“Activate the world” (or: what “mobile” really means)

I’m talking at the CETIS conference next week on “Next Generation Content” and as with all my recent talks, I’ve done a mindmap to help me structure my thoughts…

Here’s the basic premise: “mobile” isn’t just “designing for mobile devices” but goes much deeper. We need to start thinking about what mobile means from a user experience perspective, from a privacy perspective and from a product design perspective.

When internet-connected devices (all 5 billion-ish of them) start becoming the norm, how does this change our lives?

Click the image for a bigger version version. It helps.

Terribly successful

Imagine a web application as it should appear in 2010.

Now lower your expectations in absolutely every way.

Design? Absolutely terrible. We’re talking default and mixed fonts, no thought given to typography, spacing. Bad 1995 animated GIFs scattered around.  Terrible Photoshop, or more likely MS Paint skills – that kind of gratuitous dropshadowbeveladdsomesunglareandanotherlayer thing you do when you’re first fiddling with image editing programs: no subtlety, no restraint, no style.

Lower your expectations a bit more. The UI is awful – any sense of navigational place has been whittled away not just by the design but by the FULL ON nature of the interface, the ads, the lack of anything consistent.

Actually, the web interface is less important than it could or should be: really, all the action happens instead in your email inbox. By default, you get 550 or so emails from this site every week. That’s 80, every single day.

What else? Oh, no tagging, no taxonomy, no (meaningful) search, no API, no feeds. No proper database of past posts, actually…

Sounds terrible, right? Sounds like hell on a stick? Sounds like the kind of site you’d laugh at, one you’d definitely not get involved with? In fact, maybe I’m making it up as a kind of case study of how not to do the web, right?


This is Bath Freegle. And the thing that utterly confounds anyone who looks at it (apart from the fact it flies in the face of everything we believe in as web people) is this: it is utterly, totally and unbelievably successful. Not just “not bad” successful, but in-your-face “literally, you’ll have people picking your stuff up within minutes of posting it” successful.

There’s a number of reasons why this works, of course (ranging from “people understand email” to “hey, free stuff!”). A passionate audience of more than 11,000 members helps. Free stuff certainly helps. Fulfilling genuine human needs helps (I need to get rid of shit, and can’t be bothered to sell it on eBay: you fancy said shit. Let’s deal).

Nonetheless, this makes us web types twitch for two main reasons: 1) it flies in the face of most of the things we believe in, and 2) it could / should be so, so much better.

So can we learn anything from this (apart from the fact that humans will do nearly anything for free stuff)? Maybe it’s something about going where the people are. Maybe it’s about simplicity. Maybe it’s about priorities, and how we should spend more time working with users to understand what makes them tick. Maybe it’s about all of the above.

Maybe. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow…

Quality, functionality and openness

It is against an increasingly bitter backdrop of argument between Apple and Adobe (Flash! No Flash! HTML 5! Openness! Closedness! etc…) that I found myself a week ago with a damaged iPhone. An accidental dropping incident from Son1 added a seemingly minor dent just next to the power button, and hey presto – a device I can’t turn off manually.

The poor, bashed-about phone I dropped was a Gen 1 iPhone: almost a retro device by some accounts. Nonetheless, I’ve stuck with it, and life now without an internet-ready mobile is simply not an option for me. It was therefore a rather lucky twist of fate that found a generous friend offering me his brand new Android phone to use for a while.

So I find myself with the latest and greatest Android handset: an HTC Desire. A ten zigabit processor, a gwillion megapixel camera, a ten billion pixel screen, infinite memory. Something like that, anyway. It’s slick, beautiful, thin, light. It has a bright, hi-res screen, a wonderful camera. It is rammed to the hilt with functionality. I’m blown away by having real location capability (remember, my Gen 1 could only find me using cell stuff rather than GPS); I’ve experienced using Layar, Google Sky Maps, other LBS services – properly – for the first time. That openness, that speed, that power. Awesome.

The first night I got back with the Desire, I found myself sitting on the sofa, flicking my way through the Android store, checking Twidroid, browsing the news. And a weird thing happened, something I wasn’t expecting. Like an almost intangible movement in my peripheral vision, I realised that something wasn’t quite right. I was a bit on edge, trying a bit hard, having to think. Night One, I said to myself. Night One with a new and unfamiliar device. No wonder. It’ll be ok tomorrow.

The thing is: the uneasy thought didn’t get better the next day, or the next night, or the night after that.

After a week of using the latest and greatest Android phone, I find myself sitting down on the sofa in the evening and the thing is sitting unused on the top of the piano. Instead I’m – get this – back using the 1st generation iPhone. It’s SIM-less (useless as a phone, but still ok as a device on the WIFI), battered, slow as buggery, and I can’t turn it off, but hey – I’m back.

Now’s the point in time I should make something very clear: I’m not an Apple fanboy. I have a Macbook at home but I spend most of my working life on PC’s. In my past I’ve used both, enjoyed both, had different experiences of both. I’m also pretty conflicted about some of the recent moves by Apple. I personally think that the whole anti-Flash thing is a major mistake, in the same way that I think the anti-Flash zealots are making some pretty bold assumptions in saying that HTML5 can replace Flash at this point in time. Frankly, that’s bullshit. I also dislike the pro-app, anti-web thing that they appear to have going on. The web wins: it always will. Apple say they get this but do a bunch of stuff which implies otherwise.

I wanted to love Android. I wanted to embrace openness, turn my back on Apple’s rejection of free markets, join the crowd of developers shouting about this new paradigm.

I can’t.

I’ve tried very hard to articulate to myself why this is the case. It is – certainly – something about usability. To take one of many examples: on Android you apparently have one paradigm for copy and paste in one application, and another in another: in the browser you get a reasonable Apple-like magnifier; in Twidroid (for example), you don’t. This to me just simply isn’t acceptable. Copy and paste is ubiquitous, end of. Stuff like global Google Search is good – very good – but when every move is hampered by subtle but vital compromises in usability, the overall experience becomes stressful, not playful.

The Android store is also, frankly, embarrassing. I tried very hard to find any kind of game or app that came close to the beautiful stuff you see on even the worst of the Apple store. Nothing. The UI of many apps is just terrible, the graphics all a bit 1995. Crashes are frequent, and when they do happen they are peppered with developer-like comments about code and runtimes.

It’s hard – store aside – to fault the Android device from a functionality perspective, and I’ve tried very hard to find ways that I can articulate what exactly is wrong. It is something about playfulness, about the fun of the technology. There is also something about quality. Robert Pirsig says this:

“…the result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of “style” to make it acceptable…”

I don’t want to get all metaphysical about Apple products: enough people do this already, but the iPhone experience – in a week of living with Android – is much, much closer to the invisible technology that makes for a better and more natural user experience. That’s what has me reaching for an old, broken, semi-retired phone rather than the faster, slicker, by-all-accounts-better model.

Apple stuff comes with a compromise – and make no mistake, I’m as conflicted as the rest of the world about this: the restricted UI, the closed and editorially controlled store, the limits placed by Apple on the devices their OS will run on – these are not “good” things – but they appear, at least in this instance, to be necessary for quality. When Android is forking its way off into infinite loops of differentness, each with pluses and minuses, Apple stays the course – a slow, chugging, proprietary, known experience. It doesn’t feel right, and yet it absolutely does.

When I think about what this means, I worry. As technology people, we should all be concerned about the approaches that Facebook, Google and Apple are taking, and we all know that openness is – or should be – key. But – and I’ve written about this a bit before – usability and ubiquity are the definers for normal, non-geeky people, not openness or functionality. And we need to focus on this and think about what it means when usability comes into conflict with openness, as I believe it does with Android.

So that’s me. I tried. Circumstance mean I’ll be using Android for the next few weeks either way, and I may change my mind. I may find myself on the sofa using the Ferrari of phones rather than the Morris Minor. But somehow, I doubt it.

UK Museums on the Web 2009 – QR in the wild

Last week was the annual UK Museums on the Web conference.

Things were particularly hectic and exciting for me this year for a whole host of reasons:

  • We launched a new MCG website in the week before the conference – this was a full migration to WordPress MU which I’ll write more about shortly;
  • We were working behind the scenes with the excellent Laura Kalbag to develop a new logo and design guidelines for the group which we also needed to get live by conference day;
  • I suggested I build and trial a QR tag demo based on individualised badges (more below..);
  • I was giving a presentation on ubiquitous technology…

Crazy busyness aside, overall this was for me the best UKMW conference yet, for one very simple reason: we’d managed to get a range of speakers from outside the sector. Often, domain-specific conferences have a tendency to focus inwards, and although it is incredibly useful to see projects that are specific to that sector, I think it is as important that everyone keeps an eye on the outside world. This is particularly the case right now, as museums come down off the 2.0 peak and start to ask where the value is and how best to capitalise on an ever-decreasing budget.

Many other people have done a much better job of describing in detail who talked about what at the conference. If you’re interested, see the many things tagged ukmw09 on Google Blog Search. For me it was probably Paul Golding, Andy Ramsden or Denise Drake who did the most insightful talks for me, but actually every presentation was really interesting and led to a fascinating day.

So now to the point of this post: the beta “onetag” system I put in place to allow delegates to use QR tags in a “real-world” scenario.

For those who aren’t familiar with QR codes, I’d suggest a brief moment over on Wikipedia or go with the one-line description: “barcodes for linking the real and virtual worlds”.

As well as wanting to give people a QR example to play with, I based the idea for the system on a problem which I think needs solving, particularly at conferences: business cards are irritating, wasteful and require re-keying (hence duplication) of details. The idea, therefore, was to give everyone at the conference a personalised badge with the QR code on it, get them on-board prior to the event so that as many as possible had QR code readers installed on their mobiles, and then sit back and watch how this kind of system might be used, or not!

For the badges, I used local print firm Ripe Digital, who are not only incredibly helpful but also have the ability to run what is essentially a large-scale mail-merge: I designed an A6 badge in Adobe Illustrator which had various fields in it which were populated from an Excel spreadsheet of delegates. (Incidentally, we’d made extensive use of Google Docs during the conference for gathering and munging delegate names, and this really paid off in terms of sharing, collaborating and processing delegate information).

I created the actual codes using a fairly nasty mix of Google Charts, downthemall and mailmerge (don’t ask) – once I’d got a local folder with all 100 or so QR codes in it, I just referenced those codes in the AI document and asked Ripe to insert the specific QR tag at top right of the printed badge.

Here’s the front of my badge – note (important, this) that the grey code under the QR tag is also unique to each person, allowing those without QR readers to take part in the demo as well.

The badge, incidentally, also contained sponsor information and outline timings for the day on the back, a detailed description of the timings and speakers on the inside fold and a delegate list on the reverse. The badge was folded from a single sheet of A4 into an A6 wallet hung on a lanyard around people’s necks. The basic premise was to save as much as possible on enormous (mostly unwanted) wads of printed material and focus instead on the key information that delegates are likely to want.

Assuming (not a great assumption, but go with me for now) that someone not only had a reader installed on their mobile but also managed to successfully read the code, here’s what happened:

The very first time a delegate uses the app, they get directed to a mobile-formatted web page which asks them for their PIN (QR number) details – that’s the bit in grey under their glyph:

Delegates only had to do this once (I placed a cookie to keep the logged-in state) – once they had, and on all future taggings, they get redirected to a screen showing them details for the person they just tagged:

This is only so much use, especially given the name badge itself has all of this detail on it already, so I also built in the functionality behind the scenes to email the “taggees” details to the “tagger”, both as a plain email but also with an attached vCard. This therefore means that the person who did the tagging can easily add this contact to their address book without having to re-key any of the information. Here’s how the email looks in Outlook:

And that, basically, is that – 🙂

So did people use it? And if so, how?

Behind the scenes, I was grabbing some data each time anyone carried out a tagging. The data I intended to capture was: who did the tagging, who they tagged and when. As it happens, and annoyingly, my script failed on the “when” bit. I also realise that in hindsight I really should have captured the user agent for each tagging as well – then I would have some insight into what people used, most common devices, etc. With a fair amount more time (of which I currently have none!) I could probably marry up the server logs with device types, but for now I’ll leave that bit of information to one side.

The first bit of interesting information is this: there were 81 taggings during the day, which was actually much higher than I’d anticipated.

27 different people used the system (out of around 100 registered delegates)

On average, the people who did tag someone did it on average 3 times, although this figure is skewed upwards by one person who tagged 21 people! Here’s how the distribution looks:

Another view on this data shows that a fair number of people also tagged themselves, presumably to familiarise themselves with the software (that’s the visible diagonal line bottom left to top right):

So what did we actually learn from this: first of all, total simplicity from a user perspective is – as always – absolutely key. Here, we had a willing audience who had been given a heads-up to expect to install the software, definitely would have been “geek skewed” in terms of internet-enabled devices and were willing to play; and although I was pleased that lots of people took part, the figures show that this is clearly far from being a “everyone does it” activity.

Secondly, the blocker – again, as always – wasn’t just the technology but the social issues that surrounded the technology. I saw lots of people tagging, but this wasn’t an “invisible” activity of the type that makes for seamless interaction. People had to stop other people, ask them to hold still, take a photo, wait for the software to catch up, try again when the barcode failed to read and so-on. However hard I tried to make the back-end seamless, QR software just isn’t good enough (yet) to deal with quick shots, moving targets, wobbling hands. In this particular instance (and this is actually the next stage of onetag that I’m going to look at), RFID or SMS based tagging would have been slicker.

Thirdly, although I see business cards as an issue, it isn’t necessarily a problem which is identified as such for everyone. Exchanging a business card is natural; scanning a badge isn’t. So for this to really work, the technology either needs to be invisible (I just wave my reader over your badge, no focussing or waiting or holding still..) OR the win needs to be much more tangible (a tagger gets more information about a tagee, or there is some kind of other incentive to make the connection, etc). Providing more information obviously has privacy issues, and also potentially usability issues; as the incentive becomes bigger, so – normally – would the complexity of both the system and the explanations underlying that system.

Overall, I was very pleased with how the system worked, and also delighted that so many people took the time to test it out – so thanks to you, whoever you were!

I’m going to be continuing to develop the various onetag systems, and am always up for hearing from you if you’d like me to put something together for your conference or event – just comment or email and I’ll get in touch.

There is no PEBCAK

Watching Google’s amazing “what is a browser” video (below) it is easy (and I can almost hear the geeks laughing) to assume that these are just stupid people on a bad day. I mean, what the hell is wrong with them? “My browser is Google”? WTF?

The thing is, these aren’t stupid people. They’re just normal people, going about their normal lives doing normal things. And these are the people we’re building websites and interactive experiences for.

The phrase Problem Exists Between Chair And Keyboard (and wow, isn’t it interesting that there are LOADS of phrases on the same page which mean the same thing, and all equally rude..) was invented by developers trying hard to find excuses for the poor implementation they just rolled out.

The thing is, the problem isn’t BCAK, it’s In The Dev Team. Maybe we should invent a new acronym: PEITDT

Longer term, this is of course more to do with tech literacy, being a digital native, familiarity with the web and so on. Shorter term, until we solve the literacy problem, we need to pay extra-special attention to users. And maybe never, ever say the phrase PEBCAK or any of its permutations again…