Little Springs Design is no longer in business. Some of us are working for a new mobile centric design and development shop, Amoblix, Inc., out of Kansas City. Amoblix owns the intellectual assets of the former Little Springs Design, Inc., and has graciously consented to host this archive as a community service. www.amoblix.com is our new home. A couple of Little Springs more prolific Alumni, Steven and Eric, are blogging quite a bit on their own site. 4ourth.com
14 October 2010 by Steven Hoober
Context is something we talk about a lot when designing mobile applications, websites, interfaces, services and even phones. But somehow, it never gets really understood by a lot of people. They say “what do you mean by context?” And we end up explaining it to blank stares, and using lots of examples.
I think this is because everyone is still used to the desktop. Context on the desktop computer means this window is on top, and this other one is sort of underneath that first one. But that’s all it means. Because the rest of the time I am just sitting here, in a comfy chair, facing my computer. There’s lighting, you are indoors, the screen is at eye level, arm’s distance away, there’s a full keyboard centered below it, and a pointing device off to the side.
A lot of people talk about mobile being “little glowing rectangles.” But I think that frames the whole discussion wrong, because “little” isn’t the key aspect of the device. And “rectangles” makes it too similar to the desktop, which is just a bunch of smallish rectangles (windows) inside a big one (the screen). What’s different about mobile is the environment. I can be walking down the street, having dinner with friends, riding in a car. Or watching TV, and I keep wondering “who is that guy?” and instead of not knowing, or referring to a book, or going and getting on the computer, I can just pull out the mobile handset and look up this, or any other type of information, any time I want to.
Mobile is contextual, in the sense that it works all the time, wherever you are, within your social environments, within the structure of the rest of your life.
The reason context is important is that it’s what we live in all the time. Walking down the street, or driving to get a new license plate for your car. Putting aside your phone for a moment, you can understand context with analogies to other, actual interactions with the world. Like driving down the street, trying to understand traffic signs.
Very near my house is a County building, where they do lots of stuff. Vote, get public health services, day care, crime lab, etc. And most people know it as the place where you go to get your new license plates, and pay the taxes for that each year. Most people who live in the area come here, but maybe once or twice a year.
They come down the little street that passes by it, and as they approach it rings a bell. They can see the building, and they see a nice wide driveway to a parking lot. When they pull in, they see this:
Actually, one on either side of the driveway. Off to the side is another that warns “Sheriff’s Department Parking Only!” But how does anyone driving down the road know that. Because it was not placed usefully for the context of Driving Down the Road. The sign is aligned with the driveway, and is almost totally invisible (edge on) to people driving down the road.
If you aren’t thinking about mobile design the same way, you are going to do the same thing. You are just putting up road signs in useless places also. It’s easy to break up projects into pieces, and inherit process. It’s easy to design for the way products are developed or built, or the way the old business process or legacy datastore gives the information to you. Or even just because you are designing it on a desktop computer, in that environment.
And if you do this, you can easily forget about things like lighting conditions. Or the fact that minimum touch targets are only for sitting still, and people walking or in a bus have wobbling and vibration to fight with. You have consider the way people will actually use not just mobiles, but your mobile product specifically. Failing to do this will cause errors, frustration, and eventually people will stop using it.
Sure, draw on the desktop, and use emulators and simulators to get the gist of things. But try your products out in real life. Bring paper mockups outside if you have to. Try competing products. But put them on phones and take them home, on the bus, and onto the street. Try them in the sun, in the dark before you go to bed. Take the bus or train for a change.
Think about your users. Think contextually.
06 October 2010 by Steven Hoober
Periodically, the XKCD comic posts these giant diagrams, of real things or virtual ones. Like this, which represents the relative size and relationship of all online communities as physical lands:
Which is cool, and wow the size of Facebook sure is huge. (And yes, some of the info is a swag, but it’s all plausible). Anyway, then I looked in the corner.
And if that’s impressive, check out how much more information voice over mobile (“Cell phones”) carries.
And don’t forget people just talking to each other.
06 October 2010 by Steven Hoober
“ First, the point of a developer device program is to lower the activation energy necessary for a developer to put something together for your platform. Meaning, if you’re offering a program to get me a $500 device to encourage me to make something of value on that platform, you can’t just replace that $500 with an equivalent amount of annoyance. ”
Mike Rowehl discussing Developer Device Programs, and how so many OEMs (but specifically Nokia today) are bad at promoting development on their handsets or OSs.
06 October 2010 by Steven Hoober
I only took so many notes, but I /think/ it was Josh Clark who said at Design for Mobile 2010 the other week something along the lines of “the best notepad is the one you have with you.” And went on this for a while, then I left the room to solve some other crisis, I am sure. I also don’t think it was this presentation but that one’s pretty good also. So read it.
My busyness trying to run the conference – among other reasons – is why I am just now writing about this. I probably missed the good bit. And I had to let it stew a bit, and wait for my brain to get back into designer-mode. But it immediately reminded me of some stuff. And that stuff reminded me of… something. Which I think I have a handle on now.
My dad was a photojournalist (then a PR guy, notably for the KC, MO police department, and so on. But that’s not important now). He raised me right, photography-wise, which is why I am always the photographer (such as at d4m2010. I have, for example, no lenscaps.
Before there were “Auto” settings on the dials, photographers referred to their exposure settings as “aperature at speed.” F5.6 at 125th. And so on. A story he relayed to me, and which I heard later in many similar ways, is that the cub reporter is sent out to cover, oh something. He asks the competing, but friendly old coot next to him how he should be shooting this particular news event, which will happen at any moment. The reply is “F8 and be there.”
Now, the key of this isn’t that F8 is the right exposure for everything (though it’s not bad for outdoors, with reasonably slow film), but the “be there” part of things.
The above is a diagram I drew for another presentation. If too small, grab the PDF. I drew it two years ago, actually, so it is predicting the future in this diagram. If anything it understates the convergence. For example, sales of dedicated MP3 players (the thickness of that green line) should be shrinking even more, as even larger numbers are finally to the general mobile devices with embedded players.
But what does it mean? Not just convergence in general, which could confusingly mean anything. Does it mean devices are confusing? Does it mean that sales of other items will be cannibalized? More importantly, what do I do about it?
Well, what Josh’s comment made me realize is what this means. It’s that we need to design for these everyday cases. A key context is “convenience.” Can everyday users be aware of, find, and use all those add-ons, and add value to their lives (and stickyness to your device, os, app or site) as a result of it? Contextually, the mobile can be a notepad, a camera, a game, a message center, a music player… No, that’s wrong. At any one moment, for any particular user, it can be the notepad, the camera, the game, the message center, the music player. The one and only version that matters, at that moment.
I carry… okay, most of this stuff every time I leave the house, and still end up using my phone as a flashlight, or to take notes, and am sad I can’t pay bills with it. If it had a folding knife, I’d be set. If I was making my own choice of device for maximum productivity (vs. being a full time mobile nerd), I would probably pick one with a darned good camera, because I care most about that. So one key tactic is that you can design devices that are particularly good for a market. Photography, music, messaging. These exist. Eventually we’ll see a game phone that sticks. But phones are no longer phones. They became general purpose computers some time back. And I don’t mean the CS definition but the utility definition. The mobile device (you can’t call it a phone anymore) is suitable, or satisfactory, for a large set of needs.
Indeed, it’s satisfactory for an arbitrarily large set of needs. And a key attribute of smartphones (with their installable apps) or practically any connected device (with the web) is that it’s infinitely customizable, and changes moment to moment. Mobile phones, even into the text messaging era, were among the most pure appliances that maybe we’ll ever see. Now they have turned into anything devices (and merged with other appliances, like PDAs and GPS), the convergence chart means any task a person can do, that is at it’s heart information-centric will be subsumed into the greater mobile experience. Sensors mean that lots of not-pure-information tasks will begin to merge with this also.
And if that sounds like the robot apocalypse, it’s not. Quite. Remember, this is still satisfaction, not always delight. Not always perfection, or professional-grade, or the most efficient way to do the work, or even the most satisfying experience. It’s the good-enough device, because it’s always with you. There will always be a market for pen salesmen, and professional cameras.
So my key takeaway for designers (and product developers, and marketers, and everyone else really) is to make your mobile services decently useful, pretty darn usable, and really, really easy to find. If your MP3 player or payment scheme is buried under menus and legal agreements every time it starts (like GPS often is), customers will just keep carrying an iPod or wallet anyway. It becomes functionally un-converged, and you missed out. Or, they buy someone else’s device that is converged enough.
I also think it’s important everyone (at least at work) stop saying “cellphone.” Do everything you can to get your mind wrapped around the world we already live in. It’s not tomorrow, but has already been going on for years. While telephony is still a key killer app, it’s an app. Literally software that can sometimes be replaced with another – just one application among many. The device in your pocket is no longer a phone with add ons, but a general purpose computer that fits in your pocket. The future is here. And it’s mobile.
30 September 2010 by Steven Hoober
For several years now, I’ve been enjoying mobile design as an exercise in streamlined, contextually-relevant design. Sure, it’s also pretty or emotive, but that’s for marketing. To get people in the door, or make their first few experiences matter.
And then I saw a handful of OSs last week at Design for Mobile 2010 in Chicago. Or, more importantly, I saw the reaction of the designers and developers. I saw the attendance of various sessions. And my reaction is that right now it doesn’t matter how useful something is, but how cool and new and exciting it appears to be.
Just look at the above image. The 1949 Ford is a technical marvel. Even the frame is innovative. This ad talks about the braking most of all, but covers all sorts of additional features. The Cadillac of the same era (the 1948, actually) is entirely show and bluster. Yes, those are tailfins, the first ones we’d see of a long line of them.
Now, the ‘49 Ford sold great. Because it was a terrific car, really a modern car in every way. But very, very soon the whole style looked dated. And I’ll note Ford never did adopt the tailfin thing, and sold just fine despite this, throughout the crazy tailfin era.
I sorta think Nokia is Ford in this tale. S^3 (and the stellar hardware) is shiny enough to please anyone, gets the work done, and is rock solid. But it doesn’t apply a brand name to the display. It doesn’t have animated squares on the idle screen. Etc. It also does keep selling (Nokia still by a wide margin the largest smartphone seller, worldwide), but does anyone talk about it? Naw. Not really.
Who got the attention at the conference last week? Windows Phone 7. Else, which is pretty cool. An Android tablet someone was carrying around for work. iPad and iPhone strategies, and Apple didn’t even show up themselves. Hell, even a pre-release Android I had got grabbed for some ooh and ahh time.
In case you assume I am only being cynical, I am not. I am partly disappointed and cynical, but I can work with that. What it means to me is that my ideal OS is clearly not functionally the ideal thing to bring to market. If you hired me to design a new OS, or browser interface, I would know that it has to have something totally off the wall, just to have a hook for everyone to latch onto.
It also means I have some hope for the future. No, it’s not that everyone buys cars today based on their specifications. But in the 1960s, people also bought VWs. And after this was the muscle car era, where specs (and the appearance of having high spec) was critical. So… things will change, and my biggest takeaway is recognizing this trend. And that the mobile market is advanced enough it has trends. Not just winners and copycats, but market-wide consumer-level trends, which are worth exploiting, or understanding so you can try to undermine them.