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March 21, 2015

Macintosh User Manual – Clicking

Filed under: Apple — admin @ 8:57 pm

Here’s a great photo of two pages of the Macintosh manual explaining how the mouse manipulates the operating system. Second nature to us today, but imagine having to create that content back in 1984.

September 8, 2014

Countdown to the Apple event

Filed under: Apple — admin @ 9:23 am

I can’t remember the last time Apple posted a countdown to an event.

Apple's homepage

Tomorrow’s gonna be a big one.

March 21, 2014

The Frustration of iOS Banner Notifications

Filed under: Apple,Design,Experiential,Ideas,Interfaces,iOS,Mobile,Usability — admin @ 5:18 pm

Sagi Shrieber has written a thought-provoking piece on his annoyance with iOS notifications, offering some suggested improvements as to how notifications appear and how users might interact with them. The whole piece is worth a read but the basic jist is:

  1. Too often, iOS doesn’t get it right when you try to dismiss a notification by swiping it off the top of the screen. iOS interprets this swipe as a tap, taking you away from your current task. (I believe that you actually have to tap & hold the notification, drag it down a little then ‘throw’ it off the top of the screen to dismiss it — not easily done.)
  2. Because of the inherent clumsiness of the dismiss gesture you might opt to just ignore the notification instead and carry on with what you were doing. However, the position of the notification banner over the top of your currently-running app’s UI means that some of the controls of your current app are obscured for the duration of time the notification persists.

So when a notification arrives that you’re happy to ignore, you’re too afraid to swipe up and dismiss it because of the first issue yet you cannot really ignore it because of the second.

Sagi offers a couple of solutions to these issues:

  1. When a notification arrives, pull it down to show the necessary interface to deal with the notification. Once dealt with, swipe up to ‘put away’ the notification and return to where you were. (Note: Sagi’s initial sketch shows this swipe up feature, but his mockups do not seem to demonstrate it).
  2. Position the notification underneath the currently-running app’s titlebar, thereby keeping relevant UI and/or controls relating to the currently-running app visible and usable. So if you want to ignore a notification and keep doing what you’re doing, you can.

Whilst I love seeing other people’s ideas on improving already well established UIs (I’ve done it myself), I can’t help feeling that these suggestions overcomplicate notifications, their associated interactions and app hierarchy within iOS. A banner notification is designed to notify you of something in way that’s unobtrusive, along with offering you a way of ‘doing’ something with that notification — including dismissing it or ignoring it. In a nut, notifications should be simple, obvious and easy to act on or ignore.

Sagi’s piece focuses on a Whatsapp notification interrupting his use of the Homebudget app, so let’s keep going with that scenario here. I have a few questions on Sagi’s suggested improvements:

  • When I pull the notification banner down to load the Whatsapp interface, am I in the Whatsapp app or still in Homebudget? This is important when considering how I exit the Whatsapp interface to get back to what I was doing in Homebudget.
  • Considering the above, how do I get back to Homebudget? I want to be able to slide it back up to get back to Homebudget — the reverse of what I did to get into Whatsapp. If I can do that, where’s the affordance in the Whatsapp ‘sheet’ to tell me I can do this? And if I can swipe up to dismiss the Whatsapp interface, how will iOS know whether I meant to dismiss the Whatsapp interface or whether I wanted to invoke Control Center, also available by swiping up from the bottom of the screen?
  • If I can’t swipe the Whatsapp UI off the top of the screen to get back to Homebudget, how else do I get back? Double-tap the home button to show recently opened apps and select it from there? How is that any less annoying than what happens today?
  • Because the notification now sits within the content of the currently-running app — underneath the title bar — how will iOS know whether I’m trying to dismiss a notification or scroll? Granted, this is a challenge that applies to the current implementation of notifications (and is, perhaps, a reason why dismissing them is so hit & miss).
  • Is showing the notification underneath the title bar really a better solution? Whilst it avoids obscuring any controls residing in the titlebar, it’s still sitting over the top of content I was looking at. A notification over the top of a photo you’re about to post or a tweet you’re about to send is still in the way. (In either of these two scenarios, I’d most likely try to dismiss the notification before continuing with what I was doing, regardless of whether it obscures content or controls. It’s still in the way.)

I completely agree with the issues Sagi highlights. Dismissing a notification is currently a game of pure luck; the number of times iOS has misinterpreted a dismiss gesture for a tap is far larger than the number of times it’s been able to get it right. But as I was reading Sagi’s piece, it struck me that perhaps a better interaction model for notifications already exists in iOS: those that are shown on the lock screen.

A mockup of an iOS banner notification being swiped to the right

What if, when I receive a notification, I were able to ‘action’ it (read, reply, post etc.) by swiping the icon to the right, as I do on the homescreen? This would take me off to the app that invoked the notification. It’s fairly safe to consider this gesture as something relatively ‘bullet-proof’, in that there’s no mistaking what I want to do if I swipe.

Tapping the notification would therefore do nothing. Swiping to dismiss the notification would therefore be a whole lot more accurate.

Also, what if we let iOS assume that when I receive a notification but carry on interacting with the currently-running app, that I do not want to action it just yet? The notification arrives, I continue tapping or scrolling in the app I’m in, so iOS hides the notification as I’ve made it clear I’m in the middle of something. If I do want to do something with the notification, I can pull down Notification Center to see it and action it from there.

We could take this further and say that swiping an icon invokes an ‘inline’ or contextual interface to let me action it, much as notifications on the desktop in Mavericks does. The notification arrives, I swipe the icon, but instead of taking me to Whatsapp, I get a modal box (like the one Sagi mocked up in his piece) that lets me reply to the message without taking me out of Homebudget. Importantly, it would also let me ‘cancel’, so if I changed my mind and didn’t want to reply immediately, I wouldn’t be forced to do so by a limited UI.

To me, these interactions fit with the notion and purpose of banner notifications much more comfortably.

Sagi’s post really resonated with me and sparked a lot of internal debate, so none of my comments or questions are meant as a negative critique of his original point and subsequent ideas. I wholeheartedly share his frustration with iOS notifications and refuse to accept that there’s not a better way of doing them.

Perhaps that’s why, after reading his post, these ideas have been tumbling around my head all day.

Thanks for the inspiration, Sagi!

June 19, 2013

Michael Heilemann’s Thoughts on iOS 7

Filed under: Apple,Design,Interfaces,iOS,Usability — admin @ 2:01 pm

Michael Heilemann has some thoughtful posts on some of the UI changes in iOS. I’m posting them here primarily because they make a lot of sense to me but also because I want to see how the final product compares to the Beta.

I haven’t used iOS on any device — I’m not part of the developer program — so only have critiques like Michael’s to go on. It appears that there are some fundamental changes to how you interact with the OS that seem careless — even thoughtless. As Michael says:

However, when I look at a beta I see anti-patterns and basic mistakes that should have been caught on the whiteboard before anyone even began thinking about coding it. I get scared. This isn’t a matter of ‘oh, it’s a little glitchy now and then’; these are things that from the looks of it seem simply like poor design decisions.

Here are the things I see as issues with the iOS 7 Beta. It’ll be interesting to see which ones are resolved by ‘this fall’.

  • Circles for signal strength — as Michael and many others have said, this breaks a fairly widespread standard, takes up precious horizontal space, uses the same UI element as pagination and seems to be solving an issue that just doesn’t exist for many users — we all know what those bars at the top of our phones mean.
  • Affordability of controls — I see lots of ‘text as buttons’ in the iOS screenshots I’ve seen. How do I know whether something is a label or a control? And, as Michael says, what issue is this trying to fix? Seems like minimalism for the sake of it.
  • Swipe right on the whole lockscreen — this one shocked me the most. Apparently, you can now swipe right anywhere on the lockscreen and it’ll unlock the device. This doesn’t seem pocket-friendly at all. I also wonder how much of an effect the removal of the UI controls for this gesture will impact the usability & obviousness of the gesture. For example, my 15 month old daughter is able to unlock an iOS device. She knows that by moving the drag handle near the bottom of the screen to the right, the device unlocks. All the affordance that informs & reassures her about this gesture is gone in iOS 7. It’ll be interesting to see if she can still unlock my iPhone when I install the OS later this year.

Yes, yes, it’s a Beta, there are bound to be some glitches. And there’s plenty of time to fix & improve before the OS is released. But I have to agree with Michael — some of these things are just bad design decisions.

I’ll revisit this post in ‘the fall’. Or Autumn, as we say around these parts.

November 7, 2012

Fixing the iStat Pro desktop widget on Mountain Lion

Filed under: Apple,Code,Software — admin @ 12:47 pm

If you’re running Mountain Lion and rely on the iStat Pro dashboard widget, you’ll notice that ‘Processes’ no longer appear, so you can’t see at a glance which processes are chewing up your CPU.

Here’s a fix to the problem. Worked perfectly for me.

October 23, 2012

Rethinking the App Switcher

Filed under: Apple,Design,Usability — admin @ 9:47 pm

Earlier this month, this redesign of the iOS app switcher garnered a lot of press.

I love almost everything about this idea with the exception of one thing: by using screenshots instead of the app icon I find it much harder to figure out what the apps in the switcher are.

iOS has always used icons to represent apps. The recognition of these icons is key to identifying apps, both on the homescreen and in the switcher. By using screenshots of the apps instead of icons, that link is lost and, for me at least, any benefit in seeing what state an app is in is far outweighed by the additional cognitive load placed on me to try and identify an app.

Yes, the name of the app is shown underneath the icon. But for sheer glance-ability, and for me, icons are a much better solution.

August 30, 2012

Should this come to pass, how loud will the bleating be this time?

Filed under: Android,Apple,Technology — admin @ 8:57 pm

Patents in the technology field stifle innovation. Companies that pursue litigation against other companies for patent infringement are bullies. Even more so when the patents in question are fairly generic or common to a particular field or area of business.

Think we’ll hear this sort of thing — as loudly — if Samsung sue Apple for incorporating LTE into the next iPhone?

No. Me neither.

(And my tongue is firmly in my cheek with that first paragraph.)

Thoughts on the Apple v Samsung verdict

Filed under: Android,Apple,Opinion — admin @ 10:28 am

On Friday Apple won it’s long & drawn out legal battle – and over $1bn in damages – against Samsung. Responses to the verdict seem to fall into two camps:

  1. Those that agree with the judgement because they feel Samsung have blatantly copied Apple
  2. Those who disagree with the judgment because they feel that enforced patents stifle innovation

The internet is, unsurprisingly, awash with opinion on both sides. Personally speaking, I’m in the first camp – I don’t believe it’s fair for Company A to copy Company B’s ideas and profit from it, as Samsung appear to have done. If it’s Company B who takes all the risks and invests the time and money developing something new, and is successful, Company A shouldn’t be allowed to simply copy the results.

Some of those in the second camp think that the notion of patenting ideas – and enforcing those patents – means that there’s no room for others to innovate.

Some also feel that the ruling is going to be bad for consumers because they fear that if the Samsungs of this world have to start paying licensing fees to the Apples of the world, those fees will likely be passed onto the consumer in the form of higher purchase costs.

They also reference the fact Samsung will likely have to stop selling some of their devices as part of the ruling, resulting in less choice for consumers. This is bad, so they say.

I can’t follow that reasoning at all. How do patents stifle innovation? Surely patents force people to think of different ways of doing things? And what kind of ‘choice’ do consumers have if the market is awash with iPhone clones?

As with most things Apple, there’s lots of FUD around. Like Dan Gillmor’s piece on the Guardian entitled “Apple crushes Samsung in quest for global tech domination” – a heavily biased piece based on some fairly flaky assumptions and drawing some rather draconian conclusions.

Take the second paragraph:

[…] we’re likely to see a ban on many mobile devices from Samsung and other manufacturers in the wake of this case, as an emboldened Apple tries to create an unprecedented monopoly.

Samsung sell 151 different mobile phones in the US alone. Apple have indicated that they’ll seek to ban the sale of 8 of them. In other words, if the ban is successful and enforced, consumers in the US will still have more than 140 Samsung phones to choose from. And three models of iPhone. That doesn’t sound like much of a monopoly for Apple.

If so, the ultimate loser will be competition in the technology marketplace, with even more power accruing to a company that already has too much.

This is the rather weak line of argument that if fewer non-Apple devices are available for consumers, there’ll be a lack of competition in the mobile market. Whether Samsung has 10 phones on the market or 1,000, the fact that they’re still producing mobile devices (and will continue to be after the ruling is old news) means Apple has competition. The ruling doesn’t mean Samsung’s mobile division will cease production altogether. And again, Apple sell just three models of phone.

Furthermore, this ‘lack of competition’ argument is based on the false premise that the market comprises of just ‘Apple devices’ and ‘clones of Apple devices’ and that, as a result of the ruling, many of the the clones will have to stop being sold. That’s a very simplistic view: there are phones being sold today that offer a completely different experience to the iPhone – Windows Phone 7, for example. Microsoft are showing that it’s possible to create, market & sell a phone – both hardware & software – that’s vastly different to the iPhone. But such phones – and such companies – are few and far between. Most companies have plumped for ‘free’ and gone with Android.

[…] Apple’s abuse of our out-of-control patent system has given Apple its chief ammunition in its global campaign to destroy Google’s Android operating system, which Samsung (and many others) adopted for its smart phones.

Apple has patents for it’s mobile devices. When Google bought Motorola it gained the latter’s 17,000 patents as part of the deal. When HP acquired Palm in 2010 they inherited 2,000 patents and former HP CEO Mark Hurd has gone on record saying that Palm’s IP was the main reason for the acquisition:

“We didn’t buy Palm to be in the smartphone business … we bought it for the IP.”

So it’s not a one-sided battle. Whether it’s the right battle is another question, but to suggest that Apple are the only company arming themselves is just false.

And it [Samsung] quite plainly did mimic much of the functionality of the iPhone – though it was Apple’s longtime CEO, Steve Jobs, who famously quoted Picasso’s adage that good artists copy and great artists steal.

I don’t know how anyone could misinterpret such a famous quote so badly. Picasso wasn’t saying that by stealing poetic or artistic content lock, stock & barrel you’re automatically an artistic genius.

But in recent years, I have become even less a fan of Apple. It is now the uber-bully of the technology industry, and is using its surging authority – and vast amounts of cash – in ways that are designed to lock down our future computing and communications in the newest frontier of smart phones and tablets.

Apple has a ton of cash in the bank, but to suggest it’s using it for the sole purpose of bullying other companies who operate in the same markets is rather naive. Microsoft aren’t in the dock. Neither are RIM. Manufacturers of ‘dumbphones’ aren’t being sued because their answer buttons are green and have an illustration of a phone handset on them. There’s a subtle difference between ‘similar’ and ‘the same’.

I also fail to see how Apple’s vast cash pile is helping to lock down anything. Apple has authority in the mobile space because of the success of the iPhone & iPad. People continue to buy them. If they were terrible devices, they wouldn’t sell and Apple’s authority wouldn’t be as high. Apple are authoritative because they’re good at what they do.

In the end, Apple will settle for nothing less than outright capitulation by Samsung – and, by extension, other Android device makers […] If Apple is successful, either all Android manufacturers will pay Apple a license fee, or Apple will simply make it too expensive, via lawsuits, for other phone makers to compete.

If Android manufacturers do end up having to pay Apple a license fee, how is it any different to them licensing Windows Phone 7 from Microsoft (assuming that they could)? Whilst a ‘non-free’ Android would be far less appealing for manufacturers, the idea of licensing fees is hardly new or draconian.

Even more than Microsoft during that company’s most ruthless days in the 1990s, Apple wants control over how we use technology. It locks down the iOS, requiring that apps be offered or sold only though its own portal, and limits competition when a developer is doing anything that might have an impact on its own business.

Apple aren’t alone here – Microsoft’s Marketplace is the only way you can get apps on your Windows phone. There are benefits and trade-offs you make when choosing to lock down your operating system. Whilst openistas focus negatively on the ‘locked down’ rhetoric, those of us who have phones free of malware & viruses really couldn’t care less. By choosing to buy an iPhone I accept and agree to Apple controlling how I install apps. That’s fine with me. If you’re not OK with it, don’t buy an iPhone.

And as Apple expands into living rooms – a TV is widely believed to be on the horizon – and beyond, we have to ask: do we want a single company with such influence?

If Apple do make a TV, you don’t have to buy one. And if Apple do make a TV, and patent some aspects of it, and are awarded those patents, don’t be surprised if they go after anyone who attempts to copy them. If Samsung – or anyone else, for that matter – wants to start innovating in the TV space, nobody is stopping them. Go for it. I challenge Samsung to create a TV that’s better than anything Apple could produce. Think they’re up to the task?

[…] those of us who believe we should be able to use what we buy the way we want to use it are less enthralled. We don’t want Apple, or any other company, dictating – in fundamental ways – how we compute and communicate. Yet, that is precisely where we may be heading.

Buy a dumbphone. Install Ubuntu on your PC. It’s not hard to live a life untouched by Apple or any other technology company if you want to. Presumably Gillmor – as someone who ‘doesn’t want any company dictating how they compute & communicate’ – runs a technology setup free from Apple, Google, Microsoft etc.

[…] if Apple can abuse that off-the-rails system to thwart innovation and the iterative process that sees all tech companies build on the successes of the past, the most valuable company in the world will have more power than what it has richly earned through smart business practices.

Again, I don’t buy the line that patents thwart innovation, and certainly not in this case. To suggest that Apple’s current patents mean nothing new is ever going to be invented in the mobile space is ludicrous. Apple invented the ‘bounce back’ idea (the rubber-banding you get when you scroll to the end of a list), patented it and put it into a phone that they subsequently sold by the bucketload.

Apple didn’t invent scrolling. Scrolling is a fundamental part of any UI system. What Apple did was to enhance the feedback users receive whilst scrolling by adding a subtle animation. It gave scrolling a more physical, tangible feel. When it debuted in 2007 it, like so much in the original iPhone, was unique. And different. And new.

Why should Samsung be allowed to simply copy that one idea? As Jason Fried ably put it, “copying skips understanding”:

Understanding is how you grow. You have to understand why something works or why something is how it is. When you copy it, you miss that. You just repurpose the last layer instead of understanding all the layers underneath.

Not having a rubber-banding animation on your phone doesn’t drastically affect the usability or function of the device. By copying it not only are you attempting to profit from someone else’s ideas but you’re missing a chunk of the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, as Mike Rundle notes:

Why did a designer throw out 20 iterations and pick the 21st design to be the one to ship? What led them to the those specific conclusions and insights? What down-the-road thinking influenced the design? Samsung doesn’t know why Apple went with a homescreen with a fixed row at the bottom, they just know that the iPhone is hot and they want all their phones to look like the iPhone in the eyes of consumers. That’s why they stole Apple’s interface designs: to short-circuit the innovation process and jump straight into the line ahead of everyone else.

Surely big, global companies are capable of thinking of other ways to enhance the experience of their devices. Have Apple thought of – and patented – everything? Really?

Also, is it just me, or does the “all tech companies build on the successes of the past” piece read as a sly reference to the urban myth that Apple copied what Xerox were doing at their PARC facility when they released the original Macintosh OS? If it were true, well played Mr Gillmor. But it’s not. As this piece on the New Yorker outlines, it was Apple – not Xerox – who successfully took the idea of a GUI as a means of giving a computer instructions and packaged it into a successful, mass-marketable consumer device. It was Apple who simplified the concept so that normal people could use it. For example, Apple’s mouse only had one button, the Xerox mouse had three. And it was Apple who thought up innovations that are still with us today – the menubar and pulldown menus, for example.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that there is still room for innovation in the mobile space. The phones we use five years from now will be different to the phones we use today. What ‘different’ means is up to the manufacturers. The onus is on them to innovate and drive the sector forward.

There is room for Company X to come in and disrupt it all over again. But you’re not going to disrupt anything by replicating & regurgitating what already exists. That’s not innovating.

We can have a conversation about whether it’s right for a company to patent a gesture or a UI element. That’s a hot topic and we all have our views. But, in the case of Apple v Samsung, to paint Apple as the bad guy and Samsung as the poor underdog is disingenuous, biased and myopic.

Samsung were caught copying, plain and simple.

August 25, 2012

One year ago today, Steve Jobs resigned as Apple CEO

Filed under: Apple,For Posterity — admin @ 12:14 am

I remember it vividly. I was in between sessions at UX Australia and was catching up on my Twitter timeline.

I can remember feeling shocked — I guess I knew it was coming, but it was a signal for things to come that I didn’t want to acknowledge.

July 11, 2012

Making changing your desktop on Mac OS X easier

Filed under: Apple,Experiential,Ideas — admin @ 3:13 pm

When changing your desktop image in System Preferences, wouldn’t it be great if all the windows you had open moved out of the way, like it does when you use Exposé to ‘Show Desktop’? That’d let you see your desktop and would let you see which desktop image you liked best. Then when you close System Preferences (or move to another preference pane) the windows could move back in.

Often I’ll select an image for my desktop that’s too dark, light or distracting — but I never find this out until I can see my desktop (i.e. when most of my open windows are closed). To see if an image is suitable, I currently have to create a new space and switch to it.

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