Mac apps have gotten away from being highly customizable, sticking instead to a curated set of defaults that often lean towards clutter-free interfaces like most writing apps, or the skeuomorphic designs Apple prefers today. But the highly customizable apps aren’t gone completely.
Today, we’ve had the chance to interview the team behind Calendar Plus, a highly customizable calendar app for the Mac that’s been surprisingly popular on the App Store. Read on to hear their thoughts about developing for the Mac and designing customizable apps.
Thanks for taking the time to do an interview with us! Could you tell us a bit about your company, and how your team works together?
Sure. Qbix is quite a unique company, and in some ways this is because of what has become possible thanks to the internet. Our developers are all spread out geographically, and we do all our work remotely. We are able to distribute our software in app stores and online. This definitely helps us manage our costs as a startup, especially since many of the developers live in Russia and Ukraine
we all speak Russian to each other. Many of us have been working together for almost two years.
Your team’s developed a number of apps now. How do you get inspiration for new apps?
We started a year and a half ago, with a mission to build a social platform for people to make plans with each other and do things as a group. We felt like all the social networks at the time (Facebook, Twitter) were about socializing and sharing online, but we wanted to build something that would help people get out into the real world again. Growing up we, spent much less time in front of a computer, and more with people. Qbix’s philosophy is strongly based around the power of tools to shape and enable the way we do things, and the recent explosion in mobile smartphones lets us build tools that help people move on from their dependence on the computer. So we build things that
Why did you decide to create Calendar Plus, when there’s already so many calendar apps?
Our first app was Groups, because it filled a need on the iPhone
there was no way to manage groups of contacts in your phone, something you could do on Blackberries, Androids, etc. A common refrain from our users is that Apple should have had this natively. But they haven’t added it yet.
When the Mac App Store came out, we wanted to push something out quickly. There was a similar problem with just seeing your calendar and events at a glance from the menubar. So we built it. We put out something really small and basic in the beginning, but people loved it. We actually have most of our daily usage come from the Calendar. Although Calendar Plus looks like it’s catching up.
All Calendar did was show you your local events. But we were always going to take the next step. It took us 9 months but we added support for Facebook events, google calendar, weather forecasts, and so forth. Things that we would like to know ourselves
what’s happening this week, what the weather will look like, etc. There wasn’t anything out there showing you everything in one place. And it helped that our users kept asking for these upgrades. So we figured there’s a market for it.
Calendar Plus isn’t the most unique name, though it is more unique than say Calendar. Has it been challenging promoting an app that’s hard to search for?
Funny enough, it actually made it easier to search for. Try searching for “Calendar” in the Mac app store, and you will see Calendar as #1 and Calendar Plus (currently) as #3. We did the same with Groups. Why not name an app something close to what the people will actually be typing in the search box when they want to solve a problem? That was, I think, one of the biggest factors that contributed to our success. We literally have had nearly a million downloads from Calendar and Groups combined. The other factor was, of course, that our apps are useful enough that people keep them around and use them all the time, rather than throwing them away. You can see the daily statistics on the website.
What did you find uniquely challenging in creating a calendar app?
One thing that was hard, funny enough, was displaying the graphics. Most calendars you see on the wall have a picture on the top, and the calendar cells have a nice solid background. Of course, for a calendar hanging off the menubar, a giant picture on top would be wasteful – you’d have to move your glance and your mouse all the way below it to access the calendar. So we spent a long time trying to design the interface. And it turned out that backgrounds on the actual calendar cells can work pretty well, and put you in a nice mood, as long as you can see the text and icons over it.
However, since we were going to have backgrounds, we obviously needed to let people customize them
put a picture of their kids up there, or whatever they like. So we added a Flickr search for creative commons images. We came up with this system where people choose a background and one of several themes to frame it.
Many apps today are very streamlined, with few features users can tweak, while Calendar Plus is tricked out with features and ways users can customize it. Why did you opt to make it so customizable?
Well, once we realized that the backgrounds were going to be customizable, we figured we needed to have more than one theme. Some pictures work better with a dark theme, some with a lighter theme, etc. Also, our main developer on the project has a habit of thinking like a developer
almost every time one person said “let’s do X” and another, “let’s do Y”, he would say “let’s give users the option to do X or Y”. So what you get is an app that errs on the side of customizability. You can make the calendar hang from the menubar using ropes, or using glass!
Also, we had gotten enough feedback from our users of the free Calendar to know that some people need to customize the first day of the week, others wanted to display the time in different ways. So we added customizability for that, as well. If you’re going to have a calendar, why not set it up the way you like it. Every month can have a different theme and a put you in a different mood. In our upcoming versions, we are actually planning to test whether you’re in the southern hemisphere and shift the default pictures by 6 months.
Why did you choose to make Calendar Plus a menubar app rather than a more standard stand-alone app?
We wanted to access our schedule at a glance
and by the way, you can also use the keyboard to get to it even faster. And as a result, it turns out that we are reaching a lot of people all the time, which gives us a lot of “valuable real estate” to develop our ideas on and put in front of a lot of people. It’s actually a similar situation with mobile apps on your home screen, if you think about it. Definitely an attractive reality for anyone investing in what we’re doing.
What apps does your team rely on to get your work done each day?
We’ve set up this whole federated development environment, similar to open source projects which have lots of contributors. We use Redmine for project management, Google Apps for email and docs, Skype for real-time communication, and Mercurial for version control. Oh yeah, and Odesk for time-tracking. That’s where I met all of my developers.
Do you have any new, upcoming features for Calendar Plus you’d like to share with our readers?
In a month or so, we are releasing a native Facebook application, for people who don’t have Macs. And soon after that, we are going to develop an iPhone and Android application, so you can check your calendar on the go. iOS 6 has some integration with Facebook, but we go way beyond that.
What inspires you to keep working on your apps each day?
These apps are just the stepping stone to a larger vision. Stay tuned
we are going to combine Groups and Calendar Plus into our social calendar platform I started out telling you about. Today you can see what your Facebook friends are planning to do. In the not-so-distant future you will literally be able to:
- Find people with similar interests to you, whether friends or just people in the area
- Grab a deal from Groupon, Opentable, or other sites, e.g. for Mexican food
- Pick a bunch of times and see who is free at that time AND interested in Mexican food
- Send only those people an invitation
- Start a chat to discuss the activity and nail down the details
- Everyone gets directions and reminders on their phone. They can confirm or cancel.
- Everyone shows up and takes advantage of the group discount.
- And then maybe
if they want they can post the pictures on Facebook.
We want to liberate people from their computers and help them get together in the real world. And save money while doing it.
You can see more about our plans here:
We’d like to extend a special thanks to Gregory and the whole Qbix team for taking the time to talk to us about Cal Plus and their workflow. It’s always exciting to see the work that goes into Mac apps, and the dedication of the teams behind them!