Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.
But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes.
Finally got a chance to read Jonathan Foer’s opinion piece from last week’s New York Times Sunday Review. A subtle reminder that technology is but a thin veneer on top of, well, life. Highly recommended reading.
Today Apple announced their new iOS 7, which among other things includes a new strikingly flat UI design. Flat design has been around for a while now, making its way onto smartphone operating systems, desktop apps, and our webpages. And flat UI itself follows a trend that was already obvious in product design - that of hardware slabs, like the iPad, without obviously visible buttons.
Going flat, however, has its consequences. One of the most important consequences of flat design is that it blurs the line between what is content and what is interface. It puts pressure on typography and iconography, forcing them to now carry meaning that they previously might not have had. And because it forces so much onto icons and fonts, it also forces people to adapt to a new visual language, and rethink their usage patterns. This adaptation takes time.
Where you would look for subtle gradients that called for touch, you now must look for other hints. Perhaps highlights or colored nuances. And a language of flat design - an actual language, based on patterns and our collective learning - must emerge so that consumers can make new sense of things. We’re seeing the birth of new ways of showing (and interacting with) information.
With Apple being an inspiration to so many, it is easy to predict that we’ll see flat design everywhere soon. So as designers (of products, of hardware and of experiences), we need to be mindful about the issues that go with flat. Removing so many of the cues that represented the design of yesterday, we are forcing people to learn those that represent the design of today. The best designs (and the best designers) will be those that manage to stay up to date with the new trend while still respecting the user and his/her needs. Exciting - perhaps frustrating - times are ahead.
It would happen on most winter days where the sun was particularly bright. My grandparents would drive up to our place, and stay in the car for a few minutes before joining us inside. I could see them talk. Or they would be quiet sometimes - perhaps listening to the radio. Then they would finally join us.
These days I am the one staying in the car a few extra minutes. Taking in the rare warmth of the sun in the cold days of winter. It gives me peace, and lets me think alone. I wish my grandfather was still around so I could tell him how much I loved their tiny ritual. We all need time to stand still every once in a while.
Humans are by default hopeful and optimistic creatures. We usually think about the future as though it will occur for us with absolute certainty, and that makes it hard to imagine death as a motivation for living. But knowing that my friend could potentially never wake up forced me, unexpectedly, to contemplate my personal drive for existence. Why do I do the things I do every day? Am I honestly acting out my dreams and aspirations? What’s my purpose? For a long time, when I was younger, I waited to discover my purpose. It was only very recently that I realized purpose is something you are supposed to create for yourself.
For a while I couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason why Google Reader felt awkward, but earlier today it hit me: for a product called Google Reader, it doesn’t really let me read properly.
When designing a product, the question you should be constantly asking yourself is “what is the user trying to do here, and how does my interface help?”. In the case of Google Reader, I want to consume content I subscribe to - for the most part, that would be text. Suddenly, if having a great reading experience is a priority, everything changes. Line height and horizontal motion matters, background and text colors matter, white space matters. Every feature of the software and interface should be strained through the sieve of user goals.
A goal-oriented Google Reader would look drastically different. A goal-oriented Google Reader would not use 200 pixels of useless interface between the chrome of my browser and the first piece of actual content - something that feels wrong in a world of 16:9 screens. It wouldn’t use a default line-height of 1em, or pure black text on a pure white background. It might let me configure font size and the length of my text column; perhaps even the typeface.
Google Reader is a good product, but not a great experience. It lets me read, but it doesn’t let me enjoy reading. It lies to me when it calls itself Reader, because it just wasn’t designed with that goal in mind.
Like Google Reader - in this particular post, only an example -, a large number of products would benefit from the simplest of thought experiments: ask yourself what the goals of the product really are. Then look at every bit of the interface and functionality through the lens of those goals. Remove all the extras. Fix everything that feels awkward and wrong. Repeat. Your users will thank you for it.
These are interesting times in the world of online discourse. Twitter has been fading as a platform for conversation, as with its growth in popularity came a focus on celebrities, flat discussion and messing with third-party developers. While there are great nuggets of insight being tweeted every once in a while - and despite the fact that you get to make your own feed by following and unfollowing people -, Twitter feels flat these days.
As Twitter almost substituted blogs, I see a return to long-form writing in the future. And others seem to agree, as services like Svbtle, Medium (like Twitter, from Obvious corp) and Branch have been launching recently, showing a rekindled passion for prose.
I am a fan of the way discussion takes place in the blogosphere. You quote someone, you link over to their blog, you add to the conversation by expressing your ideas in your voice and pace - something Twitter only kinda lets you do. And I might be crazy, but I quite like the experience of navigating through several pages with several different designs from several different authors to unveil pieces of the same puzzle. Sure, services where conversations are aggregated are amazingly useful for the reader, but serendipitous browsing is an amazing way to tickle the imagination and generate new ideas that move the discussion forward.
Twitter might have been the future of conversation once, but today it sure sounds like the past. Who knew that the future might lie in blogging again.
There’s been a ton of discourse on Dalton Caldwell’s App.net lately, and now that its funding goal of $500k has been reached, I thought I’d write a few lines on the reasons why I am a backer, and why I believe it is a necessary product today.
I have to preface this by saying I love Twitter. I joined in the very early days (easy to guess by my username), when it was still called Twttr and was basically a hangout for people I knew from the valley. It didn’t solve any particular problem at the time, but it grew into a way for people to stay in touch, a micropublishing platform, and a backchannel for, well, most things these days.
Twitter is free, yes, but not really. Allow me to explain. Those guys (a great team of people) have been at it for years, and need to make ends meet. Turning their millions of users into paying customers would be a flop, so their customers are instead - you guessed it - brands. People on twitter are opinionated, vocal, and consequently they share a ton of information about themselves and their tastes. I’ll let you figure out what that means, but in one way or another - and I hope you knew it was coming to this to this -, the product when you use Twitter isn’t Twitter itself, but your interactions with it. You are the product.
App.net on the other hand is not free - in fact, it’ll cost you $50/year. But the logic behind it is that by being a paid service, you’re not the product - app.net is. You’re not being sold, you’re being sold to; you are the customer. It caters to your needs. This is refreshing in this kind of product.
I’m a fan of products that ask for cold hard cash and become sustainable businesses. Products that cost money live by simple rules: if they make people unhappy, people leave, they make less money and eventually fail. If they make people happy however, others join, money comes in, developers are rewarded.
So I’m paying for app.net. It doesn’t mean I’ll leave Twitter - that wouldn’t make sense unless things take a change for the worse. It does, however, mean that I believe a Twitter alternative makes sense. It makes sense that new features being added to that platform matter to me and not brands who want my “eyeballs”. I’m not much of a “Viva la revolucion” kind of guy, but users being in charge is refreshing. And app.net being fully funded means about 10.000 other people agree with that.
At the end of last year, I decided it was time to focus on doing things that were meaningful to me. The Burning House is a project that could easily fit that bill and that I’m envious for not starting myself. Below, one of the many submissions they have up on the site. Beautiful project.
Jiro Ono is 85 years old, and he’s dedicated his entire life to his craft - he is considered the best sushi chef in the world. What’s amazing about Jiro and many other craftsmen who are at the top of what they do, is that regardless of their status as the best, they still search for perfection. Perfection is a hard thing to define, and more importantly, a hard thing to achieve. But when you make it a part of your ethos; when you aim for it every day, it does not matter if you get there - what matters is what you’ve made and learned along the path.
“Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That’s what he taught me.”
If you make things, you sit somewhere on the line between someone who works and a craftsman, and the position you take along that line permeates through everything you do. So what you should do, or rather, what I’m trying to do myself, is find a way to achieve perfection in my work - whether that work is writing code, designing the screens for an application or creating a piece of software. Here’s to more craftsmen.
In the last few years, as technology progressed and our inboxes filled up, we’ve struggled to find ways to cope with information overload. For the most part, we’ve been unsuccessful. So we’ve all become obsessed with processes and tools, grabbing books on getting things done, buying new productivity apps, finding the right fonts to write on our favorite flavor of a distraction free writing environment. In trying to fix an overload problem, we’re creating another.
I’m writing this post in full screen, because I seem to get distracted by everything else happening inside the computer, pushed from the internet to my face. The font I’m using had to be carefully selected because it shouldn’t be too small or too large. The background of the window itself shouldn’t be too dark or too light. To start writing, I had to tick a box in a task management system, and there will be a second box to tick when I’m done so I can remember to edit the post too. When you’re obsessed with the process, everything can suddenly become a chore.
A fine line
The irony here is that process and tools are both helpful if selected correctly and allowed to become invisible. Who cares if there’s a 10 step way to process your life/inbox/workload that someone wrote a book - or ten - about. The other day I tweeted:
“Someone better install a few seat belts on the GTD bandwagon, because I keep falling off.”
Funny because it was true. The most important realization I came to when it comes to productivity was that what worked for me might not work for most people (or anyone, really). Also, that not following a method down to a tee might turn out best for me. So I took note of the things that worked, and those that did not. Then I improved the former and scrapped the latter.
I got rid of most things. I now have one text editor (not three) I’m comfortable with; a task management app to dump the things I need to do into; a relatively loose process of trying to plan out ahead; a utility to help me not write as much repetitive stuff. Names for these tools are omitted because again, what works for me might not work for you.
So the next time a shiny tool/process pops on your radar, and all the familiar faces talk about it, use your own judgement to figure out whether you really need it. If what you do and use allows you to be productive and get your work done - great. If your life is in order, stick to what you’re doing. If you’re constantly looking for new tools to improve your work (as I frequently was), that work will never get done.