is user interface design getting worse?

Hey everybody, sorry for the radio silence — I’ve been traveling, and will be traveling again soon, so I can’t promise regular posting for a while. But I’m hoping to get a few thoughts up here, starting with this: 
I’ve read two recent posts about computer interface design that really have me thinking. The first is this reflection by Riccardo Mori about using a first-generation iPad. Mori discovers that that original Apple tablet, despite its significant limitations in processing power in comparison to today’s machines, still works remarkably well. But he also, and this is the really interesting part, decides that some of the design choices made eight years ago (the first iPad came out in 2010) are actually superior to the ones being made today. This is true to a minor degree even with regard to the hardware — Mori finds the iPad 1 more pleasurable to hold than some later models, despite its greater weight and thickness — but he thinks that the design language of iOS 5, the last version of iOS that the original iPad can use, is in certain respects simply superior to the new language introduced in iOS 7 and largely persisting, though with some modifications, today.

when it comes to visuals it’s ultimately a matter of personal taste, but one thing iOS’s user interface possessed before iOS 7’s flattening treatment was consistence and more robust, coherent, stricter interface guidelines. Guidelines that were followed by third-party developers more closely, and the result was that under iOS 6 and earlier versions, third-party apps presented a user interface that was cleaner, more predictable, easier to navigate than what came afterwards, update after update. After iOS’s UI got flatter, when it came to designing apps, things got out of hand, in an ‘anything goes’ fashion.
There are apps today with poor discoverability, ambiguous controls, UI elements whose state or function isn’t immediately clear — i.e. you cannot tell whether they’re tappable or not simply by looking at them; whereas before iOS 7, a button looked like a button right away, and you didn’t have to explore an app by tapping blindly here and there. Spotify is the first example coming to mind: its early iOS and Mac clients were more usable and had a better interface.

Concluding this section of his posts, Mori writes:

During my trip down Interface Memory Lane these days with the iPad 1, I’ve stumbled on many other cases, and the result was always more or less the same: I found the old version of an app to have a more usable interface and a clearer interface language than its current counterpart. Despite all the pre-iOS 7 skeuomorphism, for many app interfaces of that time design was truly ‘how it works’. Today, more and more often (and it’s not only with iOS) I see examples where design is simply ‘how it looks’; attractive apps, but with ambiguous interface controls, poorly-designed UI architecture, and sometimes even with little to no accessibility, disregarding users with disabilities.

The second post is by Mark Wilson, who found himself using version 7 of the original Macintosh OS, issues way back in 1991 — and loving it. “Using an old Mac is pure zen.” Now, Wilson doesn’t suggest that that old interface could simply be implemented today; we ask too much of our computing devices today, and too many kinds of “much.”

But I do believe that the old Mac makes for a timely reminder that the digital age hasn’t always felt so frantic, or urgent, or overwhelming. And maybe, even if an old Mac interface isn’t the solution, we can view it as a subtle north star for its sensibilities, and how much it was able to accomplish with so little.

Few interface designers are indifferent to the needs of the user, but I can’t imagine that there are many for whom that is the first consideration. One way designers keep their jobs is by producing new designs, and in a corporate setting (like that of Apple) novelty helps get customers to update their hardware and software alike. And what kind of designer wouldn’t want the challenge of making the best use of increased processing power or display resolution?
So I don’t expect the desires and needs or users to be at the top of any designer’s priority list. But Lordy, how I wish it were a little higher than it is. Then perhaps the best elements of the work of earlier designers, people working under far greater constraints, could be recovered and redeployed. Because, as I never tire of saying, creativity arises from constraint and resistance. And it’s not clear to me that, from the user’s perspective, UI design for computing devices hasn’t been getting worse and worse for the past few years — with Apple leading the way in this sad category. 

capability and reliability

There is no question that the Macintosh is a far more capable device than the iPad or iPhone. BBEdit has a far wider range of capabilities than any iOS text editor; the Mac version of OmniGraffle is much more powerful than its iOS counterpart (this is true of almost every app that is available both on MacOS and iOS); on the Mac I can interact with the file system in ways that are impossible on the black box that is iOS; the power of Unix from the command line is infinitely greater and more flexible than anything iOS can do. Examples could be multiplied indefinitely. 
But: 

  • When I wake my Mac from sleep it immediately drops its wi-fi connection and takes 30-60 seconds to get it back, whereas when I wake an iOS device from sleep it connects to wi-fi immediately. 
  • When I stream music over Bluetooth from my Mac, the signal drops on average once per song, and often I have to open Activity Monitor to force-quit the Bluetooth processes to get it working again, whereas my iOS devices stream music flawlessly. 
  • Many websites feature video that plays immediately and smoothly from iOS but won’t play on the Mac at all. 
  • On my Mac I have my Dock set to be hidden and to activate when I mouse over to the right border of the screen. This works perhaps one-third of the time  —the rest of the time mousing to the right side of the screen does nothing — so I am gradually training myself to use command-tab all the time to change apps. On iOS the various ways of shifting from one app to another work the same way all the time. 
  • Relatedly, split view on the iPad works far more smoothly and consistently than the same feature does on the Mac. 

The Mac is a highly capable device, but it isn’t a consistently reliable one. By contrast, iOS devices are in my experience highly reliable, but are not as capable as I need them to be. The overall situation kinda stinks. 

back to the blog with MarsEdit

As I’ve noted several times over the years, I do almost all my writing in a text editor, BBEdit. But when I write a blog post in BBEdit, the process of getting it onto the blog is not as straightforward as it might be. I write a post in Markdown, convert it to HTML, and copy it to my clipboard. Then I open a browser tab for the relevant blog/blogging platform — WordPress for my personal blogs, Blogger for this one — paste in the text, add some tags, and hit Publish. 
I can do all this very quickly, and save a step or two with Keyboard Maestro, but even so it’s not ideal. The estimable Dr. Drang has written some scripts to post directly from BBEdit to WordPress, but I lack the skills to make those work for me, and I can’t even imagine having the skills to write an equivalent script for Blogger. So… 
I’ve owned Daniel Jalkut’s blogging app MarsEdit for a long time, but just recently have dedicated myself to using it every day — and it’s great, a marvelous piece of software. You can write in rich text, HTML, or Markdown (the last slightly awkwardly, but it works) — it even lets me edit a post in BBEdit if I want. MarsEdit offers very convenient options for pasting in links, and also serves, if you wish to download your previous posts, as a backup for your blog. 
For me, one of the most useful features of MarsEdit is the ability to draft a post in any of my blogs and then with a dropdown menu change it to a different blog (this feature aids in cross-posting also). 
When I’m done drafting and adding tags, I click “Send to Blog” and it uploads flawlessly, every time. 
MarsEdit has been around a long time, and I hope will be around for a long time to come. Frustration with most of the dominant social media platforms has led to a mini-revival of blogging, which I hope will become a full-scale revival. Austin Kleon has been blogging daily for several months now; Dan Cohen has gone “back to the blog”; Gordon White recently wrote, “Last night, sitting by the outdoor fire, drinking and ranting into a wordpress window as in the days of yore was joyous.” The great Warren Ellis has noticed: “My RSS reader is starting to get nicely repopulated, and the more people who notice this, the better the world gets.” 
Let’s do this thing. Let’s bring back the blog. And if you have a Mac and want to make blogging as simple and seamless as possible, use MarsEdit

back to the iPhone

A few years ago I set aside my iPhone and returned to a dumbphone. I liked it. The Punkt is well made and has an elegant design, and I might — might, I say — have switched to it permanently except for one thing: it’s a 2G phone and my carrier, AT&T, dropped support for its 2G network. So the phone was bricked.
I thought about changing carriers but that would have required me to shift my whole family over; and in any case there was no guarantee that any carrier I switched to wouldn’t drop their 2G network eventually. So back to the iPhone I went. 
It took me a while, but I have figured out how to use the iPhone in a way that works for me. Here are the key elements:
1. I deleted all social media apps from the phone, including email, with the sole exception of Instagram. Also, the only notifications I get are for communications (phone calls, texts) from my family.
2. My favorite recreational activity is hiking, and I have replaced those social media apps with some absolutely wonderful apps for spending time outdoors: AllTrails, PeakVisor, Night Sky, and Rockd. I really cannot overemphasize how dramatically these apps — along with Google Maps, which may be the very best app yet made for iOS — have increased my enjoyment of being out in the world.
3. I deleted most of my music from the phone, keeping only ambient stuff I listen to while working and trying to sleep — and also for the latter the SoundCloud app (there’s a lot of wonderful ambient music on SoundCloud) and Naturespace, whose nature recordings are the best I’ve heard by far. 
And that’s basically it. With this setup, the absolutely essential element of which is the deletion of social apps, I actually enjoy the iPhone. Turns out it’s a pretty cool device when you get rid of … um … people. 

iOS users and meta-users

The most recent episode of Canvas — the podcast on iOS and “productivity” (a word I hate, but never mind that for now) hosted by Federico Viticci and Fraser Speirs — focused on hopes for the upcoming iOS 11. Merlin Mann joined the podcast as a guest, and the three of them went around and talked about features they’d like to see introduced to iOS.

Some examples: Viticci wants the ability to record, in video and sound, actions performed on the iPad; Speirs imagines having a digital equivalent of a transparent sheet to draw down over the iPad screen on which he could write with an Apple Pencil, thereby marking up, as it were, things that are happening in an app; and Merlin Mann, who has 450 apps on his iOS devices, wishes for the ability to batch-delete apps, for example, ones that he hasn’t used in two years or more.

Listening to the episode, I thought: These aren’t iOS users, not even power users, they’re meta-users. Viticci writes and talks about iOS for a living; Speirs teaches students how to use iPads; Mann makes his way in life talking about productivity, especially (though not only) on digital devices. Their iOS wish-lists make them the edgiest of edge-cases, because their uses are all about the uses of others.

As for me, a user neither power nor meta, many of my wishes for iOS involve things that Apple can’t do on its own. For instance:

  • I wish Bluetooth worked better, but Bluetooth is a standard Apple doesn’t control. No matter how well Apple handles its implementation of the standard, they can’t control how well device manufacturers handle their implementations. But in any case, given how long Bluetooth has been around, it really, really ought to work better than it does.
  • This site is on Blogger (sigh), and Google has withdrawn their iOS Blogger app and made sure that the Blogger UI doesn’t render properly on Safari for iOS — it seems that they’re trying to drive iOS users towards Chrome. (Also, there are no good blogging apps for iOS: some are abandonware, some have hideously ugly and non-intuitive UIs, and one, Blogo, demands that you sign up for an account and turn over your data to its owners.)
  • Many, many websites just don’t render properly on an iPad, and I expect will never do so. Which makes me wonder what Apple can do on its end (besides enabling Reader View, which is great) to improve poor rendering. E.g.: One of the most lasting problems in iOS involves selecting text, which can be extremely unpredictable: sometimes when you touch the screen nothing selects, while at other times when you’re trying to select just one word the whole page gets selected instead. But these problems almost always happen on websites, and are a function, I think, of the poor rendering in Safari for iOS. Is there anything that Apple can do about this, I wonder?

Among the things that Apple can definitely do something about, here are a few wishes from me:

  • When you’re connected to a wi-fi network and the signal gets weak or intermittent, and there’s another known network with a stronger signal available, your iOS device should switch to that better network automatically. Optimize for best connection.
  • Apple should strongly push developers to implement Split View.
  • Apple should strongly push developers of keyboard-friendly apps to implement keyboard shortcuts — and if they have Mac apps, the same shortcuts on both platforms (the people at Omni are great at this).
  • This is perhaps pie-in-the-sky, but I crave extensive, reliable natural-language image searching in Photos. But I expect we’ll get this from Google before we get it from Apple.

LiquidText

LiquidText, an iPad app for annotating PDFs and webpages, is a genuinely remarkable achievement — a delightful and useful piece of software engineering. Here’s what an annotated LiquidText file looks like:

You’ll see that you can highlight, but also comment in the margin on what you have highlighted, connect other comments to that, and pull out highlighted passages and keep them in the margin. It’s also possible to connect comments to one another in a mind-mapping sort of way, which could be very useful for visual thinkers. However, you’ll probably need a 12.9“ iPad to make that work — on my 9.7” model there’s just not enough room unless I shrink the document to the point that it’s unreadable.

Possibly my favorite feature of LiquidText is “Highlight View”: when you enable it, you can then pinch the screen vertically and see all the passages you’ve highlighted:

This is extremely useful. And in general I feel that LiquidText helps me to be a better reader: more active, more responsive, and able to make better use of my responses.

The shortcomings:

  • There are a limited number of file formats (basically PDFs and webpages) that you can import into LiquidText — it would be really cool if you could import, say, EPUB files. I would say that only about 10% of the reading I do is possible in LiquidText.
  • Your LiquidText files are just that, saved in their proprietary file format, and while you can export to a standard PDF and preserve much of your highlighting, in so doing you lose some of the most useful relations among notes and highlights. That’s not the fault of the app’s makers, but that’s the way it is.
  • LiquidText is iPad-only, which means that you need to be pretty invested in that device to make the app a central element of your reading life. But it’s a good enough app that it makes me give further consideration to the possibility of going iOS only.

Text Patterns is back from the dead!

I’m back and probably not any better than ever!

This post is a bit of a catch-all catch-up before I write a longer one explaining what I’ve been thinking about these past few weeks.

One. My next book, How to Think, will be appearing in October from Convergent Books here in the U.S. and Profile Books in the U.K. I’m very happy with both publishers, who seem genuinely to get what I’m trying to do — and to see the value of it.

Two. I have also effectively completed The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Intellectuals and Total War, but in order to avoid competition with How to Think, it’ll come out in 2018. The book had been contracted with Harvard University Press, but over the past few months it has gradually become clear to me that that wasn’t an editorial fit, so I have moved to Oxford University Press, where I will get the chance to work again with the excellent Cynthia Read, who edited my Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Three. I’ve got an essay in the new issue of National Affairs, “When Character No Longer Counts,” on Christians and the 2016 election.

Four. My friend Adam Roberts will be writing a biography of H. G. Wells — something I am very much looking forward to — and in preparation for that he is undertaking the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of reading all of Wells’s published work and blogging about it. That blog is here, and so far it’s been really fascinating.

Five. Another dear friend, John Wilson, has a new endeavor in the works that will go public in the next couple of weeks. When it does, I’ll announce it here and on Twitter. One of the early posts will be my review of Jessica Riskin’s remarkable book The Restless Clock.

Six. Now, putting those previous two items together: I’ll also be writing for John about a wonderful little event I got to experience in London two weeks ago, featuring that Adam Roberts guy again moderating a conversation between Francis Spufford — who has a new novel about 18th-century New York — and Kim Stanley Robinson — who has a new novel about 22nd-century New York. Caroline Edwards of the University of London’s Birkbeck College wrote a nice report on the convo, if you’d like an overview. Adam began the conversation by asking a very provocative question about the relationship between the historical novel and science fiction — an appropriate inquiry indeed from someone whose most recent novel has scenes set in both the past and the future — and roughly the same periods covered by Spufford and Robinson. Much more about this anon.

Seven. In preparation for that event, and for writing about it, I not only re-read Golden Hill — which is simply marvelous — and read New York 2140 for the first time, I also went back and re-read Robinson’s novel Aurora, which I wasn’t crazy about when I first read it but was encouraged by Adam to re-think. My second reading has led me to wonder what in the world I was thinking the first time around. The book is superb, one of KSR’s very best, and I am very sorry that I didn’t see that before.

Eight. I haven’t yet been able to escape the clutches of Apple — something I’ve been contemplating and even working at for some time — because I have massive investments of money and time in both its hardware and software, but if I stay with it I may have to end up a full-time iOS user: the last three releases of MacOS have been a mess, though in varying ways, and now that I’m on Sierra my Mac freezes solid at least once a day. That hasn’t happened to me in years and years. I am convinced that the Mac is a dying platform. It’s dying very slowly, but it’s dying. Which is sad.

AirPods: a review

In a reckless moment I bought a pair of AirPods, and after using them for a couple of weeks, here are my thoughts:

1) If the sound quality of my set of Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones is a 9, and that of the wired earbuds that came with my iPhone is a 4, then the AirPods’ sound is roughly a 5.

2) It’s really nice to be able to go to the bathroom, or to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, without removing the AirPods or taking your phone/tablet/computer. If you get far enough away to lose the Bluetooth connection, and then come back into range, the sound automatically resumes at the point where the connection had failed.

3) As everyone says, they really do stay in your ears.

4) The fact that you have to worry about charging the charger as well as the AirPods themselves is an annoyance. I keep thinking: More stuff to charge?

5) When I’m out on a walk and have my phone in my jacket pocket, the connection is reliable. But it’s not always reliable when the phone is in a trouser pocket. I haven’t yet figured out whether some garments impede the sound more than others, but in any case I don’t think that should be happening. The phone is three feet from the AirPods, for heaven’s sake! Having to carry the phone in my hands is not what I want to do.

6) When I’m listening on my old wired earbuds and want to adjust the volume, I simply reach up and click the volume button on the tiny console on the right wire of the buds. To adjust the volume on the AirPods, I double-tap on one of the pods to bring up Siri. This works most of the time, but not always; and then when I do get the beep that tells me that Siri is listening and I issue my commands, she/he/it hears and executes the command most of the time, but not always. It’s faster to fish the phone out of my pocket and use the volume buttons on the side.

7) When I want to pause the sound on the old wired earbuds, I click the central button on the console. To do the same on the AirPods, I remove one of them; when I re-insert it the sound resumes. This has worked every time I’ve tried it so far, and is a really nice feature.

8) When I’m using the old wired earbuds and want to skip to the next song, I simply double-click on the central console button. On the AirPods I double-tap on one, wait for Siri to respond, say “skip to next song,” and hope it happens. My only other option is to fish out the phone, unlock it with my fingerprint, open the app I’m listening to, tap the fast-forward button, and restore the phone to my pocket.

9) When I’m out walking I am almost always listening not to music but to podcasts on Overcast. One cool feature of Overcast-on-wired-earbuds is that when you double-click on that central console button, the podcast jumps forward 30 seconds. I use this feature all the time, and there’s no way to replicate it on the AirPods. You have to take out the phone, open Overcast, and tap the little “forward 30 seconds” icon. If Siri is supposed to recognize “forward 30 seconds” as a command, that has never worked for me. So when I’m wearing the AirPods it usually takes more than 30 seconds to skip forward 30 seconds, which basically means that that option has been eliminated from my listening experience. This is frustrating.

10) I love not having to worry about keeping cords out of my way when I’m walking or running.

11) When I’m listening to music at night in bed, it’s very nice just to remove the AirPods from my ears and set them on the bedside table: removing both of them stops the music. But clicking on a console button doesn’t cost me much more effort.

Overall, it’s a very mixed bag. I use earbuds primarily for podcast listening while walking, and I just don’t think that the convenience of wirelessness compensates for the significant inconvenience of inadequate and inflexible controls. If a future software update allows for more customizing of the gestures, then the AirPods could be, for me, a success. But given that they simply can’t be adapted to my listening habits, and given the inconsistency of the Bluetooth connection, and given the very slight improvement in sound quality (which doesn’t matter in podcast listening anyway), I think I’ll be returning to the wires.

Apple’s new strategy (and old users)

As John Gruber recently commented, Apple hasn’t upgraded the Mac Pro in more than a thousand days. The company’s indifference to its professional users is puzzling to Marco Arment also:

Only the Mac Pro has the space, budget, heat capacity, and PCIe bandwidth to offer high-performance desktop- and professional-grade GPUs. If gamers, game makers, visual effects workers, and OpenCL aren’t enough, the rapidly-emerging VR and AR markets should be — they’re the next wave of high-end pro buyers who need the fastest hardware money can buy, and Apple has nothing to offer them.

Think about that: Apple has nothing to offer them. Apple clearly thinks it doesn’t need such users any more — even though the faithfulness of professional programmers, designers, and artists is what kept Apple alive for many years when the company was marginally profitable at best.

In those days the goal of Apple was to design and build products that were “insanely great,” while the mission of Microsoft was to get “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Apple wanted to make the best and coolest things it could make, while Microsoft just wanted complete penetration of the market. I suspect that, since Apple became a phone company that also makes a few computers, its corporate attitude has come to mimic that of Microsoft. It’s all about market share, baby: an iPhone in every pocket.

This new attitude has led Apple’s leadership not just to ignore their most loyal customers, but also to be oblivious to a significant decline in the quality of their products, especially their software. Recently Phil Schiller said, in response to widespread frustration with the recent Mac announcements, “We know we made good decisions about what to build into the new MacBook Pro and that the result is the best notebook ever made, but it might not be right for everyone on day one.” We know.

Similarly, a few months ago, when John Gruber asked Craig Federighi to respond to those who had been complaining about a decline in software quality, Federighi said, “We’re frustrated of course to hear it overall characterized as this, quality is dropping overall, because we know that’s not true.” We know.

We know we’re doing the right things. We know our products aren’t getting worse. We just know. So if you’re hoping for Apple to reconsider its recent strategic decisions, it’s time to stop hoping.

So those of us who need professional-level computing power will need to turn elsewhere. Those of us who need consistently reliable software will need to turn elsewhere. And Apple is betting that those groups won’t be large enough or influential enough to keep them from getting an iPhone in every pocket. Time will tell if they’re right.

near the end of my (Apple) rope

I bought my first Apple product — the original Macintosh — almost exactly thirty years ago. I have never been as frustrated with Apple products as I am now. Not even close.

A great many of these issues involve communications among machines: on the Mac, Yosemite brought a host of wifi problems; on iOS, Bluetooth has been borked for millions of people since iOS 8 was introduced, especially if you have an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus. Apple wants us to replace iPhoto with its new Photos app, but I can’t get Photos to sync all the pictures that iPhoto handles … well, fairly well, anyway — which is all just part of the larger story, which is that iCloud is a complete disaster.

Marco Arment:

Your computer can’t see my computer on the network or vice versa? The only solution that works is to reboot everything, just like using Windows fifteen years ago. Before Yosemite, I never had these issues on Macs.

Yosemite is now 6 months old, these bugs still aren’t fixed, and it feels like they probably won’t be fixed anytime soon. Yosemite is probably in minimal-maintenance mode as primary resources have likely moved on to headlining features for 10.11. This is what’s so frustrating about today’s Apple: if a bug persists past the early beta stages of its introduction, it rarely ever gets fixed. They’re too busy working on the new to fix the old.

But of course the new will have bugs too. So the bugs keep piling up — not to mention the missing features: e.g., margins in TextEdit documents can’t be changed without some sketchy hacks, items in Reminders can be ordered by date only manually, Safari lacks favicons to help you distinguish tabs by sight, and so on. Then there are inexplicably frustrating software design decisions, like regular backwards-incompatible changes in file formats for some apps (Pages, Keynote). Moreover, interoperability between OS X and iOS seems to be getting worse with time, not better, despite features like Handoff which are supposed to address that very problem but may not work.

And the arrival of the Apple Watch is surely going to exacerbate all these problems, not only with Apple software but with third-party software that companies are trying to make work on three platforms now: OS X, iOS, and the special version of iOS that Watch runs. Mo’ devices, mo’ platforms, mo’ problems.

In light of all this, here’s my current plan:

First, I will stop even trying to get either Bluetooth or iCloud to work. Pretend they don’t exist, because effectively they don’t. Assume that the only backups I have are to an external hard drive. If I want to play music in my car, I’ll either listen to the radio or burn CDs like I did back in the day. (Remember when that was the coolest thing?) Well, if burning CDs still works in iTunes….

Second, move whenever possible to non-Apple software, especially, though not only, when Apple’s stuff relies in some way on iCloud. (Hardest thing to replace, for a guy who doesn’t want to use Google or Microsoft products either: Keynote. Keynote is a great, if somewhat bloated app, but its ever-changing file format makes it a long-term loser.)

Third, if things aren’t any better by 2017 — when my iPhone 6 Plus will be old enough to trade in — switch to Linux, for my phone as well as my computer, assuming that the Ubuntu Phone is available in this country by then. Yes, Linux has plenty of problems; but I won’t be paying a premium price for a system that promises to “just work” but just doesn’t work. If I’m going to have to be in permanent fiddling/hacking mode, let me do it from within an operating system meant for fiddling and hacking.