Hi, I'm Allen Pike. I run Steamclock, where we design and develop polished apps in beautiful Vancouver. At least monthly, I write an article and publish it here.

Canada Election Guide, 2019

October 13, 2019

Updated to reflect latest polling, and to add a Vancouver Granville section, through Oct 19.

On Monday, Canada votes.

Last election, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept into power. A wave of optimism and enthusiasm won the Liberals the largest gain in seats ever in a Federal election. Trudeau was seen as a champion of the center and the left, and drove the highest voter turnout in over 20 years. The result: a total rout. The leaders of all three other major parties left or were pushed out.

Four years later, things have changed. By most measures Canada is doing fine, but the Prime Minister’s shine has worn off. On one hand, Trudeau kept many of his promises – he appointed Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet, cancelled the Northern Gateway pipeline, and legalized cannabis.

On the other hand, people distinctly remember the promises he did not keep – cough, electoral reform – and the ones they feel like he made, but hasn’t lived up to. Like, he didn’t say he wouldn’t nationalize an oil pipeline, or eject a prominent indigenous woman trying to uphold the rule of law from his party. He didn’t explicitly say he had no history of repeatedly dressing up in racist face paint. Voters just kind of assumed.

And even if those controversies haven’t changed the party allegiance of many traditional Liberal voters, they’ve certainly dampened enthusiasm for Trudeau among progressives generally.

Of course, thanks to our parliamentary system, voters have a variety of alternative parties to consider. Unfortunately, none of the alternatives seem to be inspiring a ton of enthusiasm either. Despite rigorous campaigning by some fresh faces, the CBC poll tracker changed little for most of the campaign, mostly projecting a minority government by the Liberals or the Conservatives.

While predicting election odds is hard enough in the best of times, we may see particularly inaccurate polling this year since higher apathy and uncertainty about what party to vote for will likely drive down turnout.

Hopefully, this guide will motivate you to use your vote on Monday. It’s in you to give.

The Issues, or Lack Thereof

Unlike many elections, and certainly unlike those south of the border, there are not a lot of big, emotional issues driving this Canadian election. Still, in an election year where none of the leaders are inspiring a ton of enthusiasm, the issues are going to drive the vote for many people.

As a quick refresher for what the federal issues are, it’s worth checking in on what the federal government actually does in Canada. You may be losing sleep over the sorry state of our road signage, but those aren’t the kind of signs Ottawa is looking at.

At a high level, the question is: who do you want making decisions about the environment, federal taxes, seniors’ benefits, immigration, personal rights, foreign affairs and trade, national defense, large infrastructure funding like public transit or social housing, and some aspects of indigenous affairs and healthcare? You know, the big stuff?

When it comes to platform details, the CBC has a reasonable platforms breakdown of what the parties have to say on some of these key items. For many issues, though, often the question isn’t “who promises to reduce greenhouse gases by what I’ve personally determined is the correct amount”, but rather “who do I expect will in practice make the biggest impact on climate?” And for many issues, the party platforms haven’t laid out a lot of concrete action.

Perhaps that’s unsurprising. In this political moment, there isn’t one critical social debate or national referendum driving parties’ platforms. While that’s maybe for the best, it makes for a bit of a boring election.

To some degree, the boringness is exaggerated because Canada’s political parties currently break down on fairly traditional left-right axes. There is no distinctly libertarian party with a socially progressive but fiscally conservative agenda, for example. Given that, it’s pretty tough for 5 or 6 parties to carve out distinct compelling takes on the issues. As a result, we mostly have different leaders arguing not about what to do, but how much to do it – plus one drunk guy in the corner claiming that climate change is not caused by humans and that rapidly increasing carbon dioxide just means more “food for plants”.

Given that, rather than digging into any issue in detail, I’m going to recap the national parties in rough progressive to conservative order, and consider where they’re at and why you may want to vote for them.

Please don’t hate me.


Bringing up the left side of the House, we have longtime social-democrats, the New Democratic Party. As with many left-wing organizations, over the years the party has struggled to find balance between its more radically progressive elements and the more electable ones, and has spent most of its history in 3rd place or worse. That said, if your politics are progressive, and wealth inequality in Canada is a serious concern for you, then the NDP should be on your radar already.

As is their style, the NDP promises to spend more money on social programs than the more moderate parties, and have predictably progressive perspectives on social and climate issues. For example, the NDP is pledging to build 50,000 new affordable homes per year, whereas the Greens promise to build 25,000 and the Liberals are pledging 10,000. Of course it’s easy for the 3rd place party to make pledges, and the bigger question is about which party might actually achieve their targets, and how they’ll pay for it all – a tale as old as time.

When he was elected leader of the NDP in 2017, Jagmeet Singh didn’t exactly light a fire under the party’s base. Most press coverage of Singh has focused on either his early struggles to build a national campaign, or commentary on his deft and moving responses to questions about race. That said, Singh has more recently received positive press for his debate performances, and in the final days of the campaign has seen his polling numbers pick up – both in terms of leader favourability and in party support.

You should consider voting NDP if you’re firmly on the progressive end of the spectrum, especially if they’re likely the strongest progressive party in your riding. For many voters on the left, though, the question of whether to vote NDP in a given election or riding comes down to strategic voting.

Strategic voting

A big question for supporters of 3rd and 4th place parties is always strategic voting. For example, a number of voters who leaned NDP last year voted instead for Justin Trudeau. For those who voted for Trudeau as a “this will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post” candidate, that bridge is now likely burned. On the other hand, those who voted Liberal as a “Stop Harper” vote might consider doing so again, depending on their riding.

Since strategic voting is so riding-dependent, if you’re an “Not Conservative” voter, you’ll need to look up your riding. Although you can just reference Wikipedia, or Justin McElroy’s excellent countdown of every BC riding from least to most interesting, the change in fortunes and polls across parties can make it really hard to project who actually has a chance in a given riding. That’s why I was pleased to find 338Canada, a low-budget but surprisingly in-depth data source for every riding in this year’s election. Don’t miss their projections plotted on the electoral history chart for your riding, which should be helpful in any attempt at voting strategically.

Once you have a sense of what candidates might win in your riding, “anything but Conservative” voters can take an approach like this:

  1. If a Liberal, NDP, Bloc, or Green candidate seems to clearly have the best chance of defeating the Conservative one in your riding, then vote for that candidate.
  2. If it seems unclear what left-leaning candidate has the best chance, or it’s within the (large) margin of polling error, then vote for the candidate you like best.

The core goal of strategic voting on the left is to not hand a left-leaning riding to the Conservatives due to vote-splitting. While the Liberals are the only progressive party with a real shot at winning the election overall, successfully electing an NDP or Green MP is still a success for progressives in the parliamentary system. This is especially true now, given that a minority government seems likely and parties may need to form alliances.

If only we could get a prime minister who pledged to stop first past the post, we wouldn’t have to worry about strategic voting anymore. One can dream.

The Green Party

Traditionally a protest vote, early this election cycle the Green Party got substantially more attention than usual. This was due in part to the ever-increasing priority of climate as a critical election issue, but also because Greens have had electoral successes at the municipal and provincial levels in recent years.

With more attention has come more scrutiny, and for the first time that I’m aware, the Green Party has gotten press for campaign-trail gaffes – insufficiently vetting candidates, for example. Running a truly national campaign is tough.

An interesting facet of Green Party policy is that unlike other parties in Canada, they pledge to let elected Green Party MPs vote freely instead of being beholden to the party line. That sounds great in theory, but it does have the consequence that in order to confidently vote Green, you need to understand the particular candidate you’re voting for – who may or may not fully agree with the party platform.

While the Green Party is further left than the NDP on some issues, they are surprisingly centrist or neutral on other issues. They don’t consider themselves left-wing, and at most levels of government Greens seem less interested in taxing the rich to help the poor than the NDP do. From a strategic perspective, the Greens position themselves as a plausible alternative both for NDP and especially Liberal voters who want to send a clear message on climate.

Elizabeth May has long been party leader and lone MP, and is the longest-standing leader of Canada’s parties. While this may be the year the Greens pick up a couple additional seats – for example, on Vancouver Island – their support continues to be spread so thinly across the country that they pose a serious challenge in very few ridings. That said, the fact climate is a huge pillar of their platform could make this a landmark year for them.

You should consider voting Green if your riding is one of the few that has a strong Green candidate with a chance of winning, or if you want to lodge a protest vote on behalf of climate. If you’re a Green supporter looking to vote strategically, the rules I describe above all apply.

Bloc Québécois

Given that the Bloc is a separatist party that only runs candidates in Quebec, the personal blog of a tech guy from Vancouver is probably not the go-to source of information on them. On the other hand, they don’t seem to even have an English website, so maybe you are looking for information on them? If so, I apologize.

From what I’ve gathered, support for the Bloc has risen in the polls since last election’s lows, and in a minority government situation they could hold the balance of power. So they’re important to Canada, but not an option on most Canadians’ ballots.

You should consider voting Bloc if you’re a left-leaning voter who is interested in Quebec separatism and have actually read about their platform in French. Or, perhaps, if you’re an “Anything but Conservative” voter who is in a riding where Bloc is the best defensive vote.

The Liberal Party

The Liberals are Canada’s winningest political party, longtime experts at finding a balanced position in the center of Canadian politics – in the middle, but a bit to the left.

In 2015, Trudeau’s positivity, charisma, enthusiasm, and vocal support of progressive social values earned the Liberals a lot of new votes. He got “Stop Harper” votes from the left, open-minded votes from the right, previously non-existent votes from the young, and a non-trivial number of votes from fringe-party voters eager to do away with First Past the Post.

Over the last four years, the Liberals haven’t exactly screwed Canada up – by most measures the economy is doing well, and he fulfilled most of his promises – but he’s managed to alienate various voting constituencies that lent him their votes in 2015, especially on the left. Perhaps worse for the Liberal party, he’s annoyed enough of his base that Liberal turnout will almost certainly be lower this time around.

That said, there is an enduring appeal to centrism, and the Liberals continue to be the party whose views are closest to the median Canadian. Since the demise of Canada’s Progressive Conservative party in 2003, the Liberals have also been the closest we have to a libertarian party – the most fiscally conservative party you can elect that is still progressive in a social sense.

Perhaps most importantly for the Liberals, they are the stereotypical “not Conservative” strategic vote. As in most modern Canadian elections, the Conservatives and Liberals are the only two parties with a shot at actually forming government. In ridings that the Conservatives have a good chance of winning, the Liberals are often the next most likely party to win. You can read my overview of strategic voting above.

An amusing wrinkle for the center-left Federal Liberals every election is that the de facto right-wing political party in British Columbia is called the BC Liberals. I find this funny in two ways: both that the two parties share a name but have quite different positions in politics, and that BC is a liberal enough place that the most conservative major party we have is titled the “liberals”.

You should consider consider voting Liberal if you’re a moderate or centre-left voter who thinks Trudeau really does mean well and is learning from his various foibles, or if you’re a progressive voter who falls in the “anything but Conservative” camp and the Liberals have the best shot at defeating the Conservatives in your riding.

And please, if you voted for Trudeau last time and are annoyed at him for one of many valid reasons, please still take the effort to vote this year – even if it’s just to formally record your displeasure.

Conservative Party of Canada

In 2003, the center-right Progressive Conservatives and the right-wing Canadian Alliance merged. While this annoyed the most moderate and most radical factions of those parties, it vastly improved conservatives’ electoral chances in this country, and led to almost 10 years of Conservative government.

With this merger, voting became simple for many Canadians: they knew their views were conservative, and no longer had to weigh just how much social conservatism they wanted along with their tax cuts: the conservative base just ticks the box for Conservative. If that’s you, then you’re probably just hate-reading this article in order to send me angry email. Which is fine. Hi! Sorry! 😅

Voting is perhaps more interesting, though, for the libertarian-minded voter. Nowadays, we have Liberal/Conservative swing voters – people who are neither enthusiastic about the Liberals’ economic approach nor the Conservatives’ social or environmental policies. Each election, these voters must take a side, or perhaps lodge a protest vote for the Greens. Fun Fact: Elizabeth May was a policy advisor for the Progressive Conservatives in the 1980s.

While it’s easy to attribute this year’s increase in Conservative polling entirely to the tarnished image of Trudeau, I also think some right-leaning voters see fewer pressing social issues than they did 4 years ago. The absence of a socially conservative government has taken topics like abortion and same-sex marriage out of Canada’s national conversation. Meanwhile, increased attention on – and, in some cases, support for – extreme right-wing and/or authoritarian governments worldwide makes a politely Canadian Conservative government with a vague social agenda seem like a reasonable option.

Heading up the Conservatives this election is Andrew Scheer. Like Singh and Trudeau he’s in his 40s, bringing a youthful energy to his party. Also like Singh and Trudeau, Scheer doesn’t seem to have inspired a lot of enthusiasm from voters this election. As boring as their leader may be though, Conservative voters are enthusiastic about getting a progressive PM out of office.

One serious complication for the Conservatives this election is the newly founded People’s Party of Canada, which hopes to split out some Conservative votes with its more right-wing, populist message. Where in previous years the Conservatives’ obvious strategy would have been to moderate their message to mop up disaffected Trudeau voters, this new threat from the right has pulled the Conservatives back into conversations about things like same-sex marriage – battles lost that are hardly worth revisiting, but if ignored entirely could lose them their most conservative voters.

All that said, the biggest challenge for Conservatives is probably on the climate file. While Scheer has smartly maintained that climate change is important and that Canada should meet its Paris carbon targets, the Conservatives’ platform is very critical of carbon pricing, an approach that originated as a conservative market-based approach to global warming. Absent a carbon tax, the Conservatives are rather vague about how we might otherwise reach those targets.

You should consider voting Conservative if:

  1. You’re a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and you’re just reading this article to look for things to disagree with
  2. You lean Conservative and couldn’t stomach voting for Trudeau again, especially if you’re not very concerned about climate targets or the potential of Scheer enacting a few socially conservative policies
  3. You live in Beauce, Quebec, and have the irresistable chance to deny the People’s Party from getting a single seat in parliament.

The People’s Party

A natural consequence of a unified Conservative party is that there will, on occasion, be politicians who are too conservative, too extreme, to be part of a big Conservative tent. This election, we have somebody wild enough to try to out-conservative the Conservatives: Maxime Bernier.

Bernier says he would do “nothing” about climate change, thinks Canada’s “extreme multiculturalism” is a problem, called Greta Thunberg “mentally unstable”, wants to reduce funding for healthcare, called diversity a “cult”, and is overall a one-star clown.

That said, we’ve learned from elections worldwide that it’s too easy to dismiss populists as being idiots.

If you are considering voting for the People’s Party of Canada in any riding other than Maxime Bernier’s, you’re probably just splitting the vote and hurting the Conservatives, the party with an actual chance to advance your views. While in the short term it may be better for progressive politics in Canada to have a split conservative vote, I think legitimizing this kind of rhetoric sends a terrible message to the country and our children. Please just don’t.

Addendum: Vancouver Granville

By sheer luck – or lack thereof – this election I happen to live in one of the most interesting ridings in the country: Vancouver Granville. As such, a few people have asked me for some context for this rather unusual race.

Vancouver Granville’s incumbent MP is Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada until the SNC-Lavalin affair resulted in the Prime Minster ejecting her from the Liberal Party. She is now running for re-election as an independent.

While it’s rare for an independent candidate to win a federal seat, it’s also rare for a candidate to be the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General, the incumbent MP, and only be independent because she recently took the sitting government to task for a breach of ethics. Which is to say, she seems to have a serious shot.

Making things hard to call, though, is the fact that in 2015, the riding split very evenly on either side of the Liberals: 26% Conservative, 44% Liberal, and 27% NDP. A result like that should predict a stable Liberal hold this year, but now those Liberal votes will likely split, one way or another, between Wilson-Raybould and the new Liberal candidate – meaning whoever wins the riding could have fewer than 30% of the vote.

Given that, Vancouver Granville is a headache for strategic voters and pollsters alike. 338Canada’s model projects a tossup between Wilson-Raybould and the Liberals, but if enthusiasm and turnout become the deciding factors, it could become be a race between JWR and the Conservatives. While strategic voters crave projections, 338’s estimates are based on national data, and seem to struggle with the complexity of this riding.

For example, when Wilson-Raybould was added to the 338 projection as an independent in June, the model oddly semeed to think this would primarily hurt NDP and Conservative results, but somehow increase the Green vote. Meanwhile, in real life, Green leader Elizabeth May has endorsed JWR over her own Green candidate in the riding.

While that may seem odd for a recently Liberal MP, the Greens and the Liberals aren’t far apart on most issues – and the issues Wilson-Raybould outlines on her website mesh pretty well with the Green platform.

And although an independent might not necessarily have much power in our very party-dominated parliament, there is a tiny but fascinating chance that an independent MP could affect the balance of power in a very close minority government situation. Whatever your politics, it would be hard not to appreciate the irony of Jody Wilson-Raybould holding power over a weakened Trudeau government.

All that said, one huge benefit of living in a “riding to watch” is that there are some surprisingly in-depth recent profiles of the race in places like The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Which is good, since this is one riding where a few votes could make a real impact.

Actually voting

To vote on Monday, October 21 – or during advance polling until Monday, October 14 – you just need to:

  • Have ID that proves your address
  • Be 18, and a Canadian citizen
  • Vote at your assigned polling station in your riding

If you’ve registered to vote you should have received a voting information card that will make voting faster. If you don’t have a voting card, you should still be able to vote, as long as you find your assigned polling station.

Voting hours vary by province, but are 7:00am to 7:00pm in BC, and are 9:30am to 9:30pm in Ontario.

Learning more

If you have any feedback or (especially) corrections on this guide, please get in touch!

While I hope this guide is a helpful starting point for people, I’m just a lone designer and developer from Vancouver – if you’re able, it’s great to do your own research, and spread the word about what you learn. Some starting points for doing your own research:

  • 338Canada, a rough but valuable trove of polling data and projections
  • The CBC Poll Tracker, which isn’t very useful for strategic voting but is nicer than 338’s
  • Justin McElroy, CBC Vancouver’s local affairs reporter and professional ranker of things
  • Party Platform Guides by the CBC and Maclean’s
  • The Vote Compass, which is a neat tool even though the issues this year make its results kind of uninteresting and at times misleading
  • The Oct 7 Leaders’ debate, made available in full on Youtube by CTV news including, inexplicably, hours of preamble
  • A variety of political podcasts, including the CBC’s Party Lines and BC’s PolitiCoast

Kitten See, Kitten Do

September 30, 2019

When I was a kid, we had a kitten named Rab. She was thus called because she was small, fluffy, white, and tail-less – like a rabbit. She was endearing and snuggly and prosh, or at least she was when she wasn’t drinking from the toilet bowl. Even as an adult, she stayed small and roughly spherical. To us, she was still a kitten.

One day, our kitten had kittens. So turns the circle of life. The litter was scrawny and stumbly, and blind enough that they’d attempt to suck milk from the olive green strands of our old shag rug.

As they grew, they got a lot cuter and a little less clumsy. As cute as they were, though, they weren’t the least bit cuddly. You could get one second of snuggle in, perhaps two, before they’d promptly mew and squirm – all they wanted to do was climb and play.

A few weeks into this, very late one night I was woken by a mewing pile of kittens in my bed. A pleasant surprise! As I blearily moved to let Rab lead them under the covers, I discovered that they were distinctly cold, wet, and shivering. Confused but dutiful, I did my best to help her warm them up, and soon fell back asleep.

The next morning, it promptly became clear what had happened. Rab, in her wisdom and stubbornness, had decided to drink from the side of the toilet in the middle the night. The kittens, in their curiosity and adventurousness, jumped up – and directly into – the bowl. Mama then taught them a critical lesson in leeching body heat from an unsuspecting human.

Disgusting, but endearing. Like much of parenting, I suppose.

As a parent, I do my best to teach my daughter well, and to keep her from harm. From time to time though, I slip up. I notice her copying behavior I wish I hadn’t modeled. I get overconfident in her climbing ability and she knocks her tooth on the pavement. Or, most recently, I give in and let her watch a cartoon that’s a little too scary. (Apparently we’re not born with the innate knowledge that “the floor is lava” is not likely to actually occur.)

If there’s a way to totally prevent these transgressions, I don’t know what it is. Nor is that a goal worth having, honestly. Letting kids slip up is a fundamental part of their education.

What’s important is, when that happens, we take care of them. We lead them to warmth, and give them comfort. Even if it’s a little gross.

And with luck, seeing my habits and mannerisms reflected in my child will continue to give me the perspective to better myself. The strength to choose my words thoughtfully, and be the person I’d like her to one day be. To stop drinking from the toilet.

Rab, mind you, she was unstoppable. Still, she was a good mom. You could just tell.

Multiply Your Time

August 31, 2019

One of my most hated things is when someone over-fills a garbage bag.

You see, an almost-full garbage bag is a small task to deal with – you just close it up and pull it out. But an over-full garbage bag is a problem. Suddenly, you can’t just pull it closed anymore – dealing with the bin now involves biohazardous juggling, something nobody is inclined to do anytime soon. The resulting additional procrastination leads to, in most cases, an unstoppable garbage snowball that eventually destroys humanity itself.

Everybody has their irrational pet peeves. As long as I can remember, this has been one of mine. For years I always tried to prioritize the task of emptying the bin before it got over-filled. Sometimes I succeeded, but other times I failed, and a stupid garbage can would put me on tilt.

One day, when I attempted the task of emptying the bin, I found it over-full. And instead of emptying it, I left. I left for Home Depot, on a different task that would change how I thought about prioritization forever: I bought a smaller garbage bin.

It may be obvious to you, but for years I ignored the root cause of my age-long grief. I did nothing about the thing that actually enabled people to pile in more garbage than the bag could hold: the bin was bigger than its bag. By buying a smaller bin, the same bags simply couldn’t be over-filled. Even the most precariously over-filled bin could be wrapped up swiftly and neatly, using the specially reserved portion of bag draped on the outside of the bin, ready and waiting for duty.

It was glorious.

The quietly worthwhile

There is a lot of stuff you should get done.

Or, more accurately, there is a lot of stuff you feel like you should get done. My OmniFocus tracks 860 actions that, at one time, I felt like I should do. Many of them won’t get done. But there are some things in there that I truly should do, and if I do them, I’ll be very glad.

The question is: which ones?

Some actually-important things are urgent. If you don’t renew your passport, you can’t go on your upcoming trip. If you don’t empty the garbage before garbage day, you’ll be stuck with old garbage for two weeks. The task needs to get done, you need to do it, so you just gotta do it. It’s kind of obvious, because it’s both urgent and important.

More interesting, though, is the non-urgent stuff that is nevertheless very worthwhile. The tasks that are easy to defer, tempting to procrastinate, but actually more important than the supposedly urgent tasks: the smaller garbage bins, waiting to be bought.

So, when I’m looking at things I should do, I keep an eye out for certain kinds of tasks: work that isn’t urgent, but can multiply time. Things that could pay off for months or years to come.

In particular, I try to consider if I can:

  1. Automate. Can you spend 1 hour simplifying or automating something that would then save yourself 5 minutes a week? If so, then I have an incredible investment opportunity for you: you can invest time – the most precious resource we have – at a 430% annual interest rate. The busier I get, the harder it is to get around to tackling these automation and simplification tasks, but the more worthwhile it is.
  2. Teach. If there’s somebody who’d be willing to do this task in the future, but they don’t know how yet, then you have a big opportunity. The long-term payoff for teaching someone how to do a task can be massive. Even in the case of successfully handing something off only for it to “boomerang” back later, having taught still improves your understanding of the work and makes you a better teacher for the next attempt. If you’re in a leadership position of any kind, you don’t have the time not to be teaching people.
  3. Calm. Like many people, I have a certain amount of tolerance for frustration and stress in a given day. At a certain point further annoyances, even small ones, cause disproportionate reactions and sap energy from me and those around me. That’s why I find it useful to prioritize fixing anything that is a persistent aggravation or stressor. In OmniFocus, I keep an ongoing project “Make Life Calmer”. Doing work today that will make tomorrow calmer and more focused is a great investment, and will let you use your future “stress budget” on something more meaningful than the fact the damn kitchen drawer is stuck closed again because the saran wrap and aluminium foil boxes got pushed on top of each other again and god DAMN it why do I have three different sets of measuring cups in here augghhhh.
  4. Improve. It is extremely easy to procrastinate making yourself better. It takes motivation to build new habits, learn how do to something “right”, or to address a longstanding problem. But this work is profoundly worthwhile, since small investments here can have huge payoffs. After 35 years of using a computer like a dumb animal, I’m finally learning how to sit, type, and work in a way that doesn’t permanently injure my wrists and shoulders. Reading books about RSI or learning better posture aren’t necessarily my idea of fun, but I’m going to benefit from the investment for decades to come.

Diamonds in the rough

Next time you’re cleaning up your todos, considering a new goal or theme, or just feeling over-busy, consider how you can be multiplying your time. What things, once done, will have an impact that pays off for years?

What is your smaller garbage bin?

Being More than Nice

July 31, 2019

I try to be nice to people.

While being nice is relatively popular here in Canada, being nice is not necessarily popular in the business world. There’s something about business that makes some people feel like it’s a license to be a heel. “Well, that’s business, kid.”

Well, that’s not the kind of business I want to be in. Over the years, my team and I have made a point of making nice things and being nice to each other while we’re at it. It’s pretty simple, and it makes for a nice work environment. It’s great.

A few years back, I was at the excellent XOXO conference in Portland. Some friends and I were sitting in the sun, enjoying our cereal from a van or whatever weird-ass Portland breakfast we were eating, when an acquaintance came over from a nearby food cart with a delicious-looking free-range egg sandwich.

Now, this was a developer I’m friendly with and am always happy to see, so we quickly got to chatting. And as I talked and my acquaintance ate, he had the misfortune of getting some egg on himself.

I noticed, but I hesitated to call attention to it. To call out somebody’s appearance in a public setting, that’s not very nice, is it? So I did a rather Canadian thing – I acted like nothing was wrong.

This was a miscalculation. You see, I hadn’t considered that eventually, inevitably, my conversation partner would realize my deceit. Indeed, before long he noticed that, in a very literal sense, he had egg on his face.

Upon discovering this, he asked mournfully, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

It was a very good question. I may have felt like I was being nice, and perhaps by some shallow definition I was. But I was definitely not being kind. Immediately, I felt like the one with egg on my face. While I can only hope my friend has long since forgotten this minor cruelty, that moment has stuck with me.

Being kind vs. being nice

The distinction between niceness and kindness can seem subtle. While being nice might involve acting polite, positive, and pleasant, being kind is deeper – it’s about being caring, sympathetic, and helpful. In many circumstances the kind thing to do is simply to be nice. In some circumstances though, the kind thing to do is to be direct. Or clear. Or firm.

In learning to run a business, I found early on that however nice you are, you still need to set distinct boundaries and limits with clients in order to, for example, get paid. And when it comes to close friends and family, it can be second nature to prioritize kindness, even when it means having a less than nice conversation to help fix a problem.

The difficulty comes, I find, with acquaintances and colleagues that I’m not necessarily close to, where I can easily get away with just being nice. It can be too easy to just have conversations that are pleasant but shallow, avoiding the more uncomfortable but more helpful line of discourse. Kim Scott’s Radical Candor and countless other feedback systems are built around the idea that over-prioritizing niceness – what Scott calls “ruinous empathy” – is a short-term salve that causes long-term pain.

So, recently, I’ve been working to have deeper conversations with the people around me. I’ve been trying to ask myself: does this person necessarily care how polite I’m being, or would they rather I just prioritize being clear? It’s a bit more work, but often – especially in person – you can still do both.

I feel lucky to work somewhere where people are nice to each other, and I definitely don’t want to lose that. But there’s another notch above being nice; the next step on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Teams. Where you need to get is a culture where being nice is the default, but being kind – including having hard but helpful conversations – gets priority over always being pleasant.

That is to say, a place where you can trust that somebody will speak up – even if you have egg on you.

Control the Silence

June 30, 2019

On an episode of Fun Fact back in March, I shared “one weird trick” for how to be an MC. Listeners seemed to find it helpful, so I wanted to write it up in a more referenceable format:

The trick to MCing an event is to control the silence.

Over the years I have MCed my fair share of conferences, meetups, weddings, and other sundry events. Any article on how to MC an event will orient you to the core requirements pretty quickly:

  1. Tell people what to expect.
  2. Keep things moving.
  3. Make it fun.

So that’s the idea. But in order to tell your audience what to expect, you need to know what to expect. As such, a lot of MCing (or emceeing if you’re gonna be like that) involves running around collecting and confirming information about shifting plans.

How long is the break? How do you pronounce the next speaker’s name? Is there wifi? Why should we care about the rando you’ve dragged up to give a demo, toast the groom, or extol the countless virtues of immutable value types? The MC has to know what’s coming.

The next level up is about keeping things moving. Flow. How can you make this event flow smoothly, steering the audience’s attention to where it needs to be? What’s where the idea of controlling the silence becomes really useful.

May I direct your attention

You see, people are going to want to talk. Socializing is a lot of why people come to events, especially those blowhards way at the back. That’s why you need to make it clear to the crowd when it’s talk time, and when it’s pay-attention time.

If your event is well run, they will have some house music playing in the background before and between presentations. If not, you can often rig background music up yourself. House music is nice for getting folks to start talking to one another.

House music is even nicer, though, for getting people to stop talking. When it’s time to intro the next speaker or deliver a status update, just fade out the house music – or, ideally, have a sound tech do this on your signal. The sudden silence will draw everybody’s attention, and your intro blurb (or glib rhetorical question) will shut up the remaining verbal stragglers. You then say your bit, and hand that hard-won energy off to the next speaker by introducing them by name.

The reverse flow happens on the way out: you thank the speaker by name, tell people what to expect next, and then get the house music back on. By controlling the silence – by ensuring there’s only dead air immediately before something interesting is about to happen – you can control the room.

The smooth handoff

There are a couple sub-tricks to keeping folks’ attention as an MC. If it’s time for the next presenter and you jump into introducing them, you might realize post-intro that they’re not actually ready. “Oh, uh, I need to get my laptop set up.” Cue 2 minutes of awkward silence as your speaker fumbles around, inwardly panicking, while the audience slowly starts to talk amongst themselves again. Bad MC, bad! By the time things really are ready to go, the energy and attention have been lost to the wind.

Luckily, there are two simple ways to prevent a botched handoff:

  1. Check with your next-up speaker if they’re good to go before you get the audience’s attention.
  2. If you realize you’ve gotten the audience’s attention too early, and you can’t shuck and jive long enough to fill the gap, just give the attention back. Instead of letting things get awkward, explain that you’ll need a few more minutes and we’ll be going shortly – then get the music back on.

MCing an event isn’t rocket surgery. It does take a bit of practice, but the biggest requirement is simply caring about how things flow, and putting the work in to make them flow well.

Being the steward of an audience’s attention is a privilege. If you treat that attention as a precious resource, then they’ll be willing and ready to give it when you need it.

iTunes: An Error Occurred

May 31, 2019

Once upon a time, Apple debuted an application for playing music.

Yes, an application. That’s what we called apps back when dinosaurs roamed the Mac. And one of the most-loved applications back in that ancient era was for playing your MP3s. It was called iTunes.

iTunes, circa 2001

iTunes brought together a shiny interface and powerful library management that Just Worked™. What we didn’t know in 2001 was that iTunes was the first piece of a “digital hub” strategy that would change Apple forever. From its humble beginnings as a nice way to play music, iTunes quickly became the core of Apple’s push into consumer electronics: first the iPod, and later the iPhone.

Two years after its debut, iTunes was already at version 4. The addition of the iTunes Music Store turned a trusty utility into an internet marketplace overnight. The Store completely overturned the music industry and overturned Apple itself, kickstarting its shift from a computer company to a device and services company.

As fortuitous as this path would be for Apple’s business, the frenzied shoehorning of network and sync features into a large existing codebase – inherited from the aquisition of SoundJam MP – brought about the end of iTunes’ golden era.

Later that year, iTunes arrived on Windows. Apple quickly gained a foothold on millions of Microsoft PCs; a base they could add to every time they had the need to support something across platforms. As penance for this, the iTunes team was sentenced to maintain and add functionality on Windows every time Apple launched a new product or service.

And add functionality they did. Over the years, iTunes accumulated features for local music, playing and burning CDs, the iTunes Store, iTunes in the Cloud, iTunes Match, Apple Music, TV, movies, Smart playlists, Genius playlists, podcasts, network library sharing, device backup, internet radio, ratings, iTunes Extras, iTunes U, device software update and restore, media sync, ringtone sync, contact and calendar sync, AirPlay, queueing, Ping, Connect, literally rearranging the icons on your iPhone home screen and – most importantly – displaying a bangin’ visualization of the Hootie and the Blowfish track you just purchased for $0.99.

As the central device and platform hub, iTunes became a leaf on the wind of Apple’s strategic moves. The refined focus of the app’s early days gave way to an era of ever increasing complexity and power.

Of course, with great power comes great technical debt. As iTunes became a mammoth katamari of features tangentially related to media, it failed to become a robust front-end for Apple’s increasingly complex network of media services. UI oddities – ranging from weird modal dialogs to an often complete inability to handle network problems – often belied iTunes’ status as a tired legacy product.

Undeterred, Apple marched forward towards streaming music, introducing iTunes Match, iCloud Music Library, and iTunes in the Cloud – which, believe it or not, are three separate things. While Apple’s marketing team may not have struggled to keep up with this growing array of services, iTunes itself certainly did.

While building the UI for many of these new features using web technology might have been a pragmatic move, it exacerbated iTunes’ struggle to provide a polished and seamless user experience. A move from store pages powered by XML to one fuelled by WebKit never stopped the background drumbeat of glitchiness that often ground the app to a halt.

By 2015, it was time for a reset. With great fanfare and a remarkable performance by Eddy Cue, Apple Music was born. With Apple Music, the iTunes team was finally given the time and space to fully overhaul the app, ditching 15 years of legacy chaos once and for all.

Just kidding, it was just stuck on top of what was already there.

Of course, a focused and clean music-only app for Mac is still the endgame. The real question has long been: when?

Retiring iTunes is a hard thing to do, given the wild web of legacy things it enables. Building a ground-up replacement for music on the Mac is a tall order, especially if they wanted to bring across the powerful library management features that made Mac users fall in love with it all those years ago.

Alternatively, Apple must have at least experimented with bringing the much-maligned but generally more modern Music app from iOS to the Mac. Perhaps they could use some kind of almond-flavoured confection to ease the transition.

Regardless, replacing an app the size of iTunes is a big job.

So we waited. The world turned. Users slowly shifted from iTunes to Spotify. A movie came out about a gumshoe Pikachu and it was somehow not horrible. That is to say, it’s taken a very long time – so long that one might assume there has been a false start or two along the way.

But if the rumour and leak mill is to be believed, iTunes’ end is finally nigh. In macOS 10.15 we will finally see a Music.app for Mac. Surprisingly, this new app is said to be based not on the iOS app or a new codebase, but on the venerable iTunes itself.

There will surely be naysayers that claim iTunes should have been tossed entirely. And admittely, if the new Music app ditches iTunes’ interface but can’t cure its deep and baffling love for obtuse modal error dialogs, I too will bemoan its preservation. But arguing for code to be rewritten just because it’s old has never been the right way to build systems that work.

And whatever the composition and fate of this new app, you really have to hand it to iTunes for getting this far. Seriously, this app has been keeping the beat for almost 20 years. It has survived a veritable hurricane of scope creep and strategy taxes. It was a key part of Apple’s growth from charming underdog to singular goliath.

And now, it can finally lay down its burdens and get back to its roots. It can cash out its stock options, and once again be a music app. What better way for a vintage app to spend its retirement?

So let’s pour one out for iTunes. Farewell.

Making a List, Bolding It Twice

April 30, 2019

Writing is meant for reading.

Sometimes, the reading doesn’t matter that much. We might dash off a quick text, toss out a laugh line, or send a rote confirmation. Our emoji are leaves on the wind.

Other times though, the reading matters a lot. Occasionally we need to write something that must be understood, absorbed, and acted on. The more important it is that readers understand and act, the more time you should spend refining the writing.

There are a lot of things you can do to make an email, blog post, proposal, or process document clearer. For example you can keep it short, make it engaging, or have a colleague refine it before sending it out. These can all help a lot.

However, if it’s critical to you that your writing is read – especially by busy people – you need to make it skimmable.

There are a few ways you can facilitate this.

You can use short sentences and paragraphs, for example. That helps a lot because folks tend to primarily read the beginning of each paragraph. It’s kind of a hack, but it works.

There is one core approach though, one workhorse of the skimmable document, that is worth mastering: lists. Lists are rightly derided in the era of Buzzfeed, but the same principles that drive engagement on social media also drive engagement in a Google Doc or email. So today, I’d like to share one weird trick to quickly writing a clear and useful list: The Bolding Trick.

The Bolding Trick

  1. Draft a bulleted list, whether it’s the key goals for a process, the main principles in a design, or whatever. Rather than trying to make it perfect on the first go, just get it out.
  2. Your list should only have 3-8 items on it, with each item 1-3 sentences, which should keep it readable and digestible. Still, unless each item is extremely short, the resulting block of text can still be a slog to read, appearing monotonous and causing your audience’s eyes to glaze over, or – worse – cause them to decide to read it later.
  3. For each point in your list, find and bold the key phrase in the paragraph. For example, the key phrase in this point was “bold the key phrase”. This will make the list far more skimmable.
  4. If it’s an important list, it’s worth also pulling those bolded phrases up front. Once the core points are bolded, run down the list again and pull the bolded part to the beginning of each item, making it the heading/summary of the item.
  5. Your eminently readable and skimmable list is now ready to be absorbed and acted upon, and easily maintained.

A thing I love about this process is that when you pull out the key phrases into headings, it also naturally drives you to edit the prose to be clearer:

The Refined List

  1. Make a bulleted list. Hammer out the key goals for a process, the main principles in a design, or your weird trick for making lists.
  2. Include 3-8 Items. Make the list clear and focused by keeping it to 3-8 items of 1-3 sentences each.
  3. Bold each key phrase. Go through the items you wrote and mark in bold the 1-4 words that matter most. This would be often be a verb phrase in a process document, or an adjective phrase in a list of goals.
  4. Make the phrases headings. While you can stop after bolding, it’s often worth also pulling the key phrases into inline headings. Rewriting your list this way also helps you refine and repeat the key points.
  5. Share and maintain. The formatting will make your list much easier to read, update, and act on.

I find this approach faster than trying to come up with the headings first, and it has the added bonus of being incremental: after each pass you can stop and you have a useful document.

Once upon a time, when I would try to document a process or a project, I’d approach it like a blog post. I’d spin a narrative, write pages worth of context and detail, and really get to the heart of the matter. Once the resulting tome was complete, it would be read once, and then left to the sands of time. That was fine for battle stories and manifestos, but not so much for process or design documents.

Now, I write short docs consisting mostly of lists and bolded key phrases. They get read and maintained.

It’s a lot better.

Information Needed

March 31, 2019

If you publish apps for iOS, understanding the App Store review process is part of your job. While the core guidelines are public, their enforcement relies on a large set of private rules and policies, policed by human beings. When you’re trying to release an update to your customers, the keeper of the Bridge of Death is not the nicely summarized guidelines, but the machinery that enforces them.

The high-level guidelines don’t change often, and when they do change developers are often warned in advance. The enforcement policies though – the de facto rules – are continually mutating in response to the latest App Store scams, PR issues, or problem areas.

So, while some guidelines – such as the one about not sending push notifications for marketing – don’t seem to be enforced at all, others are strictly enforced to the letter of the law, and flouting them will prompt a swift rejection. Or, more nerve-wracking, an eventual rejection of a bugfix update that doesn’t change the relevant functionality. So it helps to know the system.

You say you wanna add subscriptions

For example, suppose you’ve seen where the wind is blowing, and have decided to add subscriptions to your app. In preparation, you may come across public Guideline 3.1.2:

Ensure you clearly communicate the requirements described in Schedule 2 of the Apple Developer Program License Agreement, found in Agreements, Tax, and Banking.

While you probably should read the full agreement, it’s a little over 24,000 words long. Maybe more of a weekend read. In the meantime, you can save a bit of time by scoping out a little thing I like to call the “Apple Developer Program License Agreement Schedule 2 section 3.8 part b”.

This clause actually has some pretty clear language asking developers to:

…clearly and conspicuously disclose to users the following information regarding Your auto-renewing subscription:

  • Title of publication or service
  • Length of subscription (time period and/or content/services provided during each subscription period)
  • Price of subscription, and price per unit if appropriate
  • Payment will be charged to iTunes Account at confirmation of purchase
  • Subscription automatically renews unless auto-renew is turned off at least 24-hours before the end of the current period
  • Account will be charged for renewal within 24-hours prior to the end of the current period, and identify the cost of the renewal
  • Subscriptions may be managed by the user and auto-renewal may be turned off by going to the user’s Account Settings after purchase
  • Links to Your Privacy Policy and Terms of Use

Presented with the above, any app designer worth their salt will have a follow-up question: is it even possible to design a nice subscription flow that actually makes all eight of these things clear and conspicuous? Even with all the detail Apple provides – more than we generally get with most guidelines – the requirements leave key questions about how they’ll actually be enforced:

  1. Do the App Store reviewers require text meet a certain standard to consider it “clear and conspicuous”? (They do.)
  2. Do the links to your privacy policy and terms of use in your app’s settings count towards this requirement? (They don’t.)
  3. Do reviewers require that some of these things are more clear and conspicuous than others? (They do.)
  4. Would they approve an app that followed Apple’s own examples of how to implement subscriptions? (Not even close.)

I know about these pitfalls thanks to various developers sharing their lessons learned about the unwritten parts of Apple’s subscription guidelines. As thanks, I wanted to pitch in by sharing some info about a different guideline I’ve learned a fair bit about over the years: 2.1.

Guideline 2.1: Information Needed

According to Apple’s data, the most common reason for an app to be rejected is ostensibly a simple one: “Guideline 2.1 – App Completeness”. The public guidelines for 2.1 describe a few kinds of incomplete or trivial apps, for example:

We will reject incomplete app bundles and binaries that crash or exhibit obvious technical problems.

Eminently reasonable. In addition to this though, App Review categorizes a common type of provisional rejection as being under Guideline 2.1: “Information Needed”. Since an Information Needed rejection is usually unexpected, it can easily ruin a developer’s day. Thus, it helps to be prepared.

Here are some common reasons you may hit a 2.1:

  1. You didn’t include a working demo account. D’oh.
  2. You didn’t include enough info to test your In App Purchases. This is apparently quite common – reviewers have to try out your IAPs, and if it’s not immediately clear how to do so you can get a 2.1 rejection.
  3. Your app is sketchy. Certain categories of apps are, by volume, often scam or spam. Slots apps, for example, can get a 2.1 as basically a “one strike warning” to give the developer a chance to double-check whether they violate certain rules before they go through full app review. There are various copies of this warning text online, so if you’re participating in the dodgy end of the App Store then it’s worth being aware of this.
  4. Your app isn’t testable on a simulator. If your app isn’t testable except in the “real world”, or requires special hardware, reviewers may 2.1 reject the app pending a video that shows how it works. If your app doesn’t run in the simulator, pre-prepping a demo video can help expedite this process. Steamclock builds a lot of apps for Bluetooth devices, so we prep these fairly often.
  5. You need to prove that your company is authorized to offer this app. For example, let’s say you titled your app “Royal Bank of Canada”, but tried to publish it under “Surprised Pikachu LLC”. You may be surprised when App Review asks for some evidence that you are in fact the largest financial institution in Canada and not in fact a lazy scammer.

While these cases are all fairly straightforward, there is one particular 2.1 request that I have seen from time to time that did surprise me when I first saw it, and as far as I can tell not much has been written about it. You may in fact be rejected if:

  1. Your app requires users to log in, but doesn’t offer account creation.

Without a way to create an account, App Review can’t evaluate your payment mechanism. In this case, App Review will typically hit the brakes to determine if the app violates “3.1 Payments”.

If your app’s business model was crafted specifically to circumvent Apple’s In App Purchase rules and you thought just not offering in-app account creation would be enough to fool them, then you’re gonna have a bad time. Otherwise, things aren’t so bad. You just need to – carefully, but quickly since your app update is now in the dreaded Review Limbo – make the case that your business model is kosher.

One of the few accounts online of this process comes from this Japanese blog post by Takuya Matsuyama, who outlines what App Review may ask in this “business model review” scenario:

  • Does your app access any paid content or services?
  • What are the paid content or services, and what are the costs?
  • Do individual customers pay for the content or services?
  • If no, does a company or organization pay for the content or services?
  • Where do they pay, and what’s the payment method?
  • If users create an account to use your app, are there fees involved?
  • How do users obtain an account?

Through the magic of Google Translate, I can see that Takuya and I felt similarly after getting this kind of rejection for the first time:

Even though Apple’s examination was nothing last time, it is scary because it is pointed out from the point of view not to predict suddenly.

Put another away, it’s not fun to have the Supreme Gatekeeper suddenly audit your business model.

Being prepared

Since I know better than to try to end-run around Apple’s payment rules, every time I’ve received this kind of rejection I’ve been able to walk App Review through the business model and why it’s above board.

That’s not to say caution isn’t merited. I’ve definitely seen clients get a business model review, respond ambiguously without understanding the underlying guidelines, and as a result get caught in a slow secondary review. Don’t be like them – be prepared.

If you’re considering building an iOS app that requires login but doesn’t let users create accounts in-app, be sure to review and understand Apple’s rules around in-app payment, and schedule an extra 1-2 weeks when you launch or make a major change to the app to accommodate a potentially long review. If your initial submission is approved without a 2.1, be cautious since any future update, even a critical bugfix, could trigger the review.

If the bridgekeeper perceives your iOS app to be main value of a service customers are paying for elsewhere, they could toss you into the Gorge of Eternal Peril for not offering IAP.

If everything is on the level though, and you just haven’t gotten around to providing account creation in-app in your initial release, then you should be fine.

Just don’t forget your favourite colour.

325: Podcast Episode Numbers

February 28, 2019

In iOS 11, Apple made a variety of changes and improvements to the Apple Podcasts app and spec. Among other things, they added support for a new show format: serial podcasts. Finally, narrative-driven shows could request to be shown in strict chronological order.

As part of this change, Apple added support for an “episode number” tag, and recommended that podcasters stop including episode numbers directly in the title of each episode. Sure whatever, metadata best practices blah blah.

Smash cut to yesterday, when we all received a mass email from Apple Podcasts about ensuring our show isn’t “rejected or removed from Apple Podcasts” by “optimizing your show’s metadata”. While much of it was just about not being spammy, they asked more firmly this time for podcasters to stop including episode numbers in titles:

Adding episode numbers in titles. For example, show titles like “The Very Hungry Tourists Episode 01” or episode titles like “01 Broken Heirloom.”

I was a bit surprised by this. Everybody includes episode numbers in their titles… don’t they? Though come to think of it, why do we? Why do I do it for Fun Fact? We don’t number our blog posts; why podcasts? Am I being sucked into a deeply pedantic rabbit hole, never to return?

No, why, why do you care about this Allen

According to historians, podcasters have included episode numbers in titles since the late Cretaceous Period. There are a few benefits, but the primary two are:

  1. Give people an easy handle to find or refer back to to a specific episode
  2. Make it easier to play through episodes from the beginning in a podcast client

While the introduction of “serial” shows has made playing from the beginning easy for certain kinds of podcasts, apps still make the assumption that all shows are either strictly linear and need to be listened to in order (a crime investigation in 10 parts), or that each episode is completely unrelated and you would never want to start from the beginning (a daily news briefing).

This is a pain in the ass for shows where the episodes are loosely ordered, kind of like a sitcom. The episodes make sense on their own, so new viewers probably want to check out the latest one first – but there are back-references and follow-up items that can make it appealing to listen from the beginning. Without episode numbers, this can be annoying to actually do.

In an ideal world, Apple would support a third type of show, something like episodic-series, for shows where playing from either end is desirable. It could then prioritize the newest episodes, but still surface episode numbers and accommodate users who want to start at the beginning.

Back in the actual world, Apple wants you to decide if your show is linear or ephemeral, and stop trying to hedge that classification.

Still though, why do they care? Is it truly awful to have semi-episodic podcasts putting numbers in their episode titles?

As is often the case, you can indeed find something truly awful by exploring iTunes:

Yes that’s right, on the desktop iTunes will number your numbered episodes as if the latest episode was episode 1, followed mind-bendingly by the episode number you’ve included in the title. While this is horrific, it actually makes podcasters want to keep including their episode numbers right in the title, since otherwise the presentation makes it look like the newest episode was actually your first, which is even more horrific and I just can’t even with this thing.

Thankfully, most people do not listen to podcasts in desktop iTunes. The big show, the app that we – and Apple – are concerned about is Podcasts on iOS. So let’s take a look at how episode numbers show up there.

045: The Why Do You Care About This Allen Show – Ne…

With iOS 11 and the new metadata, Apple built accommodations for episode numbers into the UI, allowing them to cleanly and consistently show numbers in contexts where it matters – such as serial shows – and not show episode numbers in contexts where it doesn’t matter. For an example, let’s take a look at the Top Episodes list.

Now, £1 says that Jony Ive would be rather cross if he saw this list with 5 different formats for showing episode numbers. With title data this noxious, there’s not much Apple can do to present a nice, clear list of episodes.

Consistency aside, in this context the episode numbers aren’t even useful. While the Top Episodes list should in theory be a gentle entry point for somebody new to podcasting, it is currently weird and intimidating.

If they can get podcasters to provide title and episode number metadata separately, Apple Podcasts can show the numbers where relevant, and style the them thoughtfully in different contexts, rather than being forced to serve up the the dog’s breakfast that is episode title metadata today.

And while numbers in titles is a time-honoured tradition, I have to admit that episodes of newer shows that follow Apple’s guidelines look pretty nice amongst their metadata-laden peers.

The more I look at these screenshots, the more sympathetic I am to the ideal of relegating the episode numbers to metadata, and having player apps take the responsibility of showing those numbers where they’re useful. In fact, when it comes to finding specific episodes or playing “episodic” shows chronologically, modern podcast apps already have some helpful features that make episode numbers less important than they once were.

For example, in Overcast you can tell a smart playlist to sort by “Oldest to Newest by Podcast”. Then, if you go into a show’s back catalog and add a horde of early episodes, they’ll automatically stay together in chronological order. It’s pretty hidden, but in Castro you can also queue up a show chronologically by subscribing to a show, then going to Library → That Show, then dragging “All” to your queue.

While neither of these approaches are as nice as a simple UI for playing a show from the beginning, I think they can bridge the gap if shows start to move episode numbers into metadata and players get smarter about it.

Similarly with episode discovery, instead of scrolling to find a numbered show, you can type an episode title into Apple Podcasts and it will come right up. In Overcast you need to search for the show first and then the episode title, but the functionality is still there.

Unfortunately, there is still a gap between the web and podcast players when it comes to linking an episode. As far as I know, there’s no way yet for your podcast’s website to predict the URL for “Open Episode X in Player Y”, which would make it easier to go from a Google search or a shownotes link right to listening to an episode. With luck this will come.

I get it, you care, what are you going to do about it

Regardless of what any 3rd party podcast apps are doing, the reality is that Apple runs the biggest podcast directory and app in the world. They’ve told us to give them a clean title and episode tag in <itunes:title> and <itunes:episode>. In return, they’ll be more likely to feature our show, Jony will be placated, and they’ll stop maybe-implying that our podcast may be “rejected or removed”. So, a pretty easy call there, I think.

A more interesting question remains though: for semi-episodic shows like Fun Fact where people may want to start at the beginning, should we keep the episode number in the <title> tag for 3rd party clients like Overcast and Castro? Certainly some people with opinions on the internet think so.

But I have to admit: I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. I’ve beheld the clean and clear presentation of numberless episode titles. I’ve heard from the listeners who are scared off from trying out podcasts where every title advertises how many episodes they’ve missed. I’ve come to terms with the fact that for our show – even a few months in – starting with the most recent episode is the way to go. And most dangerously of all, I’ve come to the conclusion that It Would Be Nice™ if podcast players directly used the episode meta tag to only show numbers where it matters.

So, as of today, our episode titles are clean and number-free. It was difficult and emotionally taxing, but I have made peace with my decision.

May the the era of clean podcast titles one day come to pass.

Update: Apple just sent a followup email clarifying that “Your Show Won’t Be Removed for Having Episode Numbers in Episode Titles”. It then goes on to say:

We encourage you to use the tag to send us your episode numbers. If you decide to include episode numbers in your episode

The email then ends mid-sentence. We can only speculate on the fate of the Apple Podcasts employee who attempted to send this missive. Our thoughts are with their family tonight.

Navigation Should Be Boring

January 31, 2019

When launching a product, especially a consumer-oriented one, you want it to be interesting. A novel, bold, or distinctive UI can make an app stand out from the crowd, be memorable, and inspire curiosity. Plus, it’s cool.

Luckily, there are a lot of ways you can make an interface interesting. You can use striking colours, intriguing illustrations, or thoughtful copywriting. You can add whimsical touches of animation or sound. You can make the feature set brilliantly simple, or awesomely powerful. Almost any part of an app can be a good place to add novelty, except for one: navigation. Navigation is different.

Navigation should be boring.

With a delightfully boring navigation scheme, users don’t need to learn how to explore your app. Their “attention span budget” can thus be spent considering how your new thing can fit into their lives, rather than trying to recall how many fingers they’re supposed to drag from the left side of the screen in order to pull out the Alternate Quick Access Wheel.

While experienced design and development teams will usually tamp down on the worst navigation fever dreams in short order, there is often still an allure, or even explicit pressure, to build out novel navigation patterns. It’s just so damn satisfying to transcend the standard fare. “Would it be so bad if we just tried just a little horizontal scroll here, and just one two-finger gesture there..?” One thing leads to another, and your app’s first-run experience is a screen filled with goofy arrows and hand-written tips like “insert tab A into slot B to view next photo”.

If you’re weird-navigation skeptic, then take heart: the data is on your side. The A/B tests and other success metrics I’ve seen almost always support clear, familiar navigation approaches. Tab bars get better engagement than hamburger menus, many users don’t even find gestures, and simple menus works better than a whiz-bang feature dashboards. Boring navigation affordances lead to more navigation, and faster navigation, than clever ones do. As the nobly helmeted interaction designer Luke Wroblewski likes to say, “Obvious always wins.

Of course, metrics aren’t everything, and there are examples of products that have implemented novel navigation schemes that were very well received. Even ignoring the obvious exception of games, a lot of the most interesting apps released over the years – from Jared Sinclair’s Unread and Q Branch’s Vesper on the indie side, to Snapchat and Facebook’s Paper at other end of the spectrum – invested in novel navigation patterns and styles that made them truly distinctive.

Which is super cool. But also kind of sad, since this type of investment doesn’t typically pay off.

The high price of failure

Notwithstanding the usability pitfalls, there is a bigger reason why a new app shouldn’t have an experimental navigation scheme: the cost is too damn high.

We know that building good products is all about iteration. And typically, the parts of your product that need the most iteration are the novel ones. The neat stuff, the distinctive bits. That’s no problem if you’re iterating a sound effect, a button asset, or even better a core user-facing feature. It gets expensive and wasteful fast though if you’re thrashing around how your screens are organized, divided, and connected. God help you if you’re halfway through a wild navigation experiment and an iOS update breaks your custom UINavigationController wallhacks before you’ve even been able to market-test them. It’s no fun.

Once you ship, things go from bad to worse. Overhauling the navigation of a living app is even more time-consuming, and is also usually poorly received by existing users – even if the new scheme is objectively better. Just ask Snapchat: after they concluded their wacky navigation scheme was inhibiting long-term growth, they launched a reworked UI that was easier to use – and monetize – but suffered a huge backlash from users who were used to the old UI. Perhaps if they’d tracked towards clear navigation a little earlier, Instagram wouldn’t be eating their lunch as badly today.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what’s good for Snapchat or anybody else. What matters is what’s good for your product and its customers. The app you’re building today. And if your goal is to make a distinctive app, then dollar for dollar, sprint for sprint, novel navigation schemes are one of the worst ways to achieve that.

So do your app a favour: keep the navigation boring. At least at first. Use colour, typography, and the many other tools in your tickle trunk to make your product interesting and appealing while you prove out your business model. Invest in navigation, sure – but invest in making it clear, fast, and good.

That is to say: make it boring.

Fun Fact →

January 12, 2019

A new podcast where every other Friday, Arik Devens and I discuss a variety of fun facts. They range from historical, to practical, to garburetor-related. It’s fun.

This year, in addition to my typical longer articles, I’ll also post some simple links from time to time. This is one of those.

No More Oppatoo

December 31, 2018

When you have a young child, other parents often offer advice. This advice comes in many forms and covers many topics, but one phrase is more common than any other. “Enjoy it while it lasts. It goes by faster than you think.” New parents hear this many times.

It can sound rather strange. You’re holding a teething infant, you’ve barely slept, and you’re counting the seconds until you can next attempt a nap. Time seems to go by very slowly indeed.

As an infant turns into a toddler though, and as that toddler becomes a kid, you can’t help but be struck by the passage of time. Your new family member gains abilities at a rapid clip, marking time not day by day, but change by change.

They are constantly picking up new endearing habits – little phrases and behaviors that melt your heart and give you joy. Just as quickly though, they are losing them. Before your eyes, she goes from not being able to say “octopus”, to delightfully squealing at the sight of an “oppatoo!”, to just saying “look dada, it’s an octopus.”

And it’s beautiful, and it’s great. But it also hurts your heart a little bit. No more oppatoo.

It is a strange feeling, that hurt. Why would it be sad when she starts to say “octopus”? Or “I want to do it myself”, or “No dada pick me up”? I mean, it’s certainly for the best. I can hardly be her lifelong transportation, caregiver, and translator as it pertains to 8-limbed mollusks.

But kids inspire love, such deep unconditional love. You love and treasure how they are, down to the smallest quirk. Then, suddenly, right in front of you, they change. While one might grow used to the slow, sad change of growing apart from an adult you love, this feels very different. Overnight, no more “dada up?” No more oppatoo.

In a flash, the behaviors, quirks, and tiny things you’ve grown to love disappear. Just like that, they’re replaced by new phrases, new quirks. New things you’ll also grow to love – before they disappear too.

It’s beautiful, and it’s great. But it also hurts your heart a little bit.

So we take photos, and now videos. And we indulge our hearts, and cry a bit. Sometimes from pride, sometimes from joy, and on occasion from the loss of something tiny.

And when we see a new parent, one with a child much younger than ours, we know it’s silly, but we can’t help ourselves. We feel it’s very important to let them know:

“Enjoy it while it lasts. It goes by faster than you think.”

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