Moving to iOS: an experiment in creative restraint

On Monday I’m receiving a company laptop. I have mixed feelings about this – it inevitably and subliminally will have me working more on trains and on weekends, but I’ll be able to do so much faster than I currently do via Microsoft Remote Desktop.

Why do I bring this up? I bring this up because I have a beautiful, expensive Retina MacBook Pro that I’ve been using for the bulk of all my work for almost 3 years. It’s my indispensable sidekick for recording music, writing, (attempts at) coding, managing my finances, pretty much everything. Since starting my current job, though, I’ve started to spend less and less time with it – occasionally pulling it out on crowded trains, opportunistically pushing it to its limits by recording for hours at a time on weekends, painstakingly RDP-ing into my work machine just to run a few SQL queries. Sometimes it sits on a desk for days at a time, neglected.

Now that I’m getting this other laptop, I have even less use for the thing.

I have an iPad Air 2 – this thing is also generally neglected in my household. Alicia will occasionally use it to watch TV in bed, and I’ll occasionally check Twitter or read some blogs with it, but that’s about it. I had downloaded Ulysses for iOS a few months back thinking I could use this iPad as a blogging machine, but even that felt redundant with the MacBook Pro.

I realized, however, that the work laptop has given me an opportunity to change the way I work outside of my day job a bit. After reading about the amazing power in the new iPads and the app potential brought by iOS 9, I’ve decided to run some day-to-day experiments using the iPad Air 2 in attempting to make it my primary computer.

The iPad does not replace coffee.

There’s already been a ton of writing on this – I’m really happy to have dug into the writings on iPad on MacStories, Daring Fireball, the Music App Blog and other sites, so I have plenty of foundational ideas to work with. I’m interested in seeing how I can leverage my iPad for my personal use cases:

  • rapid blogging in Ulysses,
  • music recording in Auria Pro with a plethora of synth/sampler/effects apps wired together via Audiobus,
  • pseudo-local website development with Working Copy, Coda and Transmit,
  • managing my music, technical and personal projects with Trello and various stock iOS apps

…and I’m sure many more along the way. I’m mainly interested in testing just how portable my tech can be and moving to a single operating system (that is, iOS), but I’m also curious as to what new possibilities there are brought by the iOS framework and app ecosystem.

More to come. I should probably start getting used to this tiny keyboard…

Google sometimes drops the ball because Google is a massive company

The other day I finally subscribed to Connected, a great consumer tech podcast, and in their most recent episode, Federico rants about the inconsistent feature support across Google’s iOS apps. (He ranted about it 2 months prior, and the rant still stands.) They’ve failed to provide consistent support for now-core iPad features, including support for the iPad Pro’s bigger screen and Split View. How can you write in Google Docs and do research simultaneously without split view?

Not even being sarcastic. I have to imagine it’s really annoying and hard. If I had an iPad Pro, I’d probably agree with him; in fact I’d probably stop using those apps altogether until Google made them work for me. It sucks even more to notice that Google has updated some of their apps with support for these features. But why not the others, arguably the ones that are the most widely used purely in a productivity context?

I was listening to his rant on my way into work – a place of work where I am one of over 4,000 employees. I started thinking about the different projects that are in flight at any given time within my company and reminded myself: I have no idea who is held accountable for some of those projects. Who knows if they have the same priorities that I do? In just nine months at my current company, I’ve had to deal with multiple fits and starts around projects that involved multiple key teams, only to find out that those teams suddenly had to prioritize these same projects completely differently than mine, due to other external factors beyond my control.

Google is an even more massive organization. It has over 10,000 employees working on any number of products or initiatives. There are teams of hundreds dedicated to Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Drive, even just the different iterations of messaging (Hangouts & Voice & Chat across all platforms). Each of those teams contain different people, each with strengths and weaknesses and a certain propensity to work harder or less hard than others, or even make occasional mistakes. They also may have different priorities, backlogs and possibly even internal politics.

We have to remind ourselves that each of these factors may translate into different results per product. I would bet that Drive (which coincidentally I think is one of the best Google apps on iOS) has a lot more of its core functionality together and had the capacity to fit split-view support into its roadmap shortly after it was announced. Docs (or more specifically, Docs for iOS) is probably run by a different team that still hasn’t been able to prioritize one of these features. Or perhaps they have it built and in a testing phase, but some QA analyst ran into a massive, crippling bug that Spilt View caused in Docs for iOS but was not a problem in the other iOS apps. Maybe there’s another feature they’ve been pushing for that took precedence over Split View or caused a UX problem when rendering on the larger iPad Pro screen.

Remember when Google+ finally got its Material Design update for iOS almost a year after it did for Android, even after people declared it dead? Why does the Google Analytics, one of the most widely used Google business tools, have a terrible iOS app with an outdated icon and no 6+ screen support? When was the last time anyone tried out Google Earth for iOS? Did you even know that Google has a dedicated Street View app separate from Google Maps? Who decided to make that?

These apps are different priorities for different teams under the same friendly Google brand, so we can’t be surprised when their adoption of features or design principles aren’t totally consistent.

Managing a product roadmap is hard. Managing a roadmap for a single product that plays nice with the roadmaps of other products under a single company is exponentially harder. As frustrating as it can be to see individual products under a brand fall behind others, it’s worth reminding ourselves about these difficulties – especially with amazing new features on which we rely in some contexts of our daily lives.

On malaise in tech, or how I learned to find products that embrace true problem-solving

I originally wrote this for the Mathys+Potestio blog, this really cool employment agency based in Portland, Oregon. Here’s the link to the original post.

Apple and Google and Facebook and Microsoft and Amazon.
These are the big 5 in consumer tech, and the most commonly used apps on your phone are probably made by some or all of them. Nobody is going to knock them out of their ivory towers. If you go on any tech blog you will almost certainly find no less than 3 articles in the last week about each of these 5 companies (okay, maybe a few others – but you know which ones they are).

I’m a product manager by day, so I spend a lot of time analyzing and collecting feedback on the products and how they solve real user problems. Part of my job also involves being aware of other products solving similar or other problems, so I read about those products the top tech businesses are working on, as well as new ones via sites like Product Hunt. But this is starting lose its luster for me – as I recently wrote on my own blog, I’m becoming less and less impressed with the true problem solving being done by makers of products. It gets old to read about a new photo sharing app every week – why try and address the growing wealth inequality problems in the US? Or the terribly slow pace of government action? Or even the racket that is the wedding industry (a problem currently near & dear to my heart)?

Turns out I’m not alone in my jadedness, so much so that some are quitting the “tech journalism” beat altogether. If you feel jaded by this stuff too, it’s valid – but, again, I don’t blame anybody in particular. Tech products, and those who make them, have just as much a tendency to follow trends as any other sector of popular culture – social products, smart on-demand services and lists of resources are hot right now, so all the makers are trying to make those things. (Oh god, what if someone builds a social network for on-demand delivery workers?)

Behind all the throwaway social networks and overpriced delivery apps, though, there’s even more people building truly interesting, difference-making things for the world. This is probably not a huge surprise, given the number of charitable organizations, biotech firms and activist groups out there. But hold up – you don’t need to look only at these types of groups to find great, innovative solutions being developed to solve tough social and economic problems. Startups (and even individuals) are building these things, using the same cutting-edge (and overhyped) technology and design and business models you read about on tech blogs. You know those things called “hackathons” that media has portrayed to us as high-energy bro-outs? (Thanks, The Social Network…) These people are actually using those to address social problems with great technology.

In fact, if there is a social, political or economic issue that interests you, there’s probably at least a few startups or products out there aiming to tackle that issue in some way or another in some new way. Here’s just a few products that are solving real problems in critical spaces that are worth checking out (each of which even use some buzz-wordy tech or design concept you might be sick of hearing about!)

Interested in helping out a charity? Compute for Humanity uses your computer to mine cryptocurrencies, then automatically donate the output to charities. I recently installed this on my own Mac and was pleasantly surprised that it required absolutely nothing of the machine or my time, and yet in a few hours I had generated a couple bucks. I’ve generated $22.64 so far, again, for doing literally nothing.

Why is this remarkable? Cryptocurrencies! No work for the end-user! But also real money going to real, unsketchy charitable organizations like Pencils of Promise and GlobalGiving.

Want to help people with disabilities? Be My Eyes is an app that lets you help out a blind person from anywhere. Remember this thing? It got a fair share of journalistic praise a year ago but naturally fell out of the limelight – not for any reason in particular other than that people’s attention moved elsewhere. It’s worth reminding ourselves, however, that this is an app that literally helps blind people see. That in itself is an amazing feat we shouldn’t forget about.

Why is this remarkable? (Sort of) social networking! Unconventional use of the iPhone camera! But also it helps blind people.

Want to be more socially conscious? Archives + Absences is an app that notifies you anytime a cop kills a minority in the US. This is based on real data from The Guardian – it’s not a joke. If you are interested in the struggle of minorities in this country, you should download this app now, if anything to set context for yourself.

Why is this remarkable? The most minimal design ever! Push notifications! But also they’re about actual deaths surrounding a controversial social topic.

Know somebody with substance abuse issues and want to try and help?Addicaid is an app that aims to make drug & alcohol recovery a little more comfortable. You can find recovery groups nearby, get tips, maintain a plan, and evaluate your progress toward recovery, all while completely anonymous if desired.

Why is this remarkable? Material design! But also it helps people with real, crippling problems get a little closer to solving them.

Interest in the problems of America’s legal system? Ravel, Everlaw, Judicata and others aiming to make the practice of law, and lawyers, more affordable. The first two are building tools to help make law firms more efficient in their operations, and the third is aiming to capture the “law genome” to simplify complex legal decisions for lawyers and everyday people. As Judicata says, “Legal research isn’t just about finding needles; it’s about understanding the haystack too.“

Why is this remarkable? Big data! But also, lawyers are really expensive and law firms are incredibly inefficient right now.

Generally interested in major social issues and understanding their impact? SumAll.org, a tech non-profit hellbent on “empowering change makers to maximize their social impact through data.” They build amazing, sometimes-interactive studies on key humanitarian issues including human trafficking, homelessness and the Syrian refugee crisis. Its founder, Dane Atkinson, wanted tech to create a tangible impact for social good, and formed the foundation out of a portion of his social marketing tech company, SumAll (including its technology).

Why is this remarkable? Data science! But also, the topics they’re covering are, like, really bad things.

Products and businesses, when done right, are about solving problems, not chasing ideas. It’s worth reminding ourselves that in the midst of product/maker overload, that there are millions of people making great, incredibly important products, and they’re even publicizing them – they’re just a little bit harder to find.

On Macs and focus

I own an iPad, but I really only use it to watch Netflix in bed with my fiancée since my iPhone 6s Plus is just too small enough for both of us to watch simultaneously. Outside of this pretty obvious use case, I’ve struggled to find a purpose for the gorgeous device in my life.

Everywhere I turn, though, I read about another person finding the iPad completely invaluable in their daily lives. It now exceeds the processing power of the average PC; its app ecosystem is generally much cheaper than the PC app ecosystem; it’s “more fun” to use than any device before. A lot of people who write about the iPad suggest that it allows for a level of focus beyond what Macs or PCs can allow.

I call bullshit. Anyone who says the Mac is too distracting has not given the Mac a fair shot since, well, 2 or 3 versions ago of OS X. Apple has made a series of beautiful, powerhouse laptops, build for demanding technical work – that also happen to be incredibly pleasant to use and conducive to focus.

I’m not suggesting that the iPad isn’t a great device – it truly is a pleasure to use. However, so are Macs, and some tech pundits seem to forget this. Efficiency on a Mac isn’t even a question worth asking – sure, you eschew a touch screen for a keyboard & multi-touch trackpad, but the sheer ergonomics of having both the keyboard & trackpad within millimeters of each other compared to jumping between keyboard and screen are staggering. Sometimes you want to lay back and relax, but when you need to work, the Mac wins every time.

The question really is about one’s ability to focus on a single task or project while working on a laptop/desktop computer. Tons of people have written about this. Those same people have tried incessantly for years to justify usage of an iPad for as many possible use cases as possible: blogging, note-taking, long-form writing, designing, music producing, analyzing spreadsheets, chatting with many people at once. I keep asking myself: what’s the goal of being able to do all these things on an iPad, other than attempting to justify my impulse purchase of an iPad?

If the goal is focus, I’ve wanted to try and tame the beast and have my Mac work to my advantage. Basically, a means of avoiding this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 8.15.04 PM

Hey, guess what? It's really to avoid the above with really minimal effort and discipline. Between the iterative improvements brought to OS X and its huge app ecosystem, it's really easy to make a Mac your portable productivity powerhouse. (Alliteration intentional.) And while the Mac app ecosystem is technically smaller than that of iOS, that has its benefits: less crap to weed through.

I have to give Apple props for identifying the key aspects that make iOS so pleasant to use and employing them in some fashion within OS X. For instance:

Launchpad is a solid app launcher and organizer; after a bit of reorganizing, it effectively replicates the iOS home screen. With Spotlight (or the more powerful Alfred) on top of this, finding and opening an app on a Mac is far quicker than anything performed on an iPad.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.03.10 PM

Full-screen mode and Mission Control in El Capitan is arguably an even more elegant app switcher than iOS 9’s. Split screen mode is actually useful on my MacBook Pro unlike the iPad Air 2.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.04.08 PM

Automator isn't new or even quite that extensive without mild technical know-how, but Workflow wouldn't be the iOS powerhouse it is without Automator coming first.

Plus, you can enable Do Not Disturb just like an iOS device.

Still having trouble focusing after trying these wonderful solutions? There's apps for that, including two literally called Focus (here and here) – some of which also have iOS counterparts but many of which are Mac exclusives such as:

  • Bartender, a great menu bar cleaner-upper
  • Hazel, an automatic file organizer so you don't have to clean your crap up yourself
  • Alfred, an amazing launcher and workflow tool that allows you to quickly ask a question or start something without pulling yourself away from the task at hand.
  • Ulysses, Byword, 1Writer, ia Writer, or any other number of free/cheap minimal writing apps for writing without distraction

Some of these are real boons to focus, like the first Focus app, which blocks you from accessing distracting websites and replaces them with inspirational quotes. I could argue that this makes the Mac BETTER for focus than the iPad, since you can actually stop Facebook from loading after you impulsively type the "f" into your browser's address bar. Can't really make the impulsive tap on the FB app icon on your iPad less compelling than it already is.


Disclaimer: I use a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which has a solid state drive and 16GB RAM, so I’m not really ever concerned about my laptop exceeding the performance needs I have. Yes, it came at a higher price point than the average iPad and I purchased it primarily with music creation in mind.

But considering the top-of-the-line iPad Pro is virtually the same price as (and comparable in spec to) the ultrathin MacBook, it ultimately comes down to user preference. I’m here to suggest that while tablets are so fun and exciting, many of the reasons why find tablets so fun and exciting are right there in your average Apple laptop.

As with any tech write-up, this is my opinion, but I’d love your thoughts too. Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Like how I write? I’d love for you to share this post and follow my writing, either here or on Twitter. Thanks!

The problem of task managers

Wunderlist, Trello, Todoist, OmniFocus. 2do. Things. I have to imagine that most smartphone users haven’t even heard of these apps. That's probably why there's such an apparent subculture around each one. The average person will never break into the most beloved apps, and those who do will defend it to no end.

So why don’t so many people, who presumably have things they need to do in their lives, use one of these tools? For all the people that do try a project management tool, why do so many underutilize them?

Everyone has a smartphone, and most of them probably use stock functionality (read: Reminders & Calendar) to keep track of their daily lives on that smartphone. However, Reminders rarely has accountability – what if you forget to set a reminder time? What if you miss the location-specific notification by the time you’ve left? What if some to-dos are dependent on others and you can’t check them off the list until some other thing you neglected gets done?

Are the to-dos I’m getting reminded about even a good use of my time right now?

What about the big important complicated things I want to do?

How do I even break those things down into the little to-dos to put in my list?

What does that mean to me in the big picture?

The average person doesn’t want to (and almost certainly can’t) think through all that stuff, even though they potentially have implications on their daily lives.

This conundrum, in the workplace, is basically why project and product managers exist. Product managers help to figure out the right things to focus on and why; project managers make sure they happen so you, Mr. Stakeholder Guy don’t have to worry about all the little details.

Personal assistant apps exist, even virtual ones, to remind you of upcoming meetings and tasks – so why haven’t we developed a “personal product manager” that takes your big goals in life and helps you break them down and focus on the most achievable pieces of said goal?

I think about the big things that I want to eventually do in my life – get married, build a company, buy a house, be a notable musician, other things – there’s a ton of knowledge of what to do to make those things happen on the Internet. But parsing all that information is a nightmare – you’re basically relegated to Google searching or starting with blogs/resources you trust and vetting the content endlessly until you end up with a series of tasks, which may or may not be in order, prioritized or even possible. Then, you have friends and/or family as a resource, which may contradict your online findings (or even each other). I don’t even want to think about the difference between my dad’s opinion on starting a business compared to my previous employer.

Productivity apps can’t do this thinking; it’s not what they’re designed to do. 2do, one of my favorites, requires a whole lot of task creation and organization in order to be truly useful. and People have said that about Evernote, too. Trello is great for visualizing projects in a board format, but it doesn't tell you what should populate that board and what of that stuff needs to get done in order to make BIG AMAZING GOAL X happen. (That's probably why they've started collecting and sharing sample boards for various use cases.) The thought process around focusing the idea into discrete pieces hasn't been productized for personal lives.

I wonder if this is why productivity apps aren't ubiquitous – because they exist to humor the details of lives instead of boiling them down to what’s important.