It’s been sad to watch what started as a very focused and very well designed tool try to be something more. I lamented about this change this week:
Dropbox Paper started off as a focused tool: a collaborative writing tool with version control. Now it feels that features are added for the sake of adding features.
Example: the persistent menu now takes up precious vertical space on my laptop screen: https://dsh.re/b2bcb4
Paper was an excellent tool in its early days, focused on one thing: helping teams write together.
Over the past year to two, the Paper team has added a lot of features that detract from the writing experience. Elaborate timelines, nagging requests to add documents to folders, integrations with dozens of services. And that annoyingly persistent toolbar that takes up precious vertical space.
Maybe there are a lot of teams out there that use these features. Me? I just want a nice environment where our team can work on written materials together. My appreciation for focused tools only increases as the web and all our tooling options seem to grow more complex.
However, a product does not become bloated simply because new (unwanted) features are added. It’s only when those features get in the way of the core value that it’s a problem.
Launchbar is a great example. It’s an incredibly powerful tool with hundreds of different features. I probably use 10% of what it can do. However, my use of it to open applications, manage my clipboard, resize images, and various other things are not hindered at all by all the other features it offers. They’re there if I want to try them out, but otherwise, it all just stays out of the way.
Launchbar isn’t trying to force me to use it more. But the Paper team? It feels like there’s a push to get people to make it the hub of all their work, rather than just write collaboratively. Helping people get more value from a product is fine and understandable.
But it should never be done at the expense of the very thing that got people using it in the first place.
Matthias Ott is another person making a fresh plea for people to ditch social media and publishing platforms like Medium for a much more promising and healthy technology:
There is one alternative to social media sites and publishing platforms that has been around since the early, innocent days of the web. It is an alternative that provides immense freedom and control: The personal website.
Not only does he share why running your own site is good, but he takes it a further step and suggests how to improve the overall ecosystem of the web. Quote and link the things other people write. Use RSS. Employ webmentions. Etc.
It’s more work. But perhaps that’s just what the internet — and we — need.
In the past, I’ve used Sketch a lot to illustrate concepts for my team, or create user journeys, or onboarding flows. Although it’s a full design tool for making mockups or full product designs, I found it also worked well for conceptual models.
Here’s an example I made for showing the ideal user journey for a Beanstalk customer.
Over the past couple of years, I haven’t needed to make this type of thing as often and I discovered at some point that I never installed Sketch on my newest laptop. And when the time came to create something new, I found that the version of Sketch was so far behind, I’d have to purchase an upgrade.
I like to pay for good software, but I hesitate when it’s not a tool I use regularly. And somewhere in the past months, I came across Whimsical. I think this is a service that could replace something like Sketch for me.
I won’t produce artifacts like the example above with Whimsical, but it does provide the ability to quickly create mockups, mind maps, flowcharts, and “walls of sticky notes”.
These are all lower fidelity, but that’s most often all I need in my role.
Matt Haughey shares some tips on how to use Slack in a manner more respectful of your team members. Things like:
Use emoji, bulleted lists, and bold and italic text styling to make your titles and key points stand out in longer messages. This is especially useful for announcements or meeting recaps.
That applies to any kind of digital communication, but sure. However, the more I read the article, the more it made something obvious: Slack, and other instant chat tools like it, are not the best way to communicate as a team by default.
Consider this suggestion:
You can also use DND to carve out focus time during your workday. Click the bell icon atop your channel menu and select a time. Your status in Slack will then communicate to colleagues that you’re heads-down working and they shouldn’t expect an immediate response.
This begs the question: why are most work environments defaulting to expect an immediate response? We’ve gotten so used to this behaviour that it’s expected and teams building tools like Slack have to build in features to combat the expectation.
Imagine you sent an email to your team with a new product idea. First you’re met with total silence, then later a reply or two. You have to guess how the rest of the team feels, or you can ask at your next team meeting.
What if that idea were posted in a team Slack channel instead? You’d likely see emoji reactions soon after posting. They might show support, indicate that the team wants to think about it, or note an approval.
A brand new product idea needs more than emoji reactions. Perhaps live chat is not the place for nuanced discussion.
At any rate, I like Slack — as far as instant chat tools go, it’s the best. But this post left me feeling like they have to explain away some of the functionality of the product. Many of the included tips just sounded like the practice of writing an effective email, the very thing Slack was created to replace.
One month with a dumbed down phone
It’s been one month since I turned my phone into a device that, for the most part, does not give me any new content. No email, no social media, no RSS, and not even any work communication. A few people have asked how it’s going.
In a word, lovely. Absolutely lovely.
Since iOS debuted Screen Time, our family has reviewed the numbers for anyone who owns a device (4 out of 6 of us). I’ve been tracking this since October and we mostly use it for talking about screen usage and addiction, not telling our kids how they have to use their devices.
Looking at my own numbers since dumbing down, there is a small shift. The 4 weeks before starting this exercise, I was averaging 96 minutes of usage, 64 pickups, and 25 notifications per day. Since the change, the numbers have reduced to 83 minutes of usage, 44 pickups, and 17 notifications per day. Not a huge reduction at first glance.
But there is more to these numbers than what you see on the surface. First, those numbers are probably not that high compared to a lot of folks. Second, picking up my phone 20 less times in a day means there are 20 times when I choose to put my attention into something else. Last, my book reading comes into play. I tend to switch back and forth between paper and digital books and I happened to start a new digital book that bumped up my averages over the past couple of weeks.
And I’m definitely ok with reading books on my phone.
But the more important aspect of this entire exercise is not necessarily made obvious by the numbers. It’s the feeling. After the first week of getting used to the change, the compulsion to pick up the device to check something, anything, starts to fade. I've had plenty of moments where I realized I'm not sure where my phone is.
And so the number of pickups drops, yes. But the feeling of not needing to constantly find stimulus far outweighs the change in statistics. That change started to dribble into my work day. But the distractions are still present in that space (or habit field, as Jack Cheng called it) so I still have to fight the urge to shift screens and check something when I bump into uncertainty or switch between tasks.
So the changes are positive. But there is still room to grow.
Related, Isaac Smith posted an update about how his own experience has been going.
The Wildbit team focused on focus for the month of June. We went through the exercise of being super mindful of our time with the goal of getting in 4 very focused hours of work each day.
Before we started, I spent some time tweaking RescueTime so that it would automatically show my overall productivity and how much focus time I was getting. As part of that process, I subscribed to their email newsletter and quite enjoyed some of the articles they referred to. This was one of them.
In this piece, they outline the difference between internal and external distractions. The ones listed in the title above are the external, but it’s the internal issues that are hardest to overcome.
It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.
This was good to read while I was going through the exercise of dumbing down my phone (more on that below). And while that exercise is focused on the removal of external input (email, social media, Slack etc), it’s actually just making it harder to act on the inner impulse (I’m bored or unsure of how to move forward on the problem at hand).