Category Archives: User Experience

Micro.blog conversations gesture

I just submitted a new update to the Micro.blog iOS app. It adds a couple new features, including better support for quickly toggling off cross-posting, but what I’m most excited about is swiping to view conversations. Here’s a 45-second screencast demo:

It should be out in a couple of days after Apple approves the release. Thanks for supporting Micro.blog.

No applause for retweets

DHH writes about how Basecamp is experimenting with removing their “applause” feature — the clap icon that Medium has also recently adopted:

But as I read through the replies from the few dozen people who answered the question on any given day, I was faced with the dilemma of the clap. If I applauded an update from Sam yesterday, but don’t today, does that mean I’m expressing discontent with the most recent work? If I don’t applaud for Javan on the same day as I applaud for Sam, does that mean I’m parting favor of one over the other?

The problem with these “just click a button instead of sending an actual reply” features is that they fool us into thinking we’ve done something meaningful by clicking. Anyone can click a Twitter heart button to show that they’ve noticed a tweet or enjoyed it. It takes very little effort and doesn’t mean much.

On Micro.blog, favorites are private. They are just for your own use, like bookmarks. We’ve found that the lack of public likes encourages people to reply to posts instead, even if it’s just a quick “Thanks!” or “That’s great!” or other comment. It’s a little more meaningful because it requires a bit of effort.

In an interview with Piers Morgan, Trump said something revealing when pressed on his retweets of a racist group:

Well, I know nothing about them. I did a retweet. You know, retweets… sometimes you do… retweets are very different. When you do your own tweeting, when you do your own social media, it’s fine. When you do those retweets, sometimes they can cause problems.

What Trump is trying to say is that retweets aren’t as important as a tweet you type yourself. Retweets encourage a sort of thoughtless approach to sharing.

We don’t like retweet counts or follower counts in the UI of Micro.blog, because it’s another place for judgement — “this person must not be very interesting if they have so few followers” — instead of letting someone’s content speak for itself. Likes, claps, and retweets aren’t a substitute for a real conversation. We’ll eventually have some form of public reactions on Micro.blog, but we aren’t in any hurry to get there.

Don’t worry about numbers

Rather than New Year’s resolutions, Aleen Simms has a list of liberations for 2018: things to let go of and not worry about. In particular I like this one about not looking at numbers:

Twitter followers, podcast download stats, blog post views, the scale, whatever. Life isn’t a video game. Happiness doesn’t have a numerical value attached to it.

It mirrors a philosophy we have with Micro.blog to launch without follower counts or public likes. Follower counts are not very useful for a new platform. They add anxiety and unavoidably lead to value judgements when considering whether to follow someone, instead of letting the quality of someone’s writing and photos speak for itself.

Andy Flisher posted to his microblog about how Facebook takes the opposite approach, encouraging the numbers game:

Facebook has genuinely ‘encouraged’ me to get more likes for my birthday than I did last year! 🤯 No wonder the youngsters are growing up so needy for likes and follows, not healthy 🙁

A social network doesn’t have to be like this. Micro.blog is a way to post to a web site that you control, and a place to discover and talk with other members of the community. Micro.blog is not a popularity contest.

Major update to Micro.blog today

Micro.blog is now available to anyone. There’s a limit of 100 new sign-ups each day, so that we can better respond to feedback as the community grows. Thanks so much to the thousands of Kickstarter backers and new users who have helped us improve the platform this year.

We’re also rolling out the following improvements across the web, iOS, and Mac versions of Micro.blog:

Mac icon

  • New app icons on iOS and Mac! We love this redesign by Brad Ellis. Micro.blog now feels much more at home on macOS.
  • Added photo upload to the web version of Micro.blog.
  • Added a “Show More” button to load more posts in the timeline on iOS and Mac.
  • Fixed Discover section in iOS and Mac to allow selecting posts.
  • Improved iOS sharing from Safari to include the page title in addition to URL and selected text.
  • Experiment with following domain name user accounts. The first is @nytimes.com, letting you see headlines from The New York Times home page in your timeline. (This is not affiliated with the New York Times. It’s possible because Micro.blog works with RSS feeds.)

Plus a bunch of minor improvements and bug fixes. You can download the latest versions of Micro.blog from the iOS App Store or directly for your Mac.

Twitter threads

Twitter announced today they will make it easier to chain tweets together in the official app. John Gruber summarizes the pro-tweetstorm argument on Daring Fireball:

This is a good idea. People are creating threads without official support, so true support can only make it better.

The problem is that Twitter threads take the place of blog posts. Most people won’t think to switch to their blog instead of firing off a series of tweets, but some will. Promoting Twitter threads to such a prominent place in the UI will encourage more people to create Twitter threads. It will lead to more content in Twitter and less on the open web.

Micro.blog takes a different approach. When you type over 280 characters, instead of offering to split it into multiple posts in a thread, it reveals a title field and lets you turn it into a full blog post. I feel really good about this solution because the UI actively tries to make the web a little better instead of worse.

iPhone X home screen

I rarely change my home screen, but I updated it after having more time with the iPhone X. Seeing Shawn Blanc’s home screen reminded me that I should post an updated screenshot of my own screen.

Screenshot

The notable icons are Micro.blog and Ulysses in the dock, where I do most of my writing and blog post drafts. I also stopped using Instagram since there are so many great photos being posted to Micro.blog, so I have Halide there instead. Great app for quickly adjusting the exposure before taking a photo.

New for the X, I’ve added an empty row to the top of the screen using David Smith’s blank icon tip. Much easier to reach all the icons with one hand.

More on 280 characters

For this week’s Core Intuition, Daniel and I spend the whole show talking about Twitter’s 280-character change and related fallout. It makes a good complement to my initial blog post, as well as yesterday’s episode of Timetable.

And of course I liked this part of Colin Walker’s blog post:

Having gotten used to a 280 character limit on micro.blog I can honestly say it makes a world of difference.

Dave Winer wrote about the need for Twitter to take risks:

So if you think the 140-char limit is so great, why isn’t Twitter making money for its shareholders? If you were management at Twitter would you be conservative or would you take risks? As a shareholder, I want them to take risks. Big ones. Why not? They don’t really have anything to lose.

My daughter’s Twitter account has access to the new 280-character limit, so I’ve had a chance to see the new UI. Instead of counting down, it uses a circular progress bar until you get near the end of the limit. The UI is further proof that Twitter didn’t make this change on a whim. They plan to ship it.

Micro.blog post editing

Micro.blog users have wanted the ability to edit microblog posts for a while. We planned to add it, but first I thought we needed an edit history and probably a window of time during which edits are allowed, to prevent people from abusing edits by changing the meaning of a post in an earlier conversation.

While I still want those things, I realized that they were just excuses to put off implementing the feature. And with full pages and longer posts, editing was increasingly a big omission.

This week I rolled out a complete overhaul to the posts interface under your Micro.blog account. The layout is better, it’s more prominently linked in the UI, there’s an easy way to switch between posts and pages, and you can finally edit posts.

Micro.blog screenshot

There are a couple quirks of the UI still to improve. For example, if you’d like post edits to be reflected in the timeline, you should click the Remove link in the timeline so that Micro.blog pulls the latest version from your microblog. I’ll be working on polishing those areas over the coming weeks. But already it is much better. Enjoy!

Markdown replies in Micro.blog

Micro.blog now has Markdown highlighting as you type in replies. Micro.blog has had basic Markdown support since the Kickstarter launch, but we’ve been improving how it processes Markdown and where the visual highlighting is used in the web UI.

Here’s a short screencast of the new reply UI:

Don’t have a Micro.blog account yet? We’ll be inviting more users soon. You can sign up on the announce list.

Safari pinned tab favicons

In a post on Daring Fireball today, John Gruber makes a convincing argument for Safari showing favicons in tabs:

With many tabs open, there’s really nothing subjective about it: Chrome’s tabs are more usable because they show favicons.

Even more surprising to me is that Safari doesn’t use favicons for pinned tabs. Instead it uses a special monochrome vector icon. Ever since adding favicon support to Micro.blog, I’ve had on my to-do list to create one of these vector icons for Safari, but so far I haven’t been able to justify the effort. (And judging by a handful of my favorite sites, no one else has bothered to create a pinned tab vector icon either.)

Why does Apple require a separate icon format here? Probably for the same reason as John Gruber’s guess about normal tabs:

I don’t know what the argument is against showing favicons in Safari’s tabs, but I can only presume that it’s because some contingent within Apple thinks it would spoil the monochromatic aesthetic of Safari’s toolbar area.

It seems clear that these pinned tab vector icons are a dead-end. There are already too many sizes of favicons. Safari should have basic favicon support in tabs and do it with as few extra icon files as possible.

The iOS 11 App Store redesign story

Three years ago I wrote that Apple should end the App Store top 200 lists, learning from Beats Music how to double down on curation:

I wrote about Beats Music earlier, how it underscored to me that Apple needs to find the next product category to fall in love with, just like they used to feel about music. Of course we know that Apple already loves apps. Show that by doubling down on featured apps, staff picks, and app playlists.

And:

Apple shouldn’t wait until Thursday to feature a few great apps. Feature apps all the time. They’re on the right track with some of the “best of” sections in the store, and with the “Near Me” feature. Go a little further and it will make all the difference to bubble up great apps, and let the junk in the App Store fade away.

I think they’ve done it for iOS 11. While the top charts aren’t completely gone, they no longer dominate the App Store user experience. Featured apps are center stage.

Product manager Pedraum Pardehpoosh at WWDC even used the same phrase “double down” when describing Apple’s new focus on editorial content. During session 301, he said:

We thought this was a perfect time to double down on the editorial curation that’s distinguished the App Store since its conception.

Joe Cieplinski addresses the information density in the new App Store, pointing out that apps will be featured every day:

That’s a big change from the weekly update schedule Apple has maintained since the beginning of the App Store. You can’t name something “Today” and then not update it every day. So instead of a few new items getting featured once a week, something new will be featured every single day.

The “Today” tab is effectively a blog: reverse-chronological posts about what’s noteworthy in the store. It’s a much better default UI for content that is actively curated.

The old App Store was designed like a database. Databases are good at showing grids and lists from an algorithm. But the App Store should tell a story about new apps. A blog-like format is the best way to do that.

This plays to Apple’s strengths in design and taste. Where Google might hire more engineers to improve their store, Apple should hire more writers.

So far I’ve only used the new App Store on my iPad, and only for a few days. After we’ve all lived with it for a few months, it will be easier to judge whether it works for developers. But it’s almost exactly what I was hoping for a few years ago. This redesign for iOS 11 is one of my favorite things to come out of WWDC.

Fake news as propaganda

In yesterday’s essay about Twitter, I also linked to my post on Instagram’s lack of native reposts. Jason Brennan has written a follow-up about fake news and propaganda, exploring what we can learn and apply to microblogging:

Aside from the normal reasons propaganda exists, it exists on social networks like Facebook and Twitter because it can exist on those networks. It’s profitable and useful for the parties manufacturing and disseminating it. To Facebook and Twitter, upon whose networks it propagates, it doesn’t really matter what the information is so long as it engages users. Facebook’s apathy to propaganda is regularly exploited.

Hillary Clinton also connected fake news and propaganda in a speech this week:

Let me just mention briefly one threat in particular that should concern all Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, especially those who serve in our Congress: the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year. It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences.

The internet is at a crossroads. Entrepreneurs love free speech, scale, and money, but those don’t always align in a good way. As much talk as there is of making an impact, very few leaders in Silicon Valley seem to think deeply about consequences.

Fake news and Instagram

Twitter has retweets. Facebook has sharing. But Instagram has no built-in reposting. On Instagram, there’s no instantaneous way to share someone else’s post to all of your followers.

The first version of Instagram was built by a very small team. They’ve always grown slowly and expanded the UI thoughtfully. I think the lack of a repost feature was deliberate.

When you have to put a little work into posting, you take it more seriously. I wonder if fake news would have spread so quickly on Facebook if it was a little more difficult to share an article before you’ve read more than the headline.

It’s not easy to build software that encourages good behavior. When I look at my Instagram timeline I see beautiful photos, hand-drawn art, and snapshots of everyday life. I see the very best of the world. It’s not the full truth, but it’s all true.

Instagram was no accident. The only question: was it unique to photos, or can the same quality be applied to microblogging?

SXSW and designing for Apple Watch

As I mention on the latest episode of Timetable, I haven’t attended SXSW in several years. I still think it’s right for me to skip it, but then sometimes I’ll hear about UX and iOS panels going on at SXSW, and I’ll remember some of the great parts of the conference that I do miss.

Conrad Stoll spoke on a panel at SXSW this year about his experience building Apple Watch apps. He’s had a few great blog posts recently, about both Apple Watch user interface design and also one on designing in Swift. For planning what features to include in your watch app:

“When it’s time to gather around a whiteboard and start designing your Apple Watch app, draw all of your features and start discussing some of your least obvious ones. It’s very likely that one of them represents a better use case for the watch. If you start with the secondary features you might realize that focusing there can actually improve the utility of your overall product.”

Blogs like Conrad’s are a great reason to keep using RSS. He’s not posting every day so you may forget to check the site, or miss the links on Twitter if they aren’t tweeted or retweeted when you happen to be paying attention. The best way to guarantee you won’t miss it is to subscribe in an RSS reader.

There’s a related side discussion on the Bill Simmons podcast about reading headlines instead of full articles. There’s too much information out there, and it moves too quickly, so we’ve trained ourselves to just scan headlines and comment on Twitter without going deep. That leads to increasingly ridiculous click-bait titles as publishers try to grab our attention. The only way to fight back against that trend is to slow down and read a few thoughtful essays in RSS, or work through the queue in Instapaper.

Slow transitions in watchOS

Much has been made of the Apple Watch not being fast enough. It’s too slow for full iPhone-like apps, of course, but that doesn’t bother me because I think the watch is pretty great at its core features. But I’ve noticed that it’s slow even for some of the simple stuff, and I don’t think this can be blamed on hardware alone.

Take notifications, for example. There are several distinct steps to notifications after you receive one:

  • Tapping a notification.
  • Waiting for it to load, which is an animated transition.
  • Optionally scrolling to the bottom to read it all.
  • Actually tapping Dismiss to get rid of it.

There’s a tiny lag between all of these. I frequently can’t scroll right away, as if it’s not responsive until the animation completes. The Dismiss button also doesn’t seem to be enabled immediately, requiring a 2nd tap before it “clicks”.

I bet these are solvable with a software update. Shorter animated transitions or pre-loading notification text might go a long way to improve the experience.

The incomplete iPad Pro

I ordered my iPad Pro online and picked it up in the store today. My excitement for this device is all about the Pencil, which doesn’t ship for a few more weeks. The store didn’t receive any and employees have no idea when they will get it. They didn’t receive any Apple keyboards either, so I left with the only remaining accessory in stock: the white smart cover.

I don’t think I’ve ever been less excited to walk out of a store with a brand new $800 gadget. The iPad Pro has so much potential. I think it’s going to be a success and I’m building apps for it. But without the Pencil and keyboard, a significant part of the appeal is missing. And worse, developers who need a Pencil to start testing their apps — especially those apps like the one I’m working on that already supports third-party stylus pressure — are put at a month-long disadvantage compared to Adobe and the other early partners.

I enjoyed reading the iPad Pro reviews this morning, especially from Daring Fireball and MacStories. But those reviews describe a product that just doesn’t exist today. The iPad Pro as advertised on Apple’s web site and in beautiful marketing videos isn’t ready, and I wish Apple had delayed the whole launch until they could deliver these important accessories for a complete user experience.

Stars vs. hearts and Twitter’s decline

In an essay about Twitter written in 2014, Ben Thompson described why he believed in the service:

“I think this actually gets to the problem with Twitter: the initial concept was so good, and so perfectly fit such a large market, that they never needed to go through the process of achieving product market fit. It just happened, and they’ve been riding that match for going on eight years.”

I’ve always thought the same thing. That Twitter started out so good, with such strong core features, that those basic features have carried it through all the years of missteps and inaction. But it’s not just that the features are “good” (although they are); it’s that they are unique.

Listening to the Connected podcast the other day, Federico Viticci and Myke Hurley made the statement that only nerds care about Twitter changing stars to hearts, favorites to likes. I was nodding in agreement until I talked to my daughter. She also didn’t understand why they would change away from stars, and she’s been on Twitter less than a year.

It’s not just nerds. Many new Twitter users recognize the subtle difference implied with hearts. But I realized that there’s something even more important about what this change says. Why is my daughter even on Twitter, in addition to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Vine? Because — even if most people can’t pin down exactly what makes it special — everyone knows Twitter is different and interesting.

All Twitter has going for it is its uniqueness. The timeline user experience, the retweets and favorites, the hashtag, and the short 140 character posts. Changing any of those key strengths to be just like every other social network means they’re watering down their own potential impact. Eventually that approach will produce a bland product that has no unique qualities.

We’ve already seen the timeline experience significantly altered. Promoted tweets, “while you were away”, inline conversation threads, and Twitter cards. Twitter in 2015 looks a lot more like Facebook than it did a few years ago, to everyone not using third-party Twitter apps.

Growing the user base is fine. But making Twitter more accessible to new users won’t do any good if you lose the much larger base of passionate users who have loved the product for years because it’s unique. You’re not going to beat Facebook by becoming even more like Facebook. If that’s Twitter’s strategy, then the service is already in decline.

Watch form over function

Everyone’s thinking the same thing: Samsung’s new smartwatch looks significantly better than the Apple Watch. Even the rounded scrolling control looks as usable or more usable than Apple’s digital crown. If Apple tried multiple designs internally, including a round watch — and I’m sure they did — why did they opt for a nerdy square shape that looks more like a computer than a watch? Especially in a product with such a focus on fashion that they felt the need to charge $10,000 for the high-end models.

Surprisingly, this might be Apple showing they can still choose a functional user experience over purely beautiful form and design. Square looks worse but it’s just more practical for reading text. The digital crown is a better fit for scrolling vertically.

It’s rare in the modern era of Apple (post-2000 or so) for the company to sacrifice beauty for usability. The iPhone is always thin at the expense of battery life. Mac scroll bars are hidden in the name of cleanliness. The new MacBook has a single new cable type which no one owns peripherals for. But with the Apple Watch, I think they built something with a foundation that could last for years, despite its initial awkwardness, and square was the right call.

Two weeks notice: writing documentation

Boy Scouts have a saying: leave no trace. One of its basic principles is that when you pack up your camp site, make sure you clean up all the trash. The place should look even better than when you found it.

It’s not a bad principle to keep in mind when leaving a job, either. Projects should be in a good state. I’ve fallen short in one key aspect of this — a conspicuous lack of unit tests in my web apps — but I’ve been more successful in other areas, like up to date versions of Rails and pretty comprehensive documentation.

Documentation is also an easy thing to improve at the last minute. Today I’m reviewing some API docs from top to bottom again, making sure that the confusing edge cases for how an app works are well covered. For my job at VitalSource, this means editing in Confluence.

The apps in Atlassian’s main suite that I’m familiar with — Confluence, Jira, and HipChat — have improved in small increments over the years. I makes sense that they would move fairly slowly; the apps are heavily used in larger companies, so a major redesign or feature change would not be well-received by many of their customers. Of those 3 apps, HipChat seems easily the best designed, and I expect having Slack as a competitor will keep them focused and driven to improve the app.

This post isn’t meant as a rant against Confluence, but as I use it’s default markup language or WYSIWYG editor I’m reminded of just how much I enjoy writing in Markdown instead. For my own apps, I’ve experimented with writing documentation in Markdown hosted on GitHub, which gives me easy publishing and version history. Tweet Marker, for example, pulls a Markdown file from GitHub directly and formats it inside its own web interface for Twitter app developers.

As usual, open formats like simple text files are a great choice for any writing that you want to last. For my new microblogging project, I need to repurpose a lot of writing I’ve done on this blog and move it into more formal documentation. I’ll probably use Markdown and GitHub for that as well.