Episode 16: Developing An ActiveCampaign iOS App with Weien Wang

iOS apps for ActiveCampaign are on the way; learn more in this development preview.


ActiveCampaign is developing iOS apps; iOS Developer Weien Wang discusses the upcoming app with Chris Davis, Director of Education. Weien and Chris talk about what it takes to create iOS software that is useful, usable, and clean.
Chris Davis: Welcome, welcome, welcome. Welcome to another episode of [00:00:30] the ActiveCampaign Podcast. Today, I have a guest with me and we’re going to be walking through the development process of the none other than the iOS ActiveCampaign mobile application. Yes, I said it slow, because I knew it would be a bit shocking, but we are working on a software … I should say a mobile software application for the iPhone. I [00:01:00] thought it’d be most appropriate, like we always do on the ActiveCampaign Podcast, right? To have one of the top developers of the iPhone application on the ActiveCampaign Podcast, so we could just talk through what goes into making this app, from an internal perspective and what you all can look forward to in the first version of this app. All right? You all ready? Let’s go, let’s jump right into it. I have with me [00:01:30] none other than Weien Wang, dub, dub, Big W.
Weien Wang: Thanks for having me, Chris.
Chris Davis: Weien’s World. How are you doing, Weien?
Weien Wang: I’m doing well, thank you.
Chris Davis: All right. Welcome to the podcast. Good to have you on. I’m going to share a bit of personal insight here at ActiveCampaign. Weien is a firm believer in the truth, and him and I share the belief in one of the [00:02:00] most mysterious and under the radar protein bars this world has ever seen.
Weien Wang: That’s right.
Chris Davis: If any of you are ever in town, visiting the ActiveCampaign studios, wherever we’re at, make sure you ask myself or Weien about these fantastic protein bars. Weien, what is your official title here at ActiveCampaign?
Weien Wang: My official title is iOS Developer.
Chris Davis: iOS Developer, okay. Now, how long have you been here at ActiveCampaign?
Weien Wang: [00:02:30] I started in October, so about four months.
Chris Davis: Okay. Before you were here, have you always been developing applications or what’s your background?
Weien Wang: Yeah, at least for the last number of years I’ve been doing iOS. Before I worked at ActiveCampaign, I was a freelancer, so I worked on my own. Actually, I worked from home, which is really nice.
Chris Davis: Nice.
Weien Wang: On a couple of different projects for various different clients. Some educational [00:03:00] stuff, a little bit of business, social media, even like a quiz app, where you have kind of a trivia game.
Chris Davis: Oh, wow.
Weien Wang: Yeah, some fun projects over the years.
Chris Davis: Interesting. Oh, man, I’ve got my set of questions, but now I’m just interested what would you say was the most interesting or creative application you worked on?
Weien Wang: Oh, man. This is hard, because what if my old clients are listening? One of [00:03:30] the first things I worked on … I’ll say that.
Chris Davis: Okay, yeah.
Weien Wang: Was like a devotional app. It was targeted at Christians and people who wanted a little bible verse and some stuff.
Chris Davis: Oh, wow, interesting.
Weien Wang: It was this thing that two people made. I think it was this couple and they made it in their home. It was their garage project, but it blew up and they had like 300,000 users, which is not like a ton, but …
Chris Davis: That’s really good.
Weien Wang: … for just the people figuring it out. That was an interesting [00:04:00] project, because they had a lot of users. If you did something wrong, it would cost them money.
Chris Davis: Right, right. Yeah.
Weien Wang: Efficiency was a big priority right off the bat.
Chris Davis: Wow. That was your first project.
Weien Wang: Yeah, I sort of picked it up. Someone else did the version one and two and then here I am and they wanted to redesign it and streamline it.
Chris Davis: I gotcha.
Weien Wang: That was a fun way to get my feet wet.
Chris Davis: Yeah. Wow, when I think [00:04:30] about it now, that’s similar to how you come on board to ActiveCampaign, right?
Weien Wang: Yeah, I am.
Chris Davis: You’ve, in a sense, inherited a project that was in motion, so let’s talk about that. What was the state of the app as you knew it when you were interviewing and got hired and have taken over?
Weien Wang: Sure, yeah. When I was interviewing and I got hired, the app had been in progress for maybe about five months, so it was in this partial state. [00:05:00] A lot of good work already done on it. It actually looked pretty good, but then there were a lot of guts that needed to be fleshed out, still. One of the first things we did was just assess the project again, make sure we know where we are and figure out what’s the low-hanging fruit, what can be knock out quickly, and what’s the fastest way we can get this to market.
Chris Davis: Yeah. I have some background in coding, [00:05:30] many years ago, many moons and many moons ago. I used to program microprocessors as an engineer. One of the hardest things, for me, was to take over legacy code or take over another engineer’s code, figure out what they were doing and write it in the new chip’s language or the updated language. Was there any of that for you when you came on board?
Weien Wang: Yeah, there’s always some of that. I’ve gotten to do that a lot of times over the years. [00:06:00] It’s always just helpful to remember that there really are no good coders. Everybody is a better coder than they were a year ago. You look at your old software and then you want to burn it. It is terrible. If somebody has a different experience, then they’re not growing.
Chris Davis: Yeah. That’s good that you say that, Weien, because I see the same trends in automations. I hate my automations of last [00:06:30] year. Very rarely do I look at one and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, Chris, you were a genius!” I’m looking like, “Does this thing still work? What were you thinking?” We’re always our worst critic, if we’re growing, like you said. Otherwise, we’ve just arrived, right? Like, “Oh, it’s the best. There’s nothing wrong here.”
Weien Wang: That’s right.
Chris Davis: “There’s no bugs here. It’s the user’s fault,” right?
Weien Wang: That’s right, yeah.
Chris Davis: That’s very interesting, because I know when I started here, it was just kind of whispers and hints of an iOS application. [00:07:00] I always thought I’ve seen some of our competitors and what they’ve done and then you have our users. They have a laundry list. “Oh, are we going to be able to be build automations on your iPad? It’ll be so … ” It’s like, ideally, I can see where that comes from, like that would be amazing, you just … in your bed, or on the train, or in a plane with an iPad and essentially being the orchestrator of what’s happening in your business by dragging and dropping the automations. [00:07:30] As you get into the development process, you start to realize what’s possible and what’s not. What are some of the challenges you faced with developing this iOS App, and the scope in how is this initial version going to look?
Weien Wang: Yeah, absolutely. I think when you mentioned about we have clients and they have dreams about what conducting business on their iPad can look like through ActiveCampaign. [00:08:00] Those are actually … most things are possible, if you have enough time and unlimited money. I’m pretty sure everyone met John and Tim, not too long ago, on the podcast. Even before I showed up, they did some really good work figuring out what is a doable first iOS App that we can make something that’s contained. It doesn’t necessarily touch every single part of [00:08:30] the product. That’s how they settled on building a Forms app. It still does touch deals and, of course, it touches contacts.
Chris Davis: Sure.
Weien Wang: They were thinking, “How can we make something smallish, like Forms, into a useful, familiar, but also new app?” They made a really good choice, I think, even though maybe it’s not like the hottest thing. Maybe not everyone was asking for Forms on iPad. This gave our product [00:09:00] team, and also just even myself and the other developers on the iOS team, a chance to figure out what does iOS look like here at ActiveCampaign? What are the things we need to watch out for? What are the things that we can build really well now and then reuse in other app?
Chris Davis: That’s it. That’s it. Yeah, you can’t get away from his MVP approach, right?
Weien Wang: Right.
Chris Davis: The minimum viable product. When Tim was on, he was talking about, “How do we deal with [00:09:30] implementing new features?” We were talking about data and some of the challenges with that. John was talking about how we have to not forget about humans, like in all that we’re building, they’re still humans, at the end of the day. Austin gave insight to the process of the user, like just like designing for every use case. When you first log in, what is that experience like? When you’ve got data [00:10:00] coming in, what does that experience look like?
When I look at it, it’s always this core, this strong core, this strong foundation, that you really want to focus on. It’s like a house. Nobody looks at the concrete and is just like, “Oh, that is some … Oh, that concrete right there, I love it.” They just want … Hurry up. I understand the importance of the concrete, pour it, pour it. How long is it going to take for it to dry, so that you can start building on top of it? Is that [00:10:30] kind of like what you all are seeing in that approach with starting with the Forms?
Weien Wang: Yeah, absolutely. Ideally, if I do my job right, all anyone should see is Austin’s designs or Vince’s, of course, because really good software should be invisible and it should make sense and it should be quick. Your data shouldn’t disappear, you [don’t have to 00:10:54] wonder where it is, and you just have design to touch and to work with.
Chris Davis: Wow.
Weien Wang: Yeah.
Chris Davis: [00:11:00] Yeah, your software should be invisible. That’s a strong statement there.
Weien Wang: It’s a goal.
Chris Davis: Yeah. It’s like if it functions … if the usability, which is one of the things I’m proud to say, we have made a big shift internally all about usability, because we’ve got so many smart engineers like yourself, we can build anything. Feature request, oh, that’s easy. That’s a piece of cake, right? That’s one of our advantages. At the same time, oh, what are we building for? What [00:11:30] are we building to? Are we sacrificing usability? When you say, “Keep the software invisible,” man, that is a powerful statement.
It just gives our users insight on the experience that we’re intentionally out to create for them. I personally like … in the beginning, I was thinking the first version of the application maybe was going to be like a context manager, like, “Oh, you’ll be able to tag, rename, add people, [00:12:00] this, this and that.” When you started talking about Forms, I was like, “For a lot of businesses, this is going to be huge!” Right?
Weien Wang: Sure.
Chris Davis: I know a lot of our users struggle just getting Forms on their website. They’re just like, “Hey, use either simple embed, full embed or the WordPress plugin. You’ve got options.” Now, being able to essentially build the Form on the fly and then deploy it ’cause Forms are the door, they’re the front door [00:12:30] to your contact database. Most houses have multiple entry ways, but the primary means of somebody existing in your ActiveCampaign account is a Form. That is the starting point of most of your automations, is going to be a Form.
Weien Wang: It’s a fun app, because it’s very much a physical product. It’s something that you get to share, literally, in the same room with a customer. It [00:13:00] is something where you’re at a trade show or an expo or a conference and you say, “Hey, if you can just enter your email address right here and then tap the button with your finger, that I’m standing next to you, you can enter to win a month’s free supply of organic dog food or something.”
Chris Davis: Oh man, I love it. That’s huge! It’s almost like you can replace your registration sheets now.
Weien Wang: Sure, yeah, I hope so.
Chris Davis: Like pass the iPad around and just let them enter the information directly into the account, man. [00:13:30] Wow, wow. I’m definitely excited about it. What are some other things you can share about the version one of the app?
Weien Wang: Version one is just that, it’s just a version one, so hopefully we can keep on building on it over time. One of the things that we’re to excited to include in this version is that you can actually use it without worrying about your WiFi connection, which is a big thing because oftentimes your iPad … You’re at a conference [00:14:00] and the WiFi is terrible. Maybe you’re traveling and you just don’t have a hotspot or something. The way we’re building it is to allow you to collect contacts whether or not you have connection and then it’ll sync them up when you do get one.
Chris Davis: Nice, nice. Yeah, I would have to say I agree with that, as well. It’s weird. It’s very weird, because we serve a lot of fitness trainers here at ActiveCampaign. When [00:14:30] you talk to them, that is one of the most important things, is it seems like WiFi will be everywhere, but there’s certain trainers that run like bootcamps, perhaps outside. I never thought of it and it’s just like, “You know what? You very well may not be connected to the internet when you’re transacting business.” Seriously. Just the ability to hold that data locally until you connect to the internet and then pass it [00:15:00] through, that’s going to be huge. Wow. This is exciting, man.
What would you say, as you’ve been working on this app … because you start here, and it’s a project that’s existing, so there’s time where you just even understand what were you guys trying to do. You understand what they’re trying to do and then it’s about, “Okay, now, how do I take what they’re doing and, perhaps, add my experience, my expertise to it?” Then you start the [00:15:30] actual development process where you’re writing your code. You’re like, “Hey, that’s my first line of my code. My code by Weien here.”
Weien Wang: Sure.
Chris Davis: In this entire process, Weien, is there a point that you can remember where you really started to get excited? If so, what was it that really excited you?
Weien Wang: I think one thing that I’ve loved about working here is that the company overall is really … it really emphasizes [00:16:00] stability in our software. It’s almost like this is a feature that we want to hold to and to be able to point to. It’s good to have all these other features and [group in 00:16:15] things like this. You group in X, Y, Z in certain ways, it’s really convenient, but if your app is slow, or if it’s … These are things that we hear, too, and we get feedback something is slow, something is hard to use, so how can we make a balance [00:16:30] between adding new things and fixing things that are not so great?
Even for the iPad app, which is a brand new app, we haven’t gotten many feedback yet, because it’s still in this alpha, beta stage. When I get assigned a task to make the app more useful and more usable, faster, less buggy, in some way, as opposed to putting that under the carpet in effort to get this out faster, [00:17:00] that makes me happy, because that means that I get to build something that I can be proud of, that I can reasonably take to show people and then believe that it’s not going to crash as soon as I try to show them, which happens a lot. It’s like the demo curse. As soon as you demo your software, as long as you’re in front of it, it’s going to crash. Not if you spend your due diligence on making it stable. Yeah, I think even just seeing [00:17:30] a mix of add new things, but also make the old things better. That’s just a very satisfying process.
Chris Davis: I got you. I got you. As you’re speaking, I realized … and I apologize to the listeners, in my excitement, I jumped ahead. Let’s just rewind like 10, 15 minutes, Weien. What exactly is our iOS App? Is this going to be iPad only? Is it going to be on all devices [00:18:00] that have access to the iTunes store? What is our mobile app?
Weien Wang: Yeah, this one is iPad only. Part of the thinking behind that, is we wanted to build not just a way to view Forms that people could put an email address in and then hit enter, but it’s also a Form builder. You need a bit of space, or at least, generally speaking, it helps to have some space where you can drag some panels around and you can edit how a field looks, you can add a picture, you can add your logo.
Chris Davis: [00:18:30] Nice.
Weien Wang: This Form app that we’re talking about is a form builder, so it builds iPad-styled forms that should remind you a lot of our current web forms, but they have kind of an iPad flare. Of course, you can display them, so that’s a key part of it, too.
Chris Davis: Yeah. You’ll be able to build it and then when you’re done, I can envision like hit a publish button or something and then it will be the live version of that application and then people can [00:19:00] start filling it out, or you can starting filling it out, which is great. Wow, wow. Good stuff, good stuff.
What would you say … this is not spill the beans, Weien. In your educated experience, right? Because from the outside, not having anything to do with the development of this app. I have all kind of possibilities running through my mind, like oh, it could do this, it could do that, it could do this. You personally, [00:19:30] as the developer od the app, what are some directions you’re hopeful for going forward as we continue to build out phase one and then move into phase two and other phases?
Weien Wang: I think some of the exciting things that are coming with this app are just getting even closer to what we already have on the web. I know that custom fields are real big one, and that’s something we don’t have quite yet. Just for timeline sake, [00:20:00] right now the app is in beta, and so we’re actually getting pretty close to actually releasing it much more broadly than we have so far and getting more people to get their eyes on it and actually to play with it. One of our suspicion is that people are going to be asking for custom fields.
There’s some other nice things we could do, too. Right now, if you want to add a logo or an image that pulls that off of your iPad, or it opens up your iPad’s image library. It’d be cool if we could also pull from your ActiveCampaign [00:20:30] image library. That would make sense, as well. There are a lot of nice directions we can head in that would make things a little more seamless, a little more invisible, so that you don’t have to be like, “Hey, where’s the pictures?” That they’re just there.
I’m also excited about other apps that we’re going to start making at some point here at ActiveCampaign. We’ve been working on a couple of ideas. It’s possible that we can make a DLCRM app. [00:21:00] That one, actually, I find very exciting, because as, I think people know, we actually use that internally here.
Chris Davis: Mm-hmm (affirmative), absolutely.
Weien Wang: That would be an app that, as I build it, I can go over to Bo’s desk and be like, “Hey, does this feature make sense? Does this do what you think it should do?” Even as watch over this shoulder, being able to watch someone else use your software is extremely gratifying. It’s kind of a unique experience, [00:21:30] too.
I remember one of the first apps I made … this was when I was just trying to get something on the App Store, so I made like a Twitter client. I showed it to my mother-in-law and the very first thing that she did when she opened the app us was like she leaned in. Her face went like two inches from the app. That told me so much. I knew right away the font is way too small.
Chris Davis: Oh, yeah.
Weien Wang: I was assuming like, “Oh yeah, everyone … ” I was assuming that people are 25 or wherever and [00:22:00] they have 25 vision, but it’s a horrible assumption. Watching people use software is really instructive and very interesting.
Chris Davis: Wow. I don’t think we can get away from the initial statement you made, because I see a theme through everything that you’re talking about, Weine. It’s this you’ve not arrived. As a developer, you’ve not arrived. You’re still teachable, you’re still open to understand, “Hey, wait a minute, I made an assumption [00:22:30] that everybody was gonna do this and they didn’t.” You’re not forcing them to fit your assumptions. You’re open. You’re humble enough to say, “You know what? Let’s take this feedback back to the drawing board and let’s figure out how to reword this.”
I think it speaks volumes to the type of engineers and the type of culture we have here, is not that we’re just surrounded by yes people that say, “Yes, good job, good job, good job.” We all collectively share [00:23:00] this approach that, “Listen, we all have our expertise in our areas, but we’re never that smart where the customer has no voice at all, ever.”
Before we close off, we’re approaching our end mark here. I know you’ve mentioned alpha and beta stages of the app. How do people get access to that? The alpha and the beta?
Weien Wang: So far, the alpha is where we’re at [00:23:30] and we’re finishing up that stage. That was more closed, just let’s find a few people who have iPads, let’s just get it out to them. I believe, for the beta, we’re actually going to have a form, actually and allow people to sign up who are interested and get it out to them that way. The final stage would be actually submitting it to the App Store, working with Apple to get this app just out there, just like every other app, so that anyone can download it.
Chris Davis: Wow, wow. [00:24:00] For all of the listeners, as of today, the app is not and is on its way to beta, so by the time you hear this, most of you who are subscribed, you’re hearing this right after we’ve published it, you can very well keep an eye out in your email, if you’re a customer and a listeners, keep an eye out on your email. You’ll get a notification, you’ll get some communication from Tim here at ActiveCampaign and it will provide you the opportunity to become a beta tester. I think this [00:24:30] podcast is the prime reason why you should, because we have developers that are listening, actively listening to how you’re using it? What you’re running into? What doesn’t make sense? What assumptions do we make somehow that we overlook? Yes, your voice makes a difference at ActiveCampaign, so use it.
Weien Wang: Definitely.
Chris Davis: Use it.
Weien Wang: Yeah, I think what you said about feedback, Chris, is so great, because [00:25:00] we oftentimes do see customer feedback, even it gets all the way through support to developers. Actually, the more detailed and informational the feedback is, the better it is for us. Because if you just say like, “My automation was slow,” then we have to do a lot of detective work. If you say, “It was slow at 2:59 a.m. this morning,” I think that’s a clue. These things, actually, they really do help us.
Chris Davis: [00:25:30] Yeah, specific feedback will get you specific results, okay everybody? Listen, listen, listen, listeners, come on, come on, listen, just listen to me for a second. Our developers, our product team, everybody here has open ears and a will to hear your experience. You have to use it to your advantage. I know there are other companies out there that act like they listen and they [00:26:00] don’t. They get the feedback and they just archive it, but we’re actively listening, always, all departments.
You all have the best opportunity to really help us see our flaws. Help us see our blind spots. We’re too close to the masterpiece. You are way back and you can say, “Hey, that’s crooked, it’s not hanging right. You guys need to tilt it to the left a little bit.” We’re relying on you all, [00:26:30] so definitely use your voice, because, like I said, this is a collective effort. We’re smart, we can do so much, but we can do much more with people using our stuff and coming from a good place and giving us specific feedback. Specific feedback. Please, don’t tell us, “Oh, the iPad app froze.” Like Weien said, try it out, where did it freeze? When I was clicking this button at this time it froze, [00:27:00] after I added this field.”
Weien Wang: Perfect, yeah.
Chris Davis: That’s going to go … oh my goodness, that’s like a godsend to the engineers, right?
Weien Wang: Absolutely.
Chris Davis: Think of it as somebody giving you the exact coordinates of a treasure, instead of saying, “Oh, the treasure is somewhere in America and you’ve got to go and find it.” They give you the longitude, latitude, all you literally have to do is go to that point and dig.
Weien Wang: That’s [00:27:30] right.
Chris Davis: That’s how it is with the engineers. You give them specifics, they know exactly where to go and that’s your opportunity to get things fixed faster. All right. Weien, this has been amazing, man. This has been really exciting. Honestly, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about the app, the iOS App.
Weien Wang: I should have showed it to you.
Chris Davis: Even me, I have learned, I have learned, so I hope our listeners have too. Any parting words for our listeners, Weien?
Weien Wang: Just keep the feedback [00:28:00] coming.
Chris Davis: Keep the feedback coming, yeah. I’m going to keep it at that. I’m not going to add mines in there. Keep the feedback coming, I think that’s a good one. Weien, thank you so much, man.
Weien Wang: Thank you, Chris.
Chris Davis: Thank you for being on. As always, I know people are like, “You always say that, Chris,” but I have to because we’re always developing more and more stuff. We definitely have to have you back on. When version one has launched and we’re working on version two, we’re just going to redo it and say, “Hey, Weien, what’s new? What’s [00:28:30] new with the app?” Thanks so much, Weien.
To everybody listening, I hope this was very, very insightful for you all. Remember, keep an eye out on your email, if you’re customers, for an opportunity to take advantage of the beta program, as well as other features. We open beta up for not just the iOS App, but other features, as well. Do that. We’re all good, so signing off. Appreciate you, Weien.
Weien Wang: Thank you.
Chris Davis: All right.
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