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Hold up, HEY

The debut of HEY email has been an interesting case study in launching a new service, in part because it took place on social media — a two-way street that led to them getting public feedback that’s already led to significant changes. As others have done in recent years, the launch was a staggered rollout with invite codes and a waitlist, and the resulting members-only feel and scarcity drove tens of thousands more to join the waitlist. Some say this is intentional marketing, but it’s also legitimately done to manage the experience when someone isn’t sure how much interest there will be.

I took notes on my hands-on experience in a previous post, and have spent a week now getting to grips with it, trying to picture it as my primary email service for the foreseeable future. The commitment isn’t just a new email address to inform people about; it’s also paying a perpetual premium service fee. After 16 years of “free” Gmail, that’s a big decision. Yes, you’re free to leave any time and they’ll forward all emails sent to you anywhere else you’d like, but I wouldn’t use a @hey.com address if I wasn’t actually using HEY.

Everybody’s got opinions

But before the details of my decision (like, who cares, right?), I wanted to comment on the fascinating public launch of HEY that we’ve been spectators to, and how its creators have had to walk back some of their design decisions after product met reality.

As my friend YJ says above, Basecamp and HEY are heavily opinionated products by opinionated people; it’s what allows them to take a well-established thing like email, with its standard organizing paradigms of Inbox, Outbox, Sent, Spam, and Trash folders, and try something new. It’s only meant to satisfy a certain type of user with certain needs and preferences.

It’s not easy building something out of new ideas, at huge scale, and making sure it’s robust enough to carry the personal and business correspondence of paying customers who’ll depend on it for time-sensitive messages. By Basecamp’s account, they’ve been working quietly on HEY for two years before this month’s semi-public launch. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit both for attempting it and for how stable it has been.

When we design services, we know we won’t catch everything or get it right the first time. It’s about having priorities and principles, and optimizing against them every step of the way. If you’ve defined and studied your target audience, and care about pleasing them to the exception of everyone else, then you can make decisions based on their needs. If you put in the work to develop a core experience that will set your business apart, then that becomes the thing you protect even if Apple or anyone else tries to make you change it. Some companies famously put speed over certainty, and while it dazzled a lot of CIOs and inspired them to try and do the same, its pitfalls are now well known.

We don’t know what HEY’s development process looked like, or what they prioritized, and so we can only guess from what they actually shipped and what they’ve done since. Upon contact with the wider marketplace, some of those opinionated ideas are now being challenged as problematic or discriminatory. Could more user research and testing have caught them before launch? Probably. Was catching them before launch a priority for the team, or did they intend to test them in public and fix unintended consequences as they were discovered? To their credit again, they’ve fixed a lot of things very fast in the past week. From adding disposable functionality suggested by Apple to dumping fully built, non-trivial features… their responsiveness has been impressive.


Things that came broken

Let’s look at a couple of Twitter exchanges and changes I’ve spotted. On my first day with HEY, I noticed an unusual option in the “More” menu on every email thread. It was a button labeled something like “Generate Public Link”. This actually published the entire email conversation thread to a public webpage, allowing any third party to read and follow the exchange. I used it to help share a problem I was seeing with their support team, which is a nice way of enabling them to help customers without giving full access to all mail. And while you could always share private emails to a third party with copy/paste, screenshots, PDFs, etc. there was something unsettling about this. None of the other people would receive any notification that they were being “listened in on”, and anyone with the link would be able to see not just all previous emails, but any new ones added to the thread for as long as it was publicly shared.

You could be in a conversation with 20 people and not know if any one of them had generated a link and leaked it. When I explained this in a group chat, there was some disbelief. One person called it a “built-in whistleblower feature”. After others complained on Twitter about the potential for abuse, this feature was completely removed.

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Homework

In my last update here, three long months ago, I’d just set up a new WiFi system with enough reach to connect our largely neglected study, which gave me a new place to hang out and play music too loudly.

Shortly thereafter, I decided the acoustics of that room were too boomy for the Beolit speaker I’d put in, and picked up a little Sonos which can be tuned to suit the space (it’s much better).

Shortly thereafter, a measure of hell broke loose everywhere, which I don’t need to explain. In the tiny window before nationwide lockdown was called, my wife and I decided to celebrate our anniversary with a staycation since getting away was impossible. We booked ourselves in for a weekend, visited the buffets, had cocktails in the lounge, and sat by the pool that first day reading more news and feeling something in the wind.

Literally overnight, we saw the hotel reconfigure their club lounge for social distancing, cutting the capacity in half. With not much else to do but eat canapés and drink while watching the news, I distinctly recall the numbers then: 380,000 infections worldwide. Yesterday, I saw that number in the news again, for global deaths.

According to the log my teammates have been keeping, we started working from home in the third week of March, later than our other colleagues not attached to client projects at the time. For that period of about a week, showing up at a reduced occupancy office building/mall was surreal, recalling Ling Ma’s novel Severance, where the protagonist keeps going to work at her Manhattan office long after the city stops working, and we were glad when the call was made to not take any more chances.

That move to make our home study more usable/livable/enjoyable just before this hit, which on hindsight was just down to luck and the High Fidelity TV series, was probably the most well-timed decision I’ll make all year. It’s given me a separate workspace from my wife who’s taken to occupying the living room’s solar-facing counter. Given that we’re both on calls a lot now, if I had to be nearby for WiFi purposes, I think there’d be trouble.

A lot of what we do with clients and their customers in the business of design used to happen in person. Speaking with people, watching them at work, communicating ideas — it takes a lot of channels to supply the necessary bandwidth, from spoken words and scribblings on a board to body language and moving things around in space. It’s also true for many other professions, and is probably why many fantasize that VR will be the long-term answer in the event that there won’t be a vaccine, if we agree that plexiglass shields in the office aren’t a solution for getting back to work.

We started working from home on a Wednesday and had to figure out how we’d start interviewing people the very next day; interviews that were originally planned to be in-person conversations. For a bunch of reasons, it wasn’t as easy as sending a Zoom meeting link. We ended up keeping those sessions simple and voice only; better to get the basics right and extract some good data than get fancy and fuck it all up.

Two months later, between us and other teams across the studio, I think we’re beginning to see how many of the old activities can be done virtually. The next step will be to devise new activities that aren’t constrained by assumptions about how work should be done. Maybe we’ll go back, maybe we won’t. One thing about remote work of this sort, technology constraints (including literacy) have a huge impact on who you can involve and co-create with. Almost anyone can pick up a pen or gesture at a thing. Now try to get them to manipulate content on a Miro or Mural board using an aging laptop. Now try to get them doing it in VR. What’s the equivalent of a Post-It note for virtual work: the simplest, most flexible atom of a tool for thinking aloud with anyone? Texting in a group chat?


Otherwise, I’ve done some of the usual quarantine things. I’ve tried cutting my own hair (bought some clippers for it). I’ve been making cold brew coffee (bought a Hario bottle for it). We made that dalgona coffee one time but it was foul (already had turns out we actually bought the apocalypse-ready instant coffee for it). I’ve been making more cocktails and drinking IPAs at home instead of at the bar (bought the ingredients and ordered the cases, respectively). I’ve put on weight (bought a lot of takeout for it). I’ve been reading more (bought a Kobo reader for it). I’ve played upwards of 110 hours of Animal Crossing New Horizons (bought the game day one for it). Uh… having made that list, I am a little disgusted. Clearly, if life gives me lemons, I buy a juicer.

The national lockdown here in Singapore ends in name next Monday, but the cautious re-opening will surely take more than a couple of months. The first people to be allowed back into office buildings at first will be those who haven’t been able to do their jobs from home for legal or technical reasons, and I think it’ll be September before most white-collared types find out what their leaders think about ending the great WFH experiment vs. saving a ton on commercial rent.

Note: This post contains a couple of Amazon affiliate links, which I’m trying out… again? I have a vague memory of using them on a couple of my sites before.

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Little Green

As I write this update, I’m listening to Joni Mitchell’s Little Green at possibly too high a volume for 11 o’clock at night, but I have no idea how thick these walls are, so let’s find out. This unusually unneighborly behavior has been brought on by watching the new High Fidelity TV series (yes, based on that Nick Hornby book), starring Zoe Kravitz in the role played by John Cusack in the 2000 film, and look, the whole thing is sublime. Watch it, because it’ll remind you that you were once young and played your music loud. And that it’s been too damn long since you’ve heard Darondo’s Didn’t I.

This is also made possible by the fact that I’ve finally traded in our aging Asus router for a pair of Netgear Orbi mesh routers. Only 1.5 years after moving in. And so the internet is now flowing into a part of the house that I’d neglected before because what in the hell am I supposed to do in a room with no WiFi? This room is now going to be a place where I can sit in near darkness, streaming really warm sounds out of a cranky first-gen Beolit speaker, writing on my iPad, and drinking. Aww yes.

Speaking of Little Green…

I spent most of last year getting up to speed on personal finance basics at the ripe old age of a̷l̷m̷o̷s̷t̷ 4̷0̷. For most of my working life, money and investing was an essential resource that I never fully understood, and I was mostly happy to have it sit in that blind spot, content that simple saving would do alright “for now” and nervously assuming that the “for later” part would sort itself out in the end.

I put some blame on the false absolutes we were taught in school: kids are sorted into separate paths focusing on either sciences, economics, or the arts around 14, if I recall correctly, and it’s too easy to let that define you to yourself. I ended up with the thinking that money was for the money people. Of course, I accept the residual blame for hiding behind that lazy excuse all these years.

So when I read Ramit Sethi’s approachable book “I Will Teach You to be Rich” last month, I was relieved to find that I already knew the majority of its lessons. As he puts it, the best time for me to have started investing was 15 years ago; the second-best time is now. Another practice that made sense to me: setting up monthly financial check-ins as a family. Even if there’s no news to update each other about, it sets aside time to think and plan.

In any case, it certainly seems like personal finance is being discussed a lot more frequently in casual conversation today than it was when I was growing up, or even in the past 10 years, for that matter. Financial literacy has probably never been higher.

I attribute this to the rise of fintech startups, how many there are, and how visible their services are in our Instagram feeds. If you live in Singapore and haven’t seen a StashAway/Endowus/Syfe/Kristal ad, then I’ve got a referral code to offer you.

For the unfamiliar, these are all so-called roboadvisors, usually helping you to buy into a portfolio of ETFs based on your asset allocation preferences/risk appetite, while taking a sub-0.8% cut for management fees. It’s remarkably easy to get started once you’ve educated yourself and decided you want in — whereas back in my day, before online banking (let alone mobile banking), starting a trading account was an arcane art that required serious capital.

Based on what I’ve seen, the equivalent offerings from traditional banks (DBS, UOB, OCBC) are only playing catch-up, both in terms of fees and design. It would be fun to do some research on how the boundaries of trust have moved and what Singaporeans’ financial behaviors look like now. I used to wonder what the big deal was with the local licensing exercise around digital banks, but now that I think about it, there’s obviously blood in the water.

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General

Do androids dream of Chinese New Year?

Thanks to that bit of time off earlier in the month, I’m ahead of my reading goals. Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon was probably twice the length of a standard novel, and five times as elaborate. I was lured in by the SF premise — a murder in a panopticonic dystopian near future (it first occurs to me that it’s not unlike the one in the anime Psycho-Pass), where a governing AI and its human agents are stymied by an encounter with a mind they can’t read — and ended up staying for a literary mindfuck of Pynchonesque proportions. Recommended, but don’t be in a hurry.

I’ve now started reading Mike Monteiro’s Ruined by Design, and can’t wait to get started on the new William Gibson novel, Agency. I think my favorite Gibsons are Pattern Recognition and The Peripheral, and this seems to be along similar lines.

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It’s now a few days later and I’ve quit reading Ruined by Design. It’s not that I disagree with the central premise; maybe the opposite. There are certainly designers in the world who don’t think or yet know that changing their organizations from the inside-out to be more ethical and responsible is part of the job, and maybe it takes a couple hundred pages of hitting the point over and over to get them onboard. I just stopped getting anything else out of it past the opening, and stuck around until the 70% mark to be sure. The author mentions structuring your presentations like an inverted pyramid, the way journalists are trained to do, leading with your best bits to get your audience’s precious attention, so I guess the book itself puts that into practice.

===

This year’s Chinese New Year celebrations have been a little muted, both at home and abroad. Putting aside the nCoV outbreak in the headlines, it just feels different now, like an idea that has almost run its course. The build up to this has taken place over a few years, but it’s certainly palpable now.

My parents’ generation is getting tired of organizing everything, and mine doesn’t care about observing traditions in the same way. The virus has provided a reason for canceling some of the get-togethers, but they were being scaled down anyway. Even Apple’s annual CNY shot-on-iPhone film/ad lacks its usual artistry this time around. I don’t know if it’s the 60fps look, the fact that they shot many scenes handheld, or the Smart HDR effect, but it feels more on the cheap side rather than cinematic.

Speaking of change and the fading of old ways, over at my workplace, we’ve just put out our annual trends report. It’s compiled with the input of some 1,200 employees in 33 studios, so the results should be a nearly fair representation of the global design climate. The running theme across all seven trends? Many of the fundamentals underlying daily life are being put on notice as we ponder the definition of value as consumers and consumed in an increasingly turbulent world.

One trend, called Digital Doubles, touches upon the idea of personal datasets so rich that we’ll appoint them as digital proxies for our own choices and behaviors, sort of like how you can tell a robo-advisor how much risk you’d happily tolerate before letting them go trade and rebalance your portfolios. At this point, I’m several chapters into Gibson’s Agency and one of its main threads concerns an AI product designed to do exactly that.

“but he described the product, that’s you, as a cross-platform, individually user-based, autonomous avatar. Target demographic power-uses VR, AR, gaming, next-level social media. Idea’s to sell a single unique super-avatar. Kind of a digital mini-self, able to fill in when the user can’t be online.”

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HEIFer — iOS Shortcut for Batch-Converting Photos to HEIF/HEIC

Changelog:

v1.01 (Jan 30, 2020) — iOS 13.3.1 fixes a bug that affected the way Share Sheet imports had to take you out of the Photos app and into Shortcuts. So this is now simplified. Also added emoji graphics to make the main menu fancier.

v1.02 (Sep 5, 2020) — Updated to fix the shortcut stalling at deletion of original photos after processing. Apple changed some behavior in the Shortcuts.app.

Summary

HEIFer is a shortcut for iPhones and iPads (you can import and run it in the Shortcuts app that is part of iOS 13) that automates the batch conversion of photo to HEIF/HEIC formats. This has the benefit of making their files dramatically smaller without any visible loss of image quality.

HEIF stands for High Efficiency Image Format, and Apple introduced support for it in 2017. You can find out more about the format here.

HEIFer has three modes:

  • Converting a manual selection of photos
  • Scanning the newest 100 photos in your library, and converting any JPEG/PNG/TIFF images it finds
  • Converting the last imported batch of photos (from a camera or SD card, using an adapter)

Add HEIFer to your Shortcuts.app here (v1.02)

Why Did I Make This?

This is my first proper iOS Shortcut and I made it to learn the ropes.

I’m kinda all-in on the HEIF format, and if your iPhone is set to save at “High Efficiency” in the Camera section of Settings.app, then you’re already using it for every photo you take. The quality is great, and you can store twice as many photos in the same amount of storage space.

But… I also shoot photos with other cameras, and every manufacturer, from Canon and Nikon to Sony and Leica, seems to be years behind in the software game, and the only options they offer are usually JPEG and RAW. What’s more, the CPUs in these cameras are usually very underpowered compared to what’s in your iPhone, so they don’t try very hard to compress the images efficiently. You can typically turn a 10MB JPEG from your camera into a 3–4MB HEIF file in less than a second. It’s a tremendous waste of space, both on device and in your cloud backups, to keep the JPEGs.

When you save an edited photo out of VSCO, you’re turning a HEIF file into a JPEG

I also edit my photos with iOS apps like VSCO and Lightroom, and almost all of them save the finished photos in JPEG. So if you’re regularly editing your iPhone photos, those small .heic files are still ending up as fat .jpg files at the end of the day. It’s nuts!

So HEIFer is a way to quickly take those old-ass files, bring them into the present, and then dump the originals. For instance, if I’m shooting directly to JPEG on my cameras (why not RAW? That’s a topic for another day), all I have to do is plug in the SD card, select “Import All”, run HEIFer, and I’m done in three taps.

If your photos have proper timestamps, then you will still see them in chronological order in the “Photos” tab. However, if you go into the “Recents” photo album, it will reflect the process of converting and deleting them, i.e. it’ll be as out of order as your recollection of a big night out.

Usage

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General Photos

For some reason I kept calling him Sun Yet Sun

Uptime report

After not going on vacation or any breaks all year in 2019 (poor me, I know), I’m now coming off about three weeks of leave that began around Christmas. We spent some time in Taiwan, my first visit, and then I’ve been mostly chilling out on the couch absorbing a good measure of reading material, films both good and terrible, and games from the infinite backlog. I often dream of living out this life for an extended period — half a year at the very least, going past the point of crushing boredom and beyond, hoping to transcend such ideas and just tip over into blissfully inert hikkikomorish life — but now I think it’s unlikely to ever happen.

The closest I ever came was a period of freelancing over a decade ago, when I’d sometimes feel quite content with my modest bank account and calculate how it could be stretched for months if I just cut down on everything and went into a sort of social and nutritional hibernation. It was pre-Netflix, but I was living that life anyway, drowning in film and anime day and night. I think I did a much better job of being an employment refusenik then; I would probably freak out today if I was staring at a life of baked beans across the balance sheet. Deliveroo makes you soft.

So although I’ve not yet had enough of the leisurely, solitary life this time around, I think the inactivity has been getting to me. I’ve not done nothing, but this capitalist world has some part of me convinced otherwise because it’s creeping up in the unusual form of mini anxiety attacks: a sort of waking nightmare state in which I’m certain I’ve forgotten how to do things I took for granted when the momentum of routine life was behind them, “simple” things like leaving the house, speaking to other people, and remembering how to do my job.

I suppose I have a low-grade case of cabin fever. Or maybe just real fever. In the last couple of days I’ve found myself breaking out into a sweat apropos of nothing. Let’s see if I make it to the weekend.

Taiwan

I was told by several people to expect a Chinese version of Tokyo, which I disagree with although I can understand where they were coming from. Taipei’s restaurants, cocktail bars, convenience stores, etc. do take cues from their Japanese cousins, and there’s a non-coincidental reverence for the Japanese way there if I’m not mistaken. But it’s ultimately its own thing, and if Taiwan had a Merlion-like symbol, only more tangible and actually useful, it would be their night markets, frequented by both tourists and locals from what I saw. They’re not really for me — every 10 meters, I’d be hit by the smell of stinky tofu and it just ruined my appetite — but hey I get the appeal of the whole thing.

What did work for me was the hot pots. I’ve always been of the opinion that shabu-shabu is the one true hot pot, and couldn’t see the appeal of Hai Di Lao and its ilk in Singapore… but now after having been to Wulao in Taipei, I think I’m ready to accept that a Chinese incarnation of hot pot can be amazing.

I also took a bunch of photos with my neglected Fujifilm X100T, easily more than four years old now. It’s still a champ, and the lovely JPEG film simulations meant I could decide to spend very little time on edits and just let them do the work. Apart from the very slow autofocus, there’s a case to be made that no one really needs the new X100V iteration rumored to be launched next month. So I tell myself. The nice thing about being a naturally nervous freak having newer cameras and then bringing an older one out is how casual and carefree it lets me be. Bumps and scrapes don’t have to be big deals.

I only reached for the iPhone 11 Pro when it was dead dark (an f2 lens and APS-C sensor are still no match for Night Mode), raining (iPhones are better weather-sealed than almost any camera), or there wasn’t time to fumble the Fuji out of my bag (pocket beats shoulder strap). When you put it that way, the iPhone seems insanely hard to beat, but the Proper Camera was still noticeably better in many ways. In hard sunlight, my phones have always struggled with overexposure, with blown highlights and grittiness in the details even when you manually stop down. This year’s crop aren’t much of an improvement there, even with Smart HDR. So… here are some photos, most of them from the Fuji.