Categories
Education Portfolio Technology

Swift Student Challenge

A few days ago, Apple announced the winners of their Swift Student Challenge. I had applied and used my “taking a test” tactic, which was to hit ‘submit’ and then promptly erase the whole thing from my brain. (What’s done is done, and I feel silly worrying about something I have no control over.)

So when I got the email that “my status was updated” it was a bit of a surprise.

And when I clicked through the link (because, of course, they can’t just say in the email, you have to sign in) I was in for more of a surprise.

My submission had been accepted. I’m one of 350 students around the world whose work sufficiently impressed the judges at Apple.

Screenshot from Apple Developer website. It reads: Congratulations! Your submission has been selected for a WWDC20 Swift Student Challenge award. You'll receive an exclusive WWDC20 jacket and pin set at the mailing address you provided on your submission form. You'll also be able to download pre-release software, request lab appointments, and connect with Apple engineers over WWDC20 content on the forums. In addition, one year of individual membership in the Apple Developer Program will be assigned free of charge to eligible accounts of recipients who have reached the age of majority in their region. For details, see the WWDC20 Swift Student Challenge Terms and Conditions.
Neat!

Now, throughout the whole process of applying, I was my usual secretive self. I think two people knew that I was applying at all, much less what I was working on. Since it’s over with, though, it’s time for the unveiling.

What I made

I wanted to bring back a concept I’ve played with before: cellular automata. A few days before the competition was announced, I’d seen a video that really caught my interest.

Well hey, I thought, I’ve got some code for running cellular automata. I want to learn Swift Playgrounds. And I’ve been having fun with SwiftUI. Let’s combine those things, shall we?

The first big change was a visual history; when a cell dies, I don’t want it to just go out, I want it to fade slowly, leaving behind a trail of where the automata have spread.

The second was rewriting all the visuals in SwiftUI, which was a fun project. Animation timings took me a bit to get right, as did figuring out how to do an automated ‘update n times a second’ in Combine. The biggest issue I had, actually, was performance – I had to do some fun little tricks to get it to run smoothly. (Note the .drawingGroup() here – that made a big difference.)

And third, I didn’t want it to just be “here’s some code, look how pretty,” I wanted to actually use the Playground format to show some cool stuff. This turned out to be the most frustrating part of the whole thing – the Swift Playgrounds app doesn’t actually support creating a PlaygroundBook, and the Xcode template wasn’t supported in the then-current version of Xcode.

But the end result? Oh, I’m quite happy with it. PlaygroundBooks are cool once you get past how un-documented they are. You can, to borrow a Jupyter turn of phrase, mix code and prose in a lovely, interactive way.

Screenshot of the 'Grid' page of the playground book.  The full text is at https://github.com/grey280/SwiftLife/blob/master/Swift%20Student%20Submission.playgroundbook/Contents/Chapters/Chapter1.playgroundchapter/Pages/Grid.playgroundpage/main.swift
Don’t worry, the real version (and some videos) are below.

Doing the actual writing was pretty fun. This is a concept I’ve spent a lot of time learning about, just because it captured my interest, and I wanted to share that in a fun way.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the result. If you’d like to see more, I’ve made recordings of the ‘randomized grid’ and ‘Wolfram rule’ pages running, and the actual playground is available on GitHub.

Categories
Portfolio

JupyterLab File System Research

We’re currently wrapping up the spring quarter, and this seemed like an opportune moment to pause, catch my breath, and go back over some of the work that we’ve done so far.

And I will, first, pause to say that my use of ‘we’ there is very deliberate. I am part of a wonderful team of designers and researchers, working on the file system in JupyterLab:

And myself, in a design role.

After years of being a developer, my first serious involvement in the world of open-source is as a designer. How about that?

So, what have we done so far?

Slide from a heuristic evaluation of JupyterLab, highlighting that the top-level directory is not visible in the file browser.

Heuristic Evaluation

We began with a heuristic evaluation of JupyterLab, going through the process of setting up and using the file browser, and identifying key pain points.

We used Nielsen’s ten heuristics, and assigned a severity rating, from low to high, to problems. And, not to be all negative, we also highlighted some key strengths.

Why do a heuristic evaluation?

A heuristic evaluation is a great starting point. It’s a low-cost way to go through an entire interface and identify usability problems, and it’s quick, too.

Working asynchronously, have each of your panel members — and, in this case, the panel consisted of the five of us on the design team — individually go through the interface, making a note of any usability issues they see. Once everyone is done, combine the lists, merging similar/identical items.

Research shows that this technique works, even if the people doing the evaluation aren’t subject matter experts.

Competitive Analysis

Next, we identified several competitors to JupyterLab, direct and indirect, and some influencers — products that aren’t competing with JupyterLab, but could offer some design inspiration.

Why do a competitive analysis?

In short, because it’s really helpful to know what your competition is up to. Are there features they have that your users need? That’s a problem. Do you have something cool that your competitors don’t come close to? That’s a marketing opportunity.

It’s a chance to see what the state of the art is, and what market niches are un-filled. (Like, for example, the lack of good sharing features I highlighted in my last competitive analysis.)

Wireframe of a filtering UI in a file browser.

Sketches & Wireframes

While the research team continues with interviews and surveys, Emily and I started in on sketches and wireframes of the new file browser.

Why sketch/wireframe?

Because it’s too early to be pushing pixels.

Design is an iterative process: research feeds design feeds research feeds design. The initial research gave us our starting point; now, we make sketches, wireframes, and low-fidelity prototypes. The research team will take those and test them. What they learn will feed the next set of prototypes, and the cycle continues.

Especially early on in the process, you want to go low-fidelity; not only because it’s easier, but because it looks easier. If you make something pixel-perfect and beautiful, it looks like a finished project; the people testing it feel bad for pointing out what’s wrong with it, and stay silent, and those flaws work their way into the final product. Nobody’s happy.

What’s next?

We’ve got some more research deliverables that we’re in the process of wrapping up, which I will (eventually) post about here. And then, prototyping and testing!

Categories
Portfolio

Personalization

Based on a reading from User Friendly.

Personalization. 1. Users are people, treat them like it. 2. Don't be creepy. 3. Be polite. Respect social norms. 4. Anticipate their needs.
Categories
Playlist Portfolio Travel

Data Visualization

A quick post of a class assignment we did a while back – tinkering with data visualization. I went with my travels and my playlists as the data sources.

(Obviously it’s low-resolution data, for the most part, but you try showing more granular data on a map of the world.)
This was compiled through a lot of tinkering in Numbers. I’d try to write a script to do it, but given that I am, presumably, the only person on the planet who could actually make use of it, I’m going to not.
Categories
Portfolio

Uninvited Redesign: Blink

It’s been interesting to watch electric vehicles grow in popularity, a trend that I expect to continue unless someone decides to pour marketing money on hydrogen. That said, aside from Tesla’s Supercharger network, EVs are seriously lacking an answer to the refueling infrastructure of gasoline vehicles.

I’ve tried a couple of the different commercial offerings, and have so far found them all to be a horrible user experience. (Current winner? The charging stations at the public library, which were installed recently enough that they haven’t been activated. There’s no sign to indicate that, no information on the stations’ display screens, and if you call their support to ask “what’s the deal?” they’ll tell you that “those stations were decommissioned.”)

Blink is, at least in my area, the most robust charging network, and thus is the only one whose app I’ve bothered to try. And it is… not great.

So, continuing on in the proud Design Student tradition of uninvited redesigns, here’s my takedown and redesign of Blink’s app. (And hey, if someone from Blink is reading this – send me an email, I’d be happy to flesh this out a bit more. Or write some of the code.)

Also available as a PDF, if that’s your jam:

Categories
Portfolio

Dark Patterns

Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something.

Dark Patterns

For a recent class assignment, we had to choose three dark patterns, find a site or service using each one, and then propose an alternative version that didn’t use that dark pattern.

You may notice that I’ve actually done four here – the last one was an interesting variant on some of the example dark patterns, and I wanted to explore that a bit.

You can also download a PDF of the presentation – it will work better in screen readers:

Categories
Education Portfolio

Value-Sensitive Design

The first unit in our course on Advanced Design and Prototyping focused on Value-Sensitive Design, and a couple of the assignments we did as part of it were pretty fun.

The first was to do a sketchnote on the concept itself. I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical of the concept of sketchnoting – I thought it would be fun, but I didn’t think it would actually be all that useful. In doing it, however, I found that it helped me to coalesce my thoughts a bit – though, admittedly, that may have more to do with the fact that it forced me to go through my typed notes again than the sketchnoting itself. Still, it was a fun way to do that bit of studying, so I think I’ll try to add it to my workflow in the future.

Presented with apologies for my terrible handwriting.

Another activity was to put together a presentation, going through some value-sensitive design processes and presenting our ‘findings.’ Of the available prompts, I chose the one that boiled down to “your team has just been hired to design a photo-sharing application; you’re in charge of the VSD portion. Go.”

Categories
Portfolio Review

Competitive Analysis: Fitness Apps

The second unit in my course on User Experience and Evaluation was on competitive analysis — looking over the competitive landscape in a given marketplace, and using that data to figure out both the low-level design and high-level strategy you should use to effectively compete.

While I considered doing an analysis of the productivity management/to-do-list marketplace (an area on which I have many opinions), I realized that the end result of that analysis would be “the marketplace is saturated, and the ‘table stakes’ level of functionality is prohibitively expensive to achieve.” Not the most exciting result.

Instead, I looked at another area where I’ve gone through a surprising number of apps: fitness tracking. Specifically, workout planning and tracking – I did a previous assignment on how people use the gym, and one of my findings was “hoo boy are there a lot of different systems for planning and tracking a workout.”

After downloading quite a few apps and compiling a rather monstrous spreadsheet, I put together the results into a report, which I’m now posting here.

(Will I be using these findings to develop an app? … No comment.)

For those using screen readers, or who prefer their own reading environment, you can download the full presentation PDF here:

Categories
Portfolio

Uninvited Redesign: Calibre

As a recent assignment for one of my design classes, we were told to find a website whose design we didn’t like, build a moodboard for a new version of the site, and then create a high-fidelity prototype of the new version of the page we’d called out.

For my uninvited redesign, I selected Calibre’s homepage; I love what Calibre stands for, but I haven’t used it in years, because… well, I’ll just drop in my analysis portion here:

It could use some love, is the short form of it. (After I built that and submitted, I realized I’d forgotten to turn off my content blockers for the screenshot; the unaltered version of the site looks the same, but also features ads along the side, which explains that awkward hanging line in the latter screenshot.)

Next up, build a mood board. This was pretty fun to do – I basically just wandered around, not only the internet, but a nearby library, and my own bookshelves, looking for inspiration. Here’s the result:

I couldn’t not pick Baskerville, c’mon.

The final part of the assignment was to put together our own redesign, using what we’d put together in the mood board. I almost sat down with Sublime and coded it in HTML, because that’s what I do in my day job, and it’d be easy, but made myself use Sketch instead – what better way to learn than by practicing?

That’s the end, right?

Well, no, if you looked at the featured image on this post, you already know I did a bit more. The extra credit portion of the assignment was to do a redesign of a different part of the brand; I opted to do a quick take on “Calibre, if it was designed for macOS”. (For reference, Calibre was designed for/using Qt, which means it looks somewhat out of place… basically everywhere.)

(I would like to clarify – I’m throwing a lot of shade at Calibre here, but I really do respect what it is, does, and stands for. DRM-free ebooks are a very good thing. Support your authors.)

This last bit was, in no small part, just an excuse to play around with the Sketch resources that Apple provides. They’re neat!

Categories
Portfolio

Sketching

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’m currently working on a master’s in design. (I’m not sorry for talking about it a lot, I’m excited!)

In the first week, we spent a lot of time sketching. Which is… not something I’ve done a whole lot of, in the past; a bit here and there, especially while I was planning out Fluidics, and I do some at work on occasion, but never as much as we did in that first class.

One of the things that our professors mentioned was that it’s something that takes practice. Which, duh, except I hadn’t really thought about it like that. I’d done the thing that so annoys me when people do it with music: "oh, I’m just not talented at that."

That’s wrong. It’s not that I’m not talented; it’s that I’ve never practiced. So I made a resolution of sorts: I’m doing a degree in design, sketching is an important skill in design, so I’m going to practice this skill. I added it to my habit tracker, and off I went.

Since then, I’ve been trying to do a sketch every day. Mostly sticking with pencils (or rather, ‘pencils’; most of these were done in Moleskine Flow – it’s a pretty good app for this, and I’m quite enjoying the Apple Pencil), a bit of pen here and there. And sketching whatever catches my eye – there’s a good deal of the random items around my house, and a small collection of light fixtures in the various Starbucks’ I’ve found myself in over the past month or so.

It’s been fun. And, looking back over my sketches to put this post together, I think I’m improving. So, hey, practice: it works!

Categories
Portfolio

“Add a feature”

In my Design and Prototyping class, we recently did an assignment called "Add a Feature". We were supposed to take an app or site we frequently use, find a competitor or two, and identify a feature that the competitor has. We would then sketch our take on that feature, if it were added to the original app, and wireframe it in Sketch.

As my original app, I chose Things. I’ve been a user, and fan, for years. I have also, however, tried OmniFocus, and know there’s a feature there that I would love to have in Things: sequential tasks.

The basic idea of sequential tasks is that you can set a project, or a group of tasks, to operate in parallel – the normal way, where you can see all the incomplete tasks – or in sequence. When they’re in sequence, you can only see the next incomplete task, not all of them.

Which would be very helpful to me, at the moment – I’m taking classes, and a lot of what’s going into Things at the moment is "do this reading, watch these lectures, then do this assignment." Except, of that sentence fragment, things doesn’t support the word ‘then’, so I see the whole list all at once. I’d rather only see the reading, then only see the lectures, then only see the assignment. Perfect candidate for the assignment.

So, first thing’s first: sketch it.

I kicked around a couple different ideas, but pretty quickly arrived at the conclusion that it should be integrated into Things’ ‘When’ menu.

The ‘When’ menu in Things. After opening it, you can either click to select an item, or begin typing, and use their natural language parser to choose a date.

The other question was how to display these in the list. The point, of course, was that sequential items wouldn’t show up in the ‘Anytime’ list, but they do still need to be visible in some circumstances – namely, when you click through to the project itself, future items still show up.

In the ‘Anytime’ list, that third item wouldn’t appear; you could find it either in ‘Upcoming,’ which is sorted by date, or within the containing project – which is where I took this screenshot.

I actually tried a couple variations – it’s at this point that, were I working for Cultured Code, I’d say “we should build both versions and do some testing to see which is better.” I’m not, though, so I just wireframed them both and turned in the result.

I’m fairly happy with the way I integrated it. Clicking, tapping, or typing “After” pulls up a second menu, where you can search for the item you want to attach to. Instead of thinking about it in terms of the project, the mental model is just “after x, I’ll do y.”

All told, I really enjoyed this exercise – it was the first wireframing I’ve ever done in Sketch, and it was neat to think about integrating a feature into something I use all the time. (And, hey, Cultured Code, if you’re reading this: feel free to use this idea, because I’d love to have the feature.)

Categories
Portfolio

Collecting Clippings

I recently started a Master’s in Human-Computer Interaction and Design. While the main goal of the program is, obviously, learning, one of the side goals is to build a portfolio; as such, I’m going to be making an effort to post some of what we’re working on in class here.

One of our assignments was to start collecting images and clippings, and doing some annotations of them. The idea is to build up a library; something like Quiver, but for design instead of development. It was actually very fun; a lot of my classmates did it handmade, and I considered it, but I’ve also been meaning to try Adobe XD and figured, why not?

Source: Paprika

It’s a pretty neat tool, it made it very quick to put these all together. Much more focused than my other digital go-to, PhotoShop, where I probably could’ve accomplished the same thing, but would’ve spent more time digging around in the ‘draw a line’ settings and whatnot.

Source: Windows Task Manager (Windows 10)

A lot of what I did for mine were mobile apps – that is, after all, my main area of interest – but I also made an effort to branch out to other operating systems and even (gasp) physical devices.

Source: the office Keurig. No, I don’t know how to work it.

A big part of the assignment was giving feedback to our classmates on what they’d collected. The goal wasn’t “hey, that’s a cool interface you were looking at,” but “oh, that’s a good point about the interface.” The exercise, after all, was about the act of collecting and annotating.

Source: Overcast

It was interesting to see how everybody did theirs – most of the people I talked with had done them by hand, although somebody did a lovely blended style one by collecting screenshots and photos and then annotating them with an iPad and Apple Pencil.

Source: Hazel

I’m not sharing all of what I’ve collected here – I’m proud of my annotations of the to-do list app I use, but I don’t actually want to share the contents of my to-do list. And while I had fun marking up Dark Sky, I don’t feel the need to share my home address with the internet.

Source: Calory

I’ve got some pieces from my sketchbook that I might post sometime soon, and I’ll hopefully continue to have interesting things to share as the program goes on!

Categories
App Portfolio Technology

Fluidics 1.1: The Animation Update

The first major update to Fluidics is now available on the App Store!1 In all honesty, it was largely a ‘bug fixes and performance improvements’ update, but I’ve always hated when app updates list that, so I made sure to include a couple user-facing features so there’d be something fun to talk about, at least.
In this case, those features were animations. The most notable is the background – rather than being drawn once, the ‘water’ in the background is now animated, which I think makes the visual effect much nicer overall. Swiping between the three main pages of the app is also much smoother now; instead of a single ‘swipe’ animation being triggered by any swipe, it directly responds to your swipe, so you can change your mind about which direction to swipe halfway through, and it feels more like you’re moving things around, rather than switching pages.2
The big changes, though, are largely invisible; a whole lot of work on the internals to allow for future features I’m planning.3 The gist of it is that a lot of the internals of the app are now a separate library, which means I can share code between the widget and the main app without needing to copy-and-paste all the changes I make in one place to the other.
Past that, there were a couple little tweaks — the algorithm that calculates the water goal is a bit less aggressive with the way it handles workout time, and there’s now a little “this isn’t a doctor” disclaimer in the Settings page that I put there because the lawyer I don’t have advised that I do that.
And, the bit that turned into more of a project than I thought: VoiceOver support. VoiceOver, for those that don’t know, is one of the core accessibility features of iOS; when enabled, it basically reads the contents of the screen to the user, making it possible for visually-impaired people to use iOS. By default, any app built on UIKit has some support for VoiceOver, but the further you go from the default controls, the more broken that’ll get. The way Fluidics works, it was super broken; technically useable, but downright painful to do. After a day or two of vigorous swearing and arguing with the Accessibility framework, I’m proud to say that Fluidics is now VoiceOver-compatible.
If you’ve already got Fluidics on your phone, it’s a free update from the App Store.4 If not, the whole app is a free download from the App Store, and I’m hoping that you’ll enjoy using it. Leave a review or whatever; I’m trying not to be pushy about that.
Oh, and I’m in the process of updating the app’s website; I got such a good URL for it that I want it to look good to match.


  1. There was a bugfix update earlier, version 1.0.1, but that’s not at all exciting, so I didn’t bother writing anything about it. 
  2. If you’re curious, this involved rebuilding the entire interface, from three separate pages that’re transitioned between to a single page that’s embedded in a scroll view. 
  3. And no, I won’t be telling anybody what those are just yet; I don’t want to promise anything before I know for sure it’ll be possible. 
  4. In fact, it may have already been automatically updated — the easiest way to tell is to open the app and see if the water is moving or not. 
Categories
App Portfolio Technology

Open-sourcing Variations

Now that the whole concert is over, and I’ve finished going through approximately all of the WWDC sessions, I’ve decided that Variations won’t be receiving any further development — it wasn’t going to be enough of a priority for me to do it any justice, and I’d hate to half-ass it.1 The app will remain on the App Store, for now, though if it breaks in future iOS versions, I’ll probably pull it entirely. Instead, I’m releasing the source code, as-is; if you’d like to look through it, it’s right here.
I had fun building it, and I like to think that it does some interesting things with the implementations under the hood, so hopefully somebody can find some use from it.


  1. This is, hopefully, a hint about some of my other projects that are a higher priority; announcements of those will, of course, show up on this here blog. 
Categories
App Portfolio

Variations on the Theme of Life

Tap here to download the app on the App Store!
I have always been fascinated by the emergent properties of mathematics: simple rules create complex structures. When you get down to it, this is how all of our modern technology works. Variations is based on that concept and was composed for performance through an application written for the iOS® operating system.
At the core of the application are cellular automata based on Conway’s Game of Life (1970), which is a grid where each square is either ‘on’ or ‘off’ and follows a strict set of rules. A square that is off (‘dead’) can become alive (be ‘born’) if it has the right number of living neighbors. A square that is alive can die if it has too few (loneliness) or too many (starvation) living neighbors. The rules are simple, yet they can create astonishingly complex patterns; there is an entire field of mathematics devoted to studying these patterns, Automata Theory.
Variations allows these patterns to play out both visually and aurally. Tap the screen to allow the grid to move through another cycle of living and dying, or just listen to the music created by a single frozen moment. No two people will ever hear the same set of sounds: the starting point for the patterns, as well as their evolution, are uniquely generated every time the Variations application is run.