Archives For mobile apps

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I read these articles about apps we can’t live without or the top X must have apps on iOS or Android every so often.  There are some usual suspects on those lists and then each list has a few new ones to provide that unique twist on the particular write-up.  So, I got to thinking – what is the one app I cannot live without?  And, I struggled to come up with an answer.  In the process, I realized that I use my phone as my primary “personal computing” device.  And it is a device with a collection of apps that I cannot live without! 

If I go through my day, I spend a good amount of time with my Macs.  Both the Mac at work and the Mac at home.  And yet, I think the Macs have become the secondary computing devices.  At least as far as my “personal” computing needs are concerned.  Starting from consuming news to writing Google Docs, I do a lot on my phone.  The extent to which I use the phone for various things varies – I almost exclusively consume news on my phone and almost never draw or manipulate images on it!  But the key is – when I need a computing device, the first one I reach out to is my phone.  

I schedule things that can really use a bigger screen and a better keyboard and queue them up for laptop time.  When I am at my laptop, I take care of such tasks.  But, by and large, much of the computing power I need is wrapped up in a much smaller form factor.  This makes it very hard to narrow down to the one app I can’t live without.  Or even 5 or 10 apps I can’t live without!  

Very fundamentally, I go to my phone to discover information.  Now, is that an app?  I use several apps to accomplish that.  Depending on the type of information and depending on who the information is from.  GMail.  Flipboard.  Quora.  Twitter.  Redfin (real estate has been slowing down my online activities lately!).  Camera.  Kindle.  YouTube.  Pandora.  Yelp.  Whatsapp. Hangouts.  Calendar.  Evernote.  Pulse.  Houzz.  Instagram.  Heck, I’m well over 10! 

I since then realized, though, that I could name the one app that I can live without.  And that is Facebook – no points for guessing!  I once uninstalled Facebook from my phone because I couldn’t take the lousy implementation and what it does to my phone’s performance and memory.  And I didn’t miss it at all!  The only reason I use it is because I try a lot of apps out and use the Facebook login as part of the onboarding precess.  Not having the Facebook app means I have to separately log into each one of those apps.  So, it has become a convenient platform, but not so much an app of incredible use on its own!  If more apps used G+ as an acceptable social id, I wouldn’t need it at all! 

This isn’t to pick on Facebook.  But, really that the point of view of looking at any collection of apps as the driving force behind smartphone use is flawed.  The primary computing device is getting smaller and smaller.  Apps need to fill the gaps for all the things the users want to do on these small devices.  Apps are part of a supporting ecosystem – a crucial one no doubt!  But, discovery needs to be more of a fundamental quality of the device itself.  Because discovering information is what these devices are increasingly about! 

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I wrote about the undesirable shifting UIs earlier. Here is an alternate perspective on such UIs. There are times when a shifting UI has a purpose.  When it does, it takes away the attention of the user to a new menu or a popup for a reason.  The user was meant to be looking at the changed UI and it may even be relevant to the user.

News sites often do this type of animation.  As the reader reaches the end of an article, they would show a peek into the next article.  That is a highly relevant distraction – one that is worthy of the user’s attention.

So, there is a place for these transient UI elements.  It is not all bad or all good – the key is, as long as the UI matches the intent of the user or an action that is a natural step for the user, even popups can be good.  Random shifts that distract the user from what they want to look at are not cool!

As I’ve admitted before, my design skills are self-taught and often acquired by just looking carefully at the design elements of some of the best apps that are out there.  One thing that has been bothering me lately is the intuition behind shifting UI elements – or the fact that I don’t get it.  Take the new G+ layout, for instance.  Here is a view of the G+ layout while scrolling down:

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The first one is the default view upon visiting the G+ site and the second is the view upon scrolling down a bit.  I’ve been thinking about what bugs me there and realized it is the shift in UI elements that occur.  A couple of things happen there – the home icon gets replaced by the G+ symbol (but they both do exactly the same thing!); and the notifications indicator moves from the top area to the bar below.  Both these need not actually shift at all – for e.g., the default look of that bar can be that of the second image above.  When this kind of a shift happens while scrolling, it gives the illusion that something has changed and draws attention to the shifting element.  When the user realizes that nothing has changed, it is quite annoying.  It just shifted my attention to an element for no apparent reason, causing me to lose my focus on whatever I was looking at earlier!

I take the example of the web interface here, but the same is true on the mobile.  In fact, it is more pronounced there.  Some apps bring up certain UI elements only while scrolling up or down and it is quite distracting.  Scrolling up on the G+ Android app brings up a bottom bar:

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What is it about scrolling up that suggests a user intent of wanting to do any of those four actions in the bottom bar?

I’m not trying to pick on G+ here – there are other apps that do this as well.  Pulse did this for a while where scrolling up would bring up options to share a post.

When such appearances of UI elements are tied to specific actions (such as scrolling in a particular direction) that are not necessarily indicative of associated user intents, it is confusing and distracting.

UI elements, down to every last detail, must be carefully thought out.  Especially on the mobile screen, where such shifts have a high impact on user attention, it is crucial that we debate the details of the design to every last bit.

It is possible I don’t get the idea behind these shifting UI elements and I’m missing the point.  As a user though, I have found them pretty distracting and annoying.  And putting on my self-taught designer hat, I cannot seem to be able to justify the shifts.  I’d be much more forgiving of a shift that is intuitive – where it ties to something that in fact, is channeling a user intent.  However, in the cases I’ve seen so far, it appears to be promoting the important elements of the app, using scroll direction as an excuse to do so!

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I know, it is a new age.  We are supposed to have moved on from voice communication.  It’s all about social now.  What exactly is “social” anyway?  Who knows, but it is not about traditional calling!  We are supposed to be broadcasting our thoughts in short (or long) snippets with embedded short links!  Who calls any more?! Must be those old school people and the older population!

Well, I still pick up the phone and call sometimes.  When I need to reach someone now.  When I want to ask a quick question.  When I want to casually chat with friends.  When I want to hear someone’s voice.  When I want to have an effective exchange.  Etc.  Sure, the time I spend on voice calls is small compared to the time I spend on “social” (although I don’t exactly know what it is, I know I spend a lot of time being “social”).  But, does that mean voice is irrelevant, as an application?

In this era of voice becoming almost obsolete, it is still hard for me to say voice is irrelevant.  More and more devices that are categorized as “phones” function abysmally for voice – they are built for other functions these days.  Makes me wonder if these devices were even tested for voice quality and what the pass criteria was!  But, at the end of the day, I want to toss a device that gives me crappy voice experience and pick up a real phone.  I have low tolerance in general, but I can tolerate a few more milliseconds of latency on “social” better than I can tolerate crappy voice.  I suspect I’m not alone.  We may not call much any more – but when we do, we better be able to hear the other person crystal clear!  Voice isn’t THE killer app any more, but it certainly is one of the key experiences still worth designing for!