Mellifluous Thoughts on Design and Tech

February 29, 2024

Deer Valley

Skiing

Skiing

Skiing

Earlier this month Remy and I traveled to Park City for the annual Binswanger Cousins event. The tradition started with her grandparents twelve years ago (and coincidentally one of the trips is where my sister in law met her husband). An important thing to know about the Binswangers is they take partying very seriously. Costumes, games, ceremonies, and plenty of laughter.

Notably the group held a small pseudo-religious service to celebrate the 2 year anniversary of my horrific accident on that mountain. I shattered my tibial plateau while skiing down Big Stick with a 10 week old baby expecting me to be a functioning parent. We all went to the approximate spot of where I fell and secretly hung up a token on a tree. I can’t wait to revisit it next year.

As the photography enthusiast I took on the responsibility of documenting the shenanigans using my dinner party camera: the Leica Sofort 2. I learned a few things about the Sofort after using it for several hours:

  1. People love seeing printed photos in real time. Holding them, photographing them, rearranging them, etc. It was a huge hit.
  2. The camera has very limited storage, and you cannot take photos when the storage is full. I found myself constantly sneaking away from the festivities to manually transfer photos to my iPhone so I could delete them from the Sofort. One way to remedy this is to insert a micro SD card to provide additional storage. This gives you a lot more flexibility (and allows you to enjoy the fun).
  3. Overall it felt unreliable. Photos would occasionally appear blurry and I was unable to figure a cause or pattern.
  4. It’s slow. Operating it, transferring photos, using the menu, etc. Slow.

The next step is figuring out how to make a collage with all the tiny prints.

Skiing Leica Sofort
February 29, 2024

AppleDesign Book

AppleDesign Cover

AppleDesign Cover

AppleDesign Cover

I decided to expand my Apple Collection (“Museum” and Collection” are interchangeable at this point) to include books in addition to desktops, laptop, peripherals, displays, etc. I found a copy of AppleDesign: The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group. It’s an incredible book filled with gorgeous photos of products and prototypes.

Apple Collection Book
January 25, 2024

40th Anniversary of the Macintosh

Steve Jobs in his office at Apple HQ in front of the Mac

Photo by Norman Seeff

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh’s launch. I recommend watching a few minutes of Steve Jobs introducing the Mac at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA on YouTube. While watching try to imagine a world where computers didn’t have a graphical user interface; just a blinking cursor begging you to enter commands. The Chariots of Fire theme song feels cheesy when watching in 2024, but in the moment I can imagine it felt appropriate.

The Steve Jobs Archive wrote a nice piece called 40 years of the Macintosh” for the occasion. One paragraph stuck out:

I remember the week before we launched the Mac,” Steve recalled in 2007. We all got together, and we said, Every computer is going to work this way. You can’t argue about that anymore. You can argue about how long it will take, but you can’t argue about it anymore.’”

This is how I always felt when I was growing up. In the early 1990s (and to be honest through college) I argued with kids and adults about why Apple computers were superior machines. Yes, superior. One could argue I was a bit pompous as a child during these conversations, but I was so passionate about Apple. Windows machines could always do more, but the software was ugly and the hardware was clunky.

While visiting friends’ houses we would sit in front of Macs for hours and just figure out what they could do (in addition to playing Maxis games). We didn’t have modems yet so we were forced to poke around the system with apps like ResEdit. Macs were approachable. Elegant. My friends and I never tried to tinker with a PC. They were built for parents and work. Macs were for us.

The Upgrade podcast collected some of my favorite Apple enthusiasts to discuss the anniversary along with their first Mac, favorite Mac, favorite Mac software, favorite Mac accessory, and their least favorite Mac (the hall of shame). I put together a list as well.

First Mac

Mac LC in a museum

My first Mac was the Mac LC with a 16 Mhz 68020 processor, 40 MB hard drive, and 2 MB of RAM. This is where it all began for me. I remember listening to the national anthems of every country on it and feeling amazed that I had access to so much information. Playing with Kid Pix made me feel like an artist. Perhaps I should find one for my collection.

Favorite Mac

Power Mac G3 Blue and White

My favorite Mac is the Power Mac G3 Blue and White with a 400 Mhz G3 processor, 6 GB hard drive, and 64 MB of RAM. I had it configured with a built-in Zip drive too, and over the years I filled all the RAM slots and added a couple extra hard drives inside. This computer was a beast. It acted as a bridge between the Classic and OS X eras which was a particularly exciting time in Apple’s history. My parents were kind enough to ship it to New York for my freshman year of college where I quickly learned that a tower and CRT monitor combination was not suitable for a tiny dorm room. The best part? I still have it.

Favorite Mac software

Marathon game on Mac

Technically this isn’t the original Marathon, but it’s a great screenshot.

My favorite piece of software is Marathon. Hours and hours were joyfully spent playing this game against friends at Crystal Springs summer school.” I was fortunate to spend a few summers in front of Power Macs learning how to create animations in Macromedia Director and rendering 3D scenes in Strata Studio Pro (when we weren’t playing Marathon of course).

Favorite Mac accessory

Airport Express

My favorite Mac accessory has to be the Airport Express. It was the perfect product for a college student, and I was a senior when it launched. We had laptops, speakers, and giant mp3 collections. The problem was figuring out how to play music wirelessly from any computer in the house or apartment. The Airport Express arrived and everyone could easily play music from iTunes without disconnecting their laptop, moving it to the living room, and reconnecting. It was also a fun party trick! In 2004 no one even imagined wirelessly playing music. It was seamless. It was cool. It, dare I say, just worked.

Hall of Shame

Power Mac G4 Cube

This category is tough. Does one select an unreliable model? Or a model that had a problematic keyboard? My gut tells me the Hall of Shame should be awarded to the Power Mac G4 Cube. Let’s be very clear: the Cube, its speakers, and its matching Cinema Display are GORGEOUS. Cramming the computer into an 8 inch cube was extremely impressive. However, I have some issues.

When this computer launched I was selling Macs at a local third party Apple retail store. The Cube was set up right by the front door. Everyone was clearly impressed by its design, but I don’t recall ever selling one. One person came to the store to complain that the capacitive power button on the top was too easy to accidentally press. He would randomly turn off the computer! Then there were the cracks. The computer didn’t have a fan and its healing solution was unable to adequately cool the acryclic glass enclosure. As a result it was likely to eventually crack. At $1,799 (with a $499 display) it was a tough sell considering its expandability limitations and low performance compared to its G4 tower sibling. This may all sound like nitpicking, but the cracking exterior is unforgiveable.

Apple Mac Steve Jobs Hardware
January 24, 2024

Stash

I adore Minimalissimo and recently saw that they added a new Stream page to the website. Introducing the Stream:

But what if you come to Minimalissimo to get inspired? What if you have an appreciation for minimal design and you simply want to immerse yourself in the content? What if the goal is not to search anything specifically, but rather to stumble on something you didn’t know you were looking for?

I have always wanted a way to quickly grab images or screenshots, drop them into a folder, and have them appear on this website. No text. No tags. No descriptions. Just stashing away things that I think are cool. When Minimalissimo shared this update I was inspired to finally add it here, but with a name that resonates with me: Stash. Enjoy!

Minimalissimo
January 22, 2024

Infinite Compute

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

Joaquin Phoenix takes Samantha on a boat in the movie Her.”

During a flashback episode of Mythic Quest, C.W. Longbottom walks by an electronics store that has Pong running in the window. His friend sees a video game; Longbottom sees the future. He instantly realizes that if a video game has 1 pixel moving across the screen, someday there will be millions.

I have been reflecting lately on the explosion of artificial intelligence throughout the past year, and wondering if there are ways to connect it to past developments in technology. For example, in the 1960s popular mainframes like the IBM System/360 only sold in the hundreds of thousands of units. Now millions of people sit in front of computers all day every day. Many have both personal and work computers along with tablets and smart home displays.

IBM System/360

The IBM System/360 was featured in an episode of Mad Men.”

The Motorola DynaTAC (also known as the Zach Morris or Gordon Gekko phone) was too large to fit in a pocket and way too expensive. Now more than half of the global population has a cell phone, and it seems like most people walking around outside are buried in a screen.

Motorola DynaTAC

Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street.”

When the iPhone launched there were literally 10 apps: Phone, Safari, Mail, iPod, Calendar, Photos, Clock, Calculator, Weather, and Maps. Now, of course, apps are the glue for all computing. We order groceries, travel, collaborate, play, and even meet our spouses (hey babe!) all with the help of apps.

Tim Cook in front of a grid of app icons

iA Writer is how I write for this website and there it is.

We started with just a few computers, a few phones, and a few apps. Now we seemingly have infinite number of each. Today’s AI landscape feels similar to those eras (although I can only speak to phones and apps myself having lived through those years). We have a few AI models and products in addition to the bits of AI scattered throughout the industry that we do not think about. What does the world look like when we have infinite access to AI?

One direction I can imagine is a single, personalized, omniscient presence similar to Samantha in the movie Her. This AI will be able to interact with other people, companies, apps, services etc. on my behalf. I can trust it with all of my information, records, and finances. This sounds a bit like science fiction, but so did cell phones in the mid-twentieth century when Vannevar Bush wrote about the memex in As We May Think.

A more short-term idea is each company has its own AI that we interact with through apps. Google’s Bard will someday handle our email and calendar while Meta’s AI (which does not have a name yet) will find new ways to entertain us. Perhaps the AIs will talk to each other, but I am hesitant to believe that since we have strayed so far from the golden years of open APIs. Every company is desperate to own and control a fortress of data.

In my opinion the most likely scenario we’ll see in the next few years is the AI craze calms down, some professional roles are permanently replaced by AI, and the apps and products we use for work and leisure are enhanced by AI. Our lives do not drastically change otherwise. We become more efficient at school and in the workplace, but our creativity and ingenuity continue to set humanity apart.

But! What if AI achieves a level of creativity that rivals our own? Arthur Miller elegantly covers this topic in ‌The Artist in the Machine: The World of AI-Powered Creativity.

‌The Artist in the Machine: The World of AI-Powered Creativity

‌The Artist in the Machine: The World of AI-Powered Creativity

518 pages

Amazon

Artificial Intelligence Apps
January 5, 2024

Why Instagram Failed to Become TikTok

In 2022 the Instagram team announced they were testing a new, immersive viewing experience in the main Home feed.” As a self-proclaimed mobile app design connoisseur, this piqued my interest. Clearly this was an attempt to replicate TikTok’s UX of showing one piece of media per scroll. For Instagram this would be differentiated since the app supports both photos and videos whereas TikTok is designed for video consumption only.

The test failed, and I have a hypothesis as to why: context.

Take a close look at the press image Instagram shared when the new interface was announced.

Profile photo on top

I still reflect on the brilliance of making Instagram’s interface black and white.

When the new interface actually launched, there was one subtle difference that fundamentally changed the app’s mental model and broke how users consume content.

Profile photo on bottom

Someday I hope to learn more about that Shop tab.

Do you see it? The profile photo of the account that shared the content moved from the top to the bottom of the screen. This one change doomed the experiment by removing context from every piece of content.

Instagram launched in 2010. The interface of course changed over time with the addition of new features, and the gradual shift in aesthetics from Apple, Google, and the design industry. However, a few things never changed. For example, the placement of the profile button in the tab bar has always been in the lower right corner, Home has always been in the lower left corner, and in the Home feed the profile photo of the account that shared a piece of content has always been in the upper left corner of the content.

Take a look at the screenshot in the first iteration of Instagram’s website.

Instagram website

In 2010 I believe I was still sharing photos to Flickr through email.

There it is. When Burbn became Instagram the profile photo appeared above the top left corner of the photo (remember when Instagram only supported sharing photos?).

Since 2010 Instagram users have been trained to instantly and subconsciously look at the top left corner of content to ascertain: (1) who shared this and (2) do I need to look at this account’s content right now or can I scroll to the next item. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to look at a certain celebrity’s third carousel of vacation photos so I scroll without hesitating. As discussed above, when Instagram’s TikTok experiment launched, the profile photo moved to the bottom of the screen. Consuming content in the Home feed became jarring because I consistently did not have context.

Allow me to demonstrate with a wireframe.

Instagram wireframe

Left: original feed. Right: experimental feed.

Before the experiment launched my eyes would slightly move from the top of the screen down to the profile photo, and I would make a decision about the importance of the content based on the profile photo. Then I would establish context and set expectations based on my previous experience with the account’s content before looking at the photo or video. I would briefly enjoy and then swipe horizontally if a carousel or vertically for the next item in the feed..

The experimental interface confused me by removing the account photo from the top left position. I would move my eyes downward to look at the content, become surprised or confused, and then feel required to rationalize the content. I would try to recreate the experience of the original feed by establishing context which required seeking the profile photo. My eyes would move to the bottom of the screen, analyze the profile photo, and then look back up at the content again. Scroll. Repeat. This was extremely frustrating. Instead of consuming 10 photos or videos in the feed, I had to rationalize 10 photos or videos.

Now let’s look at TikTok’s placement of the profile photo: the middle of the right side of the screen.

TikTok wireframe

This works perfectly for TikTok because its users expect and are accustomed to relevant content as a result of the incredibly accurate algorithm. The account that shared the video is secondary and looking at the profile photo to establish context is unnecessary. A video’s context comes from its connection to a user’s interests instead of the source. One can use TikTok forever without ever following a single account and be entertained every day. The same is not true for Instagram where following accounts and building a community has been the primary method for gathering personally relevant content since 2010.

I believe that if the original experimental interface with the profile photo in the top left position were tested, it would have had a greater chance for success. Perhaps not successful enough to become the default interface for all Instagram users, but definitely enjoyed by more. Personally I would be delighted to try using the immersive Home interface again and remove the profile photo’s position change as a variable.

The Instagram team deserves a lot of credit and respect for trying this. It’s easy to not experiment. It’s easy to let interfaces become stagnant. Designing, building, testing, and deploying a change is hard and risky. I hope other companies take risks more often as a result.

Instagram Design TikTok