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Hours: Simple and Beautiful Time Tracking

For the kind of work that I do with MacStories and podcasting, I don’t need time-tracking apps. I could use them, but I don’t necessarily need them as I don’t work with clients or account for time spent writing posts or doing research. However, if I had to track how I spend my time at my Mac or iPad while working, I’d use Hours, developed by Tapity and released today on the App Store for $4.99.

Tapity has a history of attractive, useful, and intuitive iPhone software. Over the years, Jeremy Olson and his team have launched a variety of apps that we’ve covered here at MacStories, such as Grades and Languages – the former winner of an Apple Design Award in 2011. Hours shares many of the same strengths of Tapity’s previous endeavors: it’s an iPhone-only app focused on a core task – tracking time – which is complemented by a good-looking interface and easy-to-use menus and gestures. I’ve been testing Hours over the past couple of weeks, and the app makes it fun and efficient to start timers and break down your day by time blocks.

At the top of the screen, Hours shows a timeline of around 7 hours for the current day, and it’s scrollable depending on the time of the day. If it’s 2 AM, for instance, you won’t be able to scroll back to the previous day, as each screen shows a single day. You can tap on a calendar button to open a month view and see days that had timers, navigate through months, and quickly jump to Today with a shortcut.

Timers are listed below the timeline, and you can start one by tapping it. As you start a timer, the timeline expands to reveal minute blocks inside hours and it starts progressing to the right while time is counted in the lower portion of the screen and its icon pulses. This basic interaction immediately reveals Tapity’s willingness to convey a lot of information about active timers and user interactions through animations based on physics and other effects, which are powered by Facebook’s Pop framework.

Everything in Hours responds to taps and swipes with playful sounds and bouncy transitions that are fun to look at, but that, more importantly, boldly indicate that “stuff is happening on the screen”. My guess is that most people are going to use Hours as a companion utility running on the iPhone on a desk next to a Mac or an iPad; therefore, slower-than-usual animations and sounds will help in giving feedback while Hours is just slightly out of our sight because you’re looking at another screen. The transitions can become a little boring after seeing them every time you’re actively using the app, but, for most people and most use cases, I believe they add personality and visual cues that are often missing from bleak time-tracking utilities.

Timers (which can be given different colors) can be tapped in the timeline to bring up a panel to edit duration manually, add notes, split blocks, and tell the app that you took a break while the timer was running. Interacting with the blocks and their detail panels is easy and pleasant, but I also think that the app could give a better indication of which block is selected and how you can undo split and break operations. If you accidentally split a block in two neighboring blocks, there’s no way of telling which one is currently selected aside from the initial animation, and merging requires you to guess that you need to manually tap the back button to roll back the starting time rather than dragging & dropping a block onto an adjacent one. This, and the fact that you can’t run multiple timers at once (possibly because of the way the app has been intended to work for clients or individual projects) are my two only complaints about an otherwise simple and effective way of tracking time and seeing it laid out on a timeline.

Hours lets you set work days in the Settings, and you can associate those with reminders the app can send you if you haven’t started a timer by a certain hour of the day, if a timer is still running late in the day, or if you haven’t been tracking time for x hours.

There are rounding rules and time formats (I appreciate this addition), and you can export time periods with summaries or details as PDF and CSV. There are no built-in visualizations of your time or other integrations with web services and apps, but it’s good that Tapity is providing an exporting feature at launch without forcing data to be contained inside Hours.

Interview with Jeremy Olson

In trying Hours and discussing the app with Tapity’s Lead Designer Jeremy Olson, I wanted to ask him a few questions about creating the app, launching an indie product today, and the future of Hours. You can find our interview below.

What’s the story of Hours? Why did you create it?

My dad, Todd, is a lawyer. He’s been tracking his time for most of his adult life. My brother, Josh, and I also did our fair share of consulting and time-tracking is a necessary evil for that. We all hated it. I mean, who doesn’t hate time tracking, right? There is so much stress and anxiety involved. Did I remember to start my timer? Did I forget to track something? Did I turn off my timer during the lunch break? Whoops, I completely forgot about time tracking today — now what? Our lousy time tracking skills were costing Tapity money every day because in the consulting business, time literally is money.

There were dozens of time tracking apps out there but none of them solved those fundamentally human problems: forgetting to track your time, identifying mistakes, being able to quickly correct mistakes, and dozens of other nitpicks we had like not being able to quickly switch timers, no rounding options, and just poor design.

So three years ago we decided to do something about it; that is when Hours was born. We had to put it on the back burner a number of times — Languages, Grades 3, the iOS 7 redesign, and dozens of client projects delayed the project — but in the past year we have really focused on using it, polishing it, and not stopping until we fulfilled our goal of making a time tracking app that we would actually use and love every day. Hours has revolutionized our time tracking. We are not only consistent but very accurate and that is saying a lot.

Since Hours has helped us so much in the past year, I can’t wait to see what it does for others.

After winning an Apple Design Award, do you feel more pressure in coming out with a new app?

There is a lot of pressure to not only match the high standards we set with Grades but to exceed them. That is partly why it has taken us so long to finish Hours. But that pressure isn’t external; it is primarily internal. It’s just who we are as a company. We want to learn, we want to grow, we want to craft amazing things. That’s our passion; it’s what we do.

Time-tracking is usually something that I envision as a tool for freelancers, but I’m finding a good use for the app just to track how I spend my personal time working for myself. Did you have this “quantified self” style of approach in mind for the app?

It’s funny you mention that because Steve Krug — the famous author of Don’t Make Me Think and a trusted mentor on the app — said the same thing. He has no use for Hours as a freelancing tool but he needs something like this just to be accountable to himself. We definitely optimized this for the business use case but I think it could work very well as a quantified self tool.

Tell me more about using Facebook’s Pop framework for iOS. Was it easy to implement? Do you think it can add meaningful information and personality to an iOS 7 design?

I don’t consider myself to be a great programmer but POP was actually really easy to work with. I started using it before it went public so there was almost no documentation, but just by looking at the framework code, I was able to figure out how to use it pretty well so that is saying something. I actually made the first ever POP tutorial so others could learn as well.

With iOS 7’s more subtle visuals, I think interactions and animation play a heightened role in an app’s personality. That is definitely the case with Hours. We used POP to not only show relationships between an action and its result (i.e. tapping the total time block on a timer morphs the button into the edit panel) but to do so in a playful way. Yes, you can tap outside an overlay to see it animate down into its source, but you can also flick it to get an interesting effect. Did we have to do this to make a great time tracker? No, but if you can make something as tedious and unmotivating as time tracking even a little bit fun, you’ve done companies and freelancers a big service.

Pick one thing that you personally love about Hours, and another that you want to improve soon.

I love the timeline. There is nothing else quite like it. Almost all time tracking apps display time like you would in a database: as a list of time entries. But that isn’t very helpful when you are trying to see if you made any mistakes. With the timeline you can easily see, “Oh, whoops I accidentally left my timer on during lunch break” or “woah, I forgot to record that last meeting from 3–4pm” and fix it with a couple taps. Those kinds of things are nearly impossible to identify, let alone fix, in any other app. That’s why, before Hours, my dad couldn’t find a single solution that he preferred over penciling in a timeline sheet he printed out every day. I’ve been using betas of Hours for over a year and the timeline just really took a big chunk of stress and anxiety out of the time tracking process for me. I love it.

The thing we are pushing really hard to improve quickly is team capabilities. Right now you can export your reports to Excel or PDF or input them manually into your company’s time-tracking software but we are working on a team version of Hours that will have a web component as well. This means a whole company will be able to use Hours on any device and have the time sheets automatically sync with the web so an admin can get a clear picture of what is going on. This is the future of Hours.

What’s different in launching a new paid app as an indie development studio today as opposed to three years ago?

It is different. The volume for paid apps is down and the volume for free apps is way up. Our other apps are usually in the top 100 for their categories but they aren’t making enough to sustain the business. So that end is rough…

But I’m actually really optimistic. I think the lower volume in paid apps has created an interesting influx of premium apps. Developers are saying, “I’m not playing the $1 volume game any more. That isn’t working.” So we are seeing a lot more great premium apps and some of them are doing really well. We hope Hours will be one of them.

Even more importantly, I’ve stopped thinking about my apps as apps and started thinking about them more as businesses. I’ve started looking more at the big picture than how much money users will be willing to pay for an app. Oftentimes it isn’t even the end user who is the best customer for your app; it could be a business somewhere that has an aligned interest. For example, this first launch of Hours is not where I expect to make a huge business. The app will be a trojan horse into thousands of companies and we hope that pretty soon companies will be asking, how do I get Hours for my whole team? That’s why we are pushing really hard to get a SaaS web product out so that we can be ready for that reaction and turn this thing into a sustainable business with recurring revenue streams.

Will iOS 8 and new technologies allow you to improve Hours in considerable ways? Have you started looking at what iOS 8 makes possible?

iOS 8 opens up a ton of new possibilities for Hours. Having a widget in notification center is a no brainer. A widget would allow users to start and stop timers quickly without having to switch to the app.

The new actionable alerts will also be really cool. For example, right now if a user has a timer running after his work day is over, we display an alert saying “You still have a timer running. Do you need to turn it off?” Now, instead of only letting them swipe that alert and go to the app, we could give them the option to just turn the timer off directly from the lock screen. That is pretty awesome.

iOS 8 will be great for Hours but what gets us even more excited is the rumored iWatch. We think Hours will be a killer business app on the iWatch. Frequent, short engagements with an app is exactly the kind of thing the iWatch will excel in so we can’t wait to see what we can do with it.

I don’t have to track time in Hours, but I’ve enjoyed using the app to see how much time I spend on email (too much) or reading (not enough). Hours was built with freelancers and people who directly benefit from tracking time in mind, and it comes with a polished interface, simple layout and interactions, and exporting options that bode well for the future.

Hours is available at $4.99 on the App Store for a limited time.

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