My favourite episodes of Community have something in common: they have an emotional core.
The reason I like “Remedial Chaos Theory” isn’t goatees and What Ifs, as great as goatees and What Ifs are. The reason I like “Remedial Chaos Theory” is that we learn that people’s feelings can be more complex than the feelings they choose to present us with. You’d be surprised what we don’t know about the people around us. When Troy complains to Britta that Jeff is picking on him like he’s a kid, Britta reveals that Jeff sees an adult Troy as a threat. After we find that out in one timeline, we see in the next timeline that Troy laughs at Jeff when Jeff hits his head on the ceiling fan. Seeing all of the timelines, all those permutations of how things could go, shows us the emotions characters these characters have towards each other deep down (Pierce is jealous that Troy moved in with Abed, Shirley feels left out of the group, etc.), but in the “real” timeline where Jeff gets the pizza, none of those ugly feelings rear their heads1. The show artfully uses the idea of multiple timelines as this incredible device to show us what’s under the surface of these characters. To top it off, the episode is packed to the rafters with hilarious gags and jokes and goofs. I think “Remedial Chaos Theory” is my favourite episode of the series. It’s funny, it tells us something, we learn from it, and the framework it relies on is sheer genius.
Another of my favourites is “Mixology Certification”. Troy becomes an adult and his illusions about adulthood are shattered when he learns that being an adult isn’t always that much better. He always saw Britta and (especially) Jeff as adults that had their shit together, but over the course of the episode he learns that shit-having-togetherness isn’t something that automatically comes with being an adult. The others have their own stories — Annie worries about what she’s doing and where she’s going, and when she has to pretend to be Caroline Decker to get into the bar, she leans into the act to escape her fears for one night. Even Abed and Shirley have their own little narratives, albeit less fleshed-out due to time. Again, the show manages to tell us this story that’s powerful and funny at the same time2.
I could go on3, but I won’t, because #longreads, amirite? (high-fives) My point is that these are what I consider to be the highs that Community reaches. Making us laugh, making us think, being clever and funny and witty, all with an earned, emotional core that grounds the story. These episodes are what make Community probably my favourite TV show of all time. I had to (probably) say goodbye to that show today.
[Spoilers for the Season 4 finale of Community ahead.]
Which brings me to the Season 4 finale. I love the idea of graduation forcing Jeff to come to terms with how Greendale has changed him, and the high-level stuff of the episode hits all the right notes — he’s ready to return to his old job and his old life, but he hesitates and comes up with ways to delay his goodbye (a ceremony tomorrow instead of just going to the Dean’s office today, and riling up Abed so he’d need Jeff). Eventually, conflict between his pre- and post-Greendale selves results in him turning his old job down and staying with the group he’s become a part of at Greendale. That’s a great idea for this episode! How the show executed that idea, though? That, I’m not so keen on.
I think the beginning and the end were both great. The beginning does exactly what it needs to: show the cracks in Jeff’s armour4. I also liked the ending — the last couple of minutes feel like a great goodbye to the show (though Pierce’s little graduation thing is a necessary evil). But the thing in the middle, the road of trials Jeff travels to realise that Greendale made him a better person, I don’t love. I thought it was… OK. A dark timeline thing? OK. I guess that’s a neat way to depict the internal fight between Jeff’s two selves, but I think it was form over function. I guess I think that Community is at its best when it’s telling those emotional stories, and this flashy fight gets in the way of telling the story this episode is trying to tell. Why not have Jeff’s emotional breakthrough be gradual over the course of the “dream” sequence, rather than shunned in a 15-second break towards the end of the bombastic battle? Why divorce the cool, action-y stuff from the emotional stuff? I feel like Jeff’s arc wasn’t earned is I guess what I’m saying, and a well-executed, flashy, reference-laden “dream” sequence doesn’t make up for that.
I wanted this (and every) episode of Community to be great. I like liking things. I even love loving things. Which is why it was so devestating that I didn’t love the Season 4 finale of Community. Overall, I think that a story of this importance deserved more than it got. The opening and closing feel good, but I think that road from A to C needed more emotional sustenance. It’s nothing against the people involved with the show — I’m sure there were constraints and issues and roadblocks and reasons, and I’m 100% on your side — but I just wish this wasn’t how I was saying goodbye to my favourite TV show.
How does that make Jeff feel? Him leaving the group to go get the pizza is the only way the group stays happy. ↩
If a little melancholy — I remember it being regarded as the “dark” episode of Season 2 at the time, which it kinda is, but I think that stems from the subject matter being a little darker, and not from a lack of jokes (of which, there isn’t — “I think ahead! I prepare! I don’t improvise my life like Caroline Decker, who probably has really bad credit and an unfinished mermaid tattoo”). ↩
Even the more “action movie”-ish episodes can have a nice arc to them — in “Epidemiology”, Troy shrugs off his and Abed’s nerdy Halloween double-costume, offending Abed, but then has to embrace being a nerd to save the day ↩
I’d like it to be on the record that Britta saw right through Jeff’s plan to delay graduating — she might actually be a good therapist! ↩
City on Fire (1987) dir. Ringo Lam
It’s weird that I and basically anyone else in the world have the ability to just send Dan Harmon a message, right? You weren’t able to just drop something into Larry David’s inbox twenty years ago. And even if you could, it’s not like Larry David would be the one reading it. It’d be a secretary or an assistant or something, not Dan Harmon in bed at night with a laptop on his chest looking at a website. Things like Tumblr and Twitter have given us a direct line to the people that make the things we care about. They may not always pick up the phone at the other end, but we can leave a message, and that’s satisfying enough. This is a bizarre situation. The internet is crazy and it’s knocking down walls left, right, and center and it’s still new and we have no idea what it’ll let us do next and I think that’s pretty exciting.
Maybe my favourite line in Jaws is when Chief Brody says he’s shutting down the beach, but the Mayor says it’ll only be for 24 hours. In the ensuing rabble-rousing, you can hear one woman shout “24 hours is like three weeks!” Good one, lady.
“Oh, you just set the view’s layer’s shadowPath to the view’s bounds so the shadow’s calculated just once and Core Animation doesn’t have to recalculate the shadow each time it’s drawing the view oh wait maybe that’s not what this video is about.”
Polaroid Swinger Commercial (1965)
I legitimately like this song, but far out, Chris Frantz isn’t doing anyone any favours by shouting1. Just cut the mic, sound guy. Let Tina be Tina.
Sorry, Chris (I know you’re a reader). If it’s any consolation, I think you’re exactly the drummer Talking Heads needed. ↩
A lot of the notifications in iOS are attributed to actions that people take. Liked a photo, sent you an email, etc. iOS notifications already send you metadata along with the message itself (this is why you can swipe a notification from Tweetbot, for example, and it will take you directly to a Twitter user’s info.) So why not allow a service to send along a user ID with the notification? If you get a notification that a Facebook friend (already synced with your Contacts) commented on a photo of yours it could then be displayed as “[profile pic] John A. commented on your Facebook photo…” instead of “[Facebook logo] Facebook: John A. commented on your photo…” 1 It’s a subtle difference but I think one is better at emphasizing what someone actually did instead of which app is the intermediary.
Yep. Yes please. This is a great idea. However.
What happens when Twitter user @some_rando sends you a reply, though? You (probably) don’t have @some_rando’s profile picture in your address book, so does Twitter include the URL of the profile picture in the notification and have iOS load the profile picture before showing the notification? Does the notification include the actual image data? (Repeat this for randos liking your Instagram photos or liking your Vine posts or following you on Rdio or emailing you, or even just people in your contacts that you don’t have a photo for.) There are edge cases that Facebook doesn’t have to deal with because everything in Facebook Home pulls from Facebook, which already knows everything about your Facebook friends, but I think they’d be worth figuring out on iOS for the benefits Brandon talks about.
(Real quick, re: Facebook Home. Lots of great stuff. Very playful. It feels modern. It makes me wish I enjoyed using Facebook1.)
I tried Facebook at the end of last year, but it was… overwhelming. Twitter and Tumblr are such simple products by comparison. There are tweets/posts, you follow people to see their tweets/posts, and you can like/retweet/reblog people’s tweets/posts. That’s basically the whole product. For a new user in 2013, I can tell you from experience that Facebook is a mish-mash of features and products and apps. I couldn’t figure out how to fit it into my life. ↩
There’s a video going around showing off a concept for multitasking on iOS. It’s embedded above.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t like it very much. I thought it was predicated on the assumption that users spend (or should spend) a lot of time inside their app switcher, which is an idea I strongly disbelieve in. I decided to explore the reasons why I reacted badly to the ideas presented in the video, and I ended up writing them down. I present them here mostly for myself, but also in case other people would like to read about them. I have no idea why they would. I look at each feature roughly in the order they were presented in the video (I recommend watching the video before continuing).
“Full app tiles” and “faster app switching”
By showing the user the content they were just looking that (as opposed to the icon of the app they were just using), the user might more easily recognise the app they want to go back to. Instead of saying “yep, that’s the Flipboard icon, and I was just using Flipboard before”, the user says “yep, that’s the stuff I was looking at before”. I can see that. Do I think that showing a preview of the app tells the user more than just an icon? Maybe, I guess, but wait ‘til you see the price of that extra context.
Do me a favour — try switching between apps right now on your iPhone. Once that multitasking drawer is open, count how many interactions it takes to switch to an app.
If the app you’re switching to is one of your four most recently used apps (i.e. the app you want is on the first screen of apps in the multitasking drawer), it takes a single tap to switch to it. If the app you’re switching to is in the second group of four apps in the multitasking drawer, it’s a swipe and a tap. For every group of four apps, it’s just one more swipe. Chances are, the thing that currently takes the longest when you’re switching between apps is the animation iOS shows.
Now, let’s take a look at this proposed method of switching between apps. Switching to the first app in line takes a swipe to get to the app, then one tap to switch to it. Switching to the second app? Two swipes and one tap. Third app? Three swipes and one tap. And so on:
If the user’s switching to their fourth-most-recently used app, this new method would take five times as many interactions as the current method. There’s a reason people aren’t crazy about iOS 6’s card-inspired UI for searching the App Store1. Swiping between a large number of things one at a time, be they recently-used apps or search results, is cumbersome.
One alternative (and I think this might even be what the video is demonstrating, though I can’t be sure) is to not have that scroll view use paging — instead of swiping between each results, you just swipe once and the scroll view just scrolls until it slows down and centers on the nearest app, like the Wheel of Fortune wheel. This would get around the high number of interactions, but it’d be at the cost of precision — the user wouldn’t really know where the scroll view was going to stop scrolling unless they knew exactly how hard to flick to get to the app they want. What’s more, the “full app tiles” take up a lot of screen real estate (admittedly, by design) — the user gets very little indication of which app is next in the list. The user can no longer reliably switch between apps. Let me put it this way: the iOS Home screen could scroll without pages, but it doesn’t. There’s probably a reason why.
There might be a happy medium here. I didn’t mind the quote-unquote Apple prototype multitasking UI from a few years back that looked a little like Exposé. You get the benefit of having a preview of each app, and you’d also be able to switch to any of your eight most-recently-used apps with one tap. You’d even be able to search through your recently-used apps, like you can in this proposed UI, if that’s a thing you want to do2. However, I think this entire approach of letting the multitasking UI take over the device is misguided. Multitasking shouldn’t seem like its own app — it should seem as invisible as possible to the user. It should be as little a part of the user experience as possible, and the user should spend as little time in the process of switching apps as possible. This is hard for me to articulate3, but I think that switching apps shouldn’t be its own discrete thing. It should be a bridge between two discrete things. Should the user’s interface to multitasking be as polished as possible? Yes, obviously. But should there be as little of that interface as possible? I think so. I think that’s why Apple threw away that Exposé UI, and I think it’s why this “full app tiles” concept is a bad idea.
Even though I dislike the idea of “full app tiles”, let’s move forward with the assumption that they’re there and take a look at this “live previews” idea. First, let’s consider the costs of implementing “live previews”. The way iOS manages app states would have to be rearchitected. For example, right now, iOS will kill apps when it needs more memory — so the app you wanted to look at in the app switcher might not even be there4. This would cost Apple time to implement, third-party developers time to adjust to, and maybe even users time to deal with managing their running apps, but all of those combined don’t even come close to the biggest cost of showing “live previews” in the app switcher — iOS devices are memory-constrained, CPU-constrained, and battery-constrained. Implementing “live previews” would hit all three of those bottlenecks real hard.
There must be upsides though, right? The benefits of having a new, active multitasking state would definitely outweigh the costs, right? Doubtful. For one, you couldn’t interact with your recently-used apps. You couldn’t pinch to zoom in Maps, you couldn’t scroll through your timeline in Tweetbot. You can’t do anything with these apps unless they’re running and active and accepting events. At best, the apps in the switcher will be able to display moving content (like how Maps shows a real-time route in the video) or be executing some non-user-interactive task (which iOS apps can already do in the background for short periods of time). Most of the time, though, your recently-used apps are going to be sitting there, doing practically nothing, displaying exactly the same content as it was when the user left — Instapaper’s still going to be in the article you were looking at, and Foursquare’s probably still going to be scrolled to the same place in your check-ins as you were before. I’ll grant that some apps might be showing moving content (a video app might continue playing a video, or Maps might continue flying through the journey you’re taking), but even then, how much better is that than, say, a still screenshot of the last state the app was in (a la Auxo)? You want your movie to continue playing while you’ve got the app switcher open? Wouldn’t you want your movie to stop playing while you’re in the app switcher? Maps showing a real-time journey is the only example I can think of where active multitasking might be a benefit in an app-switching UI that shows previews recently-used apps, but even then, would rare examples like that make “live previews” worth their monumental cost to Apple, app developers, and (most importantly) iOS device performance? I don’t think so.
“Swipe to quit”
Introducing an active multitasking state is such a bad idea, it necessitates another bad idea just to manage it: a flashy, webOS-inspired gesture that makes it way too easy for users to force-quit apps, as if force-quitting apps is something users are doing or should need to do all the time. Imagine if the method proposed in the video was actually implemented. For background, consider how iOS deals with swipes — iOS is pretty loose about what it considers the direction of a swipe to be. If you swipe to the right and up a little bit (say, at an angle of 10 degrees), iOS interprets that as just a swipe to the right, because we’re humans and not Terminators that can swipe dead-on horizontally 100% of the time. If this proposed app switcher was implemented, a swipe to the right would move to the next app in the switcher, and a swipe up (or down, it looks like?) would force-quit the app. Imagine you swipe right and up a bit (let’s say 44 degrees) — iOS considers that a swipe to the right, so it scrolls the app switcher. Swipe just a slightly higher angle, though, and all of a sudden, iOS considers that a swipe up. Oops, you just force-quit that app. Sorry.
There’s a reason that force-quitting an app requires the user to tap and hold an icon and then tap that red minus badge — force-quitting an app is a very destructive action. Destructive actions should not be easy to take by mistake. Under this proposed method of app switching, swiping at an angle one degree higher than before — changing that angle a tiny bit — would change your action from moving between apps in the app switcher to force-quitting the currently-selected app. I cannot stress how bad an idea I think this is, given iOS’s current method of interpreting swipes. If iOS started interpreting swipes differently, then sure, maybe this is a good idea. At any rate, changing iOS’s swipe logic doesn’t change the fact that swiping up/down to delete an item isn’t used anywhere else in iOS5. Swiping to quit is flashy and unnecessary at best, and monstrously destructive at worst.
iOS already puts playback controls in the multitasking drawer, so this wouldn’t be a huge shake-up. The redesigned controls aren’t without their problems, though. Why have the details about the currently-playing audio replace the volume slider? What if I want to turn the music down when those details are on the screen? What decides when the volume slider fades out and the audio details fade in? This isn’t a problem with the current playback controls. In addition, the current playback controls let me launch the app that’s playing audio by tapping its icon — if I’m listening to a podcast, Podcasts’ icon is there. If I’m streaming music with Rdio, I can get to Rdio with one tap. This proposed UI doesn’t let me do that.
Brightness and toggles
Some of these things are also currently in the multitasking drawer, so this is more of an evolution than revolution. It’s an OK idea. However, I question whether or not enough people are toggling Bluetooth and Wi-Fi often enough to warrant their place high up in that table of toggles. Placing those toggles on a relatively easily-accessible screen could be considered a tacit admission that iOS users need to manage Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which I’m sure isn’t a message that Apple wants to send out. Along the same lines, how often are users turning things like Airplane Mode and Do Not Disturb on and off? Do those rarely-used controls need to be there?
I think that the iOS multitasking UI could be improved, but I don’t think this is how Apple will do it. A lot of these ideas are things Apple’s doubtlessly already thought about. In some cases, they likely flat-out rejected the idea (for example, having active multitasking). In other cases, they solved the problem (see iOS permanently showing playback details in the app switcher). In other cases still, it looks like they tried the idea and ended up going with something else (they (allegedly) built the Exposé-style multitasking UI, but went with just showing icons in a drawer). The ideas presented in the concept video make for a great concept video, but not a great user experience.
But hey. I could be wrong. I guess we’ll find out at WWDC.
I think the card UI for the App Store actually works well if the top hit is the app the user was searching for (i.e. if the user doesn’t have to scroll) — the user sees more information about the app than before. Where this UI falls down is if the App Store’s search algorithm isn’t great or the user types in a fuzzy search term (Rene Ritchie’s example search is “EA” — are a lot of people searching the App Store for names of companies or other kinda abstract things like that?). The App Store search algorithm is far from perfect, but that can change. I honestly believe that the people who are most up in arms about the App Store’s card UI for search are developers who show up second or third in search results, since their app suddenly got bumped from screen 1 to screen 2 or 3. ↩
Personally, I don’t get the appeal — Spotlight is used for launching apps on iOS and OS X. If I’m switching to a recently-used app on iOS, chances are it’s in that first screen of apps in the switcher, so search is probably unnecessary. Still, I’m not totally opposed to the idea. ↩
Some people have a way with words — I, to quote Steve Martin, not have way. ↩
And even if it is in the app switcher, it might not be in the same state as you left it (it may have been terminated and started up again) ↩
In comparison, tapping and holding an icon until it wiggles and then tapping a badge with a negative symbol to remove that app from the list is something users are already familiar with from the iOS Home screen. ↩