When it comes to iOS productivity, delight can trump efficiency

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As mobile devices continue to march towards dominance over traditional computers, there’s been no end of discussions about productivity. People argue against iPads and iPhones as productivity tools—not that getting work done on the iPad or iPhone is impossible, but rather that it’s more tedious. But to my mind, the argument’s really not about productivity at all: It’s about efficiency.

We’ve been using computers with keyboards and mice for decades now, and many of us are quite adept at bending this traditional paradigm to our will. Then along come the iPhone and iPad, with no hardware keyboard and much less power, and they still manage to turn the computing world on its head. “But it’s not as powerful and I can’t script it,” some power users argue. True, but there’s a reason why we love our iOS devices despite these supposed inadequacies. Simply put, they delight us.

Smiles per hour

There’s an intangible delight to a computer that is nothing more than a slab of glass. For some users, the immediacy of a touch interface demystifies technology. For others, touch and tablet computing represent the next big thing that will change the way we work and play. The delight of this new platform is its most redeeming feature. While it’s easy to dismiss delight in favor of efficiency, I’d argue that in many cases delight should win.

During the last month I’ve been going back and forth with two different iPhone RSS apps, Reeder and Unread. Reeder is a remarkable application in its ability to combine beautiful design with powerful gestures for ripping through my RSS list. Using Reeder, I can scan down my list of articles, read any short ones, send others to my read it later service, and mark the rest as unread—all before my cereal gets soggy.

Unread, on the other hand, is an RSS reader brimming with personality. It has clever (but not too clever) animations and brings a certain degree of whimsy to working through an RSS feed that I’ve never experienced before. However, it’s not as fast as Reeder; whimsy takes a little bit of time. Early on in my test drive, my analytical brain told me to abandon Unread and go back to Reeder, because efficiency is paramount. An RSS app is made to grind through websites, right?

efficiencyvsdelight reeder unread

Of the two RSS readers, Reeder (left) might provide more efficiency, but Unread (right) makes me enjoy my time more.

But in the end, Unread’s the app that stayed on my home screen. It may now take me slightly longer to get through my RSS feeds, but the time I do spend is more enjoyable. Delight wins. And it pays dividends in terms of efficiency, too: Because I’ve stuck with Unread, I’ve trimmed down my RSS feeds and ended up reducing the overall amount of time I spend fiddling with RSS. In hindsight, I realized that what I’d previously mistaken as efficiency was just a really great machine for giving myself extra work.

Whistle while you work

As I continued to consider this battle royale between efficiency and delight, I couldn’t help but look back at the reasons I initially started using a Mac. That first Mac, with its smiley face icon, delighted me long before it ever made me a powerhouse of productivity.

This experience has me re-thinking a lot of the apps in my life, both on iOS and the Mac. Picking apps that let you crank 10,000 widgets at a time is great—so long as you need to crank 10,000 widgets. Cranking 10,000 widgets just because you have an app with the capability of doing so, on the other hand, is crazy. If you only need to crank three widgets, maybe widget-cranking shouldn’t be your first consideration. Instead find an app that makes you smile as you crank those three widgets.

In the end, it’s worth remembering that both efficiency and productivity are about your time. And your time isn’t simply a scalar quantity, with shorter being better—it’s a vector that takes into account whether that time is spent in enjoyment or frustration. Moving forward, I’m going to let delight win over efficiency more often.

Update 5/14: A previous version of this piece stated that Unread had sound effects; that is not the case and has been corrected.

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