A Survey of My Tools in 2017
I hate reading posts—especially “interview”-style posts—about people’s “setup.” We get it: you’re a geek/nerd/poser with money to burn on gadgets and stuff and you like talking about them with your friends. These kind of posts strike me as the twenty-teens equivalent of 1990s-style conspicuous consumption.
I’m gonna write a bit about my tools anyway, and I’m fine if you want to lump me and this post in the same category as all the others. Please, and I mean this sincerely, stop wasting your time reading yet another one of these posts and go do something good for yourself instead.
I tend to be a late adopter of new hardware and an early adopter of new software. A few months ago I bought a dedicated ebook reader for the first time. I’ve been interested in ebook readers since I was a kid. As much as I’ve been wanting to try one out, I have a strong aversion to getting locked into a single ebook store platform.
But I moved to Germany and didn’t want to be carting my whole library with me around the world. I shipped my books to my folks, bit the bullet, and bought a Kindle.
I also found a nice way around my aversion to feeling trapped in a deeper relationship with Amazon by getting myself a library card. Both the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library have a great selection of ebooks (and audio books!) available on a platform called Overdrive. For me, this has been miraculous. I haven’t made use of any public library since school, and even though this is all happening over the air, checking out books from New York genuinely gives me a little jolt of feeling connected to the reading public of my adopted home base.
Most importantly, I have actually been reading more books this way. Until this change, my habit has been to visit the bookstore, buy some books, maybe flip through and read a chapter here or there. But mostly, books have wound up on my shelf unread. Sure, I have a handful that I read cover to cover and constantly refer back to. But with this digital library setup, I can check things out and if I don’t read them, I don’t read them. And if I get into them, I try to finish them before they’re due. All as a public service to me as a New York City taxpayer. Support your local library kids!
At any rate, the beauty of having a single-purpose device for reading has me wondering about the possibilities for other single-purpose devices, especially for writing. More on that another time. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about “smart” devices like light bulbs and blinds and refrigerators and stuff—none of that interests me so far, either as a consumer or as a designer.
Whenever I try to really stop and think about all the different things I use on a regular basis, the variety and depth of software really amazes me. On the other hand, I also find myself feeling a bit underwhelmed by a lot of the software on offer these days. Software is such a broad category that I’m gonna break this down a bit further.
Writing and Editing Prose
Recently I’ve been trying to use MarsEdit for writing. I’ve had a license for a long time, but never really used it. Similar to my thoughts on single-purpose devices, I’m finding it nice to have a piece of software that I use just for this purpose. It has a nice feature-set and I do prefer writing in Markdown with a live-updating preview,1 so it works well for me.
In the past, I’ve mostly used BBEdit for writing that’s meant to be published to my websites. I also go back and forth on using something like Simple Note or Apple’s Notes app to jot down early stages of something on my mind. When I’m writing either for work or something that I’ll need notes and feedback on, I tend to go for Google Docs.
This is a space where I feel there’s something lacking a bit these days. I played around with Abstract at my office recently, a tool which offers Github-like functionality for interaction designers who use Sketch. It made me realize that I’d still really like something like Github for writing. But I don’t want to use a web app, and I don’t want to pay a monthly fee. So this is probably more of a pipe dream for now. I would gladly pay a one-time fee for an app that did this well, especially if it costs something that I wouldn’t feel embarrassed about asking my friends who I’d like to have as editors on a piece purchase for themselves as well.
I’m using BBEdit for personal stuff and am using Atom at work. Atom is growing on me, although mostly I just like having the highlighting for what’s been changed since my last git commit. I’ve never felt 100% dedicated to any text editor for programming. I still like BBEdit because it mostly leaves me alone, and the tab interface that’s been adopted on most modern text editors is really annoying to me.2
Github itself has features that we use at work which I haven’t personally used before but am loving: primarily its code review system. I’m not sure all of these features were in place a few years ago and I think Github has done a wonderful job with them. More tools need these kind of collaborative workflow considerations baked in.
For the uninitiated, git (the technology Github is built around) provides a way to create something called a “branch” off a set of files, which essentially acts as a set of proposed changes to those files. (Think “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word.) When you’re done making a set of changes, on Github you can make something called a “pull request” which is essentially a formal request to accept those changes into the main set of files. The workflow feature that Github has added allows you to nominate one or more reviewers when you make a pull request. A reviewer can leave comments on your changes and ultimately can mark them as approved or needing improvements.
Anyone who’s ever worked with some kind of editorial workflow will likely recognize how powerful a robust set of features around making changes, leaving comments, and approving changes could be. Github has done this better than anything else I’ve seen. On a related note, I really miss Editorially. They were really onto something.
As mentioned above, I’ve been trying to spend more time reading books and less time reading on the web. Mostly this has translated to cutting back on reading the news.
The vast majority of my time spent reading takes place on my phone, and most of that still takes place in Reeder. It’s my favorite feed reader, and feeds are still my preferred way to stay on top of things.
For a while I was using Twitter, but it just got overwhelming. I stopped and really haven’t missed it.
For several years, I’ve been a devoted Instapaper user, but I have all but stopped using it as well. I’m not sure why this is, but I think I grew tired of having things pile up there. I’m still saving things there all the time, but I’ve realized that for short- to long-form writing I find on the web, I’m either going to read it right away or never come back to it. This is a dramatic shift in behavior for me, and I can neither explain it, nor offer an opinion on whether this has been for the better or worse. For now it just is.
I’ve also taken to subscribing to more email newsletters. I would rather not be reading inside my email client, but as these have become more popular there are some things that might otherwise have been blogs which I get in this way. I believe there’s a way I could set up my Feedbin account to receive these and read them in Reeder as well, but I’ve never taken the time to set it up.
Since I am reading more on an ebook reader, I’m interacting with the Kindle software quite frequently. I have mixed feelings which probably warrant more detail than I can fit in a piece like this. For now, a list:
- The typeface is quite nice, although the typesetting is still lacking.
- Using swipe gestures to turn pages is totally fine.
- The display of in-book progress along the bottom is weird. Why not something more visual like a progress bar?
- The navigational interface is relatively easy to figure out, but I find myself hunting around for the right icons to tap every time. Discoverable, but not learnable.
- If you get one, pay to turn off the ads, and switch the home screen to your library without recommendations.
Related to the Kindle, I’m also using an app called Libby to check out and manage library books. It’s great to have this functionality in my pocket, and overall the app is pretty cute and full-featured. I simply find myself wishing for a less clunky implementation of the interface—the app can feel slow at times, and a bit pieced together.
Email and Messaging
This is probably the category of apps which I interact with the most, and as with anything I find myself spending significant amounts of time with, I generally find my relationship to these tools frustrating.
Why should this be? These tools, group chats and email chains aside, are about communication between myself and another person. In many ways, these are by far the most human-centered pieces of software that we all use regularly, but I find they often leave me feeling the cold touch of my devices despite whatever warmth or comfort I may receive from the human on the other end.
How do I deal with all of this? Well, for starters, I keep two email clients on my computer (Apple Mail and Spark), and four (yes, four) on the first screen of my phone (Apple Mail, Outlook, Spark, and Google Inbox). I regularly use Messages and Slack on my computer at work; and keep Messages, WhatsApp, Signal, and Slack in easy reach on my phone.
Reader, I wish I could tell you why I use so many things. I deeply long for the days when I could use Adium to chat with friends across AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo, ICQ, Google Talk, and iMessage, without having to worry about whatever service everyone was using. Those were good times. I am extremely grateful that email still largely works in this manner. Email has an extraordinarily resilient design.
I do not love any of these apps, and honestly don’t know if I could even recommend them to you. You probably use many of these yourself, although I imagine you use fewer email clients than I do—I imagine you can count them on one finger. If you’re interested, here’s roughly how I use them on my phone:
- I tend to prefer the interface of Google Inbox for quickly triaging emails out of my inbox. For the moment, it’s the email client I use the most.
- Apple Mail is where I prefer to read newsletters, because it does less weird shit to the formatting. I also generally prefer to write new emails here, which is a rare occurrence.
- Spark is my go-to on my laptop, but it has fallen out of use on my phone lately. When I get bored of Inbox I will probably circulate it back in.
- Outlook is the email client that I’d prefer to use the most, but for some reason I don’t.
At a basic level, I just don’t really have a clear idea what I’d like my relationship with email to be, which I’m sure is not uncommon.
With chatting, I know what I’d prefer: a unified interface for sending messages to people which abstracts away messaging platforms. I have no real complaints about any of the chat interfaces that I use, just that they all feel platform-first rather than person-first. Interface-wise, I’d probably say Slack and WeChat impress me the most, but WhatsApp, Messages, and Signal are all really good too. Honestly, there’s not a lot to fuck up, and chat is an excellent style of communicating with people.
To Be Continued?
There’s much more to be said about the software I find myself using on a regular basis these days, especially the abundant array of programming and design tools which seem to be multiplying like bunnies. Those will have to wait for next time.
It would be nice to be able to set a custom Markdown parser though. For instance, so that I could preview with proper footnotes. ↩
In my opinion the tabs don’t work because you can easily wind up with too many open, rendering them nearly useless. But I’ve recently been running into an issue which I find even more annoying: if I’m working on different branches of a codebase, either of which have a bunch of working files that are new, when I switch branches I have a bunch of open tabs that the editor thinks have been deleted. So I have to manually go through and close those tabs I’m no longer working on, but have to confirm that I don’t want to save them. This seems very prone to human error, and I don’t want to have to think about it anyway. ↩