I’m Reuben Stanton. This is an intermittent blog of relatively random things: thoughts about technology, reflections on my life and work, and some historical stuff.

My ‘real’ website is here, and I tweet intermittently @absent

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Practice based research

Things sure change fast around here. (No, not another Time Flies post, although time is a bit of a theme). I’m taking another unexpected turn – not directly away from iPhone development, but something new, in tandem: I just enrolled in a full time PhD at RMIT University.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of work in and around RMIT for the last few years, and when the potential PhD candidate for the Circus Oz Living Archive project fell through, I was there to catch it. This is something very new and very different for me – I’m used to being employed to perform a particular technical task or to solve a specified design problem, but as a PhD candidate I’ll have to define a research topic and act on it. I’ve never even worked in a single job or on a single project for three years, let alone defined my own boundaries and focussed intently on a single research question.

What I’ve found from talking to academics that I’ve been working with lately is that a lot of what I am currently trying to do in my design practice is, in fact, a process of design as a way of inquiring and producing knowledge – design as research. What I don’t have is the theoretical background and frameworks to back up and support and know about what it is that I am practicing. Yet.

So this blog will be changing again too, (the third shift in its short life) to document my PhD progress along with my iOS development work.

Three years is a long time… starting now…

About time

How do you think about time passing? Do you think about start dates an end dates? Periods? The passage of the sun across the sky?

I’m asking because I’ve just finished a new feature for Time Flies –  the most requested addition to the app – a history log for your event updates. Time Flies as it stands is a memory aid that uses a single metric – when you last did something. Adding a history log to an event adds 2 additional metrics that can be used in all sorts of ways – frequency (how many times have I done something?) and regularity (how often do I do something?) The challenge was to present these on a single coherent screen without compromising on the fundamental simplicity of the app (which, based on user feedback, has been a large key to its success).

I had a few constraints to consider – the history needed to be in a list format (for consistency with the main app screen, and for the functionality I wanted to leverage from within the UITableView framework), and I wanted to avoid using icons or images – part of the simplicity of the existing design is in it’s text based interface. I also wanted the feature to be unobtrusive – not all events require a history, so it shouldn’t be too prominent – for this reason I decided that the history log should be accessed via the “edit” screen, not on the main event listing.

I went through a lot of design iterations figuring this out. The main edit screen fell in to place very quickly – I’d designed it originally with a lot of space just in case I did decide to add a new metric – a button below the date did the trick. But what about the history log itself?

My first functional iteration was really just a tech demo – it shows the start and end dates and a time period so that I could be sure that the data was tracking properly and the database upgrade ran smoothly.  The long dates are conceptually too far removed from reality to be a useful reference (unless you are really good at calendars), and the time periods sitting above are meaningless out of context (15 days since what? Or to? From? Between?)

From here I moved through a lot of different configurations. I tried showing From: and To: labels (too messy), time from now (not relevant anymore, once an item is in the history the important metric is time between events), just the start date and the intervening period (almost right, but still confusing). After some discussion with K, I understood that confusion was arising because the periods (3 hours, 2 days etc…) still weren’t clearly being read as a time between one event and the next in the list.

The solution seems very simple now but took a lot of getting to – I removed the the lines between entries to connect them conceptually as a single stream; added of a small red arrow to indicate time direction and to link each period with the next event – now you can see when an even started (the date), and how long it was between updates (period description+arrow); the large space for the event description at the top places emphasis on the most recent update (a stated goal in the original design) and demarcates all below it as historical.

I’ve been using the new feature for the last few days and I see why so many people have emailed me requesting it – it really does enable another level of understanding of your own actions – it’s all about self awareness, mindfulness. I really thought I went for bike rides more often…

On top of that, the app will now store some very useful data points for future additions if I go down the track of implementing built-in data analysis, which could be a very interesting path to pursue.

(The updated Time Flies is now available on the App Store).