Essays on Technology and Culture

In Praise of Apps with Learning Curves

There’s a lot to be said for a piece of software that you can just jump right into. Apple’s built half their reputation on software that is intuitive enough that even a toddler understands it. As long as something is easy, works, and has enough features to satisfy 90% of users 100% of the time, it’s typically a good piece of kit. The great bits of kit are like that, but leave room for power users to tweak and configure things so that the application works better. And then, there’s the amazing apps, the ones that you can’t just jump into blindly, that reward the user to take a little time to think and set things up. Those are gamechangers.

Quicksilver, LaunchBar, and Alfred are the first examples that come to mind. Open them up, and they’ll do a fair bit for you, but to get the real value of them, you need to dig into settings menus and preference windows, install plugins and extensions, and tweak them to work exactly the way you think. It’s possible to use a Mac without one of these tools, but once you’ve tried them, you really won’t want to. When setting up both my work iMac, and my new MacBook Pro, the first four apps I installed were, in order: Dropbox, 1Password, LaunchBar, and TextExpander. They’ve become so ingrained into my workflow that to not have them would cripple me. [1]

I started in on this line of thought after an App.Net conversation with Andrew Marvin [2] about the iOS app Drafts. Drafts is where nearly every piece of text I create on an iOS device begins its life, including this very essay you’re reading right now. It’s an exceedingly simple application that is just a text box, and a host of hooks to other apps and services that you can send the text to. Mr. Marvin’s quote after I told him that was: “Why don’t you just put the text where it goes?” In short, Drafts is faster. To add to my spark file in Nebulous Notes, I have to synchronize my entire notes folder, find my sparks file—time consuming, even with Merlin Mann’s “q” trick—and scroll to the bottom to add text. In Drafts, I launch the app, type, and push a button. Done. It’s not something you can do out of the box—it takes a bit of time, patience, and configuration, but the rewards are worth it.

Another iOS app, Launch Center Pro, has a similar reward of investment to time spent configuring it. At first it just looks like a second, smaller, home screen, which may make you ask like Andrew did: “[W]hy would I open an app to launch an app when I can just launch the app?” For me, Launch Center Pro serves as an omnipresent gateway to apps that I want to access quickly, and in certain ways. If I need a password for something, I tap LaunchBar, tap 1Password, and type a search query. Hit go, type my 1Password password, swipe to the right, tap the clipboard icon, and I have my password. It sounds more complex than it is, but it’s also way faster than finding my Utilities app folder, launching 1Password, and finding the search field. On both of these apps, I know I’m just scratching the surface of what they can do. Making these little tweaks is often worth the time. A bit of upfront effort can make life easier down the road. Starting Monday, I’ll have a couple posts on how I use each of these apps.

  1. Imagine typing out my email address every time like an animal.  ↩

  2. Great writer, one-third of Crush On Radio, and a damned handsome man.  ↩