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.

iOS 10 Makes the Timeline UI a Reality

Wired: Apple May Have Figured Out the iPhone’s Most Promising Feature

3D Touch is instrumental to Apple’s newly rethought lock screen, in a way that could fundamentally change how you interact with your iPhone.

But with iOS 10, you’ll use your home screen a whole lot less.

This article from Wired today recalls the thinking of many UX designers who believe that homescreens tiled with app icons will soon give way to a new kind of smartphone UI: the timeline. Over the last few years, both iOS and Android have been making their notifications richer, with simple functions like deleting new emails, quickly replying to texts, or faving tweets, amongst others.

lockscreenBut iOS 10 looks to be taking it to a whole new level. iPhones will light up when you raise them, and interactive notifications can expand into whole widget-like apps with live maps and data, and house more complex options than a dialog box or text input field can provide. And the best place for this new timeline UI to live is on the lock screen of your phone, the starting point of any interaction, and an arguably more valuable space for accomplishing tasks than the homescreen.

And it’s 3D Touch, launched to public disinterest with last year’s iPhone 6S, that’s been the missing piece all along. Without pressure sensitivity and Apple’s Peek & Pop gestures, a self-activating lock screen might be a pretty bad place to have action buttons that can accidentally touched. I’d be interested to see how it works on phones without it, such as the new iPhone SE. Perhaps they just won’t have Raise to Wake.

Also worth remembering that this new timeline of Things That Need Your Attention Most will live beside the Today screen of widgets (swipe to the right), which should do a lot for the idea that we’ll all be unlocking our iPhones a lot less and getting stuff done quicker later this September.

A UX design walkthrough of Feedly’s new Explore experience

Eduardo Santos: Introducing feedly’s New Explore Experience

I’m a pretty light user of Feedly these days, perhaps because RSS is just a chronologically ordered dump of too much information and I’ve grown to prefer a little machine intervention, but this detailed breakdown of a feature redesign is quite the pleasure to read.

Feedly probably does have a bigger role to play in aiding content discovery (no one can get enough of it), but what’s interesting is that an RSS reader approaches it in a different way from others like Flipboard. It’s less about piecemeal articles, topics, or user-curated magazines. It’s sites! Boosting little known sites and blogs exhibiting consistent quality serves a much more important cause: feeding the cycle of good content creation and letting authors grow their follower base, not enjoying random hits of virality at the whim of algorithms and chance.

Darkroom Photo App Shows Why UX Details Are Everything

A new photo editor for iOS launched today, and it’s called Darkroom (free, with a $2.99 in-app purchase to unlock Curves).

“Another photo editing app? What does this one bring to the table?” I’ve seen a few early reviews of Darkroom begin along those lines. It seems a sense of fatigue has set in amongst people watching this space, and it interests me to find that I don’t feel the same way. I’ve dived into every new release with optimism, because there are still so many ways to improve upon what we can currently do on our mobile devices.

The Verge mentions Darkroom in the same breath as VSCO Cam, suggesting that the latter has a new challenger. That’s somewhat wrong-headed; they aren’t anymore alike than, say, how Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are as ways of passing time. Both apps allow you to tune the look of a photo, and apply presets, but it’s how they’ve been engineered to do it that counts.

Darkroom’s most exciting development, if you listen to what people are saying, is that it allows you to edit photos by adjusting RGB curves. Except that’s not especially new in the iPhone app space — Photoforge did it years ago, Filterstorm has that and much more in the way of professional tools, and there are others. The next feature to get attention is that you can save any of your adjustments as a custom preset, ready for future photos, and it’s like making your own filters. Again, this is territory that Mattebox, PicTapGo, Mextures, et al pioneered awhile ago.

The reason Darkroom is exciting, is that it seems to have absolutely nailed the UX of these features, and made them feel manageable, comfortable, and pleasurable to use as a whole. I want to emphasize that this is hard, and that their solutions are so subtle and executional, they might not have convinced anyone of their worth if presented as bullet points on a slide at some early point in the process.

Using other apps with curves and pro adjustments can feel claustrophobic and stressful on a small screen. I’ve hated almost every single one (Adobe’s own Photoshop Touch is so awful at it) and keep them on my phone as last resorts. If I’m on holiday and take a problematic photo with potential, I’m more likely to wait till I get home just so I can do it on a Mac than try to fiddle with it on the go. Snapseed is one powerful exception, but that uses its own control metaphors, not curves.

Darkroom’s UI is blissfully open in design. It will likely get more complicated as they add more promised features, but I’m hopeful the team finds a way to keep this incredible simplicity. As you page through its 5 key sections (composition, filters, adjustments, curves, history), you never lose your place in the mental model. Nothing is buried in a submenu or out of sight.

You don’t have to click a checkmark to save an adjustment before tapping another, because everything can be undone to an infinite degree, and one can undo hundreds of minute actions back to the beginning of an edit if necessary. Because that step (so annoying in apps like Afterlight, Faded, and VSCO Cam) has been eliminated, using Darkroom’s tools feels close to direct manipulation of the colors and pixels on your screen. One more nice touch: you can tap to the left or right of a slider knob to nudge it in that direction. Simple, but I can’t remember the last time a photo app let me do that.

Loading up a photo is seamless. The app starts with a view of your entire photo library. Tapping a photo pulls it forward, straight into editing mode. At this point, you can swipe to either side to start editing adjacent photos in your library. Flicking a photo down tosses it back into the pile, and you’re looking at all your photos again. In use, it feels gloriously fast and uncomplicated. As that bullet point on a slide, “Seamless browsing and editing flow” wouldn’t have done it justice. This is the kind of feature that needs to be designed, prototyped, tweaked, and tuned over and over to create something subtle, but innovative. A team rushing their project out would have missed the opportunity.

The difference between Darkroom and apps that require stepping in and out of different editing modes, especially when the placement of those modes is obscured, is like Apple’s own (now discontinued) iPhoto for iOS and the new built-in photo editing options in Photos.app. The former was a confusing mess with plenty of user-undiscoverable gestures and submenus, while the latter gives most users all the power they need in a more approachable UI.

iPhoto Photos

I’ve stopped using half of the other apps I’ve listed above as problematic, and forgotten the names of twice as many more. The ones I remember tend to be the ones I really wanted to succeed; I’ll unfairly single out Mattebox as an app with great technology and features, but suffered from confounding UX design. Countless times, I actually got lost inside the mess of buttons and menus that were hidden at the “back” of its camera mode. Thinking about the Darkroom icon sitting on my homescreen now doesn’t fill me with the same dread. I’m dreaming about using it later tonight, and tomorrow, and anticipating what will be new in the first update. Although its name is generic, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it soon. I imagine it’s the beginning of a new phase of using my iPhone as a camera, one in which I can send better photos home while still on holiday.

An Old Man Tries Snapchat

If you have even a passing interest in social media and haven’t seen Casey Neistat’s video on how “Snapchat Murders Facebook”, you should.

Like my friend Vicki notes in this post, Snapchat wasn’t something that I immediately saw any value in. I installed it once ages ago, didn’t have any friends on it (a combination of age and geography), and promptly left. Then Instagram’s Bolt soft-launched in Singapore and got some interest going around ephemeral photo messaging, but it still isn’t something that friends in their 30s seem to want.

We’re a generation of digital hoarders; the people who abandoned other providers for Gmail en masse because it promised never having to delete an email again. Cleaning out my harddrive the other day, I found a folder of interesting photos I’d saved off the net in the early 2000s: movie posters, album cover art, photos of global landmarks, and the like, simply because the sight of them were scarce and valuable pre-internet! You have to imagine what it was like to live in that time. I ended up deleting almost all of them because these days, if you can put a name to it, you can find it online.

So behavior is changing slowly amongst older people, and much faster amongst those in their teens, but photo messaging still wasn’t something I needed Snapchat for. Every messaging app offers it now. The ephemeral twist is a footnote.

Snapchat’s Stories feature changed the way I look at the product. It turns it into something of a lifelogging and broadcast platform. I can’t name another app (still) on the market that lets you grab video snippets of your life, and share them in a stream that your friends can tune in to. The fact that clips disappear after 24 hours is actually the part I like LEAST. It seems Vicki’s with me on this, as she’s set up a YouTube channel to archive these Stories to after they’ve been erased. I may soon do the same1.

There are some other nascent thoughts I have on Snapchat’s bizarre UX; the more I think about it, the more brilliant it is — breaking many of the rules we use to design interfaces for users of all ages, in order to create an exclusive, obtuse, game-like experience (inviting the spreading of knowledge by word of mouth) that seems intended to make it a success with a younger crowd. I may be wrong, and it may simply be like this as a result of being designed by a younger team. Additionally, its overall visual clumsiness (check out that ghost icon) encourages you NOT to take it seriously, which makes it totally okay to fire off imperfect, portrait-oriented, poorly-shot, but authentic moments without too much thought.

If you’d like to follow me, I’m on there as “sangsara”.


  1. Sharing these vertical videos on another platform poses a slight challenge. I tried every video editing app on my iPhone, and just about all of them failed to stitch the short clips together without cropping, unexpectedly rotating, or distorting the videos. Even Apple’s own iMovie produced only a black screen with audio playing, probably because Snapchat’s video encoding/metadata in non-standard in some way. Amusingly, the app that finally managed to do the job perfectly was YouTube’s own Capture app

Ten Days with the iPhone 6 Plus

Moving from any of the earlier iPhones to the new 6 Plus is challenging, even if you’re acquainted with one of the larger smartphones on the market. In part, this is because it won’t feel like an iPhone when you first start. Of course, I’m talking about the larger screen and the digital gymnastics required to operate it, although the way it fits in your clothing (you actually notice it for once) will also give you pause. My first experience with a larger phone was in 2012 when I bought (and eventually sold off) a Samsung Galaxy S III.

At the end of that 10-day experiment, I concluded:

I don’t want to mess with battery settings and tweaks. I don’t want the ‘freedom’ to spend hours scouring the web for ways to make my phone better. I want a phone made by a solid company that I trust, optimized to the best of their ability in a combination of software and hardware design, so that I cannot possibly believe that I could do better myself. Because that frees me to do everything else. But I also want that phone to have a larger screen.

I went back to my comparatively tiny 4S, and upgraded to the slightly better iPhone 5 when it came out. But now, with the new 2014 iPhones, I’ve finally gotten what I wished for: A great phone. A big screen. And not as two separate things.

Why the Plus and not the regular 6? Fear of missing out, really. It’s funny how the Samsung’s screen felt gigantic at 4.8” back then, but now Apple’s 4.7” seems so conservative; too small a leap for all the time I’ve waited for them to do this. The iPhone 6 was perfect for 2012, but we live in extreme times, us 2014-ers.

Handling and Design

So, the challenges. It’s been an uncertain 10 days. My theory is that the 6 Plus is a polarizing device if you are a smaller person/have smaller hands. You either know whether you’re okay with the compromises or not. I’ve spoken with women who use Galaxy Note phones, and a common sentiment has been “I can’t use most of the other large phones one-handed anyway (or put them in a pocket), so I just went for the biggest one”. It seems that if you have small hands, you either want a really small phone (iPhone 4-5 series), or go all the way with a 5”+ display and hold it all the time or stow it in a bag.

But if you have larger hands like me (I can just about hold a basketball with one hand), you could technically use the thing one-handed, but that doesn’t mean you should. It’s still a dangerous balancing act each time, and I swear I’m using muscles I haven’t before, causing a slight ache in the forearms. I’ve read laments that you can’t use it one-handed while lying in bed. Untrue; I’ve done it for hours at a time, hence the pain. Deciding whether one should do all the things one technically could is the hard stuff life is made of. Most people aren’t ready for decisions like this until they’ve had a few kids.

And remember how the iPhone 5 looked “terrible” when it first leaked online, and many wished it wasn’t real? The odd two-toned back, the suboptimal placement of the camera lens against the rounded corner and, later, the broken look of an inevitably dinged-up chamfered edge? Now those same people look back and consider it, all in all, a handsome design. I was one of those people, and this makes me feel unqualified to comment at length on the iPhone 6 family now. But damn if it ain’t ugly with that protruding camera module and those fat, rubbery antenna lines!

But the phone’s roundness serves a functional purpose that I appreciate. Many sleek, obsidian phones appeal visually, but don’t feel right in the hands. Sony and other manufacturers have put out a bunch of very nice slabs, but nestle their bottom corners into the fleshy pad under your thumb for a 20-minute news reading session and you’ll see. The iPhone 4 was a similarly beautiful device. It felt pretty good too, but that design wouldn’t hold up when enlarged to accommodate a 5.5” screen. I’d say the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are the “right” shape for what they need to do.

Nevertheless, I very much disagree with the smoothness of its back, coupled with such a thin body. Once you add one of the Apple leather cases, it becomes much easier to pick up, hold securely, and use comfortably. It’s a case that fixes just about all of the phone’s superficial design flaws. Leather’s tactility and softness actually allows you to feel more of a connection to the device.

Others have noted Apple’s adherence to the classic iPhone look for the 6 Plus, with thick top and bottom borders despite the larger screen. This of course allows for a large physical Home/TouchID button, and visual balance. Held in the hand, the phone seems comically tall, and if you can only grasp it below the midpoint, its weight distribution wants to tip itself forward and outward. But use the phone in landscape, and the need for symmetrical weight distribution is obvious. The same goes for the borders: many Android phones have a “right” way to hold them in landscape; merely touch the wrong edge and you’ve accidentally hit a hidden capacitive button that takes you back to the Home menu. I much prefer Apple’s grabbable safe zones.

Give It Time

In the first week, I was completely undecided. I looked at the smaller iPhones my friends and colleagues had ordered, and wondered if I’d made a mistake I would have to live with for a whole year. #Bendgate/#Bendghazi didn’t help, but that worry passed within a couple of days. It’s a strong phone, my tight jeans from Uniqlo have a bit of stretch to them, and most importantly, I have AppleCare+ and faith in their customer service.

I found myself fondling other people’s iPhone 6s, and remembering the times when I could enclose an entire phone in my hand. They grow up so fast! And then at some point after the first week, it just clicked. Somewhat unbeknownst to my conscious brain, it became the perfect size for an iPhone. Later that day, I picked up a friend’s iPhone 6 and waited for the regret to kick in. Nada.

Switching to an inherently inconvenient form factor that prevents you from carrying and interacting with your most-used computer in the ways that you’re accustomed to is bound to be uncomfortable. I figure even if you’ve made rational peace with all the factors you’re well informed about, it takes a little bit of time for the heart to come around. That’s a problem for Apple in the showroom. I wonder how many people immediately chose the 6 when they might have been happier with a 6 Plus. Next year’s 6S Plus sales will tell the story.

Off-Screen Considerations

Battery Life

The second-biggest new feature for many is the 6 Plus’s enhanced battery life. During the final weeks of my old iPhone’s tenure, its inability to stay functional from morning to night was a bigger annoyance than the small screen. Finally, that problem has also been licked.

So far, it’s been tremendous1. Also, if you imagine that you may someday be unhappy enough with the iPhone 6’s battery that you’ll buy a Mophie battery case or similar, remember that it will essentially make for an overall bigger and heavier device than the iPhone 6 Plus, which probably won’t need one. That makes for a pretty clear choice. My best example to recall is one particularly busy day with lots of messaging, photo sharing, a 20-minute phone call, GPS directions for a short trip, playing a 3D racing game for a bit, and streaming Spotify music at “Extreme” quality over 4G during my commute, and still making it home 12 hours later with 20% to spare.

Gaming

If you play games, you’ll find the 6 Plus an amazing machine. Its screen is bigger, brighter, and better than that of any portable on the market, including Sony’s PS Vita and Nintendo’s 3DS XL. There’s a common argument against the smartphone as a challenger to these systems, and it involves the lack of physical controls. I won’t get into that discussion here; suffice it to say I’ve played hours of Real Racing 3 (free) on my phone and never missed the joystick. Also, if you’ve ever squinted at tiny enemies in an FPS on your old iPhone, and struggled with having two thumbs blocking the action, you’ll recognize that the 6 Plus has the potential to help some genres take off on mobile. I’m planning to give X-COM another go now that everything will be more discernible, and keep in mind that was a console game ported over from the Xbox 360.

As I understand it, iOS 8’s “Metal” graphics architecture also allows game developers to squeeze more of the kind of performance out of Apple’s chips that they’re able to on dedicated gaming machines, which don’t have to worry about accommodating many of the other features that a general purpose ~~phone~~ computer supports. Games are going to look ridiculously good.

Photography

It’s better. It’s astoundingly good for a smartphone. Yes, the optical image stabilization gives you an extra f-stop in low light when photographing still scenes, but you shouldn’t be using the default Camera.app for those anyway. The Cortex Camera app takes longer exposures with very good software stabilization, and supersamples/averages out sensor noise in dark scenes almost completely.

Productivity

Everybody talks about landscape mode, but the benefits are still questionable to me, 10 days in. Fire up Mail.app and you’ll see that it’s a little too cramped to be more useful. The information density improves if you turn your system-wide dynamic text size down to one of the lowest settings, which takes more advantage of the HD resolution and 400ppi display. But it’s not for everyone, and I suspect that for a good chunk of people (for example, those over 40), the 5.5” display is best employed as a big screen, not a dense screen.

Typing is a mixed bag because I’d gotten really good at the old iOS keyboard. In apps that haven’t been updated for the new phones, the default keyboard appears larger, which messes with your muscle memory. Since iOS 8 launched, I’ve mostly used SwiftKey (it beat out Swype in accuracy). Its swipe mode helps with one-handed input when that’s necessary — having a thumb in continuous contact with the screen just feels more stable than lifting and tapping.

I think the most productive thing about the bigger screen will be the ability to sketch things of moderate complexity. In the past, you might get some basic shapes down before having to pinch-zoom around a lot to create anything useful. Usually I’d feel stupid within 20 seconds of trying, and give up. Now, I think you might be able to sketch a decent wireframe on your phone. No more napkins.

In particular, I can’t wait for a version of Paper by FiftyThree, or Penultimate, that takes advantage of the 6 Plus. I’d love to complement my Evernote and Moleskine notebooks with some quick and editable digital drawings. I have to mention that every time I’ve tried out a Galaxy Note and stylus, the software has been the most terrible part of the experience. Samsung bundles some in-house notes app with an incomprehensible and dated-looking UI when they really should have partnered with an established third-party app to provide one. I don’t know that there are any on Android, though. Seems like a real miss that they’ve had these larger devices on the market for so longer and didn’t nail the sketching use case.

Conclusion

After 10 days, I’m definitely bullish on this form factor. It took awhile to get over the hump, and if we enjoyed the generous return policies that customers in the U.S. seem to have, I might have been tempted to trade it in for the more familiar iPhone 6. But quite a few pundits have called the Plus a new kind of device (for Apple), one that asks you to reset your expectations of an iPhone in exchange for a more capable companion, and they’re quite right2.

In the years between the iPhones 4 and 6, I was often beguiled by larger devices (in spite of the Android OS), and bought the Galaxy S III, Nexus 4, and XiaoMi RedMi and Mi3 phones for research/secondary phone purposes. Each time, I went back to the iPhone in relief — seeing its small screen as the weakest link in a strong Mac and iOS product ecosystem — and cursed the seeming necessity of compromise in every aspect of this mortal coil. Now at last, that itch is dead.


  1. Although iOS is meant to prevent apps from misbehaving and sucking your battery dry, there are exceptions. Some take every opportunity to wake up in the background, using location data for geofencing and refreshing streams. I’ve found Normal: Battery Analytics to be a useful app, even with iOS 8’s new ability to show which apps use the most power. Normal goes a step further, comparing your battery stats with other users to let you know if your problems are in the minority, and predicting how many hours of standby time you’d claw back by forcing those apps to quit instead of just leaving them in the background. I’d always believed that a backgrounded app couldn’t abuse your battery in iOS, but from the sounds of their literature, I might have been wrong. 
  2. Apart from sketching, writing and editing text on the 6 Plus is itself a very different experience. It’s liberating to see a taller expanse of your document rising above the keyboard, especially in full-screen capable apps like iA Writer Pro, which I used for this post, switching between Mac and iPhone. It feels less like you’re wrestling your phrases into place, and more like they can come out and lie anywhere they want on the floor and it’s exactly what you wanted. 

Uber in Singapore

IMG_6681

The popular U.S. limousine service, Uber, has begun a local trial with a small fleet of cars, and I called one tonight after a late one at the office.

For those unfamiliar with the service, it’s like booking a taxi through ComfortDelGro’s iPhone app, but without the frustration and depressing emptiness their thoughtless UX design induces. Uber’s cars are all top-end Mercedes Benz sedans, and cannot be flagged down on the street (limos, not cabs).

Since Uber also relies on an iPhone/Android booking app, the main differences compared to local taxis from SMRT & Comfort are cost, luxury, and payment method. Uber cars cost more: base charges start at S$7 and trips are a minimum S$12. Making up for this in some way is the fact that fares are consistent throughout the day and night, and include all charges such as our local Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme.

Being willing to pay more means getting a car when you want one, at least that’s the promise once operations are in full swing. If money’s no object, that’s the end of waiting 30 minutes on the line for a taxi. One of the nicest touches of the whole experience is how you just get out of the cab when you arrive at your destination — the fare is charged directly to your credit card and you instantly get a receipt via email. Your driver rates you on a 5-star scale, and you rate them too.

My car arrived within 10 minutes, and it was a great ride. No hiccups or hassle. At the end of a long day, a comfortable seat makes all the difference. The last thing you want (#firstworldproblems alert) is a torn and messed up leather seat, a balled up tissue in the door handle, touching your fingers, etc. I can’t justify paying Uber’s prices in every instance that I’d normally take a taxi, but god do I ever want to!

Uber iPhone app

The booking flow and interaction design in the iPhone app really puts the local competition to shame, and speaks to the premium service that it strives to be. Marking your pickup location on the map is as easy as using Google Maps or picking a location from a list in Foursquare. The moment your car is confirmed, a photo of your driver along with his name and car license number/model are displayed onscreen. On the map above, a little black car approaches your destination.

It’s a pleasure to see a transport alternative that breaks through the calcified monopoly of our local cab operators, where the same pool of cars has to service street pickups, taxi ranks, and phone/internet bookings. Because of the financial incentives that bookings provide, it’s often hard to get a cab at a queue or off the street. Booking has become something of a norm here, and the system feels broken. A solution that allows people to pay more to be served first isn’t a great one, but it could ease a little pressure and be a very profitable and popular short-term solution.

Get $10-20 free credit with my referral link: http://uber.com/invite/ubersangsara
or use promo code “ubersangsara” if you’d like to try them out.


Edit: if you thought I was exaggerating about the torn seats, here’s the regular taxicab I had the next morning, faintly smelling of piss to boot.