Tag Archives: design

App Updates: Less Is More

134/365 - Waiting for it to be over

The astute observation made by Mozilla’s Jono DiCarlo regarding Firefox’s overly ambitious software release cycle may partially explain why Google Chrome has finally jumped ahead in the Web browser popularity game.

The notion Firefox’s software updates occur too frequently and may actually aggravate Mozilla’s loyal user base suggests a somewhat less intrusive method could be explored.

In fact the behaviour of software updates (specifically frequency and duration) is often glossed over in the grand scheme of things but rounds out a critical aspect of an application’s UX footprint. With such a competitive market for digital apps, software offerings now come in every shape, size and flavour. Developers can differentiate their wares by adopting less-invasive approaches to the necessity of updating source code.

But Firefox, no doubt with the best of intentions, isn’t alone in presuming users want regular software updates constantly interrupting the Web browsing experience. Perhaps it’s worth considering past offenders in the overzealous release cycle department. Adobe’s Flash Player and Acrobat Reader come to mind. Apple’s iTunes too, flagrantly demands to be updated on what sometimes feels like a near obsessive–compulsive basis. What gives?

The average user likely doesn’t care much about the seemingly inconsequential bug fixes or obscure back-end optimizations, which usually provoke such release builds in the first place. Rather, the user is largely preoccupied with what’s happening on the surface, what they can see and click (though the surface and the technical underpinnings are inextricably connected).
So when software updates routinely intrude upon one’s workflow and cause delays for no discernible gain, in terms of performance and/or added stability, users invariable begin to question the merit of constantly rewiring things under the hood.

By the same token, visual design and user-interface changes to a digital application, which tend to be more readily apparent (and arguably much more disruptive) on the surface, can be met with equal—if not significantly greater—resistance among end users. Changing iconography, altering the colour palette and other established visual design conventions can seem perfectly justified internally among design/development teams under the premise of following well intentioned “user-centered” design principles, but can be interpreted as arbitrary and superficial tinkering by outside users.

Mozilla’s Jono DiCarlo comes to a rather sobering conclusion on his blog:

“After years of aspiring to improve software usability, I’ve come to the extremely humbling realization that the single best thing most companies could do to improve usability is to stop changing the UI so often! Let it remain stable long enough for us to learn it and get good at it. There’s no UI better than one you already know, and no UI worse than one you thought you knew but now have to relearn.”

In digital application development, as in most design oriented disciplines, the adage less is more seems dutifully relevant here.

Image source: ElvirasDADA

Recent Airport Experience

Toronto Pearson Airport televisionThere’s something mildly agitating about large flat panel television screens occupying public spaces. Go figure, I design stuff for some of these screens.

The airport is a prime example.

After wading through a couple hours of mind-numbing line-ups: a long baggage check-in, customs, then security, weary travellers stumbling towards their gate at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport are greeted by a series of loud television screens indiscriminately scattered throughout the travellers lounge area.
The sound of news, sports and weather highlights blaring in continuous loops is obnoxious and difficult—if not impossible—to escape. Their presence only adds to the already high ambient noise levels and overall sense of chaos most of us grudgingly accept as unavoidable aspects of the airport/travelling experience.
I remember writing a post last year citing some of Roland Krundt’s thoughts on this very subject. One passage in particular seems relevant here, again:

“When TV in public spaces intrudes uninvited into our awareness, it’s a form of theft. The intrusion is most shamelessly predatory in spaces where, of necessity, people are temporarily trapped: for example, in elevators or taxi cabs. We’re being coerced, robbed of choice about how to allocate our attention. Our presence contributes to the revenues of the TV provider, but we’re not getting paid in return.”

If you can get far enough away from the television screens in the waiting area (at Pearson) you’re likely stuck hearing the top-pop-40 elevator music filling the airport corridors. This fizzy music is of course periodically interrupted by loud random mechanical buzzing tones (denoting what?), followed minutes later by pre-recorded airport safety reminders, repetitively sounding-off over and over again. Yes yes, I know, we’re not supposed to leave our bags unattended—okay, I get it.

Would it be possible to accept some sort of travellers EULA prior to my airport visit so I wouldn’t have to constantly hear these PA system alerts before my flight?

I really just want a nice quiet place to sit and relax. I don’t want to be force-fed hockey highlights or the latest stock market reports at 110 decibels. After all, I, like every other traveller, carry with me a number of Web-connected devices that allow for instant access such information at my discretion. So why do we need these TVs again?

I wish I had a pair of noise-cancelling headphones at this very moment.

Maybe airports could start incorporating designated “noise-reduced” areas for travellers looking for a little peace and quiet. Perhaps a place for meditation, quiet study, reading or power napping before flights.

Just a thought.

Hello Computer

hello computer

The science fiction genre is a wonderous storytelling vehicle. It gives us a glimpse into our future, the technologies we might be using, and how we’ll possibly interact with one another amidst the vast information networks influencing our world.

Since its release almost a decade ago, Minority Report remains one of the most referenced sci-fi movies for futuristic user interface design in recent memory. If there were ever an interactive design textbook or manual containing required viewing and inspirational cinematic pieces, Minority Report would almost certainly be among the top 20.
Admittedly, I’ve used various screen captures from scenes involving the PreCrime Unit and the funky gesture-based interface Tom Cruise and company used to catch criminals on a few creative mood boards over the years, as have a lot of other art directors I imagine.

There’s no denying gesture based UIs will someday replace mouse and keyboard inputs. Technologies like Pranav Mistry’s SixthSense UI and more recently Apple’s Siri, suggest we’re heading towards a dematerialized future of seemingly invisible devices in which conventional screen based interfaces will eventually be replaced by more natural forms of input. Speaking and physical body movements come to mind. In fact someday simply clicking a mouse or tapping a touch sensitive screen may feel like a painfully archaic way to interact with information. Let’s hope repetitive strain inducing forms of HCI one day become a thing of the past.

I recall seeing John Underkoffler demo his g-speak (short for gesture speak) UI research at FITC back in 2010. It was amazing. I thought to myself, the UI concepts depicted in Minority Report were no longer science fiction, but were arguably becoming science fact.
Underkoffler said he believed (at the time) we were 5 to 7 years away from interfaces similar to Minority Report. Though I now tend to think a more ambitious mind/UI leap will materialize in the form of cybernetic implants akin to The Matrix or Brainstorm (no, not that thing you do at meetings—the 1983 sci-fi movie starring Christopher Walken).

But it’s fair to argue cybernetic interfaces may be much further off —after all, who really wants a network ethernet cable plugged directly into the back of their neck? Who would want their thoughts recorded and played back for others to experience?
Perhaps learning jujitsu in a matter of seconds would have benefits. Why bother going to martial arts classes for years when you could perform a near instantaneous knowledge transfer downloaded directly to your cerebral cortex.

One day, something similar to this mildly disturbing scenario may play out and finally render books, television, digital texts, and all conventional forms of media consumption permanently obsolete.

Oh, but how would advertising function in such a hyper-knowledge based society? Would we pay subscription fees to agencies like Rekall providing weekly memory implants and virtual vacation experiences to Mars like the ones Douglas Quaid took?

The Nexus-6 Replicants engineered by the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner, though not human, were given memory implants to artificially provide an emotional cushion.
The years of experiences we generally take for granted provide a sort of mental stability in our lives, but would otherwise create a distressing existence if obstructed or removed —human or otherwise.

Maybe those of us employed as the UX designers and application developers of today will be the ones crafting the memory plug-ins of tomorrow.
True escapism and one of a kind out-of-body immersionsTM, all for the incredibly low price of $195 per petabyte of data assimilation. Sounds like a bargain, until you have a psychotic break from reality.

Still, these types of synthetic experiences characterized by direct mind/device neural interfaces sound down right nightmarish compared to current augmented reality concepts. In fact, the dystopian themes running rampant through sci-fi are made all the more explicit by such ideas and the popular notion we’ll eventually form an insidious bond with the technologies we use.

So, had enough doom and gloom yet?

In reality the next user interface you’re bound to experience (if not already) may be something a little less invasive. It’s possible Steve Jobs’ swan song, Siri, was inspired by a funny scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (yes, that strange image gracing the top of this post).
Captain Kirk and the Enterprise team travel back in time to save the world from, you guessed it, some advanced alien intelligence threatening to destroy the human race. Commander Scott finds himself in front of a primitive computer of the day (a Macintosh by the looks of it, circa 1986).
Low and behold Mr. Scott is surprised to learn he must use a keyboard instead of (gasp!) voice recognition. “How quaint, a keyboard” he says, as he begins to effortlessly type out the molecular formulas for 1-inch thick transparent aluminum.

Was Steve Jobs a Star Trek fan? Maybe Jobs, after watching this scene, had an epiphany for Siri and voice-op UIs back in 1986? Or maybe it was the scene involving the SAL computer in the 1984 film 2010 – The Year We Make Contact.
In any case, talking to our computers will soon become a normal activity while clicking a mouse, even touching a screen, perhaps going the way of the hand-written letter.