iPadOS 15 app-grid angst, cont’d.

More than a month after I installed iPadOS 15 on my iPad mini 5 and realized this operating-system update had left me with a major home-screen cleanup, I’m still fussing with the placement of app icons and widgets. This says a lot about my own interface persnickitiness, but it also speaks to some sloppiness by Apple.

The first stage of this OS transition was nerd rage at how iPadOS had littered the screen with unrequested widgets and blown up an app grid I had spent far too much time poking and prodding into place. (The app-rearrangement user experience, in which dragging one app to another’s place could easily result in the system deciding you really wanted to file both icons in one new folder, was already nerd-rage fuel before iPadOS 15 shipped.) Even more annoying, many of these new, randomly distributed widgets were app-sized morsels incapable of displaying any useful information.

I started untangling this hairball as I’d originally tidied up my iPad: one home screen at a time. I dragged the icons for my most-used apps–the usual social-media suspects, mapping and photo apps from Apple and Google, the messaging apps I lean on most often–to the first home screen–then plopped Apple’s weather widget in the top-left corner.

(That widget does not tie into the Dark Sky weather app that Apple bought in 2020 and has yet to turn into a built-in iPad weather app; because reasons, it instead leans on the IBM-owned weather.com.)

Then I marched through additional home screens: One got a calendar widget spanning the top third of the screen with alternate browsers and productivity apps below it; another got NetNewsWire’s widget showing my RSS feeds as well as news, e-book and local-info apps; yet another collected apps for the various streaming-media services I use; one more gathered travel and finance apps, plus Apple’s Screen Time widget to tell me to spend less time on this tablet.

Done? No. If I keep swiping to flip leftward through this procession of home screens, I get back to the Today View screen Apple introduced in iPadOS 14 as a sort of widget prison. In 15, this special home screen still only lets me plant widgets in its left half (viewed in portrait mode, my usual iPad use case), even though every other home screen in iPadOS 15 allows me to put widgets where I please.

(“Where I please” means in a grid that grows from the top-left corner, because relentlessly design-centric Apple still exhibits next to zero appreciation of how a little negative space could make home screens easier to navigate and look less alike–a convenience I’ve appreciated on Android for years.)

If this parcel of screen real estate must feature this fixed layout, I’d be content to park the App Library–the automatically-categorized set of folders that freed me from having to create an “Apple, etc.” folder for the apps I never use–in Today View’s right half. But I can’t do that–and while iPadOS 14 let me get rid of Today View entirely, that’s nowhere to be found on my iPad. Maybe Apple will fix this in iPadOS 16? Preferably without blowing up the app grid I’ve rebuilt over the past few weeks?

Weekly output: Boost Mobile bundles telemedicine, Tegna’s local-ads sales pitch, Facebook Oversight Board (x2), dark patterns

This week’s biggest accomplishment doesn’t appear on the list below: getting my second dose of the Moderna novel-coronavirus vaccine Thursday morning.

5/4/2021: Dish’s Boost Mobile to add telemedicine to the bundle, Light Reading

My newest client asked me to write up the news that Dish Network’s T-Mobile reseller Boost Mobile will bundle K Health’s telemedicine service–an interesting departure from marketing as usual in the wireless industry.

5/4/2021: Tegna outlines local-content strategy at NewFronts, FierceVideo

My other regular trade-pub client then asked me to fill in with coverage of the ad-industry group IAB’s conference. I was struck to see the TV company spun out of Gannett several years ago sound so confident about the ad prospects for local news when so many local Gannett papers seem to feel otherwise.

5/5/2021: Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump ruling, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on for the first time in a while to discuss the Facebook Oversight Board’s May 5 ruling that while Facebook was right to kick Donald Trump off the platform after the January 6 riots at the Capital, suspending him indefinitely instead of just deleting his account was without precedent.

Fast Company FTC dark-patterns post5/6/2021: Can the FTC stop the tech industry’s use of ‘dark patterns’?, Fast Company

I “attended”–meaning I watched from my home office–a conference the Federal Trade Commission held at the end of April about the abuse of “dark pattern” interfaces by tech companies to push customers into making decisions against their own interests. The FTC had a great lineup of speakers, I learned a lot, and at the end I really wished I could have walked over, said hi and asked follow-up questions like in the Before Times.

5/6/2021: (Face)book ’em Donno!, Bipodisan

My friend Robert Schlesinger had me back on the podcast he co-hosts with Jean Card for the first time since last May. We mostly talked about the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision–in particular, its implicit scolding of Facebook’s habit of letting its policy shop override the content-policy enforcement calls–but also discussed broader concerns about the influence of Facebook and what political and technological developments might help check that.

Streaming-TV sites still need some design work

This year’s version of the “what regional sports networks will shut up and take a cord-cutting baseball fan’s money” story was not like the last three. I wrote it much later in the year, it’s at Forbes instead of Yahoo, and it finally brings good news for Washington Nationals fans.

But the process of researching which streaming services carry which baseball RSNs was as annoying as ever, thanks to these companies not fixing the user-interface problems that gummed up last year’s work.

AT&T TV Now: The channel-finder page of the streaming service formerly known as DirecTV Now requires third-party cookies for reasons unexplained, ensuring it will break in Safari and Firefox. You can search by Zip code but then often must choose a county inside that Zip, a detail no other streaming service requests. AT&T also has yet to update this site to include the four sports networks (for the Nats, Orioles, Rockies, and Pirates) that it just added, much less the Seattle RSN it soon will offer.

This site does, however, get one thing very right that its rivals don’t: It inventories the teams featured on its available regional sports networks.

FuboTV: This sports-oriented streaming service has a simple channel-lookup page that you may not know exists, as neither its home page nor its support site seem to point visitors to it. Too bad, because it’s a model of simplicity: Type in a Zip code, and it lists the local channels first, identifying both broadcasters and regional sports networks with a blue “Local” tag. Fubo also lists the RSNs it carries nationwide in a tech-support story that seems to be regularly updated, but neither that nor the channel-finder associate networks with their core teams.

Hulu + Live TV: You can’t miss the channel-lookup interface here, since it’s waiting behind a “View Channels In Your Area” link on this service’s live-TV page. Plug in a Zip code and you get a clean listing of channel icons, with “Live Local Channels” at the top. Unfortunately, they’re all shown only as icons, without any pop-up text to identify the more cluttered graphics among them, and it’s up to you to remember which RSN features which sports franchise.

Sling TV: Sling charges just $30 for the basic service (one good reason why I’m a subscriber) and apparently isn’t too concerned about getting people to buy up to a higher tier to watch pro sports. Seeing what regional sports networks you might get that way requires clicking around a support site that keeps pointing you to a now-useless “Game Finder” page (well, useless unless you had not learned that the coronavirus pandemic has made a mess of every pro sports league’s schedule). The link you actually want, “Finding Your Game On A Regional Sports Network,” clarifies that Sling only carries three such networks, the Comcast RSNs in the Bay Area and Washington, what I like to think of as the Other Bay Area. 

YouTube TV: Google’s streaming service doesn’t make you search hard for a channel lookup–the form is right on its home page and is automatically populated with the Zip code for what Google thinks is your location. Click the big blue “Submit” button or type in a different Zip code before confirming that, and you get an improved version of Hulu’s interface that labels channel logos with their names. But as at everywhere but AT&T TV Now, you still have to look up which RSN carries which teams.

I would like to think that these sites will do better and ease the 2021 version of this work. But in case they don’t, I finally took the time to crate a spreadsheet (the Forbes post features a cleaner, searchable version) that I can update whenever these services add or drop a channel. I hope there’s more of the former happening than the latter, so that when I’m looking at the prospect of a 162-game Nats season next spring I won’t be limited to one service carrying those games.

Six updates in, iPadOS still needs work

It hasn’t even been two months since Apple shipped iPadOS, but in that time the tablet offshoot of iOS 13 has seen six maintenance updates–from iPadOS 13.1.1 to 13.2.3.

That plethora of patches has squashed some obvious bugs, like the ones that made Dock shortcuts to recently-opened non-Apple apps inert. They have not, however, cured other trying aspects of iPadOS:

• The new QuickPath gesture-typing option is, for some reason, confined to the floating keyboard you can invoke, not the standard-sized one. Has nobody at Apple tried using Google’s Gboard?

• The new multiple-windows option for an app is buried beneath a long-press of a Dock icon–sufficiently hidden that I did not realize that feature existed until reading Ars Technica’s iPadOS review.

• I appreciate Apple’s attempts to make me aware when apps request my location in the background, but after being nagged 10 times about my choice to let the Dark Sky weather app check my coordinates in the background, I’d appreciate having an option to the effect of “I know what I’m doing and you can stop asking about this.”

• Seeing which apps have updates or have been recently updated takes more steps than in iOS 12–presumably, so that Apple could use that spot at the bottom of the App Store app to promote its Apple Arcade subscription gaming service.

• The process of moving app icons around feels even more maddening than before, especially if I happen to drop an app inside a folder by mistake. Meanwhile, the OS still affords no relief from its inflexible app grid; I can’t leave a row or a column blank as negative space to set off particular icons.

• AirDrop remains as enabling of anonymous harassment as ever.

• I still see display glitches like the charming overlap of portrait and landscape screen modes shown in the screengrab above.

It’s not that I regret installing iPadOS–some of the new features, like the privacy-preserving Sign in with Apple option, are only starting to reveal their promise. Others, such as the Sidecar Mac screen-mirroring option, require newer hardware than the aging iMac on which I’m typing this. But seeing these obscure, illogical or insensitive bits of user experience, I can’t help thinking of all the times I’ve taken a whack at Windows for the same sort of design stumbles.

This is the worst interface I’ve ever seen

Our water heater broke sometime Monday, and we found out the analog way: Only cold water came out of the tap.

A visit to the basement revealed that the heater had already been reporting a problem in the least intuitive way possible. A single green LED on an assembly near its base was blinking out a pattern–eight flashes in a row, followed by a pause of a few seconds and then two more flashes.

That sequence, a small sticker explained, was the heater’s way of saying “Temperature sensor fault detected.” This same sticker listed 17 other sequences of flashes and pauses that could report anything from “No faults” to “Flammable vapor sensor fault detected.”

(The temperature sensor had indeed gone bad, although it took multiple visits by techs to confirm that and then return with a working replacement. This has left me with a renewed appreciation for household modern conveniences.)

That’s an awful user interface. It’s also what happens when you supply a single, single-color LED to display the status of a fairly complex home appliance. Bradford White, the manufacturer, could have put in a light that changed color–seeing a once-green indicator turn to red is usually your tip that something’s changed for the worse–or put in two or more LEDs.

Or that firm could have splurged on a digital readout capable of showing numeric error codes, bringing the discoverability of this interface up to that of the “DSKY” control of the Apollo Guidance Computer that NASA astronauts sometimes struggled to decipher on their way to the Moon.

Instead, sticking with that sole green LED and offloading the work of discovering its Morse-code-esque interface to customers may have saved Bradford White a dime per heater. On the upside, I’m now pretty sure I’ve seen the worst possible UI. I mean, not even Lotus Notes got this bad.

Samsung’s Android versus stock Android: how six common tasks compare

I didn’t get around to reviewing Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge after their introductions at Mobile World Congress this February, but a couple of months ago Verizon Wireless PR offered to loan me one anyway. The device had a useful cameo role in a story about mobile payments, I did my customary battery-life tests, and then I had one last chore: taking notes on the differences between Samsung’s “TouchWiz” version of Android and the stock-condition software I have on my Nexus 5X.

Galaxy S7 and Nexus 5XThese interface gaps aren’t as jarring as they used to be, thanks mainly to Samsung having an attack of sanity and no longer putting a menu button where Android’s standard recent-apps button should be. Instead, a back button occupies that space, with recent-apps’ overlapping rectangles moved to the bottom-left corner.

But some differences remain, and I should keep them in mind the next time I’m writing up a cheat sheet about how to tackle certain Android chores. Consider this post a little FYI to myself…

Enable airplane mode:
• Samsung: Swipe down from the top of the screen to show the Quick Settings bar, swipe left to reveal the “Airplane mode” button, tap that. You may see a confirmation dialog if you haven’t told the phone not to nag you about this again.
• Stock: Swipe down twice (or swipe once with two fingers) and tap “Airplane mode.”

Check data usage:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Data usage” in the Settings app you just opened. Or, less obviously, swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap and and hold the “Mobile data” icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap the signal-strength icon.

View app permissions:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Privacy and emergency” in the Settings app you just opened, tap “App permissions.”
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, select “Apps” in the Settings app, tap the top-right gear icon, tap “App permissions.”

Pair with a Bluetooth device:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap and hold the Bluetooth icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the menu below the Bluetooth icon.

Check per-app battery consumption:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Battery” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the battery icon.

See how much storage space is left:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage & USB” in the Settings app.

Overall, I don’t see Samsung’s interface saving any time compared to Google’s. Which makes me wonder yet again why it bothers to craft such a different front end for this operating system.

Setting the time on a Timex 1440 sports watch: the worst UX ever?

tl:dr: Press and hold the “set” button until you see the seconds count blinking at the top right of the face, then press the “mode” button to switch to hours and then minutes, press the “start/stop” button to advance either. You’re welcome.

Some time ago, my wife bought a Timex 1440 sports watch from an Amazon reseller to wear while playing tennis. Not a bad idea, except she happened to purchase a device with one of the more irritatingly cryptic user experiences around.

Timex 1440 watchI only discovered this recently, when she mentioned that it was off by a few minutes and she had not been able to figure out how to change it. Mind you, my wife has an electrical-engineering degree and works in IT, so I already figured the solution was non-obvious. I just didn’t know how non-obvious it could be–and the Web was not its usual helpful self.

This timepiece features four buttons–“set,” “mode,” “start/stop,” “indiglo”–labeled in vanishingly small type at the very edge of the face. If I’d just monkeyed with them, I might have found the answer sooner. Instead, I searched online for what I thought was the watch’s name and found an entire third-party site with a domain matching that moniker that purported to explain this watch’s workings–a sure sign that a product’s UX sucks. But its instructions did not pan out.

One reason why: The “WR50M” that appears prominently on the face below “TIMEX” is not the name of the watch, but a reference to it being water-resistant down to 50 meters. It’s apparently a “1440” watch, or “143-T5G891” if you want to the exact model number.

Timex’s own site showed a different watch when I searched for “1440,” while a query for the model number yielded nothing. (I suppose I can’t rule out this being somebody else’s knock-off product?) A post at Answers.com lived up to that site’s reputation for unreliability by offering an incorrect answer. After further fruitless searching online, I found the correct instructions in the second post on a thread on a site where people trade links for user manuals–a sure sign that the UX of the vendors responsible sucks.

Here’s how: Press and hold the “set” button at the top left for about three seconds–as in, two seconds after it beeps for some other reason–until the tiny seconds count on the top right of the face starts to blink, then press the “mode” button at the bottom left so that the hour and then the minutes shown on the bulk of the face blink, then press the “start/stop” button at the top right to advance either digit. When you’re done, press “mode” until you return to a non-blinking time.

You’re welcome. Timex, where’s my check for documenting the workings of your product?

Conference badge design best practices

I spend an unhealthy amount of my time walking around strange places with a piece of paper suspended from my neck by a lanyard, courtesy of all of the conferences on my schedule. A partial selection from the last 12 months: CES, CTIADemoGoogle I/O, IFA, Mobile World Congress, ONASXSW, Tech Policy Summit and TechCrunch Disrupt.

Conference badges

This experience bothers me more than it should, because almost everybody screws up the basic job of designing a conference badge. And it shouldn’t be that hard–these things only have to perform three functions:

  • Tell other people who we are.
  • Store relevant information we’d need to know throughout the event.
  • Give us a place to stash business cards.

And yet. At most conferences, you’ll immediately see people whose badges have anonymized their wearers by flipping around to show the reverse side. You can fix this by printing the same information on both sides of the badge (see, for instance, SXSW), but it’s easier to have the lanyard attach to both sides of the badge instead of leaving it dangling from the center (something Macworld badges got right).

The design of the front of the badge should also be easy to solve, but many events botch that job too: first name in large type, last name in smaller type, organizational affiliation. Adding your city and Twitter handle helps but isn’t always essential.

What about the back? Too many badges just leave this valuable real estate blank. At a minimum, it should list the event’s WiFi network and, if necessary, password. And if the schedule is compact enough to fit on one page, why not add that as well? But if that requires turning the badge into a booklet–like at last year’s I/O–you should think about just posting the schedule in a lot of places around the venue.

Some badges now embed NFC tags. At this year’s I/O, for instance, tapping mine with my Android phone opened up a link in the Play Store to Google’s I/O attendee app; when event staff did the same, their phones would bring up my registration information. That’s not a bad feature to have, but don’t make it mandatory to participate in some parts of the event.

Finally, what contains the badge? The multiple-pocket, wallet-esque badge holders some events provide are overkill–too big, too many spots to misplace a card or a receipt–and usually eliminate the informational utility of the reverse side. A simple clear vinyl holder should provide sufficient room to hold a bunch of business cards to hand out to other people.

Thank you for your attention to this, event planners of the world.

How a Samsung phone and an iPad mini don’t mix

After accidentally invoking Siri on my iPad mini for the fifth time this morning, it hit me: The proprietary layout of buttons on the Samsung Galaxy Note II that I just reviewed is making me stupider at using Apple’s mobile devices.

ImageSamsung veers from the lineup of Android system buttons that Google established with last year’s Ice Cream Sandwich release: Instead of back, home and recent apps, arranged left to right, Samsung’s Android phones offer menu, home and back buttons. (LG also departs from the Android standard, but its back-home-menu array keeps the back button in the expected place.) To see your open apps, you have to press and hold the home button.

On my iPad mini, that same gesture opens Siri, while I have to tap the home button twice to see open apps.

(Yes, when I first wrote about ICS, I was skeptical about removing the menu button and thought that requiring a long press of home to see open apps was good enough. I was wrong: I rarely miss the menu button, while I hit the recent-apps button all the time.)

It’s an exasperating situation, and if I were to get a Samsung Android phone and keep my iPad I’d have to waste brain cells on memorizing this unnecessary difference. You can’t remap the system buttons on a Samsung phone or change Apple’s home-button behavior;  if you disable Siri a long press of the home button will instead bump you over to iOS’s search.

If, on the other hand, I get a phone with the regular ICS buttons–many vendors alter Google’s interface in other ways but stick with that lineup–I face a lot less confusion. At worst, I’d find myself pressing the phone’s home button twice and having nothing happen, which beats launching an unwanted app and hearing Siri’s “ding-ding” prompt.

So that’s one thing that I know will govern my next phone purchase.