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General Reviews

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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Reviews

An early look at HEY email

(For Part 2 of this review, check out: Hold up, HEY)

I’ve been pretty keen to see HEY’s rethinking of email, and just got my early access invitation this week (I joined the queue back in February, perhaps on Day 2 of their recruitment drive). I was also an early adopter of Gmail back in 2004, and as they say on the manifesto page, there’s not been much innovation in the world of personal email since. If anything, email has been in decline and most of its use cases now belong to chat platforms (keeping up with friends), workplace project management/collaboration suites (enterprise communications), and services’ own portals (seeing account and order histories). The resurgence of newsletters is one bright spot, and displaying them is one of the main jobs of my email account.

Anyway, I get excited about new things quite easily. When the invitations started rolling out, I was obsessively checking my inbox, and I kid you not, literally dreaming about getting mine to the point where I was waking up in the middle of the night with the urge to check my mail! Part of the anxiety probably came from wanting needing to secure my address of choice, like I was lucky enough to do back in 2004 with Gmail. Just try getting your name now without adding random numbers; I don’t know how the poor kids today deal with the scarcity. My wife also wants any readers to know that she’s heard enough about my two username options, the pros and cons of both, and never wants to discuss email addresses again.

So now that I’ve used it for a little bit, I’m undecided if I should make this my primary email service. On one hand, everything they promise is true. The workflows are elegant, the way it puts you at the center of the experience is refreshing (no stranger can disturb your peace, OCD freaks can bundle threads together, etc.), and the emphasis on privacy and business model transparency is way better than any free alternative. On the other hand, it’s not entirely how I’d like to use email, and some edges are rough to the touch.

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General

The Stars Have Aligned

I was surprised to learn that astrology is experiencing a comeback amongst millennials, thanks to an app called Co–Star that has been steadily growing beneath my radar. When a decade-younger friend sold it to me over drinks last week, the most interesting thing about it to me was its inexplicable use of an n-dash in the name. I installed it for a look, saw a personality trait in the natal chart* that didn’t quite match my self-image, and promptly forgot about it until the push notifications started arriving.

Screenshot of the Co–Star app

These nudges are titled “Your day at a glance”, and are so iconic to this audience that the Instagram filter creator known as autonommy has made one that superimposes Co–Star notifications over your head. They’re usually a single mysterious line or proverb that you’re meant to contemplate as things happen to you.

Yesterday (an uneventful day), I was assured, “You don’t have to be afraid.” Today, it asked, “What lessons have you learned today?” Tapping into the app unleashes a torrent of AI-assembled advice that tells you how to deal with the challenges of existence as per the day’s astral alignment. The tone of voice is often surprising: acerbic, blunt, even dark.

Instead of deleting the app as I meant to do, I discussed it with some people around me and shared a Verge article about the team behind it, and now I’ve got irl friends on this astrology social network, and we can see each other’s fates and compatibility, and I think I’m keeping it? It’s not like I’ve suddenly taken horoscopes at face value, but perhaps it fills a gap — I need someone to regularly kick my ass on personal development, and whether I agree with the “advice” or not, these prompts might get me to work a little harder at things. They’re challenges.

Coincidentally, I spent much of yesterday reading through the backlog of email newsletters I subscribed to and then got overwhelmed by. When someone’s thoughts on screen are a year old, making reference to events that you and the internet are so over by now, but the words remain productive, insightful, and capable of inspiring you to look back at your old email newsletter project from 6(!) years ago and maybe start writing on your blog again, they can have all the paid subscription money. If you’re in need of a couple recommendations: try Dan Hon and Craig Mod’s.

There’s always a voice gently suggesting I “write more”. Sometimes I think I write enough at work as it is. As the activities that make up my day job changed over the last few years, so did the emphasis on actual writing as a vehicle for Client Value Delivery. It took awhile to join the dots between the kind of writing I did in advertising, publishing, side projects, and now in a design/consulting context, but that still leaves out the “pleasure writing”, as one acquaintance recently called it.

Right now, I’m feeling out of practice and clumsy when it comes to this stuff. I don’t know how to write to you anymore. Maybe I cut down on tweeting and blogging because we all entered a digital privacy crisis, but the net result was falling out of the public writing habit altogether. I lost imaginary friends.

So. Why not try again? What do I have to be afraid of? What lessons am I learning today?

*Those natal charts: You plug in your date/time/location of birth, and it pulls historical NASA data to see where celestial bodies were when you were born, and interprets their deviations in space each day to produce your horoscope. Are these even called horoscopes? I don’t know; that word seems dated and quacky, like something in a crinkled copy of Reader’s Digest, whereas Co–Star feels like something new — a bit of not entirely serious millennial wellness — dressed up in ancient clothes.

A couple of years ago, we had a colleague from Hong Kong in town who would do the exact same thing as a party trick, except she manually read and interpreted the natal charts which she generated using a Chinese app. Co–Star has simply scaled this with technology and a content team.

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General Photos

Should I really have bought a new camera?

You never use the cameras you have as much as you do when there’s a new one ordered and on the way. I’ve just bought a Panasonic LX10 online to take the place of my 6(!) year old Sony RX100mk1—a compact travel camera with a big-enough 1″ sensor and useful 3x-ish zoom range.

Below: a recent shot from my RX100.

That the LX10 has been on the market for 2 years says something about my changing habits. Buying last year’s model used to be unthinkable, and I’d pay a premium for buying that way. But the industry has changed and now hardware updates come every few years instead of annually, and the average price has gone over the $1000 mark to compensate for the drop in sales. Buying late nets you a nice discount back to pre-smartphone prices.

Anyway, while waiting for that camera to come and prove wrong my fears that I’ve given my money to a scammy HK website, I’ve been using my iPhone X and RX100 a bit around the neighborhood and workplace.

I can’t stress enough how much the Halide camera app + Adobe’s new and improved Lightroom Mobile have changed the way I shoot and edit RAW images on iPhone. (I still love and use Darkroom too, it just doesn’t do RAW as well as Lightroom anymore.)

Shooting koi in a rippling pool with an iPhone requires you to go full manual, and while the thought of fiddling with shutter speeds and ISO and manual focus on a touchscreen used to make me shudder, it’s actually doable with Halide’s well-considered control layout and gestures. I just wish you could lock focus peaking to always-on.

Honestly, I had no idea you could get this kind of sharpness and microcontrast out of an iPhone. I’ll be saving JPEGs and Live Photos for quick grab shots and moving scenes from now on. Given that I’ve taken a few holidays with just my iPhone, this is all making me wonder if I should have bought a new dedicated camera at all.

Okay okay, while shooting in RAW preserves highlights and deals with tricky lighting such as the above shot in the late afternoon, I’ll admit to enhancing that flare with Lens Distortions. It’s all about creating the scene you saw with your eyes, right??

Assuming the camera comes on time, I’ll probably bring it with me to Tasmania when I go in a few weeks. Seems like a landscape kinda place, so I have doubts about bringing my other cameras: a Ricoh GR (28mm) and Fujifilm X100T (35mm). 🤔

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General

The Trouble with Instagram Stories

I enjoyed reading this TechCrunch interview with Kevin Systrom where he openly gave credit to Snapchat for their ‘Stories’ feature, and talked about how copying it for Instagram inevitably created something different.

What I’ve observed matches much of what’s been said: it gives most people a much larger starting audience compared to what a new Snapchat user has, which increases the likelihood of success; it’s really well implemented (I especially like that switching from one user’s Story to the next has a different transition animation than skipping a scene, making it much clearer that you’re on another person now); and it makes Instagram a more complete place to look into the two sides of a person’s life: the imperfect moment and the photograph worth sharing.

BUT one early side effect has also materialized, and it’s already changing the way I use Instagram. In short: I don’t want to see many of these Stories! I follow a variety of different accounts, from brands, obvious social media influencers/shills, dogs, cats, interesting strangers, and friends. It’s Day 2 since the launch, and many of them have flooded my feed with too much uninteresting stuff. For many of these accounts, I want their photographs worth sharing, but not their imperfect moments. And there doesn’t seem to be a way to only follow one type of content on a per user basis.

So I’ve started to unfollow people. Which I’m sure Instagram doesn’t want.

In fact, the last major feature they added (an algorithmically sorted timeline) was probably aimed at getting people to follow more accounts. It let me add people without cluttering up my feed to the point where I’d miss posts from those I really really liked. For example, I could follow Canon cameras’ account for their occasional spectacular photos, but still see more personally interesting updates from my friends first. No problem. This morning, I unfollowed Canon because their chatty video Stories were getting in the way of my seeing life updates from friends.

There isn’t this problem right now on Snapchat, which makes me think it might eventually win out if people want to keep these separate. I’m not sure how Instagram might resolve this, but there’s definitely a difference here. Namely, not all social content is created equal.


The one other reason why I’ll continue to use Snapchat is their new Memories feature. Instagram Stories doesn’t let me do the same things.

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General Photos

31 Days of Black & White

I spent the month of January shooting photos only in black and white. Not just the ones I posted on Instagram, but everything in my camera roll got converted and saved in black and white. When I scroll through my timeline in the future, this block of 60 or so shots is going to stand out.

I got the idea from @espresso on Twitter who shot monochrome photos for the entire year of 2015. That’s dedication. It only came to my attention in December when he started mentioning how much he looked forward to color again in the new year. You can see his Storehouse collection of photos here.

It was absolutely worth it. You can always learn a lot in any creative endeavor by putting restrictions in place; I think because it’s too easy to try to grow in many ways at once, especially when taking photos, you can go from landscapes to close ups to street scenes in a single day, and play with a dozen photo processes and apps at a time. Taking away some options can make you focus long enough in one direction to notice something new. Taking color away immediately makes you think about lines and composition and texture. All the habits you’ve formed around what looks interesting and when to raise your camera are rendered unreliable, and you’re made to look at everything through new criteria that you’re forming through practice.

It reminds you that the absence of color is actually a powerful tool that has gotten too closely associated with making statements or establishing mood. It’s a legitimate way of directing attention, and a different set of skills when doing post-processing. And it frees you up from taking photos of every meal, because it’s quickly apparent that most won’t turn out very appetizing.

If anything, a month might be too little time, especially with the demands of work and other hobbies. Now that it’s over, I intend to keep doing it, maybe at a 1:3 ratio with color photos.

Everyone should try it out some time (with the #bwchallenge hashtag). I highly recommend the Darkroom app, as always, because it gives you a ton of control over how tones are converted and shifted, going beyond the emulation of simple color lens filters.

Also check out my friend Cong’s feed, who did the challenge with me and stuck with it even through a trip to Osaka, which took some guts.

Edit: Forgot to add an observation. A lot of these photos were taken with my iPhone, and I found that turning a photo black and white negates the weaknesses of small smartphone sensors. Noise and muddy colors in dark scenes are no big deal, and the quality of available light (in gradations) seems to increase when you combine the color channels.