Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

More on Android vs iOS mobile web browsing engagement

Anthony Wing Kosner wrote a very interesting analysis of Horace Dediu’s Android engagement paradox numbers, which show that although Android market share is surging, its share of mobile browsing is lagging way behind iOS. The Android vs iOS Engagement Paradox is full of insights like this:

In the U.S. and many other countries, inexpensive Android devices are the replacement for the feature phones most consumers have been using. A feature phone user carries their minimal expectations with them to their new device. It turns out that just giving someone a smartphone doesn’t make them a smartphone user. They need habits of use that take advantage of the new functionality they now possess. iOS users, in contrast, are much more interested from the get-go in what their device can do, though few of us really tap anything near the full computing capacity of what we carry in our pockets.

Read The Android vs iOS Engagement Paradox on Forbes.

Google wreaks havoc on our company’s calendars

We run our company on Google Apps for Business, and we’ve never had any problems. Until now. On Friday morning we came in to work to find that all our calendars are completely, utterly messed up. We lost data, ownership changed randomly, and some of us lost access to our own calendars. We’re still coming to terms with what happened, and it’s hard to explain without getting into specific detail, so I’ll just give you taste of the damage. Sorry for all the names of people you don’t know, but it’s the only way I can keep this straight:

  • My work calendar disappeared from my account, and is now owned by Chris’s personal Google Apps account.
  • I now own the Boardroom calendar, which is a resource calendar.
  • Chris’s work account now owns his personal calendar.
  • Debré’s work calendar disappeared from her account, and is now owned by Philip’s work account.
  • Philip’s personal calendar disappeared from his account, and is now owned by Angela’s work account.
  • Some events have gone completely missing from calendars — they’re just not there any more. Those events also disappeared from our clients’ calendars, which is a huge embarrassment and inconvenience because we don’t know when we’re supposed to meet with who.

And on and on it goes. Google Apps for Business promises 24/7 customer support, with a guarantee that “We’re always available to help via phone or email.” We discovered this issue on Friday morning, so I called immediately. They opened a case, I sent some screen shots, and then we waited.

Later in the day I got an email saying that “Your case will now be further analyzed by the next tier of support.” And then they went dark. I kept sending more information as we found it, but nothing happened. I phoned again on Friday evening and Saturday morning, but by then, phone support couldn’t do anything because the case was transferred to a “calendar specialist”.

On Saturday evening I received an update from Google Apps Support:

I looked at the calendars you mentioned and see the strange names that you mentioned. However, determining exactly what happened will require some in depth logs analysis. This will take some time.

And after that — nothing. Now it’s Monday morning and our ability to run our business is crippled since we don’t have access to our meeting schedule. And since we know that some events have gone missing, we can’t even trust what remains.

On the Google Apps Calendar page it says this (my emphasis added):

Google Calendar is designed for security and reliability with features like encrypted connections to Google’s servers, simultaneous replicated storage for your calendar appointments, built-in disaster recovery and fine-grained sharing, which lets you share your calendar with people in and out of your organization.

So if there’s built-in disaster recovery, why can’t they just restore our calendars to the state it was in Thursday night? Why has it been three days and we’re not getting regular updates and progress reports? Why promise 24/7 customer support if you can’t deliver it? And yes, this includes both phone and email support of their “core services”, which includes Google Calendar.

I’m writing this to hopefully accomplish three things:

  • Get some more attention on the issue so that Google can fix it and let us get on with our business.
  • Ask if anyone has experienced this problem before — if so, please get in touch.
  • Warn you about something you most likely already know: your data is not safe anywhere.

That’s the story so far. Google, please help. We just want our calendars back, and we’d love to know what happened.

Update 12/10/2012: The Internet works! On Monday evening I received a call from a senior Google Calendar employee, and he spent 30 minutes on the phone with me to help troubleshoot and get to the bottom of the issue. Our calendars aren’t fixed yet, but I’m confident that Google is now on top of it and will give us regular updates on what’s going on. At this point it looks like a 3rd party application had a sync issue with GCal, and that instigated a weird chain reaction. I’ll update again with more information once it’s all been fixed.

Update 12/12/2012: We’re mostly back up and running. It sounds like BusyCal had a conniption during one of its regular syncs, and used an API call that created the whole mess. I’m told that the API call that was used doesn’t give them much logging, so we’re not able to figure out exactly what happened. That’s too bad, but at least we’re mostly restored (still some events missing, but we’ll live with that). They ended up undeleting all events that were deleted when the issue happened. I think we could have done that on Friday, and still not sure why it took so long to sort out, but since this post went out Google became really involved and responsive, so I’m happy with that. And that, as they say, is that.

The future of online publishing

It’s an exciting time for publishing. After what feels like years of magazines and newspapers ignoring the Internet in the hope that it will go away, a new wave of innovation is happening. I wanted to share some of the content that I think provides some good context and thinking around this topic.

In one of the most important articles of 2012, Craig Mod defines a new way to deliver content called Subcompact Publishing. He starts off with an important observation:

In product design, the simplest thought exercise is to make additions. It’s the easiest way to make an Old Thing feel like a New Thing. The more difficult exercise is to reconsider the product in the context of now. A now which may be very different from the then in which the product was originally conceived.

Craig continues with a Subcompact Manifesto. The gist is that this new type of publication is small (both in issue and file sizes), HTML(ish) based, and completely focused on portability and reader needs. But it’s important to hear Craig talk about this, so if you haven’t read his brilliant article yet, it’s a good idea to do that first before continuing.

Craig’s post prompted quite a few responses. Jason Kottke followed up with a bunch of examples of Subcompact Publishing, including three of my favourites: Evening Edition, NextDraft, and The Magazine.

Jim Ray wrote a good summary called 29th Street Publishing and the Next Wave of Digital Publishing, in which he also points to some of the challenges that exist on the publishing side to make this a reality:

Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite, which is what many traditional publishers have been using to quickly put together iPad versions of their magazines, is trying to solve an impossible problem. Publishers don’t have the resources to build digital native versions of their print magazines (which still manage to be quite lucrative, btw) so they bolted some tools onto their existing workflow and shipped it. This has all happened before, of course, when these same publishers were trying to figure out how to make workflows built for printing presses talk to an FTP server.

By starting fresh, 29th Street (and other upstarts, like The Magazine) can build proper apps that readers actually enjoy, instead of just pushing out a bloated PDF of a magazine into the Newsstand app.

I linked to this a while ago, but I want to mention Ben Brown’s concept of Reader Aware Design again, because it’s very relevant to this discussion:

Enormous piles of data are being collected about our browsing habits. When do we visit? What have we visited recently? This information is squirreled away in the cloud in order to better sell us things. Instead of just handing all that data over to Google and Facebook and Twitter, sites should leverage some of it to enhance the reading experience. In addition to becoming device aware through responsive design techniques, our sites should also strive to become reader aware.

Ben did more than just write about this — he has since released Aware.js, a jQuery plugin that implements many of the features he talked about. It’s definitely worth checking out. I’m keen to play with it on this site as well.

I also like Frank Chimero’s reflections on another emerging form of publishing he calls anthologies:

I think the web is heading toward an age of anthologies, where users gain new ways to select, sequence, recontextualize, and publish the content they consume. Anthologies are distinct from remix culture, because the source material is not modified. Some of these tools will be automated like Flipboard or Facebook’s timeline, but I’m interested in the opportunities of manual tools which require our attention to pass over what we’ve saved, bookmarked, liked, hearted, and favorited on the web. The chosen material is sorted, arranged, and given edges. An anthology flies in the face of the web as it exists, simply in that one may “finish” because it “ends.” I hope we are finally admitting to ourselves that we can’t stomach as much as we thought. We’ve realized that the way to make sense of this meal is to step away from the table for a while and come back later.

Frank mentions Readability’s Readlists as an example of this. I haven’t tried Readlists because I’m still a little uncomfortable with taking other people’s work and packaging it in a way that sends very little traffic back to the original source, but maybe I’m just being old school.

Finally, on this week’s episode of 5by5′s The Crossover, Gina Trapani and Jason Snell discuss the evolution of publishing, and it’s the perfect companion to what’s been written on the topic over the past week or so.

In short, we’re about to see an influx of great ideas in the publishing industry, and for the first time in a long time, it looks like readers like us will be the real winners.

Facebook and the imperfect past

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Eric Bellm remembers the early days of Facebook in When Facebook was Fun:

And we grew older. The guy who was your buddy in class or in the dorms moved to a different city, and you lost touch with him, except in the weird limbo of Facebook, where you remain capital-F Friends and your seven-year-old inside jokes remain preserved in digital amber. You don’t notice it, as the News Feed pushes your recent history out of sight, but who you were trying to be back then can still be found in your Timeline. What was once a means of creative expression and a connection to a living community has ossified: a hidden record of who you aspired to be, as you became who you are now instead.

Facebook Timeline is a brilliant piece of behavioral design. It encourages people to reminisce constantly about the past in a way that cuts out most of the bad and non-exciting parts. As Matt Haughey pointed out in a widely-circulated post called Why I love Twitter and barely tolerate Facebook:

At Facebook, half the people in my recent feed are defined by the university they attended, even if that was 50 years ago. Their location is mentioned in posts and prominently on their profile, as well as their entire school history. Heck, the whole notion of organization at Facebook is now defining a person as a “Timeline.” I find the new life history Timeline approach to be a way of constantly dredging up the past, to show others how it shaped this person, and it’s not necessarily the best way to define ourselves.

Jason Kottke expanded on Matt’s thoughts in Twitter is a machine for continual self-reinvention:

For a certain type of person, changing oneself might be one of the best ways of feeling free and in control of one’s own destiny. And in the social media world, Twitter feels like continually moving to NYC without knowing anyone whereas Facebook feels like you’re living in your hometown and hanging with everyone you went to high school with. Twitter’s we’re-all-here-in-the-moment thing that Matt talks about is what makes it possible for people to continually reinvent themselves on Twitter. You don’t have any of that Facebook baggage, the peer pressure from a lifetime of friends, holding you back. You are who your last dozen tweets say you are. And what a feeling of freedom that is.

I find Facebook’s deliberate focus on the past such a cunning piece of design, especially since most other social networks feel more focused on what’s happening now. What’s so interesting is that your past as told by Facebook’s Timeline is only a minuscule part of the full story. Yes, there were parties, vacations, and engagements. But there was also heartache, grief, and lots and lots of plain-old boring life.

Obviously Facebook only tells the story it knows, and most of the time it only knows about your happy times. What we sometimes forget is that it’s conflict that makes the story of our life interesting. In his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years Donald Miller puts it this way:

When we watch the news [and stories about violence come on], we grieve all of this, but when we go to the movies, we want more of it. Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are in.

I’m slowly coming around to the idea that if we’re going to embrace public living (in the form of social networks) at all, we should either go all in with the full spectrum of our emotions, or rather not bother. Because if we only share a small, perfect sliver of our lives, we start to create unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and the people who know us.

The best article I read about this stuff in a long time is Leah Reich’s Disconnect:

But sometimes, even now, I think about public mourning rituals. I think about how the Victorians treated grief, how publicly they wore it, how they wore rings made from the hair of their beloved deceased. I recall telling myself I could say something, I could document my grief. It was okay to make it public, even if it felt like a very wrong, obnoxious, and strange thing to do. I remember thinking I needed someone to do something, but I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know how to ask.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? Under even the most ordinary circumstances, how difficult it is to tell people we feel awful, to ask for a little extra patience, to ask for comfort. So to reach through the emotional distance when the stakes are so much higher, when the cost of rejection is risking further isolation at a time when you are already floating on what seems like the last splinter of wood from the great wreck of your life — well, you know, maybe throwing a thing or two at the internet and seeing what sticks doesn’t seem so crazy.

Yes, I know. We’re already in a culture of over-sharing. So I’m cognisant of the fact that it’s not quite practical from information overload and audience burden perspectives for all of us to suddenly start gushing every time we’re having a rough day. So I don’t really have an answer for how this should work. But I worry that our incomplete, happy pasts will someday come back to haunt us when we realise that by ignoring hard times, we have no idea how to deal with them any more.

Responsive design is not an excuse for poor site performance

Tim Kadlec wrote a very timely post about performance and responsive design called Responsive Responsive Design. He starts off by driving home the importance of well-performing sites:

The reality is that high performance should be a requirement on any web project, not an afterthought. Poor performance has been tied to a decrease in revenue, traffic, conversions, and overall user satisfaction. Case study after case study shows that improving performance, even marginally, will impact the bottom line. The situation is no different on mobile where 71% of people say they expect sites to load as quickly or faster on their phone when compared to the desktop.

And then he breaks down one of the most prevailing and dangerous myths of responsive design:

I adamantly disagree with the belief that poor performance is inherent to responsive design. That’s not a rule – it’s a cop-out. It’s an example of blaming the technique when we should be blaming the implementation. This argument also falls flat because it ignores the fact that the trend of fat sites is increasing on the web in general. While some responsive sites are the worst offenders, it’s hardly an issue resigned to one technique.

Tim then shares some very good strategies and techniques for making sure responsive sites don’t become too bloated. Read Responsive Responsive Design.

Related post on Elezea: Why Google might just be right about responsive design in Africa.

How to deal with grief online

Leah Reich wrote a beautiful, gut-wrenching essay on grief, and how to deal with it online. It expands on ideas I touched on in And then there were four, about what type of information is appropriate to share online. But Leah’s Disconnect goes much deeper on the topic, and it is so well-written:

But sometimes, even now, I think about public mourning rituals. I think about how the Victorians treated grief, how publicly they wore it, how they wore rings made from the hair of their beloved deceased. I recall telling myself I could say something, I could document my grief. It was okay to make it public, even if it felt like a very wrong, obnoxious, and strange thing to do. I remember thinking I needed someone to do something, but I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know how to ask.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? Under even the most ordinary circumstances, how difficult it is to tell people we feel awful, to ask for a little extra patience, to ask for comfort. So to reach through the emotional distance when the stakes are so much higher, when the cost of rejection is risking further isolation at a time when you are already floating on what seems like the last splinter of wood from the great wreck of your life — well, you know, maybe throwing a thing or two at the internet and seeing what sticks doesn’t seem so crazy.

Read Disconnect by Leah Reich.

Responsive design’s overly enthusiastic phase

Dmitri Fadeyev wrote a good critique of the recent design trend we see in redesigns of sites like The Next Web, Mashable, and ReadWrite. From Redesign Trend in Tech News Sites: Big, Responsive and Content Heavy:

While I like the style direction, I think these sites are trying a little too hard to work like apps, and in doing so, they surrender the strengths of the plain website, namely: simple, responsive navigation mechanisms. Simple sites don’t lag and don’t have any ambiguous navigation elements. They behave like a page, which, while being a constraint, is not necessarily a bad thing. The new wave of responsive redesigns in tech news sites certainly look good with their nice typography and healthy use of whitespace, but they feel heavy, they don’t feel right in the browser. They look more like apps but the speed and responsiveness of a native app just isn’t there.

I think we’re in a period of enthusiastic over-reaching as more and more content sites discover the power of good typography and responsive design. It’s great to see major sites taking risks and experimenting with this stuff. The enthusiasm is fantastic. But I hope that we’ll eventually get through the flashy phase to reach a maturity level in responsive design where the text can truly speak for itself without relying on fancy gimmicks to draw attention to itself.

Manipulated photography from 1840 to Instagram

The Metropolitan Museum of Art currently has a great exhibition of 200 photographs from the 1840s to early 1990s called Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop. From the description:

The urge to modify camera images is as old as photography itself—only the methods have changed. Nearly every type of manipulation we now associate with digital photography was also part of the medium’s pre-digital repertoire: smoothing away wrinkles, slimming waistlines, adding people to a scene (or removing them)—even fabricating events that never took place.

Here’s an example, with more at the bottom of this post:

The Pond

The Pond – Moonrise (technique: multiple printing)


The exhibition is split up into different themes, and I was particularly interested in the section they call Artifice In the Name of Art:

The tradition of fine-art photography continued with Pictorialism, a movement that began in Europe in the 1880s and soon took hold in the United States. The Pictorialists sought to intensify photography’s expressive potential through the use of soft-focus lenses, textured printing papers, and processes that allowed the surface of the print to be modified by hand. In many cases, photographers composed their pictures from two or more negatives. Other artists, swept up in the currents of mysticism that captivated bohemian circles around the turn of the twentieth century, relied on staging and multiple exposure to reconcile the camera’s clear-eyed factuality with the ethereal realm of myths, dreams, and visions.

Soft-focus lenses… Textured printing papers… And we thought Instagram is a new idea. The outcome is the same — the difference is that the effects that we now get with the tap of a filter button used to take a very long time to do and was, in fact, part of a rebellion against the masses who took up photography as a hobby. The essay Pictorialism in America goes into more detail on this:

As an army of weekend “snapshooters” invaded the photographic realm, a small but persistent group of photographers staked their medium’s claim to membership among the fine arts. They rejected the point-and-shoot approach to photography and embraced labor-intensive processes such as gum bichromate printing, which involved hand-coating artist papers with homemade emulsions and pigments, or they made platinum prints, which yielded rich, tonally subtle images. Such photographs emphasized the role of the photographer as craftsman and countered the argument that photography was an entirely mechanical medium.

I find it fascinating how history repeats itself all jumbled up sometimes. As photography became popular in the 1880s, “real photographers” turned to labor-intensive manual methods for adding filters and effects to their photos to show that they are artists and craftspeople. Now that it’s easy to add those effects, the “real photographers” are rebelling again. Here’s Jaap Grolleman in Why I hate Instagram and why you should too:

I can understand people are trying to be cute but just because it looks ‘vintage’ and ‘antique’ it doesn’t mean a picture of your cat is cool. Pictures of clear-blue skies, light poles, bus stations, office chairs and even paving stones, they all look ‘aaamaazing’. Suddenly it’s all fashionable and presumingly ‘artsy’. I often see good photos being ruined by this ridiculous filter. There’s nothing artsy about it. Applying Instagram’s filters is just ‘clever-clever’, a bad attempt to fake authenticity.

And here is Rebecca Greenfield in Rich Kids of Instagram Epitomize Everything Wrong with Instagram:

The very basis of Instagram is not just to show off, but to feign talent we don’t have, starting with the filters themselves. The reason we associate the look with “cool” in the first place is that many of these pretty hazes originated from processes coveted either for their artistic or unique merits, as photographer and blogger Ming Thein explains: “Originally, these styles were either conscious artistic decisions, or the consequences of not enough money and using expired film. They were chosen precisely because they looked unique-either because it was a difficult thing to execute well (using tilt-shift lenses, for instance) or because nobody else did it (cross-processing),” he writes. Instagram, however, has made such techniques easy and available, taking away that original value.

If history is indeed a sign of things to come, the obvious question is: how will professional photographers rebel against Instagram’s easy filter manipulation? Will they go back to historical techniques? Invent some new, more difficult ways to manipulate photos? Or perhaps (gasp!) just take a photo and not retouch it at all? My money is on the rebellion spurring on some new innovation in art photography, and I look forward to seeing what comes out of it.

Anyway, now that the tangent is out of the way, below are some of my favorite photos from the exhibition. You can view the full collection here. These photos were all manipulated in some physical way — usually part of a very painstaking process.


Untitled (technique: combination printing)


Cape Horn

Cape Horn, Columbia River, Oregon (technique: wet plate negative process)


Cape Horn

The Other Series (After Kertész) (technique: altering with bleach, dyes, and airbrush)


Cape Horn

Étude de nuages, clair-obscur (technique: multiple printing)


Cape Horn

17 Rio Pesaro, Venice (technique: cerulean wash)

Stop telling us how much everything sucks

Last night Cennydd Bowles tweeted something that really resonated with me:

It reminded me of Erin Kissane’s contribution to the A List Apart article What I Learned About the Web in 2011:

If a single idea has followed me around this year, from politics to art and work to friendships, it’s been this one: “it’s more complicated than that.”

It’s centrally important to seek simplicity, and especially to avoid making things hard to use or understand. But if we want to make things that are usefully simple without being truncated or simplistic, we have to recognize and respect complexity—both in the design problems we address, and in the way we do our work.

I don’t know the flow of events that led Cennydd and Erin to their respective statements, but I know why it struck a chord with me. It feels like the number of tweets and blog posts that are written to ridicule and obliterate new products/apps/redesigns are on the rise. It’s like people don’t like anything any more — unless their friends made it. I think we can do better.

It’s easy to write a few paragraphs about how much something sucks. You know what’s difficult? Recognizing and respecting complexity. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and trying to understand why they made the decisions they made — whether it’s related to business, design, development, or anything else.

What’s really difficult is starting your argument from an assumption that other people are deliberate and thoughtful, and then working through each of your criticisms methodically. You’ll either realize that they made the right decisions, or arrive at the conclusion that they made some mistakes. Even if they did make mistakes — and we all have — by starting from a different baseline you’ll end up with a solid (and respectful) critique that the person can use to do things better.

For a creative person, the difference between reading “You suck!” and reading “Here’s where I think you made some wrong decisions” is the difference between being shamed into crawling under the covers and never putting their work out there ever again, and being encouraged to make their product better. We should always, always aim to do the latter.

Passion takes practice

I’m slowly making my way through Issue #3 of The Manual. If you haven’t read these books, I highly recommend it — they’re wonderful essay collections. This morning I read Practicing Passion by Tiffani Jones Brown, in which she dissects the whole idea of following your passion and doing what you love. She starts with this observation:

Sure, I’d been excited to start my own business. And sure, I’d loved the idea of writing for a living. Yet banal and frustrating tasks — the kind you approach with a groan, not a fist-pump — make up much of my job. So do I feel over-the-moon about my work? I truly like it. I feel good when I get better at it. Passion overstates the point.

She then goes on to recommend a more tempered approach to the passion thing:

Instead of asking “what will make me feel passion?” we should ask, “how can I make passion happen?” The answer is to cultivate a way of living and working that makes passion more likely. Passion takes practice.

But the point that really resonated with me is the part where she talks about flow:

You can get into flow doing almost any activity, no matter how good you are at it, no matter how mundane the task. Only two things are required: the activity has to have a clear goal and a challenge. You need to be really plugged in and focused; what you’re doing must stretch your body or mind. You won’t achieve flow while multitasking or surfing the internet but you might, odd as it seems, while doing a content audit or cleaning up comps.

Those are good words to remember. Sometimes we do what we want to do. The rest of the time we do what we need to do to get the job done and get better at what we do. Anyway, I guess the point is, buy The Manual. It’s such a treat.

Practicing Passion