Rules for computing happiness: Software simplicity

Once again, I would like to welcome Alex Payne as a guest to Unclutterer. When Alex isn’t writing guest posts for us, he’s the API Lead for Twitter, and he’s a genuinely awesome guy.

Several weeks ago, I published on my personal blog a post on the rules for computing happiness, a set of personal guidelines that have kept me happy and productive when working with computers. People all around the web have added and subtracted from my list, and published their own lists in response. Erin saw the list and asked me to elaborate on the software-oriented rules that compose the majority of the list, as their general theme is toward uncluttering one’s computing experience.

When it comes to software, in my opinion, there’s no better way to keep it simple than to use as little of it as possible. All software exists to offer some solution, but with software comes problems: a learning curve, bugs, upgrades, security issues, and so on. Clearly identify what you really want to accomplish and you might find that you don’t need a new piece of software, or that an application to meet your goal is already installed on your computer.

Once you’ve identified your goal, pick an application that helps you accomplish that goal and nothing more. Extra features mean more bugs and less focus. Microsoft Office is the perfect example of an over-featured application: it does so many things for so many different types of users that most of us are scared to dive into its seemingly unending menus and settings. If you just need to write, use a simple text editor like Notepad on Windows or TextEdit on the Mac. Good software gets out of your way.

Picking stable, quality software makes a huge difference. Don’t try beta (pre-release) software unless you know how to submit a bug report and/or have time to do so. Be sure you’re using software that’s written for your operating system. If the application looks and feels wrong next to software you know and trust, chances are good its author didn’t take the time to learn the ins and outs of developing for your platform. You wouldn’t buy a bicycle from a skateboard shop, right? There are plenty of applications for every need on every operating system, so pick one that’s native and nice.

Ever more applications are moving online, and this poses a new set of challenges when trying to keep your computing experience simple and enjoyable. Chances are good that if an application requires that you sync over the internet in order for it to work, it’s going to be a source of frustration. Syncing is a perennial spring of bugs and lost data, as there’s plenty that can go wrong during a sync. Instead, put data that needs to be available to multiple computers on web-based applications. For example, rather than trying to sync your documents across computers, put the ones you need to share on Google Docs. Just don’t get in the habit of using web applications for everything — not everything needs sharing, they’re no good when you need to get to your stuff while offline.

The web age is also the age of free, but good software is still worth buying. If you’re on a budget or have a one-time need for a program it might make sense to search for a free solution, but for tools you use day-in and day-out you will want to invest in the best program. Before buying, try an application out for at least two weeks, and be sure it’s being actively maintained. Check out the program’s website and see if it has an active blog, news page, or Twitter profile. Good software is never finished, so be sure you’re investing in the developer’s ongoing effort to improve the tools you use.

Finally, when an application you’ve tried out doesn’t work for you, do more than throw it out: delete every last trace of it. Lots of software installs supporting bits and bobs around your system, cluttering it up and potentially eating up precious computing resources. If the application provided an uninstaller, run it. If not, use software like AppZapper for the Mac to clean up after unwanted applications.

If you’ve got rules that help you keep your computer a simple, stress-free part of your life, please do share them in the comments.

Uncluttering with Twitter

TwitterWhen I learned that Alex Payne, a Twitter developer, is a fan of Unclutterer, I immediately asked if he would be interested in writing an article for our site. Alex has vast insight into the workings and possibilities of Twitter, and the following article explains how it can be used to help unclutter your communications.

Working on Twitter, I see all sorts of interesting uses of our service. Twitter is a great way to keep up with friends and family, but it can also be a great way to keep up with everything going on in your life without cluttering things up with sticky notes, emails, and other junk. Clever developers have come up with extensions to Twitter’s functionality purpose–built for notes, events, reminders, and even whom you owe a beer to.

Most of these Twitter “bots” work the same way: you follow a given user on Twitter, then you send commands to that user. Sometimes those commands are sent in public and sometimes they require a direct message (“d username this is my message”). Either way, you can interact with bots on the Twitter website, via SMS or IM, or with a client like Twitterrific.

TwitterNotes is a superb replacement for sticky notes or a notepad, especially when you’re on the road. After following tnotes on Twitter, just post an update prefixed with a plus sign like, say, “+ take out the trash later.” Don’t want everyone to see your notes? Try “d tnotes do super secret stuff.” You can then retrieve your notes on the TwitterNotes site, or subscribe to a feed of your notes. The GTDers out there will appreciate TwitterNote’s tagging abilities.

There are a couple of good options if you need to keep track of what’s coming up on your calendar. Timer is the simplest program: just send it a direct message like “d timer 15 check the laundry” and you’ll get your reminder back in 15 minutes. If you need something more full-featured, the popular online task management service Remember The Milk has excellent Twitter integration.

Ever forget who you promised some liquid appreciation to? You can use recently-launched Foamee to keep track of your sudsy debts. After following ioubeer, just send updates like “@ioubeer @crystal for answering Twitter support requests.” Collect your IOUs on the Foamee site when you’re back at your computer.

You can find a host of Twitter bots at retweet, a blog dedicated to finding the best in bots. You’ll also find other useful ways to interact with Twitter on our downloads page and on the Twitter Fan Wiki’s list of apps. It’s easy and fun to put Twitter to work for you, and always surprising what you can do with a simple text message.