For the past 12 months, I have been working on a new product behind the scenes.
The original idea for the Big Mean Folder Machine came to me while sitting in the lobby of our holiday hotel to find some “stuff” on my haphazardly organized laptop. Now usually, I don’t spend holidays slaving over a laptop, but my (by then heavily) pregnant wife decided that this was the right time to sleep 18 hours a day and Malta in winter is well.. like everywhere else in winter..
Over a late machiato and a club sandwich, I started thinking about how nice it would be if everything was as neatly organized as the Apple Developer mailing DVD in the DVD drive.. you know what I mean: “everything in its place and a place for everything”.
Now the reason why I don’t keep a tidy hard disk is the same as for everybody else.. it takes time to organize “stuff” in the first place and once you have an organization it’s forbiddingly time-consuming to change it.
“What about the poor people at Apple or anybody else who needs to ship electronic deliverables and wants to make a good impression?” I wondered. “How long does it take them? How many people does it take to produce effortless organization?”
Surely those guys have a clever build script that does all the work for them.. or maybe they don’t… or maybe there are at least a few people out there who do not.. wouldn’t they appreciate a nifty little tool that does it all for them according to their own “recipe”?
This is how, the Big Mean Folder Machine was born. The basic idea was to help you create a neat folder structure for your files to fit in snugly and copy (or move them) over into the new structure. All this with the bare minimum of fuss.
Now, once you start thinking about it there are all sorts of situations, where this kind of tool would be useful. How about your 43GB photo collection that you can’t backup because it simply won’t fit on those tiny 4GB DVDs? Why not break them up into 4Gb “chunks” first? How about organizing your photos by year, month and (why not?) by file type? The possibilities are endless.
Now something I’ve learned in the past decade of developing A Better Finder Rename is that you never know in which direction your software is going to evolve over time.. at least if you are listening to what your customers actually want.
The design challenge for an application like this is to produce something that people can actually understand without having to read a lengthy manual. Good user interface design demands that you as the designer have a very detailed understanding of exactly what people want to do with the tool. iPhoto is a good example: it makes the features that people are most likely to want to use, easy and accessible and it hides away the “advanced” features where they are unlikely to get into the way of the casual user.
Now this is hard to do with a new tool for which nobody has an existing mental blue print.
Moreover, file utilities typically perform tasks that appear to be very straightforward at first glance, but that reveal themselves to have lots of hidden complexities that may or may not become a problem. Last but not least, you want total control over the end-result..
My solution to this design challenge was simple. Instead of attempting to create an all-singing-all-dancing user interface without much user feedback to go on, I’ve kept it simple and concentrated on getting the internals right. This has resulted in a simple step-by-step “assistant-style” interface, with each step being explained as you make your choices. Over time this will no doubt evolve into a “control center” interface that will satisfy even a big mean control freak like myself..
This brings me to an important part of my development philosophy: “Don’t design for what you don’t (yet) understand”.
It’s all the rage on the internet these days to find a 1.0 release, give it a spin, find a minor problem or gap in the functionality and then write it off “as junk”, but a 1.0 release is only a beginning, it’s not an end!
It’s the developer’s best (and first!) attempt at the problem. The question really then becomes “is it good enough for now?” and “will it improve over time?”.
A lot of the 1.0 mania is due to the “old” way of developing software: you make a big boxed version of something and then leave it alone for the next 3 years until version 2.0 comes out. In the meantime, you do your best to avoid hearing what your customers have to say (= complain about) and so pretty much guarantee that version 2.0 will be exactly the same (only more so) as version 1.0.
This is emphatically not the way I do things: I get something out early (before it gets too difficult to change things) and start listening to user feedback. Then I improve the software based on that feedback at regular intervals (say 4-6 weeks). As the tool and my understanding of what people really use it for matures, more fundamental changes become necessary, so there is probably a re-write or two in the offing..
Today’s first beta release then, is the beginning of a feedback-driven development process, so if you have any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms please share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, there is the matter of the name.. until last Sunday, the product was going to be called “Big Bang”, playing on the idea of exploding (and why not, imploding?) your file collections, but then I saw that freeverse have a whole collection of electronic board games for the Mac that all begin with “Big Bang” (they don’t look half bad by the way).. so it was back to the drawing board.
In the end, my struggles to communicate what the tool will actually do when it’s finished, lead to the new name: “Well, it’s like a Big Mean Folder Machine!”. At long last a fun name for what I hope will be a fun product..
Before you ask: the current styling and artwork is a left-over of the Big Bang concept and will be replaced with bigger and meaner artwork very soon.. as a result, today’s first public beta release is going to be on the quiet, understated, side.. a link on the website and a blog entry.
I hope you’ll find The Big Mean Folder Machine a useful addition to your tool collection.. if it looks at all likely that it could do something that would be of value to you, please do let me know, so that one day soon it just might..