Epiphanies.

Part 1, Discovering Time Where There Was None

I guess it started around the time iOS 8 came out.

I knew I was going to get a new iPhone a few days later, so when I restored and updated my iPhone 5 (I didn’t buy the 5s, so this was to be a big upgrade) to the production version of iOS 8, I purposely decided to keep my app count light. I saw no reason to spend a ton of time reinstalling everything and logging back in to a bunch of accounts. I never restore from backups, always doing clean installs, and while I have my process down to near-science, it still does take at least a little while. Then there’s the week afterward in which you discover all the little tweaks and settings adjustments you forgot to do on day one. But I was skipping all that. Keeping it simple. On Friday, I’d have a new phone and I could go nuts then.

But Friday came and went, and I didn’t have my new phone. I didn’t get up in the middle of the night to upgrade because I usually manage to get one at our local Apple Store on launch day. Not the case this year. I wanted a 6 Plus, and they only receieved a handful, selling through them almost immediately. I’d have to wait, or order one at this point, and bear the interminable 3–4 weeks of shipping/tracking number-hounding misery that would follow. No, I’d take my chances with the store. I’ll grab one eventually, hopefully within a few days. I was certain. How long could it be?

As of this post (9/30), I’m still waiting. It’s cool. I’ve made my peace with it.

I continued to use my iPhone 5, trusty warrior that it is. I installed only the most necessary of apps to do my day-to-day work. No games, no fluff, nothing extraneous. My home screen was a mere handful of apps, mostly default iOS, and a few third party favorites. I stuck the rest (bank, credit card, other necessities) in a folder and I was done. Signing into everything took me less than a half hour, and I was fully functional. I wasn’t fiddling with a litany of URL schemes and settings, constantly checking the App Store to see if I had any updates (no, I don’t do automatic updates, I’m old-fashioned and like to see what I’m installing before I do), or doing any of the million other time-wasty things I would ordinarily do with my phone to kill a few minutes dozens of times throughout the day.

I discovered something unexpected: I was picking up and using my phone in short bursts to catch up on the stuff that seemed worth catching up on, and then putting my phone down. Or I was chipping away at the tons of good content I’d saved in Pocket and then doing something else. Namely, spending time looking around at other things: my kid, my wife, trees, other people, etc. Earlier in the summer I’d read this post on using a distraction-free phone and while I enjoyed it, I had a very “great story, but not for me” kind of reaction. Yet here I was, unknowingly backed into just such an experiment by the simple fact that it was new iPhone season and I was just stuck waiting for the specific model I wanted. I didn’t go as far as the author of the post did, but it was far-removed from the way I have always used my phone.

It’s been almost two weeks at this point, and I don’t miss most of the apps I used to have on my phone at all. There are definitely a few that I’ll put on the new phone that aren’t on the current one, but I think I’ve turned a corner in how I think about this always-present, always-beckoning device. I can’t say it’ll last forever. Hell, this might all be over when I finally get that glorious giant glass beast that’s just out of my reach. But I think I’ll try to keep this up. I truly feel a change internally, on some tangible emotional level that was not only unexpected, but that I welcomed as it became revealed to me, which speaks volumes about how I felt before without realizing it. My phone remains my digital Swiss Army knife, but like the multitools that I love, I only take them out when I need them–I don’t play with them all day long, looking for reasons to use them.

Part 2, Changing Habits and Revealing New Things

I’ve always loved third-party apps on iOS. They can offer things that the stock apps simply can’t, for a variety of reasons, and the freedom of interface design and variety of different takes on the same problem always excited me. In some cases, I’ve even been resistant to use the default/first party offerings both on the phone and from various services because of some real or perceived weaknesses or flaws that I had identified. A great example of this phenomenon is how I think about Twitter.

I was a huge Tweetie fan from the start. That app was the perfect blend of simplicity and functionality, and pioneered some UI conventions that we now take for granted. Twitter is something I do every day, and I’ve enjoyed and used most of the apps on iOS over the years, settling on a few favorites, namely Twitteriffic and Tweetbot. I love them both for different reasons, just as you wouldn’t love one child over another. And that may seem like an asinine thing to say about Twitter clients, but I think a lot of you will just nod and move on anyway, so let’s leave it at that.

Twitter acquired Tweetie back in the spring of 2010. It proceeded to make some minor changes to the interface, along with a series of poor decisions, most notably this one. Overall, I lost any interest I had in the app itself, as what I wanted from the app and what Twitter wanted me to want seemed to be on divergent paths. Ads in my timeline? Heresy. Favorites made public? Balderdash. Twitter making choices for me that I should be making myself about what I see and how and when? Good DAY, sir! I exclusively used third party apps, even as they came under fire at various times from the company, as the business moved forward and choices were made to keep the experience focused on user acquisition and marketing. The nerd circles I travel in all agreed; the official app wasn’t worth even considering. Indie devs could always do a better job. I accepted this without contest, it was written, it was true.

Recently I noticed several of my friends both in real life and on the internet using the app, and this weekend I finally posed the question. It spawned a lively discussion that revealed to me quite a few things of which I wasn’t aware. I had a ton of great feedback from all kinds of users and decided to put the app on my phone again (it’s not installed by default, but if you sign into your account in Settings, it asks you to download it so it’s pretty close). What happened next surprised me.

Giving myself over to the new experience, I surrendered my preconceived notions about how Twitter was supposed to work. My timeline–which had gone from a place I loved to be to another number to clear–became a shallow pool of information that I chose to dip in and out of without consequence. My timelines stopped syncing, which meant I stopped caring about seeing every tweet coming in. Even the things I thought I would despise–the Discover tab, the promoted tweets–don’t bother me at all, and in some cases provide a new way of looking at a tool that I’ve been using every day for the past six years. My eyes are open differently to how I process and interact with this information, and that has, in turn, forced me to reexamine a lot of other things I’m doing.

Shifting perspective can be invigorating, it can be upsetting, and it can be net neutral. I pride myself on trying new things and gaining the lay of the land accurately, but in truth, I was actively avoiding keeping my mind open to the possibilities that there was something out there I hadn’t seen–or more importantly, that I would like something I was sure I wouldn’t. Along with revisiting a simpler phone setup and some of the simpler stock apps, this process is re-shaping the way I think about what I’m doing, and what other normal people (i.e. potential customers who may one day buy a product I release) do and want from their devices as well. I may not stick with the app long-term, but it’s been an extremely valuable exercise.

It’s worth reminding myself that no matter how perfectly architected the things in my life may feel, there’s something to be gained by breaking them down and starting over. I’ll be doing my best to keep this thought close to the front of my mind.

The freedom of a captured moment.

I’ve been a musician since I was in fourth grade and was handed a violin. It’s always been a part of who I am and how I think about myself. I taught myself to play guitar, bass, and later drums because I was curious and had the time and willingness to learn. During my college years and the years immediately afterward, I spent a great deal of time writing, recording, and performing music. For a lot of reasons (avoidable post-adolescent turmoil chief among them, I’m sure), it was a primary focus in my life. 

As I’ve grown older and taken on more responsibilities, a home, a family, and a demanding career, I find less time to play than I used to. I enjoy it just as much, and try to keep my chops up, but the fact of the matter is that I simply don’t have the time to sit for a few hours and work through ideas in the same way I did when I was 25. I’m ok with this, mind you–I love my family and everything that’s changed in my life for the better–but time is still working against me.

I often find myself feeling really guilty about this. I tell myself that my spare time should be spent working those muscles out, staying in shape. But maybe I just want to read. Or play a video game for a few minutes. Or just stare off into space and breathe, whatever. I feel like I should be playing music more. But when I try to unpack that, I guess it means going into my studio, working on songs, recording them, mixing, polishing, and having an end-product. That’s what I feel guilty about–that it should all be leading somewhere.

What I’ve finally realized is that this comes down to nothing more than a miscommunication from my 25-year old brain to my current one. Back then, I had time to play for pleasure, but I had lots of time to work, too. I could spend four hours in front of Pro Tools because I had four hours to spend. Now, I sit down to play, find a few chords that I like together, capture them in whatever tool I’m using on my iPhone at the time, and probably never return to them. They’re saved, but presumably only to be revisited in a cursory way at best, and for a moment, like lazily flipping through snapshots.

Here’s the big epiphany for me, though: this is totally ok. I’m sketching in a notebook, little doodles here and there, sitting for a minute and drawing something in my field of vision. I’m not painting the Sistine Chapel, or drafting the Constitution. I’m sketching. Not consciously setting out to make a thing, just… sketches. Polaroids, not elaborately framed and time-lapsed landscapes. 

I keep notes, folders, files of all these little ideas. I listen to them from time to time. I like them all in some way. They needn’t grow into anything more, just the way your idle circles traced on the back of an envelope while you’re waiting on the phone don’t need to grow into a full art installation. It’s a moment, depicted in aural brush strokes, captured and stored. The weight of the activity is gone, only the pleasure of creating remains. I can’t believe it took me so long to see it. And I can’t wait to enjoy those fleeting moments with my guitar a little more now, without a second thought.

Doing it right.

The technologies introduced at this year’s WWDC have gotten the development community extremely excited about the potential to extend iOS in previously unavailable ways. To me, one of the most interesting parts of these new advancements is the creation of a Touch ID API for developers. In its current implementation, Touch ID is somewhat limited and many users report inconsistency issues with the technology. But if the accuracy improves (likely after a year of further development, and reports from iOS 8 beta users are anecdotally positive) and developers capitalize on the ability to easily validate user identity, a lot of new uses come to mind. One of the most interesting and potentially useful so far has been the 1Password extension created by AgileBits, which allows 3rd-party app developers to build support in their apps for the 1Password app to fill login fields and access other secure data using a fingerprint.

There’s another interesting part of the expansion of Touch ID, though. If Apple continues to add it to new devices–which it almost certainly will as the increased sapphire glass production necessary to support the hardware gets up to speed–then the company finds itself in a unique position as the prevalence of users with Apple IDs tied to credit cards grows. Mobile “wallets” have been slow to gain acceptance in the mainstream for a variety of reasons (primarily limited mobile hardware support and expensive POS hardware required on the part of the retailers). Apple is known for making big moves and strategic partnerships with a lot of cachet that it can laud at its press events and keynotes. A few of those key partnerships could easily drive awareness of mobile payments for retail purchases firmly into the mind of the mainstream user, instead of languishing on the bleeding edge. Many retailers already have some kind of iPhone/mobile integration in place, but the last mile–the actual payment–is still primarily a manual affair. Programs exist for users to pre-load loyalty cards in advance (e.g. Starbucks) but the trick is going to be transforming this process from one requiring proactive steps to one that is reactive at the moment of purchase, while appearing seamless to the typical user, who will tolerate far less than tech fans when it comes to exploring these kinds of things.

The iPhone was the breakthrough device to sell the notion and utility of the smartphone to the general public. It’s the most popular type of camera on Flickr and presumably among many segments of the population. Apple commands interest in the public consciousness in a way that few other companies can. It’s traditionally had a focus on platform security with iOS, which it leverages as a selling point against other mobile platforms, most notably Android, and it continues to trumpet privacy and security in consumer-focused materials and media. While that’s a great story in and of itself for many of us, the seed of something larger gets planted: Apple is secure, iOS is secure, my iPhone is safe, hence I am safe. When security ceases to be something people need to think about and is easy, obvious, and ubiquitous, resistance to new ways of doing things will evaporate. While there are all kinds of phones with some level of this functionality right now, the iPhone is probably the only single consumer hardware device positioned to do this effectively any time soon.

The notion of the Apple ID as a payment mechanism for non-iTunes content is an idea that’s been tossed around for a while. None of this is news to anyone. Whenever Apple finally decides to announce that you can use your Apple ID for more than just iTunes purchases by simply accessing Touch ID when you’re in your favorite retail stores, tons of people will claim to have been predicting it for years. Widespread acceptance won’t be far behind. Critics will bemoan the fact that other phones and platforms did it first, but as with Apple’s previous innovations, the key to success wasn’t being first, it was doing it right. It’s the combination of cultural penetration and acceptance along with a longtime and public focus on security at a critical time in society that ensures that people won’t dismiss it as a gimmick. The utility will become infectious as people see their friends using the technology, and Touch ID will probably become as ubiquitous as the camera in your phone is now.

I think your thumb is about to become your favorite finger.

A user interface is not like a joke.

In the past week or so, I’ve noticed this sentiment, passed around in various tweets by a bunch of people:

“A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.”

While I understand the point of the comment, and agree with its overall intent, to summarily declare this platitude as true discredits innovation and the learning process that we all submit to as human beings willing to try new experiences.

A UI is a tool; it’s a method for interacting with a software application, the same way a hammer is a method for interacting with nails and wood. If you put a hammer in the hand of someone who has literally never seen it before (I know, stay with me here), is that person going to automatically know how to use it to its greatest efficiency with zero instruction provided? Perhaps he or she can figure out that the heavy end should be swung at something, but it might be important to mention that you don’t want to have your fingers in the way when you do. How should the nail be held so that it’s inserted at the right angle and binds the wood properly? What happens if you hammer the nail sideways? What the hell are these claws on the back for (or this little round ball thing)? Throughout our life, as we engage in new experiences, in so many cases, someone or something is there to help us understand as we learn. It’s a natural phenomenon.

No matter how simple you think something is or ought to be, human beings will benefit from guidance. There’s a big difference between showing someone how to create a task in an app like Clear and how to navigate the byzantine menu bars of Excel. Both require explanation, but many would argue that one UI is superior to the other. What about the UI for a machine that performs laser surgery on internal organs? Should that be so elegantly designed that it can be just “figured out” without an instruction manual? Wouldn’t you prefer to know that the person who’s shooting a laser into you didn’t only rely on his/her own intuition to ensure that the operation is a success?

It’s a good tweet, and it’s a good idea in a lot of ways. But explaining something new to someone isn’t always a bad thing. Yes, there are thousands of horrible UIs to which this sentiment can apply. Talk to anyone who uses enterprise software on a regular basis. But don’t be afraid to help your user learn how to best use your app. You can build plenty of delightful touches in as well that can be uncovered through normal use. If you want to ensure success for your users, give them the tools to understand and achieve that.

The sickness of efficiency.

I suffer from a strange affliction that I’ve lived with for some time now. I’ve spoken to others in my circles and I take some solace in knowing they share either symptoms of it, or experience it full-blown. It’s a sneaky sickness that manifests itself in an all-consuming urge to deconstruct patterns, methods, and expectations in my life in a constantly self-doubting and brutally examined way.

I am, of course, referring to my addiction to task management applications.

We joke about it, those of us who know. Here’s a new one, anyone tried it yet? I’m back on Reminders (again). Screw Reminders. When is the update for [App] coming out? This doesn’t do custom repeating alerts? (Do I need custom repeating alerts?) YO GUYS you can totally hook up Drafts/Launch Center Pro/etc. to grab stuff and pass it in. Swoon. I’m always looking at, trying, evaluating, and otherwise just exploring the landscape. Sometimes that exploration leads me back down familiar roads.

Yesterday I re-re-re-downloaded OmniFocus again and dumped all my things into it. I do this every summer, it seems, although the constant tinkering is a year-long battle. I keep as much of this from my family as possible, for I fear they’d stage an intervention for this behavior as clinically speaking, I’m sure there’s a buried DSM-5 classification for it, or at least some heading under which it could be placed. So I’m finally going to try to break this into what I believe to be its component parts to try to understand why I’m this way as a person, why I’m forever chasing the last high of streamlining data input and retrieval for things as complicated as multi-stage projects and as mundane as taking out my trash on the right day.

I see the never-ending shift between these apps as an interplay between the following things I’ve identified in myself:

  1. An inherent need, despite the fact that something may be working, to explore, experiment, and generally try different kinds of software and see new ways to solve similar problems
  2. A desire to change the UI of whatever it is I’m using since I spend so much time in it every day that I tire of it, notice its shortcomings, etc.
  3. An internal nagging to always be assessing the state of my workflows and methods to determine if they are actually the best possible ways to do my work
  4. An ever-present doubt, that coupled with item 3 insists that I’m missing steps, forgetting things, dropping threads (which is sometimes manufactured and sometimes very real)

So let’s break these down. I’m not talking about specific apps from here on out, because it’s utterly irrelevant in the math here.

  1. I help to design and develop software almost every single day that I’m awake. On weekends, I download and try things, help friends with interface questions, find bugs, and generally fool around with personal projects if time permits. I know that there exists in my life a finite set of productivity problems that I need to solve for, and sometimes the thing that sets my mind off in a new direction actually helps me think about something else unrelated to what it is I’m focused on at the moment. If I never tried new software, I wouldn’t see how other people solve for the same problems, just the same way that you don’t get a pizza from one place and never eat another slice anywhere else. Life would be so boring without that kind of exploration, no matter how simple.

  2. I’m a super-visual person. I need to see things in front of me to make sense of them. I have a really hard time with audiobooks because my mind will wander and I’ll lose the story for my own thoughts and so read on my Kindle instead. My eyes are the way into my brain and my brain tells the rest of me how to feel about things. There are certain aspects of my daily experiences that I simply can’t change (easily–I know I could hack just about anything if I wanted to). The look of the operating system can’t really change. The interface of Mail is what it is. The Finder is windows and lists, and it’s fine. I don’t need those things to be different, because they’re all tools like my garden hose–I use them, I move away from them. I don’t care how my hose looks, I just want water to come out in varying degrees of force when I turn it on. I don’t need Finder to blow my mind, I need it to move my files around the same way, every time. But since I can easily change the look and function of my task lists, I’m tempted to do so and offered the opportunity almost every week. It’s an embarrassment of nerd riches. As I continue to design interfaces, I notice things I like in apps and things I really don’t, and they help me make better decisions in the work that I do. It’s valuable to me to keep my eyes fresh, and task apps are a weird, easy way to do that without a ton of disruption in my life.

  3. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a problem with keeping things the same for too long. I would endlessly rearrange my bedroom furniture, often in the middle of the night without my parents knowing. They’d wake up and see a completely different room than the night before. I had a limited kid-bedroom canvas to work with, and I was always looking to maximize the space I had to move around as well as the storage and access of all my stuff. This is but one example of this kind of behavior. As an adult, I don’t have the time or energy to move furniture all the time (and my wife would likely divorce me should I decide to make this a focus in my life again), but I look for other small efficiencies in my life that I can optimize. Rearranging the silverware drawer to gain access to the stuff we use the most. Same for the kitchen cabinets, putting things within reach and moving other things further away. The garage. My desk at work. My car. Shall I go on? Anywhere I see a repeatable task or a friction, I find a way to make it perfect (or as perfect as it can be within the limits of reality).

  4. This one’s the toughest. The fact of the matter is that I get everything done that I’m supposed to. I’m pretty good at it. I base everything against dates, and I’m brutally honest with myself about when things need to be accomplished. A former procrastinator in my youth (in stark contrast to what I just revealed in the above paragraph), as I got older, I realized that honesty and planning are better for me mentally than avoidance. However, I do capture things without dates, or without an immediate need. And they sometimes linger, or I forget about them. Sometimes it’s fine, and they never really needed to get done in the first place, and sometimes it’s dinner with a friend from six months ago and I’m a horrible person and let’s finally finally get together sorry man. Some of this dropping creates doubt in my systems and nudges me into new directions. Some of it is completely true and I find I’m not managing things as well as I think I’d like to–with little ill effect, other than a desire to improve as a person. But it’s there. Real or not, the thoughts are there and they need to be addressed.

All this considered, it’s worth noting that when I’ve got a lot to do, and people are depending on me, I don’t mess around with my system. I focus, get my stuff finished, and move on. I’m not a monster, after all. Work is work, and all this fiddling doesn’t matter at all when things are on the line. And I haven’t touched on it, but I absolutely, unequivocally realize the irony in wasting time trying out productivity software. Some people take it to extremes, and it just becomes farcical.

The last point I’ll make is that if I’m being honest, I have to say that my needs sometimes actually do change too. I might use Reminders between iOS and OS X and it’ll be just perfect for a few weeks or months, but then I realize that I actually do need a feature it doesn’t support for something. And not a manufactured need, but a real, honest-to-goodness need. It might even be a temporary need, but once I recognize it, it starts me thinking and the machine spins up all over again. Then I wrestle with some feelings–truly–about how and why I am the way I am. Why can’t I just leave well enough alone? What am I hoping to gain by engaging in this activity for the third time this month? I’ve become comfortable with my shortcomings, real, perceived, or otherwise and I just want to do good work. If a little dicking around with tasks makes me feel better and isn’t hurting anyone (and I’m still actually doing the things I need to), I guess I’m fine with it. I could have worse habits, I suppose.

But when time permits, and my mind wanders, or my eye tires, or the little kid in me really wants to move his bed and dresser again because maybe, just maybe he could fit some more stuff in here somehow… now I just open the App Store. It’s a wonderful time to be a lover of software, and we often forget just how great things are.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some data entry to do. Again.