Meet the Designers: Dan V Peterson of AgileBits

It’s no secret that iOS has a very high quality of design. There are countless stunning apps which make the most of the iPad’s 9.7” screen. But how often do you stop and consider who makes these interfaces?

It doesn’t just happen by accident -there are designers who spend countless hours perfecting every tiny element of an app to make it effortless for the user to interact with.

Today, we’ll be talking to Dan V Peterson, the Michigan-based designer who has created the interface for the excellent (and beautiful) 1Password. We’ll be finding out his methods, inspiration, favourite iPad apps, and much, much more.

Tell us a little bit about the AgileBits team – where are you based, how many of you are there, and what motivates you as a company?

AgileBits is currently made up of 21 people based all over the world. The founders are in Ontario, Canada, and the company is based out of Toronto, Canada. I’m from Michigan and others are from New York, Texas, Colorado, California, England, the Netherlands, and others that I can’t think of at the moment (so hard to keep track!). We try to get together as an entire company at least once a year and meet up in smaller groups when we can throughout the year but mostly it’s just individuals working from home and communicating via group chat, IM and e-mail.

As far as motivation I’d say we all have a deep love for beautiful and useful software. Beyond that our users are a huge source of inspiration and motivation. The majority of our team is focused on customer satisfaction through email support, forums, Twitter, etc. We have an internal place where we post all the awesome comments our users write in with which really helps to put smiles on our faces throughout the day.

How did you get into design, and, in specific, UI design?

My first graphic design project was for my BBS when I was around 12, I think. Some awesomely horrendous ANSI art! In high school, I took a three-hour course in print design using Aldus Freehand, Photoshop, and printing things on offset presses. My first real design job started at age 16, working for a local newspaper company. From there I slowly moved into doing web design for my old thrash metal band and eventually started taking on the odd freelance job while working at newspapers and a phone book company.

I came across Dave Teare and Roustem Karimov (the founders and lead developers of AgileBits) on the original MacHeist forum when they mentioned needing a designer for a small project. As a user I loved so many Mac apps and jumped at the chance to actually work on one! They have been awesome in really letting me expand my skills through experimentation and my love of figuring out how to make things simpler, easier, and more fun for people.

1Password on iPad

1Password on iPad

Where do you get inspiration from?

All over really. I use a ton of software (or at least try it out for while) and am constantly inspired by what others have gotten right or by what bugs me while using something. I also follow other designers’ work that I admire via Twitter and now Dribbble. In everyday life you come across things that work brilliantly or confound you; I try to pay attention to why they do one or the other. Wonderful books, like the ones from A Book Apart, can also really get me going. My coworkers are a huge help with feedback, as well as my family and friends.

How do you approach a new project?

When starting, I simply sit down and figure out what the primary goals really are for this project, usually making a list. Depending on the project this can involve quite a bit of back and forth with the developers. From there, in the past, I’ve gone straight into Photoshop beginning with moving simple shapes around and quickly approaching what is typically a close-to-final mockup.

Once that first draft is done, I begin getting feedback from everyone involved, which occasionally results in completely reworking portions of the design. I have just recently begun adding a step before Photoshop involving pencil and paper.

1Password for iPad

1Password for iPad

You’ve worked on 1Password for all kinds of platforms – how different is the process for iPad interface design?

I would say the process itself doesn’t change but you have to take many new things into consideration during it. The fact that it is a larger device than the iPhone but still generally handheld makes a huge difference. I do add one extra step, compared to Mac apps, of putting all the mockups on my iPad’s screen and playing with it there.

The biggest difference is thinking about how a person can hold the device as well as hand and finger positions while using the app. Because of that I did things like placing the scrolling item list on the right and navigation bar on the left so a user’s hand doesn’t have to cross the device to scroll and their arm doesn’t cover up the item’s details while doing so.

1Password is a very aesthetically pleasing app, with plenty of “eye candy”. Do you think that this helps the user engage in the app?

First of all, thank you! I think that makes a huge difference in a user’s engagement, especially with a device like the iPad. The iPad can feel like a very personal device compared to a traditional computer in my opinion. Because it is handheld and a user directly interacts with the elements on screen you tend to feel a closer connection while using apps. While not as important as usability, good aesthetics and enjoyment in a design helps with people actually wanting to use it rather than just needing to.

1Password for iPad

1Password for iPad

Developers have to constantly update software and work with customer feedback – is it the same for designers, or do users prefer less change in an interface?

I would have to say it is similar for me but not to the same extent as the developers. There are refinements and a few new things during an app’s lifecycle but nowhere near as many as the developers make. Generally the only time really major interface changes are made is if there is a problem with the current solution or during full version upgrades.

What’s your set-up like? Do you try to keep your hardware up-to-date?

For hardware I use a maxed out 2010 17″ MacBook Pro as my primary work computer. My iPad will often be used as a secondary display for things like the work chat rooms and reference materials. On occasion my Mac mini and TV are being used to display instructional videos and such. As far as workspaces go, I switch between the desk in my office (Ikea Galant) and my couch a lot. I am currently having my desk converted to a standing one thanks to a welder friend of mine—very excited!

I’m pretty big on keeping up to date. I don’t need the absolute latest and greatest, but the geek in me cries out if I lag too far behind.

The Creation of 1Password in Photoshop

The Creation of 1Password in Photoshop

What iPad apps could you not live without?

I’m using Netflix and Hulu practically every night in bed to wind down before falling asleep. Really wish the Netflix app didn’t suck so much though! Aelios is my new weather app that I frequently leave running with my iPad in the background. iBooks and the Kindle app are constant companions of mine. For our work chatrooms I use VorePad. And of course, 1Password.

For someone interested in interface design, where would you suggest they start?

That’s a tough one. There are a ton of good books out there as well as design tutorial websites including your sister Tuts+ sites. I think the most important thing is to remember to go beyond pretty aesthetics and remember it’s all about making things easy for the users. Pay a lot of attention to the why behind what makes you like an app (or car, toaster, microwave, whatever!).

1Password for iPad

1Password for iPad

The social aspect of the web can be a huge help to designers whether they are beginners or further along in their careers. Follow designers you admire on Twitter, Dribbble, Facebook, wherever you can find them. Post your work and ask for feedback. When I first got into UI design I even emailed a few designers whose work I love and asked if they had any tips or if they would be willing to give me feedback on designs I was working on.

Many of them of course didn’t have the time but at least one was a great help to me and I will always be thankful for that. For the most part I would say it all eventually comes down to trial and error (practice, practice, practice!).

Can you reveal anything about future AgileBits products in the pipeline?

As much as I’d love to there isn’t anything I can talk about at the moment. I will say that they are keeping me incredibly busy with a ton of things in the works right now! I’m seriously excited about quite a few things they have me designing.

Thanks Dan!

Many thanks to Dan for talking to iPad.AppStorm and sharing his tips, experiences and opinions. We really appreciate his contribution, and wish him all the best with AgileBits and future software.

So, next time you see a well-designed app, think about how much time and effort went into the creation of its interface – Countless hours of tweaking and perfecting, planning and wire-framing.

It can be easy to forget about the people behind these apps, but they’re the ones that make your lives so much easier and your iPad so much nicer to use!