Musings

Hi there, it’s Rob again to go on and on about how amazing Simple is.

I often think of how great it would be to design for this product, but then maybe it’d be a room-mate kind of scenario where you risk souring the relationship – who knows!

In any case, I had a bit of surprise-fraud today. Long story short, I saw an Amazon transaction even though I didn’t buy anything on there recently. They quickly disabled my card until everyone could investigate. As it turns out, I had pre-ordered something and it was one big false alarm.

When I let Brenna know (customer service), she was equally relieved. I really cannot say more about how much I appreciate a normal, human response to situations such as these.

Simple Bank customer service screenshot

Yes, you might have noticed. She even included a reaction GIF!

Simple is awesome

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Musings, writing

Crème of Abstraction Layers

Evolution of content publishing online

When I slow down to look at my interaction with most web sites, I notice an incongruity for accomplishing the same end goal: publishing.

While different sites offer different levels of sophistication, I’ve noticed that creating or editing content on the modern web is bubbling-up closer to the surface. I liken this to term as used in Computer Science: abstraction.

At first, you had to write binary that worked directly with the processor. Then they created a language that allowed you to write logic gates which were converted to binary. The higher you get, the more programming becomes natural to humans.

Nick Nelson, Web Developer

As Nick sums it up, there is a pretty deep (and technical) background to programming that few of us think of today — even the programmers. Even though a well-versed developer that works in an Object Oriented language might know the logic behind the code, we have long since been removed from considering logic gates and binary code.

Translating this to web development, the abstraction layers could go as far as the binary code, but the fundamental difference between software and what we predominantly see on the web seems to start with HTML. Taking human steps back from HTML, by my count, we are just now seeing mainstream implementation of a fourth layer of abstraction.

facebook

facebook

Layer One

HTML and other languages

It used to be that you had to write everything in the language our browsers speak. Yes, we still build websites like this, but you don’t have to know this language to write a blog or update your status. I consider HTML, CSS, and other browser languages to be the first or bottom layer of abstraction on the web. Kids used to learn HTML if they wanted their MySpace to look a certain way. Later, WordPress says, “no more!” Enter the second layer of abstraction.

Layer Two

Admin panels and WYSIWYG

WYSIWYG editor tool for the Blogger CMS

WYSIWYG editor tool for the Blogger CMS

WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) has been around before the internet, letting you select a different font style or change your margins, colors, and other preferences. Its implementation in Content Management Systems (CMS) brings about the second layer of abstraction. I’m sure you can count plain text input somewhere in earlier CMS platforms, but this is the more common method of creating content on the Web. Blogger might have been the first prolific example (above), but I haven’t spent enough time Googling to tell you for sure.

Aside:
To be true to the definition of abstraction this comparison should only be made from language-to-language. In that regard, languages like SASS, LESS, and the like are another layer of abstraction on top of CSS. I’m using abstraction liberally to talk about the mode of interaction you have with a computer when creating content online. In that regard, SASS and CSS are in the same bucket of “manually writing out instructions for the browser.”

An important element of this second layer of abstraction is not only the WYSIWYG, but its placement within an administrator’s section of the website. On Blogger, WordPress, or even the relatively modern Tumblr, you must sign in and access a different side of the website to enter new content and publish.

Tumblr’s Content Entry, circa 2013

Tumblr’s Content Entry, circa 2013

What makes Tumblr interesting is that the primary experience of viewing and interacting with other posts within the community takes place in the same logged-in state / administrator view.

Other services fall elsewhere in the spectrum of a definitive edit mode and read mode. WordPress for example has a completely different experience in the edit mode or administrator side of the site, whereas Flickr was one of the first to blur the line and display the same interface for editing as reading — with minor differences when clicking on things.

Wordpress Content Entry

WordPress Content Entry


Flickr Edit in Place Fields. Konigi, 2008

Flickr Edit in Place Fields. Konigi, 2008

It seems that in the development of a new content platform, there’s a defining choice whether to embrace the Content Management System (CMS) or to try and hide it as much as possible, creating the illusion that your draft could just as well be live, published content. This design decision is what carries some products from the Second Layer of abstraction and the Third Layer of Abstraction, where creating and reading content begin to merge.

Layer Three

Always logged-in + squishy CMS

Flickr, circa 2013

Flickr, circa 2013

As you can see above, Flickr has made quite a few changes over the years and I think it’s an excellent example of a third layer of abstraction to creating content online. Yes, there’s a smaller gap between this layer and the second than there was between the first two, but it’s distinct enough to deserve recognition.

In the Flickr example, people are still interacting with a CMS and they are logged in as an “administrator” of their content. What is significant however, is that our identities online have become more solidified and with a more liberal use of browser cookies, we are almost always identified when walking in to a website we commonly use. For example, WordPress, despite its many improvements, will still ask you to sign in to access the administrator part of your blog; whereas Facebook, Flickr, Medium, and many others will remember you, and what’s more: the main mode of interacting with those sites (communities really) is within the logged-in state.

As we lean toward an always logged-in state by default, the CMS necessarily has merged with the published content. Even when interacting with the CMS, it has become standard to do the composing or editing in the same place you’re viewing other content. When making a Facebook status, your browser doesn’t ask you to leave the newsfeed. When publishing a tweet, your browser no longer requires you to refresh the page to view that content. Overall, there a higher sophistication of Front-End web development being employed that makes these CMS interactions quite “squishy” compared to the very distinct moments you will have with a WordPress CMS and reading the blog, for example.

Sitting here in 2015, this doesn’t sound like much of a revelation. My apologies if I didn’t warn you ahead of time, but I don’t see myself as a visionary. I just think its important to document what we see.

Layer Four

Collaborative content

If I am to follow this winding definition of creating content and getting further away from complying with computers to get things done, then the last layer as I see it must be collaborative documents. Hear me out:

  1. Writing code – You’re using HTML, SASS, anything that’s meant for a browser and not a human.
  2. WYSIWYG / Hard CMS – You’re filling in text boxes, clicking formatting buttons, previewing, publishing, and then going somewhere else to see how it looks.
  3. Always logged-in / Squishy CMS – You don’t have to go anywhere else when finished creating or editing content. The line between browsing the web and composing has been blurred, but there is still a very strong line between you and your readers: the save/post/publish button.
  4. Collaborative content – In this state, the CMS is the viewing platform and composing platform at the same time. There’s no line between browsing and composing, nor is there a line between you and your readers:
Google Docs

Google Docs

I think where this notion of the Fourth Layer feels a bit forced is that it’s not a typical use case. Collaborative tools such as Google Docs, Dropbox, Box, and the like are associated with professional use only, and even in a professional setting they are not the norm.

What’s interesting to me however, is a hypothetical type of social media where that line between author and reader is selectively removed. Let’s take Facebook as an easy target. Imagine if you didn’t have to click the Post button on a status.

Oh wow Rob, that would make my life 9,000 times easier!

Yeah, I thought as much. It might even do more harm than good.

Side-note: isn’t there some publication that uses data Facebook has on what people draft as a status update versus what people actually publish?

I think it would be fun in some safe spaces, such as a curated group of your best friends where you could post content live and anyone that happens to be on the page at the same time can be drawn into your activity and then instantly (or simultaneously) begin to respond/react/build on what you’re putting out there.

Facebook

Okay, so let’s back away from the Facebook example a bit. I’m getting very specific just to try to explore what using the web would feel like if we managed to abstract ourselves just a bit more from the already ‘squishy’ CMS. Perhaps there will always be a line, a very minimum confirmation moment when an author does acknowledge something will be born into the Internet or not.

I think this depends on the concept of the web for most people. If you imagine it’s more akin to a book or newsletter than a dinner conversation or phone call, then yes, there will always be an interaction with the machine no matter how minimal. If you’re of the latter opinion however, then maybe at some point all lines will dissolve and we interact with the web as we do in person – maybe that leads to more explaining, and less editing, but that’s a whole other can of worms.


PS

I didn’t want to get too technical while exploring these different ways of creating content online, but I’d like to acknowledge that these layers of abstraction do not imply that we’re detaching from machines, markup languages, or programming of any sort. If anything, a greater layer of abstraction requires more sophisticated code to support such an elegant interface on the outside.

Good design should not aspire to rendering a complicated system into a seamless one; on the contrary, I hope we continue to focus our attention to the seams and learn how to best mold them to fit our needs.*

We used to log in to create blog posts and that was a necessity for security and identifying the author. Now we are logged in everywhere, for social reasons, for our own sense of digital identity.

Some Links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abstraction_(computer_science)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abstraction_layer
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WYSIWYG
http://konigi.com/interface/flickr-edit-place-fields
* I’d love to take credit for such an intelligent-sounding stance on design, but I first read about it here: Matthew Chalmers (2003)
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Reblog, Wireframes

dialog box wisdom
Out of context, some of these one-liners you’ve probably seen in a dialog box have a deeper meaning. The last one is an honorable mention; a classic, non-tech artifact.


Everything not saved will be lost.
Nintendo “Quit Screen” message

Accept Change
Microsoft Word

Wait some time and then reconnect
Canon webcam

Remove all attachments
Microsoft Outlook

Make sure your own mask is secure before assisting others
Airplane safety card

I’m sure you can google for plenty more, but these were my favorites.

Dialog Box Wisdom

Quote
Musings

Facebook Paper’s Pinhole Browsing

Read on Medium

Introduction

The following comes from my response to a company email (below) that asked designers for their opinion of FB Paper. I have not spent so much time as to give a critique of all aspects of the app. There are things I’d like to say about post creation, browsing profiles, and the new user onboarding for example, but simply didn’t take the time to go there. This is a hot topic for the moment, and I might continue to write/think about it, but there are a lot of intelligent people sharing diverse opinions out there. I think this can suffice for me.

The Prompt

TO ALL:
I used Paper for about 30 minutes tonight and felt there were some interesting interactions but overall was a bit frustrated. Definitely felt the “hook pain” the author here writes of… What do you guys think?

My Response

The design podcast, On The Grid, talked about their first impressions of Paper in this episode.

Opinions seem pretty polarized. A lot of people love it because it is agreeably much more polished than the regular functional Facebook app. I think if they had replaced their primary app with this one, there would be an uproar; but as a supplemental experience people, seem to like this new lens of the news feed (and other stuff?).

I’m not so kind in my opinion. I had high hopes of Facebook waning enough to go down a slippery slope of MySpacey death, but this app seems to appeal to the masses initially. As mentioned in the podcast and other sources, Facebook’s intent was to slow down our consumption of content with the hope that we pay more attention to each post. I believe these are smart guys, and they undoubtably understand their users better than I do, but I just can’t fathom slowing down Facebook without also reducing the amount of content.

Matas hopes that you’ll flip through slowly. “You really want people to spend a little bit of time with it and appreciate that content,” Matas says, “almost like when you go to a museum and you spend a little bit of time with each thing.” The Verge

I think that’s easier said than done. By only showing two whole thumbnails at a time, I am instead frustrated by the pinhole scope of content that I can browse. Perhaps they’re designing for the future, a vision of Facebook with much more interesting content, but the present feed I get from my connections is a 95:5 crap-to-interesting ratio. Slowing down and smelling the digital roses is not what I want from Facebook. I want to quickly skim frequently updated, vast amounts of content, until I land on an interesting picture, link, or juicy argument to read. Much like trying Windows phone for a week, I felt like my hands were tied. I wanted to zoom out.

This approach might work best for the other editorial sections they’ve vaguely collected (‘tech, culture, cute, etc.’) where content and curation is better. My complaint on this front is the lack of context. Looking at the Tech tab for example, what should I expect to find? Articles from TheNextWeb, NYTimes Tech, Engadget, A List Apart, The Verge? There’s quite a difference in the quality of writing and topics covered between sources. I don’t know how each of these channels are curated, how or if they’re connected to my account, and have no ability to customize them. At least with Flipboard, you can customize your content sources (note: I don’t use that app either).

The one thing I did like is vertical the swipe navigation. It’s nice that I don’t have to stretch my thumb across the screen to hit a specific region that has the link or CTA. I can hold my phone in one hand and a broad gesture moves me up or down in the hierarchy of channel, thumbnails, article preview, article detail. I agree the horizontal motion would get tiring. Maybe if they moved that row of thumbnails to the top of the screen it would be more comfortable, but I don’t like this browsing mode in the first place.

— whew —

Sorry for all the negativity.

I prefer ease of use, and am quickly skeptical idealistic presentations.

This app hinders my personal browsing preference of Facebook content, and does not seem to achieve the ideal they put forth. It might be a nice RSS reader, but then it would just be yet another RSS reader.

Note: This is also a Medium post

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Musings

Create, share, with an open heart

Social media making people anti-social, and other inhibitions to creating

Inhibitions

It’s a bit ironic that the best writing tools are my greatest hindrance to doing any writing whatsoever. Great design, rich context, and a huge audience can all be detriments… with the wrong attitude.

I find it so hard to start writing because Medium has a gorgeous design. So minimal and so editorial is its design that I can’t help but think it deserves proper content, not mine. It feels like an open invitation to write for A List Apart! What do I have to offer that is completely my own? I feel hesitant to share a truly invested opinion that isn’t already backed by thousands of notes, RTs, likes, etc.. As I write this, uncertain if I’ll hit publish, I realize I’ve becoming docile and habituated by the “features” (user patterns) of Tumblr, Twitter, and modern Facebook; re-blogging media that is likely more interesting than something I could make, re-tweeting my own opinions once they’re authored by a more popular account, or sharing some video about activism, art, or science on my news feed instead of answering that scary question — what’s on your mind?

facebook

Despite form field suggestions, people are sharing less of themselves.

There’s the context of publishing platforms that holds me back as well. Look at all these great, interesting, informative, and emotional pieces you are all writing and sharing — I presume have nothing of the sort.

Lastly, there’s the audience that holds me back. I remember the days when the Web was anonymous by default; everyone had an obscure username. I made a few geeky aliases back in the day, but I felt like I was one of the minority trying to create a cohesive identity online. I stuck to one consistent moniker, Robrogan. Fast forward to contemporary internet, and people have to try to be anonymous and work to keep up appearances with a multi-channel social presence. You aren’t just a blogger on one site; you are everywhere. So, just like 12-year-old me reading a class assignment in front of a room of my peers, I now feel like anything I might write will be read by dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of my peers, who are all presumably much better informed than myself.

On the more positive side

I’m not as self-deprecating as I might’ve made myself out to be, that was just to illustrate all of the forces against me creating my own content. I do have a website where I share a miscellany of media, text, and recommendations. I also love to take pictures, edit them just so, and share with my friends on Path, contribute to the VSCO Grid, and the handful of standard networks too.

First major snowfall of 2013, in front of NY Public Library, Manhattan

First major snowfall of 2013, in front of NY Public Library, Manhattan

I do get around to writing once in a while, too. The caveat to that is usually that I’m basing my blog post on the core content another blog post. My favorite being the UX Myths. In short: I do create, and share my own information. I doubt doing so every time. I’m resolving to fight those doubts, however, facing Gary Vaynerchuck’s proposition to everyone on Twitter to write one Medium post at the top of this new year, and Srinivas Rao’s piece on How Writing 1000 Words a Day Changed My Life that provided some very necessary inspiration.

Share something with an open heart, not authority

In the last couple of years I have been voraciously consuming information about new practices, schools of thought, and examples of User Experience Design. This hunger to be at the forefront of my career has brought me to various authorities on the web, and while I’ve learned a lot from the content, I’m just now reflecting on the context. What you write is bound to be influenced by what you read. I noticed this when I was in school, reading classic American novels. I don’t know why I would think reading on the web wouldn’t count. The impact might be somewhat stylistic, but I think there is so much respect around the author — shown by the numbers alongside various social media badges — that if you don’t cary that same respect* then your contribution wouldn’t be worth the effort. I’ve been qualifying anything and everything I put online with this concept of authority of authorship. I should be putting everything out there with a more compassionate perspective of an open heart; if something is gained from what I write, then something is gained, and if not, then nothing is lost but my own time. The very act of writing is an exorcise to organize my thoughts, so in this regard there is no true loss of time.

* i.e. Identity on the web. A whole topic in itself, that I alluded to at the beginning of this post.


I’m feeling that restraint again.

A large part of me knows that the typical attention span online won’t get you this far down the page. While I’m sitting here I’ve only just touched on a couple of things I could write about, and at great length, but I don’t want to weigh down this post just yet. One thousand words is a noble goal, and I believe 929 will be an admirable enough first attempt. Tomorrow perhaps I’ll pick up on of the points above and reach that first mark.

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Musings

simple-small-applications

Great UX! Let users know when to expect a response, and how to get the urgent help they need, if panicked. It’s all about the little big details.

See the notification below my message?
greatux

I could wax on and on about how much I enjoy Simple as a bank, service, and brand… but I’ll spare you. If you want to try them out, it’s still invite-only, but you can use one of my invites if you like (8 left).

*No, sadly there is no referral bonus in it for me, I just want more people to use it.

Simple Bank: Great UX all over the place

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