Hello, I’m Michael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe - to-do app for business owners and their teams. I write essays, books, work on projects and I podcast for you using #iPadOnly in #NoOffice as I believe that work is not a place you go to, it’s a thing you do. More…

How to design a productivity app? Our Nozbe 2.0 design process


On this blog I have described the way I work, my tricks, gizmos and gadgets many times over. Today I am going to show you what is my job all about and how much in common it has with design. I’m also going to reveal why I read all the books about people like Steve Jobs and Johnathan Ive, why I admire them immensely and why I am such a fun of their products.

Note: The following article appeared fist in the April issue of iMagazine - the leading lifestyle magazine for Apple enthusiasts in Poland. I’m a regular contributor and write my monthly productivity column there.

How to design a productivity app? Our Nozbe 2.0 design process

My job title: Chief Productivity Officer - Chief Visionary

I am the owner, founder and CEO of Nozbe - a suite of apps for getting things done and team collaboration. However I prefer to think of myself as the “Chief Productivity Guy and Visionary”. Why? Because I focus mostly on the two things: company and product development. Here, I want to show you how I focus on the latter:

Design is not what something looks like but how it works

We are having a revolution in our company at the moment. We are building Nozbe 2.0 - an utterly new set of apps based on what we have learned for the last seven years of Nozbe’s life. While creating the new Nozbe we don’t only focus on the iOS7 looks and speed (although we started first with speed in mind). We question each and every decision we have made so far in terms of Nozbe’s functionality and features. We constantly ask questions, fight and debate about how our app is really supposed to work. And that’s what design is all about.

Mission & slogans - they are really important

I wrote about this in the chapter dedicated to “Passion for Product” in my book: It’s all about Passion!. When Apple introduced the iPhone, Steve Jobs said: “Today Apple reinvents the phone.” When Ryanair diversifies the offer and modifies its pricing, they always stick to the basic vision: “The low fares airline.” They do everything to make sure all the products and procedures lead to the lowest prices on the market.

In Nozbe we have three slogans that correspond with three levels of our product:

First thing - how to get everything done easily

There are many applications in Nozbe’s category that are described as tools for “task and project management”. I used to call Nozbe like that as well because it seemed right. But soon I realized that it wasn’t a good description of Nozbe which is actually an app for doing and completing tasks effectively and quickly. Thus, when designing our software we have to focus on “doing” first and “managing” later. It means that if doing something requires too many taps or clicks - we are doing it wrong. For this reason we question every decision about our app. “Does it help to complete the task?” If not, or even worse - if it slows actions down - what can we do differently? I want to “get things done” and not “manage things.” We assume that users are busy and they need to manage less and do more. That’s it!

Second thing - efficient communication through tasks

Nozbe offers not only the possibility to share projects but also easy way of delegating tasks and commenting them. Next step was adding push notifications - when someone delegates a task to me, I receive a notification on my iPhone or iPad.

Writing emails saying: “Hi, I have created a task for you…” is over. Push notifications do the job. And again - each decision is questioned according to “communication though tasks”. Do the comments designed like this (looks, functioning etc.) reinforce the communication through tasks or not? It’s hard to believe but we have spent a month on iteration, sketching, implementing and fighting for every single pixel in the comments section alone. My designer had never argued with me so much or said “I am not quite sure…” so many times before. I think we finally nailed it. It was only possible thanks to our mission.

Third thing - One familiar Nozbe interface to “to rule them all”

Our app works on all the platforms - Web, Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad, Android… and soon also on Windows Phone. We needed to take into consideration the specification of each operating system and supported devices and at the same time we had to make sure that navigation, functionality, settings and all these other important things are really letting users feel at home on every platform. A person who uses Nozbe on the iPhone needs to know where everything is when they switch to Android or want to work with Nozbe on the Mac. They should never ask: how does it work here? Where is this function? They need to be able to run the app and start getting things done right away - the flow and logic of the apps need to be the same. At this point we get back to rule no. 1 - Simply Get It All Done. The loop is complete.

Designing functionality, communication and experience

That is what reading all those books about people like Steve Jobs or Jonny Ive and dealing with devices like iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, Time Capsule or Mac eventually taught me. The way they focus on what is really essential, on the product’s mission and quintessence remains an unsurpassed model to me.

I don’t write this to advertise my app or try to say we are the best - we learn design and fight amongst each other (sometiems also with the users!) every single day in order to deliver the best product we can. I wanted to show you that it is not an easy job. It’s not enough to simply make the “iOS 7-alike” skin of your app. It requires constant questioning of the decisions that have been made so far, sometimes even counting taps and pixels in order to give the customer the best possible experience when using your product.

In the case of Nozbe it is all about leaving the user with the feeling of control over the chaos of the day to day duties and projects. We want to make sure they can use our apps quickly and smoothly and give them the satisfaction of having a very productive day.

I can’t wait to show Nozbe 2.0 to you. It’s coming so soon now…

Question: What does design mean for you?

Monday, June 2, 2014 /design/