Why I’m Buying a Case for My iPhone 5

As documented by Geoff Barnes, I waited a long, long time to upgrade from my iPhone 3GS, skipping directly to the 5.

Besides my sharing Barnes’ experience of the near-impossibility of one-handed operation of the iPhone 5, I also continue to lament the squared-off form factor of the backside of the device.

Yes, the diamond-bit chamfer on the edges makes the phone feel better in the hand than the 4/4S did to me—or else I wouldn’t have bought the 5 any more than I did the 4 or 4S. I do feel those edges digging into me, but not as much as the 4S did when I auditioned it at the Apple Store.

What my 3GS provided that none of the newer models do, though, is some kind of safeguard against dropping the phone. The rounded back put more surface area of the phone in contact with my skin, making sliding toucher. The composite material, much tackier than the aluminum, doubled down on that friction. All told, I’ve probably lost control of the 5 more in a couple months than I did in more than three years.

The light weight of the 5 also means trouble, combined with the slipperiness of the aluminum. With a new baby at home, I spend lots of time in pajamas and gym shorts, and the svelte, smooth iPhone 5 is so susceptible to jostling and shifting that it falls out of my pocket literally every time I sit down on my couch or in our glider (when I’m wearing those clothes). It’s hit our hardwood floor more than once, and I feel sure a cracked screen is in my future. The 3GS, of course, never fell out of any of my pockets. It was just too heavy, which again I preferred.

The sad bottom line is this: When I find one, I will buy a case for the phone that makes the back rounder and the device heavier. Like Farhad Manjoo, I’ve been derisive about cases in the past, but the fact is that having a case on this phone would make it a better phone, for my purposes. I’m glad it looks so pretty, but it just feels a mess.

Also About Those Long Line Lengths

This morning, Tyler Galpin took a shot on Twitter at Stuff & Nonsense’s new redesign:

Yay for completely unreadable line lengths on a screen larger than a laptop. Constraints, dude. http://t.co/jusxIj4H

Andy Clarke defended the design choice, saying, among other things:

I don’t want to put constraints on line-length. That’s not a designers’ job. It’s a user’s job. If anyone wants to change the measure in a flexible layout, they can do it easily by changing the browser window width on their Mac or PC.

By me not limiting line-length, a user can let big text fill their screen and see more of it at a time. A constrained, narrow width would force them to scroll and I don’t want that. If you think my logic’s flawed, or you can think of a better solution, I’m all ears.

As luck would have it, I’m all mouth.

So let’s chat for a minute. Let’s chat about two things that users can do to improve readability, as needed:

  1. lean in to the display
  2. invert the colors of the screen image using OS-specific commands

These acts have dramatically different barriers. The first requires only a minimally functional set of core muscles—no conscious thought or fine motor control whatsoever. The second, some problem analysis, a conscious decision, prior advanced knowledge of one’s OS, and a modicum of fine motor skills, depending. (I still often botch the iOS home-button triple-tap.)

The greater the set of requirements to perform a task, the more the designer should do to prevent the user from having to perform that task. Absent some principle like that, how could we say that, in general, designs shouldn’t feature white-on-black body copy? Or, I don’t know, 6px body copy?

I would argue that the action Clarke empowers his users to take—constraining line lengths by adjusting browser window sizes—has more requirements than the scrolling he’s trying to help them avoid.

Scrolling is easy and barely conscious for many people in many cases. It’s such a fundamental act of web reading that we have many different ways to do it:

  • the arrows on the scroll bar
  • the whitespace in the scroll bar
  • the scroll position indicator in the scroll bar
  • the mousewheel
  • the trackpad
  • whatever you call the top of the Apple Mouse
  • the space bar
  • the down arrow key
  • tapping a phone’s screen and dragging (so easy I do it with my nose when I’m wearing gloves)

And so on.

(Okay, one more: In Instapaper’s iOS app, you can just tip your iPhone or iPad to scroll. Marco Arment seems to have taken scrolling to be so important in developing an app for reading that he wanted to make it even easier. This despite the tap-and-drag’s having been, again, an absolutely fundamental iOS interaction from day one.)

By contrast, resizing a browser window as Clarke would prefer we do requires, first, that we make the conscious decision to do so. Anecdotally, when I make the decision to resize a browser window, it feels like I’ve done a lot more analysis of the problem I’m having than when I scroll, a behavior that I started using in, I don’t know, 1987. I bet you feel more or less the same way.

There are also fewer ways to resize a window. Historically, you could use your OS’s maximize and related buttons or you could grab the bottom-right corner of the window. The buttons probably don’t help Clarke make his case, since they don’t resize with enough control or predictability to be useful in trying to adjust text sizes.

The latter method, grabbing the corner, was such an interface problem—with its small targets and somewhat sloppy, two-axis behavior—that, starting with Lion, Apple decided to change the model significantly. I’m stubbornly attached to Snow Leopard, so I can’t speak to the effectiveness of the new resizing features. (And to be fair, Apple tackled scrolling, too, not that I was jazzed about those changes.) But it’s tough to imagine an argument that resizing is easier than scrolling, the dilemma as Clarke figures it.

All told, if it were my site—and, at the moment you read this, it will be—I would much more readily encourage scrolling than resizing.

What Corporate Donors Want

A recent non-profit client just a year old had taken on an aggressive campaign goal: raising $12 million in 2011 from corporate sponsors alone in its second year. I was tasked with conducting research to help the organization understand what corporate donors want.

My findings, below, were based on primary and secondary research and my experience with fundraising and development efforts. The factors listed make the greatest difference for corporate donors and are presented in an order of rough importance.


Small- and medium-sized businesses especially look for opportunities to give locally, as one might expect. For such businesses, which usually lack national profiles, donations that impact the immediate community go further in terms of raising profile and making an appreciable difference. The preference for local philanthropy may also be a matter of convenience, insofar as local groups have an advantage in terms of conducting meetings with and giving presentations targeting corporate giving officers. Finally, many businesses likely understand that improving their own communities will lead to happier employees (and customers), and to greater recruiting potential.

It may be a surprise that many large corporations with national profiles also choose to give locally, largely for the same reasons. What “locally” means, thought, is a complicated question. For example, PNC Bank is well-known for philanthropic efforts near its branches but especially near its corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. (The name of the company’s philanthropic website bears out this community focus.) Another company in the top half of the Fortune 500, Dow Chemical, notes in its philanthropic guidelines, which are divided by state or region, that they target nonprofits that “address a social, economic, educational, or environmental need in a city/community in which The Dow Chemical Company has a presence.” That presence can be in manufacturing, corporate, distribution, or any other activity in which the company engages.


Corporate philanthropy can only meet the corporation’s goals—again, profile-raising and community improvement, among others—if the recipients make good use of donated funds. As such, corporate giving officers look for evidence of past effectiveness and, for younger nonprofits in particular, potential for future success. This evidence can be quantitative or qualitative, focusing either on efficient use of funds (e.g., helping a great number of people with minimal financial commitment) or on individual success stories (“human interest” case studies or testimonials). Nonprofits that can provide both kinds of evidence will find the greatest success in attracting corporate donations.


In a post-Enron, post-housing-bubble era, many businesses face an increasing demand for transparency. This is most true for public corporations, of course, but also holds for companies owned by groups of private investors or by venture capitalists. In order to preserve the integrity of their own books, most corporations look for philanthropic opportunities with nonprofits that can show how they have used funds they’ve received in the past, with nothing vague or irregular in the breakdown of expenditures.


In some cases, the “bragging rights” that accompany philanthropy drive giving officers at larger companies to seek out nonprofits with unique service offerings, unique positions within their fields, or otherwise unique perspectives on their causes. Also, since most corporations prize innovation internally, their philanthropic goals tend naturally to fall in line with that disposition.

Safety in Numbers

Another consequence of the increased demand for transparency is that corporate giving officers tend to take comfort in making donations to groups that have already attracted other corporate gifts. It may be an unfair prejudice, but donors perceive an organization as less likely to be fraudulent or otherwise troublesome if it has received many corporate gifts in the past. By donating to well-established recipients, officers protect their own reputations and those of their employers. Attracting many donors may also be seen—again unfairly—as likely to correlate with a nonprofit’s success.

On the Pride of Nittany Lions

So here we are: Jerry Sandusky has been found guilty and the Freeh report will surely yield further convictions. Punishing these monsters will bring a kind of closure for Sandusky’s victims, for their families, and maybe even for a society ill-at-ease with the child-rapes and the cover-up that we now know perpetuated them.

There may be a bigger question we need to address, however: whether the church of football—or even a narrower church of Penn State—helped Sandusky commit and cover up his crimes. We know that a pair of janitors were afraid to come forward because they feared for their jobs. We must also wonder to what pressures Sandusky’s accomplices—as we should now consider Paterno, Spanier, et al.—were subjected.

Among those living in regions well-populated with Penn State alumni, it has long been a staple of conversation that Penn Staters can be over-the-top in their displays of school pride. It was a matter of course that those of us who’d gone to other schools would roll our eyes at the exuberant pride of Nittany Lions—often, but not always, on gameday. What I want to suggest here is that we were onto something.

I used to work at a marketing company just a couple hours away from Penn State. It had four owners, three of whom were Penn State alumni. Alums also made up perhaps two-thirds of the firm’s workforce, nearly thirty people in all. At that place, the ongoing ribbing about the superiority of Penn State was pervasive and aggressive. To make a tenuous comparison, this aspect of the office’s culture closely mirrored the underlying structures of workplace sexual harassment.

There are many critical differences, again. Most importantly and most obviously, applying to Penn State is a choice; those of us who didn’t apply (or didn’t go) to PSU weren’t born that way.

There are also illuminating similarities, though. More than once, behind closed conference room doors, I heard non-Staters acknowledging a feeling that Penn State alumni got better jobs, promotions, and raises. (I always felt I had been treated fairly, but I had a non-standard trajectory at the company to begin with.)

It was almost always the case that returning fire had undesirable consequences: intensifying the aggression of the conversation, marking you as a hater, and in one case even leading to a public questioning of whether a non-alum could understand the culture well enough to work on a web project for the Penn State football program. The answer, it was determined, was “no.”

To be clear, no similar question had or would ever come up for another client. When one is hired to do work in the agency world, the presumption is that one can understand any client well enough to do the job. That flexibility underwrites the very existence of the marketing and advertising industries, where although a firm might have certain areas of specialization, rich experience in one vertical (say, non-profit marketing) is thought to be a sufficient platform for expansion into another.

The dynamic at my former company never escalated far enough to be addressed even informally, but that, too, is a trademark of the kind of talk that sexual harassment laws were put in place to eliminate. The idea wasn’t just to protect women (and men, gays, etc.) from the Clarence Thomases of the world, but to protect women in particular from the subtle and insidious effects of gender bias. I quote now from the website of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission:

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general. […] Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

Once again, I don’t mean to suggest that any laws were broken at my former place of employment, nor that what happened there was in any way as grave as sexual harassment, which is tied to broader and much more deeply troubling issues than school pride.

What I do mean to suggest is that the discourse of Penn State fervor could, in the years before the Sandusky scandal, closely reflect that of sexual harassment. If you replace “a person’s sex” and “a woman” in the paragraph above with “a person’s alma mater” and “somebody who didn’t go to Penn State,” then suddenly the power dynamics in place at my former company become painfully clear.

One pressing problem, in the wake of the scandal at PSU, is that it would be irresponsible not to wonder whether a culture of such zealotry had to exist in order for the cover-up to take place, to spread as deep and to last as long as it did.

To wonder that, though, is terrifying. For me at least, it means asking whether a great many close friends, colleagues, and family members are implicated, however indirectly, in what seems like it may become the most morally dissonant scandal the United States has ever seen on its own ground. It means asking whether the way “the rest of us” bristled at Penn State pride was more than just a general discomfort with what felt like an immature emotional display. It means asking whether we found the members of the Penn State brogeoisie who walked among us irritating not just because we weren’t a part of it, but because there was something inherently dangerous about their attitude.

I don’t mean to claim that Penn State is worse than the other schools with maximally feverish fans. Ohio State comes to mind as a close second—perhaps because of a regional bias I’m subject to—and I once knew a ‘Bama fan who was beaten into a coma after shouting “Roll Tide” in Auburn gameday traffic.

If Penn State is not the only school with its own parish in the church of football, though, then our problem is bigger than the crimes of one man, as atrocious as they were. It’s bigger, even, than the reprehensible lack of action on the part of revered figures like Sandusky’s late and former boss, Joe Paterno. In short, if what happened at Penn State could have happened elsewhere, then the kind of closure we will feel, those of us not directly affected by Sandusky and his accomplices, comes to seem like little more than an excuse once again to close our eyes.

Issues with Issuu: An Open Letter to Literary Magazines

Dear literary magazines,

I’m writing you this letter to beseech you not to use Issuu and to explain why I feel so strongly about it. I will be as concise as I can, but the platform has many problems.

Let’s start with the most obvious: Nobody visiting your website on an iPhone or iPad will be able to read the work you care so much about. Issuu uses Flash, and there is no Flash on those devices. (In fact, Adobe has stopped developing mobile Flash plugins for any phone.)

It’s true that Issuu has a reader app for iOS, but that doesn’t help you when somebody clicks a link to your website from their chosen iPhone Twitter app, for example. It only helps if you put your entire publication out via the Issuu iOS Reader (which you probably don’t) and a user of the app decides to subscribe. I’d stake my reputation on that fact that most of your readers do not subscribe to any version of your content—print or, for example, RSS—and won’t likely become subscribers just to see your content in the Issuu reader.

A second, related problem is that Flash is clunky in the Mac OS. It crashes often and is notoriously slow and insecure. Personally, I have had enough seemingly Flash-based problems with Issuu that unless I have a really good reason to want to read some piece of writing presented to me in Issuu—like, maybe my wife wrote it—I usually don’t.

A third technological problem with Issuu is that web searches for content you present in Issuu don’t ever lead searchers to your site. By Issuu’s own admission, because they always host the actual content and serve it to your visitors via your embed code, searches that turn up your content will point to issuu.com instead of awesomelitmag.com.

Maybe someday Issuu will abandon Flash (which it seems like they will have to) and come up with some unique way of delivering to you the search-engine traffic that should be yours (a task in which I’m sure they have no interest). Even then, there would be reasons to avoid them. These are mostly usability concerns, the kinds of things that ultimately cost you readers.

The usability issues that seem to matter most all stem from the fact that reading Issuu content requires switching to a full-screen interface. This makes for a worse user experience (UX) in several ways.

First, it’s a long-held tenet of web usability that the interface must prioritize “user control and freedom,” in the words of Jakob Nielsen, the godfather of the field. (Nielsen’s time-tested software interface design principles have been usefully adapted for the web by Keith Instone and Jess McMullin and Grant Skinner, among others) When a website forces users into a full-screen interface in order to read its core content, it violates this critical principle.

Second, Issuu’s particular implementation of full-screen reading also requires users to learn a new interface. The power of the web lies in its consistency across sites: I click a link; I’m on a page; I’m looking at the content I wanted to see. The browser, in other words, is the interface we have all already learned, and the one that websites should take as much advantage of as possible. (“Follow platform conventions,” writes Nielsen; Issuu doesn’t even use a standard Print icon.)

Issuu's controls
Issuu’s many controls. (Click for a larger version.)

Issuu’s interface includes not only the many little icons and buttons shown at right, but also a set of controls tied to things like your arrow keys and scroll wheel. All of this must be learned by new users, and re-learned again and again by occasional users. In its failure to provide any readily available documentation (like tips appearing, after delay, on rollover; or a single, unobtrusive “Help” link), Issuu also violates Nielsen’s final usability guideline.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to create a new interface and force users to learn it. Or really, there is one: because you are providing a new function—and there are plenty of new functions you can provide. Tweeting, for example, or playing and pausing a video. Reading is not a new function. Reading is the foundational function of the Internet. It’s the only thing—literally the only thing—that every single browser can handle, right down to text browsers and screen-readers for the visually impaired.

Speaking of the visually impaired, they can’t use Issuu—not if they’re using the specialized browsers developed for them. So if you don’t want to lose them as readers, you’d better be sure Issuu provides their browsers with an alternative form of the content. (I don’t believe it does.) Failing to do that is the smaller-scale moral equivalent of not having a wheelchair-accessible entrance to your building. In a way, it’s worse (depending on what’s in the building), because while it costs a lot of money to pour a concrete ramp, not using Issuu is absolutely free.

Finally, although again it is a fact of the Internet that I will have to click several times to accomplish my browsing goals in any given scenario, it is never a good idea to add extraneous clicks. Forcing users who have just clicked a link (from Twitter, say, or from your home page) expecting to read a piece of writing to click again before they can do so is bad form and likely to cost you readers.

I would be remiss if I didn’t close by offering you a pair of possible alternatives. The first and most obvious is to use whatever web publishing platform you have in place to publish your magazine’s content—not just your blog and your “About” page.

The second is just to link to a PDF or, better, a series of PDFs, one for each piece in your magazine. This latter solution will get you out of some—not necessarily all—of the usability hurdles, and will be far better for both search-engine optimization and compatibility with technology used by the visually impaired (so long as the PDFs are well-formed). I would encourage you only to go this route if you have some very compelling reason to do so, and I can’t think of one.

As I mention it, I honestly don’t know what drove some of you to Issuu in the first place. If you felt like letting me know, I would be more than happy to help you think through (and possibly implement) other alternatives that more specifically address your needs.

Most sincerely,

P.S.: May I call you “lit mags” in any future correspondence?