Designing for the Ideal

Sometimes a designer doesn’t completely account for the reality of how a solution or product will be used, and instead designs around a set of requirements that seem to be fully representative of the problem at hand, but are actually narrower in scope. I call this designing for the ideal, because the designer typically chooses a band of requirements that play nicely with the favored solution — content that looks great or inputs that behave wonderfully within the design as it is being crafted. More often than not though, when the product is released into the real world the designer is in for a rude awakening.

There was a bit of designing for the ideal, I think, when the three major browsers — Safari, Chrome and Firefox — each started presenting a gallery of a user’s most visited Web pages within new tabs, instead of just a blank page or a user’s designated starting page. This feature has been around for a while now, but it’s remained broken for quite a long time.

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Facebook Home at First Glance

Somehow last year I ended up owning an HTC One X in addition to my iPhone. It’s never been particularly useful (AT&T has stranded it with an older version of Android) but now it has a purpose in life: the One X is among a few of the first phones that will run Facebook Home, just announced yesterday with much fanfare. I will definitely be installing Home on my One X when it launches on April 12.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about Facebook, most of them negative. But I do respect what they’ve done. You’ve got to; awful as it is in so many ways, it’s too massive, and too difficult to ignore.

Facebook Home, at least at first blush, only gives me more reason to respect them. I see at least two reasons to believe that the company may have pulled off things that other, similarly massive companies have tried and failed at.

First, Facebook Home seems to be a genuinely fresh approach to what a phone operating system can be (whether it really qualifies as an OS or not is debatable). Its conceit is that it eschews the ‘app-centric’ approach that almost every other smartphone OS takes, preferring instead a ‘people-centric’ approach. If it works, it will be a meaningful differentiator in the market, and more or less exactly what I criticized Blackberry for failing to do with their newest phone products.

Second, Facebook Home aims to wholly subvert the resident operating system on the Android phones on which it runs with Facebook’s own ecosystem. I think mostly of Adobe in this regard; for years, they’ve taken an insurrectionist approach with their Creative Suite software, piggybacking what amounts to an entire, largely unwanted operating system’s worth of code (if not features) along with Adobe’s otherwise useful applications. It’s always been a bear for end users, and it has hardly succeeded in establishing CS as a beachhead for doing anything other than what you would have turned to Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator for without it.

If Facebook Home sees wide adoption among both users and developers, it will achieve exactly what Adobe strove for: supplanting the OS that came preinstalled on your hardware (unless of course you buy the HTC First) with something entirely different, effectively stealing customers away from Google. That’s incredibly bold, and if they pull it off, wow. I won’t like them any more for it, but I will respect them more.

One more begrudging note of appreciation, offered again with the caveat “if Facebook Home succeeds”: this could be the definitive contribution to the argument that Mark Zuckerberg is the most talented product designer since Steve Jobs.

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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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Evernote Alone

Evernote 5 for iOS is new and available in the App Store today. It sports a revised, beautifully executed user interface with a clever, smoothly animated ‘stacked cards’ metaphor. So far, I find it very impressive, especially for an application that has always been, in my view, more useful than elegant.

Evernote 5

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a happy Evernote user for some time (since finally giving up the ghost on Yojimbo&#41. It’s true that the product has always struggled with a certain level of awkwardness, but that hasn’t diminished its utility. Evernote is pretty much the only game in town if you want a well-maintained, truly cross-platform note-taking and random bits-collecting app backed by a robust, reliable cloud service. There’s nothing out there that compares.

Why is that, I’ve often wondered? It seems to me that being able to jot notes down quickly and stash away assorted and sundry snippets, pictures and documents, and have them all transparently and instantly synchronized over the Internet would be one of the most universally sought after software solutions out there — and would therefore inspire lots of competition.

Of course, when I write it out like that, it does strike me that it’s a tall order to build such a product. Evernote is not just an app, after all. It’s a full-scale service, too, and replicating even just a few of its client apps would be a major undertaking, to say nothing of building a comparable cloud service. Still, I know I spend a tremendous part of every day in Evernote (I used it to draft this blog post, in fact) and consider it indispensable. I know lots of Evernote users who also feel the same way, and don’t hesitate to tell everyone they know about it. You would think someone else out there would want a piece of that business too.

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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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Requiem for the Browser Search Box

The changes promised in Apple’s forthcoming OS X Mountain Lion release look promising on the whole, but there’s one that makes me sad: the next major version of Safari will sport a unified address bar. Instead of two fields, one for the URL and one for search, Macworld writes that “the browser now sports a single lengthy field that can be used to type in a URL; pull up the top result in your selected search engine from a keyword or search the Web, your bookmarks and history, or within the page itself.”

Though I spend most of my time using Firefox, which still has both an address bar and a search box, I also spend a fair amount of time using Chrome which of course, popularized the concept of the unified search bar in the first place. I find the unified search bar to be a fine complement to the way I use my browser, but I still stubbornly prefer two fields up there.

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Introducing Mixel

MixelIn my post from August titled “What Comes After Reading on iPad,” I argued that while the iPad is a game-changing reading platform, there has been perhaps too much emphasis on that one particular aspect of the device. Apple’s “magical and revolutionary” tablet brings with it many other transformational qualities that are being undervalued at the moment, and at least a few of them will spawn new businesses and maybe even new industries.

I talked about a few of those opportunities in that post, but the one that interests me the most, and the one that I’m betting on in a big way, is the fact that iPad is an ideal digital art device, one that requires little or no training — no mouse to master, no pen and tablet to plug in. Straight out of the box, it’s a powerful, completely intuitive tool for self-expression: just use your finger to make a mark.

Even better, for the very first time in decades of personal computing history, we have an ideal digital art device in the hands of a mass audience, a huge and still-growing user base composed not just of professional artists and early adopters, but of people from all walks of life who are embracing the liberating simplicity of this new platform.

That’s big. It changes what’s possible for visual self-expression in a huge way. Now anyone can do this — anyone. They just need the right software. Creating that software is what my co-founder Scott Ostler and I are trying to do with our new company.

Our app is called Mixel. It’s a collage-making tool and a social network rolled into one. With Mixel, anyone can create and share digital collages using images from the Web, Mixel’s library, or your own personal photos from Facebook or what’s right on your iPad. You can watch a video (directed by the inimitable Adam Lisagor) that describes all of this over at our site, Mixel.cc.

Why watch it when you can try it out for yourself, though? As of today, Mixel is available for download in the App Store. And it’s free.

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Please Enter Your Password, Again and Again

Things that I own or subscribe to that I can access without a password: the books on my bookshelf, the magazines that arrive in my mailbox, the radio on our kitchen counter, the cable service on our television, our landline telephone, my DSLR camera.

Things that I own or subscribe to that I must access with a password: almost everything on all of my computers and all of my mobile devices.

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Consolidating Email Updates

By 11:00a this morning there were already over a dozen examples of what email professionals call bacn (pronounced like bacon) in my inbox. Bacn is the euphemistic term for subscribed email, automated mailings that a user has opted into, as opposed to the more commonly known spam, which is generally, but not always, unsolicited email. It’s not as valued as personal email written by real humans, but it’s better than junk mail.

Bacn includes newsletters, alerts, daily deals and assorted marketing messages from companies that I’ve transacted with in some form before. Most of these messages I ignore and some I will peruse occasionally, but the bacn that I pay the most attention to is the kind that updates me on activity from my social networks; notifications automatically generated when someone has liked or favorited one of my posts, when someone has tagged me in a photo or mentioned me in a tweet, when someone has added me to a group or list, etc.

Basically, the stuff that’s about me specifically is what interests me. But even then, the volume of these emails is too much to handle. I’ve already turned off bacn-generating settings in Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare and others — and those are the networks that I actually use.

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Adobe on iPad

These are not secrets: I’m no fan of Adobe’s Flash platform, I’ve been pretty vocal about my disdain for their bloated and maddening desktop software, and I’ve gone on record with my dislike for their tablet publishing strategy. So it’s sometimes hard for me to remember that Adobe is not in fact a monolithic company, that they’re not all bad. There are smart, impassioned people working there and they’re still capable of producing surprising, even delightful software.

For example, it’s worth noting that at least one Adobe team is producing some very good apps for the iPad. I’ve been a fan, if not a devoted user, of the company’s surprisingly lightweight and responsive sketching app Adobe Ideas since it debuted. I also think their Photoshop Express app is well done and, thankfully in spite of its name, very un-Photoshop-like.

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