Kill Your Darlings

Kan-Do for iOS has always had a tabbed interface.1 Back when the app was named “Now & When”, I labelled the tabs thus:

now when tab bar

I had wanted only two tabs, “Now” and “When”, to reflect the name of the app, but I didn’t have a good place for history. So it got its own tab. The order struck me as mildly incongruous, though.

Once I decided to renamed the app to “Kan-Do”, I tried a different approach: “Past”, “Present” and “Future”. These terms reflect how we talk about time as well as represent it visually in timelines.

past present future tab bar

This felt better. I thought it was clever, even.

When the user first launches the app, would they understand what they are supposed to do, even after an onboarding tutorial? Or would it require additional explanation?

But, but… it’s clever, man2.

On my flight to NYC at the end of April, I started working on the copy for the app’s website. I wrote down a list of features, and looked for themes. “Well, let’s see, Smart Prompting is about action, all these areas are really plans, timer is action, and this stuff is about tracking.” Huh. I thumbnailed a picture:

plan/act/track cycle

Ah. This clarified what the user’s supposed to do with the app:

  1. Plan: How do you want to spend your time over the week?
  2. Act: Spend your time on those plans.
  3. Track: Track how you spend your time and adjust plans and actions accordingly.

A shame that the app wasn’t particularly clear about this. Perhaps I could include this explanation in a tutorial.

The next day, I was at a workshop at IDEO and idly wrote down a note to myself: “Should I rename the tabs to Plan-Act-Track?”

I frowned. “But Past-Present-Future is clever.”

“You must kill your darlings.”

I heard this from my first creative writing professor, Sharon Bryan, who attributed it to Faulkner. Forrest Wickman dug up the source, Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lecture “On Style”:

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

The meaning is plain: you might write a gorgeous scene, but if it does nothing to make the story better, it must go to the cutting floor.

Writing’s not the only place we often hear of railing against decoration: Some people argue that guitar solos are masturbatory, for instance.

Minimalism, whether in design or in life, is frequently a reaction against perceived excesses. But it’s not the end-all, be-all of all work. Still, when we’re making something — an app, a song, a poem, a shirt — we must continually ask ourselves something is functional or decorative, whether it’s truly contributing to the greater glory of the artifact.

Dear Reader, I killed my darlings. I wept as I double-clicked on the text in Interface Builder and replaced each tab’s title. I sobbed as I opened the storyboard as source code3 so I could reorder the tabs.

It was for the best.

Because now when the user launches the app, assuming moderate skill in English, they should immediately know what to do in each tab. (The brief tutorial would serve to reinforce this.)

Verbs are better than nouns when you want to prod someone to action.

After a while, I liked it better myself. It wasn’t clever, but it was obvious, and sometimes that’s what you need to help the user across the Bridge of Despair.

plan act track bar

But I’ll be damned if I ever change the icon for the Quickie button.