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On Forcing

“You have to wash your teeth”.
“No”.

If you are a parent this might be a common scene to you. This happens pretty often with my kids when I try to force them to do something. Usually my technique to persuade them is argumentative.

“If you don’t floss daily you will probably have a bad tooth, that will hurt, and we’ll have to go to the dentist”.

It takes a while but eventually they understand.

I apply the argument strategy also with clients.

“If we do it the way it’s designed it’s gonna take ten more hours than planned. If we modify it like this we stay on budget”.

Some understand and accept the modification. Others “force me” to do it as designed, often because the design is bound to a contract signed with blood. I am not a fan of these situations but when I have to pay the bills I do it, clearly with a bit of reluctance. The reason is simply because they are forcing me without providing an argument or, if you like, the argument is simply “because we say so”.

Now think of iOS release cycles. There’s a new one every year and it forces everybody to update your apps at least once a year (but probably more often). Again there’s no argument behind this. Clearly Apple knows the rationale about this crazy pace, but we have no access to it. It sounds like a parent that says “you have to do this because I say so”. I swear that if the App Store were a place where you can still build a sustainable business I’d probably accept the yearly pace.

Then I look outside of the App Store. I see developers and small companies building sustainable businesses while deciding their pace. You are probably using some service that is built on top of Ruby 1.9.3, Postgres 9.0 or Ubuntu 10.04 and “they just work” (zing). Nobody forced anybody to update to a new version. You still might need to tweak the CSS to deal with some new browser release but if you keep the UI simple I am sure it’s not gonna take a long time. Not to mention that you can roll out your modifications instantly, without going through a review process (zing). Coding is just 20% of a product. The rest (marketing, support, growth just to name a few) deserves a lot of time which you shouldn’t spend updating your code to prevent crashes or weird behaviors due to a updated SDK/API.

Am I the only one on this boat? No. Somebody even quit because they couldn’t keep up with the pace.

Honestly, the complexity of every single thing we do has shot up in the last few years. My brain no longer has the time and energy to deal with Apple forcing me to relearn how to program every few years.

Icons Are a Language

Brilliant post by @designjokes. Some icons are verbs, some are nouns. I have recently written about icons and labels but I skipped the part about the grammar, which is covered in the linked post.

Icons Labels or Both

A few days ago I stumbled upon an interesting thread that started with this Tweet:

I studied semiotics so this discussion resonated quite a bit with my studies. I looked up some of the notes I took at the time and got back to the roots of semiotics, to the founder Charles Sanders Peirce. He classified signs in three categories:

  • Icon. It imitates what it stands for. It was exploited very well in the early days of user interfaces. For example the icon of a printer stands for the printer itself and thus represents the print action.

  • Index. Less coupled to what it stands for but still related. It is not “in place of an object” as the icon, but rather “points to an object”. For example dark clouds are index of upcoming rain. For a dog the whistle of the owner might be the index for “time to eat”. As you can see the link between the index and the object is weaker and related to a sort of statistical regularity.

  • Symbol. It is associated to the object by convention and repeated usage over time. There’s no particular correlation between the symbol and the object it stands for. A pretty common example is the eagle for the USA.

With this classification in mind we can say that:

  • the floppy disk was an icon, because in the past you actually had to insert a disk in a computer to save something. Now it’s more of a symbol, which by convention we associate to the save action.

  • the AT sign in the context of Twitter is a good icon, because its essence represents a reply to somebody.

  • the sign of an envelope is probably an index and can be ambiguous, in that different applications use it with a different “meaning”. In Mail on Mac OSX it means “get mail”, but in other apps like Tweetbot it stands for “direct messages”.

In user interfaces we tend to call an icon whatever is not a word. That’s a convention that we built over time but a quick analysis (as in the envelope example) shows that not every icon in a UI is an actual icon in the Peirce’s sense.

Should you use an icon, a label or both? These are my very personal opinions.

A label is the safest choice. Text is universal and also accessible on any platform by default. A label carries some cognitive load, because a user has to actually parse all the shapes of a word to make up the meaning, but still it’s the most generic means. For example when I prototype I only use labels. This allows me to avoid any distraction or tentative to start optimizing the aesthetics of the product while I am devising the “how it works”. Clearly labels need to be translated in different languages though.

An icon is the best choice if it’s an icon in the Peirce’s sense, that is if it’s closely related to the object it stands for. A printer for the print action or a pen to indicate write are both good icons. Some other signs are becoming symbols, on which we conventionally agree, for example the lens to indicate search or the avatar/silhouette to mean account/user. Unfortunately there are not many “universal” icons. Most have sense in a specific context, like the at sign in Twitter.

Icon plus label … well it depends. For example if the Mac App Store didn’t have labels I’d be very confused. The icon for the “Featured” tab is a symbol that is often used to mean “favorites”, whereas the “Purchases” tab shows an icon frequently used to mean “tags”. If your icons are not icons or symbols in the Pierce sense definitely complement them with labels. On the other hand, if you context is well delimited (like Twitter), you can probably get away with just icons.

Of course I am happy to discuss these opinions on Twitter. Hit me!

App Store Slowness

Sometimes I wish the biggest app developers would get together and delist their apps for a day, just to show how much pain this process causes.

I couldn’t have said it better. One of the best signals that you can give to your customers is quick intervention. Someone proposes a feature that goes along with your vision and actually improves the app? Work on that and push it quickly. Is there a bug? Roll out a fix as soon as you can.

These examples are simply not possible in the App Store. Someone else decides if and when the update is available, and the wait is often long enough to kill the momentum. The possibility to act quickly is the thing I miss the most when I work on iOS/Mac apps.

Fortunately I can enjoy that in my other web based product.

Aluminum-ion Battery

I always thought that the solution to battery powered devices was building batteries that last longer. I never thought of batteries that charge faster. Honestly I would not mind stopping by a cafe’, rest my dogs over a beer while the battery of my phone fully charges. The discovery presented in this paper seems to enable exactly this scenario. The future is bright.

Quitting Apple

These days there’s a very interesting blog post by an ex-Apple employee. Correct me if I am wrong but I feel it’s the first of this kind, so open and so harsh.

UPDATE: here is another interesting post by a designer.

I can’t help myself to believe every single line is true. No, I don’t believe every team/manager at Apple is like that. I am sure there are great teams and people proud of being part of Apple.

What I like is that the post depicts scenes which could belong to any other big company. Finally somebody testifying that Apple is a “normal” company, with as much shit as any other big tech corporation behind the great looking façade.

Maybe we will start liking it for what it is, and not some magical entity full of perfection.

ps: Here is a follow up to the first post by the same author.

The Unsustainability Pattern

New shiny service announced. “How much does it cost? Nothing? I am in!” We have seen this many times.

The fact that you don’t pay doesn’t mean that there’s no cost.

Somebody is paying, maybe you’ll never know who, but believe me somebody is taking money out of his pocket to put it in someone else’s wallet. It may look free to you, but somebody is paying for servers, electricity and bandwidth. This happened with a bunch of services which you might have used in the past. For example here is a list of discontinued services by Google. For each one, while it was running, Google had to pay for servers, electricity, bandwidth, people to write and debug code. A free service gets discontinued when it “doesn’t work”. Most of the times that means we can’t lure and lock in enough users to justify the cost.

Take the example of Heroku. It’s gonna change its pricing. It a totally legit move but it’s hard to not speculate that the move is meant to make the business more sustainable. So far a truck load of developers could run small applications for free. Don’t just think of one app per developer. You know, developers are smart and they have probably created an Heroku account with all the emails that they have available, not to mention aliases. So yeah, one person can have 32 (totally made up number) free applications running, without paying a dime.

After the pricing changes developers will need to either open their wallet or move away. Obviously there’s a heated discussion on HN. It is sad that someone is still looking for an alternative free solution, thus perpetuating the unsustainability pattern. If it doesn’t exists this is an expression that I am coining right now for the following behaviour:

I will exploit this free service as much as I can. When I can’t anymore I am gonna move to the next free service.

I can’t resist to see a parallelism between this behaviour and the one of parasites. It’s good to feel smart I can’t deny it. It’s good to have a “product” and run it without expenses, it makes you feel cunning. Until you are gonna be bitten, and left with two options: either you move to another service or start paying. Either move is not gratis, unless you value your time 0$/hour. So all the time/money you saved with the initial “shortcut” is now gone and possibly you need to spend even more to catch up with competitors. Moral.

There’s no free forever, there’s is just temporary free.

Virtual machines prices are now more affordable than ever. Docker is growing like crazy and it’s making almost trivial to set up a scalable infrastructure. Before hosting your application on the new looks-free-forever service I invite you to consider the possibility to spin a virtual machine and host it yourself. This is exactly the approach I am having with AppVersion.

The Notifications Whore

This post on Wired confirms even more the fact that I am not a target user for the Apple Watch.

Along the way, the Apple team landed upon the Watch’s raison d’être. It came down to this: Your phone is ruining your life. Like the rest of us, Ive, Lynch, Dye, and everyone at Apple are subject to the tyranny of the buzz—the constant checking, the long list of nagging notifications.

I am not a notifications whore. My phone is almost always in silent mode, with notifications only from VIPs. The only important notifications I get are the ones from the calendar and there’s no difference between important or not important. If it’s scheduled in the calendar it’s important.

Now the picture is even clearer to me. One of the Apple Watch selling points is fixing the notifications problem, which I don’t have. So it makes sense I am not excited about it.

Funny note. It took 5 years to have a lengthy post about the making of the iPhone. The Apple Watch is not even out and Wired has already published most of the backstage details. Like it or not, this is a totally new Apple.

Private Means Private for Everybody

A 17-year-old student builds an app on top of the Instagram API. Everything would have been fine if the app didn’t include the possibility to upload pictures. According to this article on arstechnica the rationale behind the app was:

“There are 15 Instagram apps on the App Store, and none of them have upload capability.”

On the App Store there’s a gazillion of iOS apps based on the Instagram API and none of them (except the official one) has upload capabilities. Before engaging in the development, I’d have probably asked myself why. Instagram has been around for five years and nobody thought of building an app that features upload? Odd, very odd. In spite of what the EFF says, rules are pretty clear:

At this time, uploading via the API is not possible.

I think there’s no need to consult lawyers.

I am not a fan of Instagram. As a matter of fact I deleted my account the day after it was bought by Facebook. But rules are rules, even if you don’t like them, even when you need money to pay for the college.

I am building a service myself, and I will probably spend a good amount of time to clearly write in the documentation what you can and you can’t do with the API. It’s better to be clear since the beginning.

Trade Different

Apple is gonna offer a trade-in promotion. It started it a few years ago but now it’s gonna open it to non-Apple smartphones. I am all for recycling when possible, so this is a great news. Still I think this is a pretty unexpected move. I read it as an acknowledgment of competitors. Apple once pushed the “Think Different” campaign. For twenty years they not so implicitly claimed:

  • We are on a different level
  • We know there are competitors out there but we pretend they don’t exist (unless they are Microsoft and they come with a bag of cash).
  • We don’t compete, because we are on a different level.

The mantra was repetitive and circular. Clearly it was a successful strategy, because nowadays Apple is a money printing machine. They are not desperate. The fact that Apple has tons of money doesn’t mean that they don’t wanna make more. The trade-in is a good way to grow a loyal audience.

It’s just funny that when Blackberry and Microsoft ran a similar promotion in the past they both looked desperate.