Category Archives: UX

Mobile user experience

The iPad is just a big iPhone. Isn’t it?

When Apple officially introduced the iPad in January after months (years?) of speculation of a tablet-based computer, I heard and read more complaints about what it couldn’t do than what it could.   “Where is the file system?” “I can’t have multiple windows open at once?”  “It doesn’t multitask?” Clearly Apple blew it by not providing a standard operating system on this new device.  A laptop replacement seemed to have been assumed.  And most of the arguments about the limitations of the iPad are true – it doesn’t run a full OS, and it’s not a replacement for your laptop. So isn’t the iPad just a big iPhone?

In January it was. At its unveiling we only had glimpses into what the iPad could do, including demonstrations of a handful of new apps and the ability to run all your favorite iPhone apps. But it didn’t seem to do anything really new, anything different from what the iPhone could already do.  And it was bigger and more expensive, and it couldn’t even make calls. Even the shape of the device looked like an iPhone. But when the iPad is released in two days, it will stop being compared to an iPhone or a tablet computer or a laptop – it will stand on its own. Here’s why:

Over the holidays my dad said he wanted to buy his wife a netbook so she could browse the web and share pictures with her friends and listen to music. He saw an inexpensive one at Costco –  a cheap option for the handful of tasks she needed to do. “Don’t worry,” my dad reassured me, “I have a friend at the office that will help install software and help with any issues.”  And last month my wife’s dad, a farmer in Central Oregon, recently decided it was finally time to dust off the used mac we gave him a few years back and give it another go. He was looking into taking a class at the local JC so he could learn (as he calls it) the “basics”, and then teach his wife how to use it.  These are not uncommon scenarios I’ve encountered over the years as the family IT guy. In many cases what they often needed was something that could do what they needed simply and easily, without the overhead, the viruses, or the steep learning curve.

I think the iPad ushers in a new way for us to think about computing, pushing us past the mental model of the file system, window and memory management, and other administrative elements. A recent post by Steven Frank sums this up well. For the majority of us that have grown up with computers, how we think about a computer now seems hardwired. But what about the new generation – the kids under say 7 or 8 –  that have played with a touch-based device like the iPhone and simply “got it”.  What is a computer to them? What is their model of how it works?  Similarly, how about the many people, my dad’s wife and father-in-law included, that have never taken an interest in computers or have decided the effort to learn and maintain them is often too great – what is a computer to them?

I’d argue that Apple’s big statement with the iPad, aside from it being lightweight and multitouch, it that they’ve pushed the OS further into the background and brought the content front and center.  In many ways they established this with the iPhone, but now they are taking it to a much bigger device, one that falls somewhere between a phone and a laptop. They have effectively hidden much of the OS from the user – users interact directly with the content – so that the majority of people that use it will never think about what is missing.

At ZAAZ, as we’ve been building for the iPhone and iPad, content as the interface has been a guiding principle.  When the iPhone came out, Tufte underscored the importance of removing administrative debris from the screen. On a mobile device, you don’t have the freedom to include multiple persistent navigation elements, controls, and menus. You focus on the content and you act on the content as directly as possible. This holds true for larger-screen touch devices like the iPad.

A recent Computerworld article speculates on the high interest in the iPad by the under-12 demographic.  The post was written more from a “will you get your kids one?” angle, but I think it points to a much larger fact – kids are going to grow up using more and more of these types of devices.  They already gravitate to the iPhone and it’s touch interface.  They are naturally going to jump to the iPad and other similar interfaces. Again, kids don’t care about multitasking or file systems.  What they care about is content.  And ultimately, that’s what we all care about too.

[cross-posted at ZAAZ Blogs]

Mobile: a challenger in Google Android?

You’ve probably heard tidbits here and there that Google is going to release their own phone – informally dubbed the “gphone” or “google phone”. What’s really going on is that Google built an open source operating system called Android. Through an alliance with hardware and carriers, there is an initial device being built by HTC and will run on T-Mobile’s network.  HTC is the the Taiwanese company with U.S. headquarters in Bellevue that make some very nice hardware (but often have the not-so-user-friendly Windows Mobile installed on them, like the Dash, Shadow, and Wing.)

Now there are some interesting pieces to the story that have been developing over the last few months. Some is unconfirmed (e.g. analyst speculation, fanboy lust).  I highlight some here:

  • the new phone is tentatively called the “Dream“. It will be a little smaller than the iPhone, but slightly thicker. FCC filings show that it will have a touch screen with haptic (vibration) feedback AND a slide out qwerty keyboard (sweet.)  Also has all the popular radios: wifi, GPS, fast data (i.e. HSDPA). For lots of deets, check out Engadget’s Android post roundup.
  • tentative release date Oct-Nov.
  • they have their own app store called Android Market - similar to the Apple iPhone app store, but some say better and more extensive. There are already some amazing apps announced (thanks Robert B for the link.) Google sponsored a competition for devs to create killer apps before launch – to the tune of several million dollars. The community responded.
  • there is talk that the gphone will be very web and search centric, and will integrate with Google’s suite of online apps. There is also talk that it will support Exchange, but probably not in the initial release.
  • and there is also talk that the gphone will be cheap and, perhaps, supported by advertising somehow. Cheap is nice, but with cheap always comes some other tradeoff like being stuck with your carrier for many years. Not clear on the pricing of the device or data service as of yet.

So what does this all mean? For one, I think we will have some true competition for the iPhone – not just in the device, but also in the ecosystem surrounding the device. This is really what helps makes a mobile device take of – great integration with, and extension of, your world. One missing piece (that I’m sure is being thought about as you read this) is media content – will there be an accompanying “gtunes” music store? My bet is yes (even though at this point T-Mobile is the only major carrier in the U.S. without some sort of online music/media store.) Perhaps the gphone will let you simply use whatever service you want, like AmazonMP3.  If you’ve heard anything about this, please shout out…

Second, when they get Exchange up and running, it might provide true competition in the corporate space (probably not right away while they figure out all the security/SOX compliance stuff and work on their 1-2 sucker punch on blackberry/windows mobile.) It also might have mass appeal, great usability and low price point that would make it appealing to the masses. As such, it might be a viable option for your own company. Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone is cool and I love that there are more and more of them popping up here at work. However, the gphone may turn out to be another great option (that doesn’t feel like you had to compromise.) Even though the iPhone provides a really great user experience, it is also fairly locked down – the gphone may represent a true open-source mobile device with great developer community support.

I’m excited to see how the synergy continues to develop between Android, device manufacturers, and the growing community of developers…

Where are the Killer Apps?

…on the iPhone. Or should I say, where is the killer functionality? Since the announcement of the iPhone apps store on July 11th, I’ve spent around $40-$50 on apps, and have “researched” many, many more (amazing how you can kill a few evenings looking at app descriptions and screenshots.) In the app store there are tons of games, cool “show off” apps, some productivity and information apps, and some interesting social media tools. Like I said,  I have downloaded many of these and tested them out. I can’t say that I’ve hit them all (there is something like a few thousand up now.) But so far, very few are standing out for me as being must haves.

I really like some of the IM apps, particularly Palringo. I also really like Pandora and AOL Radio for streaming internet radio. And the News Reader RSS app is pretty sweet. But in all of these cases, there is no way to run the app in the background like you can on your desktop computer. This is a big deal, especially in terms of what I like to call the “flow” of the device – the multitasking and switching between apps that make for a fluid mobile experience. Not being able to run apps in the background may not  sound like a big deal, but it really is. Let me explain…

With instant messaging it is important to have a persistent “on” state so your status is visible, you can receive messages, etc.  However, all of the iPhone IM apps shut down as soon as I want to do something else on the device like check my calendar, look something up on the internet, or take a call. And when the app shuts down, any conversations end – just like you went offline. Apple does have a “notification” solution coming in September which will allow indicators to be sent to your device in the background – you can see if someone sent you a message and then open the app to start the conversation. But somehow this seems to put a dent in the user experience of the app. Blackberries and T-Mobile Sidekicks have several options for good instant messaging experiences, all of which run in the background so you feel connected. Pandora and AOL Radio have amazing interfaces, great quality sound, and key functionality. But the fact that I can’t use either of these in the background while doing other tasks also dents the experience (it is interesting though that the iPod part of the iPhone can run in the background). Even the Palm Treo allows for playing internet radio in the background. 

This “not-able-to-run-in-the-background” extends to other apps as well. In particular, RSS newsreaders benefit greatly by being able to download content in the background so that it is ready to go when you open the app. Not on the iPhone – when the app opens it makes a call for data. And you wait. Again, it might not seem like a big deal, but all of these usability hits add up to a less than optimal user experience. If you’ve used an RSS newsreader on your desktop or even Blackberry device, you know how responsive this type of app can be. And you’d also know that the content is available to read offline – say on the airplane or in the subway.

As the “mobile experience” is continually being defined through the plethora of devices, interfaces, and standards, it is important to always be thinking about the overall user experience and to try to leverage the technology where possible. There are many places where focusing on the overall user experience pays high dividends. Mobile device usability is defined by many factors, all of which need to add up to more than just the individual parts. By paying attention to the details, we create a better user experience. 

So maybe Apple’s upcoming notification system will do a good job bringing back some of the usability we’ve come to expect in our desktop machines.  So maybe it is not so much about where are the killer apps, but rather where is the killer functionality that will lead to the killer app. Do location services run in the background – does the iphone “know” where it is even when you don’t have Google Maps open? However, even though the upcoming iPhone OS update (2.1) will include notifications for non-running apps, we will still be limited by the extended functionality/user experience by not allowing multiple apps to run concurrently. It is interesting though that many of the built-in Apple apps can do this – you can play the iPod while using Safari. Mail “listens” for new messages and downloads them even when the app isn’t open. Perhaps Apple will start to let up on the constraints of what apps can run when and we’ll start to see/hear an improvement in the overall iPhone experience…