Noble Union blog

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Looking back

Looking back

Ryan Shelton, Apr 13

Apple launched the iPhone in 2007 and the App Store a year later. Shortly after the App Store opened its doors, we started Noble Union and the last 5 years have been an amazing journey. Prior to Noble Union, I had another company that mostly designed websites and web apps – primarily for startups. I’ve always been fascinated with and thrived working at the intersection of design and technology.

I remember watching Steve Jobs’ keynote introducing the original iPhone. It was such a ground breaking device and it caused a few upsets. Blackberry supposedly stated that Apple was lying, saying that it was impossible for a device to have such a large touchscreen and still have a usable lifespan away from a power outlet. Another reported quote from Google engineer Chris DeSalvo said, “As a consumer, I was blown away. I wanted one immediately. But as a Google engineer, I thought, ‘We’re going to have to start over.’”

It seems so normal now but before iPhone revolutionised the mobile category, browsing the web to find and book a restaurant wasn’t exactly easy. So called smartphones were pretty dumb. The Blackberry was great, you got email and a basic web browser but it always felt weird spinning the trackball to move the cursor to where it needed to be on the tiny screen.

Apple changed all this by producing a device that allowed you to physically interact with elements on the screen, removing the need for buttons and trackballs. It was and is a computer in your pocket – computer more powerful than that used to send the first man to the moon!

The App Store personally changed my own life. I went from being frustrated with HTML and testing websites across multiple browsers to designing beautiful apps for a device that had a fixed screen size and was pretty much guaranteed to work. We were so eager to design apps that the first apps we designed completely for free. I didn’t care about making money, I just wanted to make cool stuff. At the time, not many designers were making apps and I guess our enthusiasm paid off as we began to land a few paid jobs.

In early 2010, we were given the opportunity to work on an app for the unreleased iPad. The BBC had, up until that point, not released any apps on the App Store and were keen to get an app into the store. A development house approached us to work on the user interface and user experience of the BBC News app. The app would need to be unique and not just a standard looking news app. We knew little about the iPad, no one had physically seen one but we knew that it had a screen resolution of 1024×768 and was the size of a page. We worked on a number of ideas all the while trying to create something that would allow users to read an article in just one tap.

This focus lead to the scrolling carousels concept which showcased news articles in a mosaic, which make it easy to get an overview of breaking news on a single screen.

1_carousel
Scrolling Carousels Concept

Prototypes were made on paper and a test app built before we could actually test BBC News on an iPad. Here’s one of our early designs. One month before the iPad was released we were invited to the BBC headquarters to test the app on an actual device. The iPad was locked down to a table in a secret room. I remember being slightly nervous the first time we launched the app on that iPad. Was our app going to work!? Thankfully it did and we spent the next few minutes figuring out ways to make the app look and run better.

Early BBC News Design
Early design

One month later the iPad launched. Apple had an amazing app from the BBC in the App Store, ready for the global launch of the iPad and the BBC had a flagship app they could be proud of. I still smile every time I get on the tube and see someone using the BBC News App.

Final BBC News Design
Final App

Since then, a number of news apps have replicated the scrolling carousels idea for navigation. There have been some good and some bad implementations. The biggest and most successful being Pulse News which won an Apple Design Award for their app in 2011 and was later acquired by Linkedin for $90M in 2013.

Over the last 5 years we have had the privilege of working with some of the most forward thinking and innovative people in the industry. Created apps that have hit the top of the charts in various categories, featured in the top 10 grossing apps, and been selected as Apple Staff Favourites. However, what we haven’t done is release our own branded app. This is something we plan to change soon. We’re working on a little side project. Something for Londoners. Something small to say thanks for giving us so many opportunities and for being such an awesome city to live in. Watch this space, it’s coming soon(ish) to your iPhone.

It’s difficult to imagine the world without smartphones. How did I wake up 5 years ago and reach for my phone to check Instagram, Facebook or Twitter (after saying good morning to my wife, of course!)? Thank you Steve Jobs. Thank you Apple. Thank you to every client that has put their faith and trust in us. Thanks for giving us the best job in the world!