When the UX interaction can be too subtle

In the tech industry we love metaphors, citing cultural references that make you sound smart in hipster loving social circles. One particular domain where this is prevalent is in user experience (UX). For example, if I quote user experience is like a joke … lots of people would promptly complete the phrase. Apple is frequently eulogised for this. It’s nice that we get inspired by the A players. However, I regularly see occurences where this notion is taken too far. Here is one, with iBooks. I’ll first add a screenshot then I’ll comment on what I don’t like about it.

ibooks doesn't show me the latest books

 

 

I’m focusing on the Swift books from iBooks Store. I had older versions on my computer and didn’t update them for quite some time. I’d been mainly using the iPad as my eBook reader. This week I thought to get Swift 3 versions on my Mac but they were nowhere to be found. I thought to remove them and rebuild my library, only then, as I delete a title I now see the option to GET it back and this time with the latest version. In effect, my copy  was overshadowing the latest version in the Store. I find this too subtle.

Not to mention. As I download several titles in quick successions, I am prompted to login multiple times. That just feels wrong, and it is wrong. I can imagine what is going on, but I cannot imagine anyone being happy with this. These authentication challenges are just the opposite of too subtle, they are outright annoying and pointless.

Featured image: stock.adobe.com

Digital Music Experience doesn’t deliver what I really want. It probably never will.

It is noticeable that music listening experience is ever decreasing in quality, the great story telling of yesteryear productions are getting rarer. I would have thought, if you wanted to sell more music then it’s actually a good thing to teach people how to appreciate music. This isn’t what I am seeing.

I waited eagerly on the launch of Apple Music. When it finally did, I signed up for the trial and started using it. It was a let down. Yet again, I wasn’t getting the music listening experience I’ve been longing for since my childhood. Worse, I had lost some of the features I already had. This was a surprise to me, given that Apple had recently joined forces with some successful music professionals.

As a young boy, I learned to appreciate the sound of the vinyl discs that played in our house. The sounds were so crisp that they felt even better than listening to a real live performance. I loved touching the sleeves, admiring the beautiful art printed on them, sometime the lyrics other time some back stories. When I liked a track, I would spend hours listening to it repeatedly on a loop, each time trying to focus on just one instrument in order to appreciate how that was played. I would often fantasise that I could hear the players responding to each other with their instruments.

Janis Joplin

I didn’t listen to music and do something else. I was either listening to music, hence dropped everything else. Or the other way around, in which case I would stop the music from playing or try to block it. I couldn’t tolerate the slightest unrelated noise disturbing my listening experience. This was frustrating for someone who lived in a compound with lots of people around. I could do this for many hours.

IMG_3304If what I considered to be great music were playing, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to chatter and miss out of the delicate sounds. In fact, I think this trait was shared by a lot of people in Mali, where I grew up. You would often see young people sitting around quietly listening to a record, nobody making a sound.

IMG_3306

I didn’t understand anything about the pop music culture and the media, I didn’t care what anyone said, I only cared about what I could listen to and touch. In this manner, I grew my own mental model of music, that’s how I would develop an eclectic taste as I could somehow identify signature sounds across multiple recordings from different artists. Without knowing it, I was also growing an understanding of the artists, I could tell if a recording was the original or not, and I was even sometimes sure I could feel the artists emotions through their voice or the way they played. I would envision a recording as a chain of mountains and valleys, I could hear sadness and joy alternating in an artist voice on one song. One time, a Bob Marley music took me to such a roller coaster that I kept talking about it all week. I didn’t even understand the words properly because my English wasn’t good enough.

This was my music listening experience.

As I started making my own money, my Saturday afternoon were often spent in record shops looking for the next exciting album. I would always open up the booklets and whatever the cover was, read up on everything I could, as part of the selection process. I could never tire of this.

As we migrated to all streaming and downloading experience, my lifestyle also evolved and I lost the habit of going to record shops. But I still expected that somehow, the leaders like Apple would eventually bring us the kind of listening experience I was enjoying as a boy. As I listen to a track, I want to be able to navigate to the lyrics (if available), the backstories, the album artwork, see the track listing as it was originally produced, see any collaborations that the score writer or the artists might also have made. With digital, this should have been a snap. Sadly, this never materialised.

What is noticeable is that music listening experience is constantly being dumbed down, the great story telling of yesteryear’s album production is getting lost. Somehow as if none of that mattered. It’s a shame because digital could have made the experience even richer, but it isn’t. If I would make a parallel with painting, you wouldn’t dream of removing any layers from a Van Gogh or Matisse piece of work. Arguably music production itself is also degrading in quality. Pick a Jeff Beck, Radiohead or Kendrick Lamar record however, you’d notice a richness in sound and production. The CDs often come with nice artwork, lyrics. Björk’s Biophilia album is an encouraging experiment, it takes the music experience to an entirely new level. This won’t be a definite trend anytime soon. In the mean time, I do feel that some intermediate steps would be more portable than going down the mobile App route.

I would have thought, if you wanted to sell more music then it’s actually a good thing to teach people how to appreciate music. This isn’t what I am seeing. Instead we’re learning to skim on everything, take things for granted and gloss over effort, all in the rush to show a ‘buy now’ button. If I were an artist I would be livid and would want to take control over the whole thing, down to managing my fan communities, to be sure they can appreciate my work unadulterated.

PS: I am not a music professional. I know nothing about the correct terminology and concepts. I am only telling it as I experienced it.

OS X Yosemite, why block my view when you should’ve known better?

I now frequently experience several apps freezing for no apparent reason. Standard apps like Finder.app, Preview.app, or Mail.app or Safari.app, would just stop responding. After digging it up a bit, I found out that when Spotlight get into such an aggressive reindexing, Finder.app also stops being responsive. My conclusion, from here, was that, some of the standard apps that ship with OS X Yosemite contain a certain amount of code that are very old or simply badly designed. Such code, typically the work of UI framework enthusiasts or design principles of another era, would traverse a UI layer stack for tasks like disk and network access, although they shouldn’t have to.

I should have made this a series, another one on OS X annoyances. I now frequently experience several apps freezing for no apparent reason. Yet again, a new behaviour that until now, 8 years after switching from Windows to Mac, I didn’t expect to experience. Standard apps like Finder.app, Preview.app, or Mail.app or Safari.app, would just stop responding.

safari_preview_finderNormally, if an app stops responding then this will show in Console.app. In these instances, Console.app was showing a clean health situation, nothing is stuck. But as a user, I could type any number of keys and move the mouse around, Finder.app doesn’t respond, Spotlight doesn’t instantly find any answers – whereas it normally does as you type characters. I use Spotlight to launch apps, so when it doesn’t respond then that interrupts my work flow. Then I immediately turned to Alfred.app, and surely enough Alfred was working fine and could carry out any task I usually throw at it. What the heck was going on now?

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 22.43.43

I started to guess a deadlock situation, invisible to the regular app monitor. I then looked for what might be hogging up resources and saw something interesting.

dropbox_and_Spotlight_max_out_the_cpu

Two processes are occupying 130% of the CPU, effectively 2 out of 4 CPUs on my machine are fully utilised. I have 2 more CPUs that can potentially do work for me. And they do try, only soon to get stuck. ‘Dropbox’ app is easy to recognise, the second hungry process ‘mds‘  is actually the indexer of Spotlight.

Dropbox was clearly working hard on synchronising files to the Cloud, but what was mds doing? I did recently move around a large number of files, this may have invalidated Spotlight index, and it is trying to rebuild it. All fine, but I always thought that only happened when the machine was not being used. Furthermore, I expected that Spotlight indexer wouldn’t make the UI unresponsive. I was wrong in both cases.

I found out that when Spotlight get into such an aggressive reindexing, Finder.app also stops being responsive. This has some consequences: some apps appear to work fine, I can launch other apps and they may be snappy and all, as long as they don’t go anywhere near Finder.app. The overall impression is that the Mac is unstable without any app appearing to be hanging. How is this possible? Then I remembered what I always chided Windows, the fact that some tasks were unnecessarily channelled via UI layer stack, making them sluggish and prone to get stuck. That’s the same behaviour I was now observing.

force_quit_spotlight_indexer_for_responsiveness

 

To confirm my hypothesis, as soon as I killed the Spotlight indexer, Finder.app, Preview.app an others immediately became responsive again. I repeated the experiment many times over before writing this post.

I found another sure way to get Preview.app stuck, any attempt to rename a file, move it to a new location, or add tags to it directly from Preview.app menu, will cause both Preview.app and Finder.app to become unresponsive for a long time.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 22.45.27

 

My conclusion, from here, was that, some of the standard apps that ship with OS X Yosemite contain a certain amount of code that are very old or simply badly designed. Such code, typically the work of UI framework enthusiasts or design principles of another era, would traverse a UI layer stack for tasks like disk and network access, although they shouldn’t have to.

Most users would typically get frustrated and decide that OS X is just bad software, others might think about rebuilding their machine. I just looked briefly into it, didn’t bother digging up too much into the SDKs, APIs and other kernel debugging tricks to get to the true bottom of it.

 

 

Macaw is just what I wanted

I get inspired when I can visually tinker with experience design. This is the reason that Macaw.co got my attenion and I adopted it almost immediately. I finally found a product that allows me to do that, from Macaw.co, a recently launched rapid web UI prototyping tool. It’s got its warts, being brand new, but I like it and I expect it to do well.

I get inspired when I can visually tinker with experience design. This is the reason that Macaw.co got my attenion and I adopted it almost immediately.

Macaw user interface
blank canvas in Macaw

I hailed Twitter Bootstrap when it was launched. It helped me and many others  with UI prototype work. Some seemed to prefer deploying Bootstrap default experience with little change. I don’t like that much. I would often customise the look & feel to make it a bit proprietary. Over time I came to realise that I didn’t particularly enjoy tweaking and tuning the myriad features exposed through the LESS assets. There is nothing wrong or limited with Bootstrap per se. Web browser development tools are also a good help for quickly trying out UI ideas. There are many online sites such as codepen that help you experiment with snippets and small features. These are all fine but, I just wasn’t getting inspired by any of it. What these tools lacked – that would get me excited – was the ability to just draw my idea of an entire page as I envision it, tinker only with the drawing, and then immediately get the code behind without resorting to any extra artifices. There is an emerging bunch of tools that allow you do that in a cost effective manner.

I discovered that my way of tinkering with web design worked better if I could do it visually. As I examine visual elements I get more ideas and I can iterate quicker. Going back and forth to the LESS source files and tuning design was too slow to entice me. I am not a designer by education so I make lots and lots of tweaking before I like something. As a kid I used to love drawing things. I would typically start by drawing a line or some randomly curved shape, then as I added to that some kind of shape would start to emerge and I would finalise my drawing that way. If I ended up drawing a horse or a house that was usually not even in my mind when I started. That was my way of playing with pen and pencil. It seems that is also how I can enjoy doing UI work.

For a long time I relied on Omnigraffle, not really a web design tool, and Pixelmator, also not a real UI web design tool. I’ve used Adobe FireWorks on and off for years. FireWorks is a nice tool but it never got me excited much. It seemed that I couldn’t find any product out there that I would want to stick to. That changed recently.

There’s a new product that allows you to visually design what you want, then get a baseline html and css code that embodies that. It’s called Macaw. I saw a brief video announcing its features and immediately decided to buy a license when it shipped. I got a copy at the beginning of this month, started using it, and it felt right away that this was how I always wanted to work with web design.

Aside from the immediate feedback, one benefit I particularly appreciate with Macaw is that the authoring assistants are intuitive and help you just the right way. As a non-negligeable bonus it generates a minimal base code that can be directly fed into an application design. Here are two radically different design I made with it.

macaw - design prototyping example
macaw – design prototyping example
Web UI Prototyping with Macaw
Web UI Prototyping with Macaw

I create these artefacts just like I would in Omnigraffle, however the whole experience of manipulating the elements fits perfectly with the job: desiging a web front-end. Once done, the code that Macaw generates is clean and minimal, it does link to jQuery though. So, I could just take the code I get from this and embed it in the application code. This approach is more to the point, and more efficient than say using a free html template downloaded from the web.

macaw generated css
macaw generated css
macaw generated source files
macaw generated source files

Before Macaw I tried several products of which many are online solutions. I won’t list them since this isn’t really a posting on product comparison. While lots of nice experiences are available I was often disappointed with the code that got generated. The problem I expect to solve with these tools is to get started with a clean slate and be able to repurpose code with minimal effort. This means that I didn’t want any dependencies in the code and that seemed almost impossible to achieve. For this reason I couldn’t settle for anything in particular and kept on to a traditional model where the UI design assets were fairly remote from the code produced to implement it. I don’t need to do that anymore, I can rely on Macaw to visually tinker with prototype designs.

Of course when it comes to serious web crafting like making animations or complex interactions Macaw wouldn’t fit the bill. Webflow for example seems to be another nice one, particularly suited to animation rich UIs. The produced code embeds relatively proprietary JavaScript code. And the business model seemed to be favourable to repeat uses or even hosted solutions. For my particular needs I saw these as compromises I didn’t really want. And honestly I would just hire a professional designer if the experience is complex or that it needs to be very sophisticated. I am an IS&T architect who believe in all-round craftsmanship. I want to deliver the whole solution. If it needs to look spiffy and flashy then I call out to professional designers.

Having used the product for a little while now, I am convinced that Macaw is the tool that I was missing so far. I can now deliver complete end-to-end experiences to clients with the tools that I am comfortable with.

My Blog has got a new coat, WordPress 3.8 ‘Parker’

Wordpress 3.8 “Parker”

I’ve just upgraded to WordPress 3.8, with some minor tweaks to make it my own. I like the aesthetics of this new release, Lato works well on several resolutions. Exo would be my second choice. Choosing a typeface is one of the things I need to avoid, I just can’t seem to be perfectly happy with any free ones and buying one for such a very casual blog would be senseless.

I’m actually not sure how much longer I’ll keep running this blog on WordPress, a database is just not needed to support a simple blog. Perhaps they’d fork it eventually, or I’ll just move to a markdown powered software. We’ll see.

It is time for a smart mobile device on the go, and wireless peripherals everywhere

The ultimate convenience in personal computing is to carry very little with you and have everything available at hand wherever you may be. To make a rather tangent parallel, when you see celebrities or powerful people travelling they never seem to be carrying anything at all, and that’s because there are small armies of people doing that for them. In computing, that small personal army would be your smartphone or tablet, such that when you actually need access to bulky stuff (printers, projectors, large display) they are available on the premise where you are. I imagine a (very) near future where all you need is a good smartphone on you, and dumb wireless terminals wherever you go. Perhaps not even a smartphone per sé, but a smart device that holds your identity and most personal items so that you can experience them on all nearby by-you authorised peripheral devices

I imagine a (very) near future where all you need is a good smartphone on you, and dumb wireless terminals wherever you go. Perhaps not even a smartphone per sé, but a smart device that holds your identity and most personal items so that you can experience them on all nearby by-you authorised peripheral devices. Here are the signs that point to this.

Smartphones and tablets cost more than your average PC

Don’t take my word for it, look up any online or offline store for PCs. Do the same for smartphones and tablets, compare the prices, you’ll see that they’re very close. So, if you are going to buy a PC, you probably can afford a smart mobile device and you are likely to choose for the latter due to the superior convenience and personalisation.

Smart devices have your most relevant and up to date data

Again, if you’re using one you won’t have any doubt about that. I actually craved for this for years and tried every generation of products that I could afford to buy in my time. I wasn’t nearly satisfied until I got my first iPhone, a 3G model when they first came out. With either a smartphone or a tablet, you have Internet with you and you can access your email and do banking, collaborate on documents.

Main PC uses: browse, store print or share things, play.

A smartphone or tablet can perform very well everything a PC can do, but the converse is not true. It is more convenient to browse the Internet with a smartphone or tablet, than it is to do it with a PC. Beyond that, you can also store things or share things without a PC. In fact, you may be better off storing things in the Cloud than keeping them on a PC. Printing from smartphone and tablet has been relatively elusive until printers started to evolve too. Actually, wherever there is a printer there is also a good functioning PC nearby. So, if you’ve already got a PC it is likely that it works well and you have no reason to upgrade it. Mobile gaming on smartphones and tablets is taking off seriously. There’s not much left that you could be missing.

My 5 year old laptop is still amazing

I wrote a couple of posts about my Macbook Pro in this blog. They are still relevant, it’s still incredibly snappy and robust. I did recently experience a problem, which might actually be an unpublicised bug with OSX Mavericks (previous blog post entry). Since writing that post, the second disk appears to be back online, as if nothing ever happened, and I haven’t lost any data because I didn’t rush to reformat the disk or anything like that. Other than this brief issue with the disk, the laptop remains speedy and responsive. The tasks that my ageing laptop doesn’t cope well with include: deeply technical tasks such as compiling complex toolkits, simultaneously running multiple OS on VM, I don’t do any video processing but I’m sure it will be slower doing that compare to contemporary machines. When you look at these tasks though, you see that you actually want those to run on the Cloud rather than locally. Cloud hosting is no longer just for data centers, it’s becoming attractive for consumers too (see Amazon new GPU announcement).

In closing

The ultimate convenience in personal computing is to carry very little with you and have everything available at hand wherever you may be. To make a rather tangent parallel, when you see celebrities or powerful people travelling they never seem to be carrying anything at all, and that’s because there are small armies of people doing that for them. In computing, that small personal army would be your smartphone or tablet, such that when you actually need access to bulky stuff (printers, projectors, large display) they are available on the premise where you are. A smart device affords everybody a kind of celebrity privilege except for the publicity stuff, and I suspect lots of fashion moves were motivated by the layman’s envying what the privileged few have got.

I dislike hype, it’s almost pathological. This makes me feel like coming up with contrarian arguments in reaction to most articles I read these days that talk about computing technology market. This feeling is reinforced by the impression that many of these analysts are simply posturing with no work whatsoever to back up their writings. This is also seen in many articles on the so-called post-PC era. So if they can get away with it, I feel entitled to risk some thoughts on the subject.

Kids Mode on Tablets and Smartphones

Kids Mode is sorely lacking in the smartphones and tablets available today. I see no reason why that is, and it’s very simple to implement if the vendors could be bothered. In this post, I present a trivial model that would go a long way in improving the situation.

If you have a young child, as I have, you might have encountered situations where you wish your smartphone or tablet had a Kids Mode. Somehow this simple-to-build feature is totally absent. Some of the consequences, as I’ve experienced, include:

  • in the middle of a game play, the child is presented with a popup dialog asking to purchase an extra game option. Obviously the kid has no idea, this is a frustrating interruption.
  • your kid, trying to get on with a game session, would randomly accept whatever is being asked, thus spending your money with sometimes terrible consequences
  • while playing a game, a gesture may be accidentally triggered, taking the kid away from the game they were playing. Another frustrating experience.
  • a notification may randomly just pop up, typically from another app, which clearly isn’t relevant in the context.

Had the tablet and smartphone makers considered this need, they would have built in simple features that game developers (or any app maker targeting a young audience) could implement. Here is a very simple example of how that could work technically.

A simple object model
A simple object model

With this in place, the system would provide an API to game developers so that they can read in the settings and take them into account. Additionally, the game developer may add game-specific control, a limit that (would be deemed acceptable) parents could set when they install the game for the first time. If the defined cap is reached, the app or the system would require a password for changing the limit, and even that could be made optional and silent, to ensure the child enjoys an unfettered experience.

Such a super simple feature would save lots of frustrations. In fact, I think someday this could become regulated if lots of people start complaining about the situation.

I read in the rumour mills that Apple was planning to introduce a Kids section to their App Store. It made me wonder, why stop half way? why not build a pervasive model that can help  even more? These companies could get even an intern to build such a feature in no time, and eagerly encourage developers to adopt it. Clearly, if someone made a good app they won’t need any sneaky way of making more money by trapping young people (the way it feels right now if nothing is done to manage it). I thought about this issue earlier, but now I had an excuse to blog about it.

iOS tip, iPhone and iPad: double tap the navigation bar to quickly jump to the top

on iOS, iPhone and iPad, if you browse back and forth through a long list of items, sometimes you want to jump straight back to the top. We are used to this with web sites, but not necessarily when using native apps. I discovered this tip by just trying around, could be

I somehow randomly discovered this trick a long time ago, could be a few years, and I’ve just come to rely on it all the time. I wondered if many people knew about it, hence this post.

If you’re browsing a list, typically Safari web browser, Twitter timeline, Facebook, anything that has a scrollable list, you can jump straight back to the top with a gentle double tap somewhere on the navigation bar. I use it so often that I don’t even know when I first started. It could be a time saver for those who browse back and forth through a long list of items.

Caveat: if the app you are using has buttons on the navigation bar, you want to avoid tapping those. But I found that any free space on that navigation bar will work the same way.

Skeuomorphism is right, in the apps, perhaps not much in the base platform itself

Any design when tastefully done can delight users. Any design that is tastelessly done would only highlight every other shortcoming there may be in the object being presented to users. Skeuomorphism isn’t good or bad in itself, but it would be more suited to the apps and not the underlying platform.

Arguing whether skeuomorphism is good or bad is utterly pointless. The real argument is whether a platform should be the flag bearer or not. I know a lot of prominent bloggers wrote the opposite, I’m not sure if they’re just going with the flow or really giving this topic a serious thought. Anyway, going with the flow isn’t something for me, certainly not in this case.

Any design when tastefully done can delight users. Any design that is tastelessly done would only highlight every other shortcoming there may be in the object being presented to users.

Great technology should get out of user’s way and just allow unfettered creative expression. A platform is ultimately a place of happenings, where the vendor or moderator wants to attract people and let them express their creativity. Imagine a London Westend theater with a permanent set of stage prompts for every single performance, that would be overbearing for sure. In this sense, if the platform itself is too loud and too expressive, it creates unnecessary noise that may drown the creative message being brought forward by its users.

Flat or not, skeuomorphism or not, the platform should give way to the creative work of its users. In this context, I would welcome a UI refresh of iOS. This is what I appreciate in Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, Flipboard, all these platforms that don’t push themselves too much in your face. In some respect, the current version of iTunes on iOS and Apple’s web store, illustrate the kind of UI refresh that would be nice to see across the board on iOS7.

I wouldn’t enjoy a context where all the major platforms would look the same and keep copying each other, that would defeat the very idea of creativity. Diversity is a good thing in all contexts, it’s how we thrive and evolve.

An intelligent take on the non-sense ranting about Skeuomorphism

Joel Hladecek says, “Essentially, every user interface on Earth is ornamentally referencing and representing other unrelated materials, interfaces and elements. The only questions are: what’s it representing, and by how much?”

This is a thoughtful article, the first one I have read since somebody somehow sparked a non-sensical debate going on in recent months. The author says eloquently what I’ve been thinking, my favourite excerpt is this:

Essentially, every user interface on Earth is ornamentally referencing and representing other unrelated materials, interfaces and elements.  The only questions are: what’s it representing, and by how much?

Read up the whole article here: Why Apple’s Interfaces Will Be Skeuomorphic Forever, And Why Yours Will Be Too