The Pain of Previewing iOS Apps

We’re starting to roll out preview builds of our iPhone app at Wildcard. If you’d like to get your hands on one, sign up for access on our home page and we’ll add you to the list.

Distributing previews of iOS software is notoriously difficult and has gotten only incrementally easier over the years. There’s no method that anyone would call elegant or even low-friction, TestFlight, HockeyApp and corporate IT-brewed solutions included.

Worse, the logistical complexity of getting a preview build on a device that belongs to a novice user can often spoil the mindset of that tester. If you’re building an app that’s ostensibly trying to make life easier for someone, yet the very act of installing it on that person’s device is fraught with points of failure, you stand a pretty good chance of losing their faith in your product.

This happens so often that at Wildcard we decided that the least we could do was to explain how it works with much greater specificity, to try and fill in all of the gaps in the process. My colleague Steve Meszaros put together this preview installation guide, which includes detailed instructions and screen grabs from the key UI elements to be found throughout the whole, convoluted process. We revised it several times, and will probably keep revising it, as we try to make it as helpful as possible for our users.

Still, as we worked on it, we were practically laughing with incredulity that something like this was even necessary. It seems to me that Apple’s desire to keep developer-distributed software on a tight leash, which is at the root of the complexity in this process, is in no way inherently opposed to the idea that a test user’s installation experience can be simple, elegant, even delightful. Things should be much easier than this.

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Unbearably Light Icons

Love it or hate it, the wispy, thread-like aesthetic of iOS 7’s icon language is here to stay, at least for a while. Designers of stock icons are embracing it too, and if the sheer volume of new icons they’re turning out is any indication, this visual vernacular is probably not the most laborious style to work within.

Morphix Design Studio’s long-standing Picons catalog has just released a Picons Thin set, which includes five hundred icons for just US$49. That’s less than 11¢ each!

Picons Thin

Not to be outdone, Vincent Le Moign’s new Streamline Icons pack comes with one thousand, six-hundred and forty icons for US$67 — but they’re on sale at a “launch price” of US$47 until this evening.

Which one is the better set? I’m not sure there’s a value judgment to be made between them. You can buy both and cover all of your icon needs for less than a hundred dollars, which is a ridiculous bargain. Let’s take stock: we live in a time when designers’ tools have become almost unreasonably plentiful and inexpensive.

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Offline Magazine

Among the many things I’ve been working on for the past six months is spending a bit of time helping entrepreneurs Tom Smith and Brad Flaugher realize their very canny vision for mobile publishing. It’s called Offline Magazine, and it debuts today in the App Store.

Each month, Offline delivers five essays about culture, comedy or design, curated as a proper issue (I wrote one of the pieces in the debut edition). The Offline app itself is beautifully designed (not by me, but by Trevor Baum) and purpose-built for mobile reading. That last bit is incredibly important; this is a reading experience expressly designed to complement reading habits on phones and tablets, not demand new, unnatural ones.

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Time Stamps in iOS 7 Messages

With each passing day, my unfinished writeup of thoughts on iOS 7 seems less and less like it’s going to happen. Hopefully in the next week sometime.

Meanwhile, here’s something I discovered in iOS 7 last night: if you pull the speech bubbles in Messages to the left just slightly, the interface reveals time stamps for each individual message. There’s also a subtle but noticeable color change in the blue bubbles, drawing attention away from them towards the new information coming onto the stage. Fantastic.

Messages in iOS 7

When I mentioned this on Twitter, some folks complained that, clever as it is, it’s not very discoverable. Normally, hiding this feature in this way would seem somewhat user-unfriendly. But I think this is an elegant solution to a long-running but minor complaint about this app.

Since its inception, Messages has only selectively displayed time stamps, usually after a long lull between exchanged messages. I admit having wanted to see the time stamps on plenty of occasions, but not so much so that it broke the experience of using the app for me. In fact, I think that Apple made the right call originally: only show time stamps where they add meaningful value; anything more is superfluous. I still regard these time stamps as superfluous; but this new availability is the best of both worlds: the time stamps are there, but they add no visual clutter until the user actively calls for them.

I still take issue with iOS 7’s many glaring imperfections, but I admit that I’m finding it really enjoyable too. Stuff like this, small as it is, counts for a lot.

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iPhone 5 Button Issues

One of the so-called “geniuses” at my local Apple Store told me that the iPhone’s home button, which was so problematic on the iPhone 4 is now a serviceable part on the iPhone 5. Apple apparently identified the root causes of that problem and accounted for them in the design and manufacturing of its current model. The new home button shouldn’t become unresponsive over time as its predecessor so frequently did — but if it does, Apple can repair the button itself rather than replacing the entire unit, as it used to do.

It’s been almost a year since the iPhone 5 was introduced, so why should I care? Well, I had to bring my own unit into the Apple Store for repair recently, which is when I learned about this incremental bit of hardware progress. Thankfully, my iPhone 5’s home button has been working without a hitch, but sadly the same can’t be said of its power button. That piece recently started losing responsiveness, just like the iPhone 4’s home button used to, often requiring two or three hard presses to turn the unit on or off. For me, just one person, that’s frustrating. But from anecdotal evidence, lots of folks with iPhone 5s of similar vintage have been experiencing the same troubles, which leads me to believe this is a common hardware defect.

Apple’s solution? Well, unfortunately the iPhone 5’s power button is not a serviceable part, so the entire unit had to be replaced. Apple did this for me under warranty, thankfully, so I can’t complain too much about getting a brand new phone for free. But if I can gently offer a little advice to our friends in Cupertino: someone wise once said, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

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Requiem for a Back Button

iOS 6’s Back ButtonI’m working up to writing at greater length about iOS 7 because, well, blogging. In the meantime, I thought I’d make one specific point. The thing that bothers me most about the new operating system is the completely revised back button, which is now less of a button and more of a left-facing arrow that looks a bit like a compressed bracket, plus a text label. I’m not going to critique it extensively right now, except to say that my least favorite thing about it is that it’s not the old back button.

If you ask me, that back button, the one that has been with us since the iPhone debuted, was the best back button design of all time. Most back buttons, like the ones in desktop browsers, are just an arrow-shaped icon with a text label above or below that says only “Back.” If you want to know where they’ll take you, you usually have to click and hold on the button to reveal a list of the screens you previously viewed.

The pre-iOS 7 back button consolidated these things into a single button shape that tapers into an arrowhead on the left side, and it housed a text description of where the button would lead you. It basically did three jobs with a single element. First, it visually signaled the way back, so that even if you didn’t read the descriptor text, you would still recognize the button’s function instantly. Second, if you did read what it said, it gave you the title of the previous view, without forcing you to tap and hold or take some secondary action to reveal that information. And finally, unlike the new back button in iOS 7, it was explicit about what you could tap and where; the target area was clearly demarcated by the button shape, and managed to do so without crowding the title of the view to its right (by contrast iOS 7’s new back button text often seems to run right into the title of the screen).

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iOS 7 Thins Out

Was there a lot that was terribly wrong with the look and feel of iOS 6? Not in my book. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and many swaths of it were begging for some kind of house cleaning, but it didn’t need to be chucked away entirely. Apple decided to do just that, though, in their just announced iOS 7. The new operating system is significantly less ornamental than its predecessor; if you can call something “more minimal,” then iOS 7 looks to be just that. It’s simpler, less cluttered, and decidedly flatter, as folks like to say.

It’s also more like the cosmetics counter at your local department store than ever before, because, apparently, it makes liberal use of the thin or ultra light weights of Helvetica Neue throughout its many revamped interfaces.

Historically, these fonts have figured prominently into the typographic vocabulary of the beauty and fashion industries, where they’ve been used for years to connote notions of modernity, Euro-centric sophistication and near-anorexic thinness. They facilitate aspirational marketing messages, ideals that consumers can aspire to by applying that perfect shade of lipstick or putting on that perfect summer dress. And more often than not they’ve also been meant to indicate femininity.

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Magic and Mobile Apps

Apple long ago abandoned its original “Magical and Revolutionary” tagline for the iPad, probably out of some embarrassment at how the word ‘magical’ made so many of us groan. But the more I use, build and learn about touch-based software, the more I think magic is really a key component of this stuff, even if it’s not exclusive to the iPad.

I thought about this recently when a co-worker introduced me to Moves, an iPhone app that tracks the number of steps you take, with the aim of getting you to be more physically active from day to day. Once downloaded, you use Moves by doing… well, almost nothing. The app does everything for you, recording and parsing out your steps by mapping where you’ve traveled over the course of the day, how far and how fast, all with no user intervention required. All you have to do is the walking part, and the app quite literally does the rest, generating a complete, metered itinerary for all the walking and (most of) the places you visited in a given day.

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The New Yorker in Your Pocket

Much to my surprise, I’ve become a regular user of my Kindle Fire. I never expected that to be the case, since I was so unimpressed with it at its debut. But when I realized that I was toting it along with me just about every day, I also realized that the only app I ever used on it was the tablet version of The New Yorker. If you’re a devoted reader of that magazine and you ride the New York City subway, you’d probably agree with me that it’s much easier to read it on the smaller, more easily gripped Kindle Fire than it is on an iPad, especially on the always-crowded L train.

For some reason, Condé Nast decided that creating a full-text iPhone version of The New Yorker app was not a priority. Until now. As of this week, there’s a brand new iPhone version available as part of iOS’ Newsstand. Each print issue is now available in full, delivered automatically on Monday.

This probably puts an end to the Fire’s usefulness for me. Unlike plenty of others, I actually enjoy reading on my phone. Having a phone with me at more or less all times is a huge advantage over the additional screen real estate that a tablet — 7-inches or otherwise — affords.

So a new iPhone version of The New Yorker would have to be really bad for me to not want to use it. The bar is very, very low, I should say.

Luckily, the app clears that bar. I’m not sure how much further above the bar it rises just yet, but the app does work. Which is to say, it seems to carry over many of benefits as well as many of the problems that its iPad and Fire versions have.

To list a few of the problems: on my admittedly aging iPhone 4, I see a lot of progress spinners as the app desperately tries to load pages while I swipe from article to article. It just shouldn’t be necessary to wait for text as much as Condé Nast’s apps ask us to wait for text, not in this day and age. And the app’s insistence on pagination — and vertical pagination, at that — instead of natural scrolling is typical print-centric fussiness; the byproduct of this is that some articles ask users to page through as many as forty or fifty screens. Pagination, along with the inability to resize the font size for your own comfort, is probably required to preserve the app’s exquisite typography. It seems particularly cruel to disallow font resizing on a phone app, especially one whose main purpose is to read, but hey this is Condé Nast, so we take what we can get.

On the plus side, the app offers all the fantastic content of each issue of The New Yorker, finally available in a convenient, mobile form — finally! That’s a win, in my book. Also, I can now ditch my Kindle Fire.

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Photo Permissions on iOS

Any time an iOS app wants to give you access to your own photos, it must first ask you for permission to do so. This is understandable, because you don’t want just any app you download to be able to have its way with your photo library. But the way that the operating system asks for permission is problematic.

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