mb

A photo of mb bischoff in a red lip and leather jacket.

mb bischoff (they/them) makes  apps,  posts, and  podcasts. under construction

rss subscribe

Absolutely Crushed 

Absolutely Crushed album art

In more mb-media news: earlier this year I launched a new podcast with my friend Syd Andrerson, called Absolutely Crushed. It’s a bi-weekly comedy interview show in which we gossip with a guest about their biggest celebrity or character crush and hilarity ensues.

Imagine you’re at a sleepover with your closest friends talking about that hot person they have a crush on and lightly teasing them about it while figuring out what makes their crush so attractive. It’s like that, but with interesting guests and crushes you know. This week’s guest is Syd’s girlfriend Quinn Rose, and we cover her crush on Aaron Tveit. It’s a great episode to start with.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, or wherever fine podcasts are downloaded, and let us know what you think on Twitter.

#crush #me #podcast

beestung Issue #12 

I’ve been a fan of beestung magazine, a quarterly publication publishing poetry by nonbinary writers since I discovered it a few years ago. This week, they published Issue 12 on the theme of trans futures, guest edited by Cavar.

I’m honored that two of my poems are included in the issue alongside fantastically inventive work by other nonbinary poets. It would a lot to me if you gave it a look as it’s the first time any of my poems have been published.

#me #poetry

The Travel Focus Mode

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.

Travel Focus Mode

Set up in Settings → Focus

Travel Focus Settings Screenshot

🔴 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

Travel Home Screen

Create and hide a home screen via the page dots while in editing mode

Travel Home Screen Screenshot

I include widgets from:

✈️ 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

Apple Watch Face

Set up in the Apple Watch app or on your watch, then use Shortcuts automation to change to it when in the Travel focus

Apple Watch Lock Screen Screenshot

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.

#automation #features #focus modes #ios #travel

5 Shortcuts I Use Daily

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.

Download

💻 Change Mac Wallpaper

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.

Download

🗓 Move Calendar Events

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.

Download

💬 Update Slack Status

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.

Download

🔋 Power Down

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.

Download


That’s all for now! I hope these shortcuts speed up your workflows as much as they have mine. If you enjoyed this post, let me know on Twitter, and maybe I’ll share more in the future.

#Matthew Cassinelli #calendar #ios #mac #radar #shortucts #slack #streamdeck #wallpaper

Stacking the Deck

A photo by Ben McCarthy of Matt presenting a slideshow onstage

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.

So it’s no wonder I don’t see many slide decks working on small software teams. The few I do are usually delivered by professional hypesters pitching startups, to cringes from the designers and developers in the room (or the Zoom, as the case may be). But earlier in my career, I used decks to great effect, and you know what? I miss them. In 2022, I’m bringing decks(y) back.


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.

#keynote #nytimes #slides #talks

Software Paper Cuts

The word ouch written on a pink background

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.
  • Wayfinding: I can’t easily find Settings, Terms of Service, Privacy Policy, third-party code licenses, etc.
  • 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.

#bugs #engineering #list #software

Things You’re Allowed to Do 

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.

#advice #list #money #time

Are You Gonna Finish That?

Stack of Books

I’m a completionist by nature. I love checking everything off my to-do list for the day. When I discover a blog, podcast, or webcomic I love, my curiosity pulls me toward consuming its entire backlog. I spend hours spelunking the archives, finishing every last morsel of media.

Growing up, I attended Catholic school and was taught by nuns to finish my lunch because there were children starving halfway across the world. I was taught to complete one book before starting the next. Taught to give equal attention to every station of the cross.

This type of perseverance can be a valuable tool in one’s toolbelt. There are moments in life that call for grit, when it’s crucial to push through discomfort and disinterest. But fetishizing finishing isn’t nearly as helpful as it feels. Just the act of completing something isn’t virtuous by itself—the context matters.

We are living in a time of ceaseless information overload and ever-expanding choice. Thousands of photos are posted to Instagram every second, 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and millions of books are published every year. You can’t consume all that “content” even if you want to. Your time and attention are limited resources. In this context, a better skill than finishing is knowing when to finish something and when to abandon it.

I’ve gotten better at this over the years. I’ve become more attuned to what my body and brain are telling me about the future value of what I’m currently doing. These are the questions I ask myself when deciding whether to stick with something or bail:

  • Am I enjoying it?
  • Is it feeding my mind or my heart?
  • Will it help me accomplish something or solve a problem?
  • Will it matter in a year? Five? Ten?
  • Is there something I’d rather be doing?
  • Have I had enough?
  • Might it be better to set it down now and pick it up again later?
  • What’s the worst thing that would happen if I give up?

These questions help pressure-test the idea of continuing to follow my current trajectory. And sometimes their answers reveal that I should have pulled off the highway a few exits ago. But no matter how close to the end I am, it’s never too late to stop.

I want to give you permission to quit the thing you’re trying to finish that’s not working for you anymore. It could be a New Year’s resolution you regret making, a book that all your heroes recommended but you keep bouncing off, or even a side project that doesn’t bring you joy anymore but that you keep maintaining out of a sense of duty. Whatever it is, you’ll know it, because just the psychic weight of it being unfinished is stressing you out.

You don’t have to complete everything. You don’t need to be in it for the long haul. Quitting something doesn’t make you a quitter. Instead, it makes you someone who knows their worth and knows what they want. Letting go of one thing can give you space to start something new that will serve you better. And if you regret your decision, it’ll still be there when you’re ready to pick it up again.

#advice #life #media #wisdom

How to Not Know Things

In May 2010, I was offered a job at the Apple Store at the King of Prussia Mall, one of the biggest shopping destinations in the United States. It was my first and only retail job, and in my three months working there, I became the top-selling salesperson (or as Apple called it, “Specialist”) on the sales floor (or as Apple called it, “The Red Zone”). I did this by sharing my passion, knowledge, and care with every customer. But I also did it by Googling a lot, by installing lots of apps for customers to check that they’d work, and by getting a little better every day.

My training for the job involved being clapped at a lot while donning the signature blue T-shirt in a room full of folks learning how to sell iPhones and iPads and create Apple “customers for life”. Our teacher was a blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer-turned-computer salesman named JB who wore white earbuds as a necklace. As he taught from the printed material and screened Apple videos for the class, he kept harping on one point that’s stuck with me in the decades since.

I don’t know, let’s find out

JB taught us that there was no way we could know everything there is to know about every Apple product, let alone every app that runs on them, and every way they can fail. He taught us that rather than making up an answer, guessing, or shrugging our shoulders, we should instead say, “I don’t know, let’s find out”. Admitting that we didn’t know was the first step. Then, we were to find out together with the customer by walking over to a Mac and looking up the answer or pulling in another employee who might know the answer.

This one sentence from a retail training manual contains many insights that I’ve relied on every day since in my personal and professional life:

  1. It’s okay not to know because we can’t know everything, and we shouldn’t expect that of ourselves.
  2. It’s better to admit our ignorance than get things wrong.
  3. Even if we think we might know, it’s okay to double-check because getting it right matters.
  4. People trust us more when we admit our shortcomings.
  5. Learning is better together.
  6. People love to see and share in the process of discovery.
  7. People trust information more when we share the way we found it.
  8. Memorizing isn’t as important as knowing how and where to look things up.

Fuck around and find out

This is another similar phrase that’s become popular since 2020, especially sarcastically in leftist circles. But it’s legitimately valuable advice because sometimes, no amount of Googling or reading about a topic will get you to the answer. Sometimes, trial and error is the only way to learn. By experimenting or fucking around, we learn together by playing together. We do a little science and discover something new about the world that we can share.

Many of the answers to life’s daily questions can be uncovered using these thought technologies. Are you faced with a tricky question in an interview for a new job? Try being honest with the interviewer that you don’t know the answer and explain how you’d research it in detail. Not sure what your gender is? As Mattie Lubchansky suggested on a recent live episode of the Gender Reveal podcast, “fuck around and find out”. Try on makeup, a new set of pronouns, or a binder, and see how it feels!

Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow

Just because you don’t know something today doesn’t mean you won’t know it tomorrow. If you cultivate an attitude that faces the unknown with curiosity, sharing, and experimentation, rather than blame, fear, and stubbornness, you may get a bit smarter every day. You’ll learn much more by remaining open to new discoveries and sharing that journey with the people around you, at work and in the rest of your life. And that continuous improvement, or kaizen, will accumulate like compound interest. It will, in the words of Mike Monteiro, let us “make better mistakes tomorrow”.

What don’t you know right now? What do you want to find out? Let’s do it together.

#advice #apple #knowledge #learning