Making something deceptively simple is not as valuable as providing a clear and coherent narrative through a complex reality.
- Martin Thomas
A common adage is that, unlike PCs, mobile devices are used to fill "the in-between moments." The nature of the "in-between" is unclear, but it’s implied that real life is something altogether different. Work, study, and other "serious things" like tax returns and mortgage applications all happen in front of a PC. Mobile is therefore relegated to the realm of distraction. Stuck at a bus stop, or in line at the bank? Why not play a game, take a quiz, or read the latest headline? Today’s app stores satisfy these needs with wide collections of games, news, and infotainment—bright, colourful diversions carefully optimized for short bursts of engagement.
But while legions of users continue to snack on Angry Birds, other patterns of behaviour are emerging. No longer content to fill the in-between moments, people are turning to their mobile devices to connect, merge, and intertwine much wider aspects of their lives. In this way, mobile devices have been transformed from task-specific devices to all-purpose enablers of experiences.
Ongoing research is discovering that people are using their mobile devices to break tasks that were once far more linear into small, seemingly disconnected sessions. Complex activities such as organizing a trip or buying a car are being time shifted and pieced together using mobile technology as the intermediary. These activities may even occur in parallel with others such as watching TV, sitting in the back of a lecture hall, or surreptitiously surfing during a meeting.
The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it…. only when things disappear in this way are we freed to use them without thinking and so to focus beyond them on new goals.
- Mark Weiser
No longer just a job-related activity, multi-tasking has (for better or worse) become a permanent state of being—brought about in great part by the ubiquity of personal, portable, and well-connected devices. Of course, the merging of experiences through mobile is not new. The combination of cheap connectivity and easy mobility has been seductive from the very start, encouraging the proliferation of any number of personal and uniquely situational behaviours.
In 2003, when the world’s most advanced mobile device looked like this, we briefly lived in Surabaya on the northeast coast of Java. Every evening, our Scottish roommate would text family and friends while watching TV. The conversation would weave in staccatoed 160-character snippets, from talk of home, to this week’s CSI plotline, to dissections of the rapidly erupting war in Iraq. But why use SMS? Wouldn’t Windows Messenger (or any other low-cost service of the day) have been cheaper, and far more suited to multi-hour chats with groups of friends? In the end, SMS won out for reasons unique to our particular situation. It was fast, cheap, familiar, and ideal for sitting on the sofa (which was also under the ceiling fan—very important when you live on the equator). In this context, SMS was good enough.
But "good enough" is probably not the type of product any of us wants to design. We want to delight our users, crafting services that are ideally suited to solve their problems and enhance their lives. But in our hyper-connected world, design has some decidedly unique challenges. Users no longer have to wait for us to create experiences for them. As we strive to craft that perfect, personalized, contextual, and distributed mobile experience, users are sorting this out on their own, using whatever service or technology is good enough for them at that point in time.
A growing practice for teens is to photograph clothing in the shops, then text the image to friends for instant advice on the purchase. Not satisfied with just one or two opinions? Pop the image onto Facebook and the effect is amplified—crowdsourcing the shopping decision with an entire community. Rather than chastise shoppers for photographing their products, clever retailers are turning this behaviour to their advantage by incorporating QR codes onto labels, enabling shoppers to quickly review or share more detailed information about the product. While this is not formal augmented reality, it might as well be. Merge the retailer’s local and cloud-based information with the user’s photos, and the stream of comments from their social networks, and you have the ultimate contextual, relevant, and uniquely personalized point of sale display.
Amazon takes this one step further with their barcode scanning application. People visiting bookstores already use their mobile devices to comparison shop or read Amazon reviews. Combine this activity with a quick barcode scan and Amazon’s 1-click ordering, and you have something truly disruptive. In seconds, users can turn a passing interest into a purchase (in many cases, completely hijacking the book-buying experience from the very bricks and mortar stores they are standing in).
What’s most disruptive about these services (and the design decisions that guide them) is that they are relatively simple. They don’t seek to become the ultimate, book-buying, shop-for-anything, social networking application. (Although one could argue that Amazon may be well on the way). What these services do is facilitate the uniquely personal hacking, patching, and tying together of experiences that users are constructing on their own.
Issuing your customers with something that is rough, incomplete, and possibly even substandard seems counterintuitive but there is a growing evidence that people don't necessarily want the perfect product or the glossy image of the company that appears in the brochure; they prefer to deal with something ragged around the edges that they can adapt or improve.
- Matin Thomas, Loose
In this day and age, the most perfectly formed and orchestrated experiences may be the first to fail. While companies such as Apple are successfully providing multi-layered and tightly interdependent systems of experience, their successes rely in great part on their unique ability to control most of the touchpoints and interactions. Most products will not have this luxury.
No longer can we expect users to interact with our creations in a linear, exclusive, or predictable manner. For each layer of experience we seek to create, there will be tradeoffs in complexity, and an increasing reliance on other actors in the system. This interdependence can be deadly, reducing a product’s ability to react to the abrupt changes in behaviour and environment that have become all too common, propelled by culture, economics, and the socially disruptive nature of the Internet.
But how then do we shift from designing experiences, to designing for experiences? In a world of increasingly distributed interactions, the true challenge for designers may lie not in crafting the experience, but creating pathways for users to find meaning, and enrich their lives through experiences they create for themselves.
The role of the designer has shifted. The best designs will set the stage, but stop short of fully defining the experience.
- Adam Silver, Frog Design
In a world that is constantly speeding up, where one in five people use the Internet while driving and children pack close to 11 hours of media into each 7.5 hours of media use, our role as designers may also become that of mediator, crafting narratives and unlocking "safe spaces" amidst an ever-increasing cacophony of inputs.
These technologies have become so embedded they are invisible. Almost. These technologies still interrupt us. They make us in principle always available. In the rush to connect we have not designed what it means to disconnect, to tune out.
The challenge: How do we design to be sometimes off in a world that is itself always on?
- Marko Ahtisaari, Nokia Design