Apple

iPhone XR

I gave in when the exchange-an-old-iPhone program was offering $200 off a new iPhone by handing in my old iPhone 6S.

a Photo of a new white iPhone XR

That phone served me well for three years but the battery was having problems.

Compared to the old phone, the new phone has the following downsides:

  • $727 after $200 rebate, including tax and case, plus mini headphone adapter since it has no headphone jack (I mostly use wireless headphones so not a problem normally)
  • Slightly heavier and bigger in the hand and pocket, thicker
  • No 3-D touch, which I practiced getting used to by turning off 3-D touch on the old phone before making the leap

But I get the following upsides:

  • Way faster A12 chip vs. A9 of three years ago; more RAM
  • More storage than my 64 GB phone. I paid the extra $50 to go from 64 GB to 128 GB.
  • Way better battery life, the best in an iPhone you can buy, past or present (plus a brand new battery, of course)
  • Beautiful giant screen which fits > 40% more content and is easier to type on (two handed), including True Tone
  • Significantly upgraded camera with optical image stabilization and wider aperture and wider field of view, better dynamic range
  • Face ID, which has its pluses and minuses compared to Touch ID, but is impressively magical (no wet hand failures, just face too close or too far away failures, face too sideways failure)
  • Stereo speaker output which actually sounds really good
  • Waterproof for normal use cases

I transferred my old phone setup by iTunes backup and restore, which is good because I did a full audit of all the apps and data on my previous phone just to make sure everything was backed up manually in the cloud or elsewhere. Normally I set up a new phone from scratch but this was not necessary and the process was fairly painless, aside from spending a lot of time waiting for it to sync down some cached data for certain apps, after waiting a certain amount of time for all of my apps to re-download, after updating the phone to the latest iOS to match my old phone. It even transferred my old camera roll, which I guess is a good thing, even though I have it all backed up on Dropbox. I went from having a full 64 GB phone to having 90 GB free.

Programming

Whitespace

Whitespace is the least of your worries, but a convention, like driving on the same side of the road, however arbitrary, prevents head-on collisions.

Say no to mixed tabs and spaces in code: turn on the option for your text editor to show invisible whitespace characters.

Programming

User-Facing Features: Why Not?

A Story

An engineer coworker (years ago now) described how he was building a feature to allow appearance themes (sets of colors) and that he admitted he was not a graphic designer (trying to push this responsibility onto other members of the team). In discussing this he also implied that this feature should be exposed to the end-user (now he’s pushing this onto the end-user?) I did not deny that he may have been doing good work technically and that separating out the visuals into all-encapsulating theme “packages” would be a fine idea, but I disagreed with the idea that just because something is implemented that the user should be allowed to or forced to deal with the details.

The simple question that bothered me was that he asked: why not?

Later I realized how to answer that question.

It is not a matter of: if the user can do it then let them do it. Users do not want that power. (Just like they do not want the power to accidentally delete their data, etc.)

The question should really be flipped around and asked: should we really bother the user with this without a good reason?

More simply: the oblivious engineer asks why not bother? (the user) but the real question is: why bother? (the user).

A Moral

The point of great software is not what it allows a person to do but rather what it allows a person not to do. Not bothering the user with details that are the responsibility of the developers is a service to the user. The software should save them time, not give them extra work to do.

Why expose something that the software developers and designers can take care of on the user’s behalf? Why make extra work for them? The engineer must justify any and all features by asking these questions. If it is a matter of aesthetics only but there is no utility, or if there is negative utility (more work for the user to do that they shouldn’t be bothered with), then that should tell us something.

In contrast, allowing the user to change the colors of individual items of data for semantic reasons is obviously a good idea when it is a core part of the visualization aspect of the specific piece of software and allows users to make their intended meaning instantly identifiable, which saves them time and enhances the power of the software’s visualization.

But allowing the user to theme parts of the interface that really have no bearing on the core point of why people would use the application just creates extra features to maintain and extra cognitive load for the user. Especially when those parts of the interface use standard controls on other platforms and allowing the user to change it on one platform would create inconsistency.

Software Design, More Generally

So in writing this essay, I figured out what it was about his comment that bothered me so much. And the problem wasn’t specific to him necessarily but rather the attitude of a lot of programmers and their obliviousness to the importance of design from the human standpoint, not from the artsy-fartsy standpoint. Even worse is when they say, “I am not a designer nor do I claim to be one,” but they think that design only has to do with choosing colors and making things look pretty! Or their understanding of design is so lacking that the features they implement have to be rebuilt because of their lack of understanding of how to build and test user-facing features, their lack of understanding of what to build in the first place, or whether the feature should or should not be built in the first place!

You see this all the time with lots of “powerful” open source software: instead of doing the work up front to prevent the user from doing stupid things, the engineer punts and says, “Let the user deal with this: here are myriad sliders and controls and they can just make sure the combination of settings makes sense. (Coincidentally, each slider is trivial to implement!) I am doing the user a favor by directly exposing all of the internal knobs and levers for them to tinker with. If they get the software into a bizarre state that is on them.”

An example of this in a single domain: Readium and Calibre (two very useful and powerful OSS projects) vs. Apple’s iBooks epub reader app (now Apple Books, iOS and macOS). Apple’s app allows you to change the appearance of an ebook that you are reading, but notice that there are only four pre-made themes or foreground and background color combinations, and notice that no matter how you rotate your device or change the text size, you cannot get it into a bizarre state. As a bonus, single v. double column mode is entirely automatic. Contrast Readium and Calibre, where there are more controls but it is too easy to combine visual settings in a bizarre manner, for example text columns that are too thin or too wide, having to turn single v. double column mode on and off manually, red text on a blue background, etc. No thought for preventing undesirable states, and pushing the responsibility onto the user.

A good engineer who thinks in terms of “design is how it works” will move mountains (write lots of thoughtful, technically challenging, invisible code) to make the software more clever in order to save the user just a small fraction of extra work, and to avoid having to add a manual setting for the user to fiddle with. Just because the engineer knows that internally the machine works by taking a bunch of knobs as input and producing some output doesn't mean they will then directly expose all those knobs as the interface for the user. Some thoughtfulness is required.

Software design is a subtle art. Some engineers take for granted their relationship with the end-user of the software. Engineers excel at using diverse tools to create custom software to make a computer do whatever they want. Engineers often favor a toolkit approach, where maximum flexibility is paramount. Ease of use is less important because the engineer is an expert and understands in excruciating detail how the machine works and how her software works or does not work. Fragile workflows or complicated multi-step workflows are considered acceptable if new objectives can be achieved with less total work for the programmer/engineer. Make the machine do what I want. The end justifies the means.

Users on the other hand favor ease of use, abstraction and integration. Users are uninterested in the technical details of how something works and are task-focused. They care about how a task is done (the means), how to remember how to do it, how to discover how to do it, how to avoid extra work. They want their software to just work and they want the interface to reflect the exact state of the data at all times. They value integration, where a single piece of software can do everything they can imagine with their data without having to make the user manage interoperability between multiple applications. They are uninterested in what is possible to do by combining different tools in clever ways and just want an easy, reliable way to go from idea to implementation with minimal fuss. They don’t want to be responsible for understanding the underlying details to accomplish their work or even worse, safeguarding the integrity of their data. They don’t want problems to be their fault. They don’t want problems at all. Their powerful machine and thoughtfully designed software should see to that.

Programming

Introducing Harmonious

an impossible shape that sort of looks like a sharp symbol (hash sign, pound sign, or octothorpe)

Harmonious

The Exhaustive Piano and Guitar Chord and Scale App

For Students, Composers, Songwriters, Arrangers & Working Musicians

What if you could learn music theory from a mentor that had all the answers? Start with what you know and follow your curiosity, confident that you have all musical options at your disposal, since Harmonious is the most complete chord and scale map. Find extensions, substitutions and chromatic flavors that lie at the edge of the familiar and the exotic. See connections through the dual lens of chords and scales, linking harmony and melody.

Harmonious is live. Learn about it.

Several years of work and a few decades of studying music theory and the result is something I am proud to announce. Harmonious is live on the iOS App Store and live on the web at https://harmoniousapp.net/!

  1. If you have an iOS device (iPad and iPhone, even iPod touch) contact me and I can give you a promotion code so you can download the app for free if you do not feel like dropping $4.99 on the app. If you are so inclined, you can leave a star rating and maybe write a review.

  2. If you are interested in hearing more about Harmonious when there are updates and new features in the future, please sign up for the infrequent Harmonious Email Newsletter. You can unsubscribe at any time.

  3. If you do not have an Apple/iOS device, but you are at a computer or you have an Android device, please feel free to check out the app live on the website at https://harmoniousapp.net/. It should look good on Android devices and large screens too, and if it doesn't I would love to hear your feedback.

Here's to a great start on an ambitious project!

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