Signature features

When apps get reviewed, there’s often a signature feature that gets all the attention and skews the public perception of them. It’s not that the attention paid to the signature feature isn’t warranted, but I suspect that many people think of these apps as having only the signature feature and therefore either don’t use the app to its fullest extent or don’t use it at all.

Drafts, for example, is commonly thought of as an app for writing small bits of text that then get shunted off some other app—Mail, Messages, Reminders, Evernote, another text editor—where they “belong.” And there’s no question Drafts is spectacular at this because it launches quickly to a blank note and it has a big library of actions for moving text into other apps. Its developer, Greg Pierce, even markets Drafts as “where text starts.”

But for me, Drafts has become the place “where text is.” The power that comes from its library of actions—especially the Script action—allows me to treat Drafts as my iOS version of BBEdit, the place where I do all of my iOS writing, no matter what the text is for or how long it is.1

Blog posts, for example, are written using a group of Blogging actions that I’ve organized to be available from the sidebar

Blogging actions in Drafts sidebar

and from a set of custom keys

Blogging actions as custom keys

Many of these actions also have keyboard shortcuts.

These actions allow me to stay in Drafts from the time I first get an idea for a post until it’s published (and then corrected for typos and other mistakes pointed out by readers). There’s no need to switch to another editor just because the post is getting longer.

I keep lots of permanent notes in Drafts, too. For example, the local train schedule to and from Chicago:

Train schedule in Drafts

I could, of course, get the schedule online, but keeping it as a series of drafts—eastbound, westbound, weekdays, weekends—makes it much faster to access, and I can see a whole range of options (including the starred express runs) at once. I don’t have any actions for the train schedules, but I do use tagging and workspaces to get at them quickly.

One person who agrees with me that Drafts is not just where text starts is Tim Nahumck. He’s probably at the leading edge of using Drafts for everything, and you can get a taste of how he works in the most recent episode of the Automators podcast.

Speaking of podcasts, Castro is another app for which the signature feature often overwhelms other discussion. Castro’s inbox, where you perform triage—send this one to the top of the playlist, send that one to the bottom, just delete this other one—is what set Castro apart from other podcast players and is the reason I switched to it from Overcast a couple of years ago.

But I suspect there are many people who haven’t tried Castro because they think it forces you to make decisions about every episode of every podcast you subscribe to. If that’s the case, emphasis on the feature that made me a customer is mistakenly keeping other customers away.

Because you can set up Castro to handle new episodes differently for each podcast you subscribe to.

Options for new episodes in Castro

I certainly don’t use triage for all of the podcasts I subscribe to. Some, like Liftoff and 99% Invisible, I have set to go directly to the top of my playlist. I want to hear them as soon as they’re available. Others, like In Our Time, I almost always want to listen to but don’t feel as much urgency about. They go to the bottom of the playlist. Triage is reserved for podcasts that occasionally offer an episode in which I’m interested—a couple of Python programming podcasts and the unedited Incomparable bootleg episodes, for example. These are the “Add to New” episodes that go into the limbo of the inbox, waiting for me to look at the title and description before deciding their fate.

There’s no question it’s convenient to think of apps in terms of their signature features. After all, most of us have lives to lead and can’t keep all the features of all the apps in our heads at once. Boiling them down to their signature features is a way of dealing with app overload. But sometimes, when the rest of your life gives you a breather, it’s a good idea to look at the capabilities of an app that fall under the radar. You may find some handy capabilities.

For my part, I need to give Overcast a relook. It’s categorized in my head as Voice Boost and Smart Speed,2 features I didn’t use much. But I bet it’s refined its episode organization scheme in the time I’ve been away from it and might now edge out Castro on my home screen.

  1. OK, I sometimes slip over to Textastic for its syntax highlighting. I could swear Greg once told me that was going to be added to Drafts. 

  2. And, in the past couple of weeks, Clip Sharing