What’s the Deal with Those Purple Blobs?

a geek trapped in a cool guy's body presents an article by Jason Kemp 2016-09-29

Remember how I said normals can’t visualize user interfaces without a picture of the user interface in front of them? To be completely clear, I classify normals as anyone who is not an app/front end web developer. Without at least a poorly executed hand-drawn sketch of a screen in an app, everyone else is lost.

I’ve also found that as that hand-drawn sketch gets better, goes digital and gets closer and closer to what everyone thinks will be the final look for the app, normals have a tough time distinguishing between that mockup and the final app. Ditto for “prototyping apps” like Invision.

The screen is the app to them. That screen is also the network and the server, or servers on the other end of those network calls.

Making the actual app look like that mockup, whereever it came from, is the app developer’s job.

I’ve found, however, that going right to the pretty version causes a lot of confusion.

“Oh wow, this looks great! It’ll be ready next week then?” the client asks.

“Um, no,” you say, exasperated. “We’re months away from shipping.”

Then everyone is resentful on both sides.

Creating a pixel perfect screen in code to look exactly like the mockup is pretty easy to do…if everything is fake. In other words, if we only concern ourselves with cosmetics, most seasoned iOS developers can have it working on iPhone and iPad within a half hour, no matter how crazy the screen is. But start adding or removing copy based on some logic, image loading based on logic, data fetching across a network: you know, the useful part of an app, takes a lot longer than anyone realizes, even the developers.

So, here’s the thing: don’t show them the pretty screen until the end. Make the UI reflect the state of things in all the code. Show tab bars without images on the very first demo. Have hard-coded pictures of Matthew McConaughey in there. As more features become functional, spruce up the UI.

It may seem disingenuous, but it’s really the only way to reflect the progress in an app to someone who is not technical.

I’ve always known this. Or rather, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this, but that must not be true. I haven’t always been a software developer.

Turns out—and this is true of most of the advice I’ve spewed in this series—Joel Spolsky said it first. And better. What I’ve just explained is the Iceberg Secret.

That’s why, if you troubled yourself to look at the Zeplin screens, you’d see purple blob people instead of actual people. This rule is so ingrained, even my mockups have to look the part of doing just enough.