I've wanted to use Evernote for the past couple years. I really have. I installed it on my computer, created a couple notebooks, and that tiny elephant is still staring at me from my taskbar, waiting to be helpful. But it sits there unused, because I haven't figured out how to fit it in my life. And all apps have to fit in somewhere.
Downtime is a Battlefield
Whether they're games, utilities, or novelties, an app must communicate not just how it should be used, but when it should be used as well. The most common place for apps to try to fit in is during our downtime. But competing for downtime is like playing the world's most vicious game of king-of-the-hill. Any victory is temporary at best.
I'm addicted to Dots right now. Polar polls before that. Earlier, Letterpress. Last year, Draw Something. All great apps, all competing for the same timeslot: downtime. But there can only be one winner. Dots reigns supreme right now, but next month, three months, six months from now? I can guarantee it will be something different.
The way to win in the longterm is to pick a timeslot and own it. Downtime is the most obvious, but there are many others. First thing in the morning, last thing before bed, just getting into work, just leaving work, right after lunch, and while having a cup of coffee. All daily, valuable timeslots, and not many apps chasing them.
Timehop chose to fill the "first thing in the morning" timeslot, and I've been a daily user for over six months. At first glance, it may appear Timehop would fill downtime, but their marketing and product clearly go for something else. From their homepage:
"Your best memories, fresh daily. Every morning, you'll wake up to a fresh time hop experience."
"Fresh daily," "Every morning," "wake up." It's clear this app isn't competing for downtime. This is an app that you will want to check first thing in the morning. And, as it turns out, that's exactly when I use it. When I wake up, still a bit groggy, I open Timehop to see a new feed. Since there's no other apps competing for that spot in my day, I've been using it ever since.
Evernote's Ever-Increasing Uses
Back to Evernote. One could argue that because Evernote is so multi-faceted, it's impossible to prescribe how it should be used. But Twitter is even more open-ended, and their onboarding flow is very clear. They want you to follow 10 people and send your first tweet. Dropbox's famous "Get Started" flow rewards you for learning to use the product, putting files in your Dropbox, and sharing a folder with someone.
There are scores of material online about how to use Evernote, how to incorporate it into your workflow, and how great it is. There's even some guides from Evernote. But why should I have to search the Internet to figure out how to use it?
It's true you can use Evernote for many things, but everyone starts with something. Encourage us to make a to do list item, and then reward us when we check it off. Have us install it on multiple devices for a bonus. Have us clip something from the web, and give us Premium for a month. Phil Libin said way back in 2010, "the easiest way to get 1 million people paying is to get 1 billion people using," so teach me how to use it!
In the end, if you're not sure where your app fits in, how can you expect your users to know?
Remember the movie showtimes you used to find in the newspaper? They were near the back of the Living section, or whichever section was the thinnest. Growing up, every theater in my city would take out an ad and stuff their showtimes into the smallest box they could. And that was how we found movie showtimes. It was the only way.
Now that the age of apps is upon us, there are plenty that have tried to replace the movie showtimes advertisements in the back of the newspaper. I've thrown my hat in the ring, with my app Cinematic.
But the unfortunate thing about these apps is that they've merely replaced the ads, they've haven't really improved upon them.
Phase 1: Becoming Better than Paper
I made my app with the goal of improving upon the newspaper ads. For example, my app doesn't display showtimes that have already passed. Many movie showtimes apps still do. It also lets you save and filter by your favorite theaters. Finally, it displays the approximate end time for each showing, for convenience. Simple stuff, for sure, but it makes a better experience.
But even with these improvements, the app is still just a reference. It's the digital equivalent of those tiny newspaper ads. Which, frankly, isn't enough for me.
Phase 2: From Reference to Guide
The next feature I have planned for Cinematic is intended to turn it from a reference into a guide. In the current version of the app, once you've found your showtime, my work is done. But that doesn't have to be the end of the use case.
What if someone intends to go to a 7:00 showtime, but then they open up Cinematic again at 7:05 and they're 2 miles away from the theater? They've missed their movie, and are probably looking for something else at that theater. What would the app look like in this case? Right now, it looks the same as it always does. But I already know the theater they're headed to, and the movie they intended to see. Soon, it will show the next time their movie is playing at the theater, and the next three showings for any movie at the theater, in case they want to switch.
The advantages Cinematic has over those newspaper ads is that I know the context. I know the movie you want to see, the theater you want to go to, and whether or not you're going to make it. Taking this information into account is what elevates an app like mine from a reference to a guide.
How about yours?
Discuss on Hacker News
Follow me on Twitter
For the past couple months, I've been building a new app focused around music discovery and sharing. This spring, when rumors started building that Twitter would launch a music app, I got nervous. How could my app compete against the Twitter behemoth? Why spend my free time fighting a battle that I couldn't possibly win?
But when I finally got to try Twitter Music, I stopped worrying. Twitter Music is a Twitter app first, Music app second.
The promise of Twitter Music
Pre-release, the Internet was buzzing about the possibilities of Twitter Music. Wouldn't it be great to listen to all of the songs Kanye West has listened to in the past year? Or see what musicians your favorite DJ is listening to? It would be like getting to peek inside someone's iPod! But the reality of Twitter Music is that it's not about music at all. It's about following more people on Twitter.
Consider the Emerging tab as an example, which is described as "hidden talent found in the tweets." One of the artists in my Emerging tab is Empire of the Sun, who I already know and love. But let's pretend that I discovered them through the Twitter Music app. What now? Well, I can follow them on Twitter, and I can tweet that I'm listening to their song. That's it.
Discovery should lead to Digging
When I discover a new artist, I don't want to follow them on Twitter. I want to start digging, searching, and finding out everything I can about them. Are they a new artist or are they releasing new material? Do they have any other songs that I might know? Do they have any music videos that I might like to watch? Have they done any remixes that I might like? Are they playing any upcoming festivals? Twitter Music answers none of those questions, and that's why this version won't be a success.
The best way to answer these questions right now is by searching for an artist on Youtube. Here's the results for "Empire of the Sun."
I instantly see that these guys have been around for a while (4 years at least), they're reasonably popular (15MM views for 2 videos), and they look pretty interesting (based on the video screenshots). In one screen, Youtube has answered all of my questions about an artist.
It's only fun to discover something if you also let me dig.
What does a great music discovery app look like?
Making a great music discovery app is a difficult problem. Your music tastes might be significant different from your friends. People generally want music that is similar to what they liked in the past, except when they don't. Pandora isn't about discovering new music as much as creating your own personal Muzak station.
The best music discovery sites, like the Hype Machine, realize that music taste is extremely nuanced and subjective. They don't try to present you with what you'll like. They present you with music that some people like. The rest is up to you.
Music discovery is the most fun when you're surprised by a new song, not when Flo Rida releases another song about partying in the club. But how do you build a recommendation system when spontaneity is a primary ingredient? That's the holy grail of music recommendation, and that's where the current apps fail. Hopefully my app will be a step in the right direction.
Discuss this post on Hacker News.
 Although that didn't stop me from releasing a movie showtimes app as my first app
My weeklong Hawaii vacation ended with an unexpected souvenir: credit card fraud. In the course of using my card dozens of times, someone must have copied down my card details and began using it.
I uncovered this a few days after I returned home, when I bravely logged into my credit card account to check the total damage from the trip. It was even higher than I expected, and I saw the following pending charges:
- Wine.com - $78.32
- ProFlowers.com - $62.35
- ProTuningLab.com - $250 and change
I immediately recognized these as fraudulent charges, and got a new card, although I was disappointed it wasn't caught sooner. Here are 3 online transactions within 24 hours, from merchants I've never charged at before. It seems like I should have been alerted.
FB has Login Notifications, Credit Cards should have Charge Notifications
On Facebook, I've opted-in to Login Notifications, which sends me an email each time my account is accessed from anything but my iPhone, home computer and work computer. It's a great way to alert me to unusual activity.
My credit card usage mirrors my Facebook usage. I use my CC online at a handful of merchants regularly, and anything else is out of the ordinary.
I want to be able to opt-in to Charge Notifications for all online transactions on my credit card. Don't block the unusual charges, but do alert me when it happens. Let me review the charge and freeze my card if necessary. Just like Login Notifications, Charge Notifications would improve security and give me peace of mind.
Why don't Charge Notifications exist?
I was lucky enough to catch fraud on my credit card right after it happened. My bill wasn't due for another two weeks. The thief could have committed thousands more in fraud if I had waited for my statement.
If Charge Notifications existed, I would have received an email on my phone after the very first unusual charge of $78.32. I would have immediately frozen my account, and the damage would have been cut by 75% or more.
So why not allow credit card users to opt-in to more security? I suspect it's because CC companies feel it would hurt their business. If I receive an email after every new site I shop at, that's another reminder that I spent money, which is the last thing a CC company wants to remind you of.
Would the benefits outweigh the costs for the CC company? I'm not sure, but in this case, they would have saved themselves about 300 bucks, and they would have saved this cardholder a couple hours of time and stress.
Discuss this post on Hacker News
This is the 1,000th picture taken on my iPhone 4S.
Like many iPhone users, it's my only camera. What was the number one camera on Flickr last summer? The iPhone 4. They say the best camera is the one that's with you, and in 2013, it's our smartphone.
Interested, just not invested
I like photography, but never enough to purchase a "real" camera. I find them bulky and expensive. And when I'm taking a picture with a DSLR, I'm removed from the experience, relegated to the role of documentarian.
Now, this doesn't mean I don't care about my pictures. What I lack in expertise I make up for in effort. But if I'm being honest, I have no idea what I'm doing. I realize there are plenty of photography classes, but they're taught by real photographers with real cameras. And all of that knowledge would go to waste in the real world, where I shoot with my iPhone.
Instead of investing in new equipment to make my pictures better, why can't I learn how to use my iPhone camera better?
I'm imagining an iPhone app that would teach me how to take great pictures with my iPhone. Let's call it "iPhotograph."
First, it would introduce me to the basics of photography, like composition and perspective. There would be clear examples of principles like the Rule of Thirds, and exercises along the way. It would be amazing if the app was smart enough to judge my pictures on these principles.
Next, it would show me the basics of how to photograph people in a flattering light. Think of all the washed-out group pictures in dimly-lit restaurants strewn across social networks. How can I avoid those while working with the iPhone's limited camera?
Then, it would introduce some techniques specific to food photography, another huge iPhone camera use case. How can I use tap-to-focus to perfectly capture the sear on my steak? How can I make my culinary creation look as appetizing on my iPhone as it does on my counter?
Learning is better when the tool is the teacher
If the majority of iPhone users are going to use it as their dedicated camera, why not help them take the best pictures they can? Photography education should adapt to the new reality of photography.
I would easily pay $3-5 for this app, and more for follow-on content, like how to shoot landscapes properly. When the iPhone serves as both the tool and the teacher, the feedback loop is instant. The transition between learning and practice is seamless, and users would learn faster and easier. I want this app to exist!
Do you know of any apps like this? Is anybody working on this right now? Let me know in the comments on Hacker News
Think of your favorite restaurant for a moment. Now, I can't guess the type of food, the location, or the name, but I can guess one thing. It's always busy.
People tend to congregate around places. It's a primal indicator that something is okay, and we call it social proof. The presence of a lot of other people at a hotel, restaurant, or nightclub validates our own choice. We tell ourselves, "All these people can't be wrong!" And we're most often right.
Places in the real world are naturally setup for social proof. When we go to a restaurant we see all the other people eating there. When we stay at a hotel, we witness the bustling lobby. But with online products, it's much harder to establish that same comforting feeling. When we're using a website or an app, we're using it alone.
Our job as product designers is to satisfy the search for social proof by mimicking the clues people use in real life.
The 3 signs of social proof
When people look for social proof in real life, they generally look for 3 things:
- Popularity - Have a lot of people been to this place?
- Recency - Are there a lot of people now?
- Similarity - Are the people here like me?
When you're dealing with a social product, like Facebook or Twitter, these conditions are pretty easy to satisfy. Show me an endless feed (Popularity) of content by people I have followed or friended (Similarity), and sort it by most recent first (Recency).
There's no doubt when you're on Facebook that you are in a vibrant, bustling place. It naturally makes you want to stick around.
But what if your product isn't naturally setup to be social? What if it's a utility, like a travel website?
Social proof for travel websites
Travel websites have historically been terrible at presenting social proof to their consumers. As a consumer booking travel online, you weren't given any clues through the process that you made the right decision.
Reviews are the most obvious solution to the social proof problem, and they were the first tactic attempted. But reviews are only a good indicator of Similarity, and mediocre indicators of Popularity and Recency.* Expedia and Travelocity have taken the next step beyond reviews, in an attempt to staisfy both Popularity and Recency, and it's brilliant.
When you're reviewing the nightly rates for a hotel, two pieces of information are continually flashed at you in a bright yellow box. The first is the number of people to book the hotel in the last 48 hours (Popularity). The second is the number of people viewing the hotel right now (Recency). These two stats (and their continual flashing) have turned the Rates & Availability box, which is generally boring and logical, into an emotional, attention-grabbing social proof indicator.
Social proof when you're not yet social
I went through a couple iterations of the main mix playing page, and I think it serves its purpose well. But as I compared my site with the sites I spend a lot of time on, I realized I had completely left out social proof.
I had built a personal utility, but I hadn't left any clues for users to let them know they're not alone.
I didn't want to add any of the normal social features, like commenting, because I wasn't prepared to police them.
How could I present the beginnings of social proof before I was ready to be completely social? I took a page from Expedia. You'll notice when you load a mix on Stripes.FM (like this one) that a small banner fades in right above the play button. This banner displays how long ago it was since the mix has last been played. It's a way of communicating Recency to my users. (I'm still working on ways to communicate Popularity and Similarity).
It doesn't matter if your site is as social as Facebook, or as utilitarian as Expedia, your users will look for social proof. Find ways to surface it to them beyond comment streams and pictures of other users.
Got any ideas on how I can display social proof better on Stripes.FM? Know of any other surprising examples of social proof on the Internet? Comment on this story on Hacker News.
* It is fairly easy to tell by reading a review if you are similar to the reviewer, which satisfies Similarity. But a hotel with low popularity and exceptionally bad service is likely to have more reviews than a hotel with high popularity and average service. Therefore, number of reviews is a poor proxy for popularity for hotels.
I decided to get active in 2012. The first step (pun intended) was to buy myself a brand new fitness tracker so I could keep track of my progress. In the end, the tracker I chose wasn't any better or worse in terms of features, but it had the one thing I was looking for: it was a private product.
Public v. Private Products
Public products are those in which the appearance of the product is a significant selling point. Cars, clothes, and jewelry are the main examples. Buying a public product means making a statement about who you are.
Private products, on the other hand, focus on the utility. Think toothbrushes, email clients, and socks. Being a private product doesn't mean being boring. It means accepting that your product won't be the centerpoint of your users' life. Private products provide utility without asking for attention in return.
A Tale of Two Trackers
Once I surveyed the major fitness trackers, I found something surprising: the two major competitors took completely opposite approaches to their products.
On the one hand, the Fitbit tracker is a small device that can be clipped on a pair of pants or put in a pocket. It's small, discrete, and works great. A perfect private product.
On the other hand, the Nike FuelBand is a futuristic, color LED bracelet that must be worn on a wrist. You can't miss it, especially when it lights up (which it does often). It's the public end of the spectrum.
Since my fitness (and my fitness tracker) isn't a part of my identity, I'm not attracted to a product that makes me literally wear my fitness on my sleeve. I chose the Fitbit, and I suspect many mainstream consumers would make the same decision. But that doesn't mean Nike made a bad decision with the Fuelband.
If You Want to Disrupt a Private Category, Make a Public Product
Nike is capitalizing on a growing trend in consumer products lately, where a company finds success by taking a traditionally private product category and making it public.
Wrigley made gum public with 5Gum.
Moleskine made journals public.
Apple made computers public. (Especially the first iMac).
Hell, Kotex has even made tampons public.
If you want to gain a toehold in a big, mature market, a public product is a great way to do so. You'll attract a forward-thinking, vocal minority, who will likely evangelize your product (and pay a premium). When designing a product for the first time, consider whether you want to be the public or private contender in your category. It's an extremely difficult thing to change later on.
Can you think of any product categories that are ready to be disrupted by a "public" contender? Leave a comment on Hacker News
My iPhone app for quickly finding movie showtimes, Cinematic v3, is now in the App Store. Screenshots are below, but you have to try it out yourself!
View the top 20 movies playing around you
View showtimes, movie posters, and ratings
The movie screen is my favorite. It displays showtimes in a chronological order that's easy to scan and filter. Tap on the movie title to see a gorgeous full screen poster.
Change your ZIP code or use your current location
All the interaction takes place in the navigation bar. It's really snappy.
Let me know what you think in the comments on Hacker News.
Although I consider myself on the cutting edge in many digital respects, there's one way in which I'm exactly like most Internet users: I use web-based email.
However, this decision to use web-based email puts me at direct odds with the still-dominant method of contact for bloggers and websites: the mailto: link.
(For those who need a reminder, this is a mailto: link.)
Mailto: Means Madness
When I mistakenly click on a mailto: link, my unconfigured email client launches into a sequence that is both confusing, annoying, and unnecessary.
Once this sequence starts, my desire to contact you is completely replaced by the desire to regain control of my computer. You've lost me. Even Wikipedia has a section on it:
When such a visitor clicks on a mailto URI in their web browser, either the browser will display an error to the effect that no default email client exists, or the user will be subjected to a volley of technical questions by the unconfigured email client. Neither is a desirable outcome.
On top of it all, I don't even get your email address because it's obscured in the link.
Mailto: is the Minimally Viable Contact Method
The promise of mailto: is irresistable. Let people contact you with the click of a link.
But mailto: is the easy way out. If you cared deeply about people getting in touch with you, you'd control that experience just as you control any experience in a product.
No one is in control when you use mailto. You've ceded control of the interaction, and because the user hasn't configured their email client, they're not in control either.
It's not good when a product designer loses control of the interaction. It's even worse when the user does.
Modals Over Mailto:
My solution is below, and now in the header of this blog. It's a simple "Message me" link, which launches a modal form.
For the majority of users, they'll fill out the fields and send me a message there. This is a consistent experience that I've designed to be easy. For everyone else, my email address is in plain text, and they can do what they want with it.
When someone wants to contact me, I want to give them a quick, simple, obvious way to do so, and the flexibility to contact me however they want. I think this solution accomplishes both.
Which one of these cars would you notice driving down the street first? The pink one, right? Now, tell me, which car would you rather drive everyday? The black one? Thought so.
Fast and Furious App Icons
The App Store is becoming a very cluttered place, and in order to stand out amongst the crowd, a whole new art of app icon design has popped up. I understand the attraction. When millions of people might be scrolling past your app, you want something that will shout at them louder than all the others.
Once your app is downloaded though, the shouting is gone. Your app has been picked, and it now sits comfortable alongside the other "chosen ones." But your icon is still screaming at users, and there's no way to stop it.
You've chosen to stand out to your potential users at the cost of constantly screaming at your real users, who are the ones you should be most concerned about.
Dribbble is without a doubt the best place to find Fast and Furious icons. The amount of effort that goes into the work on Dribbble is astounding, and I respect the creators for their art. But just as I'm not going to be stoked to park a lime green Toyota out in my driveway, I'm not going to be excited to put your intricately detailed, color-burst icon on my iPhone.
The best icon in the App Store
If we agree that visually screaming at your users through your icon might be a suboptimal strategy, then what makes an acceptable app icon? Well, it's easy to demonstrate through an example.
I present to you the best icon in the App Store:
This icon does everything the icons that dominate Dribbble don't. It's calm, simple, and understated. It doesn't try to be overly clever, like trying to fit a photorealistic mailbox into a 57x57 rounded square. It uses a simple symbol to reflect its purpose, and places it over a bright, glossy background.
If your app is a utility, make it look like one
Sparrow for iOS has a huge challenge: they're trying to displace Mail, which is one of the core Apple iPhone apps. Their competition comes pre-installed!
Sparrow knows that its users will open the app every single day, just like Phone and Messages. Sparrow wants to be your email utility, and so it smartly designed itself as such.
Let me illustrate through a slightly zoomed out picture. The Sparrow icon feels right at home next to the other utilities, even more so than Mail itself. The understated, visual appeal of the icon (not to mention the amazing product itself) made the switch from Mail even easier.
I'll go first
The reason I first started thinking about this is that I'm in the midst of a re-design for my movie showtimes app, Cinematic. I decided to take a fresh look at my icon, and came up with something that reflects the purpose of the app. Like Sparrow, I hope that Cinematic will become a utility for my users, who will open it on a regular basis. I redesigned the icon with this in mind, and I'm happy with the way it turned out.
I present the old icon (on the left), and the new icon (on the right).
Let me know what you think of the new icon on Hacker News