The Ruthlessness of Navigation Apps

The Washington Post published an eye-opening article examining the downside effects of popular navigation apps. Drivers armed with apps like Waze and Google Maps are able to very effectively thwart the ill effects of modern commuter hell: road closures, accidents, and traffic jams —all previously hidden obstacles prior to mobile networks. Sharing information with one another drivers can react to changing traffic conditions in real time finding the quickest route along their given commute.

The ruthless efficiency of waze for instance can be problematic for once tranquil neighbourhoods inundated with excessive traffic volume (and noise/pollution) on streets that were never designed to function as main thoroughfares. Residents are getting the short end of the stick. But the makers of these apps don’t seem to empathize with the homeowners predicament. Attempts among residents to divert traffic away from their streets by ‘gaming’ routes with false information are swiftly removed by the app developers. Other ‘wazers’ logged-in to the app and driving in the vicinity are also quick to debunk fake reports of traffic bottlenecks or closures. For homeowners seeking peace and quiet it’s a losing battle.

The other perhaps unintended consequence of these navigation apps is the growing incidence of distracted driving. There’s no denying the distraction inducing effects associated with using these apps while behind the wheel —and now apparently studies confirm talking on a hands-free phone is equally distracting as picking up a device. It’s incredible to think how many technological distractions already exist in the modern automobile, and now we’re adding to it with our phones.

As a motorcyclist who routinely commutes in to work most days I find this trend really concerning. Not a day goes by that I’m not either cut-off or nearly smashed by a driver with their head buried down in their phone texting away. Is it any wonder the number of traffic accidents involving distracted drivers, particularly Uber and Lyft drivers, is on the rise?

The Web We’re Losing

Noted Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, once imprisoned for his “web activities” back in 2008, laments of the Web’s gradual descent towards a centralized flow of information and ideas. In a piece written for The Guardian Derakhshan points the finger squarely at popular social networks –Facebook, Instagram, et al– who he feels are killing the web by reeling us in to their close-walled ecosystems, places where people are increasingly spending more of their time online. Derakhshan writes:

We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication – nodes and networks and links – toward one that is linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.
I miss when people took time to be exposed to opinions other than their own, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters.

Here in Toronto the Star, our largest daily newspaper, recently closed down comments and decided to push conversations among readers to Twitter (this disappointing trend is happening elsewhere too). When did moderating readers’ comments become a liability? Perhaps this is symbolic of the end of the Web as an interactive medium. By all means consume but please resist the urge to participate and share your voice.

Vibrant discussion threads — is a great example — are a telling barometer of strong user engagement, whereas analysis of click-throughs and page views, based on the widespread use of click bots, tell us little about audience participation.

Consider for a moment a future version of the Web resembling Maciej Ceglowski’s computer game analogy:

The Web as Minecraft —an open world with simple pieces that obey simple rules. The graphics are kind of clunky, but that’s not the point, and nobody cares.
In this vision, you are meant to be an active participant, you’re supposed to create stuff, and you’ll have the most fun when you collaborate with others. The rules of the game are simple and don’t constrain you much. People create astonishing stuff in Minecraft.

. . .

It’s somewhat disheartening to think of the modern Web in terms of a series of closed networks or tiered pay-to-play information silos (I’m looking at you Facebook) rather than the vast open hyperlinked network that Tim Berners-Lee had originally set forth.

Update: January 3.2016
It would be hypocritical of me to publish this post with comments disabled, so I’ve turned them back on. Let’s hope the absurd comment spam doesn’t come back.

Slack: Aesthetics Over Utility?

Our office recently started using Slack. It’s the fastest growing workplace software ever and Inc.’s 2015 company of the year, amassing 1.7 million users in just 20 months after its launch, making it one of the fastest-growing startups in the world.

Slack is essentially a chat application with iOS, Android, and browser-based versions available. PC Magazine calls it a great tool for nonessential communication and private backchannel discussion. Nonessential communication?
By the sounds of it small-ish teams may benefit the most from using Slack as a direct messaging app like Skype or MSN Messenger before it, offsetting rampant email use which can hamper productivity. Larger groups and online communities on the other hand may struggle with Slack’s lack of more advanced project management capabilities.

A colleague affectionately touted Slack as an email alternative, calling it an “email killer” bolstering the ongoing argument that email has become a nuisance of modern office life and a crutch for traditional face-to-face interactions with co-workers. Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Email is a creature of convenience we rely on far too much to communicate with one another. Let me repeat that: walking over to a co-worker’s desk to discuss a project is still the best way to get something done. But at the same time, let’s be honest, given the rise of mobile workplaces comprised of teams working remotely who may not always be in the same physical space, tools like Slack (and webmail) become rather useful.

But email can suck the productivity out of the best of us if you find yourself sifting through swaths of CC’d messages, pointless app notifications, and meeting requests with your morning coffee. Curiously though, is it really much different scanning though reams of discussion threads inside a dedicated chat app? Popular email apps like MS Outlook and Gmail already offer conversation mode features, so is it really necessary to run a separate chat app like Slack?

Skepticism aside, I was still interested in trying Slack to see what all the fuss was about given my experience with Basecamp and JIRA for project collaboration.

But as I quickly discovered after just a couple weeks, Slack is full of quirky and often frustrating conventions that, I’m afraid to say, have made me feel slightly more busy, contrary to company’s utopian tagline: “Be less busy”.

Take for instance Slack’s insistence discussion topics, called channel names, contain no special characters (e.g. !@#$%&>.) and be 21 characters or less. If I can’t, for example, type the full name of a project or the client’s URL address (our team work on numerous web sites for various media properties) then I’m stuck with a lot of vaguely titled channels to sort through.
When I asked @SlackHQ why, they said it was for aesthetic reasons, which is odd considering the channels are neatly displayed in a ridiculously narrow column on the left-hand side of the screen while discussion threads extend off indefinitely. As you can see from this screen the desktop UI suffers from a bad case of interface sprawl. To quote Maciej Cegłowski, I’m an adult human being sitting at a large display, with a mouse and keyboard. I deserve better.

Productivity-Thwarting Email Notifications
The way Slack handles notifications is also a bit bewildering, granted I am a new user unfamiliar with the Slack way of doing things.
“Something happened in Slack while you were away…click this link to blah blah blah…” Oh fantastic. How do I turn off these stupid alerts! Isn’t Slack supposed to help me cut-down on the number of emails I get? Perhaps I should have watched the training videos. Who has time to watch software training videos? If I need to watch videos or search through support docs to work the app perhaps the UI needs an audit and some testing with first-time users in mind.

A Head-Scratching Scenario
A colleague of mine posts a direct message to me on Slack, but as luck would have it I am not logged in to the application which means I receive yet another email. (Again, isn’t Slack supposed to help me cut these attention-eroding email notifications down to a minimum?) The email contains a link to the message. After logging back in to Slack I am taken to my colleague’s message, a rather sparse looking screen that doesn’t seem to resemble the normal discussion threads. As I read through my colleague’s message I naturally decide I’d like to respond, but it appears my only options are copy link or add an emoji reaction. Wait a minute. Where is the reply pane? What project [channel] does this message fall under? After a brief moment I realize the email notification I received earlier has linked to a message archive screen rather than the discussion thread itself where my colleague had originally posted the message. What the heck is the purpose of this screen?! Clickbait to get me to stay in the app longer?
Strangely there are no links provided to the corresponding discussion thread —just those ridiculous emoji reactions— so I have to manually track down the correct channel and scroll through a long thread to find the original post where I am able to type a response.

. . .

The more I use Slack the more I wish it was like Basecamp (sorry) —hell, even JIRA, which isn’t saying much —just more flexibility and user-friendliness and without those childish emoji reactions, which are probably better suited to my 9-year old son’s Xbox chat app.