Airplane != Message

A few weeks ago, I was on the Instagram app (for iPhone) and ran across into a user interface snafu. When I went to revisit a private message from a friend, I just didn’t find where the inbox lived. After a frustrating time clicking what I thought was every obvious button on the app, I went to Twitter for the answer, and luckily, a friend helped me out within a few minutes.

It turns out that with the latest Instagram update, they changed the messages icon from a very practical picture of a message or card box to a picture of an… airplane?

practical message icon

non practical airplane icon

I am all about icons, especially when dealing with the small real estate that you get with a phone app, but one of the most important things when dealing with interfaces is to create clear, usable design affordances.

It turns out, you can swipe left to get to your Instagram messages or click on the airplane, but that was certainly not intuitive for this tech savvy millennial user, leaving me frustrated. Instagram is a beautiful app with few distractions that puts its content first. It doesn’t overwhelm the user with a ton of complex features, making it easy to use. However, when an app has such few features, they need to be spot on.

Icons on the web are cultural and learned quickly- the 3 line hamburger menu has become fairly ubiquitous, a picture of a house typically means home, and a picture of a letter usually means email or message. They help reduce clutter, can transcend the written language, and add some visual variety overall.

Instagram’s message icon (the airplane) is identical to the icon you can use to share content on the app (see below). While I get the connection Instagram is trying to draw between the two features, it falls a little short. To me, an airplane means “send” or “go,” not a place of storage.

Icons are powerful, but designers need to be careful about how they are used. Maybe one day the airplane icon will be synonymous with an inbox, but today is not that day. Not that I can speak for all, but I imagine most users would prefer clarity of function over ambiguity of icons even if it means adding a bit more clutter to the screen. When in doubt, a simple word (messages, inbox, etc) describing the feature would have done the trick and saved a bunch of time.

Heres a Ted talk about the process of redesigning the Facebook “like” button: How Giant Companies Design For You.

The similarities of photography and code

As an instructor of UI design at The Iron Yard, I often get asked by prospective students how I got into development and what my background and experiences are. When I say that I have formal training in fine art and visual communications, there are quizzical looks more times than not.

While they may seem like disparate worlds, there are more similarities than not between the two mediums. Regardless of what I happen to be doing for work, I think of myself as a storyteller first and foremost. I wholeheartedly believe that stories hold an immense power that can change the world (science actually backs me up on this one). And for me, photography and coding are just two vehicles to tell stories about the world around me.

A single photograph can take us to foreign worlds, creating indignation over the plight of a child in a barren wasteland or mark a time of victory and hope at the end of a war. They can transcend culture and language, but when these photographs aren’t seen, they begin to lose their power.

When I began working more and more in the web, I recognized the potential that I didn’t have as a photographer. While I could spend months documenting a single story with my camera, it might only ever be seen by a handful of people. But when I built something on the web, a click of a button is all it took to spread to millions (potentially) of people.

I began to see code and design as a way to connect all the different mediums that I was passionate about- photos, videos, text, graphics, audio. All of which, while powerful on their own, could be brought together to form a cohesive story with a sum much greater than its parts. And while I was never going to be the next Dorothea Lange, I could maybe be a conduit for disseminating information.

In this age of connectivity and information, we have an unprecedented ability to create something and make it instantly accessible and available all across the world. And if that isn’t the most electrifying thought, I don’t know what is!

So here I am, having traded in my camera for my computer (for the most part). But my visual background still heavily influences everything that I build. And with every line of code I write and every pixel I design, I think, what story can I tell today?

Hello World… Again

Back when I lived in New York and was a freelance photographer, I used the blog a lot. Though blog might be too strong of a word, as it was essentially a glorified Instagram account of photos that I shot both for clients and myself.

When I moved back south for grad school, my blog took a backseat to research papers, telling new kinds of stories, and finding myself less and less with a camera in hand. I found a new voice through code and design (thats’s a post for another day), but my photo work is still a big part of who I am.

And after months years of putting this thing off, I’m finally carving out some time to start a new blog. While I will most definitely include some visual eyecandy from time to time, this is going to be a place to put my thoughts down and share articles and other goodies that I find helpful on the day-to-day.

So today I say cheers to my old Tumblr blog and say “hello, world” for the second time around.