Couplett 3 of 3: From the ashes (Approval at last)

(read part 1 and part 2)Rejection.

In our experience, it doesn't happen often but when it does, it's always unexpected. There are lots of developers out there who are riding the edge, whether on the technical end (pushing the edges of what iOS can do) or on the business end (like selling "borderline" things via IAP). We thought there was a possibility we might fall into the first category with Couplett. After all, we started off trying to do something with the camera system that Apple confirmed to us couldn't really be done. We found out that we actually fell into the second category.

The system we devised for rewarding users who spread the word about our app seemed like a pretty good one. You use our app, we give you content to keep using the app. If this was the end of it, we would have been fine. Where the trouble arose was when we also said "but if you want to skip all that, you can just buy tokens and reward yourself". You've done this in games. Lots of games allow you to purchase some sort of intermediate currency that you use in game. You may not spend 99¢ to buy a great sword outright, but you might spend 99¢ to buy 1000 gold and then turn around and spend 500 gold to unlock the sword. As with many things, Apple's guidelines here can be open to interpretation.

By our interpretation, we weren't doing anything different than these myriad games save one - we were not a game.

The concept of "gamification" is floating around a lot these days and the idea of rewarding desired behaviors is seen, for example, at Fitocracy (where you "level up" by completing exercises). We've applied some of these same concepts in GAME.minder. When you are "playing" something, it can add an element of fun that you don't get from simply "using" something.

After carefully considering the situation, we came to two conclusions:

  • Apple is wrong
  • but that doesn't actually matter

For those not intimately familiar with the App Review process, you do have the option to appeal. While we have never taken this option (our only other rejections were for simple things like mishandled screenshots), we have heard that it can drag on for months. As Couplett was now coming up on 1 year since inception, we decided to simply rework the model of Couplett into a more traditional freemium app where you get to try it out for free, and you buy add ons in-app. While the model of rewards was, in our opinion, an innovative model, the true innovation of Couplett is the 2 camera functionality and it seemed a shame to hold up getting that out there just to quibble over how people could pay.

We spent the month of January pulling apart the token reward system and rebuilding the app to allow for downloadable theme packs. One positive that came out of this change is that the app itself is now under 20 megabytes, allowing it to be downloaded over 3G. This extra time also allowed us to use the app "in the wild" so to speak over the holiday period which led us to another discovery.

As we have covered, it's not possible to have both cameras active at once. This means you only get to frame up the "main" picture, the front facing picture is shot "blind". Now at first, we considered this an ok trade-off but in my personal use over the holiday, I discovered that the front facing cameras aren't aimed exactly how you might think, especially on iPad. This lead to either a lot of "top heavy" front facing photos, or a lot of retakes to make sure things were framed up correctly.

Since we had the time, we took this opportunity to add a brief "check your hair" moment before taking the front facing picture. If you make sure your face is framed in the square, you should be golden to use any theme available without worrying about getting cut off.

We wrapped up the changes, reorganized our in app purchases, submitted and settled in again to wait.


On February 8th, Couplett was released to world and we had a bang up first day, peaking at #9 free photo app for both iPhone and iPad!

Couplett 2 of 3: Development and Submission (and Rejection)

(read part 1)As late summer rolled on, we finally began to give Couplett the love it so desperately needed.

Early in development we faced our first big question. We knew we could build the photo taking functionality (we’d already done so with the prototype) and we knew that we could further optimize it. But what to do with these two photos? Through the design process, we came up with two distinct options:

  • simple yet limited
  • complex yet complicated

When going through the initial design phase of a project, it’s always good to throw as much against the wall as possible to see what might stick. Did we want Couplett to be an app that let you do anything you could possibly think of with two photos or did we want it to be something that let you do a couple things really fast, and really well?

We explored some options, built some prototypes and started to get a feel for what would make for a fun experience. What we settled on eventually was the concept of “Themes”. We took as inspiration what you see in iMovie or iPhoto - A single thing to select that brings with it all the options you would need for the composition. Instead of choosing a mask, a border, a color, a filter, a crop level and whatever else separately, you select a single theme and we design the themes to have all those things preselected for you. We then offer a few simple options (like position and size of the inner picture) and you’re all done.

It was around this time that we found Terrena, a full time graphics guru. What we realized we needed for Couplett was themes that were truly designed, and Brittney was already otherwise occupied with Uncle Slam. It was also around this time that we came up with the model for Couplett - Tokens.

You've seen "tokens", "gold" or "coins" in lots of popular games. You earn them in the game for performing various actions but, more importantly to us, you can skip all that and just buy them. When done correctly, you have something like Jetpack Joyride where you can just skip ahead a bit if you're frustrated. When done poorly, you have a Smurfberry situation.

Our goal was to incentivize the sharing of Coupletts (and hence, the sharing of the app itself). For every sharing action, you would earn tokens. Facebook, Twitter and Flickr sharing would earn more (since you were sharing with a larger audience) and sharing via email slightly less. This would then be the mechanism to unlock new themes, and as with many of the games out there, we would also offer the ability to purchase tokens in bulk if you just wanted the themes and didn't much care about sharing.

Development proceeded at quite a clip once Roben joined the team and there was even some friendly competition with the Uncle Slam team to see who might ship first. Uncle Slam won that contest by about a week but both came together so closely that it made the most sense toe schedule their releases together. December 16th would be the day. We submitted the final build and settled in to wait.

4 days later, we received the email you never want to get-

Your app Couplett has been reviewed, but we are unable to post this version. For details, or to directly contact the App Review team, visit the Resolution Center in iTunes Connect. Do not reply to this email.


App Review

Translation: REJECTED.

(read part 3)

Couplett 1 of 3: Conception and Planning (and delays)

Couplett is finally coming out tomorrow, February 8th. For those that are interested, I thought I'd give a little insight into the year-long process that has brought Couplett to the App Store. A whole year, you say? Indeed. So how does such a simple concept take a year to come to fruition? Read on to find out.In January, 2011, I was having lunch with my daughter. We were having one of our favorites, Panera mac and cheese, while taking a break from some errands. I find that my favorite times with my children are when I get to spend time with them individually. My daughter had requested “the mac and cheese restaurant” and I was happy to oblige.

Being the age of cell phone cameras, I was taken by an impulse we all seem to have from time to time, “I want to capture this moment”. So there she was, across the table from me and I began the typical dance:

  • Launch camera app
  • lean over the table
  • extend arm
  • realise that I’m not sure the framing
  • weigh the option of using the front facing camera despite it’s lower quality...

Wait a second.

Why am I switching cameras? This device has 2 cameras, if I could just drop the phone in between us and use both cameras, that would be so much simpler!

Thus began an App Store search and I found that there wasn’t much available (or my search skills weren’t up to the task). I filed the idea away and set a RE.minder to talk to John about it on Monday.

After relaying the idea, John started playing around with the camera system and we made some interesting discoveries, the most important of which is that, on the iPhone 4, there is no way to have both cameras active at the same time. No matter how we sliced it, the best we could hope for was two images, captured one immediately after the other. We took this prototype with us to WWDC 2011 and confirmed this with Apple. Barring a redesign of the underlying camera system (or a significant change deep within the OS), we could not have both cameras active at once.

Armed with this knowledge, it was time to dive into active development. Oh if only.

After WWDC in June, we were knee deep in the development of Uncle Slam. In addition, we now had a bright and shiny  (if borderline alpha) new iOS version to content with. But as we all know, Apple is never exactly forthcoming with projected release dates. Could Couplett be iOS5 only? Should we shift Uncle Slam's focus to iOS 5? Decisions, decisions.

(read part 2 and part 3)

The Handelabra "Who will ship first?" contest

Sometimes in life, you have to make your own fun. And sometimes, that fun falls right in your lap. This week, while working out timelines and scope for Handelabra's next two projects under development, we discovered something fun - Couplett and Uncle Slam are scheduled to finish up right around the same time.Now in some circles, that would just be a happy accident and everyone would just move on. Not here. No sooner had this fact been unearthed than John started in with "Uncle Slam will totally beat Couplett's firm buttocks" (I'm paraphrasing). This lead to Aaron making comments about Uncle Slam being more of an auntie. And so, a wager was struck.

The Contenders:

Uncle Slam IconUncle Slam

In brief: Handelabra's Presidential Boxing game shown off at PAX Prime. You play as the Presidents of the United States and battle it out to take up the mantle of "Uncle Slam." Project lead: John Arnold Teammate: Jason Hoyt (development) Teammate: Brittney McIsaac (design) Teammate: Jim Paluf (research)

Couplett IconCouplett

In brief: Your device has two cameras but just one at a time? Isn't it time to correct this crime? Take picture from both and comp them together, pictures of friends or your cat or the weather. Project lead: Aaron London Teammate: Roben Kleene Teammate: designer to be named later

the wager

The Wager:

As I watched this friendly contest develop, I couldn't help but think that a new era was dawning at Handelabra. The era of late nights and empty bottles . But still, who was I to stand in the way? John and Aaron certainly seemed ready to go toe-to-toe, code-to-code, bundle-to-bundle.

But I also realized there was a need for some modicum of civility so the following rules were enacted governing the contest. To be crowned winner, the app must:

  • Be completed within the current scope
  • Be submitted to the App Store first
  • Not pulled back by us due to a bug discovered while awaiting review
  • Rejection by Apple will NOT disqualify the winning app as we have no control over the review process
  • This wager is between Aaron and John, if any other team members choose to make a side-bet, it is a separate wager.

The Stakes


Follow the contest

While it may not be shaping up as the "Bout heard round the world!", there is the potential for an upset here. Both projects are already under development, they are different in scope and have different sized teams. Both are scheduled to submit in early November. If you want to see the whole messy affair play out, you can:

May the best app fall on it's face allowing the fastest one to win!