Don’t skip this crucial step if you want your app to be awesome [ProTip]

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Bill Atkinson portrait MacPaint
Bill Atkinson, the creator of MacPaint, has crucial advice for coders.
Photo: Jim DeVona/Flickr CC

Pro_Tip_Cult_of_Mac SAN FRANCISCO — If you want to make a truly killer app, here’s a crucial part of the creative process you shouldn’t overlook: Give your “finished” software to someone, ask them to do something with it, and then shut the hell up.

Observe their interaction with the app, and you’ll learn what you’re doing right — and what you’re doing wrong.

That priceless piece of advice comes from Bill Atkinson, an Apple veteran who coded some of the greatest Mac software of all time, including HyperCard and MacPaint.

“The thing that makes software good is a lot of people using it and giving feedback,” Atkinson said Thursday during his inspirational talk, titled “Writing software to make a difference,” at AltConf, an indie developer conference here that runs parallel to Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

“User-test with real users!” he exclaimed as a fellow developer’s app made a series of annoying noises during a crash-and-burn demo.

Fine-tuning PhotoCard

Atkinson might seem like the least likely person to advocate so strongly for user testing: He’s the kind of guy who would clearly have been called a “stickler” back in the day, and he’s dedicated to getting things “right.” It’s hard to imagine him releasing an app that wasn’t up to snuff.

While showing a demo of his slick postcard app PhotoCard, he pointed out various features designed to give users a delightful experience. The free app lets anyone create and send a unique physical postcard, using their own pictures or stunning nature photographs shot by Atkinson himself.

Cool embellishments like custom stickers and even uniquely personal, Post Office-approved stamps can be added to the postcards, which Atkinson produces and mails for just $1.50 (international mailing costs 75 cents more).

To get everything just so, Atkinson works with a local printer to produce the laminated one-off postcards. He’s very hands-on, and calls PhotoCard a labor of love. He currently sends out about 800 postcards a week and, while he’s not getting rich, he’s breaking even and has high hopes for the service’s growth and continued evolution.

He’s on version 14 of the app, which he launched in 2009. And although he’s obviously the kind of guy who sweats the most minute of details, he’s still got a ready ear for that all-important user testing: a “give us feedback” section of the app lets users rate PhotoCard, request new features, report bugs, ask a question or make a complaint.