Review and Discussion on OmmWriter

Do you ever dream of being able to write without being disturbed by incoming e-mails and facebook notifications? OmmWriter gives you a clutter-free word-processing interface with no menus, no spell check and no notifications of any kind. Ambient background music and chirpy keyboard clicks are optional. Update: it now also works on Windows operating system! Here’s a review by interaction designer Jonas Löwgren and a short discussion between him and Richard Topgaard.

Time to write. With OmmWriter.
Richard tells me this is interaction aesthetics. Is it solid and organic, or merely eye (and ear) candy?

Here is what I see and feel:

A transparent text box on top of a fullscreen background image. Ambient music in my headphones while I write. The free version OmmWriter Dana I has three images and three sound loops. The images are very light and calm. A winter landscape, a clean white slate and a light gray textured canvas. The audio selections are also light and calm. There are bells and chimes to make my writing into something serene, if not even slightly religious.

OmmWriter1_cropped

Speaking of audio, I notice now that there is a very subtle keypress sound, like the quiet chirp of a cricket. And two more sounds to choose from, both high-pitched, spacey and quiet: a little twang and a little snap. I tend to like the cricket one best.

Only a few controls: to move and resize text box, to do simple formatting such as choosing between four typefaces and four type sizes. The controls fade away after a few seconds of inactivity, or as soon as I start typing again. The typefaces are nonremarkable: a sans-serif (Helvetica), a serif (Georgia), a script (is it Snell Roundhand? Anyway, it has an animation of a pen stroke that I find almost entirely cutesy-annoying) and a monospace (which I can’t name). The leading has not been adjusted properly; it is just a little too tight, even for a narrow column of 50-60 characters per line which is what I instinctively resized the text box to.

OmmWriter2

The typing caret is custom-made as a subtle little blinking underscore, presumably to be less distractive than the regular vertical bar. On the OmmWriter web page, there are some thoughts on how a vertical line can feel like an obstacle to the flow of text, whereas the horizontal underscore invites the text to move on.

When the text becomes longer than the box, I can scroll it up and down with the conventional two-finger gesture. No scroll bars as far as the eye (or the I) can see. I think I like not having scroll bars more than I dislike it. There is no visual indication of how long the text is or where I am in the text, but I don’t think I would need it. Particularly not when writing from scratch. It would surely be different if I opened a long piece of text that I wasn’t previously familiar with. By the way, it seems like the box borders and controls appear as soon as I start the scrolling gesture. Not sure I agree with this.

Finally, a control for bare-bones essentials of file management (save, save as, and open). This version can apparently save in text format, RTF and PDF.

Right-click on the text brings up what appears to be the Mac OS standard context menu for text boxes, including spelling support and speech. A selected piece of text can be moved through drag and drop, which is nice.

This is what I think as I am typing:
I think OmmWriter may stimulate the writing of streamy pieces from scratch. The focus on the text and the evolving ideas is undeniable. The little cricket chirp serves as encouragement when the headphones and audio track blocks out some of the boundary-resource sounds of the physical keyboard. It feels like a little contest to discern the cricket chirp from the bells of the audio track and to hear the chirp frequency increase when words are piled upon words.

But I wouldn’t want to write a larger piece in a small box with no outline, no tray of research clippings, no module-level manipulation. Scrivener and OmmWriter are like night and day: They are complete opposites in terms of their treatments, yet inseparable in their gentle but insistent focus on the text and the writing.

And here is a piece written in my regular text editor, two days later:
To go back where I started: For me, the notion of interaction aesthetics centers on the impressions of the heart of the interaction. The core sequences, the very purpose of the application: This is where I look for aesthetic qualities. In other words, superficial decoration generally doesn’t add to the aesthetic quality but rather detracts from it, by ruining the honesty of the design.

The heart of OmmWriter is writing. More or less all the design decisions setting OmmWriter apart are motivated by the aim to put the writing in focus. It is interesting to note that most of them work by taking away rather than by adding. One way of peeling the onion would be as follows:

The most general device of OmmWriter is the background audio track, which is carefully chosen for your headphones to block out sounds from environment without distracting from the ideas you try to formulate in your text. Moving closer to the heart — the actual writing — the full-screen visual backdrop similarly blocks out the visual distraction from the wallpaper, icons and windows of your busy desktop. The vanishing controls and text-box borders leave only the column of text in the middle of a light and calm screen; it is very clear what you should be focusing on. Finally, after all this taking away, the keypress sound becomes a subtle addition that makes writing in OmmWriter into an activity of its own, an activity with the peripherally rewarding quality of chirping happily as your writing starts to flow.

For me, OmmWriter is a fine example of the interaction aesthetics of focus. There are lessons to be learnt for designing other kinds of task-oriented interactions. Most notably, it seems that the strategy of explicitly blocking out other stimuli has actual effects on the writing process and its results. Presonally, I would prefer to use OmmWriter for shaping relatively short pieces from scratch, when the flow of ideas within the scope of, say, a couple of pages is a priority. If I were to write a larger piece, I would then most likely take the OmmWriter pieces into a more editing-oriented environment like Scrivener and take it further from there.

Comment by Richard (in Swedish)
Tack för en utförlig analys! Det som slår mig mest med OmmWriter är hur likgiltiga utvecklare av andra ordbehandlingsprogram är det när gäller att ge användaren en kreativ digital arbetsmiljö, något jag tycker ommwriter lyckas med. Precis som du skriver så går det inte att använda mjukvaran för att skriva längre mer komplicerade och refererade texter… eller? Vad om MS Word, iWork eller Open Office inkorporerar en liknande design i sina befintliga produkter? En “standard mode” och en “I don’t want to get disturbed mode”? Som en standalone-tjänst tror jag ommwriter har små möjligheter att kunna lyckas kommersiellt, men med en integration av ommwriter och standard-ordbehandling kan det bli ett kraftfullt och produktivt verktyg.

Comment by Jonas (in Swedish)
Precis! Spännande att fundera något lite på hur integrationen ska göras, för att man ska få omm-lägets fördelar på små bitar av lättflytande text eller braindumps, och samtidigt kunna ta tillvara de små omm-bitarna och pussla ihop dem i större helheter.

Kanske om man tänker sig outline mode i Word, där man jobbar stort och strukturellt med “moduler.” Men om man öppnar en modul för att skriva lite innehåll i den kanske man hamnade i något som kunde morfas steglöst över mot ett omm-läge där till sist bara modulens innehåll stod i fokus?

Antar att vad jag menar är en glidande övergång där det inte var antingen-eller, utan där det kunde varieras hur mycket av kontexten som undertrycktes.

Finally, a short demo video: