Sparrow for iPhone: A talk with its designer, Jean-Marc Denis

It you haven’t heard of Sparrow by now, either you live under a rock or you don’t have a Mac. Regardless, it’s time you familiarize yourself with this awesome application. A few months ago, I interviewed Sparrow’s founder, Dom Leca. To introduce the topic of mail, I simply said:

Email. It’s a technology that, once upon a time, excited us. It was an incredible feeling to get a message from someone without physically seeing them; however, as time has passed, email has become annoying. With the majority of your inbox being spam these days, and the remainder consisting of reminders to pay your bills, the whole thing has become a burden. Even for those whose inbox was their job, email was just, blah. It went from being a productive communication technology to a burden pretty quickly.

Some people ditched email almost entirely, and even traded it for a Twitter account. Others found other sources for communication, especially in the work force (Yammer, Basecamp, etc). Resumés now include links to Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+ as primary means for contact, instead of the cumbersome email address of the past. While the savvy are off experimenting with other forms of direct communication, what  happens to those who still require email? What about those who still use it on a daily basis? What about them? What can they do? Thankfully, two Frenchmen had the same problem and wanted to do something about it — they created a next-generation email client. Its name: Sparrow.

Today, Sparrow took the next logical step and launched their long-awaited iOS client. The app is a beauty in both attention to detail and functionality. But how did the design and layout come about? Well some of it this is attributed to Leca, but the rest comes at the hands of freelance designer, Jean-Marc Denis. To gain some insight into the guy behind the paper plane, I sat down with Denis for a short interview.

Monsieur Jean-Marc Denis

Jean-Marc Denis resides in Toulouse, France. At 31 years young, this skilled Frenchman has a passion — a passion for design even though it wasn’t his major. As most passionate and aspiring creatives, Denis learned his way around Photoshop through books, videos, and doing,  a step often overlooked.

“At the age of 18 years old, I created my company here in France for creating websites and communication for companies. So, from the stationary logos to the websites and all the communication services surrounding it.”

This was a great learning experience for Denis. He got to see first-hand how creating for others worked. However, just four years later, AZF, a chemical factory near Toulouse, exploded. One thing led to another and all the local businesses, including Denis’, suffered. Contracts went off, etc. – they closed the venture.

Nevertheless, Denis saw the catastrophe as nothing more than the closing of one door and the opening of another. “That’s what I loved about design,” he said. “It was always there.” He then became a freelancer.

Entrepreneur – the French way

Denis was very in tune with numerous online communities. In one of them, Sparrow released first beta of their Mac application. Denis clicked the link, downloaded the app, and loved it.

“I was a fan of what they did with Gmail – a Mac built-in application. However, it didn’t look so good. I saw that they were French and they were small. So I asked them what If I did the design for you for free? So I told them that I was going to mod the application. In the end, if you wanted me to directly put some design it, I’ll do it for free. So I sent the email and Dom contacted me a few days later.

Before he knew it, Denis was leading the design initiative for Sparrow. He shut down all other contracts and got himself in-tune with his new best friend – email.

Cleaning up the inbox

Dom and Denis began brainstorming simple ways to solve small problems in mail. They emphasized the need to make things quick and easy. For example, their two-step compose: Tap the create icon, choose the recipient, and write your email. It wasn’t long before the line between UX (user-experience) and UI (user-interface) started to blur. They were solving problems both in terms of functionality and presentation.

Another problem was the hassle involved with sending photos and videos. Currently, the stock mail app takes you round and round to get your images into one email. With Sparrow, you click, add, and done. No leaving the application to go here or there. They also made sure to include the signature Google labels and Facebook Connect (faces associated with emails).

Of course, I won’t go into the details of all the app’s features for two reasons: one, the app is live; two, we’re working on a killer review. There!

The To-do list:

That brings us to the last element of the application – the icon. Denis drafted up numerous designs, but the team had a hard time deciding on which icon to go forth with. So they turned to Dribbble. Denis uploaded a shot of the nine versions and the design community voted for their favorite one. It appears that #8 won.

The Trashcan – overcoming hurdles

“For iPhone, it was very challenging. The first day, we wanted to develop Sparrow for the iPhone. After all, we received many responses from people, and it seemed like the logical next step. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to 100% replace the original Apple Mail app on iPhone. On MacOS, you could easily switch between mail clients. It’s no big deal. You could easily set Sparrow as your default client and every mail link you clicked, our app would open. On iPhone, it’s a lot more tricky. We knew that would be an issue and the same with push-notifications.”

<Tangent> In fact, it continued to be an issue up until the app’s launch this morning. However, the team behind Sparrow, including Denis, are too persistent and dedicated to bringing you the best service to simply say okay. That’s why they’ve set up a page explaining the reason behind the app’s lack of push. If you’d like to see it implemented in a future update, visit the page, read the info, and add your email to their special list. </Tangent>

The essence behind Sparrow

Minimal, yet functional, remains the theme of Sparrow. Like I quoted in my interview with Leca, a saying from the Vedas claims that, “speech is the essence of humanity.” All of what humanity thinks and ultimately becomes is determined by the expression of ideas and actions through speech and its derivative, writing. Likewise, design is the essence of technology. Sparrow hasn’t changed electronic mail in terms of its bits and bytes, but they have changed its presentation for the better. Email is broken, but Sparrow has brought another bag of tools in hopes to fix it.

Although Denis still isn’t sure what to call himself (UI designer, designer, front-end designer, etc.), he’s definitely sure about one thing: Sparrow has the potential to redefine the way we do mail – again.

Get Sparrow for Mac ($9.99), or for iPhone ($2.99). We have 5 promo codes for Sparrow’s Mac app. We’ll be giving them away soon!

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