HACK / MAKE

Making Tools, Technology, and Ideas Accessible

For much of the time that it’s been a part of our lives, technology hasn’t been very accessible. From how we build it all the way to how it’s used, technology hasn’t been easy for people to get close to. I was just barely at the tail end of the generation who was around for the internet before it was ubiquitous in the western world. Those much more “seasoned”—older—than I am would laugh at even how good I had it with my first 14.4K modem. There’s been a Wild West mentality in the becoming of the internet and the culture around it. Keyboard cowboys, cavalier in their convictions, broke trail and set standards for the world we’d newly navigate. This scene wasn’t for everyone and only those with the bravest of hearts and the sturdiest desk chairs have made marks. Through that we’ve come a long way. At least in the first world, internet connections are as important of a utility as electricity and nearly as available. Availability isn’t necessarily accessibility though. We’ve come to trust that when you flip the light switch or turn the tap, that service will be there for you. It’s reliable. Yet we still have to think about “uptime” of our online services and need technicians to come to our house to fix the little blinking internet box thing again. And remember, this is in the most advanced parts of the world. We’ve got it the best out of anybody and it still sucks.

Our relationship with technology can be rocky. We’re introduced to new hardware, services, interfaces, and interactions all of the time. We’re encouraged to learn these things through practice and not be worried about poking around the new updated version of a thing we love (or at least just use a lot). Our culture mostly accepts the new and cool because we always want to be new and cool. But it’s not easy. Many people aren’t these cavalier keyboard cowboys and don’t have the time, patience, or desire to tinker their way through learning technology.

Making these tools, technology, and ideas accessible is something that managers, designers, makers, and marketers need to improve on. In all parts of what we set out to do, we need to lower the barrier and ease people in to familiarity with the pieces of our work that they touch. Code that we write and share needs to be accessible so that more people will contribute and help grow what it can do. It needs to be documented and use familiar frameworks so people can get in to it easier. Ideas we spread need to be accessible so that people understand what we mean and build a community around these ideas.

In September, I spent the day at the Hardware Innovation Workshop here in New York. It was put together by Make Magazine who was also hosting the Maker Faire that weekend. The sessions were mostly focused on the gap between prototyping hardware using tools like Arduino and getting your hardware product in to mass production. There were discussions about the business side of doing that, how to design in a way that simplifies the way your product can be manufactured, and even how branding can have an effect on your hardwares attractiveness to customers.

One of the ideas that caught my attention was the unfamiliarity that many consumers had with these types of hardware in their homes and lives. Some were systems that could monitor the safety and happenings in your house when you were away or were little hardware bits that you could use to build circuits but were just so simple and magical that they could be used for kids to build toys or for artists, or engineers. These things were new. They were ideas that hadn’t become part of people’s regular thinking habits. But some of these products had succeeded in designing their hardware so it was approachable and their end user wasn’t scared to try it. Once they tried it, they recognized that it was useful. They could figure out how to use it, why they should, and didn’t feel uncomfortable using it.

So how do we designers, makers, writer, scientists, make tools, technology, and ideas accessible?

We have to recognize and try our best to understand the people who we are making each of these things for. We need to understand them and we need to care for them deeply. These design challenges aren’t easy to solve so to get through the frustrating iterations, we need to stay focused on the care we have and the care we believe we can deliver, whether it be to fellow developers making it easier to build great things or to our customers who need a little help in their lives and are looking towards us and our products for that support.

Caring a lot will guide each of us through the challenges in making tools, technology, and ideas accessible.

Scaffolding

As people who are driven to find better ways to work, we seek out systems, workflows, and methodologies that we can use as guidelines for how we work. These give us nice little rules like “if it takes less than two minutes, just do it now” and teach us multi-step methods to gaining control of the open loops in our lives. These help tremendously but at a certain point can get in the way. The rules work in most cases but as we get more and more used to working within those guides it can become difficult to manage work that falls outside of that ruleset. Essentially, it works until it doesn’t, and that’s the time we need it most. We need a process that’s relative, adaptable, and appropriate for the work we do. We need to be approaching our “productivity” in a smarter way.

It’s easy to over engineer our workflows and create processes that work for us most days. When we get busy, when we get lazy, or when our attention shifts to something else, the complexity in the way we plan, organize, and structure our work and lives can lead to this system collapsing on itself leaving us in a worse place than we started. The opposite can happen too where the density of our process-oriented work can weigh on us and make it more difficult than it needs to be to make a grocery list. The problem comes in approaching these tools with the wrong mindset and not understanding how and when the pieces help. Methodologies can fail when you pick and chose the parts you want to use while other systems only become stronger when you leave behind the pieces that you don’t need.

Thinking of all the pieces that help us capture, organize, review, and do work as scaffolding will help give you an understanding of the value of each and provide a more relative outlook on your approach to “productivity” as a whole.

Scaffolding, like in construction, is a superstructure that gives a stable frame to get work done. It’s modular and the pieces are lightweight but when set up properly, create an incredibly stable system that’s adaptable, scaleable, and appropriate for the work that needs to happen. You can use scaffolding for construction that’s two stories tall and construction that’s twelve stories tall. It’s all about fitting the right pieces together so that the frame is appropriately sturdy for that work. For light work, you may not need much scaffold but as the scale of what you’re doing changes, so does the strength of the frame you do the work upon. Scaffolding isn’t the foundation. When the work on a building is done, you remove the superstructure around it and the work stands on its own. People who see the completed work may not ever see the scaffolding because the work is about the work, and not the way you do it.

Taking a scaffold-like approach is about creating the right levels of structure around the work you do to let it properly flow. You neither want to constrain your creativity by following weighty methods nor do you want to become overwhelmed by the work you have to do by alleviating yourself from process.

As I’ve been charting a direction for the next few years of my life (formally knowns as, but incorrectly named a “life plan”), I realize that granularity for timelines and details of things I want to happen in my life isn’t appropriate for the altitude I’m looking at. An OmniFocus project with next actions isn’t the right scaffold I need for ideas that are five years out. This isn’t a “plan” so it needs to be drawn up in a way that’s appropriate and adaptable for what it is. In this case, working in OmniOutliner gives me the flexibility I need to have a branch for what’s at 50,000 feet while being able to put more detail for what’s at 10,000 feet. I don’t need to ever think about, manage, or review what’s further out until I want to.

The same approach can be considered for all the work that we do. It starts with understanding the scale of the project we are undertaking. This helps us realize the stability and dependability of the frame we need to be working on top of. If there’s something I need to remember at the store when I go out this afternoon, writing it in my Field Notes is adequate. If it’s a three month development project with several milestones, dependancies, deliverables, and collaborative work along the way, I need something sturdier. Knowing these different tools, parts of workflows, and elements of frameworks allows you to fill the gaps that might exist in one of the others and support that with something you know works for you. Having one main software system that we trust can often feel like the best way to work, but imagine seeing a construction crew setting up scaffolding on a town house like they do at a skyscraper because “that’s the way they’re used to working.” We need to think about the tools that we have available and be assessing which ones are relevant for the work that we need to do. We need to be smart about choosing what fits together to build the right scaffold for the job at hand. Without that, we’re building scaffolding that’s too tall.

By seeing all of the elements of workflows, tools, and methodologies as pieces that could coexist or be substituted, we can learn to build strong and appropriate scaffolding to support the work we do.

Writing Tools and Workflow

Read on as long as you promise to write something when you’re done.

I’ve been posting a lot about tips, style, and the creative pursuits of writing so I figured I’d share my writing tools and workflows as well.

Writing Buckets and Apps

There have been five main types of things I write along with one new one I’m trying to do. They are: notes, code, blog posts, journaling, field notes, and the new one, writing for the sake of writing.

Notes: I use nvALT on Mac and Notesy on iPhone and iPad synced in a single folder at ~/Dropbox/Documents/Notes. I used to really like the idea of keeping notes in Evernote and did for a couple years, but like nvALT for it’s ease of capture. The tradeoff I’ve chosen to make with my notes system is that I’ll sacrifice the long-term organization that Evernote could give me with tags and notebooks for the simplicity of getting stuff inputed. Because that’s the point, right? If there’s enough friction that I don’t just easily create a note what’s the concern about long term search-ability? There won’t be any notes to look for. Launch Center Pro makes it easy to quickly add new notes to Notesy.

My naming convention is something like Headphones I Like — listx shopx which uses a tweak to Merlin Mann’s xtag convention, or A Balanced Man — mex — 2012-11-03 14:25:51 where I add a date/timestamp when it’s relevant. That note is some thoughts as to what I think a balanced man should act like and be like and uses the mex tag like all of my “personal improvement” notes do. The title goes first because I’ll always have that, the tags go next because they’re usually but not always there, and the date stamp is last since I only add it if I think it’s relevant. That all makes for a clean notes list in nvALT.

Here are some random examples of notes I have in nvALT so you get a general idea of how you could use a system like this: a note tracking payed days I’ve taken off of work, a cornbread recipe I looked up for my cast iron pan, a list of words I’ve come across while reading that I really like, notes I took while reading an article about typefaces, the number, amount, and reason for cheques—checks, for the Americans—that I write, the phonic alphabet just because, the body of select emails I might want to look up for reference, a list of decently priced cigars I found online for whenever I feel like buying a box of cigars, the numbers for my health insurance so they’re easy to pull up, and the list of variables for TextExpander that I can use as reference for when I’m making snippets on iOS. For all of that random stuff that I want to store, it makes it really important to quickly add it and quickly find it when I need.

Scratchpads kind of live in this notes area. I use a handy script that I love and use all the time to manage my scratchpads. They live in the same Notes folder but open in BBEdit where I have a little more control over the editing of a note since I can use things like clippings, text filters, and language scripting.

Code: When I started getting into code I had to make the epic decision of choosing my text editor. Threads on forums, endless blog posts, and hours of podcasts have argued over what the best text editor is. For me, BBEdit was the clear choice. At the time, Textmate 2 was still a dream and SublimeText 2 didn’t feel right. BBEdit fit in the middle of being solid for code and great for plain-text writing. Writers like John Gruber and hardcore geeks like Dr. Drang use BBEdit, which shows you how flexible it is at supporting any type of text related use case. It’s well supported for scripting, with an extensive Applescript dictionary and the ability to use languages like perl, python, and ruby for text filters. Clippings make it really easy to extend BBEdit for custom Markdown wrapping without any knowledge of code. Longevity matters to me. BBEdit has been around for 20 years and will probably continue in development for as long as text editors exist. I use a slightly modified version of solarized light for my color scheme and have removed a lot of the default window chrome to make a document look simple.

Blogging: This happens almost exclusively in Byword on iPad. I collect ideas in a running note or sometimes a draft outline in nvALT but usually it starts and ends in Byword. Since I’m using Second Crack I don’t need to move any text around, all I need to do is add a specific header to a post in my Drafts folder and it’ll publish.

For link posts, I have a script that I’m continuously running on my server to make creating drafts from links really easy. I use Reeder and Twitter basically as an article inbox and nearly everything I want to read gets sent to Instapaper. From Instapaper, when I find something I want to link to I select the pull quote, tap share, and Post to Pinboard. I fill out the fields with the post title I want, the post body, and the specific tag my script checks for to create a draft. It usually ends up looking like this. The script will parse the info from Pinboard and within a second, create a properly formatted Markdown file in my Drafts folder. Right away, I can switch out of Instapaper to Byword and my new draft syncs down from Dropbox and looks something like this. I really love this flow and it feels like magic every time I do it. The added benefit is that everything I link to is permanently archived in Pinboard.

Journaling: I really like Day One. I think my favorite part is that it takes any organization hassle out of the process. I just have to hit the + on any device any time I have something to say and it takes care of the rest. Adding support for photos has been a really nice thing since a lot of important memories happen without the chance for me to type out how I’m feeling at the time. Sometimes I’ll add a photo to Day One in the moment, then go back later and add a caption with some more about what was going on in my head at the time.

Field Notes: I love these things. There’s just something that they represent for me that means a lot. The passion that Draplin Designs and Coudal Partners put into making them beautiful and useful shows. I used to be a little concerned about just filling it with crap but then I realized that’s what they’re for. They’re cheap at three bucks a piece and are supposed to be something that takes what you have to throw at it whether it be dirty hands jotting notes about this season’s crops or me filling it with useless, messy drivel that couldn’t be less poetic. Carry one along with a Fisher space pen wherever you go and fill it up with your life. You’ll feel better when you do.

Tip: Stick a few index cards in the back just in case you need to write something down and give it to somebody, like directions or your contact information if you don’t carry business cards.

Writing for Writing’s Sake: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones has taught me that I should just write for the sake of writing—to get all the junk out so I can dig down to the good stuff. I don’t really want to be doing this in any of the other buckets. It could make finding notes harder, doesn’t make sense along side my drafts, and shouldn’t really be in my journal since I’ll want to go back there and read about important moments not a shitty poem that hurt to write. Field Notes aren’t great for long form stuff because it’s a bit cramped. While reading about Natalie’s writing situation, it made me feel a little nostalgic—I’m not sure if that’s the right word since I don’t know what it’s like in the first place—to use a typewriter to just write. I liked the idea of putting in a fresh piece of paper and punching out words without having to think about naming the text file or where it’s going to live on my hard drive. The typewriter puts out a piece of paper and you can throw it in a stack or throw it in the trash.

I wanted to make a separate part in my flow for this kind of writing. I wanted something that was easy to start, meant no ongoing management, and didn’t clutter up my other writing buckets. Since I do all of my writing on iPad, I installed WriteRoom. I chose it for a few reasons: it allows fullscreen mode without the status bar, syncs to specified Dropbox folder that’s different than my notes, and allows me to pick a font that I don’t hate. I’ve set it up to be as simple as possible and to get out of my way. Things like spelling and autocorrect that are helpful when writing an article to be published aren’t necessary when just making words. No one’s going to be reading this stuff unless I chose to publish it later so spelling and grammar mistakes don’t matter. This kind of “distraction-free writing environment” can be a gimmick unless you don’t let it be. For me, it means that in WriteRoom, it’s just me and words. When I need to write just for the sake of writing, I open up the app, create a new date/timestamped file with TextExpander and go.

Input and Setup

I’ve been writing on my iPad for a while so I’m used to the onscreen keyboard but I also wanted to set up a place where I was comfortable and that was effective for writing. I wanted a good hardware keyboard to be a part of that. I’ve set up a standing desk at my apartment with just enough space for a keyboard, iPad, and a cup of coffee.

After debating the cost for a while, I ended up buying two of those loud mechanical keyboards that are annoying in the background of podcasts. I went with the Filco Majestouch Tenkeyless with MX Cherry Blues. I love it and couldn’t recommend it enough. It really is just that much better than whatever cheap keyboard you were using before. For me it was a great investment since what I do is create things on computers and the keyboard is the input of the things you create. Using great things and things you love can improve your work and life and having great boards at work and at home has done that for me.

Connecting a mechanical keyboard to your iPad is a little hacky but works. What you need is Apple’s camera connection kit which is basically a 30-pin to USB dongle. Don’t worry that the dock connector is being phased out because Apple makes a Lightning to 30-pin cable. Since messy cables drive me crazy, I connected the board’s USB to the Camera Connection Kit, connected that to this CableJive dockStubz dongle which allows me to pass through power into the iPad, and then connected that into a 30-pin extension cable so I can hide that cable/connector rats nest behind my desk and just run the extension to my iPad. It’s working decently for me so far. Even though it’s plugged into power, the draw from the keyboard takes enough out of the line that the iPad doesn’t charge. That kind of sucks but it seems to at least provide enough power to the setup to supplement the power from the keyboard so the iPad doesn’t drain nearly as fast. I get a warning when plugging it in that the keyboard isn’t compatible but it works fine.

Conflicts

With all of these writing buckets, I struggle a little with where some things should go. Sometimes when I’m in a coffee shop, I’ll just start writing a quick thought in my Field Notes and it’ll turn into a thing I want in my journal. I’m a little concerned that things I write in WriteRoom should maybe end up in Day One, but at least I can copy and paste over there easily.

The problem with systems like this is that they’re never going to be perfect. There will always be gotchas that process geeks like us quiver and try and fix. If you can find a fix for it that’s great but remember that the point of these systems is to improve your output. I have different buckets because it makes my writing in each one easier and more meaningful. If you’re playing the long game, it doesn’t really matter that much where exactly your ideas are put but that you’re writing and that they’re captured. If it’s a big idea and it’s down somewhere you trust, you’ll find it no matter how hard you have to search in whatever wrong bucket you put it in. Don’t be too worried about that happening.

Get a system set up that covers most of what you think you need and then focus on turning the things that are in your head into bits in a text file or scribbles on a piece of paper. You’ll tweak your system along the way but remember that to make great things you need more of the clackity noise not a better workflow.