What a 16-year-old dev makes of skeuomorphism

Interview with the creator of Comfortable

At a time when skeuomorphic design is taking a lot of heat, there are brave iOS developers still going for it. I catch up with the young developer of Comfortable for iPhone, Martin Dimov, to understand if imitating real materials such as leather can ever be a good idea.

Hi Martin, why don't you start telling us about yourself and your developing background

My name is Martin Dimov. I've been interested in computers for my whole life. I'm a 16-year-old from Bulgaria, East Europe. I've been developing since 2009 for different platforms, starting with web, and going to computer programs, and now iOS apps. It's an exciting and fun ride, and I don't think to stop riding in the future.

Now you have an app on the App Store, quite an achievement for someone so young. Comfortable is a Google Reader client with some bonus features. What makes it different from the other apps available on the App Store? What is the one thing making you proud of this app?

It's not just that, I don't want people to look at my app as a Google Reader client with bonus features. It’s way more than this. You see for each of the three main services in my app — Readability, Google Reader and "Standalone". I spent a lot of time polishing each of them. An equal portion of love is spilled for each one. In my opinion Comfortable is the best Readability client for the iPhone. It's also an awesome Google Reader client with nifty features. The standalone mode is great for people that just want something simple. All of these three bits are equally important for the app.

For the last three years my RSS feed reader of choice has been Reeder. What has changed in this time and what do you think is missing?

When the App Store was announced, and the iPhone SDK came out in 2008, people started to get their hands dirty on this really new and exciting platform, delighted by all the possibilities. Some of the first reading apps came, that actually set the bar for readers.

The real revolution came in 2010 with the iPad. It brought some of the best reading apps, with their amazing interfaces that we still use and love. Apps like Flipboard, Pulse and Early Edition redefined what a reader should be with their beautiful interfaces and removed the “RSS” term, making it easy for non-power users to read on the go.

Now that you mention it, the whole RSS thing has been always too complex to explain to non-geeks

These apps are revolutionary for sure, it's great for non-power users to just skim through news really fast in a really beautiful layout. Flipboard developers never claimed it was a RSS reader — it's way more than just this. For example you don't add feeds, you instead add content. I don't claim Comfortable is a RSS reader either!

Developers inspired by beautiful layout interfaces have come and created some good alternatives like Zite, Flud, Feedly, Newsify or the awesome Pulp app.

Having used pretty much the same apps for I long time, I check the new ones out out of curiosity but end up going back to the ones I know.

Now, Apple really control the way developers make and publish apps for their platforms. You have to follow Apple's guidelines about energy saving, disk reading/writing, network usage/changes, memory usage. I changed my mind after becoming a developer. Every time I use an app I know how much sweat and hard work has gone into it.

Is there still room for other content reading apps?

Going back to the topic, Reeder has evolved a bit, has been polished a lot more since 1.0, putting the bar a little higher and higher with every new release. The look and feel evolved to a great app. But that's it. And I think there should be an app that's going to take the crown that power users gave to Reeder. In 2012, apps like Summly, Circa and ReadQuick came, and they're great — changing the way we read our news. They really are again for non-power users or people that want to read the news quickly or the stuff they're interested in.

Where does that leave Comfortable?

There is something missing in the whole picture, it's like one big puzzle and the pieces are scattered all over to little puzzles which are not complete, but only a part of the big picture. So... in 2013 I want to change this with Comfortable 2.0. I want to combine everything from all the great reading apps out there into one masterpiece for iPhone and the iPad. I couldn't do it with the initial release version because I probably don't have all the skills needed. And I also wanted to ship fast. But Comfortable (in it's current version) is, I think, one pretty slick reading app, and that’s just the beginning of a really exciting year for reading apps!

Everyday I go through my subscriptions sharing on social networks and saving to read later the stuff I like. Where do you see the the 'read later' phenomenon going? 

Well the concept is simple and it works. And of course there are tons of competitors by now. But they are walking on a narrow rope because if one of the big competitors like Google or Facebook introduce this kind of service, the current read later services are just going to slowly fade out, slowly killed by the big companies. This should never happen.

What made you choose Readability over Instapaper?

Readability just looks way more professional, way more user-friendly and it looks way better than Instapaper. I also think the article extracting algorithm is better. But that's just my two cents, and because I love my users I'll probably add Instapaper service sometime in the near future.

I'm curious about the filter for bad words and inappropriate content. What's happening there behind the scenes?

Really simple stuff. It works only with articles written in English. There is a file with bad words per line. When you open a subscription, it separates the title of each article into words (in the particular subscription) and compares them with each bad word. If a subscription more has more than four bad words in the last 20 articles titles then the feed is considered bad and the algorithm stops executing to save power. This check happens every time you open a feed. In the future, I'll make it even better. I'm going to censor the words that are considered bad if you choose to continue (and of course if you choose this option in Settings).

How were the last weeks of development? You mention you were trying to get Comfortable approved before the iTunes Connect freeze in December.

Pretty intense. I couldn't release it eventually. Don't know if this would make a difference, but that's just how things work sometimes. In the last weeks of development the app became really beautiful, some concepts were introduced in the last moment, making the development even more intensive and challenging. Probably most of the work on the app has been done in the last week before the freeze (that is 17-21 Dec 2012). I'm really happy with the official release date though, on 8 Jan 2013.

Despite all the criticism of skeuomorphism in the last year you have decided to use stitched brown leather throughout the app. There are some dialogue windows with theme close to Tweetbot's dark grey and blue. What is the reasoning behind it? Do you see a trend of developers abandoning this type of interface?

Skeumorphism is not the problem, it's just the designer's lack of taste. You see the problem with bad skeumorphism designs, skeumorphism presented in a tasteless way. I've got two choices: flat or skeu. Something whispered to me that skeumorphic is the way to go for these kind of apps. After all, design is the one UI component that the users look all the time, right? So even though a lot of people are against skeumorphism, the whole app ended up being stylish, and I think the users really appreciate the style and love the custom design, theme-matched UI dialogs and controls. This couldn't happen without some skeumorphism here and there. It couldn't have happened without the designer Doni Todorova, so many greetings to her! And many is yet to come!

As any good reading app you're allowing the user to change the font and darken the screen for night reading. What went into the consideration of the fonts used?

These are just some of the fonts used throughout the app. I think if you present the user more than the maximum of five fonts, he is going to become frustrated with the variety of possibilities between font and size. So I take the best ones that I could found and put them in there. But Jura is always one of the fonts that always come to my mind when it comes down to reading — that's why it's the default font for the articles content. I really like “Light” version of Humanist fonts like Hattori Hanzo, Brandon Grotesk, Microsoft’s Segoe, Optima, and I think they’re going to shape the future of Comfortable, because they look modern and stylish and that's all we want, right?

I also notice the use of no less than five different fonts on the interface, from menu bars, table views and the persistence of Optima for the titles. What was the process to get to this combination?

I wanted everything to be pretty. I think the combination of fonts is slick and makes the app usable. The process is simple. Take all good fonts out there, and just choose and try. I started with the ones that Apple provide me as a developer. If you choose just one non-pretty font, users don't engage, and won't like the particular section the font is used in. And they won't use this section too often. I really tried to keep the fonts minimalistic and choose only good ones for this type of app. I divided some of the fonts for particularly tasks. For example I used Gurmukhi MN for dates, Optima for titles, yeah — it's pretty good at displaying big bold text. Futura also, mainly because it looks good when it's little sized. The size and the place where a font is used really matters. Some fonts look better when they are little, some look better when they are big.

What would you tell the readers to encourage them to try Comfortable?

Comfortable really refreshes the air around reading for iPhone and light the road for reading apps in 2013. That's just the start, I'm having big plans for the future. And I think the larger the user base becomes, the more feedback is coming, so Comfortable gets better, and better, and better. So first I want to say a big “Thank you” to everyone who read this article, give you a virtual hug, wish you a great start of the year, and just tell you that I like every single user and I'll be glad to chat with anyone.

You can also check out the website at http://comfortableapp.com/ and follow the twitter account (where I put some early version stuff like icons and screenshots). I'm sure you're going to “put it on top of your list” :)

Thanks Martin for taking the time.