Why Sealed

I’ve feared this day for quite some time. After many months of teasing the world with what could have been empty promises, Sealed is done and ready, or at least done enough to deliver the core experience that I dreamt up almost two years ago. But before I press the ‘publish’ button and write a trendy announcement post on Medium, I want to explain a little bit about why Sealed, why now, and why me.

In the hours after learning that my father had died by suicide in January 2012, I quickly began to register that that event would be part of my story from then on, one of those formative experiences that would probably go on to affect future decisions and reappear thematically even without conscious effort. Immediately I became frustrated by the situation because I felt that that event was singularly sad and bad. Nothing good should come of it. Nothing should be born of it, no silver linings nor unexpectedly useful side effects. I felt viscerally disgusted by the idea of ‘using’ the suicide to tell my story or achieve any goal, let alone putting it on social media and owning it as part of my shrink-wrapped virtual identity as a differentiator from all of the other twenty-something white guys out there. Somehow it felt different from the classic son/daughter-of-a-cancer-survivor who, after a terrible dark period, rallies to bring new hope and light to the cancer survivor community in all of its happy-faced, bike-riding Facebook glory. I think that’s what we all know as stigma, but to me it presented as instinctually sacrosanct.

And yet here I am, claiming my story and brandishing it about, all the while squirming fervently because it still feels wrong. But the truth of the matter is that Sealed arose in large part because of the conditions I’ve just described, and so it is very much a part of the story if I am to tell it.

My dad was a warm and effusive person who had a deep pit of loneliness at his core. When people ask me why he killed himself (as rarely as that does happen), I often say that he died of loneliness. Despite his salesman’s gregariousness that led him to befriend people left and right, he ultimately displayed negative behaviors that pushed people away and left him very much alone. It’s easy to play the blame game here but the truth is that my father was abused early and often, even as a toddler, and the demons he kept were beyond any of our control.

But I grew up seeing his demons and I tried very hard to help swat them away. I could see his loneliness and for many years I took every action that I could think of to help keep it at bay. Teenaged Alex wasn’t quite so thoughtful about it, but that’s my demon to keep. Listening and analyzing and trying to help have become core tenets of who I am today, that damned silver lining.

Sophomore year in college was already a time of extreme turbulence in my life as I was undecided between pursuing a pre-med track and this other thing, ‘entrepreneurship’, as I first really contemplated it after watching Ray Kurzweil’s Transcendent Man, which was full of big, definitely optimistic viewpoints. Between a tough but sure bet of a medical career and a tough and unsure entrepreneurial path, I decided to keep my options open but ideate, and ideate vigorously.

I spent a year and a half having ideas, which was a lot of fun but not very productive, until I took a step back and noticed a theme in my scribblings: time, our struggle with it, and how our struggle has changed in the context of our modern tools. I hate that I have relatively few videos of my dad talking, and none where he directly addresses me. Mid-senior year I had the idea for a personal digital time capsule. A friend suggested making it social — messages that you send but are locked at first, until the time arrives for it to unlock. So I badgered my friends and family about it and even co-led a student forum exploring entrepreneurship studies and thus began the hustle, the struggle as a non-iOS developer to bring an iOS app to market.

That’s a different story, that’s the how, which I’m sure I’ll circle back to and talk about at some point. For now, I wanted to clarify the why: Sealed is an app that allows people to give other people things to look forward to. It’s a relationship tool, a way to be a proactive human and make a small dent in your friend’s loneliness quotient. It can be a gesture or a means of communication; if you receive a message that will unlock in three years, the content of the message doesn’t even factor into the equation for three years. Instead, you’re left with the simple knowledge that, in three years, you’ll see something sent by that person three years ago. Taken as it’s meant, this is an earnest, hippie-dippie, karmic expression of my desire for people to be good to each other, to be there for each other, and to be mindful about each other’s loneliness and how dangerous it can be.

I’ve struggled to communicate these intentions through branding and design, but overall I’ll be proud to present Sealed to the world.

Very soon!

Stay tuned.

5 Subtle UX flaws in Safari (that Chrome gets right)

Sometimes, design flaws are only apparent after having experienced a solution. Especially when they are really, really subtle. Most people won’t care about these nitpicky points, but for the few who do…

This post is not meant to be comprehensive. I’m sure there are plenty of mitigating benefits to both browsers when thoroughly compared. However, as a long time Chrome user recently having switched to Safari, I’d like to complain a little bit about a few Safari UX flaws in contrast to Chrome’s solutions.

1. Netflix

Along with 40 million other people, I use my laptop to watch Netflix. Like many other people, I’m used to pressing the space bar to pause the video. The issue here arises when I fast forward or rewind by using the arrow keys. In Safari, after 1) pausing the video, and 2) pressing an arrow key to jump forward or backwards, pressing the space bar triggers the episode selector, not play/pause. Sometimes. This depends on whether you’ve clicked on the video since having pressed play. The result is that I have to find the pointer, click away from the episode selector, and then press the space bar to resume watching.

*hits play and falls onto couch*
*video doesn’t start*

giphy

When viewing Netflix in Chrome, the space bar, without fail, toggles between play & pause. Simple, predictable, intuitive… thanks Chrome:)

2. Closing tabs

When you close a tab in Safari, it brings you to the tab immediately to the left of the one you closed.

When you close a tab in Chrome, it brings you to the tab that you had been viewing previously.

Say you’re reading an article. You come across a claim of dubious veracity and decide to open a tab, search the phrase, find an answer, and close the tab to resume reading. But instead, Safari brings you to the next tab in the list, which has nothing to do with your article. So you switch tabs until you arrive at the right one, sometimes distracted by the other trains of thought you encounter on the way.

It is software’s job to get out of the way of users’ thought processes and facilitate the completion of our tasks. Safari just got in the way. 

3. Dragging an image into a tab

In Chrome, I can click & drag an image from anywhere, hover over a tab, that tab would open, and I could place the image wherever within that tab  — say, a wordpress post composer, or an email client.

In Safari, you can drag an image from anywhere, but hovering over a tab does nothing. The solution is to simple enough – right click, copy the image, and then paste it where you’d like to go (or download the image, upload to imgur etc). But dragging and dropping is so nice… This is not a ‘flaw’, per se, but a feature I’d like to see replicated in Safari.

4. Bookmarks

Bookmark issues, sadly, can be found in both Chrome and Safari.

After importing my bookmarks from Chrome, I spent an hour or so managing my Safari bookmarks, rearranging them, deleting copies from previous imports, etc.

The next time I quit and reopened Safari, it had reverted back to the way it had been initially. I have no idea why. Maybe it synced with iCloud? Maybe I imagined managing my bookmarks in the first place? Thanks, Safari, for making me doubt my sanity.

In Chrome, one time I decided to try sorting my bookmarks alphabetically. It quickly became apparent that this was not helpful in locating the link I was looking for, but I couldn’t find any way to undo that action. Apple + Z did nothing. There was no obvious ‘revert to original’ or ‘sort by date added’ button. I could be (and probably am) missing something here, but that single click of the mouse turned 400+ links, once a chronological representation of my ‘entrepreneurship’ themed internet explorations, into a list of links that I now find largely useless beyond using the search function.

Finally, in both Chrome and Safari, recovering lost bookmarks is WAY more difficult than it should be. The search ‘how to restore lost bookmarks Safari / Chrome’ (which pops up in suggestions immediately) returns these helpful tidbits from Google:

As an average computer user, I should never have to dive into my computer’s system files just to find the epicurious recipe that I bookmarked last August. All it takes is a single tap of the delete button and the bookmark (or bookmark folder!) is gone, with no recourse except for locating/restoring the bookmarks file on your computer. This should be fixed!

5. Quitting

Say you’d like to close a tab. Generally I hit command + W. But what if you miss?

One tap of command + Q and it’s all over, folks. Safari quit. Then you wait for it to finish quitting, restart Safari, restore all tabs, youtube videos start playing, and three minutes later you’re back to where you started.

But Chrome has my back. Simply tapping command + Q triggers this message, Hold Q to quit. Brilliant!

hold-command-q-to-quit-e1420435893638

 

And for anyone wondering why any sane person would ever switch from Chrome to Safari, unfortunately I found that Chrome was crashing my computer. I don’t know why, but after a few weeks of spectacular glitchy frozen screens and holding down the power button to reboot, I abandoned ship and begrudgingly moved Safari back onto my dock.

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 1.58.44 AM.png

Mmm glitchy

 

And … Sealed is closer than ever. To be part of the next wave of beta testers through TestFlight, sign up here!!

SCIFI FUTURETECH & DESIGN

I love science fiction. Literature, film, imagery, etc. For me, sci-fi is an amazing playground where the concerns of today can be extrapolated and imagined into fantastical realities, technologies, and moralities. It excels at the parable. Lessons that could be divined by dissecting complicated webs of existing real-world circumstances can be neatly reduced and made entertaining through the creation of alternative realities. As Sophia Brueckner of MIT writes, “Reading science fiction is like an ethics class for inventors, and engineers and designers should be trying to think like science fiction authors when they approach their own work.” Instead of being bound by business models and the constraints of modern day science, sci-fi writers simply imagine: What’s missing? What would be really awesome and useful if it were to exist in this situation? And then, sci-fi designers take that idea and make it look like something. As a designer and entrepreneur, I am always fascinated to see how exactly creative teams decide to portray future technologies.

I plan to return to this subject somewhat regularly going forward, so I won’t try to cover the whole sci-fi continuum in one post (ha). Today I’d like to talk about one example: the CBS TV show Person of Interest, 2011-present, starring Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson.

The premise here is that after 9/11, the government commissioned a nerd genius to build “the machine“, a machine intelligence that watches and listens to the world from every camera, everywhere, 24/7. The government’s stated goal for the operation was to identify terrorist threats before they materialize, but the machine can’t just identify the terrorists; it surveils everyone, and then creates a list of “relevant” (terrorist) threats, and another list of “irrelevant” (everything else) threats. Based on phone calls, voice tones, behavior patterns, and a sprinkle of sci-fi magic, the machine spits out the social security number of the person or people who will somehow be involved in a violent crime. It’s very much along the lines of Tom Cruise’s Minority Report (2002) (TV adaptation coming in 2015!) except there are 90 episodes (and more to come), which allows for a pretty deep investigation of the ramifications of the existence of such a technology.

The main reason this representation of technology in this show is interesting to me is because, from wikipedia: “The series is from the point of view of The Machine, with flashbacks framed as The Machine reviews past tapes in real time. Over the course of the series, the internal workings of The Machine are shown, including the prediction models and probability trees it uses. In the Machine-generated perspective, individuals are marked by dashed boxes with different colors indicating, for example, what the person’s status is in relation to The Machine and whether they pose a threat.”

I am no surveillance expert nor do I have particularly radical views regarding the surveillance state. Part of me believes that it’s pretty much inevitable so why fight the tide, but that’s just negative Nancy blowing air in the back of the room. But instead of tackling all of the interesting commentary on the status and direction of surveillance in the USA today head on, I want to focus on how it looks in the TV show. What is the film editor / animator / creative team trying to tell us? What do the visual representations of this “Machine” communicate to the audience? How is design used to complement the drama on screen, and how does it contribute to the messages the show is trying to get across?

Let’s start off by giving you a taste of what we’re talking about. Here’s the show’s introduction explainer. Here’s a scene featuring Bear, an gorgeous trained Belgian Malinois that co-stars alongside the humans. And here are a bunch of screenshots of movietech from various episodes of Person of Interest:

Seeing through the eyes of the machine, everything becomes possible. All can be seen, all can be known. One character regularly refers to the machine as “God” and uses female pronouns as if it’s a live entity with thoughts and emotions: “The truth is, God is 11 years old, that she was born on New Year’s Day, 2002, in Manhattan”. This anthropomorphization may or may not be an accurate representation of how a real-life surveilling AI will behave, but this is TV; the goal here is not accuracy, but rather to thrill and entertain.

However, despite being told from the Machine’s POV, the show still very much abides by the classic Hollywood storyline structure. In the terms of Walter Ong, “CyberŽfilms are about electronic thinking but are couched in exclusively literary forms” in order to be close enough to the human “lifeworld” that we can understand and relate to it. Put another way, if an AI decided to make a TV show without considering its audience, I doubt it would cater to the slow and linear mind of the average human. But this is human-made TV; the goal here is not accuracy, but rather to thrill and entertain a human audience.

Let’s take one of those “zoomhance” scenes, where the protagonist takes a tiny bit of investigative data and manages to discern a deeper truth through techy gizmo magic. From a writer for popular TV show CSI on Reddit: “We write those scenes to be inaccurate and ridiculous on purpose. I’m a young writer in his mid-30’s, computer and game savvy. Lots of us are. I guess you could call it a competition of one-upping other shows to see who can get the best/worst “zoomhance” sequence on the air. Sometimes the exec producers and directors are in on it, and other times we just try to get bits and lines into scripts. 90% of our TV viewing audience will never know the difference.”

In Person of Interest, almost every scene involving a screen – computer, phone, surveillance footage – have one thing in common: one big, bold, flashing red-and-white announcement of what is happening in the script. *VIRUS UPLOADED* *HACKING BANK NETWORK* *CREDIT CARD INFORMATION ATTAINED* *VIOLENCE IMMINENT* *FORCE PAIR COMPLETE* etc. With utter disregard to the user experience of actually using the software in question, movietech designs for the big screen, which is hilarious but generally necessary. Rarely do we see interfaces that are familiar to the average tech user. Instead of the classic white-and-colorful Google landing page, we get greytoned terminals and scary looking level monitors like these found in Hydra technology from the Marvel Universe. As if to say, kids, don’t try this at home, because you couldn’t if you tried.

The point I’m trying to make is simply that technology in films, even when the “narrator” is a machine, serves primarily to reinforce and decorate whatever drama is happening on screen. The animations don’t need to be accurate representations of how an artificial intelligence would “think”, they just need to evoke awe and technological omnipotence. The shock and alarm the viewer feels when the machine effortlessly invades every home, every bluetooth coffeemaker, and every smartphone to listen in on your late night pillow talk — it’s all part of the show’s hook, and it’s reinforced by the graphics that all scream “I AM EVERYWHERE”.

Basically, all the editing and scrambled voice recordings and silly typewriter fonts used throughout the show are meant to never let the viewer forget exactly how ubiquitous the Machine — and today’s technology — is. It’s reinforcing an alarmist message about big data, who owns it, and how they will use it. In a world where Google knows more than the NSA and we’re OK with that, Person of Interest asks, What if small, private organizations take this power into their own hands? What if it’s not a non-interventionist AI machine that is watching our every move, but rather a small group of fallible humans?

The goal of the production design here is just to shove it all in our face, over and over again. It’s relentless and thrilling and looks cool and complicated. I’d love to hear the production designer break down how they achieve each effect. How much is proprietary? How much is the real deal, and how much is post-production CGI? They do such a good job that frankly it’s hard to tell.

Someday I’ll write about Mr. Robot and Black Mirror, both of which are fantastic shows that push the sci-fi envelope in many directions.

Until then, I, for one, may or may not welcome our machine overlords

The Most Important Screen

The time delay screen is the core of Sealed. It needs to be an exciting, delightful experience to scroll into the future. How exactly should it look?

In contemplating the design for this screen, I’ve kept an eye out for apps that use a prominent circle to perform an action or to display data. Here’s a smattering of what I’ve come across:

At this point, I’m happy with the notion of dragging an item around in a circle to increase the time delay. The action itself should be just about universally understood: things rotate clockwise, whether it be an analog clock, a planetary system, or an iPod scrolling through music. I’m confident that people will see this screen and know what to do.

The decisions to be made here are basically cosmetic. How thick is the line? How much data should I show the user (hours, days, months, years?) To gradient or not to gradient? To introduce a new color or to keep with the theme? How can this experience sparkle?

I feel like I’m missing an animation, but I have a hard time thinking in motion. Maybe the button swells when you tap + drag it? Maybe it changes color with each revolution?

Sealed_5-46

I’m hesitant to gradientify the whole app, but it is a common trend and does tend to cause people to call the design “beautiful”. Is it clear? Will it feel special? Is there a happy medium?

Also, I’ve recently begun to take to Tumblr to post my screenshots, which I collect aggressively whenever I come across a piece of design that is interesting to me. Ads, apps, marketing done well and poorly, tech, future-tech (my favorite)… if the Internet has taught me anything, more social media is always better than less!!!!!

Sealed_5-46

Fundraising – first impressions

I’ve just finished a marketing/fundraising/event-planning job at Jeff’s Place, a children’s bereavement center in Framingham MA. Fundraising at Jeff’s Place was mostly outbound media that culminated in events or regularly solicited donations. Invaluable experience, but it often felt a bit hands-off, like why don’t we just go out and ask people if they’ll donate? What would happen if you did that?

So I’m trying that out: door-to-door canvassing for DDS in support of local public broadcasting – WBGH, NHPTV, NPR etc. I’m literally knocking on doors in target neighborhoods around New England within a ~60min radius of Boston. “I’m here with New Hampshire Public broadcasting, and today we’re going door to door to raise public support for… 

I love the cause and people are crazy. Both on the canvassing team and also out in the world. I love the randomness of it, there’s a real thrill in clicking with someone and glimpsing the way they live. So many dogs. A few friendly cats. Most ran away, one was exceedingly fat and fluffy. 5/10 doors open, 9/10 people say no, and 7/10 are nice about it. 1/10 are spectacular jerks.

I’ve only just had my second day on the job, but it’s a lot of walking and my feet hurt. I knocked on 87 doors today, plus about a dozen that I either revisited to see if someone arrived home or followed up with from an earlier interaction. There’s a lot of independence as we canvas alone. It’s nice to be outside, the world is a pretty place. I raised enough to make quota both today and yesterday so I’m officially on the team, hoorah!

On another note, I have received and am internally testing the first build of the Sealed iOS app. It doesn’t quite look or work right yet but progress is in motion. New website coming soon as well. Hoorah again!