Consistency Sin

This past summer we narrowly avoided a major user interface regression on Apple devices. The story ended well, but I think it’s important to look back on the situation and ask a simple question:

Why did this happen in the first place?

My answer is something I call “consistency sin”. Understanding the cause lets us avoid similar situations in the future.

Your first reaction to this nomenclature may be, “Isn’t consistency a good thing in user interfaces?”

Absolutely! Colors, fonts, and other assets should be similar within an app. Combined they help give the user a sense of place and act as a guide through an interface. And in many, cases these similarities should be maintained across platforms. There’s no sin there.

But you can get into trouble when this consistency starts to affect the user experience.

Design is not how it looks, it’s how it works

Steve Jobs said a lot of smart things, but I use this advice most often.

The roots of consistency sin take hold when folks disregard the inherent differences between platforms. A greater importance is placed on making sure things match visually: how a person uses that design takes a back seat.

Platform controls and interface elements can differ at a fundamental level. The mouse is optimized for indirect interaction while a screen is optimized for direct interaction.

For the most part, developers are shielded from these details through the use of standard components that conform to the Human Interface Guidelines.

Enter Safari

Higher level interactions are driven by the type and quantity of information the user is working with.

To use Safari as an example, I can have hundreds of tabs open while I work on my Mac; on iOS it’s usually less than a dozen. Safari on iOS is also a full screen experience, while multiple windows and interactions with other applications are common on macOS.

Safari’s new tab design on iOS works great for me: swiping between tabs of fullscreen content is a better interaction for a limited number of pages. The grid of pages as a fallback for selection also works well for managing what I want to keep around.

The consistency sin in Safari was to come up with a good design for iOS and assume that it would also work well on iPadOS and macOS. It practice, these new tabs were difficult to use in a different work environment.

Luckily the folks working on Safari did the smartest thing possible: they listened to feedback and fixed the issues before shipping. That’s an important thing for a product that every Apple customer uses every day on every device.

It’s one thing to make a mistake, it’s a wholly different thing to deny that anything’s wrong. So let’s take a look at another example.

Notifications, Too

Notifications also suffer from consistency sin.

I look at my iPhone Lock Screen dozens of times each day, and sometimes just to just view a reminder or some other short notification. It’s quick, simple, and minimizes distractions.

On my Mac I see the Lock Screen only once or twice per day for just a few seconds as I enter a password. That means notifications occur while I’m actively working.

Again, consistency sin looks for a single solution that ignores my needs. On macOS I don’t want a minimal solution that is suitable for a mobile device. I want options that let me quickly dismiss or defer an item that’s interrupting my work. (And I certainly don’t want to hunt around in the window for a hidden control that lets me access a function.)

Placement is also an issue: on iOS controls tend toward the bottom of the screen (for reachability). The opposite is true on macOS where they tend  toward the top of the screen so they’re closer to the menu bar and window controls. Consistency sin says that notifications should always be at the top of the screen.

With iOS, there’s a nice visual and functional separation between app interactions in the lower half of the screen and notifications in the upper half. On the Mac, notifications are just another thing fighting for real estate at the top of the screen.

We’ve Only Just Begun

The bad news is that we’re likely to have more consistency sin in our future, thanks to Electron and other cross platform frameworks.

While development teams try to attain feature parity, experience parity will suffer. Everyone who’s used an iOS app and immediately thought “this is a web page” will know what that means.

There is a long history of user interface frameworks that make work easier for a product team. Every time, these solutions end up being a least common denominator that makes it more difficult for customers. Don’t be surprised when they complain: as they did for Safari, and as they do for Notifications.

If you’re a designer or developer, it’s your job to push back on the notion of consistency when it begins to affect a user’s experience. Remember design is how it works, and work is not the same on every device. 

Introducing AV Remote

In my ongoing quest to release FREE apps that are useful in my daily life, I’m proud to announce the release of AV Remote. It’s a very simple remote for Denon and Marantz AV receivers.

The official apps for controlling these receivers work fine, but have way too many features for my needs. I don’t need to control zones, select inputs, or adjust equalizer presets. I just want to control the power and volume.

While using early versions of the app, I realized that I have different “listening levels”. As a result, AV Remote makes it easy to select a quiet volume for background music or something much louder for watching a movie:

AV Remote works with recent models of both Denon and Marantz receivers. If your device supports HEOS, then the app can discover the receiver on your network and begin controlling it. There’s no setup other than allowing access to your local network with Bonjour.

And if you’re looking for some good background music to put on your Apple TV, I have a solution for that too!

jsc: My New Best Friend

A friend of mine recently pointed me at a well hidden command line tool. In the JavaScript framework used by Safari and other parts of Apple’s products, there is a tool called jsc. It’s a command line interface for JavaScript that uses the same code as the rest of the system.

You can find the binary at /System/Library/Frameworks/JavaScriptCore.framework/Versions/Current/Helpers/jsc. That path is unwieldy, so I have an alias set up that lets my just type jsc in the Terminal.

So what can you do with jsc? Pretty much anything you can do with JavaScript in a browser with the caveat that there aren’t document and window instances.

If you run jsc -h, you’ll see a lot of options for testing and profiling JavaScript. It’s clear that the WebKit team uses this internally for running tests. But we can also use it for trying out ideas and running simple utilities.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so let me show you how it can be used to solve a simple problem. I recently needed to convert some strings in our Turkish localization of Frenzic to uppercase: the lowercase “i” was getting converted to the dotless version.

JavaScript’s toLocaleUpperCase() function is the perfect way to do this, so I pulled jsc out of my tool bag and got to work. The first challenge was getting input.

Luckily, there is a readline() function that takes keyboard input and returns a value. Unluckily, that input isn’t in the encoding you’d expect it to be: characters are returned in ISO-8859-1 (Latin-1), not UTF-8. Remember, there’s no document instance so the default encoding is used.

To workaround this limitation, you can percent escape the characters to UTF-16 and then decode them back into UTF-8 with this technique:

var text = decodeURIComponent(escape(readline()));

(If any WebKit engineers are reading this, it would be nice to have a command line option like --encoding=utf-8.)

Generating output is a bit different than a browser, too. You’ll be using print() instead of console.log(). To convert the text input and display it, I used this:

print(text.toLocaleUpperCase('tr-TR'));

There are a few more built-in functions that may prove useful, but so far, I’ve only needed to read and write text. It’s undocumented, but jsc also takes standard input and can be used as a shebang:

$ echo "print(1+2);" | jsc
3

Since this is likely code I’ll have to use again, I created a Turkish.js file:

while (true) {
    print('Turkish text?');
    var text = decodeURIComponent(escape(readline()));
    print(text.toLocaleUpperCase('tr-TR'));
    print('-------------');
}

I can now run this any time with jsc Turkish.js. And you also get to see how having JavaScript in a command line can be handy. Enjoy!

Introducing Waterscope

It’s common wisdom that you should release a software product when it is minimally viable: get an early version out in the world as soon as it can perform a useful task for a customer.

When that product is for someone who is a developer that’s been coding since the dawn of time, the equation gets flipped on its head. Waterscope is a Maximally Viable Product™ and the customer is me.

The app got its start when Swift 1.0 was announced back in 2014: I wanted to build something with the new language. About that same time, I had also started learning about tides and how they are predicted. It’s a complex problem that has been vexing scientists since the three-body problem was first proposed by Newton with the publication of the Principia in 1687. Like determining the time and place for a lunar eclipse, we rely on derived approximations.

For learning a new language, tide prediction provided a lot of interesting work: data collection, complex calculations, graphical presentation, and animatable data. It also let me know when it was a good time for a dog walk.

As an ocean swimmer, I also wanted my weather app to provide information about water conditions. It turns out the scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have that all figured out. As do the meteorologists at the National Weather Service (NWS) with their API for weather observations and forecasts. There are even high resolution images from environmental satellites launched by NASA. The United States government provides a treasure trove of data; the challenge with Waterscope was to organize and present it in a consistent manner.

Screenshots of Waterscope showing the home screen graphs, a map view with sea and land weather conditions, and a satellite view of California.

Which leads to a secondary goal for this app: to make it completely by myself. I work with some incredibly talented designers, but I wanted Waterscope to be uniquely my own. All the design, for better or worse, was created by my own hand. (The only exception is the use of SF Symbols when showing weather conditions.)

So not only was I learning Swift, I was also learning Sketch and, of course, how much time it takes to get something to feel right. Like coding, it’s not as easy as we sometimes make it look. Don’t take your designers for granted :-)

Along the way, there were some interesting hurdles. Some visual, some simple, and some complex. Many of the things I wanted to do required learning about astronomy and orbital mechanics. My sketches from Linea will give you an idea of the breadth of the challenges. (And being the day after the solstice, that first sketch is particularly relevant.)

Sketches for a user interface design that shows seasons using the illumination of the Earth, the math for linear interpolation, and a spherical projection of a point on a satellite image.
Sketches for a user interface that shows seasons by illuminating the Earth, the math for linear interpolation, and a spherical projection for a location on a satellite image.

Here I am, six years later. I’ve learned a lot, but as with my first app in Objective-C, the most important thing about this exercise was how not to use Swift. It will probably take me another 18 years to come to terms with this new language, and feel like I’ve mastered it, but a journey can’t start without the first steps. Another insight is that a programming language is just a means to an end: the hard part is not the code, it’s understanding what needs to be done.

I’m releasing Waterscope today because there are certainly other folks who will benefit from my personal weather app. There may even be some educational value in seeing how I approached a data-rich user interface (hint: Edward Tufte’s books taught me). Information can be dynamic and beautiful.

At the same time, if you’re outside the U.S., it’s unlikely to be a satisfying experience: most of the data sources and their presentation are oriented towards North America. An example: in the southern hemisphere your view of the sun and moon’s orbit is in a counterclockwise direction as you look north. Waterscope displays a clockwise orbit.

But the good news is that Waterscope, like the data it uses, is FREE to download and use. Enjoy!

Codesign: The Saga Continues

I have a long history of writing about code signing in macOS. When Big Sur was released, I thought “Finally!”

I was wrong.

This time around I was tripped up by Safari, of all things. It doesn’t open app archives like other parts of macOS.

This story began with customer reports of xScope being a “damaged app” on Big Sur. This was surprising because I had been downloading and testing the app on Big Sur for several months without issue.

I was also doing all this work on Apple Silicon using the DTK. And since Google Chrome wasn’t yet working on this device, all my testing was limited to Safari. Safari’s default setting is to open “safe” files after download, so I left that alone (as most customers would).

This is where I shot myself in the foot. At no point did my downloads touch the Archive Utility. And I had no idea that Safari’s code is different than the system utility.

When I checked the signature of the app downloaded with Safari, everything looks good:

$ codesign -vvvv ~/Downloads/xScope.app
...
/Users/CHOCK/Downloads/xScope.app: valid on disk
/Users/CHOCK/Downloads/xScope.app: satisfies its Designated Requirement

Things were very different when using Google Chrome:

$ codesign -vvvv ~/Downloads/xScope.app
/Users/CHOCK/Downloads/xScope.app: unsealed contents present in the root directory of an embedded framework
In subcomponent: /Users/CHOCK/Downloads/xScope.app/Contents/Frameworks/Sparkle.framework

$ codesign -vvvv ~/Downloads/xScope.app/Contents/Frameworks/Sparkle.framework
/Users/CHOCK/Downloads/xScope.app/Contents/Frameworks/Sparkle.framework: a sealed resource is missing or invalid
file added: /Users/CHOCK/Downloads/xScope.app/Contents/Frameworks/Sparkle.framework/Versions/Current/Resources/._fr_CA.lproj
file added: /Users/CHOCK/Downloads/xScope.app/Contents/Frameworks/Sparkle.framework/Versions/Current/Resources/Updater.app/Contents/Resources/._fr_CA.lproj
file added: /Users/CHOCK/Downloads/xScope.app/Contents/Frameworks/Sparkle.framework/Versions/Current/Resources/Updater.app/Contents/Resources/._pt.lproj
file added: /Users/CHOCK/Downloads/xScope.app/Contents/Frameworks/Sparkle.framework/Versions/Current/Resources/._pt.lproj

It turns out all these folks complaining about a “damaged app” were either using Chrome or had Safari’s “safe” file handling turned off. The damaged archive wasn’t getting repaired automatically by Safari.

The root of the problem is localization in the Sparkle framework. There are two symlinks with extended attributes (the “._” is where macOS stores things like Finder information). The intent of the symlink was to say that French Canadian is the same as French, and Portuguese is the same as Brazilian Portuguese.

Since macOS automatically makes this inference, it’s safe to just delete the scripts that create the symlinks. In your Sparkle project, find any occurrences of “Run Script: Link fr_CA to fr” and “Run Script: Link pt to pt_BR” in your Target Build Phases and remove them. I had them in “Sparkle”, “SparkleCore”, and “Installer Progress”.

After you build and notarize, you’ll see that your app is “valid on disk” no matter how it’s unarchived.

I’ve also submitted this information to Apple’s Product Security group. As I said in my email, the biggest problem here is expectations:

The reason I’m writing is because Safari’s implementation for opening “safe” files is somehow bypassing a code signing check or repairing the downloaded package. The Archive Utility does not. Customer and developer expectations for unzipping archives is that they are not modified and behave the same way across all Apple products.

If you’re a Mac developer who’s using Sparkle and distributing your product via a web download, now’s a good time to check how things work in a variety of browsers. I’ve heard that we’re not the only ones affected.

And if you encounter a download that’s damaged because of these Sparkle symlinks, this quick fix in the Terminal will set things right:

$ ditto xScope.app xScopeFixed.app
$ rm -rf xScope.app
$ mv xScopeFixed.app xScope.app

The ditto command strips the extended attributes that are causing the issue. This may, in fact, be what Safari is doing for “safe” files.

All that’s left to do now is wonder what surprises codesign has in store for next year’s release of macOS…