established 10 years ago

It really is strange to me how some trivially insignificant visual details can make such a dramatic difference in the impact of a piece of software.

I cut my teeth writing systems software mostly for NASA and the military. Functional and bare was the aesthetic I grew up with and as anyone who knows me it's pretty much what I've stuck with.

So I tend to think in the abstract. I don't like GUI's. I don't like colors. I prefer the command line. I enter a command and I understand the unseen effects that command has in the background. Sometimes I know whether or not it's working correctly based on the sound of the disk drives. (Yea, I haven't fully converted to SSDs yet.)

I remember back when I ran an ISP I used to be able to tell when there was a DOS attack by the patterns of lights blinking on the routers.

Spock may have been a huge influence on me.

So a huge hurdle for me has been to think in terms of how do I make the invisible workings of all this software I've been building accessible and visible for non-technical adventurer travelers? What things have I been neglecting as unimportant that actually really are critical?

It's been a huge learning curve and one I struggle with because it's so alien to how I think and how my mind seems to work.

So for the last several weeks aside from working through a list of 40 issues, I've been trying to find ways of making things more visually compelling. I don't have the funding to contract people with those kinds of skills to help me, so I'm kind of left to my own devices figuring things out by trial and error. I'll make some tweak and then ask people at the bar what they think.

For example, that MapLibre mapping toolkit I think so highly of has this feature where if you have too many markers on the map, you can set it up so that the markers coalesce into circles with numbers. It improves the performance and makes the map less cluttered as you zoom out. It's called their MarkerCluster feature.

But the thing was no one I showed it to seemed to understand you could simply touch the circles to zoom into what they hid. They'd look at it and see the circles with numbers in them along a track of my travels and mostly not react. They didn't see.

That was a huge insight. What they "hid". It was another example of me thinking in the abstract .. not visually.

I had not wanted to do it because the Marker Cluster stuff is hugely complicated, but I had a thought. I could write my own marker cluster implementation and set things up where I could search through all the things in a cluster and if there were any photos, pick the first photo I found and display that with a number next to it ... instead of just a circle. If you touch it it'll bring up that photo and then let you swipe back and forth over the photos and status updates and points of interest along your trip.

It was a huge effort. I didn't even know if it was possible or if I could even get it to work performantly enough. (I had to optimize it to only pull the photos as they were displayed otherwise it'd be too slow.)

As soon as I get it working and showed it to the first person they immediately knew to click on the a photo and were swiping through my last sailing trip completely unaware that they were the first person ever to do that ... and completely unaware they were using software I wrote.

There was an especially powerful moment when Aaron was using it to show some details about his last bike-packing trip to someone else ... which is the whole point. The longest part of any adventure is the time long after the adventure is over when you're telling tall tales at a bar or party somewhere with all your trip details in one spot in hand.

So I'm calling it a day after another marathon development session where I've just gotten offline local photo resizing to work. Now when you take a photo and it gets added to the map it shows you a nice high quality thumbnail ... and if you happen to take more photos in that general area and zoom out it clusters them picking on of the photos as the top of the cluster.

And even I recognize that this is much nicer than the ugly "no photo" placeholders I had before. 

I'm learning.


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