you wrote an article called “How to By-Pass the TSA No-Fly List.” Do you still question the airline security process? Did you hesitate to publish the article? Do you have any concern someone would use the information to create mayhem? What sort of feedback did you get?

I’ve always been frustrated by what Bruce Schneier calls “security theatre” Something designed to make us feel secure, but that actually doesn’t do anything. The TSA is entirely security theatre.

As for someone using my post to create a problem, I don’t think that’s likely. Anyone who thinks through how the ID checks are done in the process can find the holes pretty quickly. I think the more people who know about it the better. At least then we can try to force changes with the TSA.

6. In an article entitled “Being Present” you pointed out a growing problem of people engaging with their electronics rather than the people and environment of the present moment. How prevalent do you think the problem is? How do you think it is impacting society? Do you have any thoughts on what people can do to attend to the communication our devices provide without it negatively impacting our experience and the social opportunity of the moment?

I wrote that post, yet I’m still a horrible offender. I look at my phone far too often during the day. My wife even reminded me of it a couple weeks ago. Something I really need to work on. Perhaps I just need to remove Twitter, Facebook and Email from my iPhone.

Tim Ferriss said that he doesn’t have a smart phone, since he doesn’t trust himself to use it responsibly. It may be time for me to cut myself off and stop carrying a phone. Or at least remove the apps that I check habitually.

7. Tell me about the development of Commit. It sounds like a helpful way to create personal accountability. What kinds of habits are people trying to create using it? How helpful is it to you personally?

I don’t actually track any user data with Commit, so I can only tell you about my habits. Here are my current commitments, along with the number of days in a row.

I will write 1,000 words every day (113 days in a row)
I will exercise every day (44 days in a row)
I will read to Oliver every day (66 days in a row)
I will follow my diet every day (13 days in a row)

Oliver is my 1 year old son. I use Commit to remind myself to spend time reading to him every day. That’s something I want him to remember us doing together, so it is a habit that is really important to me.

The diet I follow isn’t strict Paleo, but I really needed to get rid of most sugar and grain, so that’s what I’ve done. Works well for me, except it’s hard when I travel, which is why that streak is so short.

8. One of the applications you offer through Legend is OneVoice an augmentative communication system which allows nonverbal adults and children to communicate. How did you think of this application? How long was the development process? How is it marketed? How popular is it? Is it covered by insurance?

My sister-in-law gave me the idea for OneVoice. She was working with a boy with autism who used a hardware device called a Dynavox to communicate. It had pictures and words on the screen and when he selected a phrase it would use synthesized speech to speak it. The downside was this touch screen computer was massive, heavy, very expensive, and had a 30 minute battery life.

The iPad had just come out a couple months earlier and I was looking for an application to develop for practice. She told me about that idea and I ran with it.

The first version took 4 months to complete, with me working on it in my free time since I had a full time job.

Sales have been quite good for a side project. It’s up to about $30,000 in profit in the last 20 months or so. Hopefully that gives you an idea of how popular it is.

Some insurance companies cover it, others don’t. Right now it mostly depends on which state the purchaser lives in.
That’s a lot of different questions. 🙂

9. You often high light the importance of user experience. How do you implement that in your own designs? Do you have a testing process? It seems like tweaking an app could go on forever. How do you determine when to stop?

I always try to iterate a design as much as possible on paper or in Photoshop before getting into the code. This lets me quickly try out a bunch of concepts quickly without risking lots of wasted time pursuing an idea that doesn’t work out. Then, if it makes sense, I get the design in front of the people who will actually be using it.

10. Recently you released the eBook The App Design Handbook. How long had you been thinking about the book before you started writing it? Did you have a timeline to keep yourself focused? What did you learn from the writing process?

I’d wanted to write a book about design for years, but I didn’t start working on this particular book until April, 2012. I made a commitment, using Commit, to write 1,000 words a day. It took me a while to get into the swing of things, but once I did the book came together pretty quickly.

I made a timeline for the other tasks like guest posts and other marketing activities just to make sure I didn’t forget anything.

11. Your App design handbook has brought in $23,000+ in sales in less than a month. That is a great number. What was your product launch strategy and How did you market the eBook?

Now, two months after releasing the book, it is over $35,000 in profit. Which is just insane to me.

I put a lot into the marketing. Mostly writing content, then having an email opt-in link at the bottom of each post on my blog. Then on launch day I had 5 guest posts go live on different blogs. Though the email list is what drove the most sales.

12. You have shared the marketing journey of the book with your readers. Brilliant! How has that impacted sells? What are the most common questions you get from your readers about marketing?

I’m not very good at tracking exact sources for sales, so I don’t know the direct impact, but the transparency is important to me, so it doesn’t matter either way. I talk a lot about pricing strategies like charging based on value and having multiple packages at different price points.

Those are the two product launch ideas I seem to talk about the most.

13. Tell me about your youtube video tutorials. How often do you post new videos? What is the outcome you are hoping for? How is it working?

It’s working fine. I don’t post new videos very often, but I like to have a channel where I can if I want to. I really like the format of short tips on design and coding that are under 3 minutes. It helps me to stay focused and get right to the point. More are coming soon.

14. I am thinking for every product you have marketed, there are several that did not make it to market. What are some of the projects you have let go or set aside? Why? What did you learn from their creation?

I’ve had plenty of failures. Many probably failed because I didn’t stick with them long enough. The two most notable failures are my WordPress theme company, Legend Themes, and my flash cards / memorization app, Fluent. Neither have made much money, and I don’t plan to continue working on either one.

15. Nathan, you have done some amazing work! What is the next project? What are you hoping your business will look like in 5 years?

The next project is another book on designing web applications. After that, I’m not sure. I don’t know where I want my business to be in 5 years. I’d rather work in the present and just see where life takes me.

16. Lastly, I'm curios, nearly every page of your websites includes your Boise, Idaho location. Is that important personally or professionally?

If I go to a tech conference people always give me a weird look when I say I am from Boise, wondering why I don’t move to the bay area. But really I love Boise. It’s a beautiful city with a vibrant tech scene. Sure, not nearly as much as SF, but it’s my home and I plan to stay. Now I’m just working on the perception other people have of Boise.

Thank You

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Nathan Barry is the founder, app developer, and interface designer for the Legend Company. In addition to creating apps, Nathan provides instructions and tips to others through his website Nathan Barry. You can also find Nathan on Twitter @nathanbarry

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