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Figure: The best app of all time
A dent in the universe the size of a string of pearls
Figure is a small little iPhone app that came out around 2012 and I haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since. In their own words: Figure makes it easy to create great-sounding music in seconds. It’s not a big deal. It’s a simple tool for making music in an entirely different way. And that’s what I love about it.
Since playing around with Figure for the first time, countless apps have been released to the App Store. Entire companies have spawned out of apps and some would argue that a handful of apps have changed the world. I’ve had the privilege of making a few mobile apps myself, played a tiny part in a couple of those world-changing apps, and am the first to download a new app when it comes out. Yet nothing has come close to recreating the magic I witnessed with Figure.
Figure is from a time when mobile apps had a single purpose. Back then, Musk’s wet dream of a superapp was as foreign to the world as his hair plugs. This was the “there’s an app for that” era. You could —and were expected to— download mobile apps to explore and discover new possibilities instead of parking the same eight apps in your home screen for years. This era gave us apps that let us use our phones to simulate drinking beer, turn on digital lighters at concerts, and guess then name of any song with a magical command.
My love for Figure is akin to the love I had for a ripped CD in 2002, ten years before it came out. Back then, my brother and I started a band. He played guitar and I played bass. We rotated through many drummers to complete our trio, but my favorite was this guy whose name escapes me. He was a theater student in San Jose, Costa Rica. He had long hair (maybe dreadlocks?) and rarely wore a shirt. We used to rehearse at his apartment, which had a particular lingering smell somewhere between dry cum, cigarettes, and weed. On his walls, he hung Polaroids from his theater performances. Most notably, centered among them was a photo of the drummer naked on stage holding his erect penis surrounded by other naked performers (?).
Anyway, this drummer was really into trip hop, a genre that began and ended with Portishead in my mind. But no, turns out there was a lot more to that genre and the drummer wanted to indoctrinate us into it. One day after rehearsal, the drummer lent us one of his most priced possessions: a unlabeled ripped CD of a French trip hop band. My brother and I had no idea what the name of the band was (maybe the drummer mentioned it as he was handing us the CD but it was probably French and the songs were entirely instrumental, so we immediately forgot it) but we became obsessed with it. We listened to French trip hop religiously and tried to emulate it as much as we could in our Costa Rican trio.
A year later, my brother and I moved to the US (drummerless once again) and two weeks after the traumatic move, I hopped into the ongoing high school year as a junior (not quite a senior, not quite a freshman). The whiplash of joining an American high school after watching countless American high school movies was a lot to take in for me. Needless to say, it took me a while to make friends and when I did, we bonded over music. Our musical knowledge was the currency we transacted to get to know each other.
In an effort to impress my new friends, I told them about the French trip hop ripped CD I got from our drummer. The Americans were intrigued. The next day I brought the CD to school and we shared an earbud as I played it on my Discman. My new friends were impressed and asked if they could borrow the CD to rip a copy for themselves. Of course, I agreed (I’m a chill guy like that) and of course, I never saw the CD ever again. To this day, I have no idea who the French trip hop band was.
Figure occupies a similar space in my heart. I have no idea who designed and built it, but I’m obsessed with it. In some ways, that’s part of the magic! Who cares?! I know it’s an app and that it was published by Propellerhead, now known as Reason Studios, and I know they also make Reason. But I’ve never used Reason nor do I have any idea what Reason Studios stands for or the particular shape of their dent in the universe. And I love that. There isn’t a billionaire behind them pontificating on the way things should be, and if there is, they’re in the shadows where they belong. I don’t follow the designer (or designers??) that envisioned and built it on Twitter, which makes it even better. It’s a total mystery! Yet Figure is filled with details —from interaction to visual design— that remind us that everything in software (and, dare I say, life) is the result of a decision someone made along the way. Even though it may not always be the best decision, the bridge between the creator and its creation is there.
That bridge was incredibly formative for me as I was traversing through the path of becoming a designer. Like many of you, I was once deeply moved by the allure of Steve Jobs’ words in this infamous interview:
Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing – is to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.
I became a designer to “change, improve, and make my mark” on the world and to “build my own things that other people can use.” Software like Figure, invites you to “poke” at it and see what “pops out the other side.” That simple cause and effect that makes software a dynamic tool for exploration and self expression was key for me to understand and influence my world.
But Figure got something right ten years ago that I missed along the way: it isn’t about defining a worldview and persuading others to adopt it. It’s much simpler than that. Figure doesn’t care about buzzwords like identity, community, engagement, growth, or monetization. Figure isn’t a “platform” or a “two-sided marketplace.” Fuck that. It’s everything an app should aspire to be: none of it. Figure is an instrument and, as such, it invites users to play with it. That’s it. It’s the best kind of software: easy to learn and hard to master.
The most interesting detail of the app is the way it understands time itself. Masqueraded under the simple and playful UI is a really complex translation of one of music’s (and life’s) hardest concepts: time. With Figure, you can serendipitously stumble open genuinely interesting time signatures that trick you into believing you’re a virtuoso. It does this by visualizing time cyclically and leaning on natural gestures (touch, long press, drag) to modulate and syncopate sounds. The interface is simple: four pattern wheels and tracks. Users can long press a wheel and swipe up or down to change the time signature, then slide their finger on the track to play to the chosen time signature as long as their thumb is touching the screen. Trust me, it’s easier than it sounds: a testament of great UI is that it’s harder to explain it than it is to use it.
With Figure you can literally place your fingers at random on the screen and an interesting harmonious pattern will arise. From there, you can swipe to modify the sounds and experiment and play until you make something you thought was impossible before opening the app. That’s one of the greatest parts of Figure: the end result is almost always a surprise. Admittedly, it’s fairly difficult to create the exact sound in your head using Figure. The app seems almost uninterested in meeting you where you are. Instead it creates a tapestry of options for you to play with and arrive at a destination you didn’t even know you were heading towards. It’s best at software’s cardinal rule: the least amount of input for the most amount of output.
For an app based almost entirely around the concept of time, Figure is timeless. It has an aesthetic point of view: it isn’t a paint by numbers HIG user interface but it isn’t a reaction to the current trends either. In fact, it came out a few years before the death of skeuomorphism when flat design was heretic. Yet here it stands today, ten years later, with the exact same look and feel, and still eons ahead of anything else out there.
If I were to guess, I’d say that most of Figure’s genius is due to its interaction design. If interaction design was a language, Figure invents new words allowing its users to express themselves in ways previously unheard of. It is rebellious and unapologetic! I mean, the app breaks every convention: there are no affordances, states are entered and exited from seemingly random places, it relies on long press as the only interaction for performing key tasks like changing a sound, and so on.
One of my favorite details about Figure’s interaction design is that it dares you to use your fingers. It takes the concept of multi-touch and says “hold my beer.” After playing with Figure for a while, you’ll likely find yourself using all your fingers at once. This is something else that is discouraged in most other mobile apps today. “Make it simple. Make it obvious” seems to be the oath we’ve all sworn into but Figure doesn’t care. It has stubbornly decided to squeeze all functionality out of the mobile screen and invited you to discover it alongside them.
As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that maybe (definitely) I’m deeply disappointed by where we’ve landed with mobile design over the last decade. Somehow we have found success with the lowest of lowest common denominators. Every app is the same and the notion of expanding the way we interface with technology seems to now come with a sigh and an eye roll.
When Figure came out, it served as another step towards rethinking my relation with technology. Here was a mobile app daring me to think about music, technology, and time slightly differently than I had before. It was an exciting promise for technology lovers like myself. What happened to that promise?
I once dreamed of virtual reality being the playground for the next computing paradigm. I was spoon-fed visions of the future where people interacted with technology differently. Tom Cruise and Robert Downy Jr. waved their hands around incoherently, immersed in the UI of Minority Report and Ironman, respectively. The hope was to discover the next pinch-to-zoom. The next paradigm so ubiquitous that it changes how we interact and relate with technology forever.
Like Steve Jobs, I wanted to take part in a step-change that transforms the world that others have made for me. But that desire for transformational change has dwindled over the last few years. I’ve struggled to diagnose the reason, though. Maybe I’m too cynical or too jaded. Maybe I peaked too early and I just don’t get it anymore.
But something clicked last night as I was watching Jonah Hill’s Stutz documentary on Netflix that perhaps can help explain the disillusion from disruption I’ve experienced over the last few years. Half way through the movie, the titular therapist refers to a tool for navigating the world that he calls a "String of Pearls":
Stutz: We have to keep going. It seems stupid.
Jonah: Isn't that, like, simplistic?
Stutz: It is, but we want to say, "I'm the one who puts the next pearl on the string." That's all, I know nothing else. That's called the String of Pearls. […] There's a line then a circle, line then circle. Each circle equals one action. But here's the thing: every action has the same value. This is a matter of identity. "Who am I?" "I'm not great. I'm not shit. I don't want to look at myself and think..." I look at myself just in terms of the habits with which I take action. […] I am the person that puts the next pearl on the string. That's it.
Maybe technology has been distracted by large gestures. Whether it is putting people on Mars, bringing the metaverse to reality, or any other proclamation of progress, mobile apps and we —the nerds who make them— have been distracted. Some of us have been looking for technology to save us. To turn the page on humanity’s next chapter. We look at Crypto, AI, NFTs, AR, insert-your-fad-here as messiahs of our New Testament. The delusionals, like me, hoped to be responsible for (or at least involved with) the second coming. But remember what Stutz said: every action has the same value.
Figure strips away all of that pretension and empowers its users to create pearls along the string without judgement or sense of scale. It’s about autotelic creation: the pure joy of serendipitous discovery.
I think Figure is the best app of all time, not because it’s the most impactful or the most influential, but because it’s the best of example of what a mobile app should be. It inspires us to “keep going” by generously giving us the gift of flow state through exploration. Even though Figure is a ten-year-old app in an industry that “reinvents itself” every six months, I still look up to it for being a North Star for software: simple, small, and harmless. Perhaps more software should be like Figure.
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