Last summer, I visited Toronto to see my wife after being separated by pandemic-related border closures for months. While preparing for the trip, I realized that no matter how much I travel, it’s always a little stressful and now moreso with the addition of necessary safety measures like testing and vaccine checks. Add the difficulties of quickly finding boarding passes, managing delays, and tracking bags while my phone buzzes with irrelevant notifications and my heart rate skyrockets. So, I decided to use the trip as a test of the iOS 15 Focus feature and make travel less anxiety-inducing in the process.
I set up a focus mode called Travel that I manually activate or switch into automatically when I launch a flight tracking app or arrive at the airport. When I’m in this mode, a few things happen: my home screen switches to a (usually hidden) page that displays widgets for apps I always find myself searching for when I fly, my Apple Watch shows a special travel watch face, and notifications silence except for the people and apps that I’m expecting to interact with while traveling.
I found that this automation made the process of international air travel a lot smoother, and I’m looking forward to using it again when I fly to see her again soon 🤞. In the interest of sharing, here are my settings in case you want to use them as inspiration to build your personal travel focus mode.
🔴 Allowed Notifications: Messages from friends, family, Find My, Kindle, Flighty, App in The Air, Uber, and any time-sensitive notifications
⛔️ Focus Status: Off. I don’t need to telegraph to the whole world that I’m unavailable because I still check other notifications, just less frequently
📱 Home Screen: Enable the custom travel page and disable all other pages
📍 Name & Appearance: I use a purple map pin icon because I wasn’t using purple yet, and there’s no airplane icon
🎛 Turn on Automatically: While at JFK, LaGuardia, or Toronto Pearson and when using Flighty
✈️ Flighty: My gate, check-in, departure, and arrival time
🧳 Find My: The location of my suitcase (via an AirTag), so I know when it’s nearby if I’ve checked it
📒 Notes: A note called “Travel Documents” that always contains my boarding pass, COVID test, and anything else I may need to board
🌨 Weather: The current conditions in my destination city
⏰ Clock: The current time at my destination (useful if changing time zones)
🔋 Batteries: Reminds me when I need to charge my devices or where I need to conserve power during delays
The watch displays what I need to glance at most while in line or moving around the airport. I use the Infograph Modular face to pack a lot of info on screen at once.
🌎 Earth: Looks cool and reminds me I’m in the travel mode
✈️ App in the Air: Flighty doesn’t have a watch app, so I use this to check boarding info from my wrist
💬 Messages: It’s handy to have a one-tap way to message Kate that I’m delayed or arriving!
🧳 Find My Items: A faster way to locate my suitcase
🌥 Weather: Will I need my coat or umbrella when I arrive?
I hope when you’re able to travel safely again, a focus mode like this will make your trek less of a headache. For a discussion of how Myke Hurley and CGP Grey have adopted this idea in their travels, listen to episode #124 of Cortex.
This Friday, I spent an hour and a half chatting with Matthew Cassinelli about using Apple’s Shortcuts app to simplify my work and life. We went through 13 of my 156 shortcuts, showing how they work, explaining how I built them, and answering questions from the chat. As promised on the stream, here are 5 of those shortcuts that I use every day, with a brief explanation of why they save me so much time and links to download them.
📡 File a Radar
As a power user of Apple software and developer of apps for their platform, I have a lot of, shall we say, feedback. So whenever I run into a paper cut bug or an API I wish existed, I run this shortcut to file a new feedback report (née radar) and then pray it gets addressed in a future OS update.
My MacBook sports a daily random wallpaper illustrated by the supremely talented artist David Lanham, whom I’ve followed for decades. But sometimes, macOS chooses an image that doesn’t fit the day’s mood. It’s times like these I run this shortcut to have the OS change my wallpaper to another random image from David’s collection without waiting for the following day when it will refresh again. The clever AppleScript it uses was written by a user of the MacWorld forum.
I hyperschedule my day in Fantastical, blocking out events for everything from work meetings to workouts to leisure reading. But sometimes, I get delayed (or overly ambitious), and I need to shift a whole bunch of events later in the day. That’s where this shortcut comes in. It’s so much faster than tapping through every event individually. Tell it how long you want to delay things, tap the events you want to move, and you’re done.
We use Slack statuses at Lickability to communicate all kinds of things: lunch breaks, doctor’s appointments, vacations, and more. This handy shortcut from Jake Bathman, which I’ve lightly customized, lets me update my Slack status from anywhere without even opening the Slack app. And it’s even better than that! I can even use it from within other shortcuts to automate my status. Jake has written a detailed setup guide that makes it super simple to use.
At the end of the workday, I like to step away from my desk and start unwinding. I run this shortcut from a button on my StreamDeck. It quits all my apps, turns on my favorite screensaver, and mutes my computer so notification sounds don’t draw me back into work. A little simple ritual for leaving my Mac how I want it for the next day.
PowerPoint presentations get a bad reputation. That’s because most of them are terrible—they’re boring, they’re too long, and they’re full of tiny text and awkward animations.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the highly-produced Keynotes from Apple that have been agonized over by legions of designers to sell you the company’s latest products. These decks are so intricate that they seem impossible for mere mortals to put together.
When my longtime friend and collaborator Brian Capps and I worked as iOS engineers at The New York Times, we noticed something concerning. There were a lot of intractable technical problems in the organization that seemed unsolvable due to politics and inter-team communication roadblocks. Everything from bug reports, to performance issues, to new features that needed newsroom buy-in got backed up this way.
So, as people who cared deeply about the quality of the products we were building, we searched for any way to get product people, designers, and business folks all on the same page about what we wanted to fix in the iOS app. The best tool we found (after trying many) was the humble slide deck.
Here’s what we did when we really wanted something to get fixed:
Brian and I would book a conference room together in the middle of the day, write an outline of what we wanted, and then develop a well-designed and straightforward slide presentation to make our argument. (By the way, we never told our bosses we were doing any of this.) We’d rehearse our spiel and then, we’d presell the idea by showing the deck to just a few people we knew would be critical decision-makers and solicit feedback, editing the deck as we heard their objections. Finally, we’d book a meeting with everyone in the organization who would need to be on board if we were going to make the change.
For example, once, we wanted to make sure that the NYTimes iOS app rendered all advertisements at the proper resolution on the new iPhone 4. We knew we’d need to convince a designer, the head of sales, an ad trafficker, a product manager, and our engineering manager. So we invited all of those folks to a meeting, dimmed the lights, and pitched our hearts out. For the first time, everyone in that room saw the blurry non-Retina ads for what they were—ugly and unbecoming of The Times. Everyone came out of that meeting jazzed to solve the problem, and together, we did!
This technique worked so well that we used it repeatedly, improving the app along the way. Our little slideshow sideshow became so familiar that it earned us a nickname: “the twins”. In fairness, we did have a bit of a Ringling Brothers vibe going on at the time.
Presentations are perfect for persuasion. Solid slides make information digestible; they show that you’ve thought deeply about the problem. And putting effort into them shows that you’re serious and that you care. Anyone can write an email, post a Slack message, or toss a meeting on the books. But few people will take the time to prepare a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and persuasive deck.
The next time you want to convince your coworkers, despite their differing priorities, to commit to working on something you care about: open your slideshow app of choice and make your argument in big type, one slide at a time. I bet your slides will change more minds than you expect.
I’ve been using software every day for almost 20 years. I use it to do my work, create things in my spare time, socialize, relax, and so much more. And if you’ve met me or been reading this site for a while, you know I have very strong opinions about how it should be designed and crafted. But by far, my strongest belief about software is that almost no one pays enough attention to the paper cuts. In the field of interaction design, a paper cut bug is “a trivially fixable usability bug”. The term comes from the Ubuntu team, which decided in 2009 to prioritize fixing lots of these niggling issues. GitHub followed suit in 2018.
Running up against a paper cut bug feels a little bit like getting a physical one: not the end of the world, but certainly unpleasant. These types of tiny annoyances accrete over time, especially when no one is paying attention to them. In a single day of using my phone, I encounter dozens of these minor bugs that each annoy me just a little bit, making the task I’m trying to accomplish just a little bit more complicated.
For example, I might notice a button that’s enabled even though it can’t do anything, or a form field that has a scroll bar even though there’s no scrolling content. The result is that I trust the software I use less. When software isn’t polished, when it’s full of things that feel like paper cuts, it becomes less joyful and more frustrating. It sucks all the opportunity for delight out of the room.
The more insidious thing about these bugs is that they’re rarely reported by users or caught by automated testing tools because they’re too small to complain about or too obscure to write tests for. Great QA testers can find and file these types of bugs, but they usually flounder at the end of a long backlog of new features. This means that if you’re an engineer on a piece of software, you’re the person who’s best able to notice and fix these bugs. Yes, you might have to convince your boss or your product manager to set aside some time every so often to do so, but I promise your users will be grateful, and your product will improve in meaningful ways if you do.
What kinds of things should you be looking for? How can we notice paper cuts when they’re such a part of our daily reality in every app we use? Here’s a list of some of the most frequent paper cuts I see. I hope it helps in your quest to smooth out the edges of your software—to paint the back of the fence.
Common Paper Cuts
Logouts: When I open the app, sometimes I’m randomly logged out for no good reason.
Inconsistent Copy: The text switches randomly between straight quotes and smart quotes or title case and sentence cases.
No Undo: I change something, the UI updates instantly, but there’s no way to undo the change, so now I’m out of luck if I don’t remember what I did.
Scroll Hitches: Scrolling lists cause the app to freeze up or drop frames.
Missing Options: The app is missing an option for my gender/pronouns or forces me to fill out a required field that doesn’t apply to me.
Lacking Accessibility. Some elements are missing labels for screen readers; the visuals have poor contrast, etc. (I gave a whole talk about this.)
Unlocalized: The copy and date/time formatting doesn’t match my language or region settings.
Typography: An element is improperly typeset, leading to inconsistent margins, cut-off descenders, or illegibility.
Strict Validation: Overly strict form validation prevents me from using the name I want to or including an emoji.
Flashes & Blinks: When things load from the network or disk, they flash or blink into place, or the content of the screen jumps around to accommodate them.
Loading?: Something is taking a while, but there’s no spinner progress bar to keep me informed.
No Empty View: A list becomes empty, and I’m staring into the void rather than at a nicely designed empty view so I know what I can fill it with.
No Primary Action: The primary action on each screen isn’t differentiated or highlighted, so it’s hard to know what I’m supposed to do.
Dead Ends: There’s no way out of a screen or flow. Or there’s no way to cancel or delete my account.
Missing States: Buttons and list items don’t look any different when they’re touched, hovered over, or disabled, so it’s hard to know what state they’re in.
Where Was I?: The app forgets where I was when I reopen it or clears my selection when I go to the background.
Missing Animation: Rather than smoothly animating to a new state, the UI blinks and updates, like an unfortunate smash cut.
No Errors or Retry: When I try to do something, the operation fails without any error message or way to retry.
I challenge you to use your own app with fresh eyes on Monday morning. After an hour, are you pained by proverbial paper cuts? What are the bugs you’ve hit so many times in the software that you forgot they were bugs? You know you can fix those, right? Well, get to it.
This is a list of things you’re allowed to do that you thought you couldn’t, or didn’t even know you could.
I haven’t tried everything on this list, mainly due to cost. But you’d be surprised how cheap most of the things on this list are (especially the free ones).
I love this list from Milan Cvitkovic reminding us of the things we’re allowed to do but that we often forget are options. Some favorites that I’ve actually done include: hire a tutor, buy goods/services from your friends, get couples therapy, hire a coach, cold contact people, and fly to people for in-person meetings.