Privacy and technology journalist Kashimir Hill is in the middle of publishing a fascinating series of articles called “Goodbye to the Big Five,” in which she reports on her experiences trying to function on the internet without the products or services of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. To do so, she uses a custom-built virtual private network created by activist and technologist Dhruv Mehrotra.
The VPN completely blocks her access to the millions of IP addresses controlled by these companies. This has a much more extensive impact on online life than simply abandoning their branded products. In the case of cutting off Google access, for example, ride hailing apps like Lyft and Uber become useless, because both apps depend on Google Maps. Spotify’s music is hosted in Google Cloud, so it too becomes inoperable. And even seemingly independent sites like The New York Times are affected; because each page on the site tries to download Google Analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google ads, and Doubleclick, the experience is slowed down considerably.
Particularly notable for design audiences is the proliferation of Google Fonts use across the web.
Many of the sites I visit want to load Google fonts—a free, open-source resource the company released in 2010—which are downloaded from Google’s servers and then cached in the browser. Having quick access to a variety of fonts that would not otherwise be available on your computer generally helps sites load faster, but it has the opposite effect for me during the block.
Given that Google has so many ways to track people’s digital activity already, I’m disturbed to see how ubiquitous the use of Google fonts is on the web, but the company has promised that it won’t use them to track a site’s users. So there’s that.
To Google’s credit, they don’t seem to be exploiting this situation. Hill also writes:
‘Of all the shady shit Google does, this one doesn’t seem that shady,’ says Dhruv, when I consult him about it.
Shady or not, it’s eye-opening to realize how broadly influential Google is in the user experience of the internet. Google Fonts is hardly an insubstantial product, but relative to its other pursuits, it barely seems like it takes much effort from the company. And yet in less than a decade it has turned into one of the most important providers of type in the world. (Full disclosure: this site uses Libre Baskerville served from Google Fonts.) The fact that the company has operated the service with a relatively neutral hand is commendable, but who’s to say how long that will last? The implications for the design world are far reaching if Google ever decides to turn its Fonts service into a revenue bearing business.
Read the first several installments in Hill’s series at gizmodo.com.
Plenty of folks are more prolific globetrotters than me but but according to Google Maps I logged over ninety thousand miles across twenty-three trips in 2018. That’s enough to circle the globe 3.6 times. In all that back and forth, I’ve come to rely on certain products and services to make all that travel much easier. If you’re not already familiar with them, you may find one or two that could prove useful.
For personal travel, I like to track flight prices before buying with Google Flights. You need to be specific about days, times and airlines, but once you identify the exact journeys you like, the service will watch price fluctuations and send email alerts when a specific fare has dropped or risen. For years I used Yapta to do this but that site has since deprecated its consumer service to focus on business travel.
I used to choose my seats more or less randomly, opting for a window seat when possible but otherwise not paying much attention to the layout of the plane. After getting stuck in windowless rows or uncomfortably close to lavatories a few too many times, I started paying more attention. Now every time I book a trip, I look up that exact model of airplane on SeatGuru, which has maps and advice for nearly every seat on every plane.
It’s been more than a decade since I started using TripIt and I can’t imagine taking a journey without it. Every time I make a travel booking of any kind—flight, hotel, rental car, train, whatever—I just forward the confirmation email to my TripIt account and the service automagically assembles it into a coherent, easy to read itinerary. I can view that itinerary on the web or in TripIt’s mobile app, of course, but I can also subscribe to my account’s calendar feed so that all of those plans show up in my calendar app. TripIt has gotten a little long in the tooth over the years—editing itineraries is less elegant than it could be—but it’s still a brilliant way to alleviate trip friction.
Getting through Airport Security
If you haven’t already applied for TSA Precheck, which lets you avoid the invariably longer standard lines at airport security, you’re wasting your own time. Even if you only travel a few times a year, this makes your airport experience dramatically easier. And if you travel with kids, this is a no-brainer, because it means your kids get the same privileges as you—including not having to take off their shoes, which itself can consume valuable time before your gate closes.
There’s also Clear, the privately run alternative security procedure that’s ostensibly faster even than Precheck. It uses biometrics instead of identity documents, and because it requires a paid membership, the lines are usually vanishingly short, if not non-existent. That said, I’ve never seen the point. TSA Precheck might save you half an hour or more over regular security; Clear might save you two minutes over Precheck. What’s more, Clear is available only in select airports. Don’t fall for this.
Even with as much travel as I do, I haven’t found it useful to subscribe to a wi-fi service like Boingo for on-the-ground hot spots. For in-flight wi-fi though, I usually just prepurchase a day pass via GoGo. But no matter how I get online while on the road, I always use a VPN service like iVPN for privacy—and for that matter so should you.
If you hate showing up at a party where someone is wearing the same dress as you, don’t fly between New York and San Francisco, as I do regularly, with an Away suitcase. Everyone has one. I had to put some stickers on mine (I don’t put stickers on anything) so that it wouldn’t get mistaken for someone else’s. That said, this is the best suitcase I’ve ever owned. The included battery is a fine gimmick, but the thing that really works for me is its “compression” system—a set of not particularly fancy internal straps that help you pack more into the suitcase than you would think possible. Last year I took a ten-day trip to Paris, Lyon, Berlin and Amsterdam with only my Away carryon, and it worked great.
This Mindshift zippered pouch is really intended for camera gear. But it’s so elegantly compact, with three compartments for accessories, that I’ve found it perfect for cables, power adapters and dongles (hat tip to my friend Matthew for the recommendation). It’s mostly transparent, so you can see exactly what you have and pull out just what you need. It also has room enough (and then some) for my Anker 40W 4-Port USB wall charger. Why carry several Apple wall chargers with you, as I did for years—like a dolt—when you could carry just one of these?
The cables I keep in that pouch are all secured with these basic Velcro cable ties. I’ve tried a lot of different cable management solutions over the years but these have worked out best for me. The eyelets allow you to securely wrap one end around your cable so that you don’t lose it while the cable is extended and in use. They’re also really cheap at about 16¢ each. Some Amazon reviewers complain about their quality but I’ve found mine have held up very well over time. Of course, as with all generic items for sale on Amazon, your mileage may vary.
One other item that’s come in handy many times is a mini power strip. They make these in really compact form now and they’re terrific when you find yourself low on power someplace where the one power outlet is already being used by someone else. Instead of fighting over that outlet, you can now share it, and the world becomes a tiny bit more peaceful. It’s also handy for hotel rooms where there may not be enough outlets for all your devices. The one I have isn’t quite small enough to throw into my Mindshift bag but it’s still useful enough that I throw it into my backpack.
Water Canister and Titanium Spork
If you’re mindful of avoiding disposable plastic—like one-time use water bottles and plastic cutlery—these are terrific companions to throw into your bag. I wrote about them in this blog post two years ago and I still carry them on every trip.
I think it’s pretty amazing that you can go to a new city for the first time and, armed with just a smartphone, make your way around town easily. As a public transportation fan, I like to take buses and trains to explore new cities. There’s no better app for that than Citymapper, which covers nearly forty cities. Like Apple Maps or Google Maps, you can punch in a destination and get routing directions, but Citymapper offers much more detailed options, especially for public transportation.
Airline Miles and Hotel Points
Aside from sticking to the same airline (Delta) and the same hotel chain (IHG), I don’t have any unique hacks for maximizing these rewards. I don’t even have a credit card that earns me points. When I started traveling as much as I do, it quickly dawned on me how distorting the game of miles and points can be—sometimes, when asked to take some unappealing trip to some location I don’t have much interest in, I will think to myself, “Hmm, but that would earn me a ton of miles.”
Having status at an airline or hotel is nice, but ultimately the personal, intangible cost is much higher than the benefit. I’d much rather be at home with my family than flying business class to the other side of the world. What I’ve come to believe is miles and points are just a metric for how much of your real life you’re missing. In fact, if you don’t travel that often and therefore don’t have much use for these products and services I’ve listed here then, well, in my opinion you’re doing it right.
So many great movies come out in December, so I went to the theaters five times—that’s easily my record for any month last year. The best of the films I saw was Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite,” which is set in the court of Queen Anne in 18th Century England. It’s a sumptuous feast of palace intrigue, baroque art direction and surprisingly apt off-kilter camerawork. This is Lanthimos’s first period film, but its vision of a bizarre, distorted reality that’s blithely accepted by its inhabitants will feel familiar to those who have seen his previous films. Like those, “The Favourite” features vaguely dystopian, science fiction-like qualities. And like all good sci-fi films, this movie is as much about the year it was made as it is about the year the events it depicts ostensibly took place. If there was a time for a movie about the tragicomic art of manipulating a feckless head of state, it’s right now.
Not quite as richly auteuristic but nevertheless terrific in its own right: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Super-hero movies are in a major glut right now (I couldn’t drum up much enthusiasm for any of Marvel’s own “cinematic universe” movies in 2018) but this one is a breath of fresh air. It’s the best Spider-Man movie by far, one of the best super-hero movies ever made, and probably one of the best computer-animated movies of all time. Kudos to the team who made it, and, credit where credit is due: kudos to the studio that somehow also made “Venom.”
Here are all eighteen movies I watched last month.
As of January 1st a new price transparency law now requires U.S. hospitals to publish a list of their standard charges on the Internet, something they had not typically done before. Over at Quartz, reporter Anne Quito and visual journalist Amanda Shendruk took a look at the published prices of 115 of the largest hospitals. What they found is that this ostensibly revealing information is going to be of little use to most customers. First, the lists are usually hidden in obscure, difficult to find corners of the hospitals’ websites, and second, the data is rarely human-friendly.
After locating the list, there’s the matter of understanding it. To comply with the law, many hospitals published their entire chargemaster, a list that contains thousands of items—from a cotton ball to an organ transplant—written in terms and codes unintelligible to most consumers. A chargemaster is essentially an internal document that hospitals send insurance companies to negotiate the amount they’re going to receive. The prices listed are typically higher than what most patients actually see on their medical bills, unless they’re uninsured.
As an example of how inscrutable this can be, Quartz published a screen grab from Florida Hospital Orlando’s pricing list. It’s a wonder of illegibility.
Quito asked me to comment on how design might have helped make this information more relevant to consumers, and a few of my quotes are included in the article. There’s no question that more specific guidance in the law on how the information should be presented, alongside some actual consideration for user experience on the part of the hospitals, would have gone a long way to improving the effectiveness of this effort. Design could have helped enormously.
At a higher level though, the healthcare system is so daunting, its overall user experience needs so much more than good design. Quito closes the article with some of my thoughts on this:
‘It’s crazy that we have this enormous healthcare system, and it’s so complex and you’re expected to negotiate it on your own with no help,’ says Vinh.
If you think of the healthcare system as a civic institution not unlike the legal system, the proposition for mere mortals starts to look absurd. Few of us would feel comfortable representing ourselves in courts of law without a lawyer, and yet we’re all expected to make our way through the complexity of healthcare entirely on our own, without an experienced advocate to help us understand our options and ensure our safety, to say nothing of maximizing the value of what we pay for.
For those unfamiliar, the Chromecast Audio plugs into any traditional speaker and lets you stream music to that speaker from Chromecast enabled phones, tablets and other devices. You can network one or more Chromecast Audios with a Google Home device and you’ve built yourself a Sonos-like, voice-enabled, whole-house sound system for a fraction of Sonos’s healthy premium. This also allows you to set up groups of speakers, e.g., one group just for certain rooms, another for the entire house, etc. And the groups are all voice-enabled, so we can say, “Okay Google, play Halsey on the first floor speakers” (Halsey is a popular musical artist, right?).
On top of that, you’ll have a smart speaker-enabled household (provided you’re comfortable with the inherent privacy concerns) that lets you control smart bulbs, plugs, thermostats, etc. It generally works really well and in many ways, it’s the kind of seamless experience that I once would have expected out of a connected home experience from Apple.
We were a committed AirPlay household for a long time, actually, but Apple neglected that standard so much—kept it proprietary and under-delivered with the Home Pod—that the Google alternative became too tempting to resist. Now we’re a Google household with a Google Home in the kitchen and a series of Google Home Minis spread all over the house. Our favorite feature is the broadcast functionality which lets us use the devices like an intercom system, saving us the trouble of hollering between floors for everyone to come to the table for dinner, etc.
I’m actually surprised that Google is discontinuing the Chromecast Audio in the face of Apple’s recent renewed interest in AirPlay—it was announced last week that AirPlay is coming to smart TVs for the first time. In fact, I’d gladly switch back to AirPlay if Apple were to bring Alexa- or Google Assistant-quality services to Siri underpinned by Apple’s much more appealing privacy approach. In the meantime though, Google Home is the solution for us. In fact, I took took advantage of the clearance pricing and bought two more Chromecast Audios, just for good measure.
Brydge, longtime makers of laptop-like keyboards for tablets, has stirred up a lot of excitement (at least among those who care about this kind of thing, and I count myself among them) with its latest product: the new Brydge for iPad Pro 2018 is a MacBook-like, backlit keyboard available for both the 11-inch and 12-inch models. It’s also impressively styled with an aluminum housing, if the product shots are a reliable indicator.
The Brydge Pro attaches to the iPad at its corners via two reasonably elegant, padded hinges. This allows the tablet itself to be positioned at any angle, or at least many more angles than the two allowed by Apple’s own Smart Keyboard Folio for iPad. You can see it in action in this video:
Presumably, attaching and detaching the iPad via those hinges is straightforward, because Brydge touts the ability to flip the tablet around so that it faces away from the keyboard. This lets you prop the iPad up in touch-only mode, like a kiosk.
This also allows you to fold the iPad and keyboard together flat, in what Brydge advertises as “tablet mode.”
The irony of attaching a tablet to a keyboard that promises you a “tablet mode” seems lost on Brydge, but it highlights the central tension of any keyboard made for the iPad: is the goal to augment the iPad with optional keyboard functionality, or to turn it fully into a laptop? The challenge of balancing these two impulses is the reason why, in my estimation, the perfect iPad keyboard has yet to be invented.
While I have my reservations about Apple’s own Smart Connector line of iPad keyboards, they evince a better understanding of this quandary than most. Part of the beauty of the iPad is that it can be either a pure tablet or an incredibly mobile laptop. Because Smart Connector keyboards attach and detach with terrific ease, they don’t force you to choose between the two modes.
For my money though, the iPad keyboard that came closest to this ideal was the Belkin Qode line, which I used to use with my iPad Air 2 several years ago.
The Qode was actually made of two pieces: the first was a keyboard that was not dissimilar from the Smart Keyboard Folio in that you could position the iPad at two angles, secured by two magnetic strips just north of the keys. The second was a quite sturdy case for the tablet itself, which was a real boon. I find tablet cases essential because I carry my iPad with me much more often and in far more real world situations than any laptop, and also because I’m generally clumsy. The Qode’s case and the keyboard worked together perfectly, snapping together easily and, when detached, actually powering down the keyboard so as to save power. This let me use my iPad as both as a tablet or a laptop at any time, but it also did not force me to choose between having a keyboard and a case, a choice that is implicit with many tablet keyboards.
To be fair, the Brydge Pro does offer some protection for the iPad with an optional snap-on magnetic cover, but it doesn’t protect the corners. It also emblazons the company brand across the back which, well.
Unfortunately the Brydge Pro, like the Belkin Qode before it, connects to the iPad via Bluetooth. (You can also connect via USB-C cable but then you’re using a cable.) My Qode had to be manually re-paired with my iPad every week or two, an annoyance that I would be surprised if the Brydge Pro can avoid. Apple’s proprietary Smart Connector technology is far superior, of course, but even that is not without its drawbacks: the Smart Connector on the new iPads has been reconfigured such that it doesn’t allow for a fully protective case to work with the Smart Keyboard Folio.
At the risk of repeating myself: we’re still waiting for the perfect iPad keyboard. But if you’re intrigued by the Brydge Pro, you can pre-order yours at brydge.com.
Over the holiday break, I had what I’m pretty sure was my first “civilian” encounter with augmented reality. At a New Year’s Eve party, a friend of the family showed me a bottle of wine from Rabble Wine Company which, when viewed with the company’s smartphone app, reveals an AR-powered animation that’s three-dimensionally mapped onto its label. You can see it in action in this video.
Not too bad, right? For a clearer view, this video clip displays the same animation, flat.
To my somewhat mild surprise, Rabble’s bottles are hardly unique. A number of wine and spirits companies have employed AR technology to bring their labels to life. Here’s another attractive (if more salesy) example, this time for Gentlemen’s Collection Wines.
In fact, both of these AR designs are among several projects for alcohol brands created by Tactic, a San Francisco-based studio that specializes in immersive media experiences for brands. And of course, neither Tactic nor the beverage industry are unique in deploying AR in this way: Ikea, Tesco and Kate Spade are just a few of the brands experimenting with this medium.
What I found notable though was that it wasn’t until the very last day of 2018 that I had any kind of a real world conversation about augmented reality with someone who is not a technologist or designer or somehow directly involved in the tech industry. Given the relentless drumbeat around augmented reality, this is surprising. If it’s inevitable, as futurists and technology pundits have claimed for some years, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect more “organic” conversation about augmented reality outside of tech circles by now?
Muted genuine enthusiasm for AR is less surprising when you consider the friction involved in accessing this kind of content. I looked over that bottle of Rabble Wine and couldn’t find a single hint on the label that the “experience” of it could be complemented by a smartphone app. Even if you go to the Rabble website and follow the link to buy a bottle, there’s no mention of AR there at all either. So a customer would need to not only know, somehow, that the app was available, but he or she would also have to have the wherewithal to actually download and install the app.
In our app-friendly society, that probably doesn’t sound like a tremendous hurdle, but it’s already too many steps for the average person to bother with. To some extent I’m impressed that my friend went through the trouble of acquiring the app and then showing it to me at all. Still, I doubt many people would bother to do the same. If decades of tech product development have shown us anything, it’s that with each step that a user is required to undertake in order to use something, the potential audience is diminished exponentially.
What’s more, the Rabble app and others like it are essentially single-purpose pieces of software—there’s nothing else you can really do with them if you’re not pointing them at very specific bottles—and even then, the value they offer is extremely narrow. A technology with few purposes and few opportunities to take advantage of those purposes makes for pretty limited “virality,” as they say.
All of which suggests that the use case for augmented reality, at least in these examples, still seems poorly imagined at best. This kind of implementation frankly has no answer to what the media theorist Neil Postman described as one of the most important questions that should be posed of any new technological innovation: “What problem does this solve?” It’s clear that augmented reality, which I happen to personally believe is rife with potential, is still waiting for its iPhone moment: the debut of a product innovation that makes it not just technologically possible but useful, easy to access—and worth talking about.
I’d watch just about anything Steve McQueen directs, so mesmerizing has his past work been. Like “Hunger,” “Shame” and “Twelve Years a Slave,” his latest feature, “Widows,” is imperfect, but McQueen has such complete command over what appears inside his frame that it’s impossible to look away. That makes this a heist picture like no other; its genre format is merely a vessel for the director’s nuanced observations on the way people struggle with the constraints of their own lives. It’s also a showcase for the formidable powers of the magnificent Viola Davis, whose smoldering eyes are a perfect match for McQueen’s sense of gravity. This movie came and went at theaters before most people even noticed, but I suspect it will be long remembered in the future.
Expectations can make all the difference when you walk into a movie theater. For instance, when I went to see Damien Chazelle’s new Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” last month, my expectations were fully informed by the director’s previous movie, “La La Land.” I’m not really a fan of musicals but I was stunned into belief by that one, and it quickly became one of my all-time favorites. I’ll defend it from all haters.
Unfortunately, my fondness led to precipitously lofty expectations for whatever Chazelle’s follow-up would be. I regret to report that “First Man” falls short. On the one hand it’s a marvel of careful observations and precise, studious execution. But like its subject, it’s forbiddingly remote—maybe necessarily so. In order to render his portrait of Armstrong’s extreme reticence, Chazelle built an emotionally stifling framework around his subject and the movie never breaks out of that. It’s a vision of space travel so authentic you’ve never seen it before, but it also never enraptures the audience with the wild unknown of space. I liked it, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t enjoy it.
On the other hand, I walked into “Bad Times at the El Royale,” a thriller from screenwriter and director Drew Goddard, with very few expectations, good or bad. If you’ve seen the trailer you’d probably expect a suspenseful, violent and perhaps quirky B-movie, likely derivative of the early work of Quentin Tarantino. That’s pretty much what it is, but it’s also really well done and immensely fun. I liked it and I enjoyed it.
Here are all eighteen of the movies I watched in October.
Here it is, our last episode of the first season of “Wireframe,”” the podcast that tells the stories behind good interaction design. This installment tells the story of the shift from designing for accessibility to designing inclusively. Along the way, it looks at the challenges of tweaking the design of the WordPress interface and how hacking the Xbox game controller opened the door to new gamers. The story actually starts in an unexpected place: the kitchen of Julia Child’s “French Chef” cooking show, which, I was surprised to learn, was the first TV show ever to broadcast captions for the hearing impaired. It all ties together, believe me!
On a personal note, putting together these six episodes (plus our short bonus episode) has been amazing for me. I learned so much. Not just about podcasting, of which I knew very little beforehand, but also about design too. I thought I knew how to talk about what designers do, but the process of translating our ideas, methods and work into relatable, compelling stories was eye-openingly challenging. The language of design is so biased towards those already in the know and aimed pretty much only at other designers while remaining opaque to the uninitiated. Forging these stories showed me how valuable it can be to open up our culture. I’ve heard from so many people who enjoy “Wireframe” who would otherwise never dig into the subject at all. I also heard from so many designers who saw their work in a new light because of the way “Wireframe” helped put it into a broader context. Design doesn’t have to be a niche conversation.
To be clear, I can only claim a fraction of the credit for this. None of these stories would have been possible without the amazing talents of the Gimlet Creative team. They did the heavy lifting, they were the ones who sweated each and every episode, who did the reporting, the interviewing, the editing, the endless revisions and tweaking that brought the show to the level of quality that, I don’t mind saying, outclasses every other design podcast out there. I’m particularly grateful to the core of the team, producers Isabella Kulkarni (who joins me for today’s episode), Rikki Novetsky and Amy Standen, all of whom you hear on various episodes. And especially senior producer Abbie Ruzicka, whom you never hear but who was instrumental in guiding each and every show. And I should also say that there would be no podcast at all without the efforts of my colleagues at Adobe: not only did Lindsay Munro, Leah Walker and Paige Young actually master the funding and logistics that made this possible, but from the start they had an even bigger vision for what it could be than I did. I learned from every one of these people.
If you haven’t listened to “Wireframe,” it’s not too late! It’s a unique kind of design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post. And—we hope to return for a second season before too long. Stay tuned for more on that!
Finally, one last bit on the subject of podcasting. Last week, the Pocket Casts app launched a major new redesign. I had used previous versions on Android but I was pleasantly surprised by how elegantly executed the new iOS version is. (There’s a great write up of it over at MacStories.) After only a few days, it became my default podcast app. All of this was before (I swear!) I noticed that the marketing site for the app features the “Wireframe” show art right in the main image. So you know they have great taste over there. Give the app a try.