When I opened Kennedy for the first time, a new iOS app that captures moments in your life and puts them in context, I was struck by its minimalism. Tiny circles swoop through a larger circle reminiscent of a time machine at work, which is both the point and visually striking, but there’s only one thing to do: hit “now.”
And the moment is frozen, as a poem laid on a multi-colored sheet:
Five to seven
on a clear
in Fort Collins.
In the new the headline read Syrian Rebels Sought to Bolster Coalition’s Case in Peace Talks.
There’s something that feels different about this app. And it’s creator, Brendan Dawes, is not your typical developer. His site describes a “designer and artist exploring the interaction of objects, people, technology” and that’s the feeling. There was an interaction between the technology and me that is notable for its simplicity and solitude.
As Aaron Souppouris explains over at The Verge, “There’s no tweaking, no arranging, and no suggestion that you should tweet out your note out with a #KennedyApp hashtag. There’s not even the option to save notes elsewhere or send them out by email. What you’re left with, then, is an intensely personal experience.”
The long-term storage options — a Dropbox account or an export as CSV or JSON — certainly don’t preclude a user from sharing the captures, but they don’t compel sharing.
As someone who is studying the way technologies are changing the way we remember our lives — and ultimately the way we form stories around those memories — I wanted to understand how Dawes developed the ideas for Kennedy. Capturing the context of a personal, or social, significant moment is a very human function, one that is both wondrous and maddening in its imperfection.
In this email Q&A, Dawes talks about Kennedy’s origins, its simplicity and the difference between lifelogging and life storytelling.
There have been a lot of attempts at creating software for documenting the events of our lives. What inspired your idea and how did it grow or change as you developed it?
The idea was originally inspired by the phrase “everyone remembers were they where when Kennedy was assisinated”. It wasn’t that I was fascinated by morbid events but how other events that run parallel with our lives, no matter how seemingly disconnected give context to our memories. The project didn’t however start out as n iPhone app but rather a physical Internet of Things prototype; I created a physical button that I could press and have it mark that moment by finding the latest news headlines, weather etc and post it out on the Internet via the Twitter feed I keep for prototyping – @dawesduino.
From there it went on to become the inspiration for an installation at The CAC gallery in Cincinnati. People could press a conductive paint button painted on the wall and receive a printed receipt of that moment, complete with local and world news, weather and time.
After doing both these projects I realised that it might have the potential to be an interesting iPhone app, so I started work on it in June 2013. As always with these things the idea started out simply enough but then I began to add more and more to the idea, at one point forcing people to take a photo in order to mark a moment. I realised that the core idea was being lost and it was starting to look like an Instagram clone. I got depressed, and started to wonder whether there was any point in making this app. I took over a month off from it and when I returned to it with fresh eyes I stripped lots of stuff away, redesigned the look of most of the screens and eventually started to like it again. Maybe there was something in after all.
Were your screen redesigns basically addressing simplicity or were there other issues at work?
It was more a case of the rhythm of the app if I can put it like that. I believe that all good design makes good use of punctuation. I don’t mean literally but how you insert pauses into the flow of the app so it feels right, not just look right. In other words it’s the space in-between the “notes”. Should this transition by a semi-colon? Do I need a comma there when this action happens. At one point things just didn’t feel right – stuff was getting in the way and it was putting me into a bad mood. If it pissed me off then it would probably piss other people off too. The best thing for me to do at that point was to walk away from it for a while and the come back to it with fresh eyes. When I did that I knew what I had to do and it was this rhythm combined with the look that eventually came together to create the app that is now on the app store.
There is a balance in this app that really interested me. Its interface is very simple and the human interaction demand is pretty minimal, but it’s also not fully automated. It makes me curious about your opinion about human-computer interaction. As a designer and developer, what are your opinions about the proper balance for your own life and, maybe, for humans in general.
There’s sometimes a dichotomy with these kind of apps – if you’re busy capturing a moment then you’re not in or living the moment but instead viewing it detached through a screen. With Kennedy I was trying to make that whole capture process as quick as possible and then later, if you want to, you can add extra layers on to it. I for one hate the site of people out for dinner staring into their devices all night, ignoring the people their with. Yet later on, if it was a great meal spent with great company I can mark that special time, complete with surrounding context, quickly and easily. The experience with your device doesn’t have to be the dominant thing, it’s just an add-on. Think of it this way – nobody would criticise anyone for taking a photo to mark a moment in time – that’s part of the social grammar that we’re used to. Kennedy is like that – it takes snaps, but snaps of data/context rather than images. It’s maybe a little weird but I’ve never thought of these things as human-computer interaction as I see these devices as more analog than digital. I think that’s down to being able to hold this stuff in your hands unlike a desktop that is always at a distance from you. Like anything, when you hold something in your hands you become closer to it, it means more.
Do you think we’re willing to share more details with those hand-held devices than a desktop computer?
I think you are, though I’m thinking here you mean sharing in respect of yourself to the device, not with other people.
[That is correct.]
Form factors make a huge difference. Something smaller can seem more cherished and like I said a desktop is at arms length all the time, were a handheld device is usually always with you and often close to you. That closeness has an effect on how view and interact with these things. Desktops also still in many ways are thought of as “computers” with all the baggage that goes with that, yet handhelds aren’t really seen as computers at all – they’re boxes that can mutate it many different forms, shaped by the code inside.
The results are poetic, or maybe the beginning of a narrative. Do you envision people completing that narrative in their notes and photo section?
I have a phrase I say to myself a lot when working with data – “data by itself is not enough, data needs poetry”. Why is it that so much of this data that we collect is always presented like we are machines, via some cold dashboard or an incredibly dull list. Right from the start Kennedy was never going to do that – like you say I wanted it to feel more poetic or as part of a narrative. I love e.e. cummings and Charles Bukowski so in the back of my head was the idea of using data as subject matter that could then be told in a more narrative structure. And yes, because Kennedy starts the narrative you’re more likely to continue that thread, adding your own text or photo, or not — it’s up to you.
This, to me, seems more inward-looking (like a diary) than social media. Would you agree with that? And if so, what is your thinking behind that decision.
I wouldn’t say I’m never going to build in some kind of sharing – in fact it’s something that I’m currently exploring. The main reason for leaving it out was because I couldn’t find a format that worked well. Do I share an image of the narrative? What happens when sharing to Instagram if there’s a photo as well? If I’m going to add sharing then I want it to be right so I’m exploring some possibilities but won’t release it until it works with the personality inherent in the app. Yeah you’re right though that from the startKennedy was never meant to be about sharing; it was always supposed to be about personal moments, things that you write to yourself for yourself. Ive had people say to me that they love that about the app. They can capture things and not have this idea that you must share it. That way the things you capture can be much more personal in nature.
How did you choose the contextual data points that the app offers so far — and do you plan to add more?
Well I guess they’re all touch points that can help you remember things. “I remember it was really stormy”, or “I remember that a big news event had just happened” etc etc. They’re also quite meta level things that relate to everyone so they give a nice overview. Some things of course are easier to grab from all this data that’s passing through us than other things. I have plans to add flight data so it could say, “meanwhile overhead people flew from Mexico City” and I also wanted to add better music integration with things like Spotify and Last.FM. There’s also things like Nike Fuel and Fitbit data which I think could be interesting. These will all be layers that can turn off or on in the settings. You start with the default layers but can then add layers depending on how deep you want to go and rich you want your captures to be.
The other thing that will be coming in version 1.3 –the next big update– is some lovely new ways to really dig into your data, for instance what were the most visited cities, or how many captures did you make when it was raining versus a beautiful clear day. These will be modules in a data explorer section of the app. All that and more is currently being worked on.
So the data could easily become life stories. I wonder if you see a difference between lifelogging (the sheer data collected) and the more traditional construction of narratives about our lives?
I think the ability to take all that life logged data and then turn it into a narrative structure, and one that is interesting is really key and is also really hard to do. Lifelogging apps that just present back the data is kind of like reading a story made up of a list of words. A story is obviously more than that – it takes the data – characters, plot, circumstances etc and constructs a narrative in a way that is interesting to the reader, often leaving out things that are unimportant for the storyline to progress yet knowing which bits to include. Doing that automatically is hard but I think will be a new area to explore for these so called life logging apps.