A Setback to PrayerMate Sync

One of my favourite emails I have ever received about PrayerMate was from somebody who said “how have you managed to stop my PrayerMate data on my iPhone syncing with my iPad, and please can you turn this off so that they start syncing?” In the modern age it’s taken for granted that your data will sync via the cloud, but the truth is that for apps that aren’t web-based (where all your data is stored on a central server to start with), data syncing is one of the hardest features to implement – how I wish that it was as simple as “turning off” some extra code that I’d written to stop it happening!

I’ve been slowly working on adding sync to the iOS version of PrayerMate for almost two years now. It’s the kind of work that is only really possible given a decent chunk of time – ideally an entire day or more – and given that I work on PrayerMate in my spare time alongside a full-time job to support my family, these are quite rare and hard to come by. Even when you do make some good progress, it’s often then a few weeks before any issues in your code get discovered, and then you have to wait for another whole-day unit of time before you can investigate and fix said issues. So perhaps you can begin to understand why progress has been so slow!

After a long couple of years, I was all set to hit the big red button and release PrayerMate sync to the public (on both iOS and Android – thanks to last autumn’s crowdfunder that allowed Dave Bignell to work full-time on adding the equivalent feature to the Android app for a good couple of months). And then the email arrived from Dropbox: they’ve decided to discontinue the particular service I’m using due to lack of developer uptake (I partly blame myself, since I’ve been meaning to blog about it and help spread the word but was waiting until I publicly launched before doing so!)

Needless to say, this is a real blow. Not only does it affect the iOS and Android versions of PrayerMate, but it was also integral to the web-based desktop client that was about to go into private beta in the next few weeks.

Dropbox will continue operating their Datastore service for another year until April 2016, so the current plan is that I will still go live as planned, but then work must quickly commence rewriting everything – either built on top of Dropbox’s standard file-based service, or using another option such as Google Drive, or something more in-house (my least favourite option). Whatever the decision, this is extremely demoralising since I was really hoping to be rid of this burden and move on to more interesting features – and instead I face the prospect of yet another year working on the same problem.

I know that God is sovereign, however – and he was not taken by surprise by this issue (nor particularly was I, to be honest). But do pray for wisdom to know how to proceed! (and the determination to see this through to the end)

Perhaps now would be a good time to consider making a donation to the PrayerMate coffers? I’d love to outsource the solution to this problem if I could.

Edit: I’m collating alternatives to the Dropbox Datastore here

Publishing a Private Feed through PrayerMate

PrayerMate has long given churches and Christian organisations the option to publish prayer content that users of the app could then subscribe to. But until recently, the only choice available to those organisations was to make their feed publicly accessible through the “feed gallery”, meaning that anybody in the world could access your content and giving you no control over who could see the things that you published. This has typically worked well for Christian charities who already publicly publish a prayer calendar, but in general churches have been a bit more cautious about broadcasting the specific details of people and activities within their church to an unknown global audience.

Introducing PrayerMate Private Feeds

Since the end of December, PrayerMate now supports private feeds. Each prayer diary published through the PrayerMate Publishing Platform is given a unique (and hard-to-guess) URL and a corresponding QR code. Even if they’re not included in the public feed gallery, you can share that URL or QR code with whoever you want to, and they just open it up in their browser, or scan the QR code using the new button at the bottom of the feed gallery page in the app, and it will grant that person access to your feed.

As an example, here’s how you would subscribe to the Open Doors USA feed: http://prayermate.s3.amazonaws.com/1/f177274cde2d7063e38e03d24bed2f3769c0.html

What it is not: a “secure” feed

I refer to these as “private” feeds rather than “secure” feeds for good reason – that URL is all that’s required to access your prayer content, and ultimately as much as you can request that people don’t pass it on, you still don’t really know whose hands it has fallen in to. There’s no support at present for password-protected feeds or feeds that require specific approval from an administrator before people can access the content. For this reason, you are still advised not to publish content of an extremely sensitive nature, or which might put a missionary’s life or ministry at risk (or anonymise/generalise it where required).

Prayer feed short URLs

Although I originally developed this functionality to create hard-to-access prayer feeds, I quickly realised that it also made existing public feeds earier to access. Upon request, I can now create you a nice “praynow4″ short URL to let people access your feed quickly and easily – a great way to publicise your feed on social media or on your website.

As an example, you can find the Operation World “Country of the Day” feed at http://praynow4.org/OW.

If you want me to create a short URL for your organisation, just drop me an email using the button inside the app.

Adding Coach Marks to an iOS App with DDCoachMarks

For years I’ve wanted to have an in-app tutorial in my PrayerMate app that would use what are known in the UX business as “coachmarks” – a kind of guided tour of the basic functionality of the app whenever it is first installed. Prompted by a colleague, I finally decided to give it a go recently, and settled on using Darin Doria’s DDCoachMarks library for iOS (I also had to implement this on Android using a different library). Here’s the results:

I had to make a few little tweaks to the library so that it would handle long captions in its bubbles and so on. That left two main challenges: handling rotations, and handling scrolling.

Handling rotations

If a user rotates their device half way through a tutorial, DDCoachmarks kind of freaks out. This is understandable, since we’ve defined all of our bubbles in screen co-ordinates, and those co-ordinates completely change when a device rotates. I solved it by making my DDCoachMarksViewDelegate monitor for device orientation change events. Just before my [coachMarksView start] call I added this:


// Start listening for rotation events
[[UIDevice currentDevice] beginGeneratingDeviceOrientationNotifications];
[[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self selector:@selector(deviceOrientationDidChange:) name:UIDeviceOrientationDidChangeNotification object:nil];

[coachMarksView start];

Then I handle those events like so:

- (void)deviceOrientationDidChange:(NSNotification *)notification {

//Obtaining the current device orientation
UIDeviceOrientation orientation = [[UIDevice currentDevice] orientation];

//Ignoring specific orientations
if (orientation == UIDeviceOrientationFaceUp || orientation == UIDeviceOrientationFaceDown || orientation == UIDeviceOrientationUnknown) {
return;
}

// We need to allow a slight pause before running handler to make sure rotation has been processed by the view hierarchy
[self performSelectorOnMainThread:@selector(handleDeviceOrientationChange:) withObject:self.currentCoachMarksView waitUntilDone:NO];
}

- (void)handleDeviceOrientationChange:(DDCoachMarksView*)coachMarksView {

// Begin the whole coach marks process again from the beginning, rebuilding the coachmarks with updated co-ordinates
coachMarksView.coachMarks = [self coachMarksAfterRotation:coachMarksView];
[coachMarksView start];
}

Of course you also then need to stop listening for rotation events after the coachmarks are finished:

- (void)coachMarksViewWillCleanup:(DDCoachMarksView *)coachMarksView {
// Stop listening for orientation changes
[[UIDevice currentDevice] endGeneratingDeviceOrientationNotifications];
[[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] removeObserver:self name:UIDeviceOrientationDidChangeNotification object:nil];
}

Handling scrolling

The bigger headache was that some of my coach marks were related to UI elements that were off the bottom of the screen, requiring me to scroll to bring them into view.

To handle this, I have a delegate callback each time a new coachmark is shown:


- (void)coachMarksView:(DDCoachMarksView*)coachMarksView willNavigateToIndex:(NSUInteger)index {
// This is app-specific code to look up the UIScrollView that's currently being looked at
UIScrollView* scrollView = [self.rootViewController currentScrollView];
if (scrollView == nil) {
// No scrolling possible
return;
}

// Look up the details of the coach mark that's about to be displayed
NSDictionary* coachMark = [coachMarksView.coachMarks objectAtIndex:index];

// I added some extra info to my coachmarks dictionary to indicate which coachmarks might require scrolling
if ([coachMark objectForKey:@"scrollView"] == nil) {
// No scrolling required - so always scroll back up to the top
[scrollView setContentOffset:CGPointZero animated:YES];
return;
}

CGRect markRect = [[coachMark objectForKey:@"rect"] CGRectValue];

// Modify coachmarks according to scroll offset
CGRect modifiedRect = CGRectMake(markRect.origin.x, markRect.origin.y - scrollView.contentOffset.y, markRect.size.width, markRect.size.height);

// See if the coachmark is offscreen or not
if (!CGRectContainsRect([self visibleRectForCoachMarks:coachMarksView], modifiedRect)) {
if (scrollView != nil) {
// Scroll until it's in view //
///////////////////////////////
// Convert from screen co-ordinates into the co-ordinate system of the UIScrollView
CGRect markInScrollView = [self.rootViewController.view convertRect:markRect fromView:self.rootViewController.navigationController.view];
markInScrollView = [scrollView convertRect:markInScrollView fromView:self.rootViewController.view];

// Record the current scroll position
CGPoint originalOffset = scrollView.contentOffset;

// Then scroll without animation to work out how far we need to scroll
[scrollView scrollRectToVisible:markInScrollView animated:NO];

// Modify coachmarks rectangle by scrollView offset
markRect.origin.y -= scrollView.contentOffset.y;
markRect.origin.x -= scrollView.contentOffset.x;

// Update the coachmarks array
NSMutableArray *newCoachmarks = [coachMarksView.coachMarks mutableCopy];
NSMutableDictionary* mutable = [coachMark mutableCopy];
[mutable setObject:[NSValue valueWithCGRect:markRect] forKey:@"rect"];

[newCoachmarks setObject:mutable atIndexedSubscript:index];
coachMarksView.coachMarks = newCoachmarks;

// Now put the UIScrollView back where it started and ANIMATE it into position - this is just so that it looks nicer
scrollView.contentOffset = originalOffset;
[scrollView scrollRectToVisible:markInScrollView animated:YES];
}
}
}

Conclusion

And there we have it! Beautiful coachmarks and a user who knows exactly how your app works as though you were right there next to them explaining it all.

Many thanks to Darin Doria for his hard work on this handy little iOS library.

Announcing PrayerMate for Android v3

Thanks to last autumn’s crowdfunding campaign, I had the privilege of being able to hire a developer to work full time on PrayerMate for Android for a couple of months. Dave’s main focus was on implementing automatic syncing (more news on that in a couple of weeks) but along the way he was also able to add a whole load of features from the iOS app that were missing from Android. I’ve also done a bunch of work myself, and outsourced yet more to some developers in Eastern Europe. The result is PrayerMate for Android v3, which I’m delighted to announce is now live on Google Play. Here’s just a few of the new features it includes:

1. Address Book Integration

One of the hardest parts of getting going with PrayerMate has always been getting your initial list of friends set up. There’s now a handy way of adding friends directly from your address book. When you hit the “+” button, you’ll get a new option “Create from address book”:

android_v3_quick_add

This will then pull up a list of your contacts. Select the ones you want to create subjects from, and it will then create a new entry for each one.

Related to this is the ability to send messages to people as you pray for them. When praying for somebody, press and hold on the card for the context menu, and hit the “Send message” option. You then get to choose whether to email or to send a text message:

android_v3_send_message

If you created somebody using the “Create from address book” option then their email / mobile number will be prefilled. I hope soon to be able to add the option to retrospectively link an existing subject to an address book entry, but I haven’t had the chance yet because of all the other features I’ve been working on!

2. New category options

If you’ve ever used PrayerMate to pray for your small group Bible study, you’ve probably wished there was an easy way to email people’s prayer requests out to your group. Now you can – when viewing a category, tap the “…” button in the top right and you’ll see two new options: “Pray through this category” and “Email these subjects”:

android_v3_category_options

3. Selectively export categories

When exporting to Dropbox, you can now selectively export just certain categories. This gives you an easier way to share prayer points with others – as long as they’re in their own category, you can export them to Dropbox which can then be easily imported by others. Just hit the “Export to Dropbox” option under Advanced Settings and you can choose which categories you want to export (the default is still to export them all):

android_v3_export_cats

4. Region-specific feed galleries

When you open up the feed gallery, users in the UK, United States, Canada and Australia should now see a customised list of featured feeds that is more geographically relevant:

android_v3_feed_gallery

5. Recently prayed list

Tap the cog button and you’ll now see a “Recently prayed” option to be able to find subjects that you’ve prayed for recently:

android_v3_recently_prayed

6. New subject order options

When you tap into a category’s settings menu, hit “Change subject order” and as well as being able to manually reorder subjects, you’ll now also get options to sort them alphabetically, randomise the order, or turn on the new “auto-shuffle feature”. Sometimes people find that always praying for people in exactly the same order gets a bit repetitive. Turn on “auto-shuffle” on a particular category, and every time you’ve prayed through all the subjects in that category it will randomise the order for the next time you pray.

android_v3_sort_subjects

Other changes

Other recent changes you may have missed is the concept of “private feeds” – churches or organisations who sign up at http://www.prayermate.net/publishers can now publish feeds that don’t have to be publicly advertised in the feed gallery. You’ll be given both a private URL and a QR code that you can share with your supporters, and they can use either one to subscribe.

You might also notice slightly more dynamic content appearing in prayer feeds, as they now support links and embedded images.

PrayerMate is a free app on iOS and Android to help you pray regularly and faithfully. As well as all of your personal prayer points for friends and family, you can also subscribe to regular updates from over 100 different Christian charities and churches, as well as downloading suggested prayers from the gallery.

Will you pray for the London Student Mission next week?

mission_logo It may be a very long time since you were a student, or you may well never have been a student at all. But regardless of what stage of life you’re at, I invite you to partner with the Christian students of London who next week are putting on a city-wide mission week, from 26th-30th January 2015. There will be central events happening every evening at All Soul’s Langham Place, as well as specific lunchtime talks at several campuses around the city.

Being a student is such a fantastic time to reach your mates with the gospel of Jesus Christ – people are often more receptive to considering new ideas as students than they are at any other time in their life. And if you can reach London students with the gospel, then you’ll reach the entire world – London universities are full of people from every corner of the globe, including many closed countries where it’s much harder to proclaim the gospel. So whether you’re 18 or 81 please be praying for these young Christians next week as they seek to proclaim Jesus.

I’ve put together a special PrayerMate feed just for this one week: sign up at http://praynow4.org/londonmission. It’s easiest if you subscribe to it in a category all of its own so that it’ll come up every time you pray during the week. When people pray, God answers – and we would love to see the name of God glorified as a result of all that happens next week!

PIN Protection in PrayerMate for Android

When recording prayer needs in an app like PrayerMate, the things you want to pray for are often somewhat sensitive in nature. That’s why PrayerMate for iOS has long had a PIN protection feature, and many of you have been asking me to add this to the Android version as well. Today I’m pleased to announce that PrayerMate on both platforms now has the same password entry feature – you’ll find it under the Advanced Settings menu. Create a four digit numeric PIN, and nobody will be able to access your prayer points without first entering the code.

PIN_Android_screenshot

Many thanks to Dave Bignell who did most of the hard work for this feature shortly before last month’s Crowdfunding campaign. Since then he’s been working full time implementing automatic syncing to the Android app, and has been making fantastic progress. Look forward to further news on this in the new year.

New downloadable content from Ligonier in the PrayerMate gallery

The goal of the PrayerMate app has always been to help people pray more widely and more faithfully for the things that matter to them. Today I’m pleased to announce some new downloadable prayers in the PrayerMate prayer gallery for two important aspects of church life: 5 ways to pray for your pastor and 5 ways to pray for your church family.

iOS Simulator Screen Shot 8 Dec 2014 21.08.30

To access this content within the free PrayerMate app, press the cog button and scroll down to the “Download prayers” option under the “Extra prayer content” section. You’ll find the new Ligonier content under the “Praying for your church” section. Hit the “Download all” button and choose which of your categories you wish to download into – perhaps “My church”. You’ll then be given one prayer each time you start a new session.

Announcing prayer newsletters for PrayerMate Publishers

Today I’m pleased to announce a long-overdue feature on the PrayerMate Publishing Platform ideal for smaller publishers: prayer newsletters.

Until now, the PrayerMate Publishing Platform has only formally supported prayer calendars – a particular prayer point scheduled for each day, and subscribers only pray for that item if they open the app on that specific day. With prayer newsletters you can schedule new content as and when it’s available, and subscribers will see that same content until new content is scheduled. This is ideal for smaller organisations or individuals, if you don’t have enough content to schedule something unique for every single day.

Just like with all PrayerMate prayer diaries, you can then submit your prayer newsletter to the PrayerMate feed gallery and people can then easily subscribe to all of your updates on their mobile device through the free PrayerMate app.

Creating a prayer newsletter

After logging in to the PrayerMate Publishing Platform, you can create a new prayer newsletter by pressing “Create prayer diary”:

01 Prayer diaries

You will then be asked to select the style of your prayer diary – choose “newsletter”:

02 Create prayer newsletter

Note: if you have an existing prayer diary connected to a feed, open it up and click “Edit settings” in the right sidebar to change the style of your prayer diary

Scheduling content

When viewing your prayer newsletter, you can schedule content at the top. If you leave the date blank then it will just schedule it to appear immediately:

03 Schedule prayer point

Note that prayer points will replace anything published on an earlier date. You can have multiple items scheduled on the same date, but otherwise content will stay live only until the date of the next prayer point. This means that you can schedule content in advance that will become live only when that date comes around.

Creating a fixed pool of prayer points

If your prayer needs are fairly fixed and you don’t need to reguarly publish new prayer points, you can also use prayer newsletters to create a fixed “pool” of prayer points that just rotates every time people pray for you. For example, you could schedule ten prayer points all on the same day, then the first time somebody prays for you they’ll see the first prayer point, the next time they pray they’ll see the second and so on (though this does depend slightly upon the exact settings they have in their app and the number of “items per session” they enabled).

Archiving content

Once you publish a prayer point, it will stay live indefinitely until there is some new content to replace it. Occasionally this is not the behaviour you want, and you just want to “archive” a prayer point without replacing it with something new. When viewing your newsletter, you’ll see an “Archive selected” button to do exactly this:

04 Pool of prayer points

More info

I hope this new feature proves useful in getting more people praying for you. If you ever have any questions or feedback, do drop me an email – you should have got an email from me when you first signed up with my address.

PrayerMate iOS Stuck Cards Bug

Update: this bug should now be resolved in the latest app update

Some users are reporting an issue with the latest PrayerMate for iOS 3.7.1 where they are seeing the same cards every day, even after they reset. Whilst Apple reviews an update to resolve this, in the mean time the way to work around it is to swipe all the way to the very last screen and press the “praying hands” button for a new set of cards:

praying_hands_page

Problems like this are extremely frustrating all round, and I’m really sorry that this didn’t get picked up in my own testing. A change was made to resolve another problem that people were experiencing, and it introduced this new bug in its place.

Congratulations Righteous Tales!

On Saturday I was at the Christian New Media Awards to cheer on the guys behind David vs Goliath: A Righteous Tale – and I’m so thrilled that they won “Christian App of the Year 2014“!!!

It was a real honour to meet these guys and get to grill them:
RighteousTales

Their game is seriously good, and they deserve this recognition. The only way they’re going to be able to continue making more games like this is if people download, play and pay for this one. What are you waiting for? (if the answer is “an Android version” then hold tight – Gerald assures me he’s hard at work on a port)

Download David vs Goliath this instant!

Attaching PDFs using the iOS8 Document Picker

Unfortunately, iOS8 broke a lot of things in PrayerMate when it was first released – and thankfully a new app update went live today that will hopefully resolve the last of these. However, it’s not all bad news – iOS8 also makes some really cool new things possible. I haven’t had a chance to capitalise on all of these yet, but I just wanted to highlight one new feature that went live with today’s release that should make your life easier – and that’s the ability to attach PDFs to a prayer subject using the new Document Picker.

When editing one of your subjects, press the “Attachment” button:

2014-10-30 13.07.53

iOS will then give you the option of choosing a source to pull a document from. You should see your iCloud document store here, and if you have the Dropbox app installed, you can make that appear as a source too:

2014-10-30 13.08.02

You can then navigate to the file you want to attach. Please note that PrayerMate only supports PDF attachments, whereas for now, iOS will show you all kinds of files (as soon as I figure out how to fix this, I will!)

2014-10-30 13.08.26

It will then download and attach this PDF to your subject:

2014-10-30 13.08.31

Next time you’re praying for this subject, you should then see an orange “PDF” link at the top right:

2014-10-30 13.08.40

This will then open up the PDF that you have attached:

2014-10-30 13.08.44

PrayerMate is an app designed to help you pray more faithfully and more widely. It is currently doing a crowdfunding campaign to build the next stage – please consider donating £30 at http://support.prayermate.net/

Temporary workaround for iOS 8 iPad PDF bug [Fixed]

Several of you have reported that PDFs seem to open inconsistently on iPads under iOS8. I’ve now tracked down the root cause of this issue, but it’ll be getting on for a couple of weeks before Apple approves my fix.

In the mean time, there is a simple workaround for this issue: make sure your iPad is always in portrait orientation before opening the PDF file, and then switch back to landscape after it has opened if you so wish.

Apologies for the inconvenience, but hopefully this will be enough to get you praying in the mean time whilst a proper update is released.

Update: A fix for this is now live in the App Store – update PrayerMate to resolve this issue

How does PrayerMate scheduling work?

Somebody tweeted something a bit like this the other day:

“How does @PrayerMateApp do it? Told me to pray for colleagues on the very day I’m meeting with them.”

Obviously that was just a bit of fun – but under the surface lies an important question. Just how does PrayerMate decide what you should pray for each day?
This is a blog post that I’ve resisted writing for ages, for two reasons: firstly, because of a misguided sense that this was somehow PrayerMate’s “secret sauce” that gave it some kind of competitive edge; secondly, because I keep thinking it’s going to change imminently and I don’t want an out-of-date blog post littering the Internet misleading people. However, in the last couple of weeks it’s become very clear that confusion around exactly how the scheduling works is a big blocking point in onboarding new users, and so I thought in the interests of helping people get going with PrayerMate it was worth at least a brief outline.

The basics: default scheduled items, no “global item limit”

The simplest starting point is subjects set to the “Default” scheduling mode – the kind that you just leave to PrayerMate to show you when it sees fit. I actually recommend leaving all your items in this mode unless you have a good reason otherwise – but I know that some people like a bit more control that this gives them, and that’s ok.

If you’ve not turned on the “global item limit” under Advanced Settings, then each time PrayerMate starts up it will go through each of your categories, look at the “Items per session” for that category, and pick that number of subjects from that category. So, by default, you’ll get one Biblical prayer, one prayer for your family, one personal godliness one, and so on. Within each category, it will show you the subject that you prayed for least recently. If you increase the “items per session” on a particular category, then you’ll just get more items from that category in addition to what you would already have had from your other categories. This is handy if you’ve got lots of subjects in one category, you can get through them quicker by increasing the items per session, or you can leave it at one and just get through those people less frequently.

In other words, in this mode, each category is essentially an entirely separate prayer list, and it will you show you one item from each list, making sure that over time you cover each item in each of your lists.

Global item limit

For some people, praying through every single one of your categories every time gets a bit much. That’s why PrayerMate has the Advanced Setting called the “Global item limit”. This sets a maximum number of items that you’ll pray for on any given day – personally, I pray for eight items each session.

Now, obviously if you’re not praying through every category each time, this means it has to make a judgement call on what you should pray for each time and what to leave out, whilst still ensuring that you get through everything over time. In this mode, PrayerMate treats all of your subjects as one giant list, puts them in order of when you last prayed for them, then trawls through them one by one. The individual “Items per session” limits on each of your categories still take precedence though – e.g. once it’s found a “Personal godliness” item it will skip over any further subjects from that category. So, by default, you’ll pray for no more than one item from any given category, and in total no more than your global limit.

The slight exception here is “pinned” categories – PrayerMate gives you the option to request that a certain category be given priority, so that you will tend to pray for it each and every day. This just sends them to the top of the list when it sorts the subjects into the order you last prayed for them. If you pin too many categories then it will stop having any meaning.

Other scheduling modes

When you add in items that are not set to the “Default” scheduling mode, things get a little more complicated. PrayerMate schedules them in a certain priority ordering:

  1. First it selects relevant items scheduled by date – e.g. if today is Wednesday 15th October 2014, it will first pick out any items scheduled for today
  2. If there’s any room left, according to both your individual category limits, and optionally the global limit, it will then fill that space up with items scheduled by day of the month – e.g. items for the 15th of any month
  3. Next it will look to fill up with items scheduled for the current day of the week – e.g. Wednesday items. Again, your per-category limits will always take precedence, so don’t expect to pray for all of your Wednesday items if your category only shows one item per session
  4. Finally, if there is any room left at all, it will pick Default scheduled items

The slight idiosyncrasy here is that any items except for “Default” scheduled items will only ever appear once on any given day at present (I hope to change this soon) – so once you’ve prayed for an item scheduled for Wednesdays, you’ll not see those again until the following Wednesday. The thought behind this originally was to stop them permanently blocking items of a lower priority, so that you could still pray for a range of items on any given day if you so wished. In reality it’s just confused people!

You’ll notice that this can be used as a hack to make certain items appear every day – schedule them by “Day of the Week” but select all seven days, and they’ll be scheduled first ahead of any “Default” subjects.

A note on ordering

If you have any category set to more than one item per session, then currently the subjects that PrayerMate selects for you from that category will always display in the same order each time. For example, if you had a category called “The Lord’s Prayer” with a subject for each line of the prayer, they would be guaranteed to appear in the same order each time. It has been pointed out to me that this does actually cause issues if you have an odd number of subjects in your category but pray for an even number of items each session – you’ll end up praying for certain subjects (the ones nearer the start of the list) more regularly than others (the ones nearer the end of the list). I hope to fix this in a future update by letting you decide how the category should be ordered, but in the mean time the workaround if you’re experiencing this is to make sure there’s an even number of subjects in your category.

The future

This is all subject to change, and hopefully fairly soon! It has become increasingly clear that this isn’t quite as intuitive or flexible as I’d like, and I have some fairly concrete ideas for improving it. But don’t worry, I’ll be sure to let you transition gradually to any new system as an when you’re ready.

The possibility of the existence of bugs

This blog posts describes how things are supposed to work – it’s always possible that there are bugs in this system! If you feel like you’re seeing something that isn’t behaving according to these rules, then feel free to hit the “Send feedback” button inside the app and ask about it. It would really help if you could let me know whether you’re on iOS or Android, whether you have the global item limit turned on or off, and exactly what you’re seeing vs what you’re expecting to see.

Conclusion

I hope that helps clarify things, and helps you make some more informed decisions about how to organise your prayer points!

If you’ve not already, please consider supporting our crowdfunding campaign to build the next stage of PrayerMate: http://support.prayermate.net/

Supporters needed to take PrayerMate to the next phase

Update: JUST A FEW DAYS LEFT!!! Please give now – however much or how little

People don’t always realise that I work on PrayerMate in my spare time along side a full time job. For the most part this just about works, but when it comes to implementing big headline features, this just isn’t possible in the little free time I have. Right now I have a window of opportunity to build two very exciting new features that people are constantly asking me for:

  1. Universal sync: whether you have an iOS device or an Android device, you want all of your devices to talk to each other. Even if you’ve only got one device, you want the reassurance of knowing that your data is safely backed up in the cloud without you having to remember to do this manually each time.
  2. A web-based client: typing on a small screen can be fiddly, so people have often expressed an interest in some kind of desktop client that lets them manage their prayer points on a full-size screen and keyboard.

A friend of mine who is an experienced software developer has an opening in his schedule over the next couple of months. There’s a chance that some of you might even have used software that he has helped build in the past (especially if you’re musical) Best of all, he’s worked on some of the existing features for PrayerMate for Android, so he’s already familiar with the codebase. However, he needs to be able to put food on his table. I’ve also got links with some Ukrainian software developers who have come very highly recommended to me, and are all geared up to work on the web client. They’re extremely cost-effective compared to UK developers – but they too need to be able to put food on their tables.

Finally, a much more boring need: the five-year-old plastic MacBook that I use for all of my development (both iOS and Android) is really starting to creak at the seams, both literally (the bottom is falling off!) and figuratively (it really starts to crawl when compiling code, especially for the new iOS8).

To meet these needs, I’m looking to find 300 people willing to give £30 by 13th November (by God’s grace I’ve found a dozen over 60% of them already – thank you!)

I go into a lot more detail answering all kinds of questions on the supporters website, which you can find here:

http://support.prayermate.net/

Please do prayerfully consider giving, and please please please spread the word – tell everybody you know who uses PrayerMate! I can’t do this on my own, but together we can make a real difference that will help people across the world to be praying.

Update: JUST A FEW DAYS LEFT!!! Please give now – however much or how little

Praying for IFES World Student Day 2014

IFES World Student Day 2014 is fast approaching on 17th October. IFES has handily put together PDF prayer profiles to help you know how to be praying for students around the world – and now I’m pleased to announced that you can download these directly into the latest version of the free PrayerMate app through the Prayer Gallery, on both iOS and Android.

To find them, select “Download prayers” form the main settings menu:
Download prayers

Then choose the IFES World Student Day option to pull up a list of countries to choose from:
World Student Day Gallery

Once you open up a particular country, you’ll see a “Download prayer” button at the bottom, and you’ll then need to choose one of your categories to save it into:
GB Prayer Profile

Then hit “Done” in the top right. When that subject then comes up in your prayers, you’ll see an orange “PDF” button on the right that you can press to open up the prayer profile:
GB Prayer Card

Don’t forget to Tweet with the hashtag #worldstudentday or get involved in their Facebook page.

Is technology morally neutral?

Last year I did a talk on “How should Christians engage with technology?“, largely based upon Tim Challies’ excellent book “The Next Story“. A year down the line, I’ve been asked to give this talk again, and in preparation I decided to read another book that I’d been recommended, John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City – and I have to say, I think this is one of the best books I have read in a long, long time.

Dyer’s conclusions are very similar to those reached by Tim Challies, but his book has really helped add depth to my understanding of this topic – I’m really thankful to God for the gifts he’s given to both of these men in understanding both his word and his world!

Is how we use our technology all that matters?

Last year I said this:

“technology by itself is what we might call “amoral” – that is, it is neither overwhelmingly good nor inherently evil. Like lots of things in this world it’s something with great power for good but which is also deeply affected by the fall. What’s important is how we use that technology – what we use it to do, and what we allow it to do to us.”

Reading “From the Garden to the City” really sharpens this idea up. Dyer uses the example of a shovel: of course a shovel is amoral, neither overwhelmingly good nor inherently evil. You can use it in all sorts of different ways – to dig wells in remote villages, or to hide the body of the person who you’ve just hit over the head with it. You have a great responsibility to use your shovel in a constructive rather than a destructive way. But don’t underestimate the extent to which the shovel will change you in the process – completely independently of whether you use it for good or for evil. Dyer says this:

“stop for a moment more and look down, turning our palms towards our eyes; we’ll see that our hands, too, have been changed by the shovel. They will be rubbed raw, exposing the first sign of the blisters that are sure to develop while we sleep.”

Technological Determinism vs Instrumentalism

If we simply say that how we use our technology is what matters, then that would be to fall into the trap of what Dyer calls “instrumentalism” – technology is merely an instrument in our hands, and all that counts is what we do with it. This other end of this spectrum would be “technological determinism” – the idea that “technology is an unstoppable power that has become the driving force in society. Whilst instrumentalism claims that technology is completely inert and has no operative power in culture, determinism makes the opposite argument, saying that technology operates completely independently of human choices.”

Dyer encourages us to chart a middle way between these two extremes, and to recognise that “people are free to choose how they will use their tools, but that the tools themselves are oriented toward a particular set of uses that will emerge when a large number of people use them” “A person is free to use a phone as a paperweight, doorstop, or hammer, but people will tend to use phones to accomplish what they were designed to do– communicate with people”. Determinism says that all of America’s guns are the reason their murder rate is so high, whilst instrumentalism declares that “Guns don’t kill people, people do”. I think Dyer is trying to say that whilst it’s true that guns themselves don’t kill people, they do have a certain in-built natural tendency. “Whatever our beliefs about guns in society, we must acknowledge that a home with a gun is a different place than one without a gun. When we bring a gun into a home, we also bring with it a set of cultural practices… such as keeping it locked away, never pointing it at anyone, and only touching the trigger when you are ready to fire. Even if the gun is never taken out of its case, the presence of a gun commands a different way of life than a life without guns.”

God uses technology too

Dyer gives several examples from the Bible of God making use of the innate values of particular technologies. In a particularly fascinating chapter, he talks about the first tablets in the Bible – not iPads, but literal stone tablets, when God gave Moses the law on Mount Sinai. He points out that at the time Israel was in the wilderness, “alphabetical writing was still a bleeding edge technology”. He goes on to say that “people could only afford to write down what was of the highest importance to them… This meant that when people invoked the words ‘It is written,’ they were appealing to the authority of the medium. After all, it wouldn’t be written if it weren’t important… God was giving the world his final, authoritative, and unchanging Law. And he chose a technological medium that reinforced those values.”

By literally setting the law in stone, God was telling Israel something important: that his word would stand forever, and was to be passed down from generation to generation.

How to be a responsible technology user

My conclusions from last year still stand:

“My goal here is to encourage us all just to be a little more thinking in our attitude to technology – not to reject it outright, nor to embrace it unquestioningly. Instead, to try to see beyond the superficial and to think a bit more about how it affects us, and why we feel about it the way we do.”

If all technologies have their own built-in tendencies and values, then thinking through what they are likely to do to us becomes extremely important. In what seemed to me like possibly the most crucial sentence of his entire book, Dyer writes this:

“Instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, [Albert] Borgmann urges us to determine what our values are first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values.”

I said last time that the mobile phone was invented to keep businessmen in contact with the office at all times, so it shouldn’t surprise us if one of the effects of a mobile phone is that suddenly we find ourselves connected to the office at all times. But realising this in advance helps us to be prepared – and to decide if we really want this to be the case. Now we are free to make choices – to turn it to silent at the dinner table or when we meet our friend for coffee, allowing our own values to control our technology and not the other way around.

A story of technology

“From the Garden to the City” constructs it’s argument through the Biblical story from Genesis through to Revelation, under the heading of four ‘R’s: Reflection, Rebellion, Redemption and Restoration.

Reflection is the world of Genesis 1+2, as human beings are made in the image of their Creator, reflecting his character – they are in turn little creators themselves. Dyer says “Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Bill Gates don’t claim to be Christians, but their products reflect the creativity of God as well as the longings of the human heart.”

Rebellion is what happens in Genesis 3 in the fall, as humanity turns its back on God. We see such an example of the fall working its way out in technology, distorted and used against God, in the cross of Christ: “Jesus and his father would have been ‘doing technology’ when they used tools to transform pieces of wood into something useful” “In another strange irony, the technology with which Jesus worked– wood and nails– was the technology on which he died– a cross. Jesus could have been executed using any number of more ‘natural’ means, but in God’s great plan the way he died was decidedly technological.”

Redemption is what happened at the cross – though humans were using wood and nails in rebellion against their Creator, God in his wisdom was using this very act of rebellion to redeem the world and make a way for us to be brought back into relationship with him. God has often used technology in this process – e.g. Noah’s ark, which is one of the very earliest examples of technology in the Bible.

Finally, Restoration – looking forward to the New Creation that God promises to bring in. Dyer points out that the New Creation is described not as a garden – a return to Eden – but as a city, “full of human creations like buildings, roads and trumpets”. There we will relate both to God and each other without mediation – no more flickering screens or priests going between us.

I found this framework really helpful in thinking about technology from a Biblical perspective – it helps guard us against a shallow approach that simply embraces technology wholeheartedly or rejecting it outright.

Conclusion

Dyer closes his book with various recommendations about how to engage with our technologies – and I don’t want to steal his thunder by repeating them all here. Buy his book and read them – they’re really helpful! Ultimately it comes down to actually thinking through the impact our technologies are having on us, and as we said before “determine what our values are first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values”.

How to support a new Dad

I hope this post won’t sound too self-serving, seeing as I am a new dad myself and all, but our church has a growing number of new mums & dads with teeny tiny little babies, with more on the way, and for I while I’ve been thinking it would be helpful to write a post on how to support the new dads in particular. Lots of what I have to say applies to the mums too, and of course in many ways mums need even more support than the dads – but my general impression is that girls are much better at both providing support and asking for/accepting support than blokes are, and as a result I think sometimes the dads suffer a little bit because people don’t realise their distinctive needs or know what to do about them. (That said, I’m extremely thankful for how well people have looked after me & my wife – so don’t go feeling guilty when you read this if you know us personally!)

So here goes…

1. Make contact during the early days and weeks

The early days of having a new baby can be quite stressful, worrying about whether your baby is feeding properly, whether they’re gaining enough weight, whether they’re healthy, not to mention worrying about the mum and how she’s recovering from the birth. In general the first six weeks are the hardest and it can feel literally touch and go whether your little one is going to make it (or whether you’re going to survive as parents!) What’s more, new parents are in a bit of a time warp – they’re probably awake for at least 22 hours out of every 24, compared to a normal person who’s only awake for 17 or so. This means that time moves more slowly for a new parent and the days stretch out forever. So those scary six weeks really last a long time.
Girls are great at talking to each other, so the mum’s phone is probably buzzing non-stop all day long, and then she’s probably chatting to her friends on Facebook during the midnight feeds as well. Boys on the other hand are often a bit rubbish at communication and feel a bit awkward about whether it’s ok to be in touch with a new dad with a new baby.
My advice is to get in touch with dad, get in touch early and get in touch often. If you wait until a month has gone by then by then it’s too late – the hardest part is over and dad feels like he hasn’t heard from anybody in an age. To send a text message every couple of days or so will probably feel a lot more often to you than it does to him, because he’s been awake for a lot longer than you have in the mean time :) He’s just been through the biggest ordeal of his life and can’t really leave the house to see anybody. Dads feel like they have to be strong on behalf of the mum, but sometimes that leaves a lot of pent up emotion and giving a big hug can go a long way.
Good questions to ask in a text message are “How is it all going today?” “Are there any specific prayer requests today?” Send an encouraging Bible verse or a hymn that made you smile.

2. Send cards

When you’re more-or-less housebound for two weeks, the daily trip to the letterbox can be a real highlight.
Like the text messages, girls are often great at sending cards, so the mums get lots of cards from their friends, but dads might be at risk of feeling a bit left out if none of their mates remember. You may have at least eight months in advance to prepare for this, to find out your mate’s address and buy a couple of alternative cards / chocolate and some stamps, so you don’t really have any good excuses.

3. Don’t expect too much

Looking after a new baby is pretty all-consuming, so don’t expect too much from a new parent. In particular:

  • Don’t expect promptness from a new parent coming to a church service or other meeting. Something as seemingly simple as leaving the house can be a huge effort when you have a newborn – just as you’re about to hop in the car they fill their nappy, then as you change it they pee all over themselves and need an outfit change, then by that stage they’re hungry again and need another feed before you’re finally ready to give it another shot at getting out through the front door.
  • Don’t expect replies to your emails. You may think “they’re at home all day long, I’m sure they’ll be checking their email”, and that may well be true, but they’ve probably got hundreds of emails that they haven’t got the time or energy to reply to, and you shouldn’t take offence if yours is one of them. This applies to those thoughtful text messages you send – don’t interpret a lack of response as an indication that they weren’t very gratefully received!

All of this probably applies in the few weeks prior to the birth too – so if you’ve asked the dad-to-be to perform some role in a church service or something like that then make sure you have a backup plan in case he has to vanish at short notice to attend the birth!

4. Leave space

When it comes to a new baby, establishing patterns takes time and space. Often you’re on a mission to get as much milk into the little one as possible, and it’s hard to do that if you have visitors coming and going all the time. Of course you’re desperate to meet the little one as soon as possible, but if you can wait a couple of weeks then it’ll probably be a lot less stressful – and if you do visit, make sure not to outstay your welcome. Dad’s job is to be the “rottweiler” who keeps the visitors at bay and makes sure the mum isn’t overstretched, but he’s not always very good at it and finds it hard to say no to all these lovely people who want to come and express their love for his family. Some days they’ll be longing for some visitors and actually your company is very welcome – other days not so much. The best approach is to ask.
One great way to get a cheeky visit and to leave space at the same time is to offer to take older children to the park for a couple of hours – that way you get to meet the new arrival and mum & dad potentially get to have a nap too. If you want to offer to hang up the latest load of washing on your return as well then so much the better :)

Some brief ‘rules’ for visiting new parents:
  • Try to be punctual and arrive when you say you will. Feeding babies is a complicated and time-consuming business, and to get ready for a visit at a certain time may take many hours of preparation. If you then show up half-an-hour later than expected then that beautiful window of opportunity where the the baby is clean and well-fed and awake enough to be interesting will be missed, and depending on how comfortable mum is feeding in front of you then it may cause a fair amount of stress once you do show up.
  • Embrace the chaos. Be prepared for carnage – breakfast left unwashed-up on the kitchen table at 5pm, mum & dad still in their pajamas; teeth unbrushed and showers skipped – all of these are normal for new parents. Some days they’ll be on top of it all, other days they’ll be feeling completely overwhelmed. So if you do visit, make sure you’re not seen to be tidying up with your eyes (feel free to tidy up with your hands though!)

5. Remember that the first two weeks aren’t necessarily when help is most needed

We’ve been so thankful for our church family and neighbours rallying round and offering to bring food and so on in the early days, but sometimes this kind of enthusiasm risks being a bit overwhelming at first and then sometimes fizzles out after a couple of weeks. This will depend upon the exact circumstances of the particular family, but in many cases it’s actually once dad’s paternity leave has come to and end and mum suddenly finds herself on her own (in some cases looking after multiple children if there are older ones too) – that’s when the help is most needed.

6. Understand how your comments might be interpreted

Please don’t feel like you have to walk on egg-shells, but at the same time, understand that new parents are massively sleep-deprived and probably feeling desperately neurotic about all kinds of issues related to the new baby. Well-meaning comments on the look / size / weight / spottiness of their baby may hit on exactly the topic they happen to be anxious about on that particular day, and the problem you’ll have is that there’s no way you can know what topic it happens on be on the day you see them. So rather than saying “she’s so tiny!” or “he’s so huge!” try something a bit more objective or neutral like “you’re so young!” or “isn’t she cute!” You won’t believe the range of potential topics that parents are able to stress about. “Do these bendy legs mean my child has rickets??!”

7. Pray!

Bringing up children is hard work, and you are utterly dependent on God’s help. It may not feel like much, but to pray for new parents is actually one of the best things you can do to help. Pray that they’ll get just enough sleep to keep going. Pray that the baby will feed well and grow properly. Pray that older siblings will adjust well to the new arrival. Pray for gospel opportunities with family members, midwives & health visitors. Pray for joy in the midst of pooey nappies and midnight feeds. And pray that the new mum & dad will keep walking closely with God even though quiet times may be hard to come by and concentration spans may be limited during sermons.

Conclusion

Don’t let all that scare you or make you nervous – ultimately new mums & dads just need the same kind of loving friendship as anybody else. Know that your words and actions can make a real difference during this particularly intense season of their lives. And remember that new dads need support just as much as new mums.

Should I leave my dead end job, even if it means leaving my church too?

Somebody emailed me recently with a very important question, and I thought other people might benefit from an answer, so with permission I’m posting (a slightly paraphrased version of) the email here:

“I am currently in the midst of making a difficult decision. I think my current job isn’t really helping my career anymore. The work is boring and not very exciting. The way the company does software development just isn’t right.

The problem is that as a Christian I am part of a church in area which has really helped me grow in college and in my first year of work. If I quit this job, I might not be able to find another suitable job in the vicinity and would have to move state. I struggle with this because it feels like I’m not placing God first in my life, but at the same time I don’t think it would be helpful to remain at this job.”

Firstly, let me start by saying that I relate to this problem 100%. I know firsthand how demoralising it can be to work in a job where you feel like you are stagnating – and how this can sap all your energy in a way that affects far more than just the 9-5 that you’re actually in the office. I also know the internal struggle of wanting to put God first, and not wanting to let your career drive decisions about church rather than the other way around. This can sometimes be made even worse by the amount of guilt that well-meaning Christian friends can lay on your shoulders as they encourage you to stick in your current situation no matter what.

But secondly, let me encourage you to listen to your conscience on this one. Though it may well be right to seek a change in your circumstances (and we’ll come to that in a bit), you definitely do want to approach this in a way that seeks God’s will first, and leaving a good church should always be something that we treat very seriously and with great reluctance. This isn’t something that we need to do with a heavy heart, but a path we can embrace with joy: as Jesus said “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [that God knows you need] will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). The way of the cross often means sacrifices in the here and now – and it often will look like foolishness to the watching world, but no matter what you miss out on in this life, if it’s for the sake of obeying God, then you will not regret it in the life to come. In once sense, so what if your career languishes in the duldrums because you chose instead to commit to your church family? When Jesus returns, “those who are first will be last and the last will be first” – and all the value systems of our culture will be overthrown. I once turned down my dream job making computer games because it would have meant leaving my church and moving cities, and though it’s probably completely changed the course of my life, I don’t regret it one bit.

Thirdly though, I’m pretty sure that God doesn’t want us to be miserable just for the sake of it. Yes, he’s more concerned with our holiness than he is with our happiness, but often we’ll be much more able to serve him with enthusiasm if we’re joyful and excited about life than if we’re feeling drained and burnt out. I’d suggest seeing what work you can find in your local area that would allow you to stick at your current church – even if it’s not necessarily your dream job, you might find that just having a bit of a change helps you feel like you’re growing and learning something. And in the mean time, I’d fight to find joy and thankfulness in your current role. Make a list of the things you can be thankful for about your current job – the fact that it does allow you to be part of a great church, and conversations you’ve been able to have with colleagues about your faith, the income it’s provided, the contributions you’ve been able to make to the business and so on. Being able to choose our jobs is a luxury that has not been available to most people throughout history.

The book I’ve found really helpful in times like this is Kevin DeYoung’s “Just Do Something“. We often spend so much time fretting about “what is God’s will for my life?” and trying to find exactly the right job to choose, exactly the right path. Ultimately, God has revealed very clearly what his will is: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3) – he wants us to be holy. Pretty much anything else is up to us to choose – using the wisdom and the brain that he has given us.

I can’t tell you exactly what to do, but I would strongly encourage you to find a way to stick at your current church if you can, whilst also trying to find ways to restore the joy that you’ve lost. Maybe it means finding fulfilment in some more extra-curricular software development activities – getting stuck into an Open Source project, launching your own mobile app or web service, whatever it is that helps you feel like you’re growing (and which in turn will open up more doors for taking another job as it’s all stuff you can show on your resume). Whatever you do, if you do decide you need to move state, be doubly sure that there’s a faithful, Bible-teaching church in the area you move to before you apply for a job there.

And keep praying about it! God will lead you where he wants you if you keep trusting it to him.

Possibly the best Bible-based game ever made

Over on my Old Testament Adventure blog I wrote a review of a new David vs Goliath game by a group called “Righteous Tales”:

In “David vs Goliath”, Righteous Tales have really set the standard that all subsequent Bible-based games are going to have to live up to. It’s a genuinely fun game that really gets you beneath the surface of the Bible account and communicates the drama of the story wonderfully, including some truly memorable characters along the way.

If you’re on iOS, please buy this game so that they can make more!

STEP Scripture Tools

A few hundred yards from where I lived as a student lies Tyndale House, “a Christian community dedicated to researching all the primary evidence relevant to the study of the Bible”. They have some fantastic people based there doing all kinds of important Biblical scholarship, and more recently they have also birthed STEP: Scripture Tools for Every Person. The vision of STEP is “to equip churches in every country with the tools to study the Bible in its original languages from the best that Cambridge and international scholars have to offer” – in other words, it makes world-class Biblical scholarship and tools available completely free of charge, in a way that can be a blessing to the worldwide church.

“STEP is for everyone interested in the Bible, from those just starting to read it to those who want to dig deeper. Typing a few letters into a single box enables readers to pick a language, a Bible translation, a passage, a subject, or a word. It will work out whether readers want to find all the passages where a word or subject occurs, or if they just want to read a passage.”

They’ve just released a brand new v2.0 which looks absolutely fantastic, and you can read their press release here. I’m sure that the STEP project will be a huge blessing to many – so do spread the word!

I’ve known one of the developers, Chris Burrell, for a number of years now, and I know he’d love to hear from any Christian developers out there looking for a project to volunteer on! You can read more about opportunities to help here.

PrayerMate Useability Improvements Part 1

Do you ever get that feeling that you’ve been doing something for years, but are still only just beginning to figure out what you’re really supposed to be doing? I’ve been feeling a bit like that with PrayerMate for a while now. It’s grown considerably over the past year or so, both in terms of features and in terms of the number of people using it and the number of organisations publishing their prayer points through it (over 80 now!) One of the downsides of doing something as a side-project, and being massively overworked, is that you don’t always get to invest the amount of time as you would like just polishing the little details.

I think over the years I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by all the positive encouragement I’ve received from people about PrayerMate, when the truth is that there’s lots about it that could be better. The truth is that the positive encouragement all comes from people who have managed to figure it out and have started using it, whereas the negative feedback comes in the form of silence from the people who downloaded it, tried it once, couldn’t really figure out what it was for or how to get going with it, and then never came back to it ever again. It’s only very rarely that you get emails from those people, so it’s easy to miss just how many of them there are.

This last month or so I decided that enough was enough, and whilst my wonderful iOS beta testers have been trying out the new (as-yet-unreleased) syncing functionality, I’ve been taking a break from that brain-melting hardcore coding kind of work to tinker with the basic interface to try to improve the useability of the app, especially for brand new users. I’m still only really half-way through my list of ideas (with some of the more dramatic changes still to come!) and I haven’t yet had a chance to port these over to Android, but I thought I’d give you a little taste of what’s coming up when Apple approves the next release.

Improved onboarding process

I did a little experiment with a new onboarding process back at Easter, but for various reasons I don’t think it hasn’t proved too successful. Instead I’ve opted for more of a light touch approach. The user’s first session now starts and ends with these two pages:

useability_first_session
useability_last_page

The first page introduces some vocabulary (“My first prayer session”) and now gives a more explicit call to action (“Swipe left to start”). The last page urges people towards the key value-add action: adding your own subjects to pray for.

Revamped ‘Add subject’ process

That leads nicely onto the next big change, which is a totally revamped process for adding new subjects. Over time the subject settings page has become a slightly overwhelming and scary mess of options and features, and from the very earliest days I know people have struggled how to do even the most basic task of adding a new subject. Taking the approach that people basically want to focus on one thing at a time, PrayerMate will now hold your hand a little bit more through the process.

useability_new_subject_page

It starts off by asking you just to enter a name for your subject. I’ve observed that the majority of new users stick entirely to the default categories, so I thought I may as well make the most of that and tailor the description you see based on which of those default categories you’re adding to. So you’ll get given different instructions and example names if you’re adding family members to if you’re adding Biblical prayers, for example.

Historically there’s also been a bit of a discovery problem: people didn’t know that the feature existed to download prayers or subscribe to online feeds, so the new “Add subject” page is the perfect place to direct people towards these alternative ways of getting new content into the app.

Scheduling modes explained

When choosing the scheduling mode for a subject, you now get a very brief explanation of what each option means:

useability_scheduling_modes

Downloadable biblical prayers

Although previously there was a gallery of Bible verses that would make for good prayers, for copyright reasons I was unable to make the text of those verses available for download directly into PrayerMate. Instead it took you to BibleGateway in your browser, from where you could copy and paste into PrayerMate. For various reasons, this really sucked. Mark Strivens has donated a huge amount of time to contact various Bible publishers and has managed to secure permission for me to include extracts directly from the NET Bible translation. He’s then set it all up, so now if you want to download a Bible prayer the text is right there and you just have to hit a button to turn it into a subject in PrayerMate.

“Download all” in prayer gallery

This one was sheer laziness on my part when I first added the prayer gallery: it’s been obvious all along that there needed to be a quick way to download a whole bunch of prayers all in one go. So now if you’re a wife wanting to pray for your husband, you can open up Jen Thorn’s “Seven hard things to pray for your husband” and download all seven with the touch of a button.

useability_download_all

Much better!

Changes to how feeds work

When I first added online feeds to the app last year, I had an inkling that people would love it, but I didn’t really know what it was that I was making. As people have started using it, and as more and more organisations have come on board, it was inevitable that there would be some changes required. The Android app benefitted from this hindsight and got built properly the first time around, but now iOS is catching up. The biggest change I’ve made is that feed subjects are now scheduled just like any other kind of subject – so I could say “I want to pray for Tearfund on Wednesdays and UCCF on Mondays”, and feed subjects no longer receive priority in the way that they used to, making it a bit easier to have several subjects all in the same category.

I’ve also tweaked the lingo when you first subscribe to a feed, so that instead of confusingly saying “View prayers” it now makes it more obvious that a new subject has been created for you. There’s also a little indicator of how often a particular feed is likely to be updated (daily, weekly or monthly)

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When viewing your feed subject, I’ve also broken out the upcoming prayers into a separate “feed items” page, making the subject page a bit more manageable:

useability_feed_items_page

Action button on prayer cards

I’ve been resisting this one for years, but it seems that no matter how many ways I try to teach people, most people still don’t realise that you can press and hold on a card whilst you’re praying to open a menu of actions. If you don’t know this menu is there, the app is so much harder to use. So I’ve finally succumbed, and added an explicit button to each prayer card to open the action menu:

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More tiny tweaks

There’s plenty more tiny little tweaks here and there. One user commented that it’s a little strange that the “Archive” button should be green when it’s really kind of a negative action. So that’s now orange:

useability_archive_button

PrayerMate is done as a labour of love in my spare time, but it does cost me real money to keep it all running month by month. Would you consider making a donation towards the work? Click here for details.

Kingdom Code: Christians In Tech London Meetup

As London Technology Week kicked off on Monday, it was thrilling to see a room at the Impact Hub Westminster packed with 60 Christians from the world of technology – developers, designers, tech entrepreneurs, data geeks, IT administrators and basically just all kinds of fascinating people united by a desire to see God glorified in and through technology. I co-organised it with Rupert Edwards, CEO of Lepton, and he described one of the central themes of the evenings as being about creating a space for “divine serendipity”. One of the exciting things about the evening was that we had absolutely no idea who was going to show up (when I organised it I thought we might get 20 people – perhaps 30 at a push!) and so we worked hard to try and create ways for people to figure out who else was there and what we had in common, and how we could help and encourage one another. And what a fantastic range of folks there was! It included representatives from all sorts of fantastic Christian organisations like Scripture Union, Wycliffe Bible Translators UK and the Good Book Company, as well as the creator of the Manga Jesus – and thrilling to see that over half the room was from outside the M25, including one guy who’d heroically travelled all the way from Northern Ireland to be there!

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I opened the evening by saying there was one particular Bible verse that God had put on my heart as I thought about the event: Matthew 9:38. Jesus has just been out proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. Then he turns to his disciples, and says this:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”

We live in a world that is so lost and confused when it comes to God – and nowhere is that more obvious than on the internet! But what an incredible opportunity our modern technology gives us to get the gospel out there, and what a great responsibility we have to make the most of our gifts and our skills to use them to further the work of God’s kingdom. It was great to hear from some of the “founders” there at the event of some of the ways they were hoping to see technology used for God’s glory – but I hope also that even those who don’t think of themselves as “makers” could find encouragement to live our their lives for the glory of God in the roles in which he has put them.

I for one had a really enjoyable evening, enjoyed seeing some old friends and meeting some new ones too, and I look forward to seeing what God is able to do with the connections that were forged. We have a follow-up event planned for Monday 13th October.

How to donate to the work of PrayerMate

Developing Software is Expensive

PrayerMate Logo 1 PrayerMate is a labour of love that I work on in my spare time, but I would love to be able to build a sustainable future for it, which will require some financial support. In 2014 I spent £11,834 on development costs of which £8,382 was covered by existing donations – but the more money is raised the more time can be devoted to improving the app. Please prayerfully consider whether you might be able to make a contribution towards the work of PrayerMate using one of the two methods below:

UK Givers: Give Tax-Efficiently via Stewardship Services

If you’re a UK tax-payer then you can give via Stewardship Services, allowing you to Gift Aid your donation to make it go even further:

Anybody: Donate via PayPal

You can give via PayPal using a credit card even if you don’t have an account with them:





A Health Warning About Prayer Apps

If you’ve not come across it already, can I commend to you an excellent little book by Mike Reeves called “Enjoy Your Prayer Life“? It’s super short (genuinely! only 46 pages) so that even I managed to read it in just two sittings, but it packs so much encouragement into such a small space!

As the developer of a prayer app, there was one little chapter near the beginning that leapt out at me. Mike says this:

“It’s very easy to think and speak about prayer as if it’s some abstract exercise – one of those ‘things Christians “do”‘”

As a consequence we fall back on all sorts of tips and techniques to help us do prayer “better”:

“So, for example, you sort out a prayer diary, get a prayer list app for your phone, use Operation World, try praying out loud, and have your quiet time first thing in the morning.”

Mike says that advice like this can be helpful… “in its place”.

“However, that’s not the heart of prayer. Furthermore, if those techniques are what hold together ‘prayer’ for you, then it’s going to be a burdensome duty – or perhaps something that even veers towards magic, whereby you can get what you want by saying the right ‘spell’.”

He cites the chilling example of the Israelites in the book of Isaiah, who come near to God with their mouths but their hearts are far from him – “Thus prayer is not an abstract ‘thing to do’, for clearly you can ‘do’ prayer and get it all wrong

Yikes! That’s a serious health warning to people like me!

So what is prayer? Mike turns to John Calvin for a definition, who calls prayer “the chief exercise of faith”.

“In other words, prayer is the primary way true faith expresses itself. This also means that prayerlessness is practical atheism, demonstrating a lack of belief in God.”

So if you’re a fan of apps like PrayerMate, then good! But take heed:

WARNING! Regular use of this app does not guarantee good standing before God

Using submodules in Cocoapods sourced from Git

I’ve been banging my head against a brick wall for a few hours now on this, so I thought I’d post this for the benefit of anybody else searching:

If you are using the wonderful Cocoapods in an iOS project you’re developing, and you make one of your Pods load directly from a Git repository (perhaps GitHub) then there’s a little gotcha to be aware of: if the Podspec includes :submodules => true in the source section then it is necessary to manually add that to your Podfile too.

In my case, I’m hacking on my own version of the Bypass-ios Pod, so I had tried adding this line to my Podfile:
pod 'Bypass', :git => "git@github.com:andygeers/bypass-ios.git"

However, that was missing a few files from a submodule, causing compile errors like this:
'element.h' file not found

It feels a bit cumbersome, but instead it is necessary to write the Podfile like this:
pod 'Bypass', :git => "git@github.com:andygeers/bypass-ios.git", :submodules => true

Announcement: Christian Developers & Designers Meetup

For a while I’ve been planning on organising a meetup for Christians in software / IT and graphic designers. If you’d be interested, join the mailing list and I’ll let you know as details firm up.

The basic idea is this: it’ll be a week night in early June, and not on a Wednesday. It’ll be in London somewhere at the Impact Hub Westminster.

Update: we now have a date, Monday 16th June, a venue, and a page on Eventbrite, so sign up there.

Who am I?

I’m a Christian software developer, behind the PrayerMate app. By day I work for Hubbub.co.uk. Also involved in organising is Rupert Edwards, CEO of Lepton, the Christian generosity app.

PrayerMate’s new onboarding process

I’ve been reading the fantastic User Onboarding website a lot lately, and it’s really got me thinking about the initial experience that PrayerMate users have. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people find it quite hard to get over that initial hump of adding all of their prayer points, and until you do, there’s very little to ever bring you back to the app. The result is that the number of active users has never grown nearly as quickly as the number of downloads.

With today’s update to the iOS app, hopefully that’s all about to change. There’s now an official “onboarding” process for new users:

Step 1: An explanation

For people who have already used paper prayer lists, the concept of PrayerMate is pretty self-explanatory. But if you’re completely new to the whole idea, it can be a bit hard to get your head around. So step one is simply to explain what on earth PrayerMate is for:

iOS Simulator Screen shot 7 Apr 2014 12.13.55

Steps 2 and 3: Creating some initial data

If you can get even a couple of your friends and family into the app, then immediately you’ll be a lot more engaged and find the app more useful. So I’ve added a couple of intro steps that encourage you to type in just a few names under two of the default categories:

iOS Simulator Screen shot 7 Apr 2014 12.14.12

There’s still plenty of room for improvement in the future here, but hopefully this’ll just take the edge off the first run experience and help people grasp the basic concepts of the app a little quicker.

Pray for the World With PrayerMate

Prayer is one aspect of the Christian life that very often leaves us feeling guilty. We know we don’t pray often enough, and we probably like like we don’t pray widely enough either.

Three years ago I set out to see what I could do to help in this important area. As a software developer, it’s perhaps not surprising that my thoughts turned to ways in which the new crop of mobile devices such as the iPhone & tablet devices could be employed to improve our prayer life. Hence the PrayerMate app was born. By God’s grace it’s come a long way since then, with a host of new features, being downloaded over 17,000 times, being named runner up in the Christian New Media Awards 2013, a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund development of the Android version, and now being sponsored by the Diocese of London as part of their “Pray for Seven” initiative, allowing the app to be offered free of charge to users. Most importantly, it seems to have really been a blessing to many in their desire to pray more – for which I give thanks to God!

An EPIC Android update

screenshot_feeds Today I am thrilled to announce the next step forward in PrayerMate’s mission to help people pray. Firstly, there’s a HUGE update to the Android version of the app, adding a whole range of features that were previously only available to iOS users. In particular, you can now subscribe to regular prayer updates from over 60 mission organisations and charities, including the likes of Open Doors UK and Australia, UCCF The Christian Unions, London City Mission, the Mothers’ Union, Pioneers, NZCMS, Crosslinks, FIEC, Church Society, Wycliffe Bible Translators UK and USA and many many more. The full list is available here. If you represent a church or charity and would like to see your prayer points added to PrayerMate, I’ve added a little guide here.

Other new features include the ability to archive prayer points you no longer want to pray for and better support for tablet devices. You can also attach any PDF prayer letters that you receive in your email inbox to your subjects, giving you that little extra help to know how to pray for people. Just “Share” your document with PrayerMate, and it’ll let you choose or create a subject to attach it to.

Operation World

operation_world But that wasn’t nearly enough – not wanting iOS users to feel left out, I’ve also got one brand new prayer feed on both platforms that I am bursting with excitement about: you can now get the Operation World country for the day through PrayerMate – completely free of charge! If you’ve not come across it, Operation World is a truly fantastic resource brimming with information on every country in the world and how to pray for it. The country of the day feed is a great way to help you pray for our world, which is something I’m sure we all want to be doing. In time I hope to add individual countries to the prayer gallery too, so that if you have a heart for a particular country you can access prayer points on that too, but that may take a little longer.

Truth be told, I won’t be totally happy until I’ve persuaded Banner of Truth to let me get some prayers from the Valley of Vision into PrayerMate, but one step at a time, right?! Of course, you could always sign the petition to lend a helping hand to my cause.

One more thing…

Oh, and one more thing… I’ve also quietly been working on adding syncing to the iOS version of the app, for those of you with multiple devices. It’s not quite ready for general release yet, but if you’d like to be a beta tester then get in touch and I’ll let you get a sneak preview.

Tell the world

I hope you enjoy these new features. Do tell all your friends to download the app (remember, it’s totally free thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Diocese of London!) and feel free to hit the “Send feedback” button inside the app any time you like if you have problems, questions or suggestions for how to make the app even better. If you’ve not joined the mailing list yet then that’s a great way to keep up to date with the latest news and tips – I tend to post no more than once a month.

Above all, keep praying.

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Get the world praying for your organisation with PrayerMate

PrayerMate Logo 1 Users of the free PrayerMate mobile app on iOS and Android can enter all of their personal prayer points for friends and family, but they can also subscribe to online feeds from over 100 mission organisations and churches.

If you represent a church or charity and want to get involved, there are three options:

Option 1: Sign up to the PrayerMate Publishing Platform

By far and away the best option that will give you the nicest user experience is to sign up for an account on the PrayerMate Publishing Platform. You can schedule prayer points one by one, upload a spreadsheet to do it in bulk, or use the super-clever “Quick import” feature to let you schedule prayer points by copying and pasting from an existing source like a weekly church bulletin or a PDF. It can even tweet your prayer points for you each day or post them to Facebook. Once you’ve created your prayer diary, you’ll then be given a private URL / QR code that you can use to subscribe in the app to preview your prayer points and check it’s set up exactly how you want it, and you can then ask to be added to the public feed gallery too once you’re happy.

Option 2: Use an existing iCal feed

If you are already publishing your prayer points in an existing Google Calendar or other system that can produce “iCal” feeds, then you might decide you don’t want the overhead of also maintaining them in a separate system. That’s no problem – iCal feeds can be integrated directly into the PrayerMate system with no additional ongoing admin required. When you’re in the mobile app, there’s a page where you can submit details of your organisation and request to be added to the prayer gallery – use this and simply send me a link to your iCal feed, a bit of blurb about your organisation and a logo image (ideally, a square one). It probably works best if they’re all-day events with a title. If you also use the notes field then please mention this when you get in touch.

Option 3: Use an existing RSS feed

If you already have your prayer points in an RSS feed, the PrayerMate system can also use these, although it’s not as ideal as a calendar. Again, hit the button in the app to submit details of your feed, along with blurb about who you are, your website, etc. and a link to the feed.

How much does it cost?

Now that PrayerMate is a free app for users to download, my main source of financial income to support the flourishing of PrayerMate is from organisations who are represented within the feed gallery. The PrayerMate publishing platform has packages to suit different kinds of organisations – with a £5 per month package for medium sized churches and a £20 per month package for larger organisations. There’s plenty of flexibility in this if the prices put you off, but the income helps make a better app which in turn hopefully leads to more people using it to pray. For the iCal / RSS route, there’s a one-off £25 setup fee – though you’re welcome to donate more if you want to help me continue developing the app!

Pray for Seven

Today I am pleased to announce a new PrayerMate sponsor, the Diocese of London. As part of their “Capital Vision 2020″ programme, the Diocese is encouraging people to commit to praying regularly for seven people, for an opportunity to share the story of our faith. PrayerMate seemed like such a good fit as something that could help people in this that it seemed like a great opportunity.

Thanks to the Diocese’s sponsorship, PrayerMate will continue to be available free of charge until the end of June 2014.

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