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Webby Connect Talent Spotlight: Mobile App Developer Matt Keefe


For this installment of our Webby Connect series we’re spotlighting a talent expert in the mobile app world.

Founder & CEO of web and mobile application development studio PixelBit, Matt Keefe has spent the last 10+ years helping companies of all sizes, including Fortune 100 global brands, launch better web and mobile experiences.

We asked him about mobile, the future of the web, why he goes to work every day, and of course, his favorite apps.

First things first: what phone do you have on you right now? iPhone? Android? Blackberry?
I have the iPhone 5 on me. It’s my daily phone, but I also have all the others for testing and development.

Why did you choose the iPhone over the others for your daily phone?
When the iPhone came out I found it to be completely new, much like the Windows phone is today. I was a deviation from all other phones, or at least it was at the time. Now I carry it because I do a lot of development with it, and I’m locked into the Apple ecosystem (for better or for worse): iCloud, etc. For development purposes Apple is the biggest market. Well, at least for now.

Why do you say “at least for now”?
As phones are coming out in the Android space, the share for the iPhone is starting to shrink. It’s not substantial yet, but I think it’s kind of telling of what’s to come. I remember when Nokia was the big dog in mobile. I think if Apple doesn’t re-innovate, they’re going to be in trouble. They’re not giving the user anything new and the other companies are working hard to do just that.

You mention the Windows phone, do you think it’s going to be a huge player?
With the new Windows phone, because it’s so similar to the the Windows desktop, I think some PC users are going to think, “This is how I use my desktop, and I’m looking for a new phone anyway, so I may as well buy this one.” But as far as iPhone and Android users migrating over, that remains to be seen. Right now the Windows phone has a very limited app store, the majority of apps are Microsoft’s or top game developers’, and there aren’t a lot of productivity or business apps yet. I think that’s going to be problematic if it continues, because as a developer you don’t want to create an app for a device so few people have.

What do you think is Windows’ potential is over iOS and Android OS?
With Windows, you get a really clear set of development tools, everything’s has been pre-built, just like Apple. The exception with Microsoft being a development company, they give you power that Apple won’t (because Apple doesn’t want competition with something they built). Of course they have security concerns, and they have the whole sandboxing that Apple does. Android, on the other hand, seems to be saying, “If you’re a developer and you can string together code that doesn’t explode, you can put it on our phones.” Which is a problem, since it’s on a device that millions of people rely on. Having a rogue app take over your phone or email your contacts is dangerous. Essentially, Apple has locked the door too tight, Android gives too much freedom, and I think Windows is a happy medium, from at least what I’ve been seeing.

What’s your biggest pet peeve in mobile apps?
I have a couple: apps that don’t provide a clear direction on how to use them and apps that fail to alert the user about errors.

In the case of clear direction, even before a user downloads an app, the screenshots on the app store have to tell a story: how this app is going to be used, what it provides, and why do you want to download it. I think a lot of companies do a good job here. But then when you download the app, you have no idea what to do because there’s no guide for how to use it. Are you supposed to connect with Facebook? Log into your account? They fail to give even little hints how to use the app. On the other hand, an app that starts up with a “register now” screen isn’t much better. The user just downloaded the app, maybe you should let them check it out first before asking for a lot of personal information. I think you want to shoot for the middle: don’t ask for too much information, but then again don’t become so mysterious that it’s like the black card of web apps.

As far as nebulous error messages go, I’m sure most folks have used software where an error message comes up that says something like, “An error has occurred  #67235.” And you think, “Thanks that’s really helpful.” I find that mobile apps will do that, too.

You’ll actually be sitting there and an error will pop up that says something like, “A connection cannot be established because WiFi not in range dot some other function name”, which is a development message. What you should tell your user is, “WiFi not working right now.” Because the user doesn’t care why the signal strength isn’t where you need it to be or that Facebook threw back a restricted error. Look at JetBlue, when you try to check a flight without WiFi, the message says, “This app needs an Internet connection.” Which allows the user to look at their phone and say, “Hey, I don’t have an Internet connection right now.” Giving the user a good explanation of what happens when something goes wrong is a good thing, because at that point the user is probably already frustrated. And sending them a nonsensical error message is going to frustrate them even more.

Your biggest mobile app thrill?
Watching the mobile development evolve almost daily, both from a user’s and a developer’s perspective. I mean, look at iOS 6, now there’s Passbook which allows apps to engage a user when they’re near a location. If they go by their favorite Starbucks, suddenly a screen pops up with their loyalty card. Or they go into Target and coupons appear on their phone that they can scan when they check out. Or they bought a ticket through Eventbrite and their ticket pops up on their phone when they’re close to the venue. In that last case, with tickets, just last year a user would have to bring up that ticket email on their phone or pull up a QR code. But that involves finding that email or looking for that app lost among the hundreds of apps on their phone. And tons of companies are now working with Passbook: United Airlines, American Airlines, Fandango, Walgreens...

Or how about this, with the Apple Store app, you can purchase something with your phone, go into the store, pick out your product, and scan it with your phone, which generates a receipt you can show them as you exit the store with your product.

With mobile development, I’m always excited to see the next big thing, whatever that is.

What’s the next big thing for mobile?
Companies properly utilizing mobile on-site purchasing and NFC (near field communications), which I'd love to see the airlines adopt really soon. Some Android phones have a physical chip inside them so you can hold your phone close to an item and pay for it, or pump gas, buy a drink, lots of things. These NFC phones will work where geolocation can and will fail. Most companies, as well as most phone manufacturers, aren’t utilizing this, even though some credit card companies already are. Really, it’s the same thing, only using your phone instead of the credit card. It’s amazing technology.

What advice do you have for aspiring mobile designers/developers?
When you’re just starting out, don't be afraid to read everything, but be sure to form your own best practices as well. You'll quickly learn the web is full of information and hurdles, but anyone that is driven to succeed will indeed make it in this profession.

If you think you’re going to be the next Jeffrey Zeldman, Dan Cederholm, or Luke Wroblewski, that’s a worthy goal. But if the reason you’re doing it is to be just like them, then you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Because it’s really about the passion, and that involves long nights, long working weekends, missed vacations, missed family opportunities... I think the day you decide you want a 9 to 5 job, and you’re done experimenting, you may be successful, but I think you’re going to lose that passion quickly, once you start to think of it as a job.

Years later I still don’t think of this as a job, this is getting paid to do fun.

Oh, and never let someone tell you that you can’t do it or you shouldn’t do it, because you can!

Thanks again to Matt for the great information. If you have questions for him, please post here and we’ll pass along.

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