By Ryan Smyth, Founder and Sole Proprietor,
I suppose that I have a slightly different experience with my own software than many micro ISVs. As I write software for musicians, I’m really dealing with a crowd that specifically has a good deal of appreciation for aesthetics. Something that my own software is sorely lacks as of v2.3, although it is much better than the first two releases. I get a ton of fantastic feedback on the software itself, but I have heard that it could look better… I asked in some music forums once about how important the looks of the program were, and got a bit of a wakeup call when the resounding answer was “EXTREMELY”.
Lord knows that media players generally have some of the slickest GUIs of all software out there (can we say WinAmp skins?), and in my day job I’ve got lots of positive feedback about the interface for one of the media players, which has been enough to sway some people to use it based on looks alone. My own software hasn’t gotten any nice comments about the looks of it… But you can see and judge for yourself why that is by scrolling down to the screen shots down below…
Of course I realize that aesthetics are important and a good looking program sells better. With that in mind, and my target audience, I’ve decided to put a bit more into the next version to ‘spruce it up’ as it were. So being as I lack any sort of design skills, as clearly evidenced below, I’ve plunked down a good amount of change on components that will ‘help’ take care of a lot of those design issues for me. Now, I can still monkey it up, but at least I’ve got an advantage over my past messes.
Now, I’ve seen people take perfectly good things and mess them up to the point of being useless (and then actually use the mess, but that’s another story…), but at least I know that I have no design skills, so the next version will still be typical ‘Ryan’ design, just with some professional help 🙂
My own design philosophy is that if you can’t do it, then don’t. No design is better than bad design. It’s easier to look at a painting of a polar bear in a blizzard than to look at something that is clearly offensive to the eye. Not that I don’t try. I do. I regularly waste time slaving away trying to come up with something presentable. I just end up throwing it all out as failed experiments then go back to ‘painting polar bears’ because I know what looks good and what doesn’t, and my stuff just doesn’t look good.
For an example that’s pretty close to home for me, my parents’ wedding videography web site that I did looks absolutely wonderful. Without being arrogant or self-praising, I can honestly say that it’s beautiful. But then I bought a professionally designed template of Photoshop files and just hacked it up into nice clean HTML. Hmm… Maybe I should say that the template is beautiful… Either way though, they regularly get compliments on how nice the site is. The first version I did was horrible and didn’t last very long before I redid it the way it is now. It was just too simple and looked just as bad as all the other home-grown small business videography sites. But they’re getting sales from the “v2.0” site because it’s something that matches that ‘wedding-fantasy’. Who wants an ugly wedding? Even Shrek managed better.
It’s not so much that there was a ‘lesson learned’ there for me as I pretty much already knew that ‘sex sells’, but just seeing the effects of what a bit of a super-sexy-swinging-site can do helps to reinforce that there’s no substitute for good aesthetics.
And so for the next version of my own software, it will have controls that look more like this:
Nicer controls for the next version of Guitar and Drum Trainer
Nothing really special, but the EQ certainly will look leagues better than the previous abominations that used simple sliders/scroll bars along the lines that you’d find in Windows Explorer or most applications that have scrolling documents. I have no plans to get all super-fancy with the new toys because the new functionality won’t be affected by the new controls in the least, and I know that if I do try to get all funky with things, it will just turn into a mess. However, I’m quite sure that sales will be affected. Thankfully, with the new components I’m really only a few clicks away from a simple interface that is semi-attractive.
It’s not like I went into things the first time around not knowing any of this though. It’s just that I’m not scared of putting out ‘boogerware’ then improving on it later. At some point things just need to get done, and if the best I can manage is… well… less than I’d like… then that’s what gets done. At least what I put out works as advertised, so at that level I’m satisfied. The frustrating thing is knowing what I want, and only having limited time and resources. It’s a bit of a struggle to make it out of the ‘boogerware’ category sometimes. I know that there’s no way I could possibly do it on my own. I just thank the Almighty that there are component and icon vendors out there to save me!
So I suppose it’s time to introduce some of my past design disasters…
The first (abysmal) version…
v1 was ugly to the point of being an abomination
The second version didn’t look much better… But it won the Best Application Using .NET at the Shareware Industry Awards 2005. I suppose developers aren’t as particular about design? I’d better not go there though…
v2 did not look much better
But v2.3 improved slightly…
v2.3 improved the aesthetics a little bit
And by that point with v2.3, sales have been pretty good. Not enough to go full time, but certainly enough for me to put more effort into it and give it a much more serious amount of effort than I have been doing. With a bit more effort and emphasis on making it a bit more than just “presentable”, I’m pretty confident that I can turn out a product that will put me out of a job =)
Ryan Smyth
Founder and Sole Proprietor of Renegade Minds

As the “Renegade” behind Renegade Minds, Ryan writes and markets Guitar & Drum Trainer, a specialized audio player for musicians to more easily practice and learn new songs by ear. Originally from Ontario, Canada, Ryan has called South Korea “home” since 1996. In addition to his many interests in software and software marketing, Ryan also enjoys various playing sports, studying to improve his Korean language skills and plotting world domination… errr… ‘liberation’ that is 🙂

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