Episode Sixty Eight: The iPad; The Difficulty; Tools; Silly

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m sat here at Building 16 at Facebook’s Menlo Park campus with a Diet Coke. It’s a pretty normal Monday morning.

1.0 The iPad

I’m an iPad/tablet bull. Yes, there’s all this guff about the iPad’s sales being flat and not growing. But hey, here’s my incredibly naive view of the situation:

– if you’re deciding between a phone or a tablet, you buy the phone first.

– there’s a genuine question as to how much computing power (and in what form factor) different types of audience need. There’s nothing wrong with the vast majority of people being OK with a 5 inch “phone”/terminal.

– tablets are decidedly eating the majority of mundane tasks that laptops were used for *outside of the business market*. This is the parent market: people who *had* to buy laptops before if they wanted to participate in the ‘net, who now have a different operating system choice that is significantly easier to use thanks to the simple addition of direct manipulation in the user interface.

– the iPad isn’t done yet. I do think the software is behind the hardware in this case. With iPads Retina and Air, you have some pretty great hardware, similarly so in the Android space. For the iPad, it’s expanding out and (I touch on this below) improving inter-app communication and making workflow better. I genuinely wonder that the single-screen application mode is a sort of Apple-esque enforcement-on-high that is *not* equivalent to the single-button mouse decision that doesn’t completely aid ease of use. Sure, it allows for ease of use in some situations, but it does wall off others. And there isn’t the kind of keyboard-option-click hack in this situation for taking in multiple pieces of information and synthesizing something new.

– Personally, the iPad (and I’m still on the first Retina generation) only really works for me in terms of consumption (and yes, I know, not *all* iPad uses are consumption only) and in the specific work use-case of me a) receiving lots of email, b) having to look at PDFs, c) replying with comments about those PDFs. Sometimes I even look at video. But that’s it. I don’t even write this newsletter on it because I don’t have a keyboard case, and compared to my laptop where I can hit around 80wpm – well, it’d be particularly masochistic to force myself to write it on an iPad just to make a point.

– But, you know, this is Apple’s MO. Solve problems for the base first, in terms of ease of use, and then work upwards. So far, it’s working.

2.0 The Difficulty

I had a number of thoughtful replies to my note about my depression the other day. It’s something that comes and goes. And, every single time I write about it, I hear from new people who say that they’re relieved to see someone else write publicly about it. I don’t know if it’s more prevalent in the tech community. I suspect that the public face of depression is still the tip of an iceberg, that its true prevalence is something that isn’t internalised by people, not properly understood, which again makes sense because it’s an internal illness that manifests itself in less easy to empathise with external symptoms.

But, and here’s the thing I have to remind myself of, that I’m writing down this time. Today, I’m fine. Today, I woke up, and got myself out of bed (and it didn’t take too long, this time), and I plugged myself into the network and connected with people and I don’t feel alone in my head. I don’t have that self-loathing. So, as it always does, it passed. And this time I’m grateful that it was only for a couple days, and instead not the weeks or months it has been for before.

Even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time, even though it’s super-easy for me to rationalise why it happened or what I could’ve done about it, it’s hard to remember that it passes and it’s just temporary. Or, is more temporary than it’s been before.

So I’m writing this down for me, as much as anyone else: it passes.

3.0 Tools

Frank Chimero has a post up entitled No New Tools[1] where I think there are some interesting points for the kind of products that might be successful in the future. Chimero talks about the curse of the early-adopter – the kind of person whose brain is tweaked to respond to a certain kind of novelty, predisposed to being interested in new ways of doing things. Try this new app, this service: this new thing will be better than the old thing.

In some ways, I think this is a peculiarly American phenomenon – and by that, I mean yes: it exists around the world, but as I spend more time here, there’s a lot more of American culture that I start noticing. There’s a work ethic here, sure, a hangover from the Protestant colonists and the great narrative of the American Dream – work hard, rise up. And when that narrative is so strong, who doesn’t want a hand in working hard, in rising up? And so, simplistically: the entire self-help book movement.

Chimero’s point is that tools should reduce pain, induce pleasure or do some mix of the two. And that if you’re not accomplishing either of those goals, then those tools are, essentially, a waste of time. They’re not moving anything forward. At worst, they’re moving things backward.

Where Chimero’s post struck me was when he looked at technology that increase pain and reduce pleasure, and as an example, rhetorically asked: who wants to have perpetually visible email notifications?

Inevitably, this is where I set out my user empathy stall. Taking the time to properly understand a set of users – and, I think, it does make a crucial difference when you shift from describing your audience as people and not users, the latter already makes a set of assumptions that may not be correct or desirable – would, I hope, lead to someone asking: what are the axes that we’re hoping to produce a better product or service against? Is the axis *only* productivity? Are there other ways to impact productivity?

When Chimero talks of the basic tools of text editor, spreadsheet, email, pencil, paper, Photoshop – there’s a lot in there to untease, I feel. There’s the element of comfort – we know how to use familiar tools. Because of that, there’s less distraction. Less futzing around with figuring out how to do something in the new (often less) efficient way.

He’s right, though, that there’s a trend toward ideological tools, rather than a sort of platonic ideal of a simple tool like a bare-bones text-editor. But I think that that trend also reflects the needs of attracting attention in order to build a viable audience for that tool. The tools themselves need to present themselves to you and persuade you to use them.

It’s hard then to see how you could get a genuinely *better* tool, because the promise of digital tools should be better workflow, amongst others. Chimero is, I think, biased in his examples towards tools that work in single-user environments, where perhaps the case for no-new-tools is more justifiable.

I think that’s what Chimero is asking for: design for workflow, and not necessarily for task completion. Or, rather, that increasingly the way we work involves workflow, so the “tools” you get are things like Slack (part of the Butterfield/Henderson Act 2 of “thing we accidentally make from a game”). Because I don’t buy the argument that we don’t need new tools. It’s telling that Chimero argues that our best tool is language, because I think what he’s essentially arguing is that our best tool is communication.

Perhaps this is what feels somewhat stunted about the mobile apps space right now: while all the interest and growth is in being able to replicate social graphs thanks to the hilariously backward notion of “address books” populated with phone numbers and email addresses. While a first-layer graph is being constructed, when Chimero talks about language/communication and the idea of Getting Things Done and Couch to 5K, he’s talking about “big idea” ideas, ideas that can be executed in lots of different ways. Sure, you can buy a notebook or put on your running shoes. But I think that’s needlessly reactionary and sort of cutting off your nose to spite yourself: if only we were more disciplined about our usage of technology to use what was genuinely useful.

So perhaps the thing about devising new methods of work is a lack of inter-application and inter-process communication. Sure, Android has it in spades, but the reality of the situation is that the better-designed applications *feel* like they’re hitting iOS first. If the thing is about making a program for people, and the thing about people (these days, more than ever) is that they communicate with other people, then inter-process/inter-application communication needs to be a thing, and it’s an area where iOS is sorely lacking. Maybe, sigh all the iOS developers, this year’s WWDC will be different.

Making a program for people relies on a) understanding people (yes, my empathy soap box), but also b) programs that can communicate amongst themselves in the way that humans expect to.

[1] http://frankchimero.com/blog/no-new-tools/

4.0 Silly

I’m in the Bay Area for some work with Facebook today, so I found myself in the back of an Uber on the way down to Menlo Park. I mean, it’s a bit ridiculous *when you think about it* about being in the back of an internet-hailed black car, using a high-rez laptop with a day long battery life, plugged into an LTE modem and the internet. So then things got a bit silly on Twitter[1]. Here’s a tweaked prose version of what I was wittering on about:

She was jacked into the ‘net in the back of a speeding car, an ultra-high-rez aluminium laptop hooked up to a 20 megabit LTE terminal, plugged into Facebook and Twitter: a global network, updated in real-time, a street of populated by over a billion people.

Then: she was in. The Feed. Millions of status updates scrolling past in 227ppi high-resolution in real-time, seamlessly distributed around the world according to the HyperText Transfer Protocol. The Feed had made people who could understand microcode Gods around the world. They controlled the flow of information. Distributed it. Even the Stock Market ran on Hyper Text Transfer Protocol now. And she was one of the few who understood it. Understood the code behind it. Since she was a coder, one of the new gods, she could reach inside the Hyper Text Protocol and use a Firebug to literally change the information.

But, those days were behind her. She put her Android Cyanogen Mod phone away, and went back to work. Stringing for Gawker didn’t bring in the cash it used to. Sure, maybe she could find a few choice tweets, retweet them, boost her Klout for a free burger at McDonalds. But it had been months since she’d found a tidbit on Secret good enough to pass on to Biddle before he’d seen it.

So, in the meantime: “Do you want that tall, grande or venti?”

Because while her hacking days might be over, she was doing what America was great at doing. Serving coffee, on a zero-hours contract.

[1] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/460810201654771714

Okay, that’s Monday. I’m in the Bay Area through Wednesday night, in town for the Facebook Developers conference. If you’re around, say hi!

As ever, send notes. Lots of you have. Some more of you haven’t. You should, because a) they’re nice, and b) you get a nice reply.

Best,

Dan