Kyle Dreger

I am a writer and designer. Below is my personal column. More?


Sidebar design

Aug 17, 2015

I’m designing a sidebar for a web application, which has a typical header-sidebar-content layout. The header holds the main navigation, the content area has content, but the sidebar has a lot more:

sidebar sketch

We’ve put a lot in that sidebar, arguably too much. There are too many competing methods of interacting with the content, and it’s not clear what the user can actually click. One possible solution would be to have the sidebar serve a more traditional navigation role, but that would uproot our two buttons, which aren’t used for navigating.

Everything in the sidebar has to stay for now. Sidestepping the buttons / navigation conflict, the biggest design challenge is creating enough visual distinction between a collapsible list and a list that’s static. Right now, we have a small chevron floating to the right of the list title that denotes collapsible functionality. That works OK right now, but the collapsible / non-collapsible list titles look so similar that I’m concerned the user won’t notice the difference.

Do the lists need the ability to collapse? Yes. The content of each list can get quite long. One possible solution would be to have all lists be collapsible. That would remove the ambiguity, and it would make the interaction with each list header consistent.


My next Three Books

Jan 29, 2015

I recently had the opportunity to pick up three books that I had been meaning to buy. I’ve rented and borrowed copies of these titles before, but I’m happy to finally own them for myself:

The New York Times Manual of Style — If you’re trying to do serious blogging, you should be keeping a personal style guide. Style guides are incredibly useful because they help keep your writing consistent. It doesn’t matter if you like the serial comma or if you spell website as two words, just make your editorial decisions consistent.

The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White — This book offers a wide variety of practical and technical tips on writing and grammar. I’ve seen this title referenced plenty of times throughout my college writing days, and, as a writer, I’m almost a little embarrassed that it has taken this long for me to obtain my own copy.

The C Programming Language, by Kernighan and Ritchie — What The Elements of Style is to writing, The C Programming Language is to programming. Kernighan and Ritchie’s book on the venerable C language is legendary for it’s pragmatic approach to programming. In addition to being a great reference, this book will also help me to acquaint myself with the “low level” technology stack, the fundamental base that powers most, if not all, computing devices.


Wabi-sabi

Jan 25, 2015

Through an odd series of events, which I will expand on another time, I went from owning an iPhone 5s to an iPhone 6 to my current iPhone 5.

Before this rapid iPhone transition, I had stayed on the near-cutting edge of iPhone releases. I liked owning the newest thing out of Cupertino, and every time I got the upgrade, I would tell myself that this was the last one I needed for the next five years. However, it wouldn’t be more than six months, before I began imagining myself with the, then still rumored, next iPhone.

What a treadmill. It makes me somewhat sick to think about the amount of time that I’ve spent reading Apple rumor blogs, speculating about what my “next” thing was going to be. The line between tech enthusiasm and unhealthy consumer lusting became increasingly blurred.

So, you can imagine my surprise, as I upgraded, and then double-downgraded to the iPhone 5. At the time, in my mind, this setup would only be for a week, until I could get another iPhone 6. However, day after day, a week turned into four months.

How and why are fair questions to ask, and I’ve spent some time trying to figure out the answers. However, after stumbling back across Remy Labesque’s Aged to Perfection post, I realized why I was uncharacteristically OK with my current phone.

The Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi is the world view of embracing the wear and tear of everyday things — of finding beauty in the natural aging process. Wabi-sabi directly contradicts our yearly tech upgrade cycle, but in turn, it gives a unique, very natural sense of peace, as our things become increasingly battered.

My iPhone 5 reflects the experiences of a full life. Scratches on the back aluminum, dents along the chamfered edge, and a slight discoloration of the rear Apple logo serve as a permanent reminder of the life I’ve lived so far with this rectangular slab of glass in my pocket.

It may sound incredibly conceited or #FirstWorldProblem-ish for me to write that I can manage with “just” an iPhone 5, and I concede to that interpretation. However, with that concession, I’m going to use this opportunity to encourage you to take a moment and contemplate where your own line of consumerism / enthusiasm lies. If you can’t find it, there is a chance that you’ve merged both doctrines into one easily-defendable lifestyle, which reinforces itself with every upgrade. That was me, anyhow.

My iPhone will, eventually, have to be replaced. However, until then, I remain pleasantly surprised in the amount of joy I get from seeing the aesthetic imperfections. Joy that, mind you, far exceeds anything I’ve felt while peeling plastic film off a mint-condition device.


Budgeting

Dec 12, 2014

At its core, budgeting is setting aside money from each paycheck to go towards a specific goal or category of expenses. That’s it. You get paid, you give those dollars a job, and then you only spend whatever you have saved for a particular category. To give you an idea of what this looks like, here are some of the categories that my wife and I have set up for our budget:

Notice the mixture of month-to-month (eating out, groceries, fun) and long-term (summer vacation, car repairs) expenses. Also think about how bills (cell phones, internet) will be relatively consistent from month-to-month, while things like car repairs can vary in cost.

Categorizing transactions

The first step for any good budget is to figure out what you’re currently spending money on. To do this, it helps to group your transactions into categories.

Master categories

All of your categories should fall under one of the three following “master categories.” Although grouping transactions into categories is useful, it helps to group those categories together, based on whether they’re things you have to pay or not. Here’s what we currently use:

So what are some categories that go into these master ones? Here’s what my wife and I have been using for the past several months:

Fixed costs

Discretionary costs

Rainy day

No two budgets will be the same, but I think that the above categories are a good start for anyone who is relatively fresh out of college. Two special notes for our Buffer and Nest Egg™ categories:

Buffer — The Buffer is just that: a special slush-fund to put any “extra” money in. Think of it as a liquid-able savings account. The Buffer is nice, because it allows us to have a little wiggle room, if we ever go over in a particular category. For us, we’re trying to get our Buffer to the point where we have a month’s worth of funds inside.

The Nest Egg™ — The Nest Egg is really just a placeholder for our long-term savings account. There is only one rule with the Nest Egg: you never, ever, touch the money inside. It’s the first category that we put money into, and it will be the last one we take money out of, which is why the Buffer is useful. The Nest Egg just sits there and grows. We’re trying to put a solid 15-20% of our income into the Nest Egg, and it’s already surprised me at how large it has grown after just six months.

Credit cards

When talking about a budget, it’s important to talk about credit cards. These little pieces of plastic make it easy to swipe and click our money away, but budgeting can help keep you out of credit card debt. Forever.

It’s simple: no matter where your money is located (credit card, savings account, checking account), you stick to your budget. Your budget is based on your income, so it doesn’t matter if you spend $20 on clothing with your credit card or a check. You’re only spending money that you intentionally set aside, which safeguards you from ever overspending.

Spending money

When cash was more prevalent, a great way to budget was to have physical envelopes with the names of each category on them. Whenever you got paid, you would then take that paycheck and divvy it up between the envelopes. When an envelope was empty, so was that category. I don’t see myself ever using this sort of system, but I know a few people who do (notably, Shawn Blanc).

For me — and a decent percentage of my generation, I’d wager — managing cash sucks; especially since most employers offer some form of direct deposit. For my wife and me, we find it much more convenient to access our money through our debit cards. However, this convenience needs to be kept in check, because it is easy to overspend in a category when you’re not dealing with a limited amount of cash.

The tech and apps

Over the past 18 months, I’ve used a lot of different apps and websites to manage my money. I had used most of The Sweet Setup’s Apps for Managing Personal Finance before that list existed, and I had even tried tracking everything by hand, in a big notebook. However, the tools I found the most success with were the ones that kept it simple and put the responsibility on me.

If you’re new to budgeting, I’d warn against any sort of app or website that promises to do much of the “budgeting” for you. More than a bunch of tools and apps, budgeting is a state of mind. Your goal is to become a good steward of your finances. That being said, there are some apps that I’ve found fit into this ideology nicely:

YNAB

You Need A Budget, affectionately known as YNAB, is a fantastic piece of software, with an even better online community. There are other “finance” apps out there, but most of them just help you see your spending trends, not curb them.

Note: YNAB’s mobile apps are free, but they require the desktop app to sync with, which costs $60. College students can get it for free(!), but if you’re not in college, don’t let the price deter you. Using YNAB will help you save that $60 several times over, and it remains the best software investment I’ve ever made.

YNAB doesn’t tie into your bank account, which means that it can’t automatically download your transactions. However, I find that this is a blessing in disguise. Being forced to manually enter all my purchases has the same psychological effect as using cash; you play an active role in the transferring of money, rather than a passive one.

YNAB also has some other neat features, like being able to see spending trends over time, which has proved useful in finding areas that we were spending money that we didn’t need to.

Dropbox

YNAB is great on its own, but my wife and I share the same bank account, which means that there needs to be some way to sync our transactions. Thankfully, YNAB stores all its data in Dropbox. All I had to do (even though my wife and I have different Dropbox accounts) was share the YNAB folder between our two accounts, and everything stays up-to-date.

Scanbot

If you budget for long enough, you’ll realize that entering in transactions on the day they occur is much easier than trying to reconcile a long list of line items from a bank statement. To ease this effort, it helps to start asking for receipts.

However, if you’re anything like me, you have over a decade of experience in abusing and losing receipts. My receipts will end up in coat pockets, car drink holders, and the bottom of my bag before they ever end up on my desk. Thankfully, there’s a wonderful little app called Scanbot (affiliate tag), which lets you quickly snap a picture of your receipt, and then it will automagically upload that image to Dropbox. All that’s left is to recycle the paper slip and smile.

Numbers, Excel, or some sort of spreadsheet

Categories are great for making sure you don’t go over budget, but how do you figure out what the max amount for each category should be? Here’s where a good old fashioned spreadsheet comes into play. Using the categories above as a guide, you can map out your total expenses for a month, and then subtract that from your total income. From there, you can tweak the numbers, until you find a plan that fits your saving goals.

Plus, it’s always a little fun to change the income field to $1 million every once in a while.

It’s about you and your money

If you’ve never created a budget or thought about your finances before, this whole process could seem overwhelming. However, with just a month or two of effort, you’ll begin to feel a freedom and confidence that you may have never felt before.

That’s how it was for me. Over the course of my senior year, I went from dangerously inept with money to, what I feel is, very competent. My wife and I are saving our money, living within our means, and have established a lifestyle that has helped prepare us for any financial storms that may blow our way. I’m not an expert by any means, I still have a lot to learn about investments and retirement planning, but I feel well versed in the fundamentals and ready to learn more.

For me, budgeting is a lot like exercise. It’s something that, if done a couple times a week, will only help improve your life. I can’t promise that budgeting (and learning how to budget) involves less sweat than a 2-mile jog, but at the end, the results are the same: you feel good, your heart rate relaxes, and a sense of accomplishment permeates your day.


Design Principles

Oct 14, 2014

Jeremy Keith has collected an impressive list of design manifestos and principles, regarding both digital and anlogue design, from a number of different companies and notable individuals. I like seeing how others prioritize different aspects of design, but the resonating message seems to be this: design for the users.