Monthly Archives: March 2013

PicBook: Becoming a Reality




Devyn and Devin working on PicBook


One of our biggest challenges has been design. We’ve been thinking and talking about the look and feel of PicBook and have decided to rework our home screen. Our current one feels a little cluttered and lacks the polished feel we would like the app to have.


Our CS team is still hard at work getting PicBook’s functionality in place, and they’re doing a great job. One of their recent feats is adding the ability to rotate, resize, and move images in the editing screen. From the start, we knew we wanted users to be able to easily manipulate their photos in the app to make their collages look just the way they want them. Thanks to Albert and Devin, we now have that feature in place.


Thank you again for following along, and we hope to bring you some more good news soon!


Are We There Yet?: Team Dragon Fire Reporting on PicBook


No, we’re not there yet—but we are making progress!

Albert and Devin—our stellar computer science majors—have been hard at work on the technical aspects of the app. We’re now able to see several features of the app in through an iOS simulator, which takes the code they’ve written and shows us what it’ll look like on the iPad. It’s exciting to watch our ideas come to life.

Albert and Devin hope to have 80-90% functionality of the app, including Facebook and camera roll integration and the ability to rotate and resize images, completed by the end of our next sprint, which will be near the end of March.

The journalism majors—Diego, Devyn and Jeana—have been focusing on design. We don’t have much experience in this area, especially when it comes to app-related design specifically, so it has been a challenge for us to try to create graphics that will be both functional and aesthetically pleasing. We did, however, finalize both our logo and our splash screen, which will appear when the app is loading.

Our next goal is to simplify our other design ideas. We were previously thinking that we wanted the scrapbooks on the app to look like “real-life,” paper scrapbooks. We realized, though, that would both complicate our design needs and fail to take advantage of the fact that these are digital scrapbooks, not “analog” scrapbooks. We decided to move things forward by creating a color palette and revisiting our basic design from the bottom up.

These are no easy challenges, but we’re excited to be progressing, and we look forward to sharing PicBook with all of you! Thank you for following along.

My first brush with usability testing

When I first heard about usability testing I was skeptical. Although I could understand how the practice could be helpful for a lot of apps, I figured that the average user would know how to use our app and would use it and the same way I would.

I am working on a team with four other students at the University of Texas to develop a news app. Our app, Nerv, pulls from Twitter and provides location-based news in Austin, Boston, San Francisco and Portland. To me, the app seems very straightforward: you click on the city of your choice, see a customizable feed and have the option of selecting specific Tweets for a detailed view. I assumed that users would not have any difficulty using our app, but I was wrong.

For our first usability test we used a very basic form of our app that included the map, the pin for Austin, and an unfiltered Austin news feed.  We asked volunteers to find Austin on the map, find a photo that interested them on the feed and to select that photo. While users had no problems doing the tasks that we asked, the version of the app that they used was so basic that it confused them. They did not understand what the app was supposed to do because to them it was just a complicated way to get to news about Austin. I think that if I had taken more time to explain our app in detail to the users and to explain that the version they were using was a rough cut, they might not have been as confused about what they were doing on the app.

Through usability testing we discovered that our feed was taking way to long to load. In some instances it took over a minute for the feed to load on my screen. People are no longer willing to wait over a minute for a page to load. Initially I thought that the feed was loading slowly because of a bad wifi connection, but after the problem persisted in different parts of Austin we realized that there was a coding error that was slowing our app down. Fortunately, we have two computer science geniuses on our team who were able to fix the problem and our app is now working at the expected pace.

Usability testing taught me that an outside perspective is necessary to find critical problems. I also learned that to use an app successfully, the user needs to know background information about the app and understand what it is supposed to do. My group is going to do usability testing at every major phase of our app development to ensure that we are not overlooking any major issues and that we are creating a user-friendly product.

Nerv’s logo was designed by Cathy Cam.

Team learns valuable lesson: time is of the essence

The clock is ticking. With less than three months away until the official presentation of their app on April 27, Team Dragon Fire is still at the beginning design stages of their scrapbook iPhone app, PicBook. It has been a common struggle of teams in the iPhone app class to set goals, recognize their impracticalities and cut features from their app. Within the last week Team Dragon Fire has changed their app’s features, set new goals, and pushed ahead, because they have realized not much time is left.

Currently the team imagines PicBook as a digital “book of memories” for iPad users. It stands out from other scrapbooking apps because of its personalized feel. Users choose their photos and the app generates a scrapbook, which can be browsed through or shared with friends.

Since initial development, Team Dragon Fire’s biggest struggle has been with time. They have an expected goal of making a pleasing app for their users, but know some of their concepts are unrealistic with the time that they have. “We have so many ideas and features we want to add to our app to make it the best product for the user, but time may inhibit us from completing everything,” Devyn Dippel said.

Although they are struggling with time, the team’s quality that maintains their endurance is their consensus on the app’s features and appearance. Their ideas have been transformed and adapted, and through much scrutiny the team’s agreement on what should stay and go has aided them. Instead of spending time disagreeing, they were able to decide together what features should be scrapped, and are now able to move on to the next step in the process, which is design.

Design is the stage they are all least familiar with. Although no members have graphic design backgrounds, they hope to combine the little design skills they have. This is an example of when having a team comes in handy. They are each able to build off of each other. The result: a well functioning team, ready to tackle any struggle that comes their way.

For now, Team Dragon Fire continues to strive for the best scrapbook app possible with the amount of time they have. They continue to learn design skills while the beginning coding of their app is tackled. But with their harmony, hopefully they can beat the clock and accomplish all of their goals. “We’re bound to make mistakes and things are bound to fail, but I guess we’re going to have to get used to getting over it and trying again,” said Dippel.

Demo Day Education

Nerv News is an iOS application being developed by 5 students from The University of Texas at Austin. By aggregating news from Twitter this application will allow the user to answer the question, “What is goin on in the world?” Nerv is currently being developed, but is taking a turn. The team set out with a plan in mind, we began implementation, we began solving problems, and we made some progress. Our app seem to be coming together nicely. In the first sprint we accomplished our goals and more and thought that we were in a very good place. We were excited to show what we had done on demo day, and we were blown away by the other groups presentations.

Every team had unique presentations because of the things that they decided to focus on in the first sprint. Some teams focused on design, bringing stunning colors, icons, and inovative names that stood out. Other teams focused on the user experience incorporating usability testing to bring the best experience to the user. Still other teams thought through the functionality of their app desiring to bring something functional and useful to the market.

Seeing all the progress that other teams had made was very exciting. Their presentations gave us ideas and helped us to refocus on the cool things about developing on the iOS platform. The iOS platform promises beautiful usable experiences for the consumer and that is the unique thing about this platform that makes it stand out. Before the iPhone 5 was released many people were speculating about the specifications of the new Apple Smartphone, claiming that it would not be able to compete with the Android phones on the market. Steve Wildstrom at Tech.pinions commented about these speculators saying, “There are many Android phones whose hardware equals or beats the iPhone. There are none whose user experience comes close.”

We hope that the Nerv app will be a great addition to the hundreds of thousands of apps that are already in the iOS app store. In order to do that we want to focus this sprint on the user experience, on the design, and how we can best utilize the iOS platform to provide a beautiful app that continues to revolutionize the news industry.


Photo Credit: David Coxon

Challenges getting on some Nervs

By Jessica Schwartz of Team JMASTR

One month ago when a team of journalism and computer science students met to discuss their plans for “Nerv,” their upcoming app, they dreamed up big goals.

A live feed of customized news and an interactive map were on the top of the list.

The primary function of Nerv will be to provide a live stream of local news, placing its users on a map. The team has already made their first major stride in the development of the app by implementing the map portion as the home screen.

Excited about the maps appearance and style, Nerv is hoping the user will be able to click on the city of choice to begin receiving a feed of news for that area.

Implementing the map has not been the only success Nerv has had thus far. The team also has revamped their logo and marketing design. The final design is still under revisions, but is expected to have many improvements.
Although the map and the logo design have been successes so far, Nerv has also realized some potential challenges that lay ahead.

Nerv is pulling news from strictly Twitter in order to only have to deal with one API, rather than many different news sites. They are planning to collect Twitter data in the areas of news, culture and nightlife from different cities to create the “streams” for their app.

“The most challenging part to implement will probably depend on the information we get back from Twitter,” said Cody Permenter, a journalism student working on Nerv. “We are receiving all of our data from Twitter for local news, so it really just depends on what Twitter will give us back in terms of the amount of data.”

In addition to requiring Twitter’s cooperation and data, there are other challenges that surface when using Twitter as a news source.

The team is realizing that several Twitter users unnecessarily use hashtags and discuss locations and cities in non-news related ways. Developing a clean and relevant feed of strictly news will be challenging.

The good news – challenges are not intimidating this dynamic crew.

“Our team has been working very well together,” said Permenter. “As the semester goes on, we are getting to know what needs to be done and we are continually accomplishing our goals.”

Part of this team success is the ability to delegate responsibilities. Thus far, the computer science students have covered the coding while the journalism students do most of the marketing, social media, design and branding.
“We are planning on having the each student dabble in the other field so we can all say, ‘HEY! I actually made this cool thing that does this,” concluded Permenter.

There are definitely still kinks to be worked out, but this team is determined to have a successful app available at the conclusion of the semester in May.

App Development Group Hits Roadblock

By Nov. 2012, Apple approved more than one million apps for their App store, according to Appsfire, an application that helps users discover other apps. While some apps have been taken down, there are still an estimated 700,000 apps in the store.

But creating an app (and having it approved by the App Store) isn’t as easy as the numbers suggest.

That’s what Austin-based software development group Where’s Waldo found out as they began work on their iPhone app Nerv.

The aim of Nerv is to provide location-based news, to tell the user what is going on in specific, searchable regions throughout the world.

Team member Jonathan Long, a computer science major at UT-Austin, says that the biggest challenge has been finding reputable data to use.

“The problem is that we can’t just search Twitter for the word Austin because that brings up people named Austin, people with Austin in their username, people tweeting at people named Austin, and we don’t care about any of that – so filtering the data down to a set that we care about and thinking about how to do that has been a little bit of a challenge,” Long said in an e-mail.

The group, however, has been working to overcome that problem.

Where’s Waldo, Long said, has begun to gather Twitter handles from trustworthy news sources as well as other social medians like clubs, music venues and theatres. This solution, however, also has its drawbacks. This approach means that Where’s Waldo, while finding reputable sources, has left out attractions like South Congress and Barton Springs.

For team member Meleena Loseke, a journalism student, the difficulties the software development team has encountered are much more than logistical.

“You can’t really tell a journalism student with hardly any computer science experience, ‘Here, you’re responsible for coding the second frame of the app’, Loseke said. “Computer science is exactly that – a science.

Long agrees with Loseke that dividing up the work has been a little difficult so far.

“It is harder for someone with little to no computer science experience to simply pick up the iOS SDK and start programming,” Long said. “We have slowly been introducing everyone to the iOS SDK and hope that by the end of this class we can all say that we have provided a significant part to this app.”

Loseke remains optimistic that as she and her fellow journalists learn more coding, they’ll be able to contribute more to the development than just ideas and basic design.

Aside from logistics and learning curves, Where’s Waldo has found that like any other group work, finding the time to meet and collaborate has been a challenge.

“I don’t think it’s a huge problem right now in the preliminary stages of our app,” Loseke said, “but I have a feeling we’re all going to need to get together when its crunch time, and I’m not sure how easy it will be.”

iPhone users can expect an app demonstration from Nerv and other development groups this coming April.

Racing app gains traction in face of hard turns

by Devyn Dippel and Diego Cruz for “Team Dragon Fire”

Team DUNT is working hard to overcome challenges emerging in the early stages of developing their app. We caught up with team member Caleb Ingels, journalism student, who talked to us about the obstacles the group currently faces.

The team is developing a Formula One app that will provide users a list of race-related events going on around Austin, among other features. This presents the challenging issue of finding data sources the app can pull information from to provide for its users, Ingels said.

Despite this, the team has risen to the occasion with unexpected sources of creativity and the flexibility to change their product according to what they realize they can or cannot do.

For more details get the full story from Ingels himself by listening to our podcast.

The Process of Creating an App: Getting the Idea

Man, there are a lot of apps in the app store. This is, of course, common knowledge that Apple commercials like to remind you of every day—but I don’t think any of us quite grasped the fact until we faced the task of coming up with an original idea. Suddenly the phrase “There’s an app for that!” becomes maddening as you strive to come up with something for which there is <em>not</em> yet an app.

So how did we finally come up with a brilliant and original idea? Well, when you only look a the basic idea—a collage app—we didn’t. Instead, we looked at several of the existing collage apps and asked ourselves what’s missing. What could we do better or differently? One of our course instructors, Joshua McClure, encouraged us to think about problems, what is lacking from technology and from people’s lives in general, and to think about ways to solve them.

One of the problems we thought of was that many apps allow you to import photos from Facebook, but few or none let you select certain tags or certain dates to your search options. Adding that ability will allow users to narrow down the images they want to use faster and more easily.

We also felt that although many of the existing apps have cool features, they are lacking in emotion. It’s difficult to get a similar feeling from them that you do when you’re, for example, creating a scrapbook. That’s how we came up with the idea to make our collage app into a digital scrapbooking tool. We hope to make the experience feel personal, like you’re putting together a digital book of memories.

Of course, finalizing our idea was just the beginning—we’ll tell you how we’ve been fairing in the challenges beyond the first step soon!