2013-07-11

Co.Labs

UpTo Reinvented The Calendar By Setting Out To Build Something Else

How do you break a boring, predictable paradigm in app design? By ending up at the result by accident.



The biggest problem with calendars is that you have to fill them in. What if there were a calendar that helped figure out what you were going to be doing?

That's the idea behind UpTo, which released a major upgrade today.

Digital and networked communication has altered so many other parts of our lives that it's kind of shocking how much calendars have remained the same. Nearly every calendar app looks the same and works in a similar way, with a few wrinkles like different interfaces. Even Apple's new calendar app, freshly made-over for the upcoming release of snazzy iOS 7, is essentially a digital clone of the old paper calendars or diaries that used to sit on your desk--with a few smarts like detecting calendar entries automatically inside emails.

The whole idea of UpTo isn't its traditional calendar, with rows for week dates and icons to alert you to upcoming events (though of course it does have this function built in), but instead it's all about the social layer. You can chat with your friends through the app about date-related events, and you can follow public "streams" of event information so you don't miss out on games your favorite teams are playing or shows at your city's theater.

The calendar needs a fundamental transformation the way that Waze has transformed maps.

But given that the calendar paradigm is so rigidly defined, dominated by preinstalled apps on smartphones, and undeniably fusty, how exactly do you go about developing an exciting app in this space that'll stand out from its peers? CEO and cofounder Greg Schwartz spoke to Fast Company to explain: "What we did is, instead of taking what others have recently done in this space and look at the calendar and adding incremental updates with the same premise that it's a list of meetings and appointments, we took a step backward. The calendar needs a fundamental transformation the way that Waze has transformed maps by adding a network approach or Instagram has transformed the camera."

Schwartz was frank about the trick: "To be honest, I think if we'd started by trying to reinvent the calendar, we'd never have got to where we are today. We started with a totally different premise. We wanted to create a better way for people to see what's coming up. The calendar part was very secondary . . . We spent a lot of time working on the calendar sync, making sure the regular calendar integration came into UpTo, but we weren't focused on it." Instead his team "focused on everything else. We looked at it from a more social perspective, from a network perspective." Feedback from the users during a protracted beta test phase led the company to reexamine how they were streaming lots of data to each user in an uncurated way . . . and thus Schwartz notes that "we took a social platform, actually a social network, and then transitioned it into a calendar. versus lateral, incremental improvements seen in other apps that start with a calendar and add in new features."

The resulting app seems to solve many of the hands-on management problems of keeping your smartphone calendar relevant and up-to-date in a couple of simple moves.

There's a dramatic developer lesson here: If you're keen to reinvent a tired old app paradigm, try thinking in a completely different direction at first, then listen to feedback as you bend your route back toward the app's core function.