I Want a Better Writing App

[Note: I wrote this a week before Writer Pro was released! And guess what! It's taken me that long to publish it!]

I write on my phone a lot. For pleasure, to get ideas out, to work things through, to produce, to share. But none of the apps I've tried actually address the process of writing. Sure, I have maybe weird requirements in that I do most of my writing on the subway so I have no internet. (This is when I am least distracted and I can just...write.) I edit things over a few days before I publish rather than being spontaneous. And I tend to do a first pass at editing on the phone and then I move to the desktop if I want to be more ruthless. (Tap/hold/drag only gets you so far.)

So many of the writing apps I've looked at are only concerned with the interface around the writing part and making it beautiful/minimal. Cool! I think y'all have gotten that done. But I need a tool that can help me refine my writing and prepare it for publishing. (I am *not* asking for a tool to actually publish!!) and I mean "publish" in a loose way. It may be for private or public consumption. Sometimes it ends up in an email, sometimes on a web page, sometimes in a (gasp!) a PDF. Sometimes I want it to go to one of my numerous Tumblrs or my personal blog or my business blog. Sometimes it just ends up being notes for myself. Products like Editorially and Draftin are great...but, no internet. So much of my writing ends up languishing in this phone's local directory. (If it's a blog post that's never published, is it a blog post?) 

I know it is not easy to design and produce an app! However, I have some suggestions to writing app developers for my weird/selfish use case:

  1. Modes: Draft/editing/to publish/archived. I have a huge directory of text files and I have no idea what is in what stage. Tagging? Toggle? Some way of organizing. 
  2. Also the ability to associate more metadata please. 
  3.  Time shifting! Auto sync: queue my text file for syncing to my chosen publishing tool for that particular piece of text the next time there is a connection. Not just Dropbox. Bywords has a feature that is similar but I don't use any of those services. Make a service-agnostic option (JSON...? Hell, Markdown). Harder said than done, obvs.
  4. Saving to Dropbox/"the cloud" without creating an error when I don't have an internet connection (I'm looking at you, Writing Kit). I've had to resort to emailing unfinished text files to myself with my current writing app and the lack of versioning is driving me up a wall. 
  5. Nag/nudge notifications: it be GREAT if my phone gently reminded me of something that's in draft mode. "Hey, looks like you haven't worked on that in a few days. Wanna take a another look? Or have more ideas?" Sometimes I just need a few days to think something over and let it percolate, but sometimes I just...forget. And then I look in the app a month later and I'm like, WHY DID I NOT FINISH THAT. 
  6. Personality: following up on the previous item, give the app some personality. (You don't need to go all Clippy the Paperclip though). I'm not a professional writer by any means, but I enjoy writing and will take all the encouragement I can get. 
  7. Bonus: Associating photos: Nothing fancy. But hey - I've got this photo of a prototype I was working on that would be perfect for the post. Associate it with the writing please! 
  8. That said, please make it focused. I don't need to be presented with 500 options all at once. Step me through the tasks - writing/editing/publishing - in a way that makes it easy to understand. 
  9. Lastly, yes I would pay good money for this and think others would too. 

Experience Isn't a Dirty Word

Observational Sketch, Süleymaniye CamiiJuly 2010, Istanbul

A piece that I read on Medium recently called "Experience Slows You Down" kind of bothered me for a while. I agreed to some extent that experience doesn't automatically make you an expert. However, the author misses the point that experience is valuable when it's done with intention and attention. I'm reminded of two principles in karate that I return to often - shoshin, beginners' mind, and renma, the act of polishing.

Shoshin is akin to what the author described in his piece. I try to approach every project as if I've never done it before. It doesn't matter if I'm doing kata - a series of predefined moves - or working on a site design, or planting a garden. The worst thing that I can do is to say to myself, "oh hey I know this already so it's all good." I run the danger of making the same mistakes, doing things by rote and not actually solving the problem at hand. Maintaining my awareness is what's crucial, not that I've never done it before.

For the month leading up to earning a black belt, you're asked to switch back to a white belt and attend white belt class to remind oneself of what it felt like when one started and had no preconceptions. When I start with beginners' mind, I'm often led to insights that I would have missed otherwise. I try to keep curiosity and playfulness at the forefront and realize that the more I know, the more I find out that I don't know.

Experience becomes valuable through the concept of renma, or constant polishing of technique. Take whatever the essential building block of the medium is - a punch, sketching from observation, setting type, practicing scales - and do it ad infinitum. A deeper understanding and skill level gradually develops through repetition. Since last year I've hand-rolled thousands of tortillas. To some it may appear to be drudgery. But through doing it with attention, I now know exactly how hot the grill needs to be, what the optimal temperature the dough should be for rolling, and how long it takes for the dough to puff up to fluffy perfection. I wouldn't have been able to acquire this information any other way as it's a long process of trial and error. But now I can be confident in our choices for a permanent set up that will give us tortillas of the same consistency, taste and quality. In doing things like this, I aspire to even a thousandth of the skillfulness of a chicken yakitori master we had encountered in our travels in Tokyo - a man, well into his 60s, who effortlessly and gracefully rotated skewers with the flick of his wrist until each piece of chicken was charred to perfection.

John Singer Sargent: White Ships 1908, Watercolor

The great artists and designers that have left a cultural legacy understood these principles. They weren't geniuses who were born fully formed, they worked extremely hard at their craft and had the ability to have an open mind that enabled them to come up with interesting, insightful ways to communicate. I was just reminded of this with some of the watercolors that were on display at the JS Sargent show at the Brooklyn Museum - you can see a huge difference in the mastery between an earlier, tentative piece and the Carrara quarry paintings a decade or two later. I'm inspired all over again to put these principles into practice. 

It's the intersection of beginners' mind and polishing technique that I believe one has the ability to achieve a deeper understanding and that creative solutions come about. And by no means do I think this is easy to achieve! It's something I strive for every day but I know that my attention wanders. Often.

Mapping Burgers

I've been really excited about the projects that I've been working on at Serious Eats, and the burger map that we published yesterday is a great example of how the design and development team has been working closely with editorial to rapidly produce new areas of the site to showcase Serious Eats content. One of the things that I love about Serious Eats is the deep archive of writing about all things food, but it's always been hard to find and surface (for a number of reasons which I won't get into here).  

Kenji and the editorial team came to us at the beginning of June with an idea for a burger map for the Fourth of July; they'd choose 50 burgers and gather links and photos to previous recipes and reviews. They had a vague idea that it should be clickable but beyond that it was up to us. We told the editors to gather their data in a Google spreadsheet for now, since they're used to that workflow already, and I dove into design. 

Two early conceptual sketches in Photoshop

These days I'm using Photoshop just for rough sketching rather than fully fleshing out the entire design, which has been a major sense of relief for me. The aim is to convey overall look and feel in the vein of style tiles rather than making specific layout choices or details. For those that argue that jumping right into CSS kills creativity, I would counter that it provides a set of constraints that one must be creative within. I know what's possible and where I can push the limits. It frees me from doing theoretical finished comps in Photoshop that would never work in the real world; so many of the issues that need to be solved with a responsive design only come to light as you interact with the page, and there is no way you can see that with flat comps. And we didn't have much finished content to work with since we were working in parallel with the editors. 

Development-wise we had recently built NearMe as a way to explore and organize location-based content, but this wasn't quite the right tool for this project. However, the templating system that 29th Street Publishing had put into place was exactly what we needed. On top of that, we found a script for exporting a Google spreadsheet to JSON and an svg library called Raphael.js for the map. The script enabled the editors to continue their workflow undisturbed and we didn't need to build anything custom to store the data; maybe it won't scale if we're doing many maps a week, but we just needed to ship it quickly. 

Now we've got a reusable base of design and code that we can spin off into other projects and a better idea of where we can take things. I definitely want to explore more mapping possibilities with MapBoxLeaflet, and OpenStreetMap (this is a really inspiring example!), as I think it's an effective way to group content to tell a larger story. And I finally feel like I'm getting comfortable with the process that responsive design requires to tackle some larger changes on Serious Eats. 

Ever forward!

Prototyping and Lonestar Taco

Back in April I attended the TYPOSF conference (which I highly recommend) and one theme that ran through a lot of the talks was the move towards a rapid, incremental prototyping process with a collaborative team. Developing and running Lonestar Taco has been a very similar process. I'm mostly used to designing in the medium of the web, so it's been an interesting change of pace to work on systems in a more physical realm.

The same principles apply regardless - gathering and defining requirements, designing solutions, implementing, gathering feedback, iterating. This time though it's entirely our vision, and it feels a little funny to be in the client chair at the same time as the designer role. It's definitely harder to get perspective, so it's even more important to listen to our customers. 

Menu board over timeLonestar Taco menu over six Sundays at New Amsterdam in 2012

New Amsterdam Market gave us a chance to roll out our prototype, from the menu, the organization of the ordering line, food prep and cooking logistics, pricing, sourcing, even our social media. Every week we assessed how things went and took note of what we could improve. Sometimes it was something as simple as positioning the cooler parallel to the grill rather than perpendicular. Other times, it was realizing that propane tanks don't do so well in really cold weather and figuring out how we could adapt. We ended up creating a line of retail products that didn't require on-site cooking and selling tamales that could be kept hot on an electric induction burner. 

"Ghost of Christmas Past" Chili Marmaladeexperimenting with retail products. This one sold out in two hours!

As in all prototyping, we gathered as much customer and team feedback as possible. We had many variables to take into account - how much was rain responsible for variation in sales? How could we increase our capacity while decrease wait time but not sacrifice quality? And how could we ensure that we were meeting our bottom line? What items were the most popular and did we price them right? There's very thin line between customers feeling like they received value for their money and being perceived as too expensive. We also made sure to talk through feedback from our team, and they always had insightful suggestions that allowed us to make incremental improvements every day. 

Although we've always been clear about our overall vision for Lonestar, it hasn't always been easy to figure out the immediate form that it should take. After last season, we collected a ton of information that is helping us with the next iteration. We're altering the design of the menu and offerings to make it easier for customers to make decisions and to streamline our service. We're focused on securing a permanent kitchen for ourselves - although the initial outlay will be larger than last season, the gains in our ability to produce food, hire staff and making our products more readily available to our customers will enable us to be a sustainable and profitable business. 

Another point from the TYPO conference that resonated with me was the fact that nothing is ever "done", you always have opportunities to improve. And that has been so true with Lonestar Taco. Of course we all have days where we felt like we fell short but it was most important to get our idea out there to give people a chance to kick the tires. I'm excited that we're returning to New Amsterdam Market this Sunday to put some of our improvements to the test and to see all of our regulars.

Why I'm a Designer

Whenever I tell people who know me as a designer that I'm working on a restaurant, I get some puzzled looks. "Don't you make web sites or you're in tech or something?", their expressions seem to say. Yes, and the web is simply a medium. What I'm fundamentally interested in as a designer is the experience that people have when interacting with one another and how the intermediary systems can help or hinder those interactions. 

Restaurants and the web are more similar than you'd initially think. Paul Ford pointed out that the web is a customer service medium - so is a restaurant. Everyone has their opinion and certainly doesn't hold back. (see Yelp and every food blog ever.) It's not called the hospitality industry for nothing! Ultimately you are accountable to your users/customers, because they will certainly vote with their feet if they don't like what you're doing. 

 The same questions arise in both mediums. What happens when someone uses an interface I've designed? How does the person on the receiving end interpret it? Was the message communicated successfully? The design process provides a set of tools to gauge success and come up with solutions to make improvements. 

For instance, we want to offer counter service in the morning and afternoon and then switch to table service in the evening. This decision came about after observing that our potential customers modify their eating habits depending on the time of day. In the morning and for lunch it's mostly people on the run, in between activities or on their way to work. In the evening, people are unwinding and socializing, they certainly don't want to stand in line. However, switching service modes is unusual for most restaurants and there isn't a shorthand way to convey that. 

How can we design the space and signage to be flexible enough to switch between the two modes of service and to make it clear upon a glance what to do when you enter the space at any given time? I constantly have to examine the interface and imagine the experience from the other side. Honing my sense of empathy is an essential part of being a designer and part of why I was attracted to the discipline in the first place. 

 When I think about a restaurant as a number of interlocking systems, I get ridiculously excited. A menu seems simple but it's not at all! It's not just the visual design of the menu, it's how the items on the menu are broken down into their components, how the prep kitchen organizes the production of those components, where the components are sourced from, if those items are even seasonally available, how to price the menu item, how the item is described on the menu, if customers understand what the item is, and the placement of the item on the menu. All of these things can be implicitly or explicitly communicated to customers and will color the overall experience. And tweaking any of these variables could drastically affect how well any given item sells, and making decisions based on collecting data and feedback can make or break the business. 

 Without a doubt I love that the design process fosters a spirit of collaboration. A tight-knit team that has good lines of communication is required for all of these projects regardless if it's a web site or a restaurant. The best projects happen when everyone feels empowered to make a significant contribution, and the systems you've designed are nothing without a team behind it. Design brings observation, empathy, and collaboration into a single process where we can put something worthwhile into the world. In the end, the form isn't as important as the relationships that these systems help build.

Friends of Bob Newman

Recently I had the honor and pleasure of working with Bob Newman on a redesign of his web site and had helped him launch it in the beginning of March. I recently found out that Bob had suffered severe head trauma and has been in the hospital for more than a month and is still in the process of recovering. I was upset when I heard about what had happened, but the outpouring of support from the design community has been heartening. His hospital bills have been mounting, so a number of his friends and colleagues have put together a donation campaign to help support him. Magculture is also doing a project called "My Favorite Magazine" in which all the profit goes straight to Bob. Please spare a moment to spread the word or help out in any way you can.