Left: DVT Design Lead Ebbie Swart
Right: For the Firefinch App, artist Faansie Peacock painted beautiful and unique plates for almost 1 000 bird species
Read time: 7 minutes 18 seconds
Developing a successful, sustainable app takes a healthy dose of skill, talent, creativity, and bravery. Developing an app that gets you invited to present at DevConf 2023 takes something special. That’s exactly what DVT Design Lead Ebbie Swart has done, together with his brother Stephan Swart, who is head of engineering at a Pretoria-based business consulting firm. Together with local artist and ornithologist Faansie Peacock and bird photographer Anton Kruger, this talented quartet created a birding app they named “Firefinch”, which they were invited to present at this year’s DevConf, the annual software-developer focused conference.
Firefinch is one of those rare apps that blends tech and art, education and fun, science and fantasy. Beautiful illustrations, photographs, sounds, maps, helpful hints, and interesting information make this more of an homage to birds than a mere birding app. So how does a Design Lead at DVT, a global software company and part of the Dynamic Technologies Group, end up developing a DevConf worthy app?
DVT throws weight behind tech talent
DVT has always encouraged their tech talent to explore the practical side of technology, supporting its employees who are developing their own applications or software. On one hand, it helps employees to have a creative outlet, and on the other, it gives them an in-depth understanding of the real-world challenges and feasibilities of tech development that benefits their clients.
Ebbie believes his work at DVT has had a significant and positive impact on his approach to developing the app. He says, “Working as a UX designer in the corporate field through DVT has exposed me to trends and the value of my craft, providing a great head start for this app development.” DVT’s input, he adds, was key to the app’s success. “I was surprised by the amount of support we received from DVT, including their connections and expertise, which they utilised to promote our app in the media. Their initial support and opportunity for me in a career as UX for major clients have been instrumental in our journey.” He says his experience building the app has allowed him to explore different approaches and practices, pushing the limits of UX design. “The app development process itself has also been like a practical course, where real-life experimentation and effects have been observed and analysed.”
Behind the scenes: the reality of app development
Developing the Firefinch app as a side project wasn’t particularly easy and took over four years to complete. “This lengthy timeframe was primarily due to the extensive content generation it required,” explains Ebbie. “Southern Africa alone has nearly 1 000 bird species, which accounts for about 10% of the world’s 10 000 species.” For each bird species, ornithologist Faansie Peacock had to create custom illustrations (plates) on the bird’s behaviour and features, as well as any interesting facts. There were also photos and annotations to collect and collate, sound recordings to acquire, and all those interesting pieces of information and additional content that bring the app to life. Ebbie says, “During this time, Stephan and I took the opportunity to re-architect the Android version using the Android architecture, and we made some adjustments to the initial iOS architecture as well.”
Technologies and software
The team used various technologies and software to ensure a robust and efficient workflow in developing the app. This included SQLite as the database management system, as it offers a reliable structure and is widely supported by both Android and iOS platforms. To create a seamless and responsive experience, they developed native Android and iOS apps using Kotlin and Swift, respectively. These technologies provide excellent performance and allowed them to leverage platform-specific features. Firebase was chosen as the server infrastructure due to its robust support for offline-online capability. It enables users to access and interact with the app’s content even when offline, with changes automatically synchronised when an internet connection is available. Firebase also provides tools for user authentication, data storage and synchronisation, serverless functions, and more.
For subscriptions and monetisation, RevenueCat simplifies the management of Firefinch product subscriptions on both Android and iOS platforms, providing control over pricing and synchronisation. Slack integrates with Firefinch’s backend services, keeping the team informed about notifications, code commits, deployments, and crash reports, facilitating effective collaboration and issue resolution. Mailchimp automates email notifications triggered by user actions, helping the team keep users engaged and informed.
GitHub allows for seamless version control, collaborative development, and efficient management of the source code, whilst the team leveraged Bubble.io, a no-code platform, to build their website and create a blog site. Bubble.io also facilitates content management and updates.
Miro and Figma served as collaboration and design tools, allowing effective teamwork, iteration on design concepts, and the creation of user-friendly interfaces. The team followed a hypothesis-driven design approach, validating assumptions through feasibility tests and immersing themselves with users to deeply understand their needs and enhance the user experience.
“Utilising these technologies and tools allowed us to streamline the development process, ensure efficient communication and collaboration, and deliver a high-quality app experience,” says Ebbie.
“The process itself was quite turbulent in terms of keeping everyone motivated for four years without seeing any income [from the app], managing full-time jobs alongside the project, and maintaining healthy relationships and trust within the team. We also had to be sure we were balancing our family responsibilities and ensuring the project didn’t negatively impact personal lives, while also producing a top-quality product.”
The DevConf presentation was something he enjoyed, and he says, “It was fun to do, especially with my brother. That was pretty special. The positive feedback from attendees and panellists was also greatly appreciated!”
On behalf of Dynamic Technologies
Wilkins Ross Communications
Communication Manager, DVT