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April 19, 2021, 6 a.m.
Designing OmniPlan 4 with Andrew Abernathy & Ainsley Bourque Olson

How do you improve on a Gantt chart?  What’s the Outline View all about?  Is there a delta between customers' wants and needs?  How about universal purchases? Today on the Omni Show, we answer these questions and more with an exclusive peek behind the curtain of OmniPlan 4’s development process.

Show Notes:

Ainsley Bourque Olson (Product Manager) & Andrew Abernathy (User Experience Designer) share details of the dance that is developing product experiences along with our customers.

Join Andrew, Ainsley, and Andrew as they chat about the design process, which results in the perfect UX fit for even the pickiest project managers.

You can find Ainsley @ainslaw on Twitter.

Some other people, places, and things mentioned:


Andrew J. Mason: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind The Omni Group's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we talk to Andrew Abernathy and Ainsley Bourque Olson about the development of OmniPlan 4 for Mac and iOS.

Hello and welcome to another episode of The Omni Show. My name is Andrew J. Mason, and today we have Andrew Abernathy and Ainsley Bourque Olson, who both had a hand in the most recent iteration of OmniPlan for iOS and for the Mac. And honestly, we thought it'd be a lot of fun talking about the process that led up to these releases. And so what I thought might be nice is to be able to have you both share what your roles currently are, and maybe a little bit about how you got there. And let's start with you, Andrew.

Andrew Abernathy: I am one of the user experience designers at Omni. I've been at Omni for quite a long time, over 20 years. But I was a developer for most of that career, sorry. I moved over to the user experience team. For a long time, we had kind of a user experience larger group that contributed to the user experience stuff, and I was part of that team, but I was not one of the people who was working full time on that. And then about five years ago, I got asked if I would like to move it onto that team full time. And I decided I would. So, been there since then.

Andrew J. Mason: Awesome. And what about you, Ainsley?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: I am OmniPlan's product manager. I product manage a couple of things at Omni now, but OmniPlan was where I got started in product management. And I have been at Omni for maybe eight and a half years now, switched over from customer support initially. And I've been PMing OmniPlan plan for, I think, a little over five years now, just after the launch of OmniPlan 3.

Andrew J. Mason: So OmniPlan 4 has been out for the Mac since 2020 and the iOS version is imminent if not already released. Let's talk about some of the new features in 4 versus 3.

Ainsley Bourque Olson: So when we were planning for OmniPlan 4, we thought about... I mean, OmniPlan's been around for a very long time at this point. So we thought about what it was customers were specifically asking us for, maybe they were trying OmniPlan and they were saying, "Hey, this doesn't fit my project management workflow. Can it do X, Y, or Z?" Some of the bigger features we introduced; something we're calling cost and effort interval tracking is the one of the big features of OmniPlan 4 for Mac. We also introduced some new scheduling options folks were looking for, as well as a new dedicated outline view on the Mac, as well as a whole bunch of other smaller features and polish throughout the app we can get into in more detail. And then on the iOS side, we'd had a similar look at what folks were looking for in an iOS version of OmniPlan, and the big new feature there is a dedicated outline view.

Andrew J. Mason: And even though the releases have been staggered by a couple of months, I hear that there is something super special about the way that OmniPlan's being released as an app. Is that true?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: Yeah. So OmniPlan is our first universal release. So historically Omni apps have been separate purchases per platform. So you'd buy, say, a license key for OmniPlan 3 for Mac, and then via in-app purchase, purchase OmniPlan 3 for iOS. Starting with OmniPlan 4, it's a universal purchase. So if you purchase OmniPlan once, you have access to the application on all of your supported platforms, whether it's an iPad, iPhone, Mac. Subscriptions have been that way for a little while, where you subscribe once and have access everywhere, but with OmniPlan 4's release we're bringing that to our one-time purchase licenses as well.

Andrew J. Mason: That's awesome. And so is the idea that this rolls out to the rest of the products eventually as well?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: Yep. That is the long-term game plan. Starting with OmniPlan now, because that was our next release queued up.

Andrew J. Mason: Talk to me about how new features actually get developed for something like OmniPlan. OmniPlan has such a specific customer set, project managers. How does somebody decide what it is they want or would be interested in and then go about developing that new feature?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: So we start with the fact that our customer support team tracks every email that comes into our system. So if someone contacts us asking if OmniPlan can do something it can't do, they log that as a feature request. So a vote gets incremented, but that we also get a note that specifically says, "This is what the customer emailed in," like, "I want cost tracking," and then maybe some more detail about their actual workflow. So this, for the most part, starts in our bug tracking system. We look at what has the most votes, and that's not always what gets implemented, but it's often a very good starting point for gauging where the interest is. And then for this particular set of releases I said, "Okay, these are the areas that customers are contacting us asking for improvements."

And sometimes it's as straightforward as I've asked for it. Sometimes it's someone saying, "I don't know how to use this existing functionality," or, "I don't know that this existing functionality exists." And from there, I believe I created OmniOutliner documents that I handed off to the UX team with specific notes of like, "Okay, these are categorized asking for, 'I want cost tracking.'" Well, when you actually look at the words customers are using to describe that functionality, it's kind of all over the place. So then we broke it down into what functionality we're actually looking for. What it means when someone says, "I need to know the cost of my project." And at that point we pass it off to the user experience team where Andrew might pick it up.

Andrew Abernathy: Yeah. So I did get that document from Ainsley, and that was hugely helpful. But also, I don't remember the exact order of operations, but basically Grayson asked me to do a user experience review of OmniPlan 3. So I just went over everything about that. And I had some familiarity with the app, but it wasn't something that I used a lot or had any detailed knowledge about. So I tried to do things in it and reviewed everything that was there and made tons of notes about what wasn't obvious to me or what seemed missing to me and so forth. So it was kind of a parallel to the user feedback, but specifically from my single point of view. And then with Ainsley's notes, kind of re-reviewed some things, and that gave me other areas to think about from my initial review of everything to, "Okay, what are the things that users have identified? Oh, okay. These are things that I didn't think about, or users are complaining about something that I didn't realize was a problem," so forth. And then kind of handed it back to Ainsley.

Ainsley Bourque Olson: Yeah. And sometimes we could jump in, right? So if Andrew pulled up a, "I'm looking at this feature, I think we should maybe do this with it," I have a pretty close knowledge of what customers have contacted us about. So if we were looking at a feature, sometimes it was like, "Oh, and we could take this one step further and satisfy this group of requests by having it do this other related thing." Or maybe we didn't set out to solve this problem, but now we're solving two problems at once, approaching it from that angle.

Andrew Abernathy: Yeah. Ainsley's context was super helpful in deciding what things go together or what things can't be done because they block something else and so forth.

Ainsley Bourque Olson: OmniPlan's a complicated app.

Andrew J. Mason: Andrew, I love that one of your unspoken roles is this idea of a translator who speaks visually between the customer masses and what they say they may want and what does the application really need. And how do you decide what goes in which bucket? How do we decide this is something we really want to execute on, or maybe this is something that the customer touched on, but needs to look different in the future?

Andrew Abernathy: Well, I want to touch on the translator point first, because there is a lot of that. There are a lot of customer requests for specific things, and there's a lot of taking that and going, "Okay, what is the fundamental need here?" They have a specific need. What is the underlying need? And how does that match with other users' underlying need? What can we do to accommodate the most people, or what we think is the real direction of the application?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: I can jump in. So like with the interval tracking, we had this huge set of requests for... I think people were asking for budgeting, is maybe the bucket it came under. And we looked at it and we said, "Okay, folks, what they're actually asking is they'd like to see either how much money they're spending over a period of time, or how many work hours are happening over a period of time. And maybe they need that per week, per month, and maybe they need to export that."

So from there, the UX team came up with the idea of displaying those values on our Gantt chart. So you can now just see visually, very clearly task A is costing you $200 this week, or all of the tasks in your projects are costing you $1000 this week. And then also exporting that data, and then customers can then take that data and run with it. So we went from this very broad OmniPlan needs to budget better, and came out the other side with this very polished visual representation of the data, as well as an export that gives you control over exporting what you actually need to a useful file format for maybe some of the more advanced needs that some of our customers have.

Andrew Abernathy: We have a lot of meetings where everyone across the team could contribute. So it's not just me, not just the UX team, support and QA and developers are all participating in a lot of this just in these meetings to give feedback on stuff. So there's a lot of input from different areas.

Ainsley Bourque Olson: And I can definitely reiterate, there's definitely a huge team aspect of it. And there's certainly those meetings where I very much appreciate, we often get live feedback from, "Ah, the code doesn't do that," to like, "Oh, what did if code did this?" All ends of it, but there's also a lot of back and forth in our bug tracking system, with like, "Okay, here's a proposal, please chime in," to, I know there's a lot of like individual chatting away that happens like, "I have a question about this," we were working recently on keyboard shortcuts and we've gotten input from just about everybody on what keyboard shortcuts should and shouldn't do and what the expectations are. So yeah, definitely great feedback from all kinds of people. It's really a team effort. And I've been joking that I think I might have everyone have touched this OmniPlan release by the time we get it out. So getting the whole company on, even if it's just a little bit, everybody's touching it.

Andrew Abernathy: And also back at the time, Caitlin and Joel don't work at Omni anymore because of the downturn we had after the pandemic, but Joel did all artwork, Caitlin did a lot of work on the app, especially inspectors and menus. The interval tracking stuff specifically, that got talked about in UX team meetings, but that was primarily done by Ken, who is one of the wider UX team members. He does a lot of stuff.

Ainsley Bourque Olson: Then another, I think, good example to talk about his maybe the outline view we implanted specifically over on the iOS side. Another very specific, customers have asked for a project outline when they're working in OmniPlan on their iPad. But then like, what does that mean in practicality? Like what values need to be editable, which columns need to be displayed, what configuration should people be able to access? Really getting into the smaller details. Excited to launch that functionality to customers very soon.

Andrew J. Mason: Yeah. Really a lot more credit is deserved all around, because there's this level of sleuthing. There's what customers ask for, but then you have to get to the heart of, okay, what does this look like when it's really implemented and designed and created in a way that best serves all of our customer base? On some level, I'm sure it feels like herding cats in some way, shape or form.

Andrew Abernathy: And we try not to surprise people. A lot of these things get presented when something gets designed, it'll get presented. Step one, a lot of times, there's talking to developers and saying, "Okay, what is available here, and does this idea make sense?" And so forth. And a lot of times the developers have their own ideas like, "Here's what I think we should do," or other support or even test, their experience on that gives them perspective that's really valuable. And they can say, "Here's what I think should happen." And that can be really helpful.

Ainsley Bourque Olson: And then we get to hand it off to our developers, who then get to implement it. So there's a whole step we haven't even talked about where it gets implemented, our test team bashes on it, finds out spots where it doesn't work, all that kind of stuff before it actually ends up on a customer's device.

Andrew J. Mason: It's time for a selfish question from me, because I've always wondered about this. Gantt charts are something that have existed and been around in pen and paper for a long time. The idea of a network view, I think that's something that people who do project management are familiar with. But then you start getting into resource and outline view, and you're giving these slices of perspective to people that exist only in technology. So basically creating new ways to look at projects that slice and dice the data differently. That to me is fascinating. How do you decide? Like I get it, for Gantt charts, that's translating something that already existed, but now we're reaching beyond that and launching into fresh perspectives on technology that people maybe have never seen before. Can you give a window into that process? How do you create a new view like that?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: I'm trying to think if there's a straightforward answer to that, because it happens, I think pretty differently, depending on the feature, right? So some of it, project managers have used network diagrams and Gantt charts, like you said, forever. So that was sort of a natural... But I wasn't part of the OmniPlan team when we implemented those. But that's my understanding of how they came to be. The dedicated outline view over on the Mac side, I believe, came up sort of more organically while we were talking through it as a team and trying to figure out how to solve a variety of problems, we ended up there.

And then our resource view is something that got a bit of an overhaul in OmniPlan 4. So it's been around for, I believe since version two, possibly. And we had this separate calendar view for customizing project schedules, but it was sort of awkward to find those two different things. And maybe the calendar view shouldn't have been a top level thing. And that was really through, I think, conversations with the user experience team that we landed on, "Hey, we can take these different parts and let's make them one single view where all of this functionality is easily accessible in one place." So it really came up, I think fairly organically in our development design process.

Andrew Abernathy: Yeah, I think the calendar view, and I was not part of it at the time, but when the calendar view was originally created, I mean, there was a need for it. You have to create schedules, work schedules, and the overall project schedule. And that was an obvious solution or a solution that was arrived at. And when we were looking at OmniPlan 4 we're like, "Okay, but does it need to be at the top level?" Because I go to a resource to find their schedule and it's not there because it's over in this other section. It would be great, can we just find a way to put it in with the resources?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: Yeah. The other view we did away with in OmniPlan 4 it was we had a dedicated style view for a little bit on OmniPlan 3, which was how we originally landed at this is how you style a project. But when it came to how customers actually expected to be able to style their project, it didn't necessarily make sense as a whole view because you couldn't see what you were doing live necessarily. So instead, in OmniPlan 4, we moved it to a redesigned inspector where we kept all of the existing functionality, but it's now present in the sidebar inspector, and it's more obvious what you're doing and what you're changing. But I think it's a really great improvement. So sort of the opposite, that's the getting rid of a view versus adding another view.

Andrew J. Mason: I got to ask, just because it's something I've been curious about. Does Omni group use OmniPlan to plan software projects? I know that you have some internal software, like the bug tracking software that you guys use just strictly for your team, but does Omni use its own products in the creation of its own products?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: I would say it's very personalized. So I'm personally working on creating a lot of the content we need for this OmniPlan 4 for iOS launch, which involves writing marketing content and creating screenshots. And I've got a folder full of OmniOutlander and OmniGraffle files that I've used to create the content we need for this OmniPlan launch. And then I personally have an OmniFocus database with an OmniPlan project for this launch. So I do think it's different by person. I know Andrew uses OmniGraffle for a lot of his design work. So we certainly use bits and pieces of the apps for our workflows. But the flip side of that is that we know that we might not be the exact real, quote unquote, customer of OmniPlan, right? Someone who's using OmniPlan to design a huge construction project, they're using OmniPlan very differently than maybe my use case is. And we need to bear that in mind when we are designing features or making changes to the app, that we know our use case intimately, but there are also many more other use cases out in the real world environment where our software is being used.

Andrew Abernathy: Yeah. OmniPlan is certainly the application that gets used by the fewest people inside of Omni. But fundamentally all of our apps have to some extent or other come from internal needs.

Ainsley Bourque Olson: And OmniPlan does have a pretty targeted audience, right? Like it's made for project managers, and Omni internally only has so many of those, whereas OmniFocus is a task manager for anyone. And we have a lot of folks at Omni who need to manage a task. So it gets a little bit more wider adoption internally. But yeah, folks certainly do use OmniPlan.

Andrew J. Mason: When you're creating new software like OmniPlan or adding new features to it, how do you prioritize? How do you decide, "Okay, this is the one we're going to go for, versus this is going to be the one that doesn't get quite as much attention right now."

Andrew Abernathy: Something that was important to me was to get in kind of the more controversial and destabilizing changes that we were interested in upfront so that we had more time to live with them and see, "Okay, how well does this work?" There was an expectation that there's going to be iteration, and we want time for that, so that we can take another path if it's just not working out. Or maybe it gives ideas of other things that we can do or ways that we want to change other things that we're planning on doing. So getting some of the big stuff upfront just kind of helps the rest of the process, instead of trying to accomplish something right at the end, then you're out of time and can't change it.

Ainsley Bourque Olson: Yeah. I think maybe it's interesting to note along those lines how we typically make this work available to customers. So we start off and say, "Okay, we're doing a new major version. This is the feature set we'd like to incorporate." Maybe we have designs for some of them. And then once we get enough in, we don't want to corrupt data at this point if we can at all handle it, but we start a public test. So for our Mac apps, that's run through our website. For our iOS apps, that's run through TestFlight. And we put a call out for testers, right? We love to hear what folks in the real world, when they start to use these new features, what edges are they hitting? Or does this meet their use case after all? That feedback is really valuable. And then we obviously keep iterating and keep working on things while that test is running. But it does give the opportunity for real world input very much live as we're doing that development work.

Andrew J. Mason: You see, that is unique. I think a lot of software companies could take a cue from that. And not just saying that you listen to your customers, but developing features alongside them as this give and take process, that's such a healthy way to do things. One more question. I knew that you mentioned in conversation with me that there is an upcoming feature that you wouldn't mind us kind of leaking out to the public. So what is that new feature that's coming to OmniPlan, even though we've just released new iterations of the iOS version, there's still something new coming down the pipeline. What is that?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: Yeah, so something we're looking to bring into OmniPlan on both Mac, iPhone, and iPad in the future is encryption support over on our syncing side. OmniPlan has long supported a collaborative sinking option where you can sync with a Web Dev server with other members of your team who are also using OmniPlan. You're more than welcome to use any web server you'd like to, which provides people with extra security control that they can already choose which server they're syncing with.

But we also offer a free OmniSync service on our end, which is what most of our customers sync with. You need to sign up for a free account and connect it to OmniPlan and choose to sync changes with your team members. So it's great for people who are collaborating, you can choose when to sync so that you can make some progress on your project schedule before the rest of your team sees them. And then we have full change tracking support. So I can say, "Ah, I don't actually think that's right," and I can cancel that change on my end. And one of the things we're looking to bring to this feature in the future is full encryption support, so that folks can know if they are syncing with our server, data is fully encrypted. We take privacy very seriously at Omni. So that is on our roadmap for future development.

Andrew J. Mason: I love it. And I think it's going in a great direction. Any final parting thoughts that you want to leave people with?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: So assuming this podcast airs when we think it's going to air, we should have just launched OmniPlan 4 for iPhone and iPad, which as we mentioned earlier will be a universal purchase. So folks who've already purchased OmniPlan 4 for Mac will automatically receive access to OmniPlan 4 for iPhone and iPad via the iOS App Store. If folks haven't made the transition from OmniPlan 3 for Mac or iOS yet, this is a great time to take a look at OmniPlan 4 and try trials on both platforms. But yeah, we're really excited to launch it. Like we discussed earlier, it has been available at TestFlight for a while. So on the off chance that this podcast airs before we've launched, we do have a TestFlight available for the in-development OmniPlan work. But we're again, looking forward to getting this up final in the App Store for our customers.

Andrew J. Mason: Perfect. And is there any way that people can get in touch with you guys if they have any questions or want to learn more about what you both specifically are doing, or Omni as a group?

Ainsley Bourque Olson: Yeah, the best way to get in touch with us about OmniPlan feedback is via email, You can also find us on Twitter. We have phone support. And yeah, we love to hear from OmniPlan customers. We'd always love to hear from more OmniPlan customers. They're not our most vocal bunch, and we're always looking for more feedback from the folks who use OmniPlan to plan their projects.

Andrew J. Mason: Thank you, Andrew and Ainsley, for spending time with us today. You guys do work that matters. I know there's a lot of people that are excited to get their hands on the software. And just appreciate you both for talking with us about it.

Andrew Abernathy: Yeah, it's been great. Thank you for having us.

Ainsley Bourque Olson: Yeah, thank you so much for having us. This was fun.

Andrew J. Mason: And thank all of you for listening today. Hey, we're curious, are you enjoying the shows? Are you enjoying learning how people are getting things done utilizing Omni software and products? Drop us a line @TheOmniShow on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you there. You can also find out everything that's happening with the Omni group at