Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
Andy Beaumont wrote a great piece about his popular Tab Closed; Didn’t Read Tumblr site, which documents websites that obscure their content behind modal overlays. His point on analytics in The Value of Content is spot on:
Analytics only tell you part of the story — if that’s all you bother to find out, and you have absolute faith in those numbers, then you’re going to end up putting a modal overlay on your site. Analytics will tell you that you got more “conversions”. Analytics will show you rising graphs and bigger numbers. You will show these to your boss or your client. They will falsely conclude that people love these modal overlays.
But they don’t. Nobody likes them. Conversions are not people. If you want the whole story here you should also be sat in a room testing this modal overlay with real people. Ask them questions.
Once again, this points to how important research triangulation is to make good decisions based on insights, not just data. Real insights are found at the intersection of different research methods. Not over in the corner with just one method.
There are a few pieces on the topic of what makes a design good that jumped out at me recently. First, I like this approach from Uday Gajendar in What is good design?:
So what is “good design”? It’s an attitude of design-driven excellence (from strategy to delivery), a process of iteration and creativity, a mentality of enabling humanistic achievement for people, and a value system grounded in excellence of craft with a magnanimous bent towards what’s best for customers: appropriate, empowering, delightful.
Jon Bell talks about “Of Course” Design:
When people try to design magical interfaces, they’re often aspiring for the “wow” moment, but that’s the wrong focus. Designers should instead be focusing on “of course” moments, as in “of course it works like that.” Most product design should be so obvious it elicits no response.
Finally, Randy Hunt implores designers to Stop Trying To Be So Damned Clever:
During the design process, you can easily want to surprise and delight the user. So you create a design element — an interaction pattern, a naming scheme, a symbol, and so on — that is fresh and extremely inventive. However, the cleverness of your creation obscures the intent of the product. And the cleverness of that first impression doesn’t hold up over time — and I don’t mean over years; I mean over only the first few moments of use. After that first rush of newness, if the intended value of the product is not clear, or the functional intent isn’t obvious, the novel idea means nothing.
All three posts are worth reading in detail for their different points of view that point to similar definitions of good design.
Thanks to Pencils.com for sponsoring Elezea’s RSS feed this week!
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I’m a little hesitant to believe these kinds of stats without seeing the actual research (and you have to pay for this report, which makes it even harder to verify), but Voxburner claims that 62% of 16-24s prefer books as physical products. That’s interesting in itself, but even more interesting is the reasons they cite:
There is less affection towards electronic versions of books. Whereas age is shown in the spine of each book — and commitment by the size of one’s bookshelf — digital files have no distinguishing characteristic. Most books adhere to the same fonts, as defined by the standards of ebook readers, and e-ink displays are void of any images besides the cover due to the lack of colour.
One of the things we sometimes miss in the ebook vs. physical book debate is that some of the inherent benefits of physical books have nothing to do with the act of reading. The experience of reading an ebook might be very similar to reading a physical book, but your Kindle doesn’t give you bragging rights. No one can walk into your house and see what kind of person you are just by looking at your Kindle — but they can learn a great deal by walking past bookshelves filled with the words that represent how you want the world to perceive you.
We often forget that physical products speak to a predisposition that digital products simply cannot counter: our own vanity.
Adam Corner provides a very interesting perspective on modern advertising in Ad nauseam — Advertising turned anti-consumerism into a weapon. He starts off by discussing a new brand of ad that wants to join us in our distaste for, well, advertising:
These ads want to be our friends — to empathise with us against the tyranny of the corporate world they inhabit. Just when we thought we’d cottoned on to subliminal advertising, personalised sidebars on web pages, advertorials and infomercials, products started echoing our contempt for them. ‘Shut up!’ we shout at the TV, and the TV gets behind the sofa and shouts along with us.
He cites this recent Orange ad as an example of an attempt to empathize with our contempt for excessive product placement:
Adam then goes on to explain why it matters to be wary of these techniques:
And the industry’s seemingly endless capacity to perpetuate itself matters. Marketing is not simply a mirror of our prevailing aspirations. It systematically promotes and presents a specific cluster of values that undermine pro-social and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour. In other words, the more that we’re encouraged to obsess about the latest phone upgrade, the less likely we are to concern ourselves with society’s more pressing problems. That’s a reason to want to keep a careful tab on advertising’s elusive and ephemeral forms.
Tim Caynes’ on exposure is an honest and accurate depiction of what it’s like to work at a design agency:
if there’s one thing that really hits home in your first 3 months of transition, it’s the change in pace. and it’s not that the change in pace is a bad thing. it’s just that it feels like you don’t have enough time to think. which means you don’t have enough time to design. which is stressful and surprising and difficult and awkward. because you might not actually be able to do it. you might fail. and everyone will be able to say they told you so. and you’ll be exposed.
be under no illusion, when you work for an agency, your constraint is time. but your reputation is all about quality. so quality is, and should be, ruthlessly monitored, evaluated, and understood. and that’s why the integrity of design and design thinking is the first thing that you will get caught out on. well, apart from the pace thing. but it’s not personal. even though that’s what it feels like the first few times someone like me sits down with you, looks at your designs and pulls that horrible squinty patronising-but-really-caring face that tells you there’s something not quite right.
This post hit home for me in so many ways.
In The Disconnectionists Nathan Jurgenson takes to task those who speak about digital detoxes and the negative social effects of being online:
Op-eds, magazine articles, news programs, and everyday discussion frames logging off as reclaiming real social interaction with your real self and other real people. The R in IRL. When the digital is misunderstood as exclusively “virtual,” then pushing back against the ubiquity of connection feels like a courageous re-embarking into the wilderness of reality. When identity performance can be regarded as a by-product of social media, then we have a new solution to the old problem of authenticity: just quit. Unplug — your humanity is at stake! Click-bait and self-congratulation in one logical flaw.
Which reminds me of this tweet of the picture below and the caption, “All this technology is making us antisocial. Before everyone used to talk to each other.”
There is nothing new under the sun… I also love this line from the article:
Disconnect. Take breaks. Unplug all you want. You’ll have different experiences and enjoy them, but you won’t be any more healthy or real.
It turns out our anti-social behavior comes not from technology, but from who we are.
I read two really great articles this week about a couple of recent language shifts. The first is Megan Garber’s English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet, all about the “because-noun”:
However it originated, though, the usage of “because-noun” (and of “because-adjective” and “because-gerund”) is one of those distinctly of-the-Internet, by-the-Internet movements of language. It conveys focus (linguist Gretchen McCulloch: “It means something like ‘I’m so busy being totally absorbed by X that I don’t need to explain further, and you should know about this because it’s a completely valid incredibly important thing to be doing’”). It conveys brevity (Carey: “It has a snappy, jocular feel, with a syntactic jolt that allows long explanations to be forgone”).
But it also conveys a certain universality. When I say, for example, “The talks broke down because politics,” I’m not just describing a circumstance. I’m also describing a category. I’m making grand and yet ironized claims, announcing a situation and commenting on that situation at the same time. I’m offering an explanation and rolling my eyes — and I’m able to do it with one little word. Because variety. Because Internet. Because language.
And then there’s Ben Crair’s exploration of SMS-speak in The Period Is Pissed — When did our plainest punctuation mark become so aggressive?:
The period was always the humblest of punctuation marks. Recently, however, it’s started getting angry. I’ve noticed it in my text messages and online chats, where people use the period not simply to conclude a sentence, but to announce “I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.” [...]
“In the world of texting and IMing … the default is to end just by stopping, with no punctuation mark at all,” Liberman wrote me. “In that situation, choosing to add a period also adds meaning because the reader(s) need to figure out why you did it. And what they infer, plausibly enough, is something like ‘This is final, this is the end of the discussion or at least the end of what I have to contribute to it.’”
If you have an interest in language, you’ll enjoy both articles very much.
I hate Microsoft Word. I want Microsoft Word to die. I hate Microsoft Word with a burning, fiery passion. I hate Microsoft Word the way Winston Smith hated Big Brother.
There is a growing uprising against word processors and WYSIWYG editors of late. This is partly because of how bad most of those products are, and partly because other alternatives — particularly plain text — have become so intriguing. In fact, please allow me a moment to declare my undying love for plain text.
I love that with plain text the focus is on the words, not the formatting. I love that it’s portable and can be used anywhere and everywhere, in any piece of software that edits or displays words. I love how easy it is to create beautifully formatted documents when needed. Most of all, I love how fast it is. I simply work more efficiently since switching to plain text.
And yet I haven’t been able to convince many people to join me in uninstalling Microsoft Word and moving most (if not all) of their writing to plain text. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find people at a party who are willing to listen to me rant about word processors. So, you know. To the internet!
This is a short post about the tools I use to do the vast majority of my writing (business as well as personal). I hope that it will convince at least some of you to take the plunge with me.
To move your note-taking and writing to plain text you need three things:
- A format to write in
- A place to write in
- A central place to store it all
With those three things in place you’ll be all set to free yourself from the shackles of word processors and WYSIWYG editors. If you want more efficiency and clarity in your writing, this is the way to do it1.
A format to write in
I cannot sing the praises of Markdown enough. Markdown is an easy-to-learn, inconspicuous syntax that lets you focus on what you’re writing without getting bogged down in what it’s going to look like once you’re done. At the same time, it’s a powerful system for formatting documents automatically when you need to print them out, or send something to a colleague or client. The syntax remains easily readable without getting in the way of your words.
I write pretty much everything in Markdown now, and as more and more applications start to support it natively, I only see its popularity growing. The latest email app to take the Mac world by storm, Airmail, has native Markdown support. So does MarsEdit, the software I use to write and publish to this site. The PHP Markdown WordPress plugin further allows any WordPress site to publish with Markdown.
Trust me, it’s really easy to learn. Here’s another Markdown syntax guide to get you going.
A place to write in
Once you’ve settle on the Markdown format, you’re ready for the most difficult stage of the switch: figuring out which of the hundreds of great applications to write and edit plain text files works best for you. On the Mac I’ve tried iA Writer and Byword, but I now spend most of my time in Brett Terpstra’s nvALT. It is a fork of the original Notational Velocity text editor that adds some really great features. What makes it great? Nothing beats nvALT when it comes to speed and efficiency:
- Modeless operation in which searching for notes and creating new notes happen in the same part of the interface. It’s highly efficient and there’s zero lag.
- Powerful keyboard shortcuts for mouseless operation, which further speeds up your writing.
- Native Markdown support, of course.
Even though nvALT has preview functionality built in, I prefer Marked 2 to view formatted text files. Yet another Brett Terpstra project, it’s a powerful previewer for Markdown files, and it works with any text editor. So even if you use something other than nvALT, or open a text file in another app, you can still use Marked. You can add custom CSS and export to a variety of file formats. So when you’re ready to move from words to formatting, this is the app to do it in.
On iOS I’ve gone through tons of text editor apps, but I currently use Notesy, and I’m really happy with it. It’s incredibly fast, which is, as I keep mentioning, one of the main reasons to switch to plain text. There are a few additional things about Notesy that make it one of the apps I use most on my iOS devices:
- You can use it to quickly jot down some thoughts you don’t want to forget, and the file will be waiting for you on nvALT when you get back to your desk. So you can just keep going where you left off.
- It has a URL structure and good support from other apps you may already be using. For example, if you read something in Instapaper that you want to reference in a blog post or an email, you can easily create a note with the selected text.
If you need a more comprehensive overview of iOS text editors, check out this extensive comparison (by — who else — Brett Terpstra).
A central place to store it all.
The last thing to figure out is how to make it all work together so your files are always synced and always available for use on any device. Of course, this is where Dropbox comes in. You’ll need to make a couple of simple settings changes in nvALT to accomplish this. In the Notes preference pane, do the following:
- Change the “Read notes from folder” destination to a folder in Dropbox.
- Change the “Store and read notes on disk as:” setting to Plain Text Files
And just like that, you’re all set. Now you can access your text files from any computer that has internet access and an application that can read text files. Notesy on iOS works directly off Dropbox, so you just have to point it to the folder you set up for your plain text files in nvALT.
“But wait,” I hear you say, “what about folders and things?” Well, that’s what’s so great about using nvALT and Notesy. Everything is search-based. I’ve never had a problem finding a file/note I’m looking for. And since these applications are built for speed, even on a vast amount of text files, it’s much faster than trolling through folders looking for the right file. Getting out of the folders mindset is a bit uncomfortable at first, but it really does start to feel natural after a while.
If you really struggle with the idea, nvALT does support tagging (similar to Gmail’s tags), so you can use that as a crutch for a while. But a better option is to come up with a file naming system, and stick with it. See, for example, Michael Schechter’s excellent overview of the system he uses.
“But wait,” I hear you say again (you’re nothing if not persistent), “what about collaborating on documents?” Don’t worry, there’s an app for that. Once you’re at a point where you need to get feedback or collaborate on a document, you can just import your text file into the brilliant new service Editorially, and keep going from there. It supports Markdown (of course it does), version control, tracked changes, and comments. No sweat.
I won’t deny that there are still some circumstances where word processors are useful. I’m writing a book at the moment, and I’m using Pages for that (mainly because Editorially didn’t exist when I started writing it). But for the majority of everyday writing — meeting notes, emails, business documents — there is simply nothing better than plain text. Go ahead. Get rid of Word. You can do it.
I’m making these recommendations from the perspective of an Apple user, but I’m sure there are good alternatives on other platforms. ↩
As we all know by now, The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013 is selfie. That annoying, ubiquitous self-portrait that you just can’t get away from no matter what social network you participate in (and taken to its illogical, wonderful extreme by mrpimpgoodgame on Instagram).
Most of the coverage of the culture of selfies is understandably negative about this seemingly overly narcissistic behavior. So it was with great interest that I read Casey Cep’s In Praise of Selfies: From Self-Conscious to Self-Constructive, a very intriguing history and defense of the self-portrait:
Self-portraiture, like all reflexive art, turns its gaze inward from what we see to the one who sees. In the digital age, the rise of selfies parallels the rise of memoir and autobiography. Controlling one’s image has gone from unspoken desire to unapologetic profession, with everyone from your best friend to your favorite celebrity laboring to control every word, every pixel of himself or herself that enters the world. Self-portraiture is one aspect of a larger project to manage our reputations.
We cherish the possibility that someone, anyone, might see us. If photographs possess reality in their pixels, then selfies allow us to possess ourselves: to stage identities and personas. There is the sense that getting the self-portrait just right will right our own identity: if I appear happy, then I must be happy; if I appear intellectual, then I must be an intellectual; if I appear beautiful, then I must be beautiful. Staging the right image becomes the mechanism for achieving that desired identity. The right self-portrait directs others to see us the way we desire to be seen.
I’m not 100% convinced, but ok, I’ll give it a shot. Am I doing it right?