Folders, tags, and keeping things tidy

library viewYesterday, two users separately asked for folders in Weekend Read.

It’s something we’re considering, but it’s a significant UI challenge, so I thought I’d talk through some of the issues in blog form.

In Weekend Read, one of the main views is called the Library. Here you see a list of all the scripts and other files you’ve imported.

These files are “inside” Weekend Read on your iPhone, both conceptually and programmatically. That means that if you’re offline, the files are still there. If you modify the original file in Dropbox, the version in Weekend Read is unchanged. If you delete the app, you’ve deleted these files. Most users seem to intuitively understand this setup.

The challenge comes when a user wants to keep 10, 20 or 50 scripts in his Library. We offer the ability to sort the list (Recent or A-Z), but there’s no way to keep the Library organized. It can be hard to find what you want.

Enter folders

On the desktop, folders have been a useful way to group and label things, so it’s natural to think of them for iOS.

For Weekend Read, a user might have a To Read folder and an Archive folder. Or she might have all the scripts of a certain show in one folder. An actor might keep audition sides separate from other scripts.

On the desktop, you drag-and-drop a file into a folder. Unfortunately, that behavior doesn’t have a great parallel in iOS. Tapping-and-holding on a scrolling list might mean you just want to scroll it.

iA WriteriA Writer pulls it off pretty well, though. Tap-and-hold sucks the icon up from its slot in the list view. You can then drag it to an existing folder, or create a new folder by dropping it on another file. (Much like how app folders are made on the home screen in iOS.) To get a file out of a folder, you drag it to a button where the back arrow would be.

The more common solution you see in iOS is using Select to choose items from the list view, then offering the choice of moving them into a folder (or making a new one). This follows the tradition of Photos, and feels like the Apple Way. GoodReader and Byword both do it this way.

(Sidebar: Like Rene Ritchie, I wish Apple would follow the path of Photos and create something like Files.app to serve as a repository. It would greatly simplify interoperability between Weekend Read and apps that create Fountain files.)

Once you have files in folders, you have to figure out the right way to navigate through them. On the iPhone, we’ve come to accept that tapping on a folder moves you one screen to the right, where we show you the contents of that folder.

For Weekend Read, that mostly makes sense, but we’d have to put a back arrow where we current have the + to add a file. Not awful, but logically it might be nice to hit that plus and mean, import a file into this folder.

Further decisions:

  • Does deleting a folder delete all the files inside it?
  • How do you rename a folder?
  • Can you nest folders?

The Single Folder Solution

At our meeting today, Nima wondered if we could get by with just one folder called Archive. This tracks well with how people use Gmail, and might be enough for many users.

Essentially, everything you see in your Library would be stuff you’re reading now. Stuff in your Archive would be out of sight — still on your phone, but not cluttering your view. That’s not unlike the experience with Kindle, where you can always download something you’ve deleted off the device. It’s organizing by getting rid of things.

From a UI perspective, we’d probably make Archive a choice next to Delete when you swipe right-to-left. (And in the Archive, an equivalent choice would move it back to the Library.)

Tagging

With folders, a file can only be in one place at a time. A script can be in the To Read folder or the Hannibal folder, but not both.

With tags, that script can be in both categories simultaneously. Evernote and Vesper both use tags extensively, and recent versions of Mac OS have encouraged tagging over folders.

In Weekend Read, we’d presumably allow users to tag files the same way we rename them, by tapping-and-holding on the file. One could also tag by Select-ing a group of files and applying the same tag to all of them.

Once tagged, we’d provide filtered views that only show matching files. (But how? Possibly by tapping on the Library title.)

There’s a lot to love about tagging, but in my heart of hearts, I just don’t see people embracing it. It feels like a power-user feature, and overkill for what we’re trying to do.

Search

Regardless of which — if any — of these options we choose, one thing we will look at adding is a search field. On both Mac and iOS, I’ve gotten increasingly comfortable with just searching for what I want rather than trying to find it.

As it stands now, I’m leaning towards the one-folder solution, but I’m eager to hear more feedback from users and other folks interested in UI. Weekend Read is free in the App Store. You can find me on Twitter @johnaugust.


Ghosts Laughing at Jokes

Scriptnotes: Ep. 136
Play

John and Craig talk Lab Rats, multi-cam, and what scenes might mean in their imaginary screenplay format. Craig clarifies what “spec writing” is, and when it’s permitted, both legally and ethically.

Then they dive in for another round of the Three Page Challenge, with entries ranging from second-grade bullies to cargo ship pirates to teenage crime.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 3-28-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


Opening a script from in Mail in Weekend Read

One of the most common uses of Weekend Read is to open a script someone has emailed you.

Here is the “right” way to do it:

  1. Go to Mail.
  2. Find the email with the file attached.
  3. Tap and hold on the file, then choose “Open in Wknd Read.”

The trouble is, it’s entirely reasonable to go to Weekend Read first. We let you import a file from Dropbox or a clipboard URL. Why don’t we let you import from Mail?

Because we can’t. Apps are sandboxed, and there’s simply no way for Weekend Read to reach into Mail and see what files are there to be imported.1

Yet it’s a normal, natural instinct for a user to want Weekend Read to work this way.

So for Weekend Read 1.0.2, I asked Ryan and Nima to add a Mail option that would simply switch the user over to Mail. Basically, “Oh, you want to import a file from Mail? Here, let me take you to Mail.”

But you can’t even do that. Apple provides a URL scheme for creating a new message in Mail, but not to simply switch to the inbox.

iPhone screenshot

Faced with these limitations, we still wanted to make adding a file from Mail as pleasant as possible. I asked Ryan Nelson to come up with a new animation that would show exactly how to add a file. I’m really happy with the result.

Now, whenever the user chooses Email from the list of import options, she is presented with a card acknowledging what she’s trying to do: “It’s easy to import a file from Mail.”

If she clicks on the “Show me how” button, she gets a looping animation that walks her through the process.

It’s entirely possible that a user will forget how to add a file from Mail and click on it again. That’s okay. The experience is consistent and predictable. If you’ve forgotten how to get to a file in Mail, you can learn again in 12 seconds.

Here’s the animation Ryan made:


Screenshots can show you what something looks like; animation can show you how something works.

But they can also be really annoying. When Facebook’s Paper app launched, it was criticized for its intrusive hand-holding. But I think this is a different case. Here, the animation only plays when you specifically ask for it. You want to know how to do it? Okay, let me show you.

If you want to see what the animation looks like in context, Weekend Read is free in the App Store.

ETA: As I was writing this, a new release of Weekend Read (1.0.3) went live in the App Store, which addresses a minor display bug.

  1. GoodReader skirts around this by asking for your email login information and checking the mail server itself. That’s more responsibility than I felt comfortable having as an app developer.

Pepperoni, parenthood, and the zone of solitude

Joanna Cohen is a writer in New York. For nine years she worked as a reporter and editor at Sports Illustrated. She’s since made her living in daytime television, most notably earning three Emmy nominations as a scriptwriter for “All My Children.”

When she isn’t coming up with dialogue about evil twins and babies switched at birth, she’s working on TV pilots, revising her debut novel, writing first-person essays for The New York Times and, most important, being a mom.


first person“Pepperoni.” That’s the shorthand my husband, Evan, and I use to tell one another I’m in the writing zone. Please come back later.

Why do we need such a silly word? Can’t we pause, look up from our computers and simply say we need a few more minutes of solitude to write?

Absolutely not.

The zone is sacred and elusive. Once you get there, you don’t mess with it. You don’t take time out to be polite. It’s as if you’re possessed, almost high. Some force has overtaken your being, and whatever it is you produce — sentences, songs, jump shots — flows from you exactly as you’d wished, seemingly without effort.

To be jerked out of this state by a ringing phone or car alarm or a question from a well-meaning spouse can be devastating.

It reminds me of a moment from the 2004 Olympics. Four miles from the finish line, a Brazilian marathoner was cruising to a gold medal when a protester darted out of the crowd and pushed him to the curb. Unable to regain his lead, he ended up coming in third.

Okay, maybe it’s not that heart-breaking. But it is maddening, and has led to interactions in my house that go something like this:

Evan enters our bedroom, where I’m typing away.

EVAN

So what do you want for --

ME

I’m writing.

EVAN

Could you just --

ME

Writing!

EVAN

Lemme know when you’re done.

I slam the laptop closed.

ME

I’m done.

To be fair, Evan’s work also involves a lot of writing. He understands the zone and respects it. So if he interrupts me, it’s because he thought I was sending email or surfing the web. Same goes for me.

Neither of us is a mind-reader and we didn’t want to keep having the same fight. We needed a signal, a way to communicate immediately that it wasn’t a good time to approach. We agreed it should be a single word. Simple but memorable. Pepperoni fit the bill.

We came up with this idea shortly after I’d made the career transition from being a journalist who worked in an office to a television writer who worked from home.

I loved doing my job where I lived, mostly because I could set my own hours. I’m an early bird. My best time is between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. I could go straight from my bed to my keyboard, stopping only to pour a cup of coffee, then crank straight through.

Early mornings were when I was most likely to find the zone. The sun would rise, the caffeine would kick in and the pages would fly from my fingers. Evan, a night owl, would either be asleep or I’d see him coming, hit him with a “pepperoni” and he’d let me do my thing. Problem solved.

Until we had a child.

When I was pregnant five years ago, I had visions of peaceful mornings, my baby sleeping by my side as I typed. I imagined she’d slip seamlessly into the routine, cooperative and joyful.

Um, no.

My daughter, Bee, would invariably awaken just as I was hitting my writing stride. I’d call for Evan to come take her. He always did. But it was too late. The moment was gone.

For months, I tried everything I could think of to preserve my precious mornings. I’d put Bee in her bouncy seat on the floor next to my desk, tapping it with my foot as I typed. I’d sit cross-legged on my chair, creating a spot in my lap where she could sleep as I hunched over her to reach the keyboard. Nothing worked.

As I prepared Bee’s bottles, I’d take my frustration out on Evan, who was only doing his best to help me. He sympathized when I ranted about what losing those hours was doing to me. Every time I was about to ride the wave of creativity, it would come crashing down. I’d pop up on the board, pumped and ready, and the lifeguard would blow the whistle and order everyone out of the water.

Evan’s proposal: Go surfing at another time of day.

I found the suggestion outrageous. (Writers can be a little sensitive.) I was supposed to change when I felt most inspired? Perhaps I could also grow another hand so I could type faster.

But then I realized Evan was right. If I lived alone in a log cabin, controlling my schedule would be easy. But I was a new mother, living in modern-day Manhattan.

Renting office space would be too expensive. I wasn’t about to give up writing to become an accountant. And I couldn’t Jedi mind trick my kid into sleeping whenever I needed to work. If I wanted to avoid resenting my family and get back to feeling good about writing, I’d have to change my habits.

The first step was learning to write outside of our apartment. In the beginning, it was tough. Every time I walked into a café, I’d stress over whether it had wifi or if I could get a table near an outlet where I could plug in my computer as it ran low on power.

There were plenty of outlets at my gym, so I tried working in the lounge there. It was like writing in a club — techno music thumping and sweaty, scantily clad people all around me. I found a nice terrace behind a local museum that had free wifi, but no outlets or bathrooms.

I’d walk a mile to my sister’s apartment, which was comfortable, private and had all the necessary equipment. But she works at a school and would come home earlier than I could afford to knock off. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, so I’d often finish the day on park bench or the steps of a brownstone.

At home in the evenings, I’d complain to Evan about the anxiety-producing work conditions, all the schlepping around and the seven-dollar pots of tea I didn’t want, but kept ordering just to buy me a few more hours at the café. I feared I’d swapped one set of frustrations for another.

But I hung in there — and, in time, discovered I was more adaptable as a writer than I’d thought. I learned to tune out the techno, became friends with the café manager who did his best to reserve an outlet table for me, and found that I actually could produce good work after 10 a.m. Soon I even felt confident enough to tackle another challenge: finding a way to write at home once in a while.

As Bee got older, we began to use the phrase “Mama’s working” and she’d occasionally let me stay behind closed doors while she played with Evan or my sister or a babysitter. Of course, there are plenty of days when she won’t go for it and I’ve ditched the Act Two scene that was finally coming together to make Play-Doh cookies.

But we’re miles from the bouncy seat and 5 a.m. wake-ups. These days I mostly have the pre-dawn hours to myself. Before long, I think Bee might even respond to “pepperoni.”


On Rotation

Weekend Read’s support site encourages users to send in feature requests in addition to the usual bug reports. We try to answer every inquiry.

This week, we responded to a plea for landscape mode in Weekend Read by explaining that while it’s not out of the question, we had already tried landscape mode for the iPhone, and found it unsatisfactory.

The user disagreed — and threatened a negative review — arguing we should let consumers decide whether they want to rotate scripts to read them in landscape mode.

This got me thinking about landscape mode on the iPhone, and the apps that support it. As I started going through the apps on my first few screens, I realized that landscape on the iPhone is far from universal.

Portrait-Only Both Rotations
Settings Messages
App Store Contacts
iTunes Camera
Vesper Maps
Launch Center Photos
Phone Skitch
Clock Snapseed
Instacast iA Writer
Trailers Instapaper
Letterpress Kindle
Vine iBooks
Instagram GoodReader
IMDb
Reeder
Poster
Facebook
Twitter
Podcasts
Facebook Paper
Glassboard

Notably, many of Apple’s own apps eschew landscape mode. Just as notably, many reading-style apps support landscape mode. So it’s certainly worth looking at the pros and cons of adding landscape support to the iPhone.

PRO: Lots of other reader apps allow landscape.

CON: We’re different than most reader apps. In Weekend Read, margins matter a lot for dialogue and transitions. We can’t just set every block left and move on. We would need to extensively test which margins look right for which font size. An extra complication is that we’d need to do it for both the smaller iPhone 4 series and the larger iPhone 5s.

PRO: We did landscape mode in the iPhone version of FDX Reader.

CON: Supporting landscape in FDX Reader was a pain in the ass. New developer tools make it somewhat easier, but Weekend Read is a much more complex app than FDX Reader, with many more views.

PRO: With the much-rumored larger iPhones, people might use them more like iPad minis, which are often in landscape mode.

CON: There aren’t bigger-screen iPhones yet.

CON: All new graphics, all new headaches. From the user perspective, it seems like allowing landscape rotation should be as simple as flipping a switch. And in fact, it sort of is in in Xcode. But when you flip that switch, you find that almost everything needs to be rethought and rebuilt, because it was designed for vertical orientation.

PRO: Users could choose even larger fonts. By sacrificing vertical space, we could let the user have letters nearly an inch tall.

CON: The text options screen is actually a good example of what would need to be rebuilt. Here’s the screen in portrait mode:

iphone WR portrait

The sample text lets you see in real time what the font will look like. Here’s that same screen in landscape:

landscape WR

We’d have to substantially rethink this view.

CON: The gestures are built for portrait. On Weekend Read, you can swipe right to get back to the Library. You can swipe left to show the Page Jumper. But in landscape, your thumbs are in the wrong place. It’s not a deal-killer, but it’s a worse experience.

CON: Twice the views to debug. Twice as many things to break.

CON: Very few people are asking for landscape mode. By far the majority of requests are for an iPad version. Allowing landscape rotation on the iPhone would push the iPad version back at least another two weeks.

Ultimately, every choice comes with a cost. Adding landscape to the iPhone isn’t impossible, but it means not doing something else, and right now the many “something elses” are worth a lot more.

You can find Weekend Read in the App Store.


World-building

Scriptnotes: Ep. 135
Play

John and Craig discuss how you create a fictional universe for your story, and the limits of how much can fit on the page. From location to language to wardrobe, choosing which details to make explicit is a crucial early decision. Too little detail and the reader doesn’t know how your story is special; too much detail and the story gets lost.

Also this week, Resurrection vs The Returned vs The Returned vs Les Revenants — just because it’s an original idea to you doesn’t mean it’s the first time anyone’s ever thought of it. We also provide exactly five minutes of follow-up on last week’s discussion about what should replace the current screenplay format.

And True Detective! Which we loved! It’s only because we loved it that we can point out ways it could have been stronger. Did the traditional once-a-week format help or hurt it? Probably both.

LINKS:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 3-21-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.