How an app without unique functionality, built in a single weekend, garnered a quarter of a million downloads in the app store.
As a young company, we’ve found hackathons to be a great way for us to meet new people, hone our design and development chops, and most importantly practice shipping products. When you care about experience and details as much as we do, it can be very hard to push one of your babies out of the nest. However, I cannot overstate how important it is to see your apps, websites, and services perform in the world. Hackathons are a great excuse to work fast and sloppy and ship it nonetheless.
Photo Hack Day 2 in New York this past February was the first event of its kind that all four of us were able to attend. In the past, prior engagements and male-modeling gigs meant we could only send a skeleton crew to represent Friends of The Web. Given that we had four brains and bodies, we decided early on to work on two separate projects: PeopleExif, which no longer works since Facebook shut down the Face.com API, and Jittergram, a simple iPhone app that allows the user to create and share animated stereograms.
We had essentially one-and-a-half days to conceptualize, plan, design, and build both of these hacks, so all care was thrown to the wind. I had been thinking a lot about the animated gif as a format going into Photo Hack Day. Cinemagram had just been released, and it seemed to me that the animated gif, in spite of its age, was an under-utilized medium with a lot of potential. There had been a bit of a resurgence in the format, largely spurred by the fact that the popular social blogging platform, Tumblr, was woefully bad at handling videos at the time. For all the cool kids that wanted moving images on their Tumblogs, animated gifs was one of if not the best option, so many people were exploring and pushing the limits of the medium for the first time in years. I had seen a lot of interesting and strikingly beautiful stereoscopic gifs on Tumblr, specifically the ones made by Will Wilkinson with his Nishika N9000, and could not find an app in the app store that was designed to create images like this. I had to sell it pretty hard to the others, but around noon on Saturday we got to work on what would become Jittergram.
The original plan was to for the app to automatically take two pictures in rapid succession, either with the press of a button, or upon detecting rapid movement of the phone. This way, the user could essentially wave the phone in front of their intended subject and the app would create a stereogram of the scene automatically. This not only proved to be technically difficult, but in early testing we found that being able to compose the stereogram made for better results, even if the experience was a bit more cumbersome than we had initially hoped for. So, we decided that the user should take a specific action to capture each frame of the gif. We also soon realized that there was essentially no added complexity to allowing for more than two frames to be captured, so at its core our new app wasn’t much more than a recontextualized stop-motion app, of which there are dozens in the app store. Normally, we would not spend time to build an app whose functionality isn’t unique or distinct, but this was a hackathon dammit, so we pressed on.
We worked in tandem; Anthony began wireframing and building the application while I designed the interface, brainstormed names, and began to work on how we would frame and present the app. (Josh and Dan focused their efforts on PeopleExif) As always, we were struggling to settle on a name that we liked. The app creates stereoscopic animated gifs, but most people don’t know what a stereogram is and have preconceived notions about gifs, so neither is a good term to hang a brand on. We were satisfied with the “-gram” suffix given its association to stereograms and the prevalence of popular apps using it to reference sharing content due to its etymological roots in telegrams, candygrams, etc. To come up with the final name, I collected a few animated stereograms of different styles and walked around the General Assembly showing them to others and asking them to describe what they saw. I probably polled a couple dozen people, none of whom knew that the images were a type of stereogram or mentioned anything about the file format or how the animation was technically possible. Excellent reassurance that we should not be branding this as a stereogram or animated gif app.
Probably one out of three people I asked used the word “jittering” to describe the movement of the images. Other common words were “shaking”, “twitching”, and “jiggling”, but “jittering” was definitely the most common response. “Jittergram” was the obvious solution at this point, and even though we weren’t crazy about it, once again, in the spirit of the hackathon, we committed and moved on.
As it turned out, showing the animated images on the phone itself was actually quite easy, but exporting them as animated gifs so they could be shared, the value of the app, was proving problematic. Anthony stayed up almost all night on Saturday wrestling with it and managed to get it functioning and somewhat stable just about an hour or so before our demo in front of the PHD2 judges and the rest of the hackers. This left very little time to create example images to showcase what the app could do, and even less time to integrate them into a site describing the app. We pulled it all together in the end and gave a decent pitch, but far from our best. Some people showed a little interest in Jittergram and asked if we had plans to submit it to the app store, but we actually received a lot more recognition and an API specific prize for our other hack, PeopleExif, at the close of the Photo Hack Day 2.
We decided to submit it to the app store, which required another day or so of cleaning up a bit of the messy, hacked together code. We argued extensively over whether the app should be free or whether we should charge 99 cents for it. We were dying to see what it was like to sell an app, and of course liked the idea of getting paid for our work, but we eventually decided it was best to make it free. We had mixed feelings on charging for a product that built so quickly, and there are numerous free apps that create animated gifs in a similar fashion.
Jittergram was eventually approved by Apple and was released in the app store on March 26th, exactly one month after we presented it at PHD2. We didn’t do much to promote it because we were mostly releasing it on a whim, just a tweet or two and emailing a couple people that had asked about it at the hackday. It was downloaded 111 times on that first day. After a week, we could search Twitter and see that some people were actually sharing images they’d created in the app, which is a really great feeling. We were proud that people all over the world were having a bit of fun with something we made, and that was enough for us to consider the experiment a success.
On April 5th, Jittergram was featured in the App Store and was downloaded 6,299 times. The next day it was posted to the App Store’s Facebook page and was downloaded 19,911 times. This week, six months later, it is featured as an “Amazing on iPhone 5” app, and we have just passed 250,000 total downloads, which far exceeds our expectations for the humble app.
It’s safe to say that this makes Jittergram the most popular and broadly adopted thing any of us have ever worked on. It’s been amazing to see how many people have used it to produce some really interesting things, and we’ve saved some of our favorites here for posterity. Photography is an intensely intimate medium. In a lot of instances you can see a story behind one of these animated gifs, and it’s an incredible feeling to be a part of that.
The response to Jittergram has been overwhelmingly positive, which frankly comes as a tiny bit of a surprise to us. As should be expected from an app built in less than two days, there are loose ends, missing features, and things that we just ignored. The website for Jittergram is essentially just a single image because we didn’t have time to do the HTML+CSS before our presentation. The toggling between two-frame mode and infinite-frame mode in the app is a button where it should probably be a toggle switch. There is no useful way to save a Jittergram to your phone; you can save the gifs to your camera roll, but they won’t animate in that context, only when you take them off the phone through email or some other means. These things seem to bother almost no one. The 233 reviews in the app store average 4 stars and we get more emails asking us to make it for Android than asking for fixes/features in the iOS version.
We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how an app with no truly unique functionality and its fair share of issues and missing features can be so successful, and we believe it comes down to a matter of user experience. There a few ways in which Jittergram differentiates itself from the competition:
Jittergram is about as simple as it could possibly be. There are no extraneous or non-essential features, largely because we plainly didn’t have time to build any of them in. However, this simplicity is a huge asset. It makes Jittergram more approachable, easier to understand, and a joy to use, where many of the other stop motion apps out there are bloated with complicated features. It stands as a reminder that adding features that will be employed by a portion of the users obscures the experience for every user. For this reason, the addition of a feature should never be taken lightly, but always carefully weighed.
Due to our initial use case of people creating two-frame stereograms, when you first open the app, it is in two-frame mode, which means in only two taps you’ve created your first Jittergram. There is no tutorial, no instructions, no splash screen, and no account creation. The user learns what the app does and how to use it by doing. This, paired with the fact that the Jittergrams are often surprising and delightful, makes the app fun to play with, which can’t be said of our competition. Had we thought about it and spent more time on the app, we likely would have shot ourselves in the foot in this regard by either adding a tutorial/instructions, or removing the two-frame mode all-together.
Though I still feel that the name Jittergram is a bit silly, I think it’s a huge part of why the app is successful. One of my favorite ideas is the principle of linguistic relativity, which holds that language affects, if not dictates, the way in which we perceive the world. By giving the app a unique name, devoid of obvious associations to animated gifs, stop motion animation, or stereograms, our audience perceives a Jittergram as a new and unique thing, even in a sea of apps with similar functionality.
It’s also hugely helpful that the app name can be twisted and repurposed to describe the animated images as “Jittergrams”, because no one is going to tweet “Check out this awesome animated stereographic image I made with Jittergram!” These practical considerations of a brand are just as if not more important than choosing the perfect color or an appropriate typeface.
Jittergram has taught us that we are often our harshest critic. Sometimes we can learn the most from ideas that we don’t deem fit to pursue and products we worry aren’t good enough to take to market. Though the app store may seem saturated, there is still plenty of room for simple apps that do one thing well.