PlainText App Analysis

PlainText is a simple and elegant app that I use for taking notes on my iPad. The simplicity of PlainText is its main strength, not only is it easy to use but it gives the app a very distinct feel which can be hard to find among iOS apps, especially in a category as crowded as text editors. The key aspects to the success of PlainText lie in two major design decisions which shaped the overall feel of the app as well as the philosophy behind it.

One of the biggest problems with apps for any platform is conformity. Adhering to the Human Interface Guidelines (pdf link) is important because Apple has gone through great lengths to test which interface elements work well and which do not but as with many rules, these are meant to be broken (though I’m sure there are some UI designers at Apple who would disagree with me). When done correctly differing from the HIG is not only an effective means to make an app more fun to use but can also give an app an instantly recognizable interface. In the current highly saturated market of the App Store everything just sort of blends together into a blur of standard user interface elements, just having a good icon is no longer good enough.

Differing from the norm can be dangerous for newbie designers because apps that differ from the HIG quickly separate the UI designers who know what they’re doing from the ones who don’t, sticking with Apple’s built in interface elements and placement guarantees your app won’t look amateur, but knowing when to use your own elements will truly make an app look awesome. PlainText uses a standard iPad interface layout called a “split view” which places a list of items on the left and content on the right. When compared with another split view application, notice how different the interface elements of PlainText are compared to Apple’s standard Mail app. Differing for no reason would have been a bad choice but the alternative interface of PlainText serves to make it resemble a layout you might find on an actual piece of paper instead of a futuristic touch screen application.

Split view layout in PlainText

Split view layout in Apple Mail

When designing a user interface the goal should be to make the user feel like they are interacting with a physical object and not just code. The iPad calendar app is a good example of this theory, it attempts to mimic an actual datebook but still differs from reality by offering multiple views, a search field, and other features not found in a real life datebook. My own app, TimeDroid, has only one setting and could have been made much simpler if I had simply stuck with the standard UI elements supplied to me by Apple. I knew that I didn’t have enough skill at the time to develop my own on/off slider, but by surrounding the standard control with my own special elements and a custom status indicator (the eyes light up with notifications are turned on) I was able to make my app more interesting than my competitors’ as well as making it fun to use and giving it a distinct feel that set it apart. Since my app involved sounds too, keeping the robot theme allowed me to make the entire experience cohesive and made it feel more like the user is interacting with a real object that lives inside their phone instead of just a switch that changes a setting.

TimeDroid's interface compared to another app with similar function.

Another thing that PlainText gets right is its use of Dropbox as a syncing mechanism. Using a third party mechanism to sync data across multiple devices is a major design decision for any developer. On one hand you are trusting another company to provide a service that will in some cases make or break your app. On the other hand users who already have Dropbox accounts don’t need to sign up for yet another service and you can focus on refining the parts of your app that you control instead of reinventing the wheel. PlainText smartly included an easy to use in app signup mechanism for users who aren’t already Dropbox members, this small addition makes diving right into PlainText easy even for someone who has never heard of Dropbox before.

In addition to using Dropbox for syncing, PlainText is doing it right by storing that data in a local database. Whenever possible, apps should be written such that the user can still get some useful function out of the app even when there is no internet connection available, even if the functionality is reduced somewhat. Especially in the world of mobile devices a constant or reliable internet connection is never guaranteed, requiring a constant connection to Dropbox (as some of PlainText’s competitors do) would only frustrate the user and give them incentive to look elsewhere for a solution.

I use PlainText every day, if you write a lot of content and want to do it on an iPad or iPhone then I highly recommend it. The virtues of PlainText are more than I have chosen to write about here, if you’re interested there should be nothing holding you back from trying it out because the developer has chosen to give the app away for free with a paid option to remove ads.