Every decade or so, the tech industry experiences a tectonic shift. Over the last 40 years, we have seen changes in hardware, software, communications, networking, development tools, languages and platforms. Each has been significant in its own right. Some are incremental and though touted as game changers, they impact a narrow slice of technology users. It is arguable whether the shift to mobile is the most important of all but it has been as impactful as the arrival of the PC, if not more because of the pace at which the change has occurred.
Most readers of this blog are well aware that the most impactful changes in technology are those that ultimately change user behavior and disrupt how people interact with information that affects their daily personal and professional lives. A technology such as that changes the entire eco-system around it. When Apple introduced the world to GUIs and the mouse followed subsequently by Microsoft, it broadened the market for PCs and changed how people interacted with information. The combination of mobile and touch
technologies is having the same impact.
Take Instagram for instance. I must admit that I never gave Instagram a fighting chance of success. When I first heard of it I thought what possessed these guys to build a photo sharing app given the presence of huge success of Flickr and Picasa – both properties of
large companies. Similarly, Pinterest is but a feature of Facebook, right? Wrong! And I am glad to have been proven wrong. These and other apps prove a simple reality – Mobile IS different. What these and other success stories prove that it is possible to reinvent existing applications and indeed markets in an increasingly mobile centric world.
Emerging Mobile Interaction Formula
When one analyzes the characteristics of these apps a few things become evident.
- Goal completion – Successful mobile apps must be responsive and allow users to complete the task quickly and with the least amount of friction. This seems elementary but is critical in mobile scenarios.
- Context – Apps must be contextually aware and on the flip side make easily make evident to the user what the context is. Again, elementary but of heightened importance when thinking mobile apps.
- Relevance – Limitation of screen size means that developers must be clever and super sensitive to how an app communicates relevance. There is no room to explain what an app does or is supposed to do, no room to guide the user in a systematic manner.
- Entertainment – Even productivity apps must provide some form of entertainment even if it takes the form of simply taking engagement to a new level. Immersive games do this as a matter of necessity but so do apps like Path and Evernote.
- Communication – Communication is central to all successful mobile apps. People don’t use mobile devices in a vacuum. While apps like Path present a simple elegant UI, its central value lies in being able to share one’s life with others. Regardless of the genre an app might fall into, communication has to be a central tenet of the app whether it is one-to-one or via social networks.
Touch technology is an important component of this and also presents some challenges. It has its advantages but also has limitations. It allows for a more natural interaction with information but for that to happen applications must be redesigned and rethought impacting even the most basic applications used every day.
- What does a spreadsheet optimized for mobile platforms look like?
- Does it (should it) even look like a spreadsheet?
- What about graphics applications?
- What is the best way to create a presentation on a touch optimized mobile platform?
Historically these apps have been designed and optimized for specific operating systems and devices. Compared to successful mobile apps they take on the status of silos, operated by individuals and content created within these apps is shared in the most rudimentary ways (think email). Touch interfaces aren’t just a way to replace mouse clicks and apps that do just that are foregoing the opportunity to drive new value for their users. For example, take a look at the following concept emerging out of MIT’s Fluid Interfaces lab.
This is Swÿp and this is how MIT describes it.
With Swÿp you can transfer any file from any app to any app on any device: simply with a swipe of a finger. Swÿp is a framework facilitating cross-app, cross-device data exchange using physical "swipe" gestures. The framework allows any number of touch-sensing and collocated devices to establish file-exchange and communications with no pairing other than a physical gesture. With this inherent physical paradigm, users can immediately grasp the concepts behind device-to-device communications. The prototype application “Postcards” explore touch-enabled mobile devices connected to the LuminAR augmented surface interface. Postcards allows users to collaborate and create a digital postcards using Swÿp interactions. Swÿp enabled interfaces can support new generation of interactive workspaces possible by allowing pair-free gesture-based communications to and from
collocated devices. (Source: http://fluid.media.mit.edu/people/natan/current/swyp.html)
Another interesting concept is “Sparsh” (means “to touch” in Sanskrit).
'SPARSH' lets one conceptually transfer media from a digital device to one’s body and pass it to another digital device by simple touch gestures. The digital world -- laptop, TV, smart phone, e-book reader and all are now relying upon the cloud, the cloud of information. SPARSH explores a novel interaction method to seamlessly transfer something between these devices in a real fun way using the underlying cloud. Here it goes. Touch whatever you want to copy. Now it is saved conceptually in you. Next, touch the device you want to paste/pass the saved content. SPARSH uses touch based interactions as just indication for what to copy, from where and where to pass it. Technically, the actual magic (transfer of media) happens on the cloud.
What this means for businesses – Embrace “Mobile First” Approach
Businesses Should Embrace "Mobile First" Approach
IT departments are already dealing with an onslaught of devices that their constituency is asking them to support. The so called BYOD (Bring Your Own devices) trend has stressed IT managers and many resist the trend citing security concerns. But any platform shift causes some pain for some amount of time. Progressive IT managers should look at this as an opportunity to add new and more value to employees. The shift to mobile and touch platforms will eventually force IT departments to embrace a “Mobile First” approach to IT strategy and the sooner IT managers do it the better because ultimately, the growth in mobile isn’t about devices or software or networks. Those will continue to evolve. It is about how we interact with information in a way that enriches our individual experiences and productivity.