By Scott Muske
Yesterday's Mobile Northwest UI panel
At yesterday's Mobile Northwest conference I had the priviledge of presenting on a panel on UI/UX with experts from Frog Design, AT&T, UI Evolution, Blink Interactive and Zaaz. Combined, we touch most of the major brands and media companies deploying, building and researching mobile applictions today. Unlike many panels which meet on-stage or moments before the panel starts, we also had the opportunity to have dinner together the night before and really discuss our differing perspectives. Blink Interactive is purely research and Frog design does research and industrial as well as UI design so there was some additional information represented.
As expected, the press had an article up that afternoon quoting Frog Design and AT&T's conclusions that HTML5 "ain't all that". (Duh!!!) They seized on it because it had a big buzzword (HTML5) and it was uttered by two big names. Anyone who's worked with HTML5 knows this, yet the debate on HTML5 replacing applications rages on. I also find it humorous when customers ask me if we have "HTML5 experts." Um, did you ask web designers before if they had HTML3 "experts" or HTML4 "experts?". I think that Ted Woodburry of AT&T said it best when he said that "We'll look back and realize that HTML5 was a step and not a panacea."
There was a divided and healthy debate over whether tablets are "mobile devices". There was no consensus and my summary is that it depends on how you define a "mobile device". What I paid attention to but that most missed was that every company had its own reasons for saying a device was or was not "mobile". One of the more persistent, cross-panel ideas was that after Starbucks said that people will forget their wallet at home and not return to get it but will always return to get their mobile phone, others extrapolated that theme and said that one would not "lend" their phone to a family member or friend for several days but they would a tablet, which says that it's not a mobile device. Hmmmm... I'm not a big fan of trying to define everything into specific "buckets" unless you have a business or technical reason to do so. All of the panel's comments on the topic can be found Here:
I found Hans Gerwitz from Frog Design to be an exceptionally intelligent and insightful expert. When we were asked about "predictions," he made an interesting prediction that some major provider will fork Android (I had to replay that in my mind several times to make sure I heard him right and it made sense once he finished his thought) much in the way that IBM wrested control of Java from Sun and became the leading proponent and developer of Java. I made a more far reaching prediction. I am always perplexed at how technology companies shove technology down users' throats, when all they want is cool, easy and useful. I asked, "why do I, as a user have to know that I'm in an application, on the web or on my desktop? Why do I have to see windows spawn all over the place and "launch" applications?" I predicted that the OS will be a hybrid of "launchers". Users will, some day, be able to choose content, an address or a function or tool and the best experience will be presented to them for their device. No longer will a user have to "launch a browser" or "launch an application" and then go from there.
Some of the questions seemed non-UI related but definitely were. Should designers still consider feature phones, was one? Heck yeah!!!! Once we get out of our bubble and stop drinking our own Kool-Aide we have to realize that most of the world still uses feature phones and even here in the US, most people use feature phones. However, it depends on your target audience. Gilt Group and Blue Nile don't need to worry about feature phones. We also discussed the role that the "Cloud" will play in mobile. There were many insightful and technical analysis provided of the role cloud plays and Hans pointed out the "Cloud-Network". I pointed out that the "Cloud" has always existed and it's another example of marketing people trying to turn technical jargon or slang into a marketing term and it's yet another example of the perennial "Year's Most Over-Used, Over-Hyped Terms" that we'll be sick of next year. At the end of the day, what people care about with regards to the "Cloud" is the ability to get THEIR content and services anywhere, anytiime on any device.
As a panel, we were all in agreement that 3D, Augmented Reality and other new user experiences were coming and that there would be a market for them. However, the hardware is still not quite there and (more importantly) the system as a whole must be improved to make sure that all of the back-end components (the data, the feeds, the quantity of information) are up to speed with the device and application as it is the entire user experience and not just the device or application that determine success or irritation. More importantly, we (as designers) must take care not to shock our users and to "nudge" them into new experiences.
Unfortunately, we did not have time to reall dig deep into User Interface and so some that may have attended the panel looking for design ideas came away disappointed. Heck, initally I was hoping we'd dig into my recent design philosophy of using the "Z" axis and active screens to provide more information to users without sacraficing readability. However, in hindsight I think that this was a good thing. We in technology have a tendancy to focus on the small components. Designers will always come up with cool looking designs....but NEVER is that what makes an application successful. One must always consider the entire experience and that's what the panel focused on. Steve Jobs has a single rule, "If it requires an instruction manual, it's too complicated". Jobs and his disciples (like Guy Kawasaki) always preach simplicity and usefulness. They adhere to user paradigms and performance standards that make up an advanced, yet familiar and useful product. Analyze all of their business and complex, moving parts and you can boil Apple's success to that. Above all, successful UI and UX achieves those same goals.