Writing I am an OCD nut job

Do You Want to Write?

I’m once again writing with a product from the folks at iAWriter Pro. I gave their first product, iA Writer, a good long try last year, but eventually gave up when I discovered I couldn’t adjust the text size to see additional text on my screen.

It’s seems like a minor nit, but it was a major violation of my writing process. My pieces tend to start with a couple of random paragraphs and over time they begin to form a narrative. This chaotic creative process requires that I can see a good chunk of my writing so I can figure out how to tie thoughts together. iA Writer is a self-described “focused writing app” that nobly attempts to corral your creative energy. Their marquee (and patentable?) feature “focused mode” highlights only the current sentence so as to keep your focus where it should be — on your current thought.

The problem is: my thoughts are all over the place, and as a designer of applications, iA had not yet convinced me there was a better way.

A Complete Absence of Choice

As I wrote in How to Write a Book, I’ve done the majority of my writing in Mac OS X’s TextEdit. The reason being that the simplicity of the application allows me to get to the task of writing. No toolbar, few preferences, just a window bar and a big empty box that I can fill with text.

Writer Pro (and its predecessor iA Writer) prides itself on its ability to strip away everything not essential to the craft of writing. As I sit here writing this piece in full screen mode, all I can see is the words. I compulsively keep glancing to the upper-right of the screen to check the time, but it’s not there. Right, keep writing.

There’s nothing novel about full screen mode, but Writer Pro takes minimalism a step further — Writer Pro, a $19.99 application in the App Store, has no preferences.

Your knee-jerk reaction to the lack of preferences might be, “Well, how do I do X?” To which my response is, “Why do you want to do X?” Your X feature request is likely somewhere on a spectrum where, at one end, is “I need to X because it is an essential part of my writing workflow,” and at the other end is, “I need to X because I’m an OCD nut job who can’t write unless the typeface is 15pt Sentinel.”

It’s not my job to judge where your favorite feature lands on this spectrum, but it is iA’s, and they’ve done a beautiful job judging you and it’s about time.

There’s an App for That

As a society, we’re still suffering with a lot of well-intentioned engineering-led software design where the mindset originally was: Give all of them every feature they could ever need. In a world where software was new, engineers ran the show, and the unsuspecting public thought a good pen and paper was state of the art. This kitchen sink design strategy made sense. We didn’t know what features would work in a digital world — nor did the users — so we gave them everything. It is this “strategy” that gave us Excel, Word, and Photoshop.

The companies that gave us these kitchen sink applications had little incentive to reduce the cognitive load they caused. They convinced the world that they were state of the art; they published books and created classes that would explain these feature-laden monstrosities; and they made piles and piles of money. The world said they were world-class and there is no better way to kill innovation than believing you’ve won.

To me, the phrase “post-PC” doesn’t just apply to our hardware, but every single part of the device formerly known as a PC. We’ve left the world where there is a large beige box full of spinning media wheezing beneath your desk. The frustrating details of an operating system such as file systems, memory management, and command lines are vanishing. Finally, traditional applications have been shattered. Which part of Word do you actually need? Guess what? There’s an app for that.

Great Design Elegantly Reduces Cognitive Load

The gift of the “post-PC” era is that we’re unloading a tremendous amount of useless crap that was originally intended to help us. Application preferences are intended to be useful; they are intended to give you, the user, options. But preferences are bad design.

A preference gives me a choice. On or off? Font size? Which font size? Display name? Window size? Display it? Don’t display it? No one in the history of ever thought they were doing a bad thing by giving users choice, but while I will never admit it, I don’t want choice. I want to get to the task at hand.

Preferences are a sign of design laziness; they are an indication the people responsible for building the application don’t have enough empathy or desire to do the work they intend to be paid for: design the application so I that I can work, not think about how I might work.

My Thoughts Are All Over the Place

In a world full of $0.99 applications, I’m certain there are those who are shocked by a $19.99 writing application. If they actually purchased it, they would be downright outraged — I paid twenty bucks for this? Where the hell are my knobs and dials? All I see is a big white screen and I can’t tinker with my fonts!

I’m still adapting to Writer Pro, but my initial read is that the application is helpfully making decisions for me. The marquee feature is a set of workflows that roughly map to my writing process: note, write, edit, and read. Each of the first three has a slightly different typeface and functionality that is designed to assist with that particular part of the process.

Yes, I am wondering why this typeface is better for writing than the typeface in Read mode. I’m certain that I could spend the next two hours performing this research, or, hey, I could write.

A good chunk of the money I spent on Writer Pro is to pay iA to obsess for me. Go watch the videos. They’ve clearly spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours considering the many aspects of writing and attempting to make the best decisions for me: the writer. The lack of clutter, options, and choices might turn you off, but my question is, “Do you want to write? Or think about writing?”

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23 Responses

  1. Christopher G 4 months ago

    500+ words to expound on… I’ve already forgotten, let go back up and read… Focus mode?

  2. Will Cate 4 months ago

    Right on.

  3. Daniel 4 months ago

    >They’ve clearly spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours considering the many aspects of writing and attempting to make the best decisions for me

    How can you tell? From a promotional video?!

  4. Georgi 4 months ago

    I’ve been using iAwriter on ipad mini and air for the last year and I love it except for one thing that is getting annoying since I switched to the Air.
    For mostly practical reasons I find the font on iPad Air to be too big. When I am on the train I dont want the people 3 rows behind me to be able to read everything I write.
    They are pushing the responsive typography bit tooo far for me.

  5. Hmmm… seems like you switched gears somewhere between the 3rd and 4th paragraph, but I guess you make a good point anyway. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve cursed MS Word, especially since it seems that the last several updates seem to have been mostly rearrangement of the user interface without adding anything useful.

    You might want to try Scrivener from Literature & Latte (Mac version: http://howardleeharkness.com/MacScrivener), although it may well flunk your complexity criterion. And it’s $45, which may be over your price threshold. But it’s a pretty good book-writer’s editor, and you don’t have to use the features you don’t want.

  6. No, lack of any options is indicative of ablism: “I can choose the right font for everybody! Or at least, everybody who matters.” It’s arrogance. You don’t know what my vision requirements are, and you don’t give a shit: if I’m not just like you, you don’t want me as a customer. When you don’t provide even the most common tools to help people make your app accessible to them, you step over the line of “choosing your demographic” and into discrimination.

    We don’t tolerate buildings that choose to focus only on the able bodied: “this is a stairs-only building; if that doesn’t fit your needs, find a different building.” Not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable in software, when there are easy accessibility options possible.

    It’s true that software has tended toward the kitchen sink in order to avoid having to define workflows. It’s true that this is changing, and that’s good.

    But having literally NO options in something with four workflows in it? That’s a stupid marketing gimmick AT BEST and a lack of compassion, competence, or empathy at worst.

    I would have been much more interested in the app if you’d said it had “very few” options. But saying it has NO options sets off so many design alarm bells that I won’t bother with it.

    (And yes, many people need to use specialized fonts to read – not just extra-large ones, either. It’s an interesting thing to research next time you’re procrastinating from writing.)

  7. Marco Riello 4 months ago

    All I hear is a very smart company convincing customers that less is more (to the extreme) so they can sell them an application that is so trivially simple that it could have been written by a CS freshman but still charging top bucks for it because it is so minimalistically cool.
    You essentially purchased a very expensive digital moleskin. But it looks so much cooler [sarcasm intended]…

  8. I almost bought it, but it’s getting horrible reviews in the App store.

  9. John Gibson 4 months ago

    I write, and I have found Scrivener to be the tool that I use the most. I used to use word, but hated it.

    If you have a Mac (or PC) you might consider this…

  10. @Eric

    A vision-impaired user would likely have ‘large text’ set in the interface, perhaps with ‘high contrast’. One would hope apps would pick up on those global settings. Is that possible in MacOS?

  11. BBEdit has pretty much done this for me. Lots of settings, but turn off all toolbars, etc, set a font & size for all documents, and it’s pretty much equivalent (menubar still visible) except that all that power is there when you need it (if you do).

    I only wish it had settings sets so I could have a “coding” setup, a “writing” setup, and so on.

    Actually, it might! But there are so many settings I haven’t found it yet :-P ( yah, I’m giving you one there :)).

  12. Yes, it’s probably a great app to write, but it doesn’t have any significant advantages over the old iA Writer. The file handling system is still horrible and that Syntax Thing isn’t something I would use.
    Other than that, it’s just iA Writer with four screens in a new coat, if you ask me.

  13. I’ve been using it on my Mac, iPhone and iPad since it launched. I was using iA Writer previously. I’m a big fan of both applications. Writer Pro is quite nice, but it really doesn’t strike me as a big improvement over the previous iteration of the product. (What’s worse, it lost a few useful features like Dropbox support on iOS.) Some of the gestures on the iOS application are also a bit annoying. I accidentally swipe between documents enough that I’d rather be unable to do so. Demarcating your writing into their various modes is handy, but it still feels lacking in its current incarnation. (The Read mode doesn’t render your markdown?)