The Story of Headshot

I’m releasing an improved version of headshot today (see this post) and in light of this I wanted to tell everybody how Headshot came to be, and what I’ve learned in developing the app.

I came up with the idea for Headshot somehwere in between my cubicle and the microkitchen at Microsoft Research. The idea was to write an application that helped people take pictures of themselves by using face detection to help them adjust their camera until their head was in the right place. I half expected the idea to work, and thought the idea was novel enough to get me into the finals for a Microsoft Intern mobile app contest that summer. Several of my closest friends told me the app was completely useless because of front-facing cameras, but I continued on, spurred on by faith and a desire to complete what I had started. The end result was a decent app and accompanying video (below) which surprisingly enough won me a brief glimpse of the limelight and a trip to Hawaii.

My contest win and a Computational Photography class spurred me to further develop the app from a prototype into a product. I released Headshot (a paid version and an ad-supported free version) on the marketplace in early 2012.

The app tanked. Twice. It got decent reviews in U.S. markets but was doing very poorly internationally, and nobody was buying a full version. It makes about 9 cents a day right now. Not something I’d consider a success given the novelty of the idea. Why is it doing so badly?

Is it because people don’t find it useful? I don’t think so. My friend told me that a necessary but not sufficient condition for having a successful app has to do with how much time to spent perfecting it, getting the polish just right. That’s what I’ve tried to do this third time around: I’ve spent quite a lot of time perfecting the app, getting feedback from lots of different users about what works and what doesn’t, testing the app on different devices, and trying my best to release a perfect product.

I don’t know if this story has a happy ending, we will see how well the app does. I do know that I created something I’m proud of, and that I’ve learned many lessons from the different phases of the app, here they are, in chronological order.

  1. Finish what you start. I never would have won the contest if I had listened to my friends who told me I had a bad idea.
  2. Sometimes offshoots of your project are more rewarding than the project itself. I’m very glad I wrote the face detection library, to go with this project, in some ways I’m more proud of it than headshot itself.
  3. Always make a free version of your app.
  4. It is essential to give your app to many people (at least ten) and see how they use it. Have them use all versions (free, paid, trial). Also, make sure you actually listen to their suggestions.
  5. Spend 3 times more time on something than you think you should. This is at least how long it takes to get an app polished. Though I admit I’ve yet to see whether this actually makes a difference.

That’s my story. I hope you enjoyed it. If you could download and review headshot, I’d really appreciate it:

One thought on “The Story of Headshot

  1. I have looked at xapfest contest video… can you guess who am i? Yes, currently doing internship at Microsoft. Your app is pretty interesting… Think more & do more :)
    All the best for your PhD :)

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