Gedeon Maheux:

Imagine how hard it must be to find a particular game in the vast wilderness that is the App Store if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Until Apple decides to take definitive steps to improve search results, either via human curation, or by lowering dependencies on popularity, easy discovery in the store will continue to be a major problem. Unfortunately for small developers who need paying customers to survive, time is quickly running out.

Via Michael Tsai.

Project Xanadu isn’t just a really interesting UI for browsing hypertext,1 it’s also the world’s most delayed software.

Update

A reader adds some context:

We’re never going to see widespread adoption of the original total Xanadu design but I’d encourage everyone interested in the web, software, hypertext, whatever, to read Literary Machines and Computer Lib while also appreciating its 1970s context and the iconoclastic personality of Ted Nelson. Also of course, clear contrast with the Worse Is Better rule.

Versions of Xanadu prototypes (based on original development from the 70s and 80s) were in fact released at some point:

http://udanax.xanadu.com/

Another page that explains the OpenXanadu web demos you linked to:

http://xanadu.com/nxu/

The Guardian article timing is weird because that OpenXanadu web demo was released and announced several years ago I think.


  1. Space-up or space-down moves between segments, space-left and space-right moves between documents, space-shift switches views. back

M.G. Siegler likes the fact that Facebook on Android now has a built-in browser, instead of sending you to a dedicated browser app when you open a link. Me, I’m not a fan. Instead of opening links in the browser of my choice that provides the features I actually want, I get a sub-par, slower browser that lacks even basic features like a working share button.1

The worst part is that it’s not necessary. Built-in browsers make sense on iOS, where users can’t easily go back to the originating app once they’re kicked into a browser app. But on Android, you just hit the back button, and you’re back in the previous app. That’s one of the reasons why I think OS-level back buttons are a good idea, despite of their issues.

Update

Dominic Wellington:

For one thing, Safari has all the cookies, and I don’t want to log in to things all over again just because I tapped on a link in an app rather than going through the browser.


  1. And, in some use cases, causes a security problemback

Finally, Turn Off That Surface Home Button

Right now, the Surface Pro 3 is probably my favorite computing device.1 It’s the right size for a tablet. Small and light enough to be very portable, but sporting a screen that is big and high-res enough for working, drawing, or watching movies. The aspect ratio is just right: it’s perfect for comic books, wide enough for movies, but still tall enough for productivity apps.

The battery usually lasts through a day, the device has a fantastic pressure-sensitive pen, it’s fast enough for most gaming needs, and the kickstand is pure genius. The keyboard cover is fantastic, and can easily be removed to turn the Surface into a «real» tablet. It’s also quiet and looks good. The Metro apps work perfectly on the touchscreen, but if needed, the Surface also runs regular Windows apps. It’s open, so there’s nobody intentionally scaring developers into not creating innovative new apps for it.

In short, I love using my Surface Pro 3. This is what the iPad should have been, and what the iPad needs to become, if Apple wants to reverse its sales trend: a tablet that’s more than just a big phone without the phone parts.

The only major issue I still had with my Surface was its Home button, which is positioned exactly where you put your palm when drawing, and which triggers on touch, because it’s a capacitive button.

Well, this morning, I had an email from Bardi Golriz in my inbox, with a link to the Surface Hub app.

Install it on your Surface, launch it, and you get this setting:

A toggle that turns off the Home button

Yep, it’s finally possible to turn off the Home button. Weirdly, the button still vibrates when touched, but at least it doesn’t actually do anything anymore.

Thanks, Microsoft! Next time, put in a real button.


  1. Proving the old adage that Microsoft requires three attempts to get anything right. back

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Jolla

Being the first to create a new kind of device has many advantages. You get a lot of recognition, and a temporary monopoly on a market. But entering that market later also has advantages. Not only do you get to learn from your predecessors’ mistakes, you also have a much better understanding of what makes a product work, what people want out of a product, and what kinds of features a product needs to offer. This knowledge allows you to be much more considerate in how you design your product.

Take the iPhone. When it came out, it didn’t have an app store, or an app switcher, or push notifications, or a large screen. Apple added these features later, but in many ways, they still feel tacked on, not a fully native, fully thought through part of the OS.

Devices that came later — most notably webOS — already knew that they had to offer app switchers and a way to manage notifications, and thus created systems that integrated these features into the OS in a much tighter, more natural, more powerful, more versatile way.

Jolla1 is another system that took many of the lessons of iOS and Android, and rethought how a mobile system should work. Since Jolla’s tablet crowdsourcing project ends tomorrow, this seems like a good time to talk about some of the things Jolla does really well.

One-Handed Operation

Phones have become humongous recently, and much of the screen is not easily accessible with one hand. But phone operating systems are still designed as if people used small phones where every part of the screen could easily be reached.2

Jolla knows this and uses gestures to work around this. There’s still a «back» button in the top-left corner that allows you to move back inside an app, but swiping from left to right does the same thing; it moves you back. Swiping from right to left moves you forward, if you’re in an «assistant»-like user interface, where you move through multiple consecutive screens.

Even better, dragging down opens the menu. For example, this is the notes application:

Notes App on Jolla

This app, like most Jolla apps, has very little UI chrome. So what do you do if you want to create a new note, or send this note to somebody? You simply drag down, which moves the UI down, and shows a menu sliding in from above, similar to the «pull to refresh» gesture. Except that, depending on how far you drag down, a different menu entry is selected.

Spatially, the menu is a part of the Notes UI that’s hidden above the edge of the screen, until you drag it into the screen.

Spatial arrangement of Notes UI

So, to send a note, touch the screen anywhere, start dragging down until «Share note» is selected, and release. It’s a simple, quick gesture, it works with one hand, and it doesn’t matter how large your screen is.

Spatiality

The way the Notes menu is arranged above the edge of the screen in the Notes app hints at something else that Jolla does really well: it arranges things spatially. While features in iOS and Android are tacked on seemingly at random, without any real logic about how they appear, or where they would be located if iOS was a physical «thing,» the people at Jolla took great pains to think through how Jolla’s pieces fit together.

Take the way Jolla’s lock screen, home screen/app switcher, and app screen fit together. On iOS and Android, these are three disparate things that aren’t really connected. On Jolla, they’re three different sections of the same virtual space, and you can move between them by dragging up or down.

Jolla Spatial Screens

When you turn on the Jolla device, you see the lock screen. Drag down to reveal the lock screen’s menu. Drag up to reveal the home screen, which combines the app switcher and a dock. Drag up again to reveal the app screen. To go back to the app switcher, drag down from the app screen, and to lock the phone, drag down from the home screen.

You only have to see this once to immediately understand how each of these pieces fits together, and how you’re supposed to switch between these screens. That’s the power of a system that is designed as a whole, rather than starting out simple, and growing over time.

In this video, Myriam Joire shows some of the Jolla UI:

Additional Notes

The Jolla hardware itself is nice. It’s a bit thick, but it looks good. The hardware buttons (volume and power) are all arranged on the right side of the device, which prevents the problem where you’re trying to change the volume, and accidentally turn off the phone, because the power button is on the exact opposite of the volume button, and pushing one makes you accidentally also push its counterpart on the other side of the phone.

The grid of running apps allows you to get quick access to your running apps, and doesn’t force you to scroll through apps until you find the one you’re looking for.

Jolla even runs Android apps, though not always perfectly.

Amongst all of the fringe phone operating systems (Sailfish, Firefox OS, Ubuntu Mobile), Jolla’s Sailfish is easily the most mature. Firefox OS is interesting, but a Jolla phone is something you could actually use — and even something you could genuinely prefer over Android, iOS, or Windows Phone.


  1. Technically, the Jolla OS is called Sailfish. back

  2. Which, by the way, was never actually true, even with the original iPhone. back

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Apple CarPlay, Android Auto

Via Daring Fireball:

All I could think while watching this movie was «how can this possibly be legal?» Dialling numbers while driving? Receiving notifications1 in your car? Liking songs while on the wheel? And all of this on a super-laggy touchscreen?

I guess there will be an «I’m the passenger» button, and as we know, nobody ever lies when they see those.

People were incensed when Google lobbied to make it legal to use Glass while driving, calling it «reckless, disgusting, and disgraceful», but at least Glass allows you to keep your eyes on the road while interacting with your phone. CarPlay and Android Auto seem ten times worse.

If you think that hands-free, voice-controlled systems actually solve this issue, evidence suggests the opposite.

The study also separately assessed Apple’s Siri (version iOS 7) using insight obtained from Apple about Siri’s functionality at the time the research was conducted. Researchers used the same metrics to measure a broader range of tasks including using social media, sending texts and updating calendars. The research uncovered that hands- and eyes-free use of Apple’s Siri generated a relatively high category 4 level of mental distraction.

And Digital Trends writes:

Researchers at Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that driver reaction times doubled while texting – whether they did it manually or hands-free. Another study conducted by AAA came to a similar conclusion.

I think the National Safety Council has it right:

The auto industry and the consumer electronics industry are really in an arms race to see how we can enable drivers to do stuff other than driving.

This whole thing seems utterly insane to me. Road safety trends are already not doing too well. Every single day in the US alone, about 100 people die in road accidents. The last thing we need is to make driving even less safe.

As Marco put it:

There’s no gentler way to put this: When — not if — distracted drivers using Glass kill others or themselves in accidents, those deaths are now partly on Google.

Unfortunately, unlike Glass, there will be a lot of people actually using CarPlay and Android Auto.

User interface design is not just about how simple something is to use. It’s also about the impact it has on people’s behavior. On this metric, these systems are a complete user interface design failure.

Addendum

Thibaut Sailly offers this proposal for a vastly improved redesign of these user interfaces:


  1. The whole idea of a notification is to interrupt what a person is doing, and get that person’s attention away from what they are doing. Which is something that should not happen while you are driving. back

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Here’s a question that used to have a really simple answer, until a few years ago, but has become surprisingly complicated in the last few years:

What’s a Pixel?

Information Density and Android's Calendar

Recently, Google replaced Android’s Calendar app with a redesigned version. Now, admittedly, I’ve never liked any of the calendars on my phones, with the possible exception of the one on WebOS. But if I had to rank all of the calendar apps I’ve ever used from «almost acceptable» to «terrible», the new Android calendar app would sit firmly at the «terrible» end of this spectrum.

I think there’s a reason why printed planners typically use the two visible pages to show a week.

Weeks are a good unit of time when you’re planning meetings and appointments. They’re big enough for you to see a useful measure of time, and they’re big enough so that you can easily move one or two months forwards or backwards, which is all you typically need. But on a printed planner, a week is also small enough that you still get a reasonable amount of space for each individual day.

As a result, I typically default to the week view on phones, too. The day view means that even just knowing what I’m going to do tomorrow requires me to jump between different screens, while the month view doesn’t show enough information to work for most use cases.

Now, a phone is much smaller than a printed planner, so it can’t show as much information in its week view. But that’s okay; as long as I can get a quick impression of when I’m busy and when I’m free during the week, I’m fine.

The old Calendar app’s weekly view used to do a reasonable job. There was a lot of room for improvement, but it worked well enough.

The new Calendar app does not. Its information density is so ridiculously low that the week view doesn’t even deserve that name anymore. It’s now a «5 Day» view, because it only shows five days. This is confusing, because it means that the starting day in this view changes. Instead of always being Monday (or Sunday in the US),1 it’s now a random day. So in order for me to figure out what I’m looking at, I first have to take a second to recalibrate my brain. Okay, the leftmost day is now a Wednesday…

And I don’t even see the individual days fully. I only see seven hours of each day, effectively about half of what I’d need to see to get an impression of what I’m doing that day.

Now, I wouldn’t complain if that was the view on a dinky 3-inch-phone. But this is the view on a Galaxy Note 3. Surely, there’s plenty of space on that screen to show a usable week view.

There’s always a need to balance simplicity and information density. It’s very difficult to convey a lot of complex information in a simple, usable user interface — hence the fact that I never really liked any calendar app.

But if you’re designing a user interface that is explicitly intended to convey a lot of complex information, just not showing that information is never an acceptable solution.

When Do Weeks Start?

Further up, I noted that weeks start on Mondays in Europe, but in the US, they seem to start on Sundays. Wrong. Dr. Drang points out that weeks start on Mondays in the US, too:

Weekly calendar/planners in the US start on Mondays. You can look at Day Runner, Day-Timer, At-A-Glance; They all start on Monday and have for the 30+ years I’ve been paying attention. Monthly calendars in the US do start on Sundays, but never weekly calendars. (At this point, I’d normally make a cutting remark about how Europeans think they understand American culture from watching movies and TV shows, but I’m taking the high road today.)

So where did Lukas get the idea that Americans like to start their weekly calendars on Sunday? Probably from the poorly designed calendar software we’re forced to use.

That’s right. I always set my devices’ language to English. This typically has a bunch of side effects. One of them is the date format. If you set the language to English, devices often also set the date format to US-English. I’ve noticed that one of the things the US-English date format typically entails is that it changes the week’s start date to Sunday — hence my assumption about when weeks start in the US.

A Good Week View

A few people asked me whether there was any mobile calendar app that offered a good week view. Is it even possible to show a good week view on such a small screen? There is, and it is. Business Calendar on Android is not the prettiest app in the world, but it does offer a week view that allows me to see seven days a week, 14 hours a day, all in portrait view. Calendar entries contain enough readable text for me to identify what each entry is, and the app has a smart layouting algorithm for overlapping entries.


  1. Turns out I was wrong about that. See note at the end of this article. back

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William Van Hecke:

There’s no disincentive to honking at people for the slightest provocation. There’s little recourse for abuse. It’s such an asymmetrical, aggressive technology, so lacking in subtlety. It kind of turns everyone into a crying baby — you can let the people around you know that you’re very upset, but not why.

I think the Internet is like this sometimes, too. The internet is like a car horn that you can honk at the entire world.

Update

The video of the talk is now online.