Fast Contact Creation with Interact

Last year, I wrote Sending Group Emails in iOS, where I showed how to use TextExpander and Drafts to efficiently send emails to a list of recipients on iOS. Apple’s Contacts app doesn’t let you do that at all, unless by “group mail” you mean, “manually add every single recipient from a group with a two-to-three tap interaction” and “you better hope you’ve already created a group on your Mac, because you can’t do it in iOS”.

Earlier this month, Interact, by the maker of Drafts, was released. Dr. Drang tweeted about it, which is what got my attention. Since Drafts is one of my most-used apps, I bought Interact about 15 seconds after reading the description.

Interact is a contacts manager for iOS. The selling point for me was actually not the group management features, but the scratchpad. Dr. Drang’s post about Interact explains the details, but similar to Fantastical, Interact uses language parsing to figure out what bits of information should be entered into what fields in the contacts database. It works directly with your contacts on your phone, so changes should be instant locally, and sync to your other devices through iCloud via Apple’s native Contacts app.

One limitation I found on the first day I used Interact was that it didn’t support the full complement of fields available. I often use Phonetic First Name and Phonetic Last Name for Japanese names because even native speakers often need pronunciation cues,[1] particularly for given names. You’ll be forgiven a first mistaken reading, but you really need a pronunciation guide to prevent future problems. Japanese businesses have fields in contact forms for phonetic transcriptions of both names and addresses, and people with uncommon readings for their names usually include furigana on their business cards.

I wrote a support email to Agile Tortoise (i.e.: Greg Pierce) basically saying that he’d made something great, but hoping that he’d implement support for those fields[2] in a future update. It makes sense for a developer to address the majority use case before looking at fringe ones like my bilingual operating environment, but lo and behold the change notes for Interact 1.0.1:

  • Change: Scratchpad tag helpers now insert tag at beginning of current line if no text is selected.
  • New: phoneticFirst and phoneticLast scratchpad tags.

(Bolding mine.)

The change I was hoping for someday, maybe: it’s on the second line of the first point-update. I wrote that email only about four days ago. This is a developer who absolutely responds to user requests. Buy some of his apps!

Even without TextExpander snippets for tagging fields, I’d be able to add a contact much, much more quickly and easily than I could with the built-in Contacts app. With TextExpander, I can add a contact in seconds. I have a few times a year where I need to add several contacts in quick succession, sometimes in the person’s presence, so this isn’t just a nice convenience for me, it’s a huge productivity booster. Especially impressive; Interact correctly identified the elements of a Japanese address, even though English is the only language claimed to be supported. It needs help with the names, but that’s a very quick select-and-tap tagging process.

Interact’s implementation of groups makes it possible to actually use groups on iOS. Previously, through the Contacts app, a group was useful only to give you a shorter list to choose from, but was basically useless otherwise. I will almost certainly be using groups more in the future, whereas I almost completely ignored them before.

  1. I’ve had reception duties where we’re dealing with literally hundreds of people. Many family names are quite common, but you can easily guess the wrong reading even for simple kanji. For example, 長田 is usually read Nagata, but could be Osada. It is literally impossible to guess the right reading 100% of the time when there might be several possible name readings for a particular set of characters.  ↩

  2. The Phonetic First / Last fields are actually in the spec for the address book, but are not in the standard set of entry fields displayed when the language environment is English — they are shown by default in Japanese. You can go to the “add field” section of the Contacts app in Edit mode when adding or editing a contact in English to activate them, but you can’t change settings to have them on by default, which is a bit of a pain in the ass if you’re adding more than one contact at a time.  ↩

Bandwidth Wants to Be Used

Along with “information wants to be free”, the phrase, “higher bandwidth wants to be used” should enter the popular lexicon. Over the last several years I’ve noticed an increasing prevalence of video and audio tutorials that would probably be much better and more succinct if they were text, with illustrations or pictures.

This growth is definitely not in my imagination. Dan Frommer published a chart that graphically demonstrates this shift, probably because it made other headlines around the same time. This was made possible by widespread access to broadband and the popularity of video services in North America[1].

I read normally for enjoyment at about 700 words a minute[2], but upwards of 1,000 wpm when I’m skimming to extract information. Complex text might slow me down to a bit under my pleasure-reading speed for some sections, but my overall average for informational reading is about the same as my normal reading speed since I speed up between those sections. I know I’m an outlier, but even an average reading speed of 250–300 wpm is faster than audio/visual presentation since it is not limited to linear access.

Narrative speech is about 150–160 wpm. Presentation-style speech is typically slower, about 100–130 wpm, to allow the audience to process denser material and parse any visually presented information. I listen to, at present, 20 different podcasts for both entertainment and informational purposes. Depending on the type of podcast and the speaker, I listen at 1.7 to 2x speed.

Speech is processed differently from written material. While I can read really quickly, I can’t comfortably listen to and comprehend speech faster than double-speed most of the time, which means that the fastest I can get information from audio is less than half of my “leisurely” normal reading speed, much less my fast reading speed.

I have become frustrated with learning many things online, since nearly any project seems to turn up a page of videos, and only a handful of written articles — and most of those are multi-page slideshows. I find it hard to believe that I’m the only person who would prefer to read than view a video, but I guess usage and popularity statistics prove me to be a vanishingly small minority.

I will admit that there are some things that video is much better suited for teaching. When I wanted to use some left-over leather, that I’d bought for a costume, in a more extensive project, I looked at videos by Ian Atkinson and Nigel Armitage to learn how to sew a saddle stitch by hand, and a few minutes of demonstration was more helpful than the several descriptions and handful of drawings I’d managed to find elsewhere.

The actual sewing demonstrations in those videos is only a few minutes of the total. While most of that extra time is not “wasted” — Atkinson talks about many other related topics and organizes them well, and Armitage talks about common problems while demonstrating proper technique — many amateur videographers are not so conscientious.

It’s now easy and cheap to record video, but it has always been much more difficult to edit, and even more difficult to edit well. In an age of more restricted bandwidth, or more expensive recording equipment and storage mediums, the extra effort was worth it even for an amateur, but now anyone can throw the whole video up on YouTube and put the burden of finding the best bits on the viewer.

  1. As this article in The Verge explains, streaming video isn’t a thing in Japan, so while nearly half of all bandwidth in the US is chewed up by YouTube and Netflix, internet video is barely getting started here, and may be acquired into an early death by hidebound incumbents.  ↩

  2. I don’t use speed-reading techniques; I’m a naturally fast reader. In fact, I audited a speed-reading presentation at university and found that some of what they were teaching actually slowed me down since I was thinking about the process instead of just getting a visual info-dump into my head, the way normal reading felt to me. I never thought I was “fast” as a kid because my grandmother read ridiculously fast, like Reid in Criminal Minds fast. When I asked her to proofread school assignments, she’d find mistakes at the bottom of the page seconds after I handed the paper to her.  ↩