Solaris Sky Calendar

It all started with a book.

The book was ’The End of Eternity’ by Isaac Asimov. There was nothing special about it apart from the fact that it was the first science fiction book that I’ve ever read.

I liked it. It inspired my interest in science fiction, than science in general and than astronomy in particular.

I was not a professional astronomer and I never planned to become one. But pretty much every day I was reading scientific articles and whenever I got a chance I spent time with a telescope.

One evening in the autumn of 2014 I decided to share that passion and create a weekly email digest with the best content about all things connected to astronomy. “I’d be just like Carl Sagan”, - I told myself (of course, if he for some reason would have decided to curate a newsletter).

The idea was to focus on amateur astronomy nerds, like me, covering topics from explanations on how to get satellites to geostationary orbit to the latest fun articles about cosmology.

I've built a rough landing page and shared it on several places, like Betalist and Hacker News. By the end of the day more than 400 people joined. Boom 🎉.

After reaching out to everyone who signed up to understand what were the challenges they felt, I found out a common thread. The majority of subscribers were complete amateurs in love with all things celestial, but not really doing actual skywatching. And the main reason for that turned out to be the lack of knowledge about what celestial events that are worth watching and when they are happening.

“Damn”, I thought, “I need to build a sky calendar!”

And so Solaris was started.

The reason I decided to focus on an iOS app was twofolds.

First, an ambient experience of receiving a relevant notification at the right time felt like a right solution, since people don't usually remember to search for events.

Second, I was drawn towards iOS development for a while and after several unsuccessful attempts at mastering objectiveC, I wanted to experiment with Swift a bit.

I started with a quick research to better understand the data people would need (time, coordinates, descriptions etc). To find that out I did a quick typeform poll for all the subscribers and made a few detailed Skype calls with several people.

That provided a good enough understanding of what data is important, and I started to draw first sketches. It was mainly explorations into what the layout and informational architecture of the app would be like.

Some of those early sketches

As a result of those explorations and after thinking about the jobs the product has to do, I ended up using a simple timeline, throwing away ideas about a calendar view, for the sake of keeping the app as simple as possible. Other nice-to-haves like a night mode were descoped as well (although I still went for a dark color gamma, to reduce the potential impact on the eye).

In parallel with design explorations I started teaching myself Swift. Couple of weeks later I was able to create a shitty as hell v0.1 of Solaris.

The best worst engineering in my life

It was ugly and buggy, but it worked! Problem was, it took me a while to get to the crappy version and it was extremely diluting my focus.

At that time I met with a friend of mine, Valik. Besides knowing each other since we were 4, couple of years prior we also worked on the same startup, Loum. During a conversation, I mentioned Solaris. After he saw my prototype, Valik said, “Let’s do it!”.

It was sad to see all of my shitty code thrown away, but just a week after that, an app, rebuilt from the ground up, looked and worked way better then it ever did before.

In parallel I switched to finalizing the finer UI details - creating illustrations, playing with fonts, colors and margins.

The actual events were made front and center in a chronological timeline

And the actual animation captured in the app

Although we were vigilant at descoping stuff to launch as soon as possible, I still wanted to pay attention to details in order to invoke love and wonder.

We allowed a full control over the types of events you'd like to see and get notified about

And the actual animation captured in the app

It meant thinking through the onboarding experience and creating an emotional response straight away. The app starts with a nice little animation.

Animation appearing on the first launch of the app

Which then transforms to three welcome screens that are explaining the app and encouraging users to give us critically important permissions (I approached them in an intent-driven way):

Illustrations are meant to create trust and excitement for using the app

Thinking about details also included handling all the edge cases and creating something special - easter eggs.

Some of those screens

Notice the easter egg popup on the last screen? Instead of locking some of the functionality with an in-app, we decided to add a little game. We've hidden an easter egg in the app and people who were able to find it - automatically unlocked all of that functionality. That led to lots of people getting really engaged trying to find it, asking us for tips and sharing them with each other.

Finally I meticulously crafted all of the illustrations, explored various approaches to the logo and there it was.

Some of dozens of illustrations I created for the app

Several of the variations of an app logo

Finally we were happy with the result, hit submit and 💥 it was live.

It was exciting to see the reviews people added. It was great to read various articles bloggers wrote, like this or this one.

Solaris got featured in several countries and got to the top 10 in our category, but ultimately it was a victim of a not-even-the-main-side-project curse.

We keep getting a steady amount of emails and reviews from people excited about the product, which is probably one of the best validations a fun side project can have.

You can download Solaris Sky Calendar in AppStore.