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RECaf 1.1 - With Some New Siri Shortcuts

RECaf version 1.1 is making its way to the App Store today. In addition to some minor bug fixes, this version adds some cool new Siri Shortcuts that make it easy to quickly check on your day’s logging. You can customize the phrase to invoke these to anything you like, of course. They will also work on your HomePod if you have one, which is really cool.

I've found these extra Shortcuts very handy for checking in on my current intake, and when deciding if I really should have that one more Cold Brew in the late afternoon.

You can set up these Shortcuts by going to the History Tab and tapping on the microphone at the top of the screen.

Today Counts

Siri will give you a count of how many items and milligrams of caffeine you’ve logged thus far today.

Elapsed Time

Siri will let you know how long it’s been since your last log entry. If it’s been over ten hours, it’ll also let you know that you are likely no longer under the influence of any caffeine in your system.

Siri will let you know how today compares with the rolling 30-day average that you’ve been logging. If you’ve only started logging recently, of course, your 30-day average is going to be quite low for a while. Once you have a month’s worth of data under your belt, you’ll get a good picture of how today stacks up against your recent days.

RECaf is available now on the App Store. A 14-day free trial is available if you want to try it out.

A Fresh Start

It’s telling that of all the watch faces Apple has shipped since, only the Explorer is anywhere near the same quality of that original batch. All the others are either derivatives of the originals (e.g. Toy Story, Minnie Mouse, Timelapse), obvious examples of engineering over design (Siri, Activity), or complete WTF? (Kaleidoscope).

(Me, back in April of this year.)

I’m happy to see renewed interest in Apple’s watch face design lately. Awesome as everything else in watchOS 5 is, this year’s face additions didn’t change my thoughts on the subject from back in April. Despite loving my new Series 4, I find myself falling back on good old Simple and Chronograph more often than not.

Maybe a little less pyrotechnics, and a little more horology would be a good start.

All kidding aside, I don’t mean to suggest this is an easy problem. And it is worth noting that compared to the competition, Apple is still way ahead.[1]

There seem to be two competing needs for a modern watch face. On one hand, you have people who want beautiful, elegant designs with excellent readability. They want their watch face to look good, in other words. On the other hand, you have people who want to pack as much information into their watch face as possible via more and more powerful complications.

You’re never going to please both groups with one face.

Heck, I even find myself sometimes wanting to get more complications onto a face, even at the cost of aesthetics. So maybe it’s more accurate to say there’s no one face that can please anyone, let alone everyone.

Good thing for Apple, there’s no reason one face needs to satisfy all our needs. Just as the lack of plastic keyboard freed up the iPhone to provide a blank canvas for each app, Apple Watch has a similar chameleon-like capability.

I change my watch face as often as I change my watch bands, which is just about every day. More often, even. The versatility of the bands and styles of faces is part of the appeal of the device. This is in stark contrast to the user interfaces of any other Apple device, which each have one distinct look and feel.[2]

In the morning, you can have an information-heavy face showing you all the data you need for your health. In the evening, you can have a stark face that shows nothing but the time.

There are faces I only use with certain bands, too. You probably don’t want to pair Mickey Mouse with a link bracelet, after all.

The original watch face designs reflect an understanding of this need for variety. Each face was crafted carefully, by designers who had spent a great deal of effort learning about the history of timepiece design. The variety reflected the varying needs of not only different people, but different moods and situations. And the designs were steeped in tradition.

Complications were first-party only, few, and rather simple. Which is why so many of those faces didn’t even include any complications or had only one complication slot.

Life was much simpler back in 2014.

The faces that have come since are, as I pointed out in April, derivative of one or two of the original designs. The same hands, with various different backgrounds. Or, in the case of the Siri watch face, great tech demos that nevertheless look less than desirable.

Even the latest Infographic faces on the Series 4 watches are just less-attractive variations of Modular and and Simple.

Meanwhile, in the intervening years since those original designs, as complications became the primary way people get information from their apps, the demand for more and more complications—and more capabilities for those complications—grew. So with some faces, Apple is trying to pack in more and more of this complexity. The result, as with the Siri face, is less than desirable. Overloaded with color and text running in various directions, these faces match almost no band, and they make reading anything an exercise in distraction. I’ve tried for several days now to make either Infographic face look good to my eyes, and I’ve given up. The garish colors are just too much to bear. Even if I leave half the slots empty, there’s just too much to look at in one glance.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have new watch faces that are simply animated backgrounds of different varieties. Most of these offer few, if any complications. Sometimes for no good reason. They end up being novelties you try out for a few hours at most. But they aren’t really useful, ultimately. Some, such as Fire and Water, or Vapor, actually make it difficult to tell the time.[3]

So what can Apple do here? It’s not as if people are going to start demanding less power in their watch face. But I think Apple can certainly rise to the challenge of making new faces that balance elegance with capability. They just need to invest time and effort on the endeavor. Leave the current faces as they are, and bring in some fresh ideas, so they can design new faces in the spirit of what Apple Watch has become, rather than continuing to staple new functionality onto older designs that represent the limitations of five years ago.

Find some of the best mechanical watch face designers in the industry, bring them in house, and lock them in a room until next summer with the rest of Apple’s interface design team. I really think a fresh start is all they need.

Apple Watch Series 4 is a huge step up, in terms of a device that looks and feels more like jewelry than a computer on your wrist. Now the face(s) just need to catch up.

  1. If other smartwatches are the competition, that is. I don’t think they are. ↩︎

  2. It only makes sense, then, that this is a greater challenge requiring a greater effort to get right. And it’s an even stronger argument for why Apple should never allow third parties into this arena. ↩︎

  3. And don’t get me started with Kaleidoscope. I’m still trying to forget that one exists. ↩︎

RECaf is now Available

In case you didn’t see it last week: RECaf is available for download on the App Store. If you are interested in tracking your caffeine intake for health purposes (or just out of curiosity) I encourage you to give it a try. A free 14-day trial is available, which gives you access to every feature of RECaf, so you can see for yourself if it suits your needs.

Why track your caffeine intake? Caffeine is a drug. While studies have debunked earlier conclusions regarding heart problems, high blood pressure, and other issues associated with caffeine, and some studies have even suggested moderate caffeine intake can be good for you, it’s still important to monitor any chemical substance you put into your body. Knowledge is power.

While you are giving RECaf a spin, I also highly encourage you to try logging with Siri Shortcuts in RECaf. Everyone I’ve spoken to who liked the app initially, ended up loving it once they started logging with Siri. Shortcuts really are transformative. I’m starting to set them up in a number of apps on my personal phone, and it’s changing the way I interact with my phone regularly.

Finally, I want to take a moment to thank some folks. First and foremost, my good friend Curtis Herbert (of Slopes fame) who spent more time than he would have liked helping me out with the server-side validation / in-app purchase portions of RECaf. I would not have been able to launch this app without his help, and I definitely would not have been able to triage all the crazy errors I was getting on my initial launch day, either. Speaking of which, some folks at Apple (some of whom I will never know) were also instrumental in helping me track down some internal issues as well. And the review team has been extremely supportive. It’s easy to take swipes at big companies when you are frustrated, but the people I have interacted with at Apple have always been top-notch.

To all my beta testers, the folks at MacStories who have helped me get the word out (read Federico Vittici’s Review of iOS 12—it’s awesome), and the early-adopter customers who helped me fix some critical issues in the initial days the app was available—thank you for your patience and support.

You can call yourself an indie dev all you like, but you can’t do everything alone. If you know anyone who would be interested in RECaf, I always appreciate you helping me spread the word. And if you have any feedback on the app itself, there’s a link in the More section to drop me a line.

Adventures in Transferring Music to a New iPhone, 2018 Edition

Fall is here, and that means it’s time for yet another chapter in Joe’s Adventures of Getting His iTunes Music Collection onto His New iPhone.

Don’t worry: This one has a mostly happy ending.

Long-time readers will recall past issues with getting my music situation settled on the iPhone every year. Here’s the short version:

  • I want ALL my music on my phone, downloaded, and ready to play. I am away from internet connectivity often enough (on the subway, on airplanes, and so on) that having local music at the ready is essential. I do not like choosing the music I might want to listen to two days before I go on a trip. Call me crazy, but I expect my music experience in 2018 to be as good as what I had with my iPod back in 2002.
  • I have tons of music in my iTunes library. Hundreds of gigabytes worth. Tens of thousands of songs.
  • Much of the music in my library is from iTunes. Much of it is not. I’ve ripped old CDs, downloaded tracks from indie bands, bought tracks from other online services, etc.
  • A good number of my tracks are not available on iTunes. Either they never made it there, or they have since been taken down. Most of these tracks are obscure stuff from unsigned bands or alternative releases that are only available in physical form, etc.
  • In a new twist for this year, I’m now an Apple Music subscriber. I use the service mainly for discovery, and so I can ask HomePod to play things for me very easily. But I still want to keep my precious collection of owned music safe and secure, in case I ever stop being an Apple Music subscriber.

If any of the above sounds familiar, congrats. You are as odd as I am when it comes to music. I get that most people don’t care about locally stored songs, and they listen to the same five tracks over and over again for several months at a time. Congratulations to them. Apple has you well covered. For the rest of us, getting our peculiar musical needs met takes a bit more effort.

This year, because I’ve added Apple Music into the mix, and along with it iCloud Music Library, I had to change up my methodology a bit.

I won’t go into why here, but you can read all about why I use iCloud Music Library on my phone and iPad, but not my Mac. Unsurprisingly, that bug has still not been addressed.[1]

So here’s what I did. I’m happy to report this worked out very well.

Step One - Get a new phone, but leave music alone

I tend to order my new iPhone for pickup at the retail store. I like to get up in the morning early, head down to the Upper West Side, pick up my phone, and get home by 9am or so.[2]

When I got my new phone this year, I restored over the wire from a backup I made on iTunes that morning. This is preferable to an iCloud backup in a few fundamental ways. First, it’s encrypted, which means all my passwords to my apps come along for the ride. I don’t have to spend the majority of my day launching apps and logging back in. I may have to reauthorize FaceID a few times, but overall it’s far smoother. Second, it’s much faster than an iCloud backup.

iCloud backup is great for daily backups and emergencies. For a new phone, I highly recommend running an iTunes wired backup of your old phone just before purchasing.

Once my backup was restored, I waited for my apps to download, then went about my day. I made no attempt to get music onto my phone, unless it was to download an album or two to listen to while working. The real process was going to have to wait until bedtime.

Step Two - Get any music that was inadvertently downloaded off the phone

Just before bed that first night with my new phone, I went into Settings > Music > Downloaded Music and erased any songs I had downloaded throughout the day. This is to prevent accidental duplicates. Then I went to Settings > Music and turned off iCloud Music Library. This is necessary for allowing my Mac to transfer files to my phone manually. (Remember, I keep iCloud Music Library off for my Macs, for reasons stated here.) I also double checked to be sure Optimize Storage is turned off.[3]

Step Three - Plug into iTunes and get ready to drag some music

Next, I plugged my new phone into my MacBook Pro and fired up iTunes. I made sure I had music selected from the category selector. Once the phone was recognized, I could see it in my Devices list on the left. I selected artists from the Library list (you could just as easily select songs if you like), selected ALL of the tracks by first selecting a track, then typing Command + A to Select All, then dragged all of those files over to On My Phone.[4]

After a few seconds of waiting, the head’s up display on iTunes confirmed that the files were indeed beginning to copy.

Step Four - Go to bed

Seriously. In the case of my library, this was going to take a few hours. There’s a reason I do this at the end of the day.

Step Five - Confirm everything has copied

The next morning, I awoke to find that all of my files had copied over just fine. No error messages on my Mac, and a quick trip to the Music app on my phone showed tons of tracks in the Downloaded Music list. Long-time readers will understand why this made me so happy. If you’ve been dragging and dropping from iTunes to phones over the years, you’ll know that this hasn’t always been a guaranteed outcome. I am glad to see that this is still working perfectly in the latest iTunes and iOS versions.[5]

Step Six - Re-enable iCloud Music Library and do some downloading

Now that my entire library from my Mac was on my phone, I wanted to get iCloud Music library up and running again. That’s as easy as going back to Settings > Music and flipping that switch back on. The phone will ask you if you want to keep the music you’ve already got on your phone. Make sure you do that, or else you’ll end up with no locally downloaded music again. I worried for a moment that I may end up with duplicates in my iCloud Music Library as a result of this, but so far that does not seem to have happened.

Finally, I went to the Music app on my phone, scrolled through the recently added section, and downloaded those few albums I had downloaded recently on my old phone for discovery. Those tracks aren’t on my Mac (thanks to the fact that I can’t run iCloud Music Library on my Mac), so I needed to bring them back down onto the phone manually. Not a huge deal, compared to downloading everything that is on my Mac manually.


Compared to previous years, where I’ve spent several days or even weeks trying to get my entire library to my phone, this worked out great in one night. It would be a bit easier, of course, if Apple fixed the iCloud Music Library duplicate issue on the Mac. But for now I’ll take it.

I’m sure I’ll discover an album or two I had downloaded to my old phone that I’ve forgotten to re-download on the new phone. I figure that will be a minor annoyance compared to years past.

Hopefully, if you’ve got a bug up your ass about music like I do, this method will help save you some agony.

  1. My offer still stands, Apple. I’m happy to swing by the Park and show you my iTunes Library, and what happens to it when I try to turn on iCloud Music Library. ↩︎

  2. People insist to me that having the phone shipped directly to their house is better. But then they are invariably tweeting at 3pm that their FedEx driver hasn’t arrived yet. ↩︎

  3. Optimize Storage will erase music from your phone at seemingly random intervals, serving only to enrage you when you are on the subway and want to listen to a specific album that’s no longer on your phone. It is the worst switch on my iPhone, and I wish it would die a thousand deaths.

    You may feel differently. ↩︎

  4. Depending on the size of your library, you may have to be patient with this. I clicked and held down for several seconds of beach-balling before I was able to start dragging the tracks. But eventually, it worked out fine. ↩︎

  5. Again, whoever at Apple is responsible for fixing dragging reliability a while back in iTunes, know that your efforts are still being appreciated by music nuts like me regularly. You have made the world a better place. ↩︎

Surfacing Shortcuts

When I came up with the original concept of RECaf, shortcuts hadn’t been announced yet. I knew the key to any data-logging app is making the act of adding new entries as simple as possible, so I focused all my efforts on reducing log friction. If it takes too much work, you won't get into the habit of logging daily.

I put a ton of effort into designing the simplest logging process possible. RECaf only needs three pieces of information to make a log entry: a source, an amount, and a date. Since most of the time you want to log an item you are consuming right now, RECaf can usually assume the date is now. If you tend to have the same sources in the same amounts regularly (we are creatures of habit, after all) RECaf can notice those combinations and make them more readily available.

Surfacing your top three most frequent sources automatically and making them one-tap buttons, then, became an easy addition. Adding a favorites pane for any extra items you sometimes log helps to capture most everything else. Even custom logging infrequent, non-favorite items I managed to get down to just a few taps on a single screen. Choose a category, source, amount, adjust the date if necessary, and you’re good to go. No scrolling through long lists just to find what you want.

3D Touch shortcuts on the home screen icon, the today widget, and a watch app give you those most frequent items in even more places.

But then Apple announced shortcuts this June, and things got way more exciting. People could just invoke Siri and say “Log Cappuccino.” And that was it. I knew I had to get this into my app immediately.

Using shortcuts with RECaf all summer has been a game changer for me. It’s supplanted most of the need to ever have to log the “old fashioned way.” Shortcuts have finally given me a reason to actually do something with Siri beyond setting a timer or adding reminders. I’m going to be looking to set up shortcuts in as many apps as possible this fall.

But there is one issue with shortcuts—they need to be set up by the customer in order to work. And in order for that to happen, the customer needs to know shortcuts exist in the first place.

And so we run into our old nemesis: discoverability. This is going to be the central challenge for designers working to add shortcuts to apps. Doing this poorly will cost you dearly. Your customers will overlook one of the best features to come to iOS in years. And that would be a real shame.

Counting on Apple alone to make people shortcut-aware would be a mistake. Remember iMessage apps? How many of those caught on with your non-tech friends?

Counting on Siri Suggestions would also be unwise. What are the chances your app will stand out in a suggestions list with 50 other apps competing for attention?

So how did I approach discoverability of shortcuts in RECaf?

Let me start by saying that I do not like to bombard my customers with tons of pop-ups and annoying messages trying to teach them about the app. Especially on first launch. We’ve all downloaded lots of apps at this point. The first launch sequence often becomes a battle of how many screens so I have to swipe or tap though to get to the darn app, already?

If you make the first launch more than a few screens, you’re lucky if the customer remembers anything you tried to teach them. If there are tons of permissions pop-ups involved, chances are they will tap through everything without reading.

I like to stick to what’s absolutely necessary on that first launch. For RECaf, that meant getting HealthKit access permission (because RECaf relies heavily on HealthKit) and (optionally) getting a free trial started. This way the customer can get the full experience of using the app right out of the gate with minimal interruption. You will need to decide what is most important for your particular app.

RECaf does not ask for notification permissions on first launch. (I save that for after your first log.) No prompting for ratings. (How can they rate an app they haven’t used yet? That comes after several days of use.) No tour of the entire interface. (They can do that on their own.) No signing up for any newsletters, etc.

I want my customers to get in and start logging.

So where do I add shortcut prompting?

Well, first I wanted to be sure that setting up shortcuts was easy, and that it could be discovered without any prompting. Not everyone will find shortcuts in RECaf on their own, but it should be possible at least, right?

After a couple of iterations, I ended up with buttons placed on every amount listed on the source detail page, with a microphone icon[1], to indicate the customer would need to record a voice phrase. Maybe this person has never heard of shortcuts. Maybe they’re just curious and want to know what that button does. They tap the microphone, and Apple’s standard shortcut creation screen comes up and does the rest for me.


Once you’ve already recorded a shortcut for that amount, the phrase you recorded appears, and the icon is filled in. This makes it easy to see which amounts already have shortcuts, and it reminds you what you need to say to invoke that shortcut. Tap on the filled icon and you can edit or delete the shortcut. I show the phrases on the favorites screen as well.


So that takes care of making it possible to create a shortcut at any time for any source. But I’ll be lucky if more than a few people go hunting into the source detail screen on their own.

So how to balance making people aware of shortcuts without bombarding them?

I came up with a nice compromise. Here’s the scenario. You log a particular source/amount combination. (Say a 12 fl oz Café Cubano, as an example.) RECaf checks to see that all of the following are true:

  • You have logged this exact combination of source and amount at least five times
  • You have not already created a shortcut for this source/amount combo
  • This combo is one of the first three where a shortcut was suggested, and then you created the shortcut.
  • You haven’t yet indicated that you’d like to stop being reminded about shortcuts

If all are true, then after the confirmation screen indicating your log was successful, this screen will pop up:


From here, you can read about shortcuts and their usefulness, get a tip on how to create a shortcut for any source in the future, and of course tap a button to create the shortcut right there if you like. I also give you a way to either cancel just this particular shortcut’s creation (maybe you are in a place where you can’t talk right now), or inform RECaf that you’d prefer not to get these reminders in the future. That way, if you want to record the shortcut later, it will remind you again next time. But if you hate the whole idea of shortcuts, you can ignore them forever.

Note my thinking here:

  • At least five times. I’m not going to push you into shortcuts on day one or for everything you log. It’ll likely be days before you see your first shortcut prompt. That’s okay. The app is still great without shortcuts. It’s just better with them.
  • The app is making note of your behavior and predicting your future intentions. The simplest form of machine learning, to be sure. But machine learning all the same. (I’ll have more to say about the more complex machine learning surrounding reminder notifications in a later post.)
  • The prompt happens in response to an action. It doesn’t just show up on launch, when you’re likely trying to quickly log something. It waits until you’ve done your logging and then prompts you with a helpful tip to make logging that exact item even faster next time.
  • After you set up three of these shortcuts, RECaf stops. By then, you get the idea behind shortcuts, and you’ve been shown more than once how to set them up on your own. Maybe you didn’t read that screen carefully, but chances are, you’ll get curious enough to go looking elsewhere in the app at that point.

I know this isn’t perfect. If you always log from your watch, for instance, you’ll never get prompted. If you drink something different every day, it’ll be quite a while before any shortcuts get suggested. Some people will just cancel the screen every time without reading it or just tap the button and get confused. At the end of the day, it’s still a pop-up screen, which is an interruption and a potentially unpleasant surprise if you have no interest in Siri or voice-activated computing. But like I said, it’s a compromise. If RECaf bugs you once, you tell it to never bug you again, and it obeys, I’m okay with that.

The alternative is the majority of my customers missing out on what I think is the killer feature of the app.

I’m very curious to see how other designers and developers approach this problem. It’s challenging designing these solutions in a vacuum, before you get the benefit of seeing other approaches. Perhaps once I get a glimpse of some other apps with shortcuts, I’ll revisit and develop it further.

I’m also curious to see how shortcuts are adopted by my customers. With any luck, the majority will be logging with their voices a few times a day, then carrying on, only launching the app occasionally to see their stats.

RECaf will be available shortly on the App Store. To find out more, visit the web site or sign up on the mailing list.

  1. I settled on a microphone, rather than a Siri icon, as I was not clear that using the official Siri icon would be allowed by app review. Better safe than sorry. Besides, I’m not sure the average customer would recognize the Siri icon at this point, or be able to surmise how Siri and my app are related at this stage. A microphone is a pretty universal icon for recording something at least. You may mistake it for recording voice notes, or something. But if you tap it and learn about shortcuts instead, it’s not the end of the world. ↩︎