software

All posts tagged software

Don’t get me wrong. The people at MacUpdate usually do a great job of managing and taking user feedback. But even with their careful curation of Mac & iOS apps that receive updates (sometimes numbering close to 100 OS X apps alone in one day), things slip through the cracks. I wasted about 5 minutes trying to figure out why an updated app was not available via one-click update using the built in software updater nor MacUpdate’s Desktop app. After going to MacUpdate, it was only by reading the comment and then hovering above the download link that the answer was clear: the app was a beta, and using the built-in update tools both within the native app & the MacUpdate Desktop App wouldn’t work. Even though I have “show beta/pre-release” unchecked, it still showed up in the MacUpdate Desktop list.

I realized the problem when looking at the comment and the confusion about version numbers used and how Adobe doesn’t distinguish betas with “b” or “(beta).” Then I took a few minutes to write this. The focus is not what MacUpdate did — it is an edge case which reflects more poorly on Adobe. Instead it is a example of what UI designers everywhere are doing to the detriment of both advanced and novice users everywhere.

Making Simplicity Difficult (Form Over Function)

If you accept that the purpose of computers is to make tasks easier to accomplish than doing them without them, then what follows is logical. When the interface gets so polished the labels are rubbed off, advanced features are hidden or removed, and labels are replaced unlabeled/undocumented icons, it leads to problems using an application no matter what type of device the application runs on. Here is my brief comment on that.

I don’t mind clean, nice-looking interface (I strive to balance aesthetics with easy-to-access, powerful features), but don’t let streamlined designs actually slow productivity; whether that productivity is actually getting work done or doing administrative tasks such as updating your software.

This confusion is a clear case of form over function, which is the wrong direction (unless you’re selling soda or commodities…) for computing interfaces to head because it handicaps learning via obscuring helpful, orientating/navigating details and slows advanced users.

If the trend in UIs were to spill over in the real word, we would see street signs replaced with pictures of maps and street addresses removed from the front, and instead only inside each building. Menus boards would have descriptions and prices hidden, until a person opened a flap to read the price and description.

In houses rather than work aesthetics around function, some streamlined houses would only have one control panel that controlled all the lighting, heating, etc. but that panel would be fixed next to the circuit breaker box. If a house had individual light switches, they’d be placed at whim of a designer who never lived or had even been in a house. Some would be oriented at any angle the designer liked and on any surface — some nowhere near the door or on one or both sides of the door. Some switches would glow only when they were off, and not when they are on, and vice versa which is actually happening with electronic switches. All building layouts would depend on the whim of a designer that had no concept of architectural design patterns nor a care about the building’s function.

This current trend toward “flatness” that was a backlash against “skeuomorphic” design of last generation all dance around the real point of GUIs: to make things easier by giving feedback to users that allows them to assess both current application state and orient where they are in the system. The trend is stripping away both of these, making things harder to use, not easier. Sadly, people think simplifying the interface will help users whose learning is being retarded by confusing inconsistent and low-feedback designs. This over-simplification is in fact hurting more than helping. This is because simple is not necessarily a synonym for easy. (Easy things are simple, but simple things are not always easy oddly enough.) Product managers and designers think people want simple, when they really want easy. Making things easy should be the focus. The easier a more complex the task is, the more useful your software.

Making Complexity Easy (Form Follows Function)

Designers should look for the frustrating points and the complex points and make complex tasks as easy as possible — which means removing steps if it can be done without making the user’s knowledge have to ramp up greater than the complex steps.

This is my Menubar. This is easy:

menubar

It is very dense with information. By looking at it you can see with a glance that Bluetooth is on, I’m connected to the network with light traffic, my processor load, my sound volume, the day & date, my current battery level (full) & that I am plugged in, the time, the moon phase, the CPU temperature & CPU voltage draw. I could have the default OS X menubar, but then I wouldn’t be able to see this without opening applications, slowing me down. I often refer to network speeds and CPU load when something seems bogged down. I often check the date and time, and that calendat icon pulls down so I can see my schedule in Fantastical without opening the Calendar App. The functionality is available if I pull down my sound menu is Audio Switcher.

audio-switcher

All these save me time each use. The march of Menu Items and GUI Enhancements I use all take a complex array of data, navigation, and bother of doing complex things and make some of them a click or less away. While this might be ugly to some, it is not distracting and works well. This is my current balance point, but with each stripping down towards “simplicity,” this ease becomes more difficult. Thankfully the developers of iStat Menus, Fantastical, Bartender, Audio Switcher, Moom, TotalFinder, Default Folder X, Alfred and PopCar (among others) see the problem that streamlined interfaces bring. But rather than strip away information, they strive to arrange information in a way that is not overwhelming and give user configurable interfaces to really harness the power of a GUI. These companies (while not all perfect — some have fallen into this hole at least slightly) have UI designers, not artists making flat colorful mystery icons with unpredictable UIs that confuse people calling themselves UX designers.

(I think of myself more as a User/Communication Efficiency type of person, so while the “UX Designer” title sounds fancy, I’d rather be a “User Interface Communication Efficiency Designer” to put the emphasis not of the “experience” of using a product, but on the efficient use of communications media available. Plus, UICED sounds like a term that could be played with. But titles are kind of limiting in a way… so I’ll just be myself. When people ask me my title, I just sum it up to say “IT Consultant” since whenever I actually start to talk tech I notice most people’s eyes glaze over.)

I try to focus on what matters to get work done, so I can get work done with less effort and faster. Anything that gets hinders more than helps my efforts falls out of use. BTW, if you are not familiar with these products, many are mentioned and linked on my Recommended Apps page. You can also check out MacUpdate.com and see the trove of software — most at least decent — that they list. They are good guys, so if you see errors, write them and be nice please. They will get back to you if needed with a personally written reply, which is always worth a star in my book. “When I was a kid several days of Mac SW updates could fit on one page… now several pages might span one day.”

Thanks for reading.

Instead of your usual complain-o-train-o-thought, I thought I would take a minute to mention a few apps I use on my iOS devices routinely to get things done. Now, even if you aren’t a developer or a tech, some of these are great for everyone.

My first nod goes to Pastebot, which I probably mentioned before. It allows you to copy and paste between your iOS device and your Mac via WiFi. And interestingly enough, if you have 2 Pastebot iOS clients running, they can see each other if there is a Mac they are both linked to. If only they could see each other on there own, this would be even better for things like addresses your S.O. has to usually send via text message.

Evernote has been on the upswing in use lately as well: the ability to sync notes between all your devices and share them with others is great. I signed up for a paid account to allow others to actually edit my notes. It works pretty well, although I wish they would handle collisions more gracefully.

If you are on app.net, hAppy is my favorite client there. It’s patter room integration (think IRC styled chat) and clean look make it my first choice client.

In case you are the indecisive one, there is an app called Decide Now! that allows you to construct a wheel of fortune where you enter up to 20 items then spin the wheel to see what comes up. My girlfriend and I occasionally use it to pick a restaurant to go to: South Paw, Old Jerusalem, Zante Pizza, Mioshi, Alborz, Streat Food… what will it be tonight?

And for scheduling, I prefer Fantasical (on both iOS and the OS X). Sure the built in calendar works, but Fantasical uses natural language such as “Meet Lisa noon to 2 at Just For You.” Even better, if you have a date and time in your clipboard when you open Fantasical on iOS it will offer to create an event for it.

1Password for iOS is a must if you have 1Password on any other device, and you should be using a password manager in case you aren’t.

My Browser of choice on iOS is Mercury. Fast, elegant, easy tabbed interface. About the only thing I could ask for is 1Password integration & the ability to copy links to the clipboard (for Pastebot).

When I have to feed a meter, I use Parkbud to keep track of my time there. It takes second to set the meter using either a dial or a 10-key, and has a configurable reminder you set to 3 or 5 or {whatever} minutes (either globally or per session)  so you don’t get back to you car with a ticket. Also you can put a pin on the map where you parked and take a picture of the meter number in case you have to phone in additional minutes.

If you have a DynamicDNS account, FreeDNS makes it easy to update the service with wherever you are at. This is only important if you use domain names as part of your net security.

To look at the TV schedule I prefer TitanTV because you can set multiple locations and switch between them easily, without having to go through setup each time like TVBuddy makes you do. This is a simply feature TVBuddy refuses to add, and why I deleted them off my phone.

Like TV but don’t have time to catch your favorites? Hulu+ to the rescue (as long as the show isn’t on TBS, CBS or some other *BS station). It’s low monthly rate of $8 makes it a lot easier to stay current and find back episodes of shows rather than have to either wait 6 months for the season DVDs or search for bit torrents to download, and risk the dreaded “Copyright violation” warning letter from you ISP. (Comcast loves handing them out to cafés and other public WiFi establishments even if they are on business class, and the comcast boxes don’t allow café to control who downloads what from where.)

But when I am not blocking ports, one of my favorite things is listening to music, but where Pandora seems to sit in a rut (another 20 year old song) or go completely off the rails (“Just-a-douche Beeber? Does Pandora think I’m a 12 year old?”) , there is Discovr Music. It’s graphic node-based music discovery makes the act of finding new artists fun. It links to the web to play music and videos from various services as well. If you prefer artists that know that you’re supposed to use a toilet and not a mop bucket in a restaurant kitchen and artists who aren’t amateur drinkers, check it out.

In case you just want to listen to your music, I would just grab TraktorDJ and call it a day. Plus playlists sync between it and the full blown Traktor. Sure there are other good to great DJ apps, but this one feature makes putting together a playlist something you can do in bed.

In case you don’t have enough to buy this September, there is also GiftPlanner: a way to remember gifts for that someone special, even if that someone is you. you can categorize gifts by person, price, or date, and keep it secret from his or her prying eyes with a 4 digit passcode (I prefer the last 4 of Pi). If you have a URL on the clipboard it will offer to import the item and the image. If it is in meatspace, you can take a picture of it as well. Then you can track the progress from “Saving for it” to “ordered,” “delivered,” “wrapped” and finally “given.” Trust me, doing it this way (sneakily taking a note when something catches your S.O.’s eye) prevent step six: “returned and S.O. points loss.”

Okay, so this time I only covered general purpose apps. Maybe next I will get into more developer, tech oriented things. Thanks for reading.