Designing the “Badge” feature for Sayve

In Sayve 1.3, we added the ability to display a badge with the number of unsorted audio recordings:

Designing the “Badge” feature for Sayve

This is for those of us who don’t like their audio recordings to pile up. Actually, we wanted this in 1.0, but it didn’t get there. Why? It wasn’t that easy to design.

OK, this must be laughable: what even is there to design? The badge is a system feature that has a fixed look, just take it. But you can’t.

This is going to be a long and boring post, by the way.

Since iOS 10, displaying a badge requires an app to have asked user’s permission for sending notifications. So if we just tried to just show it, the user would see the system dialog asking for the permission.

We already ask for two permissions on first open: microphone and speech recognition. For iOS these are two separate things, unfortunately. Before asking, we show this screen:

Sayve First launch

This prepares the user for the system questions and helps us get a “Yes”. Microphone:

iOS asks for microphone permission for Sayve

Speech recognition:

iOS asks for speech recognition permission for Sayve

Notice that we can also add some of our own text in these dialogs to explain why we are asking for these permissions.

We could add a “tutorial” screen before asking about notifications: explain that we are going to display a badge and only then ask for permission. But adding another such screen and third permission question would make the first-launch experience really clumsy. And what’s more important, many users would still presumably press “Don’t Allow”, because at first launch they have no idea about how they would use Sayve and why a badge might be useful to them.

And what should we do if the user answers “Don’t Allow”? You can ask for a permission only once. How would the user even know they could change their mind later? For comparison, when the user answers “Don’t Allow” to any of the two sound-related questions, Sayve just cannot work, and we show this screen until both permissions are given:

Open Settings

We can’t do the same for the badge permission, because the badge is not necessary, it is just a preference. Some users would like it, others would not. So if the user says “Don’t Allow”, we would need to explain how to enable the badge later. But where and when? We don’t even have an About or Settings screen.

We could go and add a Settings screen just for this one setting. See how this is getting complicated?

Adding in-app Settings screen makes little sense: iOS already has notifications settings, and this is the only “notification” feature we use. So the next idea was to make this setting configurable only in the Settings app:

Sayve Settings

Let’s just display a badge when the user has enabled notifications. And we could explain this option in the app’s description.

This also didn’t work. Turns out, you can’t just put this “Notifications” element to the apps settings screen quietly — it would only be added there after your app has asked for a permission. So we have to ask for a permission even to get a “No”! By the way, the question starts with the text “Sayve Would Like to Send You Notifications”, which is not true:

iOS asks for notifications permission for Sayve

We would not like to send any notifications, and we don’t even have them. As to the badge, we just can, but not would like to use it. To make things even worse, in this dialog, unlike the two previous ones, you cannot even put your explanatory text.

But this is not something we can change: the question is asked by iOS, not us.

So we added this icon to the top right corner:

Sayve badge icon

The idea was: when the user taps this icon, we would first ask if the user would like to see the badge, and if yes, we’ll ask for the system permission to enable notifications. And we would remove the icon then.

Do you think this worked? Of course not. What would we do if the user declined the first time? There would no way to add the notification permission setting to the system Settings app then. So we cannot ask the user if they want a badge, we must just tell them that the notification permission dialog will follow and it is there to display a badge if they want.

So, in 1.3, when you tap the icon in the top right corner, you’ll see:

Sayve talks about the badge

And after you press “OK” (which is misspelled as “Ok”, unfortunately), you see the actual, system notification permission dialog where you can decide whether you want the badge or not.

After having shipped this, we see that it’s better to say “Continue” instead of “OK” in the box above, otherwise it may seem to the user that they have no choice.

Is this the best design of a feature? I don’t think so. But that’s the best that we could come up with given the system limitations that we have.

We hope you like Sayve (we are Mihail Rubanov, the developer, and myself).

The button:

Get the App Store

Jun 12   design   Sayve   user interface

Monument Valley 2

During WWDC, the new Monument Valley was released. It’s the most splendid game ever. I’ve finished it, having made some screenshots:

Monument Valley 2

But the pictures show only a small part of the game’s beauty. In reality, everything is live and the sound is amazing. Go buy and play it.

Jun 11   design   iPhone

Unstable alignment

Sometimes my students would come up with a layout like this:

Unstable alignment

It may seem that things are aligned, but they are not. Can you see what’s wrong? I would ask, how is the heading positioned? They would say, it’s centered:

Unstable alignment

How is the text aligned then? They would say, it’s left-aligned:

Unstable alignment

And how was the left margin chosen? They would say, it’s aligned with the heading. But this means that the position of text depends on the length of the heading. What would you do with this if the text changes on another screen?

Unstable alignment

This doesn’t work as a system, because this structure is unstable. It reminds me of the fragile Windows Start menu:

You must be careful enough not to breathe, or the whole thing will fall apart.

So, generally, do not align a piece of text to an itself-unaligned part of another text:

Because when you translate this text into a different language, really weird things will happen:

May 20   design

Transport map design. Part 3

In part 1 I’ve covered the difference between the Beck’s London underground map, our Ekaterinburg metro map, and the Vignelli’s and Hertz’s maps of New York subway. In part 2, I’ve highlighted the more subtle details specific to the transit maps of Barcelona, Paris, Oslo, Moscow and London.

All these differences in maps were because of the differences in the cities or their transportation systems. But there is another reason for the maps to be different: aesthetics.

The transport map is not only a tool, but also is a notable object of graphic design in a big city. So even if you can make do with the Beck’s design language, you will get a London map, no matter what you depict. The transport system must have a face, and aesthetics is as important as logic.

The main feature of the Moscow metro map is the Circle line. It doesn’t fit the Beck’s language, but it’s very important to Moscow. This is not Moscow:

Transport map design. Not Moscow

This, on the other hand, is:

Transport map design. Moscow

London also has Circle line, but it has never been depicted as a circle. Today, it’s not even a closed loop:

London also has Circle line

These Circle lines are large elements and form the overall image of the map.

But little details also influence the perception of a map.

In London, the black rings of the transfer stations are noticeably thinner than the lines. The “corridors” are of the same width. The stations’ ticks are square, stick out at 2/3 of a line’s width. The names are typeset with blue New Johnston:

 Transport map design. London

In Moscow, the fat rings of the transfers are coloured with their line’s colour. The “corridors” are much thinner and have a gradient. Some transfers are circular. The station ticks stick out at full line’s width. The names are typeset with black Moscow Sans:

Transport map design. Moscow

Look at this tram map:

London Tramlink

It’s obvious that it’s a London tram map, not some other one. It follows the London transport graphic design standards — the rings, the ticks, the captions.

When we see the beige background, the particular palette of the lines, the filled station disks and the distinct designation of the transfers, we immediately recognise the Paris map:

Transport map design. Paris

Jug Cerović follows an unusual 18-degree angle grid in his Luxembourg map. If you saw it once, you recognise it every time:

Transport map design. Luxembourg

For the Chelyabinsk trams map we’ve come up with these 3D terminals:

Transport map design. Chelyabinsk

Why are they like this? The only reason is that we wanted this map to look special.

It is not enough for a good transport map to just answer the question “how to get there”. Since it is used everywhere, it is part of a city’s image. And if its design is powerful, it influences the city in other ways.

The Moscow’s Circle line in has inspired designers to create these beautiful wayfinding steles:

Transport map design

The round designations of the New York subway train routes are used in all the signage and have even made it to the dots above i in the pedestrian city maps (in the classic Helvetica these dots are rectangles):

Transport map design. WalkNYC

And in London, the Tube Map has given birth to the graphical language of all the transport-related signage:

Transport map design. TfL posters

This graphical language is so iconic that you can even buy all sorts of souvenirs with its elements: t-shirts, umbrellas, shower curtains. This design has spread not only beyond the Tube, but beyond London. There are all sorts of maps done in this style:

Transport map design

Strong graphic design of the transport systems makes them more attractive. This helps cities get rid of private cars. People spend more time outside, interact with each other. This gives small businesses a boost and makes cities more pleasant to live in.

May 18   design   maps   transportation

Transport map design. Part 2

In the first part I’ve covered the difference between the Beck’s London underground map, our Ekaterinburg metro map, and the Vignelli’s and Hertz’s maps of New York subway. But even the maps that appear to be much more alike in principle, have many little details to serve their cities’ needs.

On stations, there are tracks for opposing directions. In some cities, these tracks are marked with the names of a line’s terminals. Barcelona:

The terminals are thus important for wayfinding, so they have to be emphasised on a map. In Barcelona, they put the terminals’ names on a background, whose colour matches the line’s:

In Paris, they use bold font and put line number symbols:

This is unnecessary in London, where instead of toponymics they use geographic directions (i.e. “Northbound”).

In Oslo, a thick wisp of lines passes through the city centre. One of the lines forms a loop and passes several stations twice: first as line 4, and then as line 6. The transformation from 4 to 6 is shown with a gradient — not a typical element indeed:

There is another detail in Oslo: the trains pass the Gulleråsen station only in one direction. This requires a designation, an element that was not used in any of the maps we’ve discussed above:

Moscow has its own peculiarity: for historical reasons, the stations have different names on different lines (sick, but what can you do). In addition, the Moscow metro map has to use both Cyrillic and Latin scripts for its station names. Depiction of transfers turns into a problem. Here, eight names should be positioned around the “Biblioteka imeni Lenina — Aleksandrovsky sad — Arbatskaya — Borovitskaya” junction, where four lines intersect:

Fragment of the official map. This place looks cleaner in my design

A whopping six lines intersect at London’s “King’s Cross St. Pancras” station; just one name suffices:

There is not a single place on the giant London map where a station name intersects a line — there is always space around the lines. To achieve this in Moscow, one would need to dramatically reduce the font size and complicate the line geometry. That’s why Moscow metro map includes a device the London one does not: a transparent plaque for the station names crossing lines (see above).

But London has its own complication absent in Moscow. The grey “clouds” designate the payment zones — something Moscow does not need since the price of a ride is fixed:

Every city and transport network has lots of details which make it impossible to use the same exact graphical principles everywhere. But there is another reason for maps to be so different, which I will cover next time.

2017   design   maps   transportation

Transport map design. Part 1

For many people, a map of a transport network is a given, an expected part of a system, something that just is — like a fire escape plan in a building. So when I say that I design transport maps, they don’t understand. What is there to design, even?

The London underground map by Harry Beck was the world’s first transport map to use the principles of electrical circuit drawings:

Transport map design as a city’s signature

All line segments were put to the angles of 45° and 90°. The distances between stations were equalised. I wrote about it in part three of my “Maps and reality” series, Diagrams.

This schematic approach was later adopted by many transport maps of the world. But not every time was this a good idea. This is one useless map (Samara, Russia):

It adds almost nothing to just listing the stations:

Алабинская · Российская · Московская · Гагаринская · Спортивная · Советская…

Beck’s design dealt with growing complexity and spread of London underground rail network. When there is just one line, it’s better to put this line in context. See our Ekaterinburg metro map, for example:

Every transport network requires a specialised solution.

Let’s look at New York. The subway is large and complicated, but quite different from London: trains can have different routes, which are denoted by both numbers and letters. In 1972, Massimo Vignelli designed this map:

In London, ticks are used to depict stations:

Vignelli couldn’t have used them in New York. In London, lines rarely run together through the same stations. And when they do, all trains in a “wisp” stop at all of them — see Great Portland Street and Euston Square above.

In New York, such wisps are everywhere, and some trains don’t stop at some stations. So when there is a stop on a particular route, Vignelli puts a black bullet in the route’s line:

You can see that at some stations, not every line has a bullet.

Vignelli’s map was beautiful, but, unfortunately, unsuccessful. People considered it too abstract. Having no geographical reference, the eye had nothing to catch on. Also, the stations named with street numbers looked identical — the font was just too small for that.

This design was the closest to London’s that New York has ever seen.

The successful design was the one by Michel Hertz (1979) — still in use. It includes parks, ponds, main streets and areas names:

Illustration from an interview with Michel Hertz

The related routes are denoted with just one line, not a wisp:

But there’s a list of stopping routes at each station. Look at the red line, for example. Only route 1 stops at 18, 23 and 28 st., but all routes stop at 14 and 34 st.

Hertz wanted his map to look geographical. But he knew that a “true” map would use the format very inefficiently. So his map is actually distorted significantly for everything to fit. Google Maps on the left, Hertz’s map on the right:

Hertz’s map doesn’t look stylish. But it has proven to work well. This is a very specific, bulletproof design tailored to New York.


2017   design   maps   transportation

Why I don’t call myself a “UI/UX” designer

Many of the things I do are considered a job of a “UI/UX” designer. But I haven’t ever called myself one.

That’s because the term “UI/UX” is badly designed: it’s tasteless and vague.


The abbreviations are used in science and tech, but when normal people talk, abbreviations are out of place. A good user interface is humane.

The way this abbreviation is constructed is wacky. First, it includes the word “user” twice. The good designer would not put a word twice where once would suffice. Second, it abbreviates “experience” with X instead of E. This comes from cheap marketing, where X used to sound “cool” and “trendy”. When a designer uses it, I feel like they disrespect the user and have shallow knowledge.


There’s a “/” in the middle, whose meaning is unclear. A slash usually implies an exclusive or. So does this mean “UI or UX, but not both”?

Good writers use conjunctions, not slashes. A slash is a way to slam two pieces together without thinking what sense the combination makes. This is not how you design a good user interface though.

The lack of taste and inability to communicate well are not the qualities of a good designer.

See also: Guy English on UX

2017   design   language   myself   work

The design of the iPhone 7

Somehow it’s become a common knowledge that the design of the iPhone 7 is almost the same as the design of the iPhone 6. This boggles my mind.

How can you not see that the iPhones 6 and 7 are the most different iPhones in the history of iPhones? The iPhone 6 is the ugliest iPhone ever created. The iPhone 7 is the most beautiful iPhone ever created.

This is the original iPhone:

Original iPhone

It was beautiful. Everything was perfectly aligned. It would be better without the black stripe on the bottom, but it had to be there for the antennas to work.

iPhones 3G and 3Gs were worse:

iPhones 3G and 3Gs

They looked fine in pictures, but were plastic, felt cheap and often cracked.

Then there were the iPhones 4 and 4s:

iPhone 4

These were special. They didn’t look nice in pictures, but were very attractive in person. The antenna lines bugged me a lot, but overall these were good ones. The glass back was really cool (I don’t break my phones).

Since then, things went downhill. The iPhones 5 and 5s were ugly:

iPhone 5

The black stripes, unlike on the original iPhone, were completely out of place. The camera was misaligned.

I wrote about it in The hope for a beautiful iPhone.

Then came the iPhones 6 and 6s, painfully ugly:

iPhone 6

The camera was not aligned with anything and sticked out. The rubber stripes were all over the back. How was this even possible? Imagine somebody showing it to you in 2008, after you’ve seen the first iPhones. You wouldn’t believe Apple would have shipped such a device.

Definitely, these were the ugliest iPhones ever built.

And then Apple showed the iPhone 7:

iPhone 7

Image from

How can you even compare it to the 6? This one is finally beautiful, after several years of ugliness. The camera is aligned with the phone’s corner, for the first time after the iPhone 4! It still sticks out, but this time the phone is designed with this in mind. It’s not slapped on top of an unexpecting phone; it’s there because it was meant to be there. The same for the antenna lines: they are part of the design, not some crap put on top because it had to be.

This is the first iPhone in years that you can enjoy just looking at. And unlike the iPhone 4, it looks great from every angle. It’s the opposite of the iPhones 6.

2017   design   iPhone

Fifth version of the Moscow Metro map

I made my first Moscow metro map in 2007. The official map was disgusting then, but nobody cared. My work inspired many designers to try to design their own map. I know several designers who gave up after they’ve appreciated how hard the task actually was. I had two major revisions of my map including the one for the official 2013 competition for the new map to be used on the system. In that version I’ve solved the problem of the Biblioteka imeni Lenina junction and invented the Compass (more on that on the 2013 map’s page in my portfolio). I took the second place. It took most of the 2015 to design the next version of the map: it used space more efficiently and the overall graphical design was improved.

Here is the new version, with the new Circle Railway (Line 14) added:

Compared to the official map, this map has almost 35% larger font when printed as same-size poster:

Fifth version of the Moscow Metro map

See the project page for detail.

2016   design   moscow metro   projects

The transformation of Moscow Metro map from version 3 to version 4

I’ve made a video showing how my Moscow Metro map transformed from version 3 to version 4:

After the video has loaded (16 MB), you can scrub it.

0:00 Changes inside the Circle and on the west
0:02 Font size grows
0:05 Font size grows
0:10 The Circle becomes smaller
0:14 Yellow line appears on the west
0:15 The grid becomes narrower
0:16 The northern and southern grids decouple
0:22 Finding the right corner rounding
0:24 Changes on the west
0:27 Preparing the north to adding the monorail
0:33 Butovskaya line on the south, monorail
0:34 Even distribution inside the Circle
0:36 It’s hard to position the Tretykoskaya and Novokuznetskaya stations well
0:42 Transfers become bigger
0:44 Font size grows
0:47 Font size grows
0:48 The northern and southern grids reunite
0:54 The font changes to PT Sans Metro
0:57 Transfers become nicer
0:59 Adjusting the distances
1:05 Layout...
2016   design   moscow metro
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