Collateral damage.

Generally, by the time iOS beta 3 or 4 rolls out, I can’t help myself and throw it on my carry phone. But I haven’t had time to play this summer. It’s been a particularly busy few months and I needed to make sure my primary phone was as stable as it could be. As such, I’ve been pining away to play with the new Notes app that Apple debuted at WWDC this June. It looks like a tremendous update to one of the built-in apps that could actually change the way I currently use my devices. I’m not alone in these sentiments; I know many other folks in the tech space who are begrudgingly admitting that it’s pretty cool.

Since I’ve been keeping my devices as standard as possible too, I’ve been using Notes between OS X and iOS, even in its current form. I’ve found it to be a useful scratch pad and short-term landing area for little bits of text that don’t even merit creating a new .txt and saving somewhere. And they do sync between devices pretty well (for the most part).

On Wednesday, I’m excited to finally update my devices to iOS 9 and get all the cool stuff I’ve been hearing about, like any other normal user. But something occurred to me yesterday.

When I update my mobile devices, El Capitan is still two weeks away from shipping. Which means that my workflow breaks. If I didn’t have the foresight to think about the disparity in ship dates and extrapolate that one extra step, I’d have been caught scratching my head on Wednesday afternoon as I update and keep working through my day. Like any other normal user.

This isn’t good. For me, or for anyone. But sadly it’s become the norm. Marketing pressure and ship dates trump user experience more and more. Working in software, I understand a great deal more than the average person about how this process takes place and how you don’t always get to make the decisions you want to about the fate of your users when external pressures start exerting force on the business. I know that releasing both mobile and desktop OS updates in the same day is insanity, and I wouldn’t expect that. I know that two dedicated groups of people, working hard to ensure they hit their dates have made every effort they possibly can to make my experience a good one. I know that with the advancements in both operating systems, no decision–no matter how small–is a simple one.

But I’m the end user. It shouldn’t have to matter to me, and it’s not my problem. However, it’s become my problem. What if I don’t want to upgrade to 10.11? What if I can’t? What if my laptop is company-issued and there are no immediate plans to upgrade the OS? My stuff is broken, and I get a big shrug from the company to which I trusted my data. (Which of course, is a much more nuanced and complicated discussion for another time.)

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Apple did this last year with the transition to iCloud Drive. It caused more than a little confusion for both users and developers. But this isn’t just an Apple thing either. Many companies are breaking implicit promises with their users to further push their products into the future, and leaving confusion and doubt in place of a feeling of consistency as people use these products. Apple, of course, has the momentum to carry it forward, and we’ll all forget about this, the way we mostly did when Yosemite shipped and the iCloud Drive transition wasn’t such a big deal anymore. And I fully realize that writing this much because my notes stop syncing (temporarily) seems like absolute overkill. But I spend a lot of my time trying to come up with creative solutions for users so people enjoy the software we produce. I try to solve problems so they don’t have to. It’s the right thing to do. Tim Cook from WWDC 2014:

Apple engineers platforms, devices, and services together. We do this so that we can create a seamless experience for our users that is unparalleled in the industry. This is something only Apple can do.

Software updates have always been risky. I’ve been using computers since I was about five years old, and I know this. I understand it at a level most people don’t. But at this point, with the way software has reshaped our lives, I shouldn’t have to. It’s disappointing that even a company like Apple, so proud of its experiences across hardware and software and delivering the best to its users still falters on these kinds of things. This’ll all blow over. I know that. But it’s a troubling trend, and I don’t have to like it.


PS: It was pointed out to me that iCloud.com will sync/display Notes after the iOS 9 transition. Given the state of the site as an afterthought in almost everything Apple does, I’m not surprised it didn’t occur to me. This will certainly suffice in the time between upgrades, but I wouldn’t have immediately thought about it if someone didn’t point it out. And considering any regular user of iOS probably doesn’t even know that iCloud.com exists as a destination, neither will they.

Quick tips on using apps with Apple Watch.

In using the Apple Watch for a few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out the best patterns and methods of usage for my life, and how it fits in. I definitely enjoy the device and while I’ve seen people decry it as a superfluous bauble, I’m convinced of the variety of ways in which it can provide simple support on a day-to-day basis. I think it’s extremely important to think about the device in this way–as a support system for small tasks, not a replacement for your primary input, which for most of us is our iPhone.

There’s no shortage of writing on the Watch, and I’ve been thinking about what I want to say about it. I’ve decided (for now) to keep it as pragmatic as possible, since the market on breathless analysis is pretty much tied up. Not that I had much anyway. I’m exhausted with the state of technology coverage on the web right now, and I’m avoiding much of it in favor of exploring some other interests I’ve been neglecting. But I’ll share some things I’ve figured out because I think they’re useful. Maybe you’ll find them useful too.

Get to apps more quickly
Given that the Watch’s navigation is so different from iOS proper, I wanted to find ways to maximize efficiency in moving around the UI. A lot of people seem to feel that glances are the way to go, so you can peek into an app and then tap to jump directly to it, but I’ve found that glances take time to load and I don’t like the horizontal structure they employ once you start using more than four or five. So I’ve limited my glances to only three: Now Playing, Workflow, and the non-removable Settings. Instead, I’ve clustered my most-used apps around one another so that they are all easily tappable without scrolling the magnetic ball-pit that is the Watch’s Springboard equivalent. I found that even when the icons are in a partially-shrunken state, they are still tappable, which makes that first view when you press the Digital Crown so important.

Crown press, one tap, into an app. About as difficult as opening a folder to launch an app on your phone. I know where things are, and I don’t have to wait for a potentially finicky glance view to load first. Glances remain for quick access to infrequent actions.

Create an arrangement that snaps quickly
Although you can arrange the apps on your Watch in a variety of ways, I’ve found that quickly zipping up or down with a swipe is a very easy gesture to pull off. I’ve put a few apps that are less-used but require quick access at the very top and bottom of the arrangement. So when I swipe quickly up or down, the arrangement zips to that point and sticks. I have Workflow at the top and the Apple Remote app at the bottom.

Speaking of your arrangement, make it fit the display effectively
Since the Watch is a vertical screen, and since you can actively tap icons that are in a partially shrunken state, keep the width of your app arrangement tight to the width of the display. You can see here, how the overall number of apps I’m displaying varies between three and four, but doesn’t exceed that, so I only have to move in two directions to see everything (up and down). Once you get used to limiting the dimensions in which you need to move to see things on the tiny screen, actions and choices get smoother and easier.

BONUS ROUND: Flip the body, save the world
The second I put the Watch on, I knew that the Digital Crown would not be comfortable for me in its top right position. I immediately detached the band, flipped the body, and reoriented the UI with the DC on the bottom, and the side button on top. Pressing these with your thumb (if you wear your Watch on the left hand) and anchoring with your index finger is way better. YMMV.

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.