Saturday, March 30, 2013

Is it supposed to work like that? #1 iTunes and app data.

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of articles addressing the question:  How can we make things more useful, learning lessons from what has been tried in the past.

My dad was an artist, tool maker and master craftsman.  He had a powerful ability to find what was wrong and a powerful desire, once a wrong thing was found to make it right.  He worked very hard to instill these aspects into me.  Even though I've specialized in the computer realm, I find myself all too often exclaiming in my dad's invective how wrong some tool, appliance or computer program is, and how much I wish it could be made right.

My challenge here is to distill suggestions for affirmative action to take rather than to merely complain.

At the very least, to those with less technical insight than I, I propose to answer the question, "Is it supposed to work like that?" with answers of the form, "Not really.  Here's why.  Here's what can be done.  Here's what you can do."

So on to our first exploration:

Is it supposed to work like that? #1 iTunes and app data.

Today I wanted to copy some sheet music I'd scanned onto my iPad for use within the amazing and wonderful forScore app  ( I use this app in Chorus rehearsal instead of paper scores.  I don't drop pages on the floor, and I can make extensive annotations when needed.

My problem is that months elapse between each update of music.  Every time, I have to re-learn how to copy the the scores in:

  1. Open iTunes
  2. Plug my iPad into my Desktop computer.
  3. Click on the iPad button to get to the contents of the iPad
  4. Click on the Apps button
  5. Scroll past the list of apps to the bottom "File Sharing" section
  6. Click on the forScore icon
  7. Drag my scores into the "Documents" window.

Apple is supposed to have the simplest and most usable interfaces.  Is it supposed to be like this?

Not really:  This is an example of how if you haven't thought carefully about how a person will end up using your simple idea, the result is overly complex and not very usable.

Here's why: Indeed, organizing objects -- papers, books, music, etc.  is a difficult and complex process. 

Something that made sense to computer folk, a tree structured generic filesystem, proved mystifying to non-computer people.  The developers had spent a lot of time trying to organize stuff, and as a consequence when the interface of, "a display that shows the files in this folder, and where this folder sits in a hierarchy" they were happy, and thought they were done.

But lots of people who use computers don't even have a lot of experience of filing papers in a folder in a filing cabinet.  And presented with the computer equivalent, they get confused, and lost.  Things seem too complicated.

Perhaps the developers of iTunes thought, "If we just have a few simple folders, people can drag the few things they want to where it belongs, and they won't have to master that hierarchical filesystem thing."

That worked fine when it was just music, and then when you added a couple different other kinds of media, audio books, books, podcasts.  But now we have "anything an application might want to use" has made that a long list of places, and the iTunes interface is just a messy hierarchical filesystem, with stuff jammed into strange places that are more an artifact of when that kind of new thing was added, than to where it intuitively would belong.

Here's what can be done:  iTunes needs to be simplified, and not try to provide individual, "obvious places where each little thing should go," because that list has gotten too long.  Everything that's pretending to be a filesystem interface should be stripped BACK out of iTunes, and you should go back to the regular hierarchical filesystem.  Let people learn ONE hierarchical filesystem instead of having to learn the iTunes one in addition to the native one on the computer.

But that'st not all.  A simple interface for each app needs to be provided so that people who only want a couple things, they can get directly to what they want to do, without having to master a computer's hierarchical filesystem.  There should be file sharing that can be "pulled" from inside the apps running on the iPad. Perhaps iCloud will grow into being able to do this.

Here's what you can do:  Use Dropbox as a rendezvous point.  

Sadly this is complicated initial startup.  You need to create a drop box account, and get the dropbox app running on your computer.  (If people would like instructions on this, reply in a comment, and I'll dig out what I did.

  1. Make sure the iPad is on the network.
  2. Drag the relevant scores to the Dropbox folder.
  3. From inside forScore click on the Toolbox icon.
  4. Under "Add Scores" click on Dropbox
  5. Pick the scores you want from the Dropbox folder.
Although this seems like almost as complicated an act, 5 steps, versus 7 steps, I just remember one thing:  "Use Dropbox as intermediary."  Because there's only one Dropbox folder, I don't go through the complicated mess of remembering where to find the place inside iTunes to drop my application-specific data.

Bottom line:  By trying to eliminate the complexity of a hierarchical filesystem, but desiring to have a specific landing point for particular application data, file sharing has become too complicated.  The remedy is to take a step back and say, "Let's have a generic rendez-vous point where sender and receiver can still think simply within their mindset."

Does this make sense, Gentle Reader?  What do you think?


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