“It’s all about the tech” – What’s so compelling about apps from Calvium’s perspective
Just like painting or writing, app development is a creative process. Armed only with a client brief and our imaginations, expertise and tools, Calvium creates app experiences. Each one unique, each one requiring its own approach.
App development to us is a combination of technology, storytelling, user experience, creativity, collaboration and more. In this series, we catch up with our team to discuss the thing they love best about app development. We’ve chatted to our MD Jo Reid about the business side of the….erm, business. This time, it’s all about tech and the programmers that use them.
We caught up with Ben Clayton, our technical director, and Matt Votsikas, one of our talented developers, to find out where their love of tech came from and what it is they love about technology in app development.
What sparked your individual passions in technology?
Ben: My dad was a head teacher and his little school in Lincolnshire was one of the first to use technology as part of the curriculum. We got to play around with a BBC Micro, writing programmes. I remember this small robot thing that you could programme to move about – forward 100, turn right 45 degrees. You could stick a pen in it and put it on a piece of paper, and you could write little programmes to make it draw stars. It was incredibly simple by today’s standards, of course, but as a five-year-old it was incredible. That was the first thing that sparked my interest.
Then, like lots of people, I got into video games: I had a Spectrum and, later on, a NES and Super Nintendo. I wanted to be a game developer initially and tried my hand at creating a few games. There was a top-down scrolling adventure where you’re a little character that could walk around and go into dungeons and fight monsters and collect things and go into houses and talk to people. I did a little, kind of, 2D platform game. I tried to do a Street Fighter kind of fighting game thing. I spent a lot of time doing that kind of thing.
But then I went to university and learned quite quickly by talking to people that the games industry is actually a brutally hard place to work. The hours are ridiculous. They have this thing called crunch time where everyone works twelve-hour days, six or seven days a week, to get a game finished. This was an expectation – the norm – and totally not for me.
That’s why I started edging towards app development.
What about you, Matt? Was it computer games for you as well?
Matt: Not initially. I mean, my dad was an electrical engineer and he had a computer so I grew up around computers and did used to play them a bit when I was really young. But I didn’t really get properly into gaming until my teenage years. I used to play a game called RuneScape which was a massive multiplayer online role playing game. So I did that – then I made a website and started selling items; everything from armour to food.
Ben: Oh, really? I didn’t know that. Cool.
Matt: Yeah. It was alright until I had a phone call from one of my suppliers to verify my age, so I had to give the phone to my mum. Then she was like: ‘What are you doing, Matt?’ So, I had to knock that on the head.
I ended up doing web development at university, which seemed like a natural course of progression – to learn the ‘official’ way of doing things.
My third year of university was a placement year. I already had my own freelancing and contracting business so the university set me up with an office, and again, I went out and found a client or a few clients and did some work for them. I’ve always loved tech, but I guess I’ve always looked at it quite entrepreneurially.
What is it specifically about the tech side of app development that appeals to you the most?
Matt: Computers do what you ask them to do. I can tell them what I need and I can get a quick turnaround. It’s a very creative process; it’s constantly changing; there are always new things to learn. And personally, I’m just into gadgets and tech. Growing up, I’d always be looking through toy magazines for spy gadgets, things like that. Nothing’s changed, really. The thing that appeals is the combination of enjoying physical gadgets and knowing that I could do something with them. I could write an app for my watch that I use on a daily basis, or I could programme the lights in my house to do something. It’s having the idea then seeing the tangible results.
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Ben: The really enjoyable bit about working in technology is you start with nothing, but through your action – writing some code – you can create something and you know whether it works there and then. You can imagine it, you can make it, and then you can see it and really try it out immediately, which just isn’t the case in loads of other fields. From there you can iterate on it and you can be really creative or you can be really process-oriented, careful and exact.
Matt: Exactly. And when it comes to Calvium work, we’re not constrained, at least at the conceptual stage, by the budget. We begin with what we’d love to do – the ‘money’s no object’ ideas, and then we make a call about what can stay and what can’t based around budgets and time. It empowers lateral thinking.
Are there any projects where the technology challenge has been pretty intense, and how did you get over that?
Ben: One challenging one was the Tower Bridge project. The brief was to create a comical, interactive game-like experience on iOS and Android. This was a few years ago so, at the time, we’d been doing lots of HTML-5-based platform apps. What would happen, virtually every single time, is you would make something that would work really nicely on iOS, then you’d run it on Android and it would be broken.
Eventually, I found Corona, which is a 2D game development framework. Obviously, with any new systems you have to sit there and learn the functionality, its little quirks and everything else, so that took some time. But it was worth it – it worked well, and crucially, the experience was exactly the same on Android as it was on iOS.
Matt: From my side, the Battersea Power Station app was a fun challenge. The games themselves were fun to make. We had to make three individual games as efficiently as possible. So they all used the same game engine at the back end. That’s what I love about tech: Once you’ve thought about it and thought about all the requirements, you can come up with a pretty succinct logic to create these three completely separate games that work the same.
To your point, Ben, around the technical struggles behind the Tower Bridge app. How do you decide what tech goes into any given project?
Ben: You have to approach it from two sides. Let’s take AI, for instance. From a marketing perspective, Calvium being able to create AI-enabled apps is brilliant. But there’s always the technical side, too. My job, from a business technological viewpoint, is figuring out how to excite customers without bogging down the technical teams.
With AI, for instance, a big consideration is cross-platform performance. Apple has been excellent at integrating AI into iOS – but the uptake on Android has been slower. It’s gotten better, but it still lags and only works on three or four phones. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do it or we can’t, it means that it’s a consideration at the start. It’s about tempering the excitement around new tech with the realities of working with the tools.
Is it hard not to get lost in the development process? I mean, how do you keep sight of the end user when you’re developing an app?
Ben: Calvium works in a MVP model. So we make the app, release it and then we have a fast feedback cycle where we take user feedback and constantly improve the experience. UX isn’t finished when the wireframes are done, because how something feels is not something you can really test until it’s working. A constant, iterative approach to UX design helps make our apps user-friendly.
The most important technical UX consideration, from my perspective, is the speed and fluency of an app experience. If the experience is too slow your users are going to lose focus. One of our specialisms is to make offline-focussed apps. All the data is stored in the phone, so there’s no lag where you need to wait for the server every time you navigate between screens. If you can cache things, it’s far easier to make the app flow logically and keep the user interested – even if that’s just a simple preview showing them what they might unlock as they carry on.
What about the work Calvium does resonates with you?
Ben: I love the variety of projects we work on: the heritage sector, cultural experience-based things and games, and more engineering-focussed applications. It’s not just the same stuff every day. Sometimes that’s quite challenging, because there’s a lot of stuff to learn, and there’s a lot of problems to solve in a short time, but it certainly keeps it interesting.
Matt: Yes, the big thing is the variety of projects, and they’ve all got their own specific technical requirements. That’s fun to work with. Technically it’s been a journey and the tech we use has evolved alongside each project we’ve worked on. We’ve tried to simplify a lot. We use Slack to communicate – which has helped lighten the email load. We’ve moved our credentials to a password vault – rather than the encrypted file we had it in when I first joined! Phabricator has been a delight to use, really speeding up our issue tracking and allowing me to maintain my focus when I code.
Ben: The tech we use will always be quite complicated. The aim is to simplify our tech as much as possible. Sometimes there’s a simpler solution but as technical people, we can jump to a more complicated one. But at Calvium, we’ve struck that balance.
Thanks to Ben and Matt for their time, and obviously their work helping to build incredible apps. Speaking of which, why not check some of our projects out here?